Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Burr-y the Hatchet: part 2

We continue our interview with writer and perfume critic of The New York Times, Chandler Burr. For part 1, click here.


PLEASE NOTE: unauthorised copying of excerpts of the book constitutes copyright infringement. Mr.Burr personally gave us express permission to reprint those for this venue only.

PS: Chandler, for your new book “The Perfect Scent” you followed two different paths: the path of the celebrity scent (for Sarah Jessica Parker for Coty) and the path of the perfumer’s vision for a high-end brand (Jean Claude Ellena for Hermès).
Which one was more fun and which was more challenging, journalistically speaking?

CB: They were as completely different experiences as they could be and still be, in both cases, spending a year inside a perfume making process. Ellena’s story I tell from the perfumer’s perspective, Sarah Jessica’s from that of the creative director, so there you have a fundamental difference. The only time I spent with Laurent and Clément, her perfumers, was when they were with her. I’m going to let the book speak on this one; decide for yourself which you think was more interesting. I’ve already heard vastly different opinions.

PS: How viable are celebrity scents in your own opinion. Most are bought by fans who want to emulate their idol and are consquently frowned upon by perfume lovers who refuse sometimes to even try them out! However in my personal opinion there is no blanket description: some are good (like Lovely), some are horrible. Why is this, in your opinion and experience getting to know the process of creating one?

CB: I agree completely. Hilary Duff is a very good perfume. So is Midnight Fantasy. The Kimora Lee Simmons Goddess is beyond-belief bad. I do think celebrity perfumes are still viable and will remain so because they’re simply such a good, effective way for famous people to monetize their pure celebrity. There simply is no better mechanism by which to do this.

PS: Jean Claude Ellena is the darling of the internet-reading perfumephile. I am a fan of his perfumes as well. However, theres is the impression that what with his numerous interviews and constant media exposure and his habit of showing his “tricks” of expertise to awe-stricken journalists that he has become a bit of the latest conjurer: to be admired for what he hides in his sleeves rather than what he genuinely reveals. Did you find that this is true, while following his work for “The Perfect Scent”?

CB: Um…no, absolutely not, but I suppose I hesitate only in that I do realize why people can have that impression of him. My year with him—and this is a categoric statement—showed me how extremely talented he is. He is not super-human. No one is. He has limits. He has an immense ego as well, which in my view is his only serious character flaw (I generally find him a delightful guy). I think Terre d'Hermès is excellent as masculines go but overpraised. I think Jean-Claude’s Achilles heel is persistence on skin. And he has said to me quite openly several times that every perfumer owns strengths, and he plays to them.

But to give you a taste of what I say in "The Perfect Scent" about this question:

