Interview : Christian Astuguevielle, artistic director for Comme des Garçons’ fragrances, talks about beauty, freedom, and geometry of taste

Prahi cimeteryChristian Astuguevieille, artistic director for Comme des Garçons’ fragrances since 1994, blows an avant-gardist breeze on the juices of the house founded by Rei Kawakubo. It is to this man, who likes to tackle our expectations rather than please them, that we owe the brand’s line of unique perfumes – a collection where the smells of dry-clean or tar meet that of a hot copy machine. Christian Astuguvieille, also a talented artist, has always been driven by a true pedagogical intention: stimulate our five senses and question or perceptions so that we never lose our ability to be amazed.

Since when have you been working in fragrances?
I’ve been working in the industry since 1976-1977.  I started in a very old house, Molinard, and back then one of the shareholders asked me to redesign the Paris boutique at the corner of rue Royale and rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré. So I got a chance to work on a number of their fragrances and redo their packagings, bearing in mind Molinard’s vision of 19th-century perfumery. I worked there for five years, and then there was a death in the family. As in many other families, death means heritage, heritage means sharing, long story short everyone wanted the Paris boutique and no one got it. It became a Gucci store.

At that same time I was also working with a man on house fragrances. We never made candles, it didn’t interest us, but we worked on an electric fragrance-burner, as was traditionnal in the twenties and thirties. We re-edited fragrance diffusing objects, which was rather uncommon back then: Rigaud sold scented candles, Diptyque was getting started. And that’s when Rochas contacted me, asking if I would create a line of house products for them, and I answered I was very happy with Molinard. I called them back when I enventually left Molinard, and they told me “We are no longer interested in house products, but we do need you, come”. And so I joined Rochas, where I stayed eleven years, and after three years I became the artistic director for fragrances and accessories, which was very new back then. I worked on Byzance, on a masculine Eau de Rochas, and on a perfume that was called Globe. And of course, as the artistic director, I worked on the packagings of Femme, Madame, all their products really. This house was bought many times by many shareholders who didn’t necessarily have anything to do with perfume, until the group PUIG bought Nina Ricci. They gathered everyone, and everyone was fired except for me. I stayted there another two years and I was in charge Nina Ricci’s accessories.

How did you meet Rei Kawakubo?
In 1992, I went to Japan for Rochas – all these old brands had licences there back then – and during my travel, I asked to contact Comme des Garçon’s press manager. I was a client of the house in Paris and I thought all the Japanese addresses where the people at Rochas took me were boring: I wanted to see modern things. So I went to the store, I was shown the office and three minutes later Rei Kawakubo passed by. And it wasn’t by chance. She said hello, said that she knew my work and my gallery in Paris, that she enjoyed it very much, and asked if would like to make sculptures for the exhibition of her upcoming collection. This was in May, and the work was due mid-July! She gave me a videotape showing her collection and we scheduled an appointment for the day after. I presented her with a project that she really liked, and imaginary forest made of wood and steel, all covered in black-painted rope. After this, she said “I know you work in perfume, can we talk about it?”. And that’s it. At that time she intended to develop a line of perfumes for Comme des Garçons but she wasn’t familiar with the universe of fragrances. She liked to smell them, but not necessarily wear them. Anyway, she offered that I took care of it.

1993: le premier parfum, Comme des Garçons

Comme des Garçons, the first fragrance

When we reached an agreement, one principle shortly emerged from our conversations: we would never do like the others. We started looking for a fragrance, I got five labs to work on it while we were working on our iconic bottle. Within two years we launched our very first perfume, which is still actual today. This was 1993.

Then I felt like proposing series, I wanted to launch new fragrances and write perfumery differently. Since then, lots of brands have started doing series as well. People ask us “Why do you make so many fragrances?”. Well I have always thought that, since our original job is fashion, and since fashion implies a total renewal of things twice a year, well if we want to belong to the same job, we need to have regular launches to keep this original rhythm. We keep everything, we continue to produce all of our references, and the few perfumes that no longer existed will be back this month because the problem was only about their bottle.

