by Michael Connor, 31 January 2007
The trouble with being out on the much-cooler-but-less-frequented northern side of the Marais is that you have to scream and shout a little for attention. So, hello, Etat Libre d’Orange http://www.etatlibredorange.com/ - as you can see, their website isn’t exactly minimalist.
Etat Libre d’Orange works on a similar basis to Frederic Malle’s Editions de Parfums: Get a group of respected noses to indulge their skills by creating a range of unique scents, liberated from the demands of accountants and marketing teams. However, where Malle’s products are exquisitely tasteful; Etat Libre d’Orange’s revel in their questionable taste.
The perfumes names reveal something of the concept: Putain des Palaces, Sécrétions Magnifiques. The new release is called Don’t Get Me Wrong, Baby, I Don’t Swallow, for goodness sake - and it is not referring to a wine-tasting evening.
In case you miss the point, the illustrations accompanying each scent are single-entendre level: A penis-shaped gun for “Je suis un homme”; blood-stained sheets for Vierges et Toreros; proof that the collars and cuffs don’t always match for Vraie Blonde and what The Office's David Brent might describe as “a jizzing knob” for Sécrétions Magnifiques.
And, if the collection’s theme still isn’t getting through, in pride of place in Etat Libre d’Orange’s boutique is a reproduction of Courbet’s l’Origine du Monde.
Yes, it’s all about sex. Now you could argue that all perfume is about sex, anyway, from Guerlain’s carnal Jicky via Caron’s gender-bending Tabac Blond right up to the sworn belief of many young men that the merest whiff of Aqua di Gio is enough to tranform the primmest fresher into a lust-crazed Maenad.
However ELO believes that lowest common denominator marketing and the need for prude-appeasing cross-cultural appeal has sucked the sex out of the perfume industry.
As far as this house is concerned, the perfume industry needs a big, throbbing injection of lust to get back on its feet (or back on its back) again.
The bottles, mercifully, are quite sober. And the scents? I’ve been disappointed with recent niche releases: After a burst of creativity in the early 2000s (mostly inspired by Monsieur Malle), many niche houses seem stuck in a groove. Etat Libre d’Orange, however, offers what this nose reckons is best new line-up since Editions de Parfums.
The women’s scents are luxurious, complex, sophisticated: Ignore how Vraie Blonde proposes to reveal whether or not Marilyn Monroe got her platinum blonde from a bottle, and sniff that scent: Peaches, pepper, Chanel No. 5. Jasmin et Cigarette invokes cig-toting bad girls from Golden Age Hollywood to 1980s boulevard St Germain, but in reality is a beautifully creamy jasmine with a hint of cinder lending a masculine edge. Don’t ask what that Torero was doing to the Virgin, lie back and think of how ELO blends heavy tuberose with some of the most powerful animal notes I’ve ever come across to make a perfume that is genuinely dizzying. It pushes a little too far for me - raw opoponax always reminds me of Roquefort - but the ability to be both classical and daring sums ELO up.
Best of all is Putain des Palaces (which the site helpfully translates as “hotel slut”), a lush, velvety wave of roses and violets on a faintly animal base.
OK, so it isn’t one you would give Mum on Mother’s Day, but I think that’s the idea. Etat Libre d’Orange’s perfumes are like Agent Provocateur underwear: Who would have thought that millions of women would fancy wearing knickers inspired by French maids and Wild West hookers? It’s all a little corny, a bit sleazy, but obviously irresistibly appealing to all those naughty girls (and boys) out there.
ELO has issued a couple of beauties for men. Je suis un Homme’s opening notes confirm my suspicion that bigarade is far and away the finest citrus note. The scent flirts with the idea of a traditional “Imperial” cologne, finally veering into a classy cognac and leather accord. Eloge du Traitre takes Caron’s Yatagan and 3eme Homme as inspiration, and is dominated by rich pine and leather notes. Both are excellent.
Of course, not every scent reaches these heights. Encens and Bubblegum smells like bubblegum, at least to me. Rien is a contemporary “nothing scent”, all light pepper, pencil shavings and fresh air. Antihéros is lavender, served straight.
And then there’s Sécrétions Magnifiques (above). Even ELO admits this is a love or hate scent. It aims to be bottled sex and the sales assistant warns of iodine, blood, milk and “adrenaline” accords... to me, it smells harshly metallic: like oysters, three-day-old milk, fizzing alka-seltzer (no doubt for the morning after).
It’s probably the most revolting perfume I have ever worn. I hate it. And yet, it’s brilliant. How amazing that a perfume house should come up with something like this - these impressions, variations on human fluids - and expect people to want to wear it.
Someone more daring than me is going to love this. And for the rest of you, here’s some advice: If you want to smell of sex, don’t shower after f******.