Can Francis Kurkdjian Bring Some Insolence Back to Dior?

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Last Friday saw another big changing of the guard in perfumery. It was announced that Francois Demachy was retiring from his post as in-house perfumer at Christian Dior. His replacement as of October 18 will be Francis Kurkdjian. Of all the great designer perfume brands what has gone on at Dior over the recent years has seemed like they were taking a wrecking ball to their perfume reputation.

Francois Demachy

Starting in 2018 Dior fragrance under M. Demachy’s guidance had turned into something unrecognizable. They were releasing fragrances which had no soul. They were crass exercises in pandering to the least common denominator. All perfume brands do this. While Dior Sauvage plays on every current masculine trope it undeniably sells because it is the greatest hits of accords. Bleu de Chanel does the same for that venerable designer. The difference is for every Bleu de Chanel there is also Les Eaux de Chanel. Creativity is balanced with commercialism. Dior for the last three years has been only commercialism.

Francis Kurkdjian

They have diluted one of the great exclusive designer collections as they released more Maison Christian Dior fragrances over three years than they did in the previous 14. All of them are easily forgettable. That Vanilla Diorama will likely be the last perfume from him is a tragedy. What is most confounding about all of this is the recent documentary “The Nose” which told M. Demachy’s story. That film showed an artist excited about perfumery. Based on the perfumes it feels like it must have been recorded years ago. As much as the film belies the reality, having M. Demachy step down seems like a good choice.

Which brings us to the new in-house perfumer. M. Kurkdjian might be the best perfumer who effectively straddles mainstream and niche. He has one of the all-time greats in Jean-Paul Gaultier Le Male. He has balanced the crowd-pleasing qualities of Maison Francis Kurkdjian Aqua Universalis and Baccarat Rouge 450 with some of the best oud-centric perfumes in the niche sector.

More importantly he has a connection to the beginning of the Maison Christian Dior exclusive line. Back in 2004 creative director Hedi Slimane wanted to position Dior in the high-end niche market. He oversaw the creation of a three-perfume debut collection. Two of them, Cologne Blanche and Eau Noire were composed by M. Kurkdjian. Both were subsequently discontinued years later. Eau Noire has become a unicorn. Cologne Blanche was a warm take on orange blossom that I feel was one of the earliest entries in the Nouveau Cologne trend.

One of the things I enjoy about M. Kurkdjian is he seems to design in a focused way. He is willing to create trends instead of following them. Just think of all the descendants of Le Male if you need an example. It is that which makes me hopeful that he can restore some of the lost creativity at Dior.

What makes me believe this might be the case is the last line of the WWD article announcing the change. M. Kurkdjian is quoted as saying, “Dior had a quotation that I adore: ‘Respect tradition and dare to be insolent. One can’t go without the other.’” It is that insolence which has been missing at Dior in recent times. If M. Kurkdjian can bring that back, he can wake the echoes of the glorious past.

Mark Behnke

The Return of Bad Habits

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The biggest positive change to modern perfumery in the 21st century is the knowledge of the perfumer. Right at the turn of the century there were a couple developments which changed what had happened for the previous 100 years. First was when Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle put the name of the perfumer front and center on the label. The second were writers on perfume who were also interested in illuminating the perfumers. Chandler Burr’s “The Perfect Scent” is but one example. Previously perfumers were referred to as “ghosts”. Knowing who was making the perfume became an important piece of knowledge moving forward.

When I started writing about perfume, I always wanted to know not only the perfumer but the creative director. I have always been interested in the creative process. Perfumery presents an ideal opportunity to describe the results of it. Any regular reader will know that the only pictures usually accompanying a review are of the creative team. That will never change.

As these ideas were evolving in the early days of the 2000’s there were some brands who wanted to keep the perfumers as phantoms. There was an egotistical belief that their investment also came with the ability to claim the entire creative process; leaving out the perfumer they worked with.