"The announcement of Ellena’s appointment was made by Hermès on May 5, 2004, to go into effect June 7. Everyone in Paris had a comment (New York noted it and went back to its business lunches), though since it was Paris all the comments were off the record and many were tinged, overtly or not, with venom. “It’s excellent to take Jean-Claude,” said one young perfumer, who cleared his throat, squinted at the sky, and added primly, “I’m almost jealous.”They were openly admiring (“They couldn’t do better than Jean-Claude,” the perfumer Calice Becker said, “an excellent perfumer passionate about his métier and uncompromising on materials”). They were acid (“How nice that Jean-Claude will get to do even more of his favorite thing: talking to reporters”). They were envious (“Can you imagine the freedom?”). They were thoughtful, analytical(“Jean-Louis was very smart about this, and you watch, they’re going to start increasing market share”)….The industry discussed his putative salary in the way the French always discuss salaries: as if the KGB were listening….
Ellena? He was a star, like Jacques Cavallier (the lovely Chic, the monster hit L’Eau d’Issey, the monster miss but utterly brilliant Le Feu d’Issey). Or Kurkdjian (Armani Mania, Le Male). Or Becker (J’adore, Beyond Paradise). And he had a star’s usual partisans and critics and detractors. All this was intensified with Ellena because he was a darling of the media, with whom he was famous for having a discours de parfum. Reporters could talk to him. He could talk back. To the degree to which this was rare, in part it was the perfumers, who were not groomed for microphones, and in part the paranoid, control-freak designers, whose dogma was maintaining the official fiction that they created their own scents. They liked perfumers to be kept in cages in dark rooms. This was why some perfumers liked the fact that Ellena spoke.
Naturally there was also bitter commentary—vindictive jealousy is, like beurre blanc, a French speciality—usually punctuated, after a careful glance over the shoulder, with the stab of a hot cigarette. “I don’t think he’s the best perfumer in the world,” said a competitor, “but he’s one who has a thinking about perfumery. He presents himself as the heir of Edmond Roudnitska.”…There was derision. “I don’t have a big appreciation for him actually,” the creator of several legendary perfumes sniffed. “His behavior is not greatly appreciated by many people.” His behavior? “Ellena has a good reputation with important people but not with people in the perfume industry. He’s a version of a celebrity chef, a media whore, which everyone tries to become today because the world is now based on the media whereas autrefois the perfumer simply focused on his work and le plan creatif.” “I won’t discuss Ellena,” one dowagerof the French industry and creator of several classic perfumes sniffed. “He’s a showman.” But others took a more philosophical approach. “Grasse is a complicated tribe,” said a middle-aged perfumer. “There’s a real mafia grassoise…. Grasse is a tiny little town, and the kids leave for Paris to seek their fortunes. Jean-Claude is grassois, and so they all know him, and when you understand that, you understand everything.
Jean-Claude knows how to talk about perfume, and the press is desperate for that, and I’m sorry, but if other perfumers are jealous it’s because very few perfumers can talk about perfume. ‘I put jasmine in rose.’Well, OK, so what the fuck does that mean. Nothing! And someone comes and explains it, and suddenly he’s a media whore? Please.”

PS: Ellena also frequently talks about not having to conform to marketing briefs and target groups’ opinion. Does he really have free reign at Hermès? I have read in his self-authored books that he deems the 2-3% share he garners satisfactory. In a market in which perfume generates lots of revenue for big luxury houses as the most accessible of their products to the middle-class is that doable?

CB: I will simply say on this question that from everything I’ve seen, Ellena truly has a huge amount—not by any means complete, but a huge amount—of creative control at Hermès. He creates according to concepts sometimes (Un Jardin sur le Nil, for example), but never briefs in the sense of conceptual blueprints created by other people that he must then build with molecules. That work, for him, is finished.

PS: One criticism that has been directed at Jean Claude Ellena is that he has completely altered the scent profile of the Hermès fragrance stable: his spartan style that exudes a vibe of sparsity, although undeniably chic contradicts the image of Hermès as smelling “rich”. Contrasting previous fragrances of the house, like Rouge or 24 Faubourg -which are easily imagined on a lady wearing furs (parfums fourrure) - with his own creations like Un Jardin sur le Nil or Terre d’Hermès one notices a stark difference. The newer ones, even the Hermessences don’t smell as pampered and luxe. I realise that this is his conviction of how perfumery should be done (not catering to a bourgeois sensibility), but did he shed any other insights into this?

CB: I’m actually going to leave this one for the book as well, not only to make you read the book but, frankly, because he never gave me a specific answer to this, but I think you’ll find that my year with him, taken as a whole, absolutely provides, in the end, an answer. I know the criticisms of course; part of my response is Ambre Narguilé, simply enough, which to my mind (and Jean-Claude’s) is the way rich luxury must evolve in the 21st century, an absolutely stunning piece of perfumery on every level. But I think Kelly Calèche is a masterpiece because it is 100% Ellena’s contemporary, forward-edge, intellectual presentation, 100% Hermès, and 100% luxury. Not Louis Vuitton purse luxury—beautiful, refined, purified luxury.

