Thursday, December 25, 2008

...of Orient Are

“Since the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”

- Edward Said

One needn’t share Edward Said’s overstated view of Orientalism, as developed in his eponymous classic study, to acknowledge that there frequently has been a strong European (and by extension American) tendency to see the ”East” – whether “near” “middle” or “far” in starkly binary terms. The Christian, prim, rational, enlightened, democratic, egalitarian, progressive, technological West has often defined this significant other in terms of heathenism, superstition, despotism, decadence, backwardness and inscrutability. Such stereotypes were used to stabilize one’s own fragile self-image and to assert a supposed general superiority which, in the military realm, became a reality beginning in the late 18th century, when the conquest of India commenced in earnest, while the power of the Osmanic empire slowly began to wane. In cultural terms, the mystical East – always also the geographical location of Paradise and Jerusalem for Christians and thus far from being a negative - has served from the earliest times as an imaginary space on which to project fantasies of immeasurable wealth, the luxuries of what really was a superior civilization – silk, spices, precious essential oils and balms - and unlimited sexual indulgences of dominant men and submissive women sequestered in harems - perhaps the locus classicus of the orientalist imagination. The harem as we know it from the semipornographic kitsch of 19th century Western novels and painting is simply the return of the Victorian repressed. Smell Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet even in its declawed modern form and you know it signified the other oriental H-word to contemporaries with its dirty floral prowess and musky sexuality.

Needless to say that the “oriental” is a defining category in European perfumery and fragrance history, from the spices and balms brought to the infant Jesus and craved by the medieval nobility, to Guerlain’s exotistic Shalimar or the recent Idole de Lubin. But what do Westerners expect of actual “oriental”, i.e. Arabian or Indian perfumes? When I placed my order for 5 perfume oils at a Berlin purveyor of everything from Islamic fashion to religious artefacts, incense and fragrance, could I possibly escape the cliché of being initiated into some sort of “secret of the orient,” of luxurious fantasies of Attar, oud and jasmine-rose excesses, of “authentic” Shalimar decadence? And wasn’t there, in the back of my head, the inevitable imperially-tinged hope that I could score the rarest of essences from a "naïve peddler" at a fraction of the price that firms such as Montale or Amouage charge for their Eastern delights? Well, I had had a few previous brushes with Arabian perfume products which brought home very clearly the messages of a globalized economy: good oud (agarwood) or sandalwood will cost a fortune anywhere, and you will always get cheap synthetics in a $4 perfume oil. No less a perfume scion than Jean Paul Guerlain recalls, in his My Journeys in the World of Perfume, a laborious trip to highly recommended Indian sandalwood producers in the town of Kannauj, as he was seeking a source of good raw material for his new oriental Samsara. What he discovered were “neatly-lined up drums bearing the labels of companies well-known in the perfume industry.”

So my expectations were tempered and I deliberately avoided going for the popular recreations of Western designer scents or anything that sounded like just another Calone-aquatic. Besides four typical blends at roughly 5 Euros for 3ml I decided to buy the shop’s top offering, an undefined Attar for 7.50 Euros per ml – still light-years from the outrageous cost of high quality ouds, which can sell at hundreds of dollars for one millilitre. And you thought investing in gold was clever. We’ll leave those treasures to the Sultan of Oman and see what the postman, rather than three kings, brought your financially strained perfume blogger. A caveat. I have smelled lenty of Western-sytle perfumes but only a few real ouds and attars, so my frame of reference is highly Eurocentric. But inspired by the Enlightenment, I do entertain the vague hope that quality can be universally recognized.

Bakhoor al Madni: Patchouli, indian Agarwood (Oud), Jasmine, Sandalwood, Saffron, Rose.

Bakhoor is actually the term for woodchips soaked in fragrant oils for burning as a form of incense. The ingredients sounded perfectly oriental. Unfortunately it smelled exactly like good ole American 100% artificially flavoured grape soda – a strong childhood memory of mine. The floral oils must either be cheap synthetics or really inferior naturals. The supposed woods and spices didn’t even get a chance here. Ghastly.

