Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,
Etat Libre d’Orange is the kind of brand that thrives on contradictions and contrasts. Want to spray yourself with a perfume smelling of blood,sweat,sperm and saliva after stepping freshly washed out of the shower? Then the brand’s most well-known scent, Secretions Magnifique (Magnificent Secretions), is for you. Are you a successful late twenty-something that has the desire to smell like a fat, middle-aged electrician? The brand has a solution for that too. Even in the Etat Libre d’Orange flagship store located in Paris’ trendy Marais district, rubber pillows contrast the elegant dark wooden decor whilst neon signs sit alongside a cattle skull in the window display. But here, as with the scents, nothing is as it first seems.
The brand founded by Etienne de Swardt in 2006 may have gained a considerable amount of attention for its tongue in cheek attitude toward fragrance, but catch a whiff of one of its perfumes like Putain des Palaces (Hotel Slut), and despite what the name might enquire, these are high-quality, well-considered scents — and there’s nothing gimmicky about that. The fact that the perfumers behind these pieces of work are innovative noses such as Antoine Maisondieu, Antoine Lie and Christine Nagel is just the cherry on top of this slightly kinky sundae.
Fresh off the launch of two new creations, The Afternoon Of A Faun and Dangerous Complicity, de Swardt sat down to discuss the establishment of Etat Libre d’Orange, the extentialist aspects of perfumery and putting the sensuality back into scent.
After working at LVMH, why did you decide on dog perfume as your first venture?
I was with a friend and together we said, what about creating a perfume for dogs under the brand name Louis Vuitton? I then met with the CEO, Yves Carcelle, he was excited by this idea from the PR angle of it. He told me to propose a full business plan to the board of Vuitton, but they decided it was too risky. So we raised the money and did it by ourselves. That was the beginning of Oh My Dog! and I left LVMH to create my own company.
The name of the brand translates into Orange Free State, the independent country in South Africa, and you explain your brand ethos under a Declaration of Independence. Do you think there should be politics in perfume?
I was born in South Africa and my family is from the Orange Free State originally, but just the sound of saying Etat Libre D’Orange was beautiful. It’s related to the story of South Africa but not the political side of the country. It’s the idea of creating a land of free emotion without any constraints. So we decided to proclaim a little state of freedom for perfumers, to take them on the road less travelled, far away from cash constraints of the perfume industry. That’s the spirit of the fragrance house Etat Libre d’Orange. It is just a land of pure freedom. We try to explore the more risky side of perfume and create a platform of existentialism in an industry over-saturated by cliche fragrances.
Your brand has an anti-mainstream aspect in the way that you say, we don’t care if it shocks people, we don’t care if it’s something that, for example Secretions Magnifiques…
It’s a little bit more than a fragrance, Magnificent Secretions is deep storytelling related to pure sex with no taboo. It’s a bit naughty but it’s slightly existentialist in a way, when you want the other body and you want to share everything, whatever the consequences. That’s very much the spirit of Magnificent Secretions. It’s from a comic book from the 70s when I was a little boy, based on an encounter between a martian and a human who tried to share everything. It’s beautiful but the idea was not to be provocative. It’s one of the most edgy ones in the range, but storytelling over formulation could be the motto of Etat Libre d’Orange. In a way, we could be frivolous or subversive or controversial but the backup of everything is that we put 50 percent of the cost into the formulation, the cost of the scent itself is five to ten times that of an Estee Lauder or a Dior. So that’s the contrast of the brand’s spirit, gimmicky on one side and on the other side beautiful formulations.
It strikes that balance of being edgy and something that’s never been done before on one hand, but also romantic in the sense that, looking through the descriptions of the perfumes, it’s always more revolving around and embodying a story.
Good point. It’s very much like literature. My mother was a great Latin and French teacher and my grandmother was also a Greek, Latin and French teacher so I’ve got a little knowledge of Romantic literature, but it’s on a very superficial level. The spirit of the brand is not just a scent, it’s a state of mind. The meaning of existentialism, that’s very much Etat Libre d’Orange. We invite a talented perfumer and storyteller to join forces in the creation of a scent in a kind of existentialist attitude.
You have worked together with many different, very reputable noses, giving each one a theme and letting them work from that. Obviously for each perfume it’s different, but what is the general process of creation like?
It’s not diplomatic. First of all, I try to pick up a theme that can liberate emotion. That’s the key point and then it’s a kind of chain reaction. But my job is mostly to pick up that theme or make the introduction to a celebrity or actress such as Tilda Swinton [who collaborated with the brand on Like This]. I love to explore a kind of different pathway of creation. It’s pretty sincere because when Tilda is involved in doing a scent she has something like 15 testing sessions with the perfumers. We do not fake it with a marketing strategy like with these celebrity endorsements. It’s a sincere storytelling or invitation when we work with an actress such as Rossy de Palma or with the Tom of Finland foundation. Obviously we are involved in the process of development but the perfumer goes the way he or she wants. You have a similar scenario at Frederic Malle, so it’s not only a DNA of Etat Libre d’Orange, but we go a little bit beyond that. We have an unexpected brand attitude. We can be a Tom of Finland, Magnificent Secretions, Jasmine & Cigarettes, Hotel Slut—it’s a true eclecticism.
What’s the one smell that you love but everyone else around you hates?
I love borderline scents, something that is more or less attractive and repellent at the same time. I love animalic notes. I love unexpected confusion, also in the land of the olfactive spectrum. Confusion could be my motto and Magnificent Secretions the best answer. I love that attraction and replulsion of the things that protect me from what I want. Dirty sex could also be another one. Dirty sex with the spirit of making something transcendental.
What do you have planned next?
We are doing a limited edition with Justin Vivian Bond, a cabaret performer in New York, terrific guy, very much a poet, for the Afternoon of a Faun scent that we are launching. It’s inspired by Vaslav Nijinksy, Diaghilev and the Russian ballet and co-created with Ralf Schwieger and Justin Vivian Bond. He is the ambassador of the scent.
Do you see wearing perfume as the idea of it being an extension of one’s personality or do you think it’s more about wearing that theme for a day?
Be the best slut in town and use the scent that you want but as long as it makes you a beautiful slut (laughs). That’s my spirit.