The ridiculous piece of this was that now that we knew who the perfumers were there was no going back. There are certain perfumers who have distinctive styles. During this time I remember writing to a brand owner who was very coy about doing everything. I asked if they were working with a certain perfumer. They demurred. It was years later when they would acknowledge that they were working with the perfumer I had asked them about. There were lots of them that wanted to give off the idea they were creative polymaths all on their own.

Thankfully, this behavior changed because as the perfumers became as known to perfume customers as the brands, they also carried a cachet. A savvy fragrance buyer might follow a perfumer from brand to brand. For the last fifteen years or so that has been the way. When I would contact a brand asking about the perfumer, I would get an e-mail right back with the answer.

Except the last year has seen the return of brand owners trying to seem as if they do it all. Especially when it is clear they are not. I have received several e-mail responses like this, “the brand prefers not to release the name of the perfumer.” I think this marks a return to the bad habits of a few years ago.

At this point in time it just seems disrespectful to the process. The brand hired a perfumer there is no need to hide it. Except to obfuscate the creativity transferring it to the brand owner. I am not going to go along with it. Every time a brand tells me they aren’t going to tell me the name of the perfumer I am only going to look that much harder.

The spotlight is bright enough for multiple people to stand within.

Mark Behnke

Improving the Perfume Vocabulary for the Right Reasons

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Last week when I was writing about some of the new Zara fragrances I wrote this phrase, “an Oriental base accord”. I am not sure why it clicked but I began to think about whether the use of “Oriental” as a descriptor of fragrance wasn’t a problem. After I finished writing I began to look around to see if others felt the same way. I found a few articles which shared the antipathy to continue using it.

The term doesn’t seem to have come from a racial perspective. It came from wanting a descriptive name for perfumes which featured the ingredients of the East. In its earliest uses it was used to describe incense, sandalwood, and amber heavy perfumes. When I see the term describing something I am about to smell for the first time those ingredients are what I expect to encounter. Until last week I had not given it any thought.

One of the frustrating things about writing about fragrance is the lack of an unanimity in what any writer means when using any descriptor. It becomes too easy to rely on what seems to have broader understanding among perfume lovers. I would say even the PR people at brands must be struggling for an alternative. You want a consumer, or a reader to connect with what you write.

As I learned more, I was trying to think of an alternative to use. It isn’t easy. Because I think of incense and oud as key components I was thinking of overusing “resinous”. Except it didn’t feel as encompassing as I’d like. I was thinking of sandalwood and spice which is a popular piece of this genre. “Spicy woods” or “woody spice” also felt like it wasn’t capturing it either. Which made me think again about whether I needed a one-for-one replacement. Why couldn’t I focus on the specific ingredients and forget about the older term? Which is what I am going to do for the near term.

Just as I was writing this, I received an e-mail from Michael Edwards’ Fragrances of the World on this subject. They have the same broad implications in their use of the term. They have decided to replace it with “amber”. I’ll be following their lead when it feels right to use that going forward, too.

As I’ve spent the last week thinking on this, I’ve come to realize that the catch-all term had become meaningless. As much as I want a tiny bit more precision in perfume vocabulary the outdated term wasn’t helping. I think using the terms I’ve mentioned above will improve the description process for all the right reasons.

Mark Behnke

Remembrance of Carlos J Powell Brooklyn Fragrance Lover

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I met Carlos J Powell the way most of us met him. It was when we got an invitation in 2011 to join a Facebook Group called Peace, Love, & Perfume. For almost ten years Carlos has been one of those central figures in the perfume community online.

Peace, Love, & Perfume was one of the earliest and would grow to one of the largest Facebook Groups dedicated to perfume. Carlos was the ringmaster. If I wanted to find out the pulse of the perfume lovers, this was the place I could do it. There are so many people I would encounter for the first time through a discussion there. These are relationships which endure because Carlos created the type of environment in which they could take root.