Mukhallat (=Blend) El Emirates by Al Haramain (a low to mid-price producer). No notes given. Rose and Oud, a Montale on the cheap. The rose is rather candied-sweet and the oud is probably synthetic – it is extremely mild and nearly more woody than typically pungent. It proceeds to move into a slightly soapy direction. Not bad at all considering the price – Montale’s rose is often similarly sweet, e.g. in Black & Royal Oud, but there is not enough oud power here to check that. To make a fairer comparison price-wise, this is way better than the awful Opium pour homme with its wretchedly synthetic vanilla-bomb orientalness worthy of Disneyland.

Misk Hindi: Patchouli, Castoreum, Rose, Indian Agarwood (Oud). This one spontaneously reminded me of Creed’s Royal English Leather, as well as of the typical smell in Indian convenience stores that sell spices, cosmetics, soaps and incense. Sweet leathery notes of castoreum, patchouli, balanced florals, no explicit oudh note. In direct comparison, REL is brighter, drier in the top, more leathery, and generally fuller, while there’s more herbal patchouli and muskiness to Hindi. Hippie associqations are inevitable, but I liked this a lot and it’s the winner among this selection.

Mukhallat al Oud by Al Haramain: Indian Oud, Musk: a boring synthetic oud on a synthetic skin-scent musk base. Next, please.

Attar: no details on anything. The only one with a distinct oud note – pungent freshly chopped wood in a saw-mill, dry leather notes like in a cramped shoestore, drying lacquer paint on a boat in drydock with faint whiffs of smoky-petroleum lubricant. Very solvent/chemical like. No obvious sweetness of florals, just some resinous balsamic note tucked way at the bottom somewhere. This may be natural or not, it certainly reminds me more of the natural ouds I have tried – which often smell so decidedly unnatural to a Western nose. Interesting rather than beautiful and requires more exploration. An interesting conclusion to a pleasant trip into a different and yet not-so-different perfume world that yielded at least two keepers.

So much for the Christmas edition of state of the [car]nation. Happy holidays to everyone out there and may good smells be yours in 2009.

Illustration:Fabio Fabbi, Harem Dancers (1885)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

making history, faking history II: the carthusian candidate

A cynic might say that the contemporary art of perfumery consists of putting 50 cents worth of materials into an expensive looking bottle which is then cleverly wrapped into the folds of a prestige brand that will allow charging $80 or $150 or $250 for the product (the price point may be part of the prestige sell). For companies not backed up by a strong designer brand – be it Calvin Klein or Boss in the mass market, or the more upscale Prada and nichey Etro, a flowery history can form the basis of high prestige. Age and continuity in volatile markets have always been considered markers of quality and dependability, and they offer the marketing opportunity of romantic narratives about glamorous dandies, passionate princesses, and secret forgotten prescriptions of eternal youth and beauty.

Monk myths in particular have enjoyed great popularity throughout the history of perfume marketing and they carry a kernel of truth, since monasteries were indeed the keepers of medieval societies’ botanical wisdom and antiquity’s heritage. These were harnessed towards the concoction of medicinal products out of which European perfume culture emerged – Eau de Cologne began its success story as a tonic to be imbibed or inhaled. In fact, the legend of what is Europe’s oldest documented perfume – Eau d’Hongrie or Hungary Water recounts that a hermit monk presented it to Queen Elizabeth of Hungary (a composite character uniting different historical figures) with the assurance that it would preserve her perfect beauty forever – which would help explain why the Polish King proposed to her when she was seventy-two.

