Today's guest post is from Persolaise, the author of the Le Snob - Perfume guide, published by Hardie Grant. He is also the editor of the Persolaise blog, as well as a regular contributor to Basenotes. He has won three UK Jasmine Awards, most recently for Guardians Of The Past - A Trip To The Osmotheque. He attended the press launch of Hermès Le Jardin de Monsieur Li in February (and you can find his review of the fragrance here).
There was no escape. From across the other side of the room, an actress clad in black caught your eye. She strode across to you, her gaze locked on yours, her head fixed in that infuriatingly perfect immobility which only dancers and stage performers seem to be able to pull off. Then, when she was a few paces away, you noticed she was holding a long, narrow tube. With smooth movements, she raised it and brought one end close to one of your ears. The other end neared her mouth. And then she whispered, slowly, breathily, pausing after each word. "What is difficult... is to be open... to the open... in the open." She searched your face for a reaction, but you didn't have the heart to tell her that you found all of this rather peculiar. So she gave you an enigmatic smile and wandered off, probably to look for another unsuspecting ear.
The setting for this bizarre exchange was the pagoda on Paris' Rue De Courcelles, the venue chosen by Hermès for the launch of Le Jardin De Monsieur Li. As is often the case, the ‘interactive artwork’ wasn’t as thought-provoking as the sight of other people’s reactions to it. The British contingent decided it was all rather pretentious, pseudo-intellectual nonsense. The French couldn't get enough of the stuff, plunging into euphoric shivers with each conundrum that was transmitted to them via the tubes. And the Spaniards... well, they seemed to be more taken with the interior decor, gasping at the lacquered walls, apparently oblivious to the Brechtian dramas unfolding around them.
As if the tube poetry weren't enough, Hermès had arranged for all sorts of curious happenings to take place within the pagoda. There was the meditation pool, where touching one of several stones caused deep, bassy thrums to fill the air and send ripples through the water. There was an array of living walls, bearing some of the materials to be found in the new perfume. There was a kimono-wearing lady, standing on a balcony, braving the Parisian winter whilst trimming a hapless bonsai. There was even a tai-chi session. But perhaps the most memorable space was the calligraphy room, covered from top to bottom in Chinese characters and occupied by two musicians playing a collection of extraordinary instruments.
Wandering from one installation to the next, the first thought I had was that very little of what I was seeing seemed to be in keeping with the understated nature of the Monsieur Li scent. And the second was that our time would have been better spent chatting with the man who had created it: perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena. He's certainly a fascinating conversationalist. Journalists who write for mainstream publications tend to find him rather frustrating, because he refuses to speak in soundbites. He certainly does talk — at great length, in fact — but he goes off on tangents. He jumps from one anecdote to the next. He expresses himself in great detail. And he communicates with his whole body. He chuckles constantly. He raises his eyebrows. He pulls faces of disgust or astonishment or enjoyment. He always has a twinkle in his eye. In short, he's something of a nightmare for editors.
Thankfully, here in the blogosphere, there's plenty of space to allow the entirety of his personality to be displayed, which may be part of the reason he's such a supporter of web-based perfume writing. So when we were finally permitted some time in his presence, I tried to ensure that the questions I posed would prompt him to let loose with his characteristically serpentine discourses. I'm pleased to say he didn't disappoint.
One of my fellow writers opened the conversation by asking how the Jardins series came about in the first place.
"That's an easy one to answer," he said immediately. "It happened by chance. And the chance led to two things. I did Jardin En Méditerranée and it's thanks to that, that I came into Hermès. Initially, that Jardin was meant to be sold only for one year. But its success was such that six months later, it was kept. I met Jean-Louis Dumas [then the chairman of the Hermès group], and he wasn't very happy with the way perfumes were developing at Hermès. So we had a discussion and he found me clever. That's the word he used. 'Malin'. And he asked Véronique Gautier, who was heading the perfumes at that time, to see whether they could do something with me. They discussed for over one year whether I would come to Hermès or not. And I accepted to start at Hermès on two conditions. The first one was: no market testing. And the second one was: the final decisions were to be made by the head of perfumes and the perfumer. That's how it's been since the beginning. And the moment I joined Hermès, they said, 'We're going to do another Jardin.'
"When I was making Jardin En Méditerranée, Hermès obliged me to go to Leila Menchari’s [a design director at Hermès] garden. At first, I said to Véronique, 'Just describe the garden to me. I have enough imagination to design the perfume.' But Jean-Louis Dumas and Véronique said, 'No, no, no, you must go to Leila's garden.' So I went to it and I was able to think about it on the spot. I stayed there for three days. I went back to my lab. I created the perfume in three days.