We would meet in real life a few months after I joined at an event in New York City. It was here where another piece of Carlos’ ability to capture a moment appeared. When I met him, he introduced me to three other guys with him. They all smiled and said they called themselves the “GoodSmellas”. I remember laughing in appreciation. A few months later they would be the subject of an article in “Elle” magazine on guys wearing perfume.

Where he really made his mark on the perfume fragosphere was as a video reviewer on his YouTube channel Brooklyn Fragrance Lover. He has grown that into one of the top tier perfume video sites on YouTube. One of the ways he accomplished his success was breaking out of his home studio.

When we had a conversation on one of my visits to NYC I told him that he had the ability to be the perfume chronicler of one of the perfume capitals of the world. I am sure it wasn’t just my advice because Carlos had an innate ability to find new ways to present his videos. One of them was his visits to different stores to film remote reviews. Another was for him to bring some of his co-workers into a video to rate different perfumes. These were always fascinating peeks into what the non-perfume public thought about fragrance.

Another development was his alliance with fellow video reviewer Steven Gavrielatos and his Redolessence channel. The two of them had an instantaneous chemistry which allowed for them to provide different perspectives on a single perfume. I have always enjoyed this in the other arts. Carlos and Steven would do it for perfume.

Through it all Carlos did this with a happy energy fueled by his love of all things which smelled good. I hope he is at Peace on a cloud of Love from those of us who miss him which were brought together through Perfume.

Mark Behnke

The Perfumers Who Saved Christmas

Back in March when I wrote an editorial on “Perfume in the Time of Coronavirus” I was enjoying the quarantine. I expected it to end in a few months. I was taking the opportunity to enjoy my favorite perfumes with abandon. Each one gave me a shot of needed joy.

As we got to the summer and I was still inside I needed a different kind of booster through fragrance. That came as I spent ten days participating in the Pierre Benard Challenge. This was a big change in perspective for me as I hadn’t examined my connection to scent as deeply. I’m always looking for new things to try. For two weeks I stopped and smelled the world.

Then we got to the fall and the end was not in sight. It was wearing on my mental state. I felt like things would never return to normal. Then a magical thing happened courtesy of some of my favorite independent perfumers. They got me out of my funk because their new releases connected with great memories of my past. I was no longer hemmed in by the four walls of my house.

Frassai El Descanso reminded me of my first cross-country drive as I experienced the wheat fields of the prairie.

DSH Perfumes Tea and Charcoal brought me back to when I discovered a coping mechanism as a child.

Aether Arts Perfume Dia de Muerto had me trick or treating on a tropical S. Florida night.

Maher Olfactive Orris Forest had me hopping over rocks on a hike through the forest.

DSH Perfumes Adrenaline and Scorched Earth put me back on the hiking trail in Yellowstone.

Maher Olfactive Tempo Rubato reminded me of a music lesson in a St. Louis jazz club.

Masque Milano Le Donne di Masque Madeleine had me sitting at a tearoom with cakes and hot chocolate.

Imaginary Authors A Whiff of Wafflecone had me in a specialty ice cream shoppe

DSH Perfumes Couverture d’Hiver had the Florida boy remembering his first New England snowstorm.

All of these and more took me out of my quarantine and into the world through the trigger of perfume. It isn’t the design of a perfumer to make their customer find joy through memory. Although it isn’t an undesired side effect.

Now that we do see the beginning of the end, I am full of hope for the next year. If it weren’t for Irina Burlakova, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Amber Jobin, Shawn Maher, Fanny Bal, and Josh Meyer this would have been a dreary Holiday season. They were the perfumers who saved Christmas for me.

I extend my wishes to all my readers for a Merry Christmas. That I have you is another reason this Season remains merry for me.

Mark Behnke

The New Amouage

I have always mentioned Amouage as advanced style perfumery. Under the creative direction of Christopher Chong the perfumes were bold creative efforts. I was along for the ride with most all of them. They were complex, sensually satisfying fragrances. I could spend weeks dissecting a new release because there was something there to be pored over. I was the desired audience. The question I had was how big a group I was part of. A perfume like Myths Woman was a triumph of finding something compelling within the clash of discordant ingredients. It sang to me. But how many others?