Variations of this story abound and they frequently feature Carthusians, the herbal cracks among monks who are perhaps best known for their green Chartreuse liqueur. The legend promulgated by the House of Carthusia (as legend) recounts a gift of flowers by the Carthusian monks on Capri to a visiting Queen, which accidentally macerated, turning the flower water into a wonderful fragrance (unlikely when I consider the smell of week-old water in a vase of wilted tulips). The supposedly real history is that the monks’ old recipes were rediscovered in 1948 and were then reissued by a small laboratory in Torino and that the industrial synthetic-natural formulas now marketed under the brand name are made using “the same methods as the Carthusian monks.” I Profumi di Firenze has a remarkably similar secular version of this story in which a pharmacist rediscovered the ancient perfume prescriptions of Catherine of Medici, who is said to have brought culinary and perfume culture from Florence to the French court. Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci, known to be ahead of his time, invented the synthetic perfume molecules prominent in this house’s fragrances before they were rediscovered by modern chemistry? Now that would make history and perfumery journal headlines!

The many monks populating perfume mythology raise the question of whether the clergy should be incensed (no pun intended) by these ecclesiastical borrowings for crude commercial purposes? Well, when it comes to matters of business, the spiritual men of the cloth and the monk’s cowl have always taken a rather pragmatic approach themselves. Witness the monks of Caldey island, whose lavender water was highly praised by Luca Turin. If you read the ad copy of retailers such as manufactum, you get the impression that local lavender is lovingly distilled by Brother Lewellyn himself according to some old book of herbal prescriptions. But according to Turin, the formula was actually developed by a professional Belgian perfumer (hopefully Catholic, at least), Hugo Collumbien, who used the finest French lavender from the Vaucluse and provided it with longevity by fixating it with a (nowadays) synthetic musk called Exaltolid. Next time your at the Caldey monastery listen closely whether its really "Exulte Deo" the friars are singing.

But back to the Carthusians and the making of perfume history: one of the best known and for a long time most successful perfume products was 4711. And guess what? Company founder Wilhelm Mülhens acquired the secret recipe for his Eau De Cologne from a Carthusian monk who had fled the chaos of the French Revolution in Grenoble and was taken in by the Mülhens family of Cologne. A different version tells of the valuable scroll having been the monk’s gift on the occasion of Wilhelm Mülhens’ marriage, a scene imagined in the post-WWII painting you can see on the upper left. As it happens, the monk’s name was Farina- the Italian surname borne by the established and reputable cologne-producing families in the city. As Eau de Cologne became big business, it became common practice for Germans to buy the Farina name off Italians in order to establish their own Farina cologne operation. Alas, the historical record shows that Mülhens, listed in the Cologne registry as a “speculator,” bought the name off one Carl Franz Maria Farina in Bonn, Germany, who had been producing Eau de Cologne under the privilege of Franz, Archduke of Austria and Elector of Cologne. Thus 4711 began its history as “Franz Maria Farina” on not-quite-so-Carthusian ground but as a "phony Farina" - in fact he resold the name thirty times to other entrepeneurs. Only when the strenuous efforts of the original Farinas to protect their name resulted in the first pan-German trademark law in 1874 was Mülhens forced to drop the Farina name and adopted the ingenuously recognizable 4711 moniker, leaving the competition behind in the dust as the number became nearly synonymous with German Eau de Cologne in the 20th century and particularly after WWII.

This story leads us to the third part of this little series, in which we will compare the histories and mythologies of the two oldest operating family-owned perfume companies: Farina Gegenüber, makers of the original Eau de Cologne (1709) and Creed (1763), a well-known niche perfume house. We’ll see how Farina’s obsession with presenting facts and Creed’s obsession with avoiding them is deeply rooted in both houses' actual histories and the need to handle them in a way that ensured their economic survival.

Monday, November 24, 2008

making history, faking history

The Nuremberg Christkindlesmarket, or Christmas Fair, is world-renowned. Harking back all the way to the 16/17th century, when Protestants replaced the gift-bearing Catholic Saint Nicolas of December 6 with a newfangled Lutheran “Christkind” (reverting into the red-suited male Kris Kringle = Santa Claus = Saint Nicolas in the US) which brought presents on Christmas Eve (respectively Day), it is the very embodiment of old-fashioned German/European festive culture and attracts millions of tourists every year.

