Etat Libre d’Orange are known stylistically for their cheeky tone and snarky perfumes. As a brand, they poke a stick at contemporary notions of bland luxury. Branding tailors images to implant in the public mind and then builds a series of associations. But branding also takes into account the self-reference of the branded. We perfume consumers should be watchful and consider how a brand presents and refers to itself. ELDO’s motto, “Le parfum est mort. Vive le Parfum!” (Perfume is dead. Long live perfume!) tells you to expect irreverence and insouciance. ELDO’s topics, or so they tell us, are prostitution, intimate bodily fluids, Sex Pistols, carrion, cross-dressing, yadda, yadda... Depending on your perspective, you might find the brand anarchic or dilettante. My approach in considering their perfume is simply to disregard everything but the perfume and myself.
So in honor of Etat Libre’s revolutionary tone, I present my own motto for perfume criticism: “Fuck the PR. Smell the perfume!”
I should admit up front that I'm a great fan of many of ELDO’s perfumes, and think the house has a much better than average success for their perfumes. The most successful of their perfumes succeed for the fact that they are beautiful examples of classical genres of perfume. Jasmin et Cigarettes is a gorgeous, husky-voiced woody floral. Rien, a perfectly balanced stark leather. Vraie Blonde, a concise, inventive take on the floral oriental. Fat Electrician and Nombril Immense are clean and beautifully edited takes on the contemporary vetiver and patchouli. Afternoon of a Faun is one of the best nouvelles chypres.
ELDO posit themselves as very current, very contemporary, apart from the mainstream, and on promotional level they are. But their dirty little secret is that they are more traditional than they appear. I think they are neither misguided nor cynical. I simply find that their public representation underestimates the degree to which they are a part of an artistic tradition. ELDO remind me of the 1960s Catholic ‘folk mass.’ Post Vatican II, there was all sorts of fiddling with the window displays in the Catholic Church. This is the sort of redirection that ELDO do: change the set dressing a bit, leave the dogma in place.
Noel au Balcon is a wonderful example. It's sold as a cheeky near-gourmand perfume. It's presented as a considered offering to a thoughtless genre. Perhaps this angle might work on a perfume wearer who is young and ahistorical enough to see the contemporary gourmand genre as classical. I'm old enough to see Noel au Balcon for what it is: a traditional spicy oriental perfume in the grand manner. Resinous and rich, it's filled with vanilla, amber, benzoin, spices. Read any description of Tabu, Emeraude or Shalimar written before the era of the contemporary gourmand and what you’ll find could be a description of Noel au Balcon. The term oriental itself, when applied to perfume, is a throwback. It’s a vestige of the colonial exoticism of Western European of the early 20th century. 100 years ago ‘gourmand’ could just as easily have been the name for these perfumes. Instead, the marketing of the day keyed into the paternalist style of the racism of the era (Quel Exotique!) and promoted orientalism in perfumery.
So, if you’re an upstart line, and don’t want to be identified as making Shalimar for youngsters, what do you do? It’s telling that ELDO avoid the obvious choice in the first place: making an identifiably “modern” perfume. Image-manipulation is shown to be as important them them as it is to any mainstream perfumer. Making a wonderful, but quite conventional, in fact old-fashioned perfume, but selling it as ‘the new thing‘ rather than making a ‘contempo-gourmand’ in the first place exposes the real strategy and reveals the old boys at Etat Libre to be closet conservatives. They would rather change the marketing than change the perfume. I’ll repeat, because this is the critical point in seeing through ELDO’s smoke. It’s more important to make a beautiful perfume, following generations of trial to perfect the genre, than it is to make something new. Even within ELDO’s own line Noel seems staid. Compared to Like This, a more up-to-date gourmand that erases the line between sweet and savory in perfume, Noel might as well be a 40-year-old bottle of taboo.
Of course, ELDO would want to hide all this from you! It defeats the entire premise of, “le parfum est mort.” The key is then, how do you sell it? ELDO’s approach here is hardly new either: Titties. A clever turn of phrase (a full balcony in French refers to a hefty bosom) and surprisingly unclever image (just titties) are the red herring that keeps you from comparing Noel to Shalimar and helps you to swallow the fairy tale, to drink the kool-aid.
If you believe ELDO’s mission statement and anarchic posturing, then they have inadvertently done what Maison Francis Kurkdjian contrive to do, which is to create a traditional French perfume house from the ground up. I happen to think that ELDO, for all their niche-y posing, are simply an excellent perfume house.
I'm not saying fuck the brand. I'm saying fuck the branding. Ignore ELDO’s marketing, but smell their perfume. It’s wonderful.