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Dark stars

Along the northern seaboard, perfumers are defying convention with haunting scents that come from the heart rather than a marketing brief. Vicci Bentley reports on a noir genre of scent

November 28 2012
Vicci Bentley

Over the past two years, a new generation of Vikings invaded Britain – and was welcomed with open arms. Thanks to Stieg Larson’s vengeful The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Henning Mankell’s depressive detective, Wallander, we couldn’t get enough of grisly murders solved by mournful cops in Nordic knits, as played out in the Swedish-Danish TV series The Bridge and Denmark’s The Killing. Rollmop became the new sushi as Scandi cuisine arrived on the menu. “A taste of Noma” tickets were a sell-out when René Redzepi’s acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant – three times winner of the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants award – popped up at Claridge’s. Tommi’s Burger Joint pitched up in Marylebone Lane in August. October saw the Farringdon launch of Aveqia, where, tutored by Michelin-starred chefs, diners cook nouveau Swedish delicacies such as spice-flamed reindeer. And last month Danish steakhouse Mash opened a 300-cover restaurant on Brewer Street – its largest venture to date.  

Given this Scandimania, it’s no surprise that the latest niche fragrances also hail from the Northlands. While many scents conform to fashion or style, these shape-shifters defy convention. Tantalising and provocative, they exude atmosphere, imagination and emotion, inviting us not only to smell, but to see and feel.

Take Agonist: inspired by the Swedish climate and culture – that haunting, noir genre expressed by author Karin Boye, Greta Garbo’s melancholy beauty and the bleak, often surreal films of Ingmar Bergman – the very name implies creative tension and emotional reaction. “It represents two forces that trigger one another so that something new appears,” explains Niclas Lydeen, who launched the brand in 2008 with fellow artistic director, Christine Gustafsson. Both have backgrounds in fashion and visual communication, and felt drawn to heightening the “invisible sensuality” of scent with packaging, imagery and storytelling to turn it into a multi-sensory experience.

Portals to this total immersion are sculpted glass flasks individually hand-blown and signed by Åsa Jungnelius, award-winning glass artist at Sweden’s oldest and most prestigious glassworks, Kosta Boda. Priced from around £880 to £1,200, these refillable artworks with sleek, steel-pin applicators reflect the scents they contain. Liquid Crystal (£1,200 for 50ml, launched 2011) is inspired by the moment when molten glass begins to change shape. Inside the flask, the fresh, spiced oriental-style eau zings with absinthium, orange, incense and smooth, cool woods. The white flacon of creamy, figgy Vanilla Marble (£880 for 50ml, launched 2011) rises from a candied chunk of swirling pinks; while incense-rich Black Amber (£880 for 50ml, launched 2011) sits squarely on a pool of molten amber, spine-tingling in its evocation of deep forest cool. Complex, provocative and intensely animalic, The Infidels (£980 for 50ml, launched 2011) is quite simply liquid lust. Inspired by the novel Kallocain, Karin Boye’s tempestuous tale of jealousy, control and ultimate liberation, the jet and blood-red contrast of flacon and base portends compulsion. Frozen wastes are the backdrop for the acqua-tinged, iceberg bottle of Arctic Jade (£950 for 50ml, launched 2011) and the light yet warm blend of white woods, red bilberry and wild strawberry – a popular combination, according to Lydeen.

Uniquely rich and disturbingly deep, these scents are a far cry from the functional, polished, clean image we may have of Scandinavian style. Although conceived in Stockholm, Agonist fragrances are created by a series of internationally high-profile perfumers, each chosen for his affinity to the scent’s storyboard. They are also as far removed from the marketing straightjacket as the tundra is from the Sahara. “Almost everything we do is based on our own personalities,” Lydeen admits. “We start with an abstract idea of something that intrigues us. Since we stop the moment we’re content with our interpretation, the result remains personal and not based on focus groups. What fascinates us is the fact that olfaction is subjective and that no-one else will experience a scent in precisely the same way.”

In Iceland, visual artist Andrea Maack uses fragrance as “wearable art” and has a scent-based exhibition opening at the Reykjavik Art Museum in May 2013. Collaborating with a Grasse perfumer, she developed her first soft, powdery scent, Smart (£85 for 50ml, launched 2011) – short for “smell art” – to reflect the gallery’s white space, then found she couldn’t stop. Craft (£85 for 50ml, launched 2011) – “couture art” – soon followed as a homage to haute couture, accessorising a fragile, intricately shaped paper dress that took 200 hours to make. “I was trying to create the story of an ultimate being who would use very precious, futuristic fragrances, then get dressed in a sculpture,” she recalls. Her sixth scent, the smoky and slightly sweaty Coal (£85 for 50ml, to launch this year), evokes the dynamic of her charcoal drawings – spirogyras of pure energy. “My idea is to strip perfume of nostalgia and create a clean, new way of wearing it. Let it take you into the future, go where you want to go, be what you want to be,” Maack says. Her abstract yet evocative scents defy easy analysis, so offer the perfect blank canvas.  