Not too many people know that central features of the market, particularly the grand opening ceremony featuring the angelic, blond-wigged child and two tinselled angels, which is even featured on the evening news, were invented by the Nazis in 1933. They considered the proper re-orchestration of the festival and its relocation to the city center, the former site of the Jewish Ghetto, a proper step in Re-Germanizing the town which would become the site of the more pagan spectacle of the “Reichsparteitage.” The Nazi mayor of Nuremberg also brought the town’s historical architecture into line, falsely Gothicizing Romanesque buildings to give them what was considered the proper Teutonic aura.

This little Christmas story is just a minor example of the way in which history is reconstructed, or often purely invented, for the purpose of serving some contemporary agenda. It is one of the oldest games in the book, because history has always provided legitimacy and is a key source of identity for our species, blessed and cursed with the gift of memory. In the world of perfume, history rarely plays a sinister role, but a considerable number of houses has chosen to build their brand image on impressive historical pedigrees which signify tradition, dignity, quality and an opportunity for consumers to connect with a luxurious past of nobility and royalty and the pomp and circumstance of the glorious old European courts. Among these purportedly venerable names we find Creed (1760) and Rancé (1795), Carthusia (1380) and Santa Maria Novella (15??), Farina Gegenüber (1709) and 4711 (1792) and numerous others. Needless to say that their histories, on closer inspection, not always turn out quite what they seem to be…

To be continued…

Illustration: Washington having bought Creed in Delaware.

Friday, October 10, 2008

fear of perfume, fear of obama

In May of this year, the Turkish government's directorate of religious affairs published a text warning women of wearing perfume and other ways of inevitably stimulating men to thinking immoral thoughts and doing immoral deeds. This stimulus-response logic is not specific to Islam. We see it in Puritan tracts opposing the theater, which were based on the assumption that anything portrayed on the stage would inevitably be imitated by the audience. Watching Macbeth would produce murderers, rather than making people think about the moral issues involved in the play. Contemporary Christian fundamentalists share this attitude. They believe if you inform teenagers about sex, veneral disease and contraception, those teenagers will go out and do it. While if you teach abstinence and just keep silent about sexuality, nothing will happen. Except maybe to Bristol Palin. Likewise, if you tolerate homosexuality, it will "attract" and "corrupt" innocent children, as if it were some kind of epidemic. Lastly, if, like Barack Obama, you happen to have any sort of interaction with Willliam Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground 35 years ago, you are bound to be infected with his terrorist ideology of yore. The worldview underlying all of these assumptions is based on simple premises:
1. Radical Manichaeism: there is only good or evil. You are with us or against us. There is no gray area. People are thus one-dimensional. They are either part of the chosen, or evil and life is an eternal struggle against corruption by evil. Which leads to
2. The "virus" paradigm. What you are exposed to infects you. A sensuous poem will make you an adulterer. It is impossible to read Karl Marx and think about him, to perhaps (see point 1) consider parts of his anaylsis of capitalism useful and insightful, while rejecting others as faulty. If you read Marx (and take him seriously), it means you become a Marxist. Or, to use an example from the other side of the political spectrum, you have to ban HuckFinn, because it contains the n* word, the reading of which will instanteneously convert your child into a racist, rather than perhaps opening a space for the discussion of the significance of race and racism in American society. This attitude reflects a deep fear and distrust in a sinful and corrupt humanity, incapable of reasoning, discoursing, differentiating, growing and it invests words and signs with enormous power.
Thus, if you wear perfume as a woman, you are essentialy approaching whoredom - the widely held belief of the Victorian era and apparently still popular in Islam. You have chosen the path of immodesty and sin and its power will pull all those poor men into the maelstrom of evil that happen to smell your olfactory trap. Thus, also, the inability of the American right, beyond the merely strategic move of representing Obama as unAmerican, of understanding a person with a multicultural, plural background such as Obama. His name is Arab-African, ergo he is a Muslim. He visited Wright's church, ergo he is a black nationalist radical. He read a book by Saul Alinsky, so he must be a radical anarchist. He sat on a board with William Ayers (and Republicans) , so he's a friend of terrorists (and Republicans?).