PS: I have been saying this last bit ever since it launched! LOL
On that note of luxury: I was reading a very intriguing article in Fortune lately, which focused on the new McLuxury scenario. Namely that upscale houses and designers are experiencing a democratization of their product both in terms of aimed audience and in their brand becoming more accessible. We have the examples of Stella Mc Cartney and Karl Lagerfeld designing for H&M for example or the case study of Coach who aimed at a lower price point from the start.

CB: Yes, Dana Thomas just wrote an entire book about this, "Deluxe".

PS: Right! In perfume, there are two distinct paths: that of masstige (perfumes circulating on the mainstream circuit posing as something more upscale than they are) and that of high-browed exclusivity trying to reposition a brand into higher planes in an effort to ante up the cachet which will perversely help boost sales of their lower end products! (Case of Les Exclusifs at Chanel, Hermessences, Armani Privé, Dior Collection etc.) What’s your take on this issue?

CB: I’m not sure if I’m more or less cynical than Dana. It is just so obvious to me that “luxury goods” are 90% image and 10% substance. Jacques Polge’s Chanel No 18 is an astonishing perfume, but you’re paying a huge premium for the word “Chanel”—compare it to Juicy Couture, which is a similar approach by Harry Frémont. Chanel No 18 and Juicy Couture have an identical aesthetic approach: both are machines built of glass and meant to be filled with light. They have different scents, but stylistically they are in the same category.

OK, so we have to pay a premium for luxury—big surprise. So I think you perfectly characterize the commercial purpose of Les Exclusifs and the others you mention. And at the same time, they just are, generally speaking, superior perfumes. Would I pay that premium? Yes, for some of them, not for others. But the fact that they have a commercial purpose as well as an aesthetic purpose—a dirty and a pure both—bothers me not in the slightest. This is the way the game is played. Art and commerce have never been separate. And when they have, the art has often been crap. I suppose the trick is simply in knowing what’s going on in front of you—then taking what you like.

PS: Thank you Chandler for what has been a trully fascinating perspective.

CB: And thank you for allowing me to answer these questions.

Pics of Lovely and Hermes ads from okadi. Pic of Jean Claude Ellena courtesy of the LA Times.


  1. Anonymous11:46

    Even more interesting than yesterday. I think the standards of journalism can be blamed for JCE's overexposed olfactory 'tricks' rather than JCE himself. It's not necessarily his fault if the media tend to shine the light on an individual rather than a cohort of equally talented individuals.

    Burr writes a lot about how JCE's work is maximalist minimalism - a LOT of work goes in, particularly at the level of molecular refinement, to the construction of each scent, even if the end result seems very simple.

    Also, he writes about the clear line between pre- and post-JCE Hermes scents. Hermes felt like they were missing a trick with perfume - unlike other luxury brands, they were failing miserably in this market. And it's clearly a highly profitable market for luxury brands, whatever that means nowadays... (as you write above!) Although their scents were widely respected, they just didn't sell (except to us - a coterie of perfume nuts - it would seem). They wanted something new. And JCE, according to the book, distinguishes his work from that of previous generations - how he can smell the time period of any scent he's given, and whilst he may love them, they're more like artefacts than wearable scents. Thus, he believes his style is of the moment, a contemporary reconstruction of perfume for the 21st century. And that's why there's a clear line. The purity and refinement of Hermes, rather than the parfums fourrure qualities of the past...?

    It's all fascinating stuff, especially for people like me who are entirely conflicted over notions of luxury in the first place (frequently love the products, loathe the hierarchical divisiveness that often lies behind them). Thanks so much for this, E. And Chandler seems like a lovely guy, doesn't he?

  2. I certainly enjoyed these two interviews!

  3. Agree with Lee: Chandler seems very likeable.

    About the Ellena media-frenzy: as a former journalist, I must plead guilty. We do love a guy who is accessible, manifestly no slouch at what he does, and gives good copy. I used to call this "round up the usual suspects" when I was in my first, cultural mag in the 80s: we had a list of people who were "bons clients", "good customers", apt at the media game and with credibility. On our Rolodex (remember those?). Never looked much further: editors love the obvious, especially for something as "frivolous" as perfume, they don't ask us to dig up Roudnitska's lost archives, you know?

