Thursday, 29 June 2017

Stepping Over To The Other Side - Chandler Burr On You Or Someone Like You

A double-whammy for you today, you lucky, lucky people. Over on Basenotes (click here), you can read my interview with Etienne De Swardt of Etat Libre D'Orange, conducted at the London launch of the new You Or Someone Like You. And below, you'll find highlights of a recent correspondence with one of the scent's co-creators, none other than Chandler Burr, author of The Emperor Of Scent as well a novel called You Or Someone Like You, on which this new fragrance is based.

Quick tip: I'd say you ought to read the Basenotes piece before you read this one. And for my review of You Or Someone Like You, please click here.



Persolaise: As someone whose role in the perfumery industry has been that of critic and commentator, what was it like stepping behind the scenes to develop a perfume? Did you gain new insights into the creation process? Did you find yourself developing a greater (or lesser!?) appreciation of some aspects of the system?

Chandler Burr: Absolutely I have a greater appreciation for what Helen Murphy, Karyn Khoury, and other creative directors do. It was interesting and perhaps slightly surreal to actually be doing what for over a decade I've watched, documented -- for The New Yorker inside Hermès and for the New York Times with Sarah Jessica Parker most extensively -- for over a decade. It was pretty nerve wracking at the time. "This mod or that one? What do I choose? Wait, why the f*** can't I even smell the difference? Calm down, just smell them tomorrow. Ah, now the difference is clear -- but still, which one should I choose?" I ask Caroline Sabas, the perfumer, to try two things; she and I then both agree they don't work. She gives me an "OK, genius, what do you want to do now?" look. But when it works, it's just awesome.

P: Etienne De Swardt mentioned that it took a while before you found a perfumer with whom you were happy to work. I was wondering why it took so long. What was it you were looking for?

CB: I wanted a perfumer who would talk to me and give me their true opinion, propose solutions in response to my saying "I want this or that," and tell me when they thought I was wrong. That's not so easy to find. It's like selecting a shrink. Or dating.

P: At what stage did you have to consider the budget for the juice, or the cost of individual materials?

CB:We considered the cost of the formula all the way through, but when you're creating something for Etat, happily you're not driven by that. About three times during the process, Caroline said to me, "Look, we can do that, but the juice is already expensive, and if we do X or Y it's going to make the cost astronomical for very little difference." Givaudan has excellent materials across the board, and you just don't have to use the insanely costly ones to get what you want. The final formula is expensive, but reasonably expensive.

P: I'm pleased you raise the point of expensive materials not necessarily being the most effective, or not being sufficiently effective to justify their high cost. Can you see a time when consumers will once and for all stop swallowing the whole "we've used the most high quality (i.e. the most expensive) materials in this perfume" spiel? Is this forever doomed to remain an inevitable part of fragrance marketing?

CB: All brands, marketers, architects, etc etc will always note (or claim) that they've used excellent materials, and I think that's entirely legitimate. I guess I'd just say that it's heavily pervasive in scent, particularly in niche where it's universal, and therefore meaningless -- and in an unknowable percentage of cases, fraudulent. But I don't think it will go away. And correctly backed up, and if true, it's a nice piece of the story. Mercedes uses great materials. They're right to talk about it.

P: Would you agree with Etienne's statement that the perfume is almost entirely a representation of your joint vision with Caroline Sabas? In other words, is it true that Etienne's 'interference' was minimal?

CB: Absolutely. And I really admire and appreciate that. I introduced Tilda [Swinton] to Etat and did some minor guiding during her creative sessions at Mane, and Etienne was entirely hands off -- Like This really is her creation -- so I knew I'd get that freedom as well. In fact I think Etienne smelled maybe 3 mods, at the very end, and gave some advice but left it to me. In the end, we went with the mod he really preferred, but I was completely onboard with it.

P: Why is You not for someone who wants to know what's in a perfume?

CB: I'm completely against talking about the raw materials at least for the time being because I think we all need to swing to the other extreme of the pendulum for a while, cure ourselves of this idiotic reductionist approach of focusing on raw materials (I hate the word "notes," which marketers came up with, and that f***ing pyramid, which ditto) and rather focus on the works as whole, as one would do at an exhibition of painting or a music performance. I'm listening to the Stones' Paint It Black as I write this -- my favorite band -- and why the hell would I break this work of music down into little pieces and focus on them? I'm listening to the song. Not what key it's written in. Who cares?

P: How have your LA-based friends responded to the scent? Do they see in it a reflection of their environment?

CB: Crucial point: You is NOT "LA in a bottle" or "the scent of Los Angeles" or anything remotely like that, if that's what you mean by environment. It's a fragrance a character in my novel would wear and, by extension, a fragrance that people in LA, men and women, would wear. In that sense it's very, very LA -- not the smell of the city but the aesthetics of scent that Angelenos like. It's been repeatedly sold out at the Los Angeles-based Luckyscent.

P: I'm curious: when you were doing your background work for your novel, thinking about all your characters, devising their back stories, deciding which side of the bed they sleep on etc etc, did you actually decide which specific perfume the character in question - the character on whom You is based - would wear?

CB: Never. Not once did it occur to me. In retrospect -- you're the first to ask me this question -- I'm realizing it's sort of weird how much I didn't think about what scent Anne, my character, might wear. Because I really think she'd like this one. I'm going to drop a name. I gave Un Jardin Sur Le Nil to Helen Mirren, who I know very slightly (she loved The Emperor Of Scent), and she told me it was her new favorite and, more, the only scent her husband liked on her. Anne is a younger Mirren, that's certain. Maybe it's not a coincidence that You carries several aspects of Nil.

P: Could you expand on the idea of the aesthetics that Angelenos like? What sorts of things resonate with them?

CB: In the US we say all our trends move from CA eastward, which isn't true at all, many move from NY, and in some cases other places, westward, but the obsession with health and body and all-natural is a California creation, and Angeleno scent aesthetics come very much from that. There are candles that recreate the scents of cut grass, crisp arugula (very LA), and things like that, things that grow and that are green. This is just my opinion, but I really don't think we yet have a really good pure sea air or fresh water scent; Calone doesn't begin to cut it, at least for me, in the specific sense that it doesn't actually smell of fresh water. Ralf Schweiger is the creator of what is to me the greatest sea water fragrance ever made, the mesmerizing Eau Des Merveilles, but it's not particularly California because it's real sea water, not just a tang from someone's deck in Malibu, but the real open-ocean dark green stuff with plankton in it. Heavy duty.

P: Are there any other scents out there which you consider to be effective representations of LA and/or California?

CB: Mugler Cologne, which is one of the greatest works ever made in the medium. Comme Des Garçons 2 for women (I'm a bit disappointed in Comme Des Garçons for conforming to the gendering of perfume). Le Labo Santal 33.

P: And finally, have you now been bitten by the bug? Would you like to create more scents?

CB: Yeah.



  1. Thank you for the interesting backgroung information. At first I was not interested in Chandler Burr's book, just in the perfume, meanwhile I think I should read the book too. I like it when people are passionate about what they do and Mr Burr definitely seems to be the type of person.
    I have never been to LA so all the links to the city don't mean much to me yet the first time I smelled You or Someone Like You from a sample I knew it was going to be my next purchase. I described it as a minty rose and the first impression is so lovely that I'm happy the scent is linear and does not change. In fact, one can rarely find such lasting freshness without the fleeting citruses.
    And yes, Un Jardin sur le Nil is also a favourite of mine.

    1. Neva, thanks for taking the time to comment. Yes, I totally know what you mean about the novel: I'm curious to read it too.

      And I love Nil as well :-)


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