It is impossible for the one fundamentalist mind to imagine wearing a perfume for your own pleasure, or for others to take pleasure in beauty without sinister thoughts. Or to be in fact erotically inspired by a perfume without ever considering acting upon that inspiration. It is impossible for the other fundamentalist to imagine an intellectual - somebody who engages with a plurality of ideas in an interested, detached, non-judgemental way, who, ideally, uses ideas to develop a differentiated view of the world - the very opposite of the black and white world fundamentalists need to cling to, riddled by their anxieties and repressed desires.

Friday, September 12, 2008

how john mccain turned politics into perfume

Perfume is a beautiful lie, an illusion creating impossible flower gardens from synthesized aromachemicals, an impressionistic painting assembled by labcoats, love and passion from a test tube, a mass produced promise of individuality. Politics is the public space in which uncomfortable realities require debating, clashing interests must negotiate a consensus, in which ignoring cold facts will ultimately have devastating consequences. And yet John McCain, retired maverick, has had himself branded by the ruffian Rove and become the latest and worst exponent of the politics of perfume: create illusions, tell lies until the people believe them, deflect attention from genuine issues and manipulate emotions.
Politics has always been a dirty business and mudslinging is as old as elections are. The United States, however, has entered a new era of politics since George W. Bush was awarded the Presidency by the Supreme Court. Denial of scientific facts, systematic lying and violations of the US Constitution have become standard tools of governance in the White House. Senator McCain, of the party which controlled the Capitol from 1994 to 2006, has occupied the White House since 2001 and practically merged with K-Street has now declared he is running against Washington, together with a VP candidate pork-barrel laden and heavily earmarked. And the voters are loving it, since they seem to be confusing an election for the Presidency for another Mr/Miss Congeniality contest. Yes, a considerable part of the American people have become like the crowd of Süskind's novel Perfume. Lusting for the murderer's execution, once he dons a few drops of his magic fragrance the people become hopelessly entranced and the ugly outcast turns into a deified Prince Charming reigning over a Babylonic orgy.
What are the consequences? Wearing perfume is a harmless game of playing with dreams and identities. The fragrance fades only to be replaced with a different scent. A nation whose political perception has become as disconnected from reality as an LSD user's who thinks he can fly without wings, a nation which seems able to ignore the reality of a lost war, the collapse of the national mortage market and major banks and investement houses, the long term threat of climate change, its junkie-like relationship to oil and all the many mortifying challenges that lay ahead of it, such a nation will not be able to maintain its positon of global world leadership. If this ideology once again carries the day on Nov. 4, 2008, historians may once mark this period as the watershed moment when the U.S. chose for good to retire into a private mythology of itself as it began its slow descent to political irrelevancy, ending like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard , an aging diva who believes her perfume will project a past image of youthfulness through its intricate olfactory illusionism.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

if cuba had been a crown colony...

Cuba, like the rest of the Western hemisphere, was traditionally considered by the USA as its back yard. In fact, as far back as the Early Republic, Thomas Jefferson could assert that Cuba was "the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States" and after "liberating" the island from Spanish rule in the "splendid little war" of 1898 , the so-called Platt Amendment added to the Cuban constitution transfered essential aspects of the nation's sovereignty to the US. A playground for gambling US tourists and mobsters after WWII, Cuban suffered under the ruthless dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, a long time darling of Washington. As so often in Central and South America, the US failed to support democratic alternatives and its seriously incompetent policy ultimately lead to Fidel Castro's triumph, his turn towards hard-line Marxism-Leninism, JFK's Bay of Pigs misadventure and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In popular culture, however, the romantic image of mid-century Cuba, and especially Havana, has prevailed, aided by the economic stagnation under the Castro regime which has ironically preserved the city in picturesque (for visitors) poverty. The Buena Vista Social Club clearly trumps the more limited visibility of independent Cuban film makers or critical reportage and the imagery of fine cigars, rum-soaked nights, hot tropical rhythms and rusty pastel-colored vintage cars will probably be with us forever.

