Monday, 17 November 2014

'My Most Important Ally' - Chandler Burr On Dior

As someone who owns very well-thumbed copies of The Perfect Scent and The Emperor Of Scent, I was excited to discover that Chandler Burr’s distinctive prose style has once again been employed in the service of perfume writing. This time, his subject is the house that gave us Poison, Eau Sauvage and Fahrenheit. The result of a direct commission from the brand, Dior: The Perfumes consists of brief essays on several key releases - starting, of course, with 1947’s Miss Dior - as well as thoughts on the couturier himself and his impact on the arts scene.

If you’d like to find out what I made of the book, I’d urge you to buy a copy of issue #3 of the Jasmine Award-winning ODOU magazine, which contains a review written by yours truly, interspersed with extracts from an interview I conducted with Burr several months ago. Today’s post here on is designed to complement the ODOU piece: it is essentially a compilation of the parts of the Burr interview which had to end up on the cutting-room floor. Read in conjunction with the ODOU article, it hopefully provides a worthwhile insight not just into the book but also into one of the most passionate champions of intelligent writing on perfumery.

The scene: a table at London’s Claridges Hotel, covered with the paraphernalia of afternoon tea - fine china, silver sugar bowls, scones, jam, cream, pastries. Burr speaks at a rate of knots, in between sampling all the goodies on offer.

Persolaise: Tell me, which parts of the book were the hardest to write?

Chandler Burr: One of the most difficult essays, which I hated writing to be honest, was the thing about ‘What Is Perfume?’ I've written that about 8000 times, and I just had to force myself to do it. The essay on the gardens was very hard to start and very hard to find my way into, but very easy to finish, because writing it really made me think through, again, Dior's relationship with his mother, and with people in general. He was terribly timid, shy, awkward, afraid, superstitious, felt himself to be ugly, insecure, and was absolutely determined - clear as a bell - about what he was interested in. He could go and talk to people very, very well, and fluidly, and convincingly, which is exactly the opposite of what you'd think of somebody who's shy and timid.

P: Does it get harder or easier to keep writing about perfume?

CB: In a way, it becomes harder, because there really are only a limited number of ways in which you can describe things. There are a limited number of metaphors. And you want things to be new. You do not want to repeat yourself.

P: Would you say you’re a Dior fan boy?

CB: I guess I am. I love Diorama. I haven't worn it a lot. But I've smelt it a lot, and I've continually put it on people. I've shown it to so many people, and they've loved it. The best example was when I showed it to a friend of mine called ZZ Packer, who is a pretty well-known writer in the United States. She's very literary, she's cool, she's black, she's a wonderfully friendly person. I put it on her - she's not a perfume person at all - and she said, "Oh my God, my husband would f*** me just because I'm wearing this." And I said, "Honey, that's what it's all about." It's an extraordinary scent. It's amazing. Like I said in The New York Times, it smells like it's created tomorrow.

P: As you were writing the book, did you find yourself having to re-evaluate any of the perfumes?

CB: Yes, Dune. I had never appreciated Dune before. I'd never thought about it. I'd just seen a nice, soft perfume. It's by a very, very good perfumer, a very good artist, so you take it seriously and you revisit it. It is an extraordinary work in that it is something that is... I don't know if 'lyrical' is the right word. It is dreamlike and is a beautiful work of realism. Absolutely beautiful. It is landscape art. It's giving you a portrait in scent of this very specific spot between beach and beyond the dune. And it's wonderful. On a technical level, it's very interesting. You can dismiss it because it's instantly likeable, it's not strange at all, and it doesn't seem innovative. But it calms, it reassures and it acts as a caress. And that's very, very interesting.

P: Where would you say Dior is right now, in terms of its trajectory as a perfume brand?

CB: I'd really rather talk about it in terms of the collection. Let me put it in art historical terms. With the Escales, what François Demachy [Dior’s in-house perfumer] has done is that he's gone back to landscape portraiture. It's realism, like all portraiture. It's figurative. It's not photographic, like Diorissimo. He's not reproducing an exact photo of an exact spot in Pondichery or Portofino. He's giving you something where you have all sorts of figurative ornamentation, figurative representation, but he's giving it to you in a slightly abstracted way. So you're going through these places; there's an element of walking. I think it's lovely.

With the Collection Privée, he's giving you what is very much contemporary art. The only retro thing he's done is Cuir Cannage. Otherwise, he's very much going in a modern form. There is a luminist aspect to it. For example, I think New Look 1947 is conceptual realism. The year didn't have a smell and the New Look didn't have a smell. But what he's done is given you a representation of something. I don't think he's referencing nature. I don't think he's giving you anything figurative. He's doing it in a style that is more transparent, that is absolutely not Cuir Cannage and it's not Diorama, it's not the 1947 Miss Dior, it's certainly not the 80s scents with the heaviness and thickness and opaqueness of Poison and those perfumes. These are much more translucent. And I think they're very much a 21st century collection.

P: Do you think Demachy is consciously trying to achieve these artistic effects, or is he simply being driven by somebody in the office telling him that, for instance, the Middle East wants more oud?

CB: He's not driven by anybody in the office. This is what he tells me. I've known him for a long time. I can only report to you what I'm told. He says to me, "I'm the one who decides." He is the one that's driving these things. He is the one that decides what he's going to do. I love that. And I admire that.

