Before the very moment of olfactory apprehension of a perfume, there are those important preceding instants where the perfume lover anticipates smelling the jus, dreams about it, fears disappointment, and finally lets the dices of fate roll by taking a stroll to the perfumery.
[...] On my way to Etat Libre d'Orange, I stop in front of the attractive window of a store called Les Mille Feuilles and lose myself in the contemplation of an array of whimsical objects. One item catches my attention: a bust of an 18th century-looking masculine figure with a feminine virginal narrow bejewelled crown on its head. It suddenly reminds me of a terrifying anecdote told to me by a friend whose grand-father had indulged in the heights of, seemingly, ancien régime libertine debauchery. Namely that the marquis' moral cruelty and esprit de libertinage had led him to spend his wedding night with revellers all the while dressed up in his new wife's bridal gown and virginal veil. To crown it all, the marquis' wife many years later ended up being institutionalized by the family......
What has this heart-sickening tale anything to do with Etat Libre d'Orange? It helps me better measure what a true libertin in the flesh is capable of doing when he wants to break loose with social rules and affirm a principle of "libre conduite" (free behavior). On my way to the new perfumery, this ambiguous bust evokes for me the transvestite marquis whose excesses seemed to belong to another age and by association evokes the figure that perhaps inspired him, the Marquis de Sade and then by extension, Etat Libre d'Orange. I realize that not knowing what exactly Etat Libre d'Orange is about, I imagine it to be potentially an olfactory pamphlet against bourgeois moralistic values. It remains to be seen how this program translates into perfumes as these are usually used in society to cultivate memory rather than newness, evoke the de facto conservative atmospheres of our childhoods rather than those of revolutions (granted, there were perfumes made during the French revolution.) In a way, we love perfumes because we love the past.
The store is a bit in the recesses of the Marais and one has to walk down the rue des Archives to the point where one gets a bit impatient at its unending length. The store however is very conveniently located at 69, rue des Archives. The naughty reference was reportedly purely serendipitous.
The store opens late in the day and closes late. This seems to be coherent with the view that what the perfumes talk about should be practised a great part of the night and day, leaving less time for standard business hours or at least that's what one can hope for.
Once the store has opened, it appears significantly smaller than one imagined it to be looking at their website. It is decorated mainly with a desk, a console, and a grey Freudian-looking couch. A spiraling staircase leads to the private part of the store upstairs. Above the console, the famous painting by Gustave Courbet called L'Origine du Monde (1866) exhibits what it has always exhibited, a furry female's sex. The perspective is framed by blood-red coral branches.
The pictorial reference is classic and refers to, apparently, the perennial shocking value of a 19th century realistic nude picture. Have we evolved so little? Etat Libre d'Orange at least seems to imply so, lest their own references be dated.
A young lady presently appears. Next, all the perfumes of the line will be tested, first on blotters laid about like piano keys on the desk and then on the skin. Last comes Sécrétions Magnifiques, the star of the line so to speak, the one perfume that needs a little bit of careful psychological preparation on the part of the sales assistant who does not seem to be that much at ease with the celebratory message of the perfume. "Ahem, this one is called Sécrétions Magnifiques..." said she with eyes more lowered than with the others while spraying the bloater with deftness.
Having smelled all the perfumes, this one is the only one that seems to be of the caliber expected. It truly uses perfume notes to provoke us through our noses. We are reminded how raw we can smell of and how polite our perfumes usually are, even the more animalic ones. In fact, animalic notes are not massively used in the line to convey any carefully hidden thruths about ourselves. Whenever a perfume smells a bit rough, the idea seems to be expressed by different types of leather accords rather than civet or uriney musk or anything else. Vierges et Toreros smells at times of greasy hair and boots, being next in line in the hierarchy of admittedly provocative perfumes from the line.
The general impression is that a potential program of libertinage of the nose here is held in check. Commercial common-sense has prevailed, offering a line of very good perfumes with sometimes unconventional opening notes like in Jasmin et Cigarette and Encens and Bubblegum but which settle after a while into classic harmonious drydowns that are very amicable to your skin.
If we wanted to have some reassurance about the fact that Etat Libre d'Orange is upholding mainstream values we could note that several of the perfumes include gourmand notes like guimauve, bubble-gum, cocoa, champagne, or jammy rose, which seem to point to a certain child-like sense of play and nostalgia for the protective universes of our childhoods.
Instead of a scent called Divin Marquis, we have Divin' Enfant which will be perhaps particularly attractive to those who were raised in France as guimauve is a popular treat there. Of course, gourmand notes are commercially a good bet as many people can relate positively to these and feel comforted by them in the midst of a stressful style of life.
So one feels in the end that Etat Libre d'Orange is more about providing sensual reminders and enhancing our quality of life, while at the same time inviting us to exercise our humor, than about testing our limits. Nevertheless, one cannot abstract from the fact that Sécrétions Magnifiques saw the day of light. It is an excellent reminder that when we were children our hierarchy of aromas was not so closed and smells were interesting rather than good or bad. It is educational therefore to smell a scent like Sécrétions Magnifiques.
So why did we think that Etat Libre d'Orange might be about genuine libertinage? Because the line uses an imagery and perfume names that are voluntarily provocative and attention-grabbing by referring themselves to prostitution, a post-coïtal cigarette, betrayal, undyed pubic hair, semen, blood, and making fun of religion with a scent about Jesus and another about incense associated with pink bubble-gum. We have to realize that, again, commercial common sense has prevailed with the line jumping on the band wagon of the pornochic and mild anti-clerical trends. It is all about clean porn where more is suggested than revealed but where various products are associated with a sexual theme. The fact that Etat Libre d'Orange uses a cartoonish aesthetic tones down the potential crudity of a vignette like that of Sécrétions Magnifiques, but the intent remains the same: attract the viewers' attention, make them be curious about the product. In order to compete in the sea of perfume opportunities that is Paris, one has to show a bit of naked skin and even more than that to defy competition.
All is well that ends well then. Etat Libre d'Orange is not threatening to the moral order. It is not genuinely disquieting. It reminds me of what a professor of philosophy said once, namely that when Jean-Paul Sartre decided to reject bourgeois moral values, he decided, among other things, to stop wearing a tie. As he pointed out to us, by ascribing significance to this act, he could not escape being a bourgeois at the core. [...]
The line is available at Henri Bendel
Photo by The Scented Salamander