Considering the above history it is fitting that a US company would have produced a perfume called Havana , aiming to evoke precisely this kind of atmosphere. A heady mixture of bay rum, citrus, spices, florals, woods, resins and, naturally, tobacco - just about everything the perfumers had lying around, really - it is the quintessential machismo fragrance. Though released in 1994, it is very much in the style of 1980s male powerhouses and considered a classic by many fragrance lovers. All the more surprising that it was discontinued and now only seems easily available in South Africa, though a small minority, including yours truly, has indeed always complained that it is too much of too many good things. The public seemed to agree.

Since 2002, there has been an alternative to the American Havana . It is British luxury aromatics house Czech & Speake's Cuba, which works the iconic images of the island into a completely different olfactory story - one in which Cuba became a British colony in 1850 or so. In marked contrast to the excessive density of Aramis Havana, C&S Cuba blends the cool refinement typical of traditional English fragrances with the exotic smells of the old capital (the slightly modified coat of arms of which you can see above). The opening is an amazing feat, in which a strong civet note's fecal aspects are perfectly balanced out by a refreshing mint note, which in turn is kept from going all gaudy by the animalic element; all this is perfectly framed by unobtusive citrus and a subtle rum note. It's a mojito on a colonial-style porch, with the smell of the street wafting up from below. Masculine, but not chest haired and rugged - the panama hat is pristine and the white dinner suit was cut on Savile Row. There follows a wonderful, present, yet subtle blend of green tobacco, clove, bay and restrained florals and a warm base said to contain tonka, cedar, vetiver, and, this is very evident, frankincense.
This is what the British governor of Cuba smelled like around 1955, in some strange parallel universe not necessarily worse than ours. The fact that the bottle bears a red star represents the kind of British/niche humor which would not have worked too well for a US corporation such as Estée Lauder, who chose a tropical feather theme for Havana (no less ironic, though, considering how heavy that perfume is). Then again, holding Socialist ideas while running an empire was precisley what Britons were doing at midcentury, so the pieces of our alternative history actually fit together quite nicely.

Cuba is a worthy, in my opinion even superior, successor to Havana, as it manages to take the concept of a rich Caribean-style fragrance into the 21st century by reaching back to English perfume traditions. The result is, in fact, suitable for both men and women.
Now, is there anything missing in this story? Indeed, there is: Santa Maria Novella's Acqua di Cuba, for starters. But we will entertain the fantasy of Cuba as an Italian colony at some other time.

Monday, August 25, 2008

narcotic venus, narcotic adonis?

