The Last Great Comme
Words by John Preston
Image by Liam Moore
I will always retain a close connection and bullish loyalty toward the perfume division of Rei Kawakubo’s eccentric and massively influential clothing brand, Comme des Garçons. My introduction coincided with the debut of their first fragrance, the self titled Comme des Garçons Eau de Parfum in 1994; I can confidently say that I was there from the very beginning. It didn’t smell like perfume to me; even the packaging betrayed the usual sense of luxury as the flat, glass pebble that housed the honeyed liquid was shrinked-wrapped in plastic and contained in a plain, white box. Pungent and gender-less, comforting, linear and to some obnoxious (I remember sitting on the tube when two girls came in and demanded “what that smell was” – read smell not scent). I was transfixed and restless, needing to be initiated into the then unknown world of niche fragrance, desperate to find out what else I could be missing out on.
I looked forward to a new fragrance release from the house in the same way I would a new album from Saint Etienne, Björk or Madonna; there on the first day it arrived in HMV except these masterpieces were housed in Liberty of London and the hits indeed kept coming. Translucent green in colour, the Eau de Cologne version of the first scent was as far away as I could imagine from what I thought of as a traditional eau de cologne could be. Now sadly discontinued, it breathed air and space into the original Eau de Parfum. White was flickering hot cloves, torn overripe rose petals and spices; it reminded a work colleague of the pink liquid deposited into a dentist’s spittoon. Maybe the most iconic scent of the brand came in 1999 with Comme 2; a metallic and inky, floral armour of glamour, again created by nose extraordinaire Mark Buxton. The following year saw the introduction of a still to-this-day recurring series of themed scent collections. Leaves, Red and in particular Incense were collectible, self indulgent, original and frequently spectacular ranges of perfume.
Whilst not actually a shrinking violet, 2002’s Comme 3 was (for persons of an olfactive nervous disposition at least) the most wearable addition to the main line of scents thus far with its black fruit, floral and wood accords creating something that was both unfamiliar and completely natural. Things continued to thrum along nicely in the background. The two so-called anti-perfumes Odeur 53 (sand dunes, flaming rock and nail polish) and Odeur 71 (dust on a scorching light bulb and yes, lettuce juice) served in heavy rectangular bottles were already well established and surprisingly commercial skin scents smelling of sticky but clean cotton, and woody carnation cologne respectively. The two series Sweets and Synthetics pushed the avant-garde aspect of the line to its creative limits. Although Sweets was an uneven, with-no-particular-standout, gourmand-centric muddle of vanilla and spices, the industrial Synthetics, however has always been one of the most challenging and enjoyable of the series. Soda was a can of Sprite with a slice of Lemon Pledge plonked in and Tar, my favourite, was a mashup of coal tar soap and Imperial Leather. Both lines are now discontinued but if you ask nicely enough, the staff in the Dover Street store in London might still be able to find you a bottle of Dry Clean from one of their secret cubby-holes.
In 2008 the overtly conceptual 8 88 was launched and was the first pillar scent not to be created by Mark Buxton. Widely hyped at the time with a long promotional campaign that included a preview of the scent at a pop-up in Burlington Arcade before it was then withdrawn for a further two months and then released officially. 8 88 was meant to capture the smell of gold; a fascinating challenge that Comme des Garçons seemed born to rise to. What 8 88 smelt like was a standard green fragrance; a familiar colour and inappropriately natural category in the fragrance world given the metallic aim. Its opening is herbal and sharply fizzy, a pretty rough ride and although the dry down is nuzzly and warm it was for many, myself included, the first major stumble for the brand. When Amazingreen came in 2012, a generic sports scent with no surprises whatsoever, it felt as though quality control had been lost and the brand was nearing autopilot, constantly putting out variations of what is admittedly their specialist area – words and incense; Wonderwood, Standard, Dover Street Market and more recently, Black. Only collaborations with Monocle magazine gave rise to three meditative but joyous scents of exceptional quality, and a self-titled collaboration with milliner Stephen Jones with his eponymous, disconcertingly divine violet bomb, continued to maintain some interest and semblance of eccentricity that had always been synonymous with Comme des Garçons.
There are currently over 60 different perfume bottles artfully sitting on the shelves of the Dover Street store’s perfume pyramid. Collaborations with Pharrell Williams, Stephen Jones and Tracey Emin all released last year in addition to Wonder Oud being added to the more easily available “pebble” line, they are all extremely nice, on-trend and politely wearable perfume. They are not oddly beautiful or compulsive. They are unlikely to spark that desire for a perfume novice to morph into a fully-blown, insatiable addict. With Etat Libre D’Orange now very much established as the go-to perfume house of the absurd and divine, I am not alone in marvelling at their increasing talent for quality and innovation. I still however get a flutter of anticipation when I read of a new Comme des Garçons release and there is little doubt that another will be along shortly. But please let it fascinate me Rei, let me reconnect with my first and ultimate perfume love, the one that that triggered a further hundred or so illicit affairs. For it would be a sad day indeed if I thought I’d already smelt my last great Comme.
John is a south London based fume and music-head. He wants Etat Libre d’Orange’s next collaboration to be with David Lynch and have Madonna make an album with Lindstrøm. Follow his overly-long record review tweets at @auburndust
This article appeared in ODOU issue 4
If you liked it, you might like to read the rest of it