Renaud Salmon

At about the same time there was a release called Lilac Love. It felt like this was a way to bring a more familiar style of perfume done in the Amouage way. I applauded it for the effort because I thought it would be a better starting point for a perfume lover to start their Amouage journey. As I’ve spent the week enjoying the new Amouage perfumes overseen by new creative director Renaud Salmon. I was able to crystallize some of my thoughts around what Amouage really means to me.

First it means excellently constructed perfumes. I have always returned to these because there is that feeling of great architecture underneath. M. Salmon showed that is also something he values. In Overture Woman he successfully matches Mr. Chong’s architecture. It works through similar shifts with the same kind of delight in them.

I also want some intensity. Crimson Rocks cinnamon honey tinted rose delivers that. So do the early parts of Enclave. Even that quibble on my part might be another’s idea of intensity as the AmberXtreme takes over.

Interlude Man Black Iris in hindsight now feels like M. Salmon giving people an invitation to return. If that is correct you can’t then serve up something contextually challenging. You must give them something which extrapolates from that invitation.

Mackenzie Reilly

Which is what the two perfumes M. Salmon worked on with Mackenzie Reilly provides. Ashore is a daydream-like walk along a sandy strand twirling a bit of jasmine. It feels as big as the sky with an expansive smile. This is not something Amouage is known for. Yet Ashore feels every inch like one. Even with a more genial embrace.

Which brings me to the last point. I don’t want to lose the awesome complexity of Amouage. If you read through the above, you might think I’m damning with praise of being more accessible. Let me be very clear; I am not. These are all good perfumes that are well worth seeking out. Things are different but the signature rose, incense , and sandalwood are still there. They aren’t as recognizable as a Guerlainade but they do identify Amouage a lot of the time.

Which is why Meander is such a perfect example of what the new Amouage can be. If I want a perfume where I can happily spend my time picking through a complex accord or two, it is right here. I also think because it is built around a carrot, iris, and incense heart it is easily accessible to someone who just likes a good iris perfume.

Therefore I think M. Salmon is going to be a good influence on the future of Amouage. He has a clear-eyed vision which seems to be to bring the brand back to those who might have drifted away. If that’s you there are six new perfumes overseen by M. Salmon to take a sniff of and see if they appeal. My verdict is he has given me faith that he is the right person to create a New Amouage.

Mark Behnke

Amouage Makes a Change

November and December are the most valuable real estate for Colognoisseur. It is when I am trying to squeeze in all the perfume I have left to try for the year and must figure out when to write about it. I don’t consider it a problem it just forces some decisions to be made. For the first time I am going to spend some of that time on a single brand because I think it is important enough to do it. The brand is Amouage.

Christopher Chong

As we end the first twenty years of the 21st century I’ve been thinking about the brands which have helped define this new era of independent and niche perfumery. Right at the top of my list is Amouage. I would meet the brand in 2007 with the twin releases Jubilation 25 and Jubilation XXV. The latter has stood the test of time as one of my all-time favorites. This was the first year then creative director Christopher Chong began his time with the brand. Until last year he oversaw what I consider perfume for those who love perfume. Mr. Chong’s love of classical music and opera were translated into perfumes with a similar grand sweep. The perfumes he helped conceive were worth spending time with.

Renaud Salmon

When he stepped down as creative director, I had some concerns. I had seen one of Amouage’s contemporaries, Clive Christian, fall to pieces after this kind of change. I waited for news of who was taking over. It took some time, but the announcement of Renaud Salmon had me happy there was going to be someone else. But would he live up to what I believe the brand stands for?

My first impression was Interlude Man Black Iris where he oversaw a flanker of one of Mr. Chong’s creations. My worry spiked again because if Amouage was going to become a line of flankers I was not going to be pleased with that choice. After I said that in my review, I received a few e-mails telling me M. Salmon was not going to do that. He chose to do a flanker as a figurative “get to know you” between new creative director and consumers.

