Tuesday, 21 April 2015

"Our Job Is To Listen" - Antoine Maisondieu At The Launch Of Bottega Veneta Pour Homme Extreme

It's always dangerous to draw conclusions about an artist from their work. By most accounts, T S Eliot wasn't a grey-faced depressive, Charlie Chaplin wasn't exactly child-like and Toni Morrison is possessed of a cheeky sense of humour. But even so, we can't help trying to connect certain facets of interesting artworks to the personalities of those who brought them to life. It was with these thoughts in mind that I headed to London's Rosewood hotel to meet Antoine Maisondieu.

In his work for Etat Libre D'Orange and his collaborations with Antoine Lie, the Givaudan perfumer has produced some of the most striking creations of recent years. Encens Et Bubblegum was a bold, humorous mix of the sacred and the profane. Vierges Et Toreros dared to combine blood with leather to make a potently animalic statement. And Jasmin Et Cigarette was an impassioned - I'd go so far as to say 'heartbreaking' - paean to nostalgia and bygone chic. What sort of a person puts together such full-blooded compositions? I asked myself. Someone who brings his passions to the foreground or someone who follows the maxim that still waters run deep?

Well, it turns out that the latter is more accurate than the former, at least in this case: the man behind Etat Libre's visceral bullfight is slender, quietly-spoken and almost shy. That said, he seems genuinely excited to chat about one of latest pieces of work: Bottega Veneta Pour Homme Extreme, a collaboration with Daniela Andrier, made to capitalise on the success of 2013's Pour Homme. The scent displays the same 'elegant leather' vibe as the original, but it's unquestionably darker and heavier, dispensing with much of the pine-like freshness in order to emphasise the spices and tannery notes.

Maisondieu explains that the process of creating the first Pour Homme was rather different from most of his work with designer brands. "We had an olfactive brief from Tomas Maier [Bottega Veneta's Creative Director] and it was amazing. Normally, if you're a perfumer, you don't really meet the designer. But we met with him, and he had a very precise idea, which was lovely. He spoke about a memory of a house in the Dolomites with a window open, and all that. For us it was very evocative. It was almost poetic. So we followed it quite closely.

"It's seldom that our clients really know where they want to go. I think there's often a lot of stress in companies. For them, it's important to launch a perfume that is a success. And of course, at Bottega Veneta, they want a success too, but they don't aim at being like J'Adore immediately. If your only reason for making a perfume is to be in the Top 5, you're never going to be in the Top 5. You have to make something with meaning inside it. Maier has vision. He gave us a brief which was olfactive and had emotion. Often we get something which is just too 'marketing'."

Maisondieu states that he and Andrier follow a carefully worked-out method when engaged on joint projects. "Daniela and I go to the client. We get comments for modifications. I do my modifications. She does her modifications. Then we smell them and we decide what we're going to show to the clients; we never show just one modification. And then we go back to the clients and they decide which modification we keep. And we go on working from that modification."

He agrees that this system means they almost become each other's evaluators, assessing their work before presenting it to clients. "Yes, in a way. But it depends on the project. It would be different if the project had been my idea, but here, the main accord was Daniela's idea from the beginning. I feel my work is to really understand where the perfume has to go, but not to change it. You know, there are many people I can't work with, because they have too much ego. For me, it's all about the perfume, not me or Daniela. If I go to a client and he tells me he doesn't like the perfume, I don't think that he doesn't like me. Our job is to listen. And it's complicated, because the language of smell is not the same for everybody."

He gives a characteristically gentle smile when I ask if there were ever any times he and Andrier disagreed on the scent. "Disagree is a strong word, but there were modifications where we said, 'Okay, I wouldn't have done it like that. But if you like it, we'll present it.' And there were some I disagreed with, and some Daniela disagreed with, but it's not an issue. We have a lot in common. We know we're going to disagree, but it's not going to be a huge disagreement."

When I ask how Bottega Veneta's distinct Italian-ness expresses itself in the perfumes, he pauses for several moments, looking into space to compose his thoughts.

"You really smell the quality of the materials," he says, "even in the top notes. I don't know if that would happen in a French fragrance. If I take Chanel, for example, they have very good materials, but in most of their last perfumes, all the top notes smell so synthetic. And I don't know why. For me, Italy is a country where the quality of the products is key. Look at cooking. In French cooking, the elaboration is as important - or more important - than the quality of the ingredients. Italian cooking is pretty simple, so you have to have good quality ingredients. And maybe also the link with nature is Italian. I think France is less about nature."

Pour Homme's sense of effortless Mediterranean chic was something of a technical challenge to achieve. "I think what's always difficult when you want to have something which is a bit subtle, but very elegant, is to have the right power," he says. "We worked a lot on that. It's not just a question of concentration. It's about balance. There are some ingredients you can add for diffusion, like touches of muguet notes. But just touches, because we didn't want it to smell like muguet. There's a bit of orris also. It brings something a bit powdery to the leather. What was also difficult was that we decided we didn't want to use any of the traditional masculine ingredients. So we don't have dihydromyrcenol and we don't have damascone."

Although he endeavoured to rescue it from masculine cliches, Maisondieu concedes that Pour Homme can trace its lineage to certain creations from the past. "For me, in the first Pour Homme, I would say I see things like Pino Silvestre, because there is a spiciness. I love Pine Silvestre! I would also have said Yatagan. And in the Extreme, I see Bel Ami from Hermès."

Finally, would he say his style changes when he works on a project with someone else?

"No. I really like the idea that, as a perfumer, I have to adapt myself, a bit like painters during the Renaissance. They had an order from a mason who wanted such-and-such a colour, and so on. That's what I like a lot in this job. So when I work on a perfume with someone else, it's not my style. When I smell Bottega Veneta Pour Homme, I smell Daniela's style."

So is there nothing of him in it?

"There is a bit of me in the leather. That's a bit more me."

Whilst I'm on the subject of Bottega Veneta, I ought to mention that the brand's scent division has been quite busy. In addition to the Extreme version of Pour Homme, they've released a gorgeous range of men's grooming products (including a shaving foam, an exfoliator and an after-shave balm) as well as travel sizes of both the original Pour Homme and the women's scent (composed by Michel Almairac). All are available now.


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