What is full of illegal substances and makes great PR for repressive regimes? Of course, the presently concluded Olympic Games. Once again the public has been fed, and has eagerly gulped down, its two-week concentrate of reality soap athletic drama full of heroes, tragic losers and villains (though one can never be quite sure who is who), framed by two spectacular variety pieces that succinctly expressed what's at stake here: manipulating masses of bodies to generate profits and flex political muscle. China wins the gold medal count, the US has the most total medals, even Togo and Kirgisistan have their heros for a day. and we can all feel these Games have 'opened China towards the world' and at least the folks in Tibet are not worse off. Never mind the dregs whose appartments were bulldozed away to build a stadium by party decree. All of which leads me to present my fragrant choice for the 2008 olympics - anti-climactically after the fact, just to make sure you don't think I'm buying into the hype or crave membership on the IOC gravytrain. And the winner is: Nasomatto's Narcotic Venus.
Nasomatto fragrances have something quite Olympian about them. The company is as secretive about ingredients as the IOC is about its backroom dealings. They are as expensive as advertising time on US television during a Michael Phelps final. And they are as powerful as the latest dope cocktail that will make anyone's grandfather run the 100 meters in 9.5. It's as if Nasomatto wanted to cut through the ever-thickening jungle of niche fragrance competition to release an olfactory scream straight into your face, like those Ur-Schreis belted out by javelin throwers. The choice as an olympic scent came naturally, for the Nasomatto manifesto, obviously written by the same guy who composes Olympic communiqués, states "I give advantage to people longing to distinguish themselves" as well as "I take advantage of drugs and food." Now if that doesn't capture the spirit of the Games...
Narcotic Venus is supposedly about "the overwhelming addictive intensity of female sexual power.” That may sound more like the Kama Sutra Olympics and raises fears of another Sécrétions Magnifiques. Thankfully, what we get instead is - not white punks - but white florals on dope. This is a bouquet of summer flowers, green gardenia, jasmine and prominently tuberose, on anabolic steroids, akin to a 300-pound ballet dancer, or to stay in the Olympic frame of reference: what is this heavy weight boxer doing among 14-, er...16-year old slender-bodied gymnasts and why is she wearing mascara?
For all that initial power, nothing much happens here anymore. Sexuality? Ah, you know what happens to the libido with all those pharmaceuticals. No, there are no naughty indoles here at all, no lusty notes of groins in motion, no spice of life. It's all kept squeaky clean, a bird's nest filled with 10,000 white blossoms, smelling in unison. An impressive image, for a while, professionally executed, but whether that spells out beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To me it's a demonstration of power and skill, but it falls short on aesthetic daring. There is quality and abundance, but not enough soul or inventiveness. Thankfully we find that in other places. The true, undiluted spirit of sportsmanship can be observed, e.g. among players of Tipp-Kick, undisturbed by political functionaries, corporation cash or the need to dope.

hidden cost(e)s

Costes by Hotel Costes is a favorite perfume of mine. As a fragrance bearing the name of a luxurious design-hotel, its aesthetic is not based on irritation or challenging conventions, but on conveying the sheer comfort and unrestrained pleasure of a hedonistic weekend in Paris.

Olivia Giacobetti created a spicy-sweet incense, with a slightly soapy and floral heart that avoids the ecclesiastical starkness of Comme des Garcon's Avignon, the olfactory antics of Etro's Messe de Minuit and the sartorial demands (Savile Row suit) of Czech & Speake's Frankincense & Myrrh, each a unique and brilliant variation on the incense theme. With her accustomed sleight of hand she managed to bottle a message of carefree leisure and casual luxury that makes Costes a joy to wear.

We can rest assured that Olivia G., though a hired hand of foreign extraction, was compensated handsomely for her labor of luxury. The same did not apply to a group of illegal immigrants working as cooks and kitchen helpers at one of the stylish eateries of the Costes group, the brasserie La Grande Armée. Working with forged papers, of which their employer was fully aware, and paying full taxes while denied equal pay and the benefits of the French social system, nine Africans decided they had had enough and occupied the restaurant on Valentine's day this year, demanding to be legalized before they would return to kitchen duty. They embody the economic logic of Paris gastronomy, where 60% of employees are without legal papers, increasing profits for operators and revealing to what extent high living standards and high life are intertwined with systematic exploitation in the heart of Europe. Supported by the French union CGT, seven of the rebels succeeded in their struggle, but there is little doubt that things will remain unchanged for many invisible cooks, maids, and other service personell at the Hotel Costes and elsewhere.

It has just become a little bit harder to suspend disbelief and plunge into Giacobetti's cozy fantasy. Somewhere beneath the incense lurks an off-note of hypocrisy and injustice.

perfume, politics, and everything else?

a blog, if it is to be more than a collection of personal expressions, requires a thematic anchor, and this blog's anchor is perfume, something i am very interested in and spend far too much money on :-). but a blog is also a flexible means of publicly expressing one's views (if anyone is listening - question: do blogs exist, if nobody reads them :-) ?). so why not also talk about matters of possible public interest, the political, when the opportunity arises? perhaps even linking them to perfume in some material or allegorical way or another. and, ocassionally, everything else, i.e. my personal interests and reflections beyond perfume (yes, they exist). whether this will come to anything remains to be seen, but for now: the doors are open, welcome.