2014 marks Jean-Claude Ellena’s 10th year as in-house perfumer at Hermès as well as his departure from the house. His final perfume for Hermès is Cuir d’Ange, released as a part of the Hermessence line that he created soon after his arrival to Hermès. Hermès was one of the first French luxury house to create a luxe-plus, high-cost line. Dior launched their Collection Privé the same year. Chanel followed with Les Exclusifs in 2007. Cartier released Les Heures in 2009.
The luxury on steroids bandwagon was the result of a number of tendencies in the perfume market but had one common goal: profit. The trends driving the escalation included the perfumer-as-artiste movement, a desire to reclaim the distinction that niche brands had stolen and demands for market growth. Each house sold the premise differently. Chanel touted its heritage. Guerlain used misdirection, rereleasing poorly selling perfumes in new bottles at high mark-up in line after line, from l’Art et la Matière and les Parisiènnes to Les Elixirs Charnels and the City Lines. The ongoing question is, how are the perfumes in the exclusive lines any more valuable than their less expensive counterparts? Luxury houses have long espoused convoluted and esoteric equations of worth to sell us their wares. The bottom line was: they created and maintained markets for ever more costly perfumes.
Rather than commissioning hired guns to produce a perfume at a time, Hermès had a more ambitious plan and brought in Ellena to reinvent Hermès’s perfumery starting with the creation of the Jardins series and the Hermessence line. It is valid to be skeptical of the charm of a contemporary luxury goods producer. The avarice of multinational corporations filtered through the haughtiness of top-tier tastemakers calls for suspicion at a minumum. Still, Hermès’s renovation was well considered and transparent, something refreshing in Fashion.
Ellena was the ideal choice. He had a proven track record of success with designer houses (Van Cleef and Arpels, Bvlgari and Cartier) and played a large part in defining niche perfumery with his work for l’Artisan Parfumeur, The Different Company, Amouage and Frédéric Malle. He had an enviable lineage, apprenticing in Grasse, studying at the new perfume school at Givaudan in the 1970s, following in the lineage of Edmond Roudnitska and being a founding member of l'Osmothèque. He brought expertise, talent, a proven track record and, importantly for a house whose currency is status and standing, prestige. The position offered Ellena the possibility to play a critical part in shaping the state of the art of contemporary perfumery and pursuing a vision. It was a rare opportunity for a perfumer. It was a match made in heaven.
But was it also a deal with the devil?
Ellena’s body of work for Hermès defines the states of art and elegance. But it could be argued that Hermès’s explicit focus on finery, exclusivity and branding were a set of golden handcuffs for Ellena. Ellena’s minimalism and Hermès’s refinement might seem like a perfect match at a glance, but the incongruity is implicit. The company’s pristine objets are impeccable, but conceptually fussy. They stem from the decorative arts, but serve as dull finery and symbols of bourgeois prestige. Ellena’s minimalism is deliberate and rigorous, not a superficial style. His work is the result of years of contemplation and effort on the nature of perfumery. In a line of work where chasing the next brief defines long-term planning, Ellena’s body of work demonstrates a coherent vocabulary and philosophy.
So is Ellena’s work for Hermès restrained or constrained? The brand’s sheer, radiant perfumes with their controlled range of dynamics are thoughtful successors to perfumes like Bvlgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert (1992) and Osmanthus (2001) for the Different Company. But this is also the perfumer who made highly orchestrated perfumes such as Van Cleef and Arpels First (1976), l’Artisan Parfumeur l'Eau du Navigateur (1982), Rumba (1988) for Balenciaga and Amouage Dia (2002). Was this side of his work set aside during his tenure at Hermès? Will Jean-Claude Ellena step out of his rue du Faubourg St. Honore closet and live large starting in 2015?
Only the future will tell, but Cuir d’Ange provides an enticing hint.
Cuir d’Ange takes a full step away from the tone of Ellena’s prior work for Hermès. It is as composed and edited as the others in the Hermessense line, but it is far more lyrical. Where the majority of the Hermessence line are defined by a dispassionate understatement, Cuir d’Ange has an expansiveness, a brio that is almost startling. Ellena is known for having fine-tuned the narrowly evolving, quietly radiant perfume while at Hermès. He made perfumes that were not static but were largely linear. Cuir d’Ange has sweeping topnotes and a range of dynamics that are akin to those in Calèche, a perfume made by Guy Robert for Hermès in 1961. Cuir d’Ange simultaneously fits the brand’s legacy and Ellena’s oeuvre like no other perfume he’s made for the marque. It has a foot in the past and reaches into the future without sentimentality or contrivance.
(The relation of Cuir d’Ange and Caleche is conjecture, but it isn’t without precedent. Ellena’s Dia for Amouage was a response to Robert’s Amouage Gold , the perfume that launched the Amouage line.)
Cuir d’Ange is a floral-leather, a category that existed before Hermès produced its first perfume. The nod to historical genre tells me that Ellena intends to work with, if not within, tradition. The specific floral quality of the perfume is unexpected. It is bitter and dusty with an herbal, soapy quality reminiscent of Ivoire de Balmain. The scent is strong and specific yet detached. Cuir d'Ange smells more specifically like suede than most leather perfumes, but suggests that the scent comes from objects in a nearby room. Despite the olfactory realism the perfume is abstract and it defeats the expectation of how a leather perfume should play out. It’s neither smokey nor woody and it never warms or sweetens. It becomes hushed over time, but stays soapy and cool, hovering just off the skin without ever becoming a ‘skin scent’ as most leather perfumes do.
Ellena’s work is both literate and legible. He uses a systematic and ordered approach to make expressive if subtle perfumes. His perfumes reveal a coherent aesthetic that can be read. He has both a sense of history and an intimate knowledge of the most recent innovations in perfumery. He is poised to leave Hermès into a wide open future and I’m keen to see what he’ll choose to do next.