Smells Like Free Spirit
Chloë Sevigny is an award-winning actress, director, model, fashion designer and now perfume creator. As she speaks to Karl Plewka from the set of the new Luca Guadagnino mini-series We Are Who We Are there is only one answer to the question: Who wouldn’t want to smell like the coolest girl in the world?
Words KARL PLEWKA
Film BEAUTY PAPERS CREATES AND CONSULTS
I first met Chloë Sevigny eighteen years ago when I lived in New York and was fashion director at Interview. At the time it was usual for mega-watt celebrities to stride past my office en route to see Ingrid Sischy, my formidable, yet wonderful, editor-in-chief. But you could keep all the Elton’s, the Donatella’s, the Patti’s, even the Cindy’s, when I heard I was to meet Sevigny, chez Ingrid, to discuss an upcoming cover shoot in which she was to star, I was barely containable. Never meet your heroes, so they say, and this is true to a point, however, as much as it was clear Sevigny was never going to be my best friend she was none the less polite and engaged, if not a tad cold. But warm and fuzzy was not what I desired from my cool girl crush and we went on to create a rather seminal collection of images, featuring some of the most interesting fashion of the moment. In fact when I spoke to Sevigny a few days ago and mentioned the 2001 sitting she remembered the clothes in detail but, regrettably, I fear, she had forgotten me. “I loved the inside picture of Imitation of Christ” she mused and I died a little.
Sevigny is currently filming in Padua, 45 minutes west of Venice in Italy, with writer/director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria) and it seems to be going well, “It’s my first time working with Luca but he’s to die. I love him. He’s got the best personality. He’s very charismatic, dynamic, knows exactly what he wants. He’s very personable and charming and he’s just cute.”
A match made in heaven, surely, so I wasn’t surprised to hear Guadagnino had requested she bring him a bottle of Little Flower, the recently launched fragrance Sevginy has co-created with her friends, Alia Raza and Ezra Woods, the LA-based fragrance brand Régime des Fleurs—more of which later—but, in pre-interview nerves, (I detest the technicalities of phone interviews) perfume whore that I am, I sit at my desk whiling away the hours by literally drenching myself in Little Flower in a bid to almost get into character for the conversation. Has Sevigny ever used fragrance to help channel a character she is playing? “I haven’t really,” she replies, “I tend not to wear perfume when I’m shooting because it’s my own thing. Often when I come home from playing a character where there’s a specific look, I really yearn to be myself. But also I’m so sensitive to smell. When other actors are heavily into a cologne or a perfume, I find it a little offensive. On this show, for instance, there’s this young man who’s a little liberal with his cologne. Every time he comes in he kisses me on the cheek and then his cologne is on me for the rest of the day and I can’t stand it.”
Sounds like he might be wearing some awful kind of Lynx body spray, I venture, “ It might be,” she sighs, “because it rubs off on everything. It lingers and it’s just too much. But how do you say something in a really sensitive way, like, perhaps you could dial it down a little bit?”
For many perfume addicts the obsession begins in childhood and I, like Sevigny, have memories of our mother’s scents that seemed oh-so glamorous in the brown-toned, wood-chip veneered 1970’s, as she remembers, “My mother wore Arpege. She still wears it. And she only wore it on special occasions. To me that was always when she was going out that she would spray it. So it was like, not only is it powerful memory of her, but it’s, in a sense, a memory of something exciting happening.”
“I tend not to wear perfume when I’m shooting because it’s my own thing. Often when I come home from playing a character where there’s a specific look, I really yearn to be myself."
I tell Sevigny how the French have a word for the trail of perfume someone, like our mothers, would leave behind them. It’s called the ‘sillage’ which means ‘wake’, like that of a boat, which we both agree is a beautiful thought, and then I ramble on about being a weird kid who liked to steep rose petals in jars of water to make home-made eau de toilette. Did I hear the rose was Sevigny’s signature flower? She kindly indulges me, “I don’t know if I have a signature flower. My mother was very into flowers and she used to take me to the botanical gardens. We had flowers in the yard. She was always identifying them to me and just nature and flora in general. So it was always a big part of my life. Somehow I just fell in love with a certain rose perfume and that’s my touchstone, because I didn’t really know where to start looking for perfumes, or new perfumes, or trying new perfumes. Because I had fallen in love with this one rose scent I just kind of kept going to others.”