Further down the North Sea board in Amsterdam, Lilian Driessen is of similar mind. “What I expect from a fragrance is that it touches me, becomes mine and is integrated into my world,” she says. An internationally acclaimed fashion designer with a mystical touch, Driessen was given her head with the delightfully surreal interior of the Avery Fine Perfumery store in Mayfair. Here, against a backdrop of virtual birdsong and blooming, animatronic flowers, bottles perch on rococo dressers with fowls’ legs – a whimsical nod to Baba Yaga’s mythical hut – in a truly fabulous exploitation of the “aviary” pun in the shop’s name. “Perfume is volatile, like a bird,” Driessen elucidates.

Volatile, in the emotional sense, describes the perfumes Driessen has dreamt up with her husband, the Amsterdam-based perfumer Alessandro Gualtieri. Best known for his Nasomatto (“crazy nose”) range of “addiction scents” – such as Absinthe (£108 for 30ml, launched 2007), created to evoke hysteria and stimulate irresponsible behaviour, and Black Afgano (£108 for 30ml, launched 2009), designed to legally arouse the state of bliss induced by top-grade hashish – Gualtieri’s spousal collaboration is quite literally a labour of love. Called MariaLux, this ambitiously feminine triptych of scents represents aspects of love as experienced by virgin, mother and lover. “MariaLux is my muse, my alter ego,” says Driessen, yet, she maintains, each scent taps into a common bond. “I wanted to express my belief that when we’re touched by something, such as a gesture, beauty or fragrance, the recognition comes from similar experience. So my love story is actually yours, too.”

Presented in faceted retro bottles (each £128 for 60ml), Truly is the story of eternal love, expressed by steely, enduring aldehydes and creamy, powdery white flowers; more complex and Driessen’s favourite, Madly’s hidden love is a stealthy, balsamic seduction, its tuberose masking a fleshy, sweaty, animal urgency; and, not for the fainthearted, Deeply smoulders with woods, spices, incense and the curious, piquant suede contrast of oud, conveying a bittersweet anguish. All are strong perfumes that gather intensity, like a passionate affair. Did close collaboration with her nearest and dearest ignite sparks of creative tension? “Alessandro and I have different ways of expressing ourselves and we both work intuitively,” she says. “The emotions of addiction inspired Nasomatto. I am influenced by that huge, amorphous emotion love creates in us. A softer, more feminine approach.”

Across the border, durm and strang may not be the presiding spirits of Hamburg’s luxury fragrance brand Linari, but romance is nonetheless palpable. Tuscany’s sunbaked hills and ancient spirituality inspired German industrial designer Rainer Diersche to launch the range and design the perfectly turned, metallic bottles with their rustic-chic wooden tops. But for the juice inside, he looked closer to home. Unlike Sweden and the Netherlands, Germany’s perfumery tradition dates back to Cologne’s 18th-century toilet waters, to Holzminden’s world-playing manufacturers Haarmann & Reimer (H&R) and Dragoco, both now merged into Symrise. Linari’s principal perfumers are two long-time H&R colleagues, each with impressive commercial portfolios as well as highly original ideas.  

Known for his simple, yet iconoclastic style, Derby-born Mark Buxton’s original incensey “anti-perfume” for über-cool fashion label Comme des Garçons, CDG Eau de Parfum (£55 for 100ml, launched in 1994), is a cult classic. For Linari, his Angelo di Fiume (£148 for 100ml, launched in 2008) has a whiff of incense preceded by a blend of cherry, raspberry and caramel; while Notte Bianca (£148 for 100ml, launched in 2008) is light, dark, cool and warm by turns thanks to orange, anise, clove, woods and a slug of absinthe.

A perfumer of 40 years, Egon Oelkers not only trains “noses” but co-authored the legendary scent bible, the H&R Fragrance Guide. For Linari, his Eleganza Luminosa (£148 for 100ml, launched in 2008) has the easy elegance of a powdery rose and jasmine bouquet on a white musk and sandalwood base, while his thrilling, complex Fuoco Infernale (£148 for 100ml, launched in 2010) has incense, wormwood and damp earth mingling with fresh, sweet herbs. All perfumers have a secret stash of “tries” – scents that came from the heart instead of a brief – and Linari seems to showcase these covert ambitions.

Why is the Northern European psyche so uninhibited and compelled to break boundaries? For Swedish-born Ben Gorham, founder of Byredo and creator of international cult scents such as the powdery, aldehydic Blanche (£130 for 100ml, launched in 2009), no reputation means no restrictions. Next year, Byredo boutiques will open in London, Paris and New York, yet Gorham chose Stockholm – “A small place where ideas travel fast” – to launch his flagship store. “Sweden lacks the historic and cultural connection to perfume, so it’s very much about the smell being directly connected to memory, ideas and emotions,” he says. Lilian Driessen agrees: “Holland is a small country, which has always driven us to be adventurous and open-minded.” France and Italy regard perfume like food – a high art with deep roots, she says. “They consider it a taboo to do things differently, so the art becomes dominated by rules. American fragrances are highly influenced by lifestyle, and that too imposes limits. But Nordic people have a voracious appetite for innovation and the unknown.”

See also

Perfumes