In the waning days of 2020 I have an unprecedented opportunity to weigh in on Amouage past and present. I have samples of six new perfumes with which to illuminate all that Amouage hopes to be. I am going to spend the next three days reviewing two new releases each day. On Friday I will come back and give my conclusions in a single place although I suspect it will become obvious as the week moves along.

Tomorrow I will review Mr. Chong’s next to last release Rose Incense and M. Salmon’s Overture Woman which is the distaff counterpart to last year’s Overture Man. It gives me the chance to compare the style of both side-by-side.

The next day I will do the first half of the new Renaissance Collection; Crimson Rocks and Enclave.

This will be followed by the remaining two; Ashore and Meander.

I hope you will join me for Amouage Week.

Mark Behnke

Perfume in the Time of Coronavirus

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I am a generally happy person. The current coronavirus pandemic has worn away at that. I like to be informed but this time the more I learned the bluer I felt. Over the last few days I’ve unplugged from the news streams except for watching the local and national news for an hour. It has helped. The other thing that has helped is my love for perfume.

To fill up the time I’ve been working in the perfume vault. I am surprised at how much beauty there is to be found. I shouldn’t be, I write about it every day. On those shelves are history lessons, trips to faraway places, exceptional artistic visions; all of which are fascinating. I’ve been allowing myself the luxury of letting scent take me away.

I have spent some of my time getting lost in my favorite perfume house, Patou. The Art Deco bottles seem appropriate as we enter this century’s own 20’s. The great Joy was created in 1925. I was struck by the way that perfume seems timeless. It is what a floral perfume should be at any time.

I turned to the Japanese inspired perfumes by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz for serenity. My favorite perfume by one of my favorite perfumers is her Bancha. I usually demur when asked to name a single perfume when asked what is the one I like best. Bancha is one which is unequivocal in my affection. I always wear Bancha on the first day of spring. The same sense of tranquility and hope descended upon me with each breath I took as it does every year. It is especially appropriate now.

Alessandro Brun, Me, Riccardo Tedeschi (l. to r.)

I hadn’t thought about what a great collection the Masque Milano perfumes have become until I spent an afternoon with them covering different patches of skin. It is such a varied collection that I smelled like a pile-up on the perfume interstate. Yet there is a real sense of vision now that there are several perfumes to examine. Alessandro Brun and Riccardo Tedeschi are in the midst of creating perfume which will stand the test of time. To spend this time with them has been illuminating.

I decided to go around the world while sitting at my desk. Perfumes took me to every continent all while never leaving the house.

I’ve never had the best answer when asked why I have so much perfume. Maybe I was just waiting for a time when all that I enjoy can be there as emotional support. I think those days have arrived. Perfume in the time of coronavirus will be what gets me through.

Mark Behnke

The Decline of Les Grandes Maisons de Parfum

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I received an e-mail from a reader after the end of year “Best of” lists. I had asserted that 2019 was the best year for independent perfumery ever. The condensed reader’s response was that the great perfume brands no longer care about being good. My instinctual response was to think, “Nonsense!” Then I tried to reply without using one word. It was then I realized without having explicitly thought about it; I agreed with the reader. It has been circulating in my thoughts for the last month. I thought it was time to put it out there.

When I first started reading the perfume groups and blogs, around 2002, I was introduced to the great perfume brands. This was paired with the beginnings of a vital independent perfume community forming. Because I was in that rapid learning and acquisition phase I was getting bottles from what were the perfume brands which helped found modern perfumery. They have been called Les Grandes Maisons de Parfum; The Great Perfume Houses. Chanel, Guerlain, Dior, Yves St. Laurent, and Creed were the old guard. Hermes, Gucci, Prada, and Acqua di Parma were the second-generation. The early independent upstarts were building their own modern architecture as Tom Ford, Serge Lutens, Comme des Garcons, and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle added some new blood. These were the crème de la crème of perfume brands throughout the first decade of the 2000’s.