You talked about going to the Middle East market with the ouds and darker scents. Every artist has always had a clientele. They're always conscious of what their clientele is. God knows that Anish Kapoor and Zaha Hadid and Damien Hirst know what the people who like them are going to like. Now, the only thing that an artist is supposed to think about, in the pure sense of an artist is, 'This is supposed to be interesting to me and I believe in this and I devote my soul to this.' Bulls***. There is no pure artist. There's no pure human being. Obviously François is thinking about his market. I'm speaking for him right now. This is my impression. I don't know whether this is true, because I haven't asked him. I'm quite sure that like every other artist, architect, painter, sculptor, composer, he is conscious of the audience, of his reputation, his persona, his strengths - perceived or made up - and what he's doing for whom. I'm sure that he's thinking about his markets. I'm sure it's not only the Middle East. I'm sure it's very much also Europe - France in particular - North America, China, Japan. There are all sorts of influences. I don't know that he's veering towards the Middle East.

P: The brand’s very first scent was Miss Dior. Do you think it was especially braver than a debut perfume a brand might release in 2014?

CB: No. I think it was extraordinarily well-made. And the materials were extraordinarily expensive. And they were beautifully put together by a perfumer who was extremely competent. I do not think - and I've said this from the very beginning - that it was revolutionary at all. The interesting thing about it to me is that it is so intensely personal. People have said to me, "Can you really write about a scent without knowing about its era? And more specifically, can you write about it without knowing about the context in which it was created?" This is a huge debate in art history. I believe that artists' intent has to be important. But having said that, if I did not know what I know about Christian Dior, I would not understand Miss Dior. This is a work of art that was very specifically commissioned and very, very carefully crafted. It's representational - it's flowers in a garden - but it's a very 1940s idea of a garden. He wanted something specific. His relationship with people was very difficult, probably because of his personality and his sexual orientation.

P: Do you think that Dior, as a company, would have made it through the 80s if they hadn’t released Poison?

CB: You can't ask me that question.

P: Let me ask you about Dior Homme then. Why do you think 2005 was the right time to unveil a gender-bending fragrance?

CB: There's no gender bending, ever. 'Cause there's no gender. Anybody who understands iris understands that it's not feminine. It's a root. It's a woody smell. Woody is supposed to be for men. That's complete social construction, which is to say it's a marketing construction. It doesn't mean anything.

P: But what about the baked fruit note in the scent?

CB: No, I've never got much of that. To me it's always smelt like a relatively straightforward, very, very well done iris.

P: In the book you say that Diorella is a perfume which displays motion. Could you expand on that?

CB: It struck me that Diorella showed more evolution than any of the others. There's a huge amount of movement in it. I think that Dior Homme is one of the least mobile works - intentionally so - although I don't think it's linear either, in the way that Pure Poison, which I love, is. Pure Poison is true linearity and true minimalism. Diorella is linear maximalism. It moves and it varies, but it's not one of these translucent things. It's hugely opaque. Its changes go almost like waves that are under the surface of the ocean.

P: On many occasions, you’ve publicly stated that you’d like the mainstream media to publish more perfume writing which doesn’t lump fragrance in the category of ‘beauty products’. In fact, you’ve become quite evangelical about this particular cause. So how's the fight going?

CB: Dior has become my most important ally, by far. The book is out. We're supposed to be taking the Art Of Scent to Madrid in the fall. I'm going to be doing an exhibition in Australia. But right now the most important force in the fight is actually Dior.

[Dior: The Perfumes, with text by Chandler Burr and photographs by Terri Weifenbach is published by Rizzoli. To order issue 3 of ODOU magazine, please click here.]



  1. Very interesting read, thanks for sharing this bit. I'm surprised Miss Dior is supposed to be 'representational'. I honestly cannot see that. I do see it related to Vol de Nuit, for one - and as such definitely agree that it wasn't revolutionary or brave. To me the first gender bender fragrance was actually Joop! (1989) - an intensely sweet and sultry floriental, launched at the very start of the nineties, which saw the rise of the (genderbending) metrosexual. Gender is indeed a social construct, which makes it very real in a social sense. Fashion and - to a lesser extent - perfumery have not just gone along with it, by and large, but have been instrumental in constructing and defining it. As a side note, it's ZZ Packer not CeCe.

    1. Anon, thanks for stopping by.

      Yes, I wondered if anyone might pick up on Burr's take on Miss Dior. For one thing, I'm not sure how the 'garden' aspect squares up with the leather note.

      As for gender-bending, I take your point about Joop! But I'd say we could go back even further to Habit Rouge... and perhaps further still...

      Finally, thanks for the CeCe/ZZ correction. Much appreciated :-)

  2. Thanks for the interview, you posed some good questions.

    Have to agree with you on the subject of perfume gender: only a few days ago a friend told me how she used to love wearing Habit Rouge when she was younger (must have been in the early eighties).

    I'm not knowledgeable enough to know of many other possibly candidates but I used to wear Lagerfeld cologne in the eighties and that was definitely encroaching on typical 'feminine' territory. Much more so than Dior Homme, in my opinion.

    P.S. Your blog is really interesting and nicely written, well done!

    1. Nathan, thanks very much for your comment and for your kind words about my blog.

      We could talk for hours about the subject of gender in perfume. I remember when Poison was released in Dubai in the mid 80s, the Emirati men wore it just as much as the women did.


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