It seems rare these days that an independent designer launches a perfume. They now tend to come either from niche perfumery houses, corporate brands, or legacy fashion brands that are owned by beauty conglomerates. Which makes the new Ann Demeulemeester perfume, titled simply “A,” an event in its own right, not to mention the fact that it gives Demeulemeester’s fans a reason to revisit her work.
The perfume – and it is a proper parfum, not an eau de parfum or eau de toilette – meaning it has the highest concentration of ingredients – is quintessential Demeulemeester. The box is covered in white painter’s canvas, a leitmotif in Demeulemeester’s work that can also be found in her flagship Antwerp store. For Demeulemeester the canvas has long represented a mix of purity and artistry that she strove for in her fashion.
The clean lines of the rectangular heavy glass bottle continue that purity. Inside the box is a portrait of young Demeulemeester taken by her husband and collaborator Patrick Robyn.
The scent itself is complex and strong out of the gate with top notes of clove, cumin, Ceylon cinnamon, Sicilian lemon, and Calabrian bergamot overlaying the base of jasmine, May rose, and birch-oiled leather. Since everything Demeulemeester does is infused with her persona, one is not surprised to find out that some of the ingredients grow in her garden. We caught up with Demeulemeester over the phone to find out more about the perfume.
Eugene Rabkin: How did the idea for the perfume come about?
Ann Demeulemeester: I have wanted to make a perfume for a long time. I’ve always thought, in a classic way, that every fashion house that has its own voice eventually needs a perfume. I thought that one day somebody will knock on my door and ask me to make a perfume and I wanted to be ready. I was preparing for a long time, studying different notes, so I knew exactly what I wanted. After Claudio Antonioli took over the brand, one of the first things he asked me was to make a perfume. It took three years, but I had complete carte blanche.
ER: Did you find the process of making a perfume complicated?
AD: I was prepared, because on some level I was working on this perfume for years. I did everything from A to Z. I worked with Patrick and Victor [Demeulemeester’s son] on the packaging and the visuals. And I worked with an Italian perfumer who helped me finalize the perfume, but I already knew how my inspiration would translate, exactly into which notes. Of course each iteration takes time, and each time you have to live with the perfume for a month to see how it adjusts to you. There is a lot of handwork and a lot of artisanal steps into having this product exactly like I wanted.
ER: Can you delve a bit into the inspiration for the scent?
AD: I was not really thinking about perfume. I was thinking about instinct and what smells intrigued me. I wanted to have something that was fascinating and mysterious. In the box, there was this little photo of me Patrick took a long time ago. And for me this photo represents a bird, because when Patrick made that portrait of me he said, “Can you sit like a bird?” Every time I see that photo, I see the wild child that was in me. So starting from that I worked from my instinct. I studied, I went to Grasse [the perfume-making center of France], I went to Versailles, I went to Italy, searching for what is right for me, asking myself, “What do I expect to find in that bottle?”
I also was sure that I wanted a smell that was sensual and seductive, which again has to do with instinct, because a smell of someone attracts or repulses you on that basic level. And on the other hand, I think great perfumes are scents that adjust themselves to the person who wears it, so I did not think in terms of sex or age. And since I knew what I wanted, I wanted the scent to go quite quickly to the heart of the perfume.
I don’t want to take away the mystery of this perfume by talking about the ingredients, but I can say that the top notes are supposed to shake you awake a bit. And then it goes to something really warm; there is a dualism in, like between light and shadow. So you have this warm smell of May rose, which is one of the most precious roses, and jasmine, which I also grow in my garden. And then they are put in contrast with something really dark, which is a birche-oiled leather. And then underneath that you have even darker, earthy notes, like sandalwood, vetiver, rosewood, and a little bit of patchouli. These are all beautiful ingredients and extremely rare. We mainly used natural raw materials or essential oils that are derived from the cold pressing of the petals.
ER: How does the packaging complete the perfume?
AD: For me the fragrance itself is nature and the packaging is culture. So nature is inside, and culture is around it. I wanted a bottle that was strong and simple. It’s almost modernist, with very clean, sharp lines, but the glass is thick. The label is actually a complex process; it has all these layers of printing required to get the “A” to show up on the inside when you turn the bottle around. The cap is metal, so the entire bottle is sturdy, in case we decide to do a refill program down the line. And I want the box to be the bottle’s own little Le Corbusier house [Demeulemeester and Robyn own the only existing Le Corbusier house in Belgium] and so I came up with a white box covered in painter’s canvas.
ER: How did you find working on perfume from working on clothing?
AD: When I work on clothes I am a sculptor. I work with shapes and lines. I work with something I can touch. Same goes for tableware, or furniture, in the end it all has to do with a body. And I think that a scent goes deeper, goes more to the soul, because I cannot touch or mold or sculpt it; it’s ethereal. And that in fact makes it all the more mysterious.
The Ann Demeulemeester “A” parfum (330 EUR, 75ml) is available today on www.anndemeulemeester.com
the brand’s flagship store in Antwerp and in select boutiques worldwide.
All images courtesy of the brand.