12 April 2010

Translating Margiela

Shall we get right to it? (untitled), the first fragrance from Maison Martin Margiela, was composed by the gifted Daniela Andrier, a watercolorist of a perfumer and the author of Prada’s madly successful Infusions series, and it proceeds something like this: a splash of fresh wet green to start; soft, cuddly resins wrapping a statuesque bigarade; a polite suggestion of jasmine and warm cedar; pretty-but-anemic musk and a drop of sweat. It generates more than decent sillage, but after the opening blast of galbanum fades (it doesn’t take long), all I smell from a distance is pillow-soft amber and bitter orange. If I really hound my wrist I get the faintly animalic musky base and traces of incense.

These are lovely notes, every one, and elegantly interwoven, yet I’m left wishing for twice the effect packed in half the volume, and more importantly, something to skew it a degree or two off-trend. (untitled) is a very nice fragrance, but in the way that a Margiela t-shirt is just a ‘very nice’ t-shirt.

Luckily for the Diesel Group (Maison Martin Margiela’s new corporate parent), very nice is plenty good enough for a lot of people – especially, I would wager, the kind of people who prize expensive simplicity and prefer to smell ‘like nothing.’ I can’t help wondering, though, what might have been if the same devil-may-care daringness had been applied to this project as has been devoted to the house’s most thought-provoking designs. What if the bracing, bitter green notes were prolonged, kept aloft by brighter, headier incense instead of giving way to the woody-floral heart? Or what if the musks were even dirtier, saltier, suggestive of a wet animal coat made strangely desirable (think of the wet fur facet of L’Artisan’s Méchant Loup)?

I’m not suggesting either of these ideas would be better than what ended up in the bottle. The trouble with (untitled) is that I can’t seem to find its identity. It somehow feels overdone and incomplete at the same time. And while I know it’s splitting hairs to say so, even the way it was introduced lacked the intelligence and straightforwardness on which la Maison stakes its reputation.

Last week’s event at the New York Margiela store, for example, featured no experiential process by which to try the scent, unless you want to count the precious scented cloth buttons that were pinned to lapels here and there. Unlike the comparably lavish Paris launch, there was no tower of bottles, no flashy reveal, and no white confetti either. There was merely a pair of tester bottles on a sober white pedestal – arguably more in sync with the house’s aesthetic and yet not very exciting – and a surplus of hors d’oeuvre-bearing waiters. I was kind of hoping I would have to follow the scent across an unlit room to its source on the gaunt neck of a nude model, or something to that effect. I gave up a ticket to Die Zauberflote so I could attend, for pete’s sake! Admittedly, that imaginary scenario is more for-its-own-sake wackitude than something actually meaningful, but surely the passing of lukewarm beet canapes isn’t the only alternative.

Conversely, the house appeared intent on taking its fragrance seriously even if no one else cared to. The testers bottles were accompanied by a handful of small vials bearing samples of (untitled)’s featured raw ingredients (galbanum, galbanum resinoid, bigarade orange, lentiscus resinoid (mastic), and incense) – a thoughtful way of being informative that, by my count, about three partygoers took advantage of. Considering the fashion-oriented crowd and the mill-about, free champagne mood of the gathering, that forlorn display seemed to cry out for all the perfume geeks who weren’t there. It worked as a visual reminder of the house’s preoccupation with construction and process, but then if they really wanted (untitled) to live up to its name and “to hold different meanings for different people” (which itself is not a particularly unique sentiment about perfume), they might have considered not publicizing the list of notes at all, as Hermès did with their new Voyage.

I like (untitled) more than I’m letting on. But at the end of the day, I would’ve believed any number of other designer names slapped on the smart, paint-dipped lab bottle, and I find it difficult to believe (as the house insists) that Martin Margiela himself had anything to do with the project.

The most curious part of the whole enterprise, though, is the deliberately obfuscated marketing copy being used to promote it. In the interest of mining the true intentions behind (untitled), I took the liberty of translating a few breezy excerpts into more everyday statements:
“Everyone can feel called into question by a colour, a shape or a garment… We wanted to give perfume the same chance. Stripped of any reference to an influence of precise climate, (untitled) can be interpreted and worn for all occasions by every one of us.”
Translation: “Everyone can feel befuddled from time to time by our most overwrought pieces. We wanted to disorient our audience with perfume as well, except in the sense that it has little to do with our founder’s vision, which really no longer directs the house anyway, you see. (untitled) takes Margiela into an entirely new market, bearing an instantly familiar, purely pleasurable character.”

• • •

“For its first olfactive creation, Maison Martin Margiela has chosen to strike out on a new path, reformulating the forgotten green fragrances that symbolised the femininity of the 1970s… The principal element of this woody green floral is Galbanum, a fine and rare raw material. Its incisive notes are boosted with the bitterness of box green, the vibrancy of lentiscus and incense, and the smoothness of bitter orange. Like a huge armful of plants harvested just after the rain, its raw state recalling pared-down garments and hems cut open, emblematic signatures of Maison Martin Margiela.”
Translation: “For our first scent we chose to try one of those green fragrances we learned about. It’s said they are reminiscent of a perfumery style from the ‘70s, and we totally heart the idea of ‘reinterpreting’ and ‘reinventing’ things from the past… The best way of blasting someone with green freshness is evidently a double-hit of galbanum, which is suitably uncommon and smells enough like wet plants that people can describe it as something other than just ‘clean.’ Then we loaded up on that awesome bigarade and some other, more subdued notes that make it smell discreetly expensive.”

• • •
“Faithful to its philosophy of metamorphosis, of finding a ›second life‹, Maison Martin Margiela turns this exhumed classical foundation upside down, and contrasts it with resonances of sweet jasmine and musky cedar. Its striking pedigree is then edged with a dense, almost filmy warmth.” (weird emphasis theirs)
Translation: “We had this retro style that we needed to bring into the ‘now’, so we included some airy jasmine and cedar notes for that luxury soap feeling, and finally some slightly dirty white musk that makes people think of their own skin. We figured that would make it attractive to people who are too cool or too confident or simply embarassed to wear perfume."

• • •
“I know that perfume must not follow a fashion or a trend, but an instinct. This first perfume expresses a femininity which does not fit into formal categories… I am grateful to Maison Martin Margiela for whispering the formula for this perfume into my ear.”  -- Daniela Andrier, perfumer
Translation: “I know that it’s important to this brand to believe in themselves as perfectly unique, so I designed their first perfume to evoke the kind of woman who works hard at her ‘effortless’ look, and is willing to go a few weeks without washing her hair for that bit of grit. I’m grateful that the imprimatur of a brand like Margiela made this gig a walk in the park. I mean, really, who’s going to object to galbanum two ways with an orange julius on top?”

• • •
“By creating fragrances woven in the most beautiful raw materials and melted with poetic impetus that is found in the inspired wearer, perfume can be saved from the terrible trivialization that threatens it. This is how I wrote the formula for this first perfume for Maison Martin Margiela, with that special grace that comes with the perception of the obvious, that clarity that gives us wings in the wonderful encounters of our lives.” -- Daniela Andrier
Translation: “I feel so fortunate to have been selected for this project. Thank the lord Diesel put up enough cash to give it some teeth! And all you catty perfume freaks who think I’ve cloned an easy hybrid of all my recent work can screw off and die. You know it's good! And it was actually a very welcome break from simply formulating the next flavor of Prada-ade.  But, please, don’t tell Miuccia. A girl has to eat, right?”

• • •

(untitled) is available in 30ml, 50ml and 75ml sizes at Maison Martin Margiela boutiques and online at Colette.

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