But smelling the roses has its ups and downs, especially when your favourite rose perfume is discontinued, as Sevigny’s apparently was, however, now feels like a time where people want to work together, to knock heads and collaborate more than ever and in the quest towards creating her own fragrance Sevigny was adamant she wanted to do it with Raza and Woods. “The reason I wanted to make my own is because I loved all the fragrances in the Régime des Fleurs catalogue. They make really exquisite bottles and the owners of the company, Ezra and Alia, are my friends. They started this company themselves, just the two of them, as an independently owned business.”
And not a whiff of an ulterior motive? Sevigny responds, “I like the idea of doing something with friends and helping bring attention to their brand and what they make, what they do and who they are. I just really believe in them. But, yeah, | guess selfishly I did also want to find something to replace what I had lost.”
I love the self-effacing honesty and loyalty Sevigny displays and Régime des Fleurs are lucky to have her as a friend but surely friendships are tested when embarking on journeys of process and, with a fragrance, where to even begin? As she explains, “It began with me giving Alia a list of all the perfumes I have been in love with or have always gone back to over the years. We sat down and smelled all of them. Alia and Ezra kind of identified the different parts of each of the perfumes that I liked so that we could try and make a recipe out of that. So that’s how we began. Then every two weeks they’d send me three to five samples of new concoctions. I would smell them on paper strips and then I would wear them. If I really liked one, I would wear it for a week or so. And then we’d all get on the phone and discuss what we liked or didn’t like. And sometimes it was just like an immediate ‘no’. The ones we liked more we kept at the top of our list and they moved forward through the elimination process.”
Indeed, democracy in perfume making seems like the best way forward in a collaboration where such complex blending and selecting could test relationships, but Sevigny is aware that the art of making perfume is also a matter of trust, “They wanted to make something specific with me. A lot of their perfumes are more challenging or unusual, not the sort of words you usually use for perfume but they’re more sophisticated than for most people. I wanted to make something that would appeal to more people. So I had to put my trust in them and knowing what people respond too because obviously they have done many fragrances before, so there was a lot of guidance from them.”
Since the earliest human civilisations, perfume, derived from the latin ‘perfumare,’ meaning, “to smoke through”, is so entrenched in history surely it had to have affected Sevigny in her approach? “We talked a lot about the lab we were using and other stuff they had created and other brands they had worked with. First we started with two different labs and then we narrowed in on one. One specific perfumer at that lab and his team. There was a lot of history around who we were working with.”
“I don’t know if I have a signature flower. My mother was very into flowers and she used to take me to the botanical gardens. We had flowers in the yard. She was always identifying them to me and just nature and flora in general. So it was always a big part of my life."
One assumes Sevigny, even outside her comfort zone, would not be put off, even in the presence of perfume greatness. “At first I was like, ‘I want it to look like the colour of Coco Chanel.’ Then there was a lot of talk about the colour and how we were maybe going to do the ‘juice’, what they call it, in like a pale blue. So there’s even the history in the colour of the ‘juice’ and things like that. It was a very informative process.”
Like much in life, religion also has its part to play in this story when back in 2015 and before the perfume project had got off the ground, Sevigny, who was brought up in a rather strict Catholic household, was asked by Raza and Woods to recite a poem they had penned, ‘Prayer To Saint Thérèse’ in homage to a Catholic patron saint of flowers. Was this poem really how it all began? “I mean in a way it was” Sevigny contemplates, ”Because they are my friends and I had worked with them in other capacities because they were doing other things before they started this perfume company. Alia used to be a film maker. She made these art films. I appeared in some of them. Ezra was styling a little bit and he styled me for some events, I always had a collaborative friendship with them. Then they started the company and I saw what they were doing and fell in love with the product. They asked me to do this this poem, this song. Having grown up Catholic the words of the poem were very moving to me.”
Once the poem was recorded the project took on new legs: enter fashion sound designer extraordinaire Michel Gaubert, who came on board to curate remixes of the poem—with bands like Soulwax and Peaking Lights—and simultaneously, perhaps unintentionally, tested Sevigny’s nerve somewhat, “I love Michel Gaubert’s work so the whole package was appealing. But we didn’t really do much face time. Alia and I did the recorded poem together. She was directing me. We did five or six takes and then she sent it off to Michel. I wasn’t really involved with Michel, in all honesty. But I was very suspicious of him because of his Instagram. He used to always do these posts about me. I was like, ‘Is this guy making fun of me or does he like me? Is this an homage?’ I was very reticent in the beginning when they were like, ‘We’re working with this guy Michel, he wants to do something.’ I was like, “I don’t think this guy likes me.’ I’m very sensitive like that.”
