"Orange Free State" By Luca Turin
Good judgment is often little more than the wise exercise of prejudice. Under pressure of time, most of us are scrupulously fair only when given no alternative. André Gide apparently never even opened the parcel containing the manuscript of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, and based his snap rejection on Proust’s unremarkable early works. When I first came across Etat Libre D’Orange, I assumed on the basis of past experience that this niche perfumery firm had all the hallmarks of the classic snob-value ripoff: great names and high concept, crap fragrances. But I’m co-authoring a perfume guide, so I gave them a try.
In fairness to curmudgeons, they do lay it on thick: the perfumes are called Putain des Palaces, Nombril Immense, Don’t get me wrong baby I don’t swallow, etc. Their website is awash with the most hackneyed eroticism of the “no joys without toys” variety, and their motto is “le parfum est mort, vive le parfum”. All this Dada stuff had me betting on the perfumes being either hideous or dull. I had neglected two factors: 1) talented perfumers, especially young ones, have for some time been working for niche brands because it’s more fun; 2) just as important, good artistic directors, tired of working on Britney Spears’ ninth fragrance, are starting their own firms. We now have both Stravinskys and Diaghilevs out there looking for trouble.
Etat Libre d’Orange, clearly a low-fat company, sent twelve of those tiny sample vials that seem designed to prevent the smelling of perfume, with miniature handwritten labels and two postcards with the names of the fragrances. After deciphering the labels and cursing the vials, I started smelling the stuff with an anticipatory scowl. There are few greater pleasures than pessimism disproved. All but two of their fragrances are of a very high level, and the best are the work of two young Givaudan perfumers, Antoine Lie and Antoine Maisondieu. The masterpiece is, in my opinion, Lie’s Sécrétions Magnifiques, helpfully illustrated on the website by a schoolboy drawing of an ejaculating penis. What he has done is revolutionary: he has used a nitrile as a main note in a fine fragrance. In plain language, he has put a loud note of harbor bilge in an elegant floral and made it fly. The list of really bad smells that make good fragrances better was never long: indole and skatole, both naturals, contained in flowers and shit. Now there are three. Mark my words: perfume will never be the same.