Comme des Garçons’ office at 16 place Vendôme

You were just telling me how you try to apply the renewal of fashion to perfume. Are there other grounds on which perfumes and fashion meet at Comme des Garçons?
There are similarities in rhythm, indeed, but there is no harmony. We are close when it comes to the research we all make, but fragrances won’t draw their inspiration from fashion themes. You know, perfume is about its time, it’s about a moment, a desire, so I suggest wishes. A few years ago, I said I wanted to work around the idea of synthetic, everyone agreed and we launched a series shortly after. Competition never influences the decisions we make. The time we live in does. Rei Kawakubo has to be on board, since she is the house’s artistic director: I present her my projects, sometimes she doesn’t like them at all, sometimes she loves them straight away. I am always working on seven or eight leads at any time, so that I always have something to propose.

A few years ago I came up with the concept of anti-perfume, with Odeur 53, which really stood out from what perfumery had to offer at that time, and since then it has inspired many others. For this one, all I said was that I wanted to make an anti-perfume. She just told me “go”. And when we make a decision to launch the line or the series, only three of us actually make that decision.  There are no tests or whatever. Otherwise, our perfumes would never come out… They would get thrown away because they wouldn’t make it through the sixth consumer test. What we do is different. Lots of people think that we are doing “niche” perfumery, I word whose meaning I feel has been lost. I’d rather say we make experimental perfumery, with many trials lead by a word that’s important for both me and the house: freedom.

odeur_53_400_2_1What are the things that inspire you?
It can be desires that Rei Kawakubo expresses, words, events, encounters… Since we make a different perfumery, perfumers are usually very happy to be working with us: it kind of feels like playground time to them. For example, there was that time when I came back from a trip and said I wanted a fragrance. Cedarwood, but from a tree that has just been cut, with the hot chainsaw that has made the wood caramelize a little. So I wanted the smell of cedarwood and caramel, and at the same time the smell of the chainsaw’s metal.  Of course everyone had a good laugh, but eventually everyone got to work and we did it. It hasn’t come out yet, but it is in our little capital of perfumes. And lots of ideas for perfumes were born this way: from words, from a read, from a smell…

And this is precisely where Comme des Garçons is fundamentally different from the other houses: the smells that inspire you, far from being systematically drawn out from nature, can be plain, if not unattractive, and at least very far from traditional perfumery….

La série 6 Synthetics: Dry Clean, Garage, Skaï, Soda, Tar

The series 6 Synthetics: Dry Clean, Garage, Skaï, Soda, Tar

You are right, we do appropriate unusual smells. When we did Dry Clean (a perfume from the Series 6 Synthetic that reproduces the smell of clothes as they come out of the dry cleaner’s), we certainly did not aim at making a beautiful flower. But we were also able to make Champaca, a beautiful rose, a carnation… We have classical references, but they are worked on and interpreted with our writing, and this idea we often have that perfumery shouldn’t be “too beautiful”. Usually, we break it. If it is too beautiful, too nice, you have to give it a stroke with a saw, invite another raw material that has nothing to do with it, try to surprise. That’s what interests me. A perfume often has many facets, but there has to be a crack in it. Flaw is a quality. This is usually makes people say “that guy’s kinda weird”. But for me, you should never be too beautiful. Too beautiful is worrying.

How do you work with perfumers?
With perfumers, I like the idea of really sharing and not use too much of a technical vocabulary. I only express myself in terms of comparisons. Meaning I’ll say “oh, this reminds me of that”. I talk by associations of ideas, not with molecule names. Because my role is to give them oxygen, to take them somewhere else, to make them discover our universe. And you can’t do such a thing if you are being too technical. It’s a method I’ve been using with all our perfumers and I think they like it.

