Meet the man who bottled LA for LV

Maria Fitzpatrick talks to artist Alex Israel about creating Louis Vuitton's new Californian-flavoured scent

The artist Alex Israel in Los Angeles
The artist Alex Israel in Los Angeles | Image: Graham Walzer

Perfume hall… or departures lounge? Today they seem to be one and the same, as our desire for escapism – to the past, to the future, but increasingly to somewhere real, yet far from our own reality – prompts perfumers, from luxury houses to niche independents, to conjure their own “scents of place”. And as global travel comes under the microscope due to climate change – not to mention coronavirus – it’s likely that the journeys we take in the immediate future could be sensory ones, so the more convincing the evocation, the better. 

Alex Israel’s Sky Backdrop, 2012
Alex Israel’s Sky Backdrop, 2012 | Image: © Alex Israel, courtesy Gagosian

At Louis Vuitton, the maison has taken things into a whole new territory with its recent parfums de cologne – the West Coast-inspired series including Sun Song, Cactus Garden, Afternoon Swim and now California Dream. It has collaborated with Alex Israel, the multimedia artist whose wry and often humorous work is synonymous with California, to give the fragrances dramatic visual resonance as well as an olfactory one. 

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This month, the 37-year-old Los Angeles native, whose work – explorations of his home city, its psyche and cultural “aura” – is held in the permanent collections of LACMA, the Guggenheim NY, the Whitney, MoMA and the Centre Pompidou, had his first solo UK exhibition: Always On My Mind at London’s Gagosian, showcasing new self-portraits. He has spent his career playing, via sculpture, video, installation and painting, with the iconography of LA, with all its clichés and contradictions – the contrived and fake versus the natural and beautiful. And it’s the latter that sparked the connection here – in particular, his atmospheric and hugely sought-after Sky Backdrop paintings: tributes to the open LA sky at sunset, as fuzzy, moody, sensuous pinks