Cadavre Exquis is a gourmand perfume from two perfumers known for exploring ‘classy’ genres like animalic chypres and aldehydic florals. It was made following the rules of a surrealist parlor game called exquisite corpse. In an exquisite corpse the participants take turns adding words or images, or in this case accords and materials, until the project is complete. The final product might be nothing that the participants imagined. The corpse is rigged to favor unpredictability and can give rise to some wonderfully bizarre results.
Perfumers Bruno Fazzolari and Antonio Gardoni’s hybrid backgrounds—the former is a visual artist, the latter an architect—establish the creative landscape where the collaboration can take place. There isn’t a roadmap for this sort of creative alliance, so Gardoni and Fazzolari had the freedom to make it up as they went. The exquisite corpse model provided a framework for the process to unfold but what defined the scope of the project was the choice to make a gourmand perfume. Genre was the gauntlet each perfumer threw at the other.
The perfume may be a gourmand, but it’s a dry one. The decision to go big must have been made early in the process because the perfume is very well finished and doesn’t appear rushed. Gourmand qualities are reinforced by not-quite-gourmand notes giving the perfume an edible/inedible balance. There’s chocolate, but there’s also patchouli, which has a strong cocoa aspect. Creamy vanilla is balanced with vanillic-woody tones that stop just short of pure dessert. The cool quality—is it herbal like licorice or camphorous like mothballs? Both? The juggling of gourmand notes generates gluttonous hallucinations: An orange that drips maple syrup when you peel it. Frozen butterscotch. A mint chocolate brownie that turns to dust as you bring it to your mouth.
Fazzolari and Gardoni didn’t just dare each other, they challenge us, the audience. The gourmand genre is derided by the indie/artisan fumie crowd, the ostensible audience for Cadavre Exquis and the perfumers play with our biases. C’mon, you know what you think of gourmand perfumes. They’re tacky. They’re beneath us. They’re tired. I doubt that it’s a favorite genre of Gardoni or Fazzolari either, but here’s the point of the perfume: risk.
A dicey process, a ballsy choice of genre, a potentially incredulous audience. This is perfumery without a safety net. There are more risks than just the creative: cost, time/labor, the creative capital, reputation. But if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing big and Cadavre Exquis is an enormous perfume that makes no attempt to tone down the ostentatiousness of the genre. It’s rightly been called a monster, but it’s not the Frankenstein version we’ve been led to expect. It’s glaring, conspicuous, undeniable. It’s frightening not because it’s ugly, but because of its candied beauty. It overloads us with recognizably beautiful features until it crosses a threshold and becomes as hideous as it is beautiful. It’s a showgirl.
Cadavre Exquis is more than two perfumers branching out into gourmand territory. It gets at the heart of the relationship between artisan perfumers and their audiences. Forget the product for a moment, do you support the process? Is it enough to buy Fazzolari’s Monserrat or Gardoni’s Maai? They are exceptional perfumes—exciting, beautiful, thoughtful—and buying them supports the artists. But Cadavre Exquis asks us to go further. It’s the put-up-or-shut-up slap to the face. I’ve whined for years about the shitty perfumes that result from low aspiration, demographic targeting, least common denominators, focus groups and flankers. Gardoni and Fazzolari are calling us out: if we want exceptional perfumes are we willing to support unconventional, experimental work? Are we willing to support the artists? Do we trust the artists?
My answer is yes. Beauty is easy, so I’m chasing the monster instead. I bought the corpse and while I appreciate its unconventional aesthetics more with each wearing, I love the ideas that it contains.