You were never taught perfume in a technical way. How do you manage to cope in this universe?
Well, let’s say I smell pretty well, or not too bad. I can immediately spot what’s wrong with a perfume, while letting my personal taste out of it. It is also a lot of experience: many years, many fragrances, many trials. And then it’s a perfume culture, it’s going to the Osmothèque to smell beautiful things, it’s looking at what people used to do in 1910, 20, 30 and try to capture what made them modern back then. Because, in the end, we may have a certain modernity, I believe that people like Paul Poiret or Coty have done some extremely modern things. In fact, many others have found a good source of inspiration in their work. And finally, it’s a passion. Briefing perfumers, launching products that derive from the universe of Comme des Garçons, that’s a challenge I really enjoy. This is what it is, a question of pleasure.

How does modernity shine through your fragrances?
I will answer your question by a little pirouette. First of all, not testing perfume may be modern. Because I think that all these people working for these veeeeery important companies, with high financial stakes, will necessarily run tests. And these tests will be just like a rabbet, like a file, like a tool decapitating things. All the main asperities, all those very different things we are lucky to give our customers, well they won’t have them. Out of the sixty fragrances we have, I believe that not a single one would exist if we ran tests. Except maybe for the vetiver. So for me, modernity is being a brand that doesn’t test. But it is also freedom: freedom to choose our materials, our perfumers, without ever trying to do what the others do. We do not fear “unpretty”, it’s actually the opposite. When I worked in houses, we would often work on a perfume for a 35-year-old woman, very beautiful, who has two beautiful children, a boy and a girl, a little sports car all leather inside, the perfect handbag to go with it as well as an extraordinary husband, smart, funny and polyglot; and when we were done with the brief I said “there is only one thing that I really care about: I want to meet these people!”. This is not real life. One day, at Comme des Garçons, we figured that incense was a beautiful religious vector, something very symbolic across the world, so we collected some in different spots on the planet, and took them to a perfumer to think about it. We launched five incenses and people were mesmerized. But all we did was use the history of mankind! In every religion, we all have a memory associated with incense. After that, we went from beautiful orthodox chuch to the smell of drycleaners, and it was not a problem. When we create, we don’t think about someone. We think about a fragrance.

Are there any classics that you particularly enjoy?
I have a problem with great classics: most of the time, they are someone. It’s always Grandma’s perfume or aunt Agathe’s smell. I can’t shed this emotion. Of course, there are some exceptional references, but none of them ever tempted me. There is a beautiful fragrance Molinard created around 1925: Habanita, in its original version. This one, too, is a legendary perfume, like Piguet’s Fracas: they were less reasonable perfumes, for daring women! Because it wasn’t nearly as original to wear Shalimar or Vol de Nuit… Another one I love is Femme by Rochas. I also love Balmain’s Vent Vert, which was the most beautiful green. A great burst of green.

Marat assassiné, David, vers 1794

The Death of Marat, David, around 1794

When did you first become interested in smell?
I always have because I am originally an educator. I have worked on the five senses for a long time. I hosted tactile and olfactory courses at the Atelier des Enfants de Beaubourg and I also did, about ten years ago, a work on correspondences between paintings and fragrances for Roubaix’s La Piscine museum. We have worked with perfumers on several paintings chosen by the curator, like the Death of Marat. With the perfumer, we worked on the blood’s metallic smell and we focused on that. These were not at all made to be worn, we put them on scent strips and gave them to the visitors. Watching Marat’s blood with their strip right under the nose, they were taken aback! But we also did beautiful water flowers for other paintings, we did camellias for Camille Claudel’s la Petite Chatelaine…

What interested us was creating bridges between two parts of our brain that work non-stop. From the moment you show something to your brain while making it smell something else, the way you memorize becomes completely different and it leads you to a different way of knowing things. You will own it, and it’ll stay. At each moment we smell, at each moment we see. But we don’t pay attention. So this sort of sensorial stop is very important for your memory and that’s the part we wanted to explore. We were able to confirm this with the young public, and people of all ages as well and they were very excited. It is a guided tour and it is always full. For this same museum, which used to be a swimming pool, I also reinvented the particular smell pools have. And we recorded the sound of an actual pool so that, every half hour for fifteen seconds, we play the sound that pool had for 75 years, with children screaming, water splashing, lifeguards…these noises we are all familiar with. People who visit the museum for the first time are surprised, they try to understand where the noise come from. We provoke through the senses. And I also worked on the geometry of taste.