    I must admit I'm a little over-Ellena'd right now but that's also his PR office working overtime. They're right to expose him, from their point of view. They're the first to do it to that extent.
    I'd have more of a rant concerning his "Que Sais-je?" book, but we'll reserve that discussion for a forthcoming post, perhaps.

    Re: his nomination at Hermès, don't forget that the enigmatic and über-conceptual Martin Margiela was designing their women's ready-to-wear at the time -or had just left to be replaced by Jean-Paul Gaultier. So Hermès was clearly, with their designer choices, ready to think outside the "fur and pearls" box. JCE was an excellent choice.

    Now, because of Ellena's discourse and media presence, his "school" of thought definitely appears as the most influential. Other perfumers need to be "teased out" to formulate a different discourse. Chandler stated many reasons why they're kept under wraps. One of the reasons of their silence may just be that they express themselves with their scents and aren't so good with words. I've interviewed many an artist who wasn't the best person to emit theories about his/her process.
    Thank you again, E. and thanks to Chandler too.

  4. Thanks Lee.

    I loved the revelation of how the industry is thinking about such "moves" that are of course shifting the balance (ie. The Hermes commission).
    Hermes was the first traiditional big brand AFAIR to segregate distinctly between the limited distribution scents and the more widely spread ones, without making compromises on either! Thus they have a great portfolio that is to be admired: I don't think they have one bad perfume in their vaults...

    I am a JCE fan, therefore I can't think that he is really a cheapshot who wants merely to impress with his "tricks": I think that maybe the journalists like to present those "tricks" in more detail because it is quite impressive from the reader's standpoint who is fascinated that it is so simple. An analogy would be an adult who creates purple out of mixing red and blue in front of a child: the child is mesmerised as he/she can't understand who a third entity derives from the initial two.

    I do share his opinion that although some scents are clearly masterful and very artistic, they are pronouncedly of their own time and not relevant to today's sensibilities. I like to sniff those for myself from time to time and not necessarily wear them.

    I was surprised myself, Lee on the personality.

  5. Am I glad, dear Karin!

  6. D dear,

    point taken abou journalists and JCE, it stands to reason.
    Yes, he has been exposed a lot, but we have gained insights from it.
    I do hope we get more perfumers to open up!

    LOL, yes, commentary on his booklet will follow for sure!

    Re: Hermes luxury style. I applauded ther choice to move on from the "furs and pearls brigade", as in our times it has become dated and quite banal...
    We call those insist on such antiquated concepts of luxury here "vlaho-baroque" (and usually they're nouveau riche).
    A certain discretion and sparsness of style is the new luxury, as I pointed out in my article "What do the rich smell of?".

  7. Anonymous23:09

    Hi Helg,

    I enjoyed reading the whole interview.

    And my very favorite part was the line towards the very end of the interview:
    Per Mr. Burr.... **Art and commerce have never been separate. And when they have, the art has often been crap. I suppose the trick is simply in knowing what’s going on in front of you—then taking what you like.**

    :) Dawn

  8. Anonymous08:53

    This has been fascinating, Helg. Thanks to you and Mr. Burr. I enjoy his realistic attitude about the market. Like Dawn, I was tickled about his comment on what sometimes happens when art is divorced from commerce.

  9. Dawn, thank you. I appreciate your comment.
    The segregation between art and commerce has been an interesting discourse for a long time. Perhpas perfume especially has an intrinsic marketing value, being a product to be shared rather than an individual creation like a painting.

  10. You're very welcome, Maria. Glad you liked it.
    It is trully interesting to see the inside of how the market works and how decisions are made. It's sometimes trully surprising.

  11. Anonymous09:03

    Lovely interview, agree that the second half was more interesting. And you've gotten me interested in the new book - so much so that I preordered it. :)

  12. Dear Indie Tea, thank you for your kind words.
    I am sure that you will find many interesting things in the book as well.


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