"Since that time, the way to approach the Jardins has always been the same. We choose a place. I go there. And I have to find the idea on the spot. It's not so easy. But with this Jardin, something was different. Something changed. Suddenly, this is a garden of Monsieur Li. That means I've introduced someone. By doing that, for me, it's like doing the beginning of a new chapter. Maybe next time, I could make a Jardin for Miss Someone or Madame or whatever. For a laugh, I say that the next one will be the Jardin of Miss Marple. That's quite exciting. I can introduce someone who's fake or real. Monsieur Li is purely from my own imagination. I made the perfume and the story for it."
At this point, you could feel some of the other journalists in the room growing restless. The clock was ticking and the words in the three paras above had taken Ellena almost ten minutes to deliver, chiefly because they were punctuated with his incessant, nearly-naughty chuckle. Apparently unaware of the tension, he let out another burst of laughter when he heard the next question, about whether his style has changed since the first Jardin.
"Well, maybe in Monsieur Li we have a more abstract approach to perfumery than in Jardin En Méditerranée. Maybe that's the difference. But that doesn't mean that the next one will be more abstract. I don't know. This one is abstract because the character is imaginary and because of the character of the place, because it has rocks, water, not a lot of vegetation. If you want to smell peonies or chrysanthemums, you find them in the Imperial gardens, not in gardens like Monsieur Li's. They like to show peonies, because in China, they represent longevity. Chrysanthemums represent power. But chrysanthemums don't work in the west, because their name is linked with death and All Saint's Day. They have a lovely fragrance, but if I said they were in a perfume, I would be killing it."
When asked if he's writing more these days — at Hermès boutiques, Monsieur Li can be purchased with an accompanying short story penned by Ellena — he grew pensive for a few moments.
"There are two things," he said. "Firstly, writing helps me to understand what I'm doing, take the necessary distance and put things in perspective. The second thing is that allows me to 'carry' the perfume. I like the idea that I can give you a story and then you can smell the perfume. I try to take you by the hand; no more than that. The advertising discourse that I see in perfumery is very poor. It's even poorer when you use a face. You look at it and you say, 'Okay. So what?' It's a bit brief. I don't want to use a perfume so that I can look like Kate Moss or somebody else."
The most succinct answer he gave was in response to the most direct question: now that he was facing a possible departure from Hermès, might he start making perfumes for other brands again?
"No, I don't think so. I can tell you that a lot of people have asked me already. I take that as an honour. It's kind."
His face lit up when the name of his successor, Christine Nagel, was mentioned. How would he describe her style?
"What I like in her approach to perfume is that it's more carnal, more sensual. That doesn't mean that what I do isn't sensual. My perfumes are sensual like the women of Hitchcock. More blond. I love Kim Novak. I can watch the same Kim Novak movie several times. And Grace Kelly too. There's an extraordinary scene in Rear Window where she leans over James Stewart and kisses him. But if you watch it carefully — because it must be watched carefully — James Stewart isn't there. She actually kisses the camera. You get the impression of being kissed yourself. That's very powerful. All the men watching the movie are being kissed at the same time. But anyway... Christine's perfumes are joyful, exuberant, full of fantasy. I'm more rational, reflective, intellectual. She's more Monica Bellucci. But when she and I discuss perfumes together, we ask the same questions. The way we structure our minds is exactly the same. The result will be different, but I don't see a difference between a male and a female mind."
The topic of style prompted one of the writers to ask how Ellena ensures that his work fits within the aesthetic codes of his employer.
"At Hermès, the artists and the artisans meet, in meetings rooms and in canteens. We have an exchange. It's informal, it's not organised. There's also a system called the Podium. That's when all the artists and artisans present their collections, twice a year. So I'm the first to see what the others have done, and they're the first to see what I have done. And the final important factor is the Artistic Director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas. He looks at all the projects which are being developed at Hermès and he has the power to say No. He doesn't say, 'I want this or I want that.' That happens at department level. But he has the power to say No. That's an absolute power. He's like a limit. That limit represents the spirit of Hermès. And I think that's good."
Just as we were about to be ushered away, someone asked Ellena if he ever dreams about perfume. Needless to say, his initial reaction was to laugh. "Yes," he said, "that happens, but it's not good. When I dream about perfumes or smells, that means I'm depressed. It means I'm working too much. It's a sign saying, 'Slow down!' It's time to stop."
And that, appropriately enough, was when we had to make an exit, away from Ellena's mischievous grin, away from the lady still hacking away at the bonsai and away from the music piping out of the calligraphy room. But before we left, I'm sure I caught sight of one of the journalists being cornered by a figure in black bearing a rather long tube.
Note: top two images of Jean-Claude Ellena appear courtesy of Hermès. All other photographs are courtesy of Persolaise.