When you ask the question about where niche perfume started there are historical time-based answers. If you ask me when niche started I would answer it began in 1994 with the release of Comme des Garcons. For the last twenty-one years Comme des Garcons has continued to be the trendsetter within the niche perfume sector. A very large reason for this is the same Creative Director, Christian Astuguevieille, has over seen every fragrance with Comme des Garcons as part of its name. Part of what makes his approach so successful is he also seeks out interesting co-collaborators to add fresh new vision leading to unique perfumes. If you think about many of the long-standing trends in the independent/niche perfume area Comme des Garcons and M. Astuguevieille were there first. It is why every new release is anticipated for the possibility that the beginning of what is next has arrived. It is a huge line of nearly 100 releases. Here are five which will give you an idea of what this brand is all about.
Perfumer Mark Buxton did the original Comme des Garcons in 1994. Five years later he would compose Comme des Garcons 2, which I believe to be one of the greatest perfumes of the last 50 years. Mr. Buxton took the set of aldehydes deemed unpleasant. By placing those in a matrix of equally quirky notes he created a perfume equivalent of “Revenge of the Nerds”. The ear wax smelling aldehydes, cumin, coriander, mate, and angelica. These unloved notes came together in an accord of intense beauty. A swirl of spices as cinnamon, nutmeg, and bay leaf transition to a base of dark notes meant to convey a feeling of inkiness. In 2015 this seems like a normal set of notes. In 1999 it was an act of bravado by Messrs. Astuguevieille and Buxton. If I am right about niche starting in 1994 with Comme des Garcons it was Comme des Garcons 2 which displayed its potential to be something amazing.
Throughout the Naughts Comme des Garcons released series exploring themes and by 2007 they wanted to do an exploration of “luxe”. Luxe: Patchouli by perfumer Antoine Maisondieu is the best of this. M. Maisondieu chooses to explore every facet of patchouli. Early on a collection of vegetal notes, fenugreek and parsley, enhance the herbal nature. Oak and opoponax the slightly resinous facet. Finally a base of sandalwood and vetiver take it into the deep woods of high quality patchouli. I dare anyone to say this reminds them of Woodstock ’69.
Over the last few years M. Astuguevieille has reached out to all manner of collaborators to create perfume co-productions. Early in 2008 he collaborated with Monocle publisher Tyler Brule to oversee Commes des Garcons X Monocle Scent One: Hinoki. Perfumer Antoine Maisondieu created the perfect Japanese aesthetic of a meditative perfume. Hinoki is really a study of woods of all kinds. From freshly cut pines releasing a camphor-like scent into the air. Clean hinoki wood provides a lilting heart before a sturdy base of vetiver and incense. All of this is kept transparent and incredibly engaging for being so light. I liked it fine when I first tried it but it has risen greatly in my estimation over the years and is another huge artistic success for the brand.
As much as I like Hinoki later in the same year Commes des Garcons X Stephen Jones by Antoine Maisondieu, yet again, would be even better. The press materials described it as “a violet hit by a meteorite”. That kind of description is made for eye rolling and derision. Instead M. Maisondieu not only realizes it but he makes one of the best modern violet perfumes ever. This is a perfume of accords. A hot mineral accord to evoke the meteorite. The smell of burning plastic and wood to evoke the house it has crashed into; and a ridiculous abstract violet accord at the heart for all of this to cling to.
M. Astuguevieille wanted to make a perfume which captured the British fashion icon Daphne Guinness. Ms. Guinness was a friend of the late Alexander McQueen. M. Astuguevieille would ask perfumer Antoine Lie to capture this bigger-than-life personality as a perfume called Daphne. This was the beginning of the Retro Nouveau trend and Daphne is right there at the leading edge of it. M. Lie mixes bitter orange and incense into a heart of rich orris and tuberose. The base uses oud, patchouli and vanilla. When I first tried Daphne it felt like a perfume from 70 years ago but it also smelled like a perfume from today too. This is what Retro Nouveau means.
An exploration of the Comme des Garcons perfumes is almost a perfume education all by itself. I think it is almost required reading if you love perfume. The five above are a great place to start.
Disclosure: I purchased bottles of all the perfumes mentioned.