JUS perfume interview
Your name – Alex Musgrave
Your work – Business Manager & Fragrance Consultant, Penhaligon’s Edinburgh
- What first attracted you to the world of perfume / scent / fragrance?
I have always had an affinity with fine fragrance, an obsession with how skin smells when mixed with elixirs, oils and extracts. Our sense of smell is plugged directly into the limbic system of our brain, the part responsible for emotion. This means its effect on us can be devastating. Love, desire, hate. Sex, control, pornography, tears, memory, future past and present. All can be tripped by carefully blended symphonies of florals, woods, musks, resins, amber, gorgeous synthetics. This swirling display of aroma magic has always fascinated me. A lot of it is really to do with sex and sensuality I guess, how our skins smell close up, how other people’s skin smells, how we want to smell, how we project our desires and ourselves through space with scent. It is animalic and endlessly beautiful. Working at Penhaligon’s I get to work with different levels of fragrance; development, marketing, selling, talking scent and finding something special for people to wear. I get to wear amazing fragrances every day and immerse myself in a weird, obsessive, ruthless and often blatantly commercial world. I like the clash of vulgarity and beauty, artisanal and mass produced. High street and niche. Each has need of the other. The mirror needs a reflection. Too much niche and luxury is suffocating and soon satiates and bores. Too much street rots the soul and dulls the senses. A balance is needed. Some Rachmaninov and Satie alongside Chase & Status and Beyoncé. Everyone needs to trash it up from time to time.
- What perfume would you rescue from your collection if an evil perfume tax collector came round and said he was going to take every scent but one?
If I had to choose just the one, it would have to be myTabac Blond in the perfume extract concentration, a viscous film noir scent that reeks of bitter leather and sweet tobacco rolled across the softest of thighs. My god it’s divine stuff, like dying at the hands of a beautiful gunman in a shadow-drenched room. He’d have the cruelest lips and kiss away your tears before killing you. There are two beautiful ways a heart can shatter: Love or bullet. Caron created one of the greatest fragrances in history, a love letter to rule-breaking girls who dared to party, smoke and sexually provoke their peers. But there is darkness too, the smoke curling from the gun, a reminder of mortality. I’ve said this before in reviews, but Rachel from Bladerunner would reek of this, aloof in her fur, cigarette smoke wreathed around her, denying her cyborg soul, living every minute as if it were her very last. This is Tabac Blond.
- If you won the lottery, what would be the first perfume in your shopping bag?
Hmm. Tough call actually. Right now probably the exclusive extract version of Bottega Veneta’s new leather scent in the gorgeous limited edition Murano glass flacon. Or treat myself to a bespoke bell bottle from Serge Lutens Palais Royale salon in Paris filled with his extraordinary new scent De Profundis. Heaven on earth, with a touch of brimstone and candy….. A homage to hidden depths, decadence, Oscar Wilde and the deepest of dark loves.
- If you could only wear one scent for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Traversée de Bosphore by L’Artisan Parfumeur. Just the most arresting and beautiful rendition of rose and leather. Painted by Betrand Duchaufour, in-house genius at L’Artisan Parfumeur. It captures a fantasy day in Istanbul, apples, tulips, leather, musks, Turkish delight and that soft compulsive magic that Bertrand always brings to his olfactory work, a desire to be inside the scent, living the intricate play of accords and themes. I just adore it. It works beautifully on my skin, from the wonderful tumble of green apples at the top to the billowing powder of the loukhoum and musk in the base. An ode to memory and lost time, it meanders across the skin like a dream. I have never experienced anything like it. It just stole me away.
- What is a smell, or combination of smells, you wish was a perfume that you’ve never come across in any bottle before?
I love the blotted monsoon scent of Parker ink. That combined with freshly dried paper and Madagascan bourbon vanilla, almond milk and a synthetic ‘frozen’ snow note would be the starting point of something for me. A portrait in scent of an isolated writer, wrapped in snow, surrounded by pages of clean, handmade paper, searching for words to lay down, ink dripping from pen to pristine frozen page.
- Can you describe a moment of passion or poignancy in your life linked to a scent?
Someone I knew died far too young and I could smell his woody-spiced forest smoke cologne in the air at odd times as if he were walking past suddenly. It was painful and disconcerting. I would scan the street for his face. Every memory of him would rush back. Just too painful for words.
- What is your earliest memory of perfume?
That is very hard to answer. Probably associated with my mother. Dabbing on Opium from her beautiful inro style bottle and realising the potential of transformation. That there were things out there that could make your skin smell like art.
- Is there a perfume you wore in the past that you no longer wear, and why?