I attempt to assuage Sevigny’s sensitivities by equating them with my own default setting, ie ‘insecure’, but she ignores me and soldiers on, “Michel and I hosted a party for Alia and Ezra, in New York, to launch Régime des Fleurs Artefacts and it was the first time I met him and was tentative going up to him.” But I guess it all went well in the end, I ask on tenterhooks? “Oh yes. It was all dandy. People loved the song, people loved Soulwax. I’m very pleased with it. And then they (Régime des Fleurs ) approached me about doing the perfume. We were back and forth about the name, “Little Flower’, ‘Reign of Roses’. It all came from the poem.”
I also decide to raid the poem to assist in my moment to broach the subject of Sevigny’s truly fearless approach to her career choices—from fellating Vincent Gallo (for real) in arthouse movie The Brown Bunny to playing Mia, a male to female transgender assassin, with prosthetic genitals, in the British television series Hit & Miss. I recite this line to her from the poem, “And walk heroically holding the blossom of grace with me reach day.” Do not such words reflect the brave choices Sevigny has made in life? She is characteristically wry with her answer, “People often say that but I don’t know. I think for anybody who puts them self out in the public eye there’s a certain amount of bravery to that.”
Speaking of bravery, the photo campaign for Little Flower, shot by über lens duo Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, presents Sevigny as no shrinking violet. I ask if La Cicciolina was on the moodboard to which I receive a curt, “Oh my god! Who?” So letting it lie we both settle on Man Ray and Irina Ionesco as influences, despite the fact Sevigny’s rather becoming curled wig reminds me of some fruity coupling between Napoleon’s Josephine and 1970s porn star Linda Lovelace—especially as all Sevigny sports in some of the images are a pair of fresh flower pasties with creamy stamens that jet forth like milk is spurting from her nipples. “Perfume has a history of a bit of nudity,” Sevigny explains, “We didn’t want to do a straightforward shot of me holding a bottle. Which, I think, is more or less what a lot of celebrity perfume campaigns tend to do. We wanted to evoke a certain feeling and a certain mystery. All the blackness is my friend Haley’s [Wollens], the stylist’s concept.”
“I love Michel Gaubert’s work so the whole package was appealing. But I was very suspicious of him because of his Instagram. He used to always do these posts about me. I was like, ‘Is this guy making fun of me or does he like me? Is this an homage?’ I’m very sensitive like that.”
I remind Sevigny of another shoot she has done to promote the perfume, with photographer Brianna Capozzi, and I was both struck by the rawness of her in these images—in stark contrast to the more polished campaign shots—and also the erotic shape of the bottle with its engorged pearl stopper. Is it possible for perfume bottles not to be phallic? “Oh, the pearl stopper was my idea. They wanted to do a similar bottle shape to another line of their fragrances. There’s also a sense of Old Hollywood to the label. All these different references. I have this painting in my house. One day the painting was next to this blue vase and I just like the idea of the pale pink and blue together.”
We are in a time in which beauty can be seen as a form of activism. We need beauty to feel romance, to improvise a romantic attitude. There is certainly a modern romantic edge to the way Little Flower smells and this begs the question: is the romance and sensuality that a perfume can evoke an important way to connect in these isolated digital times? Sevigny agrees, “I think so. It think potentially it is, yes. To be closer. People always comment when I’m wearing it. They want to know what it is. They want to smell it. Then you have that connection that is always positive for a scent. And I want to smell pretty. It’s very fresh, and I think it also takes on different tones and it’s very layered. It’s a complex yet fresh scent. I usually spray when I ‘m fresh out of the shower. Just a little mist around my neck and down my body. And then I get dressed and do another spritz around my neck and my hair. Because I like to retain it onto my clothing as well. So it lasts longer.”
I’m reminded by Little Flower about what the iconic fashion forecaster Li Edelkoort recently said about how we are in a moment where, like pioneers, we will have to reinvent everything we do—how we travel, how we eat, how we interact—and how, in fashion, there is a big return to traditional fabrics, like corduroy, moleskin and tweed because perhaps we really need the comfort and re-assurance of tradition right now? Could the fact that Little Flower’s main note, the rose (Turkish rose absolute, to be exact) be seen as a kind of satellite ring of tradition going into the future? Sevigny is having none of it, to a point, “I don’t know about that. That’s a question for Alia and Ezra. I think people are very attracted to oils right now and more unisex scents that feel less synthetic. I think Little Flower hits on all of that. It feels more natural, which I think everybody is craving. I think it feels more organic and real. Like you said, like natural fibres and fabrics. What we’re eating. How we’re all living. I think people’s style reflects that.”
And in the brave new world we face how important is how we smell? Sexy? Free? No. Just like Chloë, of course.