The subject of inspiration in perfumery often attracts sniggers. According to some critics, it's acceptable for a creator to claim that a particular scent emerged from the experience of smelling a vintage fragrance or visiting a certain city, but in their view, anything more profound than this should be dismissed as PR guff. I'd say they ought to re-assess their understanding of the word 'inspiration'.
There is no requirement for the link between the inspiration and the final product - the 'inspirer' and the 'inspiree' - to be obvious. I realise many people would like nothing better than to see a distinct, linear connection between the contents of the bottle and the social/cultural/historical circumstances which led the perfumer to produce them, but anyone who's ever tried to carry out any creative work knows that the muses operate in much more mysterious ways. So if Andy Tauer tells us that Diorissimo prompted him to make Carillon Pour Un Ange, or if Vero Kern declares that the smell of shoe polish culminated in Onda, then most people don't quibble, because these statements appear overtly rational. But when Simon and Mark Constantine dare to suggest that stories of unjust incarceration urged them to formulate The Smell Of Freedom, they’re accused of venturing beyond the realms of sense.
What does this have to do with Amouage? A great deal, as it happens. In the last few years, the firm's Creative Director, Christopher Chong, has faced a considerable amount of mockery from individuals who have been less than tolerant of his stories behind the brand's releases. There weren't too many protests about Honour's Puccini origins, but the supposed ties between Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Opus VI, and the reflection of the fragmented nature of Internet-based communication in Opus V were deemed too pretentious and contrived. This is an extremely odd stance for critics to adopt: I suspect many of them wouldn't bat an eyelid if, say, a novelist stated that a gruesome World War One epic was inspired by the sight of a leaf falling from a tree. Thankfully, Chong hasn't allowed such narrow-mindedness to alter the way he works: his latest additions to the brand's main collection take on nothing less than the chaos of the modern world as their thematic context. To be more specific, the over-arching concept is that the imbalance in the socio-natural order engenders a yearning for a moment of reflection, a search for hope... a brief interlude.
The manner in which this idea manifests itself in the smell of the perfumes is fascinating. In Pierre Negrin’s Man, the 'chaos' comes in the form of a tar note: industrial, plastic-like and almost ominous. In Woman (signed by Karine Vinchon Spehner), the opening is even bolder: the familiar, comforting presence of bergamot is usurped by grapefruit - all yellow garishness - and the acrid sharpness of kiwi. It's one of the most unusual top sections I've smelt for a long time and immediately asserts the scent's unwillingness to compromise.
When it segues into its quieter, more pensive segment, Man makes a convincing bid for the title of Best Smoke-Based Perfume Of All Time (no exaggeration!). The singed facets of the tar shift into incense, spices, glowing embers, vanillic tones, woods and the distinctive, part-aromatic, part-earthy scent of burning agar chips. Think: an Arabian Avignon, and you might start to get the idea.
Woman's heart is as unusual as its opening, but less glaring. The spikier aspects of the fruits make way for the bitterness of coffee combined with honey and a faint suggestion of rosy leathers borrowed from an old-school chypre. The more high-pitched, potentially unlikeable elements of the structure (which seem to be turning into something of a signature for Vinchon Spehner) never disappear entirely, but they do accommodate the presence of heavier, more traditionally Amouagesque ingredients.
In their drydowns, both scents present an engrossing blend of myrrh and musks, acting as a suitably powdery, balsamic denouement to the excitement that has come before. The final stage of Man is perhaps not as refined as that of some other Amouage masculines, but then Interlude isn't trying to be Honour or Gold. There’s a very slight roughness around the edges of the composition, in keeping with the premise of barriers placed on the path to harmony; an overly neat conclusion would have been out of place.
Of course, on one level, these conceptual background details don’t matter at all. Most people spraying the scents at shops across the world will be unaware of the intellectual and emotional processes that brought them to life. They'll sniff the perfumes and make personal decisions about whether they enjoy them. Or, like Madame Persolaise, some of them will smell Man on their husbands, go weak at the knees and start making predatory noises... but that’s another story.
However, those of us who see perfume as more than just a substance to improve body odour will no doubt welcome this latest opportunity to enjoy an olfactory creation on several different planes. The two Interludes aren’t the first scents with aspirations beyond the commercial, and they certainly won’t be the last, but their complexity and originality offer a timely reminder that, for some of us, there's a multitude of reasons why the sight of a fragrance counter never fails to cause a rush of excitement.
In brief... At the other end of the spectrum, we have two new, limited edition Light Blue flankers from Dolce & Gabbana: Dreaming In Portofino for women and Living Stromboli for men. If the Amouages represent creative bravery, then this duo is all about generic, lowest-common-denominator predictability: the Portofino is a simplistic, musky, fruity soap-fest; the Stromboli is an unremarkable woody-citrus with an amber base. As a pair, they seem to be saying, “Humanity has no distinguishing features. It is merely a faceless mass. Individual people have no personality whatsoever.” My response would be: “Save your pennies for something more interesting. It’s better to wear no perfume at all than this sort of cynical emptiness.”
[Reviews of Interlude Man and Interlude Woman based on samples of eau de parfum provided by Amouage in 2012; reviews of Light Blue Dreaming In Portofino and Light Blue Living Stromboli based on samples of eau de toilette provided by Dolce & Gabbana in 2012.]