There are thirteen brands in that last paragraph. Only Chanel of the old guard seems to still care about being innovative. Olivier Polge has taken the brand into the current day without losing that Chanel-ness. Dior has become a running joke as focus groups rule the day. Guerlain has become a massive machine pumping out overwhelming amounts of mediocrity. They released 25 perfumes in 2019. Embruns D’Ylang was a perfume worthy of the heritage. The rest? Flankers and functional fragrance packaged in beautiful bee bottles. YSL has been in decline for years. They’ve tried with Le Vestiaire des Parfums most recently, but they mostly remind me of what they used to be. Creed has seemingly been swept away with trying to replicate the success of Aventus; releasing two flankers and another attempt to capture the same popularity with Viking.

The second-generation brands fare only a little better. Hermes is doing well under Christine Nagel. Gucci is showing signs of life under creative director Alessandro Michele. Prada and Acqua di Parma seem to have become content to circle in endless holding patterns recycling the ideas of the past.

Comme des Garcons and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle have shown the way on how to consistently re-invent yourself. Tom Ford and Serge Lutens are starting to fall into parodies of themselves. Tom Ford used to provoke with the perfume now it is the name which seemingly captures all the creativity; in a juvenile way. Serge Lutens lost the plot when they began pumping out the ridiculous Eaus. Now they are so bereft of new ideas they just cannibalize the past making Frankenstein-like perfumes made up of pieces of the earlier great perfumes.

Is independent perfumery having its moment because the original innovators have given up? Once I was forced to think about it the answer seems to be “Yes!”

Mark Behnke

How To Trust Your Perfume Reviewer

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I feel fortunate that I have been writing about perfume long enough that I don’t think my motives are suspect to others. I have been concerned about some of the tough criticism that many of the young video reviewers have been receiving lately. There seem to be some common themes which recur. Many of them boil down to, “How can I trust this person?” I’d like to address the biggest thing people seem to be annoyed/worried about. Hopefully it will help.

That issue is the receipt of free perfume. If you work hard at giving yourself a presence eventually you will form a relationship with perfume brands. There is a difference between an independent perfumer who is working for themselves versus the large beauty companies. One is by nature more personal while the other is just publicity. With an independent brand you can find the fragrance creators out in the community. With the large brands you must keep knocking on the door until they let you in. It means that most of the reviewers in their early days spend their own money on the large brands while they might receive a free sample from an independent brand because they can make a more personal introduction. The biggest drive of commenting on perfume is content, having enough to make a video or blog post on. The more you do it the more you will start seeing brands reach out to you. This leads to the most important thing you must do; reveal the source of the perfume you are reviewing.

I believe this simple effort is the most important piece of building trust between reviewer and audience. Each person will decide on the style of their content. The fantastic thing is there is a reviewer out there who closely reflects a viewer’s perspective on perfume. I’ve seen a lot of people comment, “the reviewer got it for free they are just a shill.” I can see why that kind of comment makes people shy away from mentioning where the perfume they are talking about came from. It shouldn’t. First rule of doing anything; you can’t please everyone. Second rule; you shouldn’t tie yourself up in knots trying to.

The best reviewers come to it from a deep love of fragrance. That quality is obvious the more time you do it. Once you believe that, it shouldn’t matter where the perfume came from. As long as you share the source with them. That piece of information allows the audience to make up their own mind about whether you are influenced by something given to you for free. If you are genuine the audience will respond by sticking around. It takes a lot of hard work. Nobody builds an audience overnight.

Everyone who makes that first step should know it will get better the more you do it. If you feel like you have something to say about perfume you will be happy to find there are others out there who want to hear you. To build the trust you will need; be passionate, be honest, and have fun. If the reviewer you are watching is doing that. I think you can trust them.

Mark Behnke