Geometry of taste?
Yes. Let’s say I put a sleep mask on your eyes. I give you a very thin, rectangular tablet that’s flavored with anis, and I ask that you describe that taste for me. You will describe something, which by the way won’t necessarily be anis, because all this is very cultural, right. Then let’s say I have the same thing, same preparation, but this time it is shaped like a ball. Your eyes are still closed, I give it to you and say “so?”. There are 90 out of 100 chances that you will tell me a whole different story and get a whole different impression. And people who understood this long ago are the Italian with their pasta. Because pasta is the exact definition of what geometry of taste is. Spaghetti, penne… Sure, you can make sauces, but when it’s in your mouth with the exact same olive oil, the exact same sage leaf, and you are tasting it with your eyes closed, the stories will change everytime. This is geometry of taste.

Renewing taste through shape…
Yes, through shape and volume. This isn’t too common in occidental traditions, but it is in the Japanese and Asian cultures. In Asia, the scope of what we taste is so much wider. It is very interesting, there is the taste, the aftertaste, and then there is how your food is cut.

I realize you have worked on senses all your life, one way or another…
Yes, it has always interested me. When I was a kid, I would take holidays in Grimaud, that little Middle-Age village in the Var region, and my parents’ neighbors had a cabin. We went with him and he took us on sensorial strolls. Meaning we would be walking and he would stop to say “Listen, such bird is singing”, “here is such other bird”, he would make us stroke the tree leaves, pronounce the words “smooth”, “rough”… And then we would arrive at his cabin, he would go to the well and bring a big bucket of ice cold water, make us taste almonds and figs, it was absolutely beautiful, and look here’s another bird, have you seen that cloud, learn to watch, understand why this tree is sick. This man shared with me something everyone owned. But society and life made many of us move to cities, and we lost that. It only takes a few years to come back to that state. And this omnipresent sensory appeal used to bring up different people, more philosophical people. There was nature, and seasons… Us who live in towns are not into it that much.

That would be a fascinating job for educators.
Yes, and for a long time I worked with groups of kids on what I call the Robinson Crusoe complex. I would tell them we were in a determined place, on such desert island, with such climate. I would tell them we could wind such and such leaves, smell such smells, taste such exotic fruits. We gave these elements to children and told them “Now, you tell us what it’s like. And you tell us how you are going to build yourself a place to live”. Once that was done, we asked them to invent a language. Language is arbitrary. So we asked them to forget. We told them “Now, if you want to communicate, all you have are those colored feathers”. And with those feather, we created a vocabulary. One long, yellow feather next to a shorter, orange one means this. There you go. We worked, memorized, at the following session we’d do a little rehearsal. We would split the class in two with pieces of paper, one half puts their feathers the way they want, and the other half would have to understand the message. And it worked remarkably well. Only the teacher can get a little upset because he has to deal with crazy kids with feathers in their hair for the rest of the week. That’s a downside, I’ll admit it!
Much later, when I went to Borneo, a man explained to me that, since the island is very steep, very hilly, and that many different languages co-exist there, hunters would leave with a basket in which they’d put flower petals of many different colors. These people did what I did much later in Beaubourg without knowing it, which is that they would play with colours and shapes to communicate with one another.

How does deconstructing language interest you?
What has always interested me is to get people to think. Restructure one’s language, learn to write again, it is fundamental in an education. Because our language is arbitrary indeed. With every generation, we could question it all over again. Which, of course, isn’t possible, but we could think about it and, for a little time during our childhood, we could recreate it. Because it gives us a new dimension: we accept language and understand differently.

 

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