Quiet a few actually. Tastes shift and change. I have outgrown scents. There are memories attached to others. Some fragrances are too precious to return to, they are best left untouched in the past like dragonflies in amber. Bulgari Black was something I wore obsessively for years, craving the alien vanillic rubber burn of its linear weirdness. Then one day, nothing, the love was gone. It is still an astonishing scent, one of the best ever created, but I stopped caring. I had to adjust for a while, wondering how I might feel, removing it from my routine. I had plenty of other scents, and I quickly adapted. But I never really knew why. I still pick it up, sniff, hesitate, smile at a sudden memory and place it back down again slowly.
- Is there a particular figure or house in the world of perfume that you admire, and why?
For me there are three very important noses: Bertrand Duchaufour, Olivia Giacobetti and Germaine Cellier.
Bertrand works in-house for L’Artisan Parfumeur and has also worked for Commes des Garcons, Penhaligon’s, Eau d’Italie, and Frapin among others. His work is consistently artistic and ruthlessly beautiful, whether he is re-imagining the tuberose as a luminous Parisian lover, setting fire to the night (LAP’s Nuit de Tubéruese), creating an earthy garden on volcanic slopes with shaded terraces and terracotta tiles (Eau D’Italie’s Jardin du Poète), or a dangerous ignition of dormant plantation desires (Penhaligon’s Amaranthine). His oeuvre is littered with shards of genius. Everything is thought provoking, artistic and moody, designed with intent to enthrall and charm.
Olivia’s work is more transparent, more shaded. She offers up her work like prayers to the gods above. Her work with incense has produced beautiful things…. Passage d’Enfer for L’Artisan Parfumeur, Hiris for Hermès, Idole for Lubin and Elixir for Penhaligon’s. Her Premier Figiuer for L’Artisan Parfumuer is still the benchmark all fig scents are measured by. It is a portrait of a uniquely Mediterranean tree, oozing fruit, sap, leaves spreading in the warm sun. Her best I think is En Passant for Editions Fréderick Malle, almost unbearably poignant, bowed heads of lilac, shaking off light spring showers. Her recent playfulness with carrot, coconut, pastries, rubber etc with her witty Honoré des Prés organic line has shown how unique Olivia is in terms of her perfume making and her ambitions for our skins.
Germaine Cellier (1909 – 1976) has to be mentioned as she arguably altered the way we viewed and wore fragrance with the creation of Vent Vert for Balmain and Bandit (1944) and Fracas (1948) for Robert Piguet, two of the most shocking and outrageous scents ever unleashed on skin. Mannequins sported leather masks and brandished guns and knives as Bandit launched. The massive rush of sexuality could hardly have been ignored. Women must have wondered if it was actually decent to wear in public.
Bandit was filthy and dangerous. Its dark beauty and arresting edge was due to a tidal wave of isobutyl quinolone, which whipped the floral notes into a brutish animalic frenzy. Fracas is a legendary tuberose, lush and buttery, a lavish and disturbing floral with a beating sense of perfect carnality. Sadly the versions around today are mere shadows of their colossal forebears, Cellier was renowned for using pre-mixed ‘bases’, the ingredients of which were closely guarded secrets. Cellier understood perfectly what women (and some daring men….) wanted from fragrance; movement and luminosity, depth and above all, sensuality. Her legacy is extraordinary, as a perfumer and a woman at at time when men dominated the industry.
- Is there any art (literature, poetry, theatre, visual art, music, etc) that you have experienced that uses scent in a provocative or beautiful way? If not, can you think of an idea for scent in art?
The use of fragrance in art is rare. An image that has always stayed with me is from Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. The newly married (and nameless) Mrs De Winter is continually reminded of the presence of Rebecca, the former wife of her new husband. She seems to be going mad from the strain of it. The jealously, the gossip, the silences, the secrets and even the scent of it. In a disturbing scene the obsessive housekeeper Mrs Danvers lays out a black velvet dress that once belonged to Rebecca, telling the new Mrs De Winter to touch it, smell it, telling her she can still smell Rebecca’s perfume on the fabric. This use of scent as ghost, as memento mori is very powerful and plays tricks on the subconscious, reminding us how strong an influence perfume can have over our emotional memories.
I have an idea for a short play called The Death of Mr Harlow. The MGM producer Paul Bern was famously married to the Platinum Bombshell, Jean Harlow. He was desperately unhappy. Two months into their marriage he doused himself in a whole bottle of Mitsouko, Harlow’s trademark perfume and shot himself in the head. His suicide note read:
‘Dearest Dear, Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I love you,
You understand that last night was only a comedy’.
In Bunel’s sexual masterpiece of chilled erotic cinema, Belle de Jour, the bored Sévérine, played with glacial finality by Catherine Deneuve hurls a bottle of Mitsouko to the floor during a fit of rage. An image of decadent wastage and liberation. The frozen maiden thaws and reacts with scented violence. Wonderful.
Sex, obsession, cinema, art and death. What more could you want from perfume?