Creative director of Comme Des Garçons Fragrance and furniture designer Christian Astuguevieille talks to Beauty Papers about modernity, the idea of anti-perfume, and why beauty needs to be broken.
Beauty Papers: Is all inspiration equal? The fashion world is often snobbish and exclusive, but the way you create your fragrances seems very open – how would you describe your approach?
Christian Astuguevieille: Our approach was defined from the start, with the idea to never be the same as others. So we really listened to what we want; we invented the pebble bottle design, and we presented it as sous vide, as if it were fit for consumption. We didn’t do specific in-store displays, we tried to sell in specific places where we wouldn’t usually sell perfume – concept stores, for instance. That’s now become mainstream, but when we first did it, it was original. Just be different, period.
As smell is the most emotive of senses in terms of memory, how can we use fragrance to enhance our life as we travel through the decades?
For me perfume [detonates] energy. Depending on my day’s activities, I wouldn’t put the same perfume throughout the day. In Comme Des Garçons, there are a few that I really love, and if I am working on a special project or if I’m going through a hard time, I tend to wear those – because of fetishism in a way, but because of the good vibes that they bring. They help me get through the day. A day without perfume does not exist for me.
We researched the scent of a photocopy machine at the end of a day when it has been overworked and it’s warm.
When you smell things, do you see colours and images too?
The work that I do with different laboratories around olfactory research is very visual. I don’t want to be restricted by technical terms, or what the names of certain molecules are. That’s not how I work. During the process of the perfume creation I’d tell the team how I feel about a certain product, such as “it’s too black”, “too blue”, “too dirty”, “too animalistic”, “too fresh”, and sometimes “too beautiful”. Imagery is really part of it. Often I say, “Okay, we have this produce that we’ve been working on, it’s nice, but we need to break it down,” with a little bit of red, with flowers that will specifically enhance it. What’s most important is to work with happiness and with laughter, because I really think laughter is crucial for creativity and for composing a scent. Creativity should be fun – to be creative you need to have fun.
I love that you say that because there’s a lot of seriousness in the world of fashion and fragrance. I think play is essential to create, because play is about curiosity. So much of marketing is about control. How do you avoid it?
From the beginning we decided not to do any testing at all. Of course there are mandatory tests, such as the skin test, so we do tests for the wellbeing of the people who are going to wear it, but we don’t do tests on consumers about what they like or don’t like. No marketing at all.
I love the fact that you are a true creative, a Renaissance man who can move between disciplines, dimensions, senses. What drives you to master all these different fields?
I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way. Each discipline brings something else to the mix. They intertwine and all feed into the different dimensions of my work. It’s all part of me and who I am.
How does digital play in your world and is it a factor in the creation of your fragrances?
Personally, digital does not factor in my world but it played a really important role in the creation of Odeur 71, which is one of our ‘non-perfumes’. During its creation, we researched the scent of a photocopy machine at the end of a day when it has been overworked and it’s warm. We wanted to smell it and be able to catch the molecules, to give it back through the perfume. So it’s part of this digital world.
I love that incorporation of everyday objects in your fragrances.
We love to work with all different kinds of molecules and scents. It can be a really beautiful flower, or a very strong vetiver. But we’re also really prone to working with modern and contemporary scents, such as the idea of the scent of a garage, of sky, of tar, because we really want to create the perfume for our era – 21st-century perfumes that really appeal to people in society. And that’s really what we [did] with the synthetic lines and non-perfume lines, with Odeur 71, Odeur 53 and Garage and Tar and Dry Clean, which were really innovative.
You say that modernity is freedom and that comes across very strongly in your combination of modern substances, things that are part of everyday life, and one thing I find interesting is that the names of the fragrances are more traditional, maybe more grounded.
Twenty years ago, when we started making perfumes, we didn’t think we were going to do a big collection, we really wanted to do just one perfume. That was the idea. And then we had the desire to create more and the range that we see today. We really wanted to be linked to the classical perfumes in a way, but Comme Des Garçons is a fashion house that’s very specific, so all the perfumes that we have created over the years are very specific – because they all have the Comme Des Garçons DNA. So in a way the only bridge between our perfumes and the perfume industry are the <i>words</i> that we’ve used, and we tried to be very clear and very simple. But then again, it’s not that simple. When you think of a woman who wears a perfume called Garage and someone asks her, “Oh, what’s this you’re wearing?” and she says, “Garage”, it’s not exactly classical in the perfume industry.
You’ve previously said that it’s easy to be “beautiful” and that to be truly beautiful beauty needs to be broken or different. Has your view on the subject changed at all?
My vision of beauty has evolved over time, but I’m weary of beauty and especially too much beauty. Too beautiful is worrying.
Creative people often have obsessions that they revisit. Are there themes and ideas that you keep coming back to?
There’s a lot of raw material that I like in perfumes. But I am really attentive to listening to the research of the laboratories in terms of new molecules that they find, specifically new molecules that are going to be used to enhance certain materials that I love and see how they’re going to develop thanks to these new discoveries.
I’m really open to everything that’s new, and that’s going to be the future of perfumery.
Do you collect objects to inspire you?
I collect a lot of things, but often I put them in a box and leave them aside for a few months, and I reopen the box and rediscover all the things that inspired me. The inspiration often comes after you’ve found the object, not the moment you’ve found them.
I think curiosity is essential in creation. Do you think with the new digital era, and everything being instantly accessible, people are becoming less curious?
It transforms itself into a different form of curiosity, but for me the possession of all these knick-knacks and objects is really what creates my inspiration. I don’t necessarily feel the internet or computers will take over. But then again I barely reply to my emails!
Fragrance has the ability to transcend and take one somewhere, and I think in the bigger world of fragrance when brands work with a lot of celebrities or create cynical concepts to sell their fragrance it gets in the way of the transformation that fragrance can bring about. What are your thoughts?
With Comme Des Garçons Perfumes it’s not really a problem that we face because we don’t work with celebrities. What’s important for us is to have a creative thread that we follow. But it’s interesting to collaborate with different artists, and to create something with them hand in hand, as they bring who they are, their essence. It’s important for us to do these [artistic] collaborations. It could be a gallery and a magazine, but it’s always important to stay true to our creative identity, and our heritage.
It’s about the sharing of values. And that creates a true artistic marriage that feels genuine.
People who come to us to collaborate are people who already know that we’re different and that’s what they’re looking for.
Do you have fragrances that come to mind for you when you think of a city, say, London, Paris or Istanbul?
We worked on this idea of cities and geography with Serpentine Galleries. For instance, the idea of Hyde Park in the middle of the city: we worked on the notion of mixing the greenery of the park with London’s pollution.
Personally when I wear a particular fragrance, the scent changes depending on the city that I’m in. So it would smell different in Paris than in New York, for instance, because the air is different, the people are different, and the surroundings are not the same. So for me, in a way, the place I’m in can really modify a scent.
Where do you see the future of fragrance?
I really hope that the world of fragrance is going to continue to use beautiful ingredients, be it natural or man-made. And I hope people will make an effort to stay creative and be different. And I think that the industry needs to understand that you don’t really need marketing to be efficient. It would really be wonderful if people could step away from this closed marketing way of doing things, that formula. And they should really understand that conviction and desire is more important than marketing. We should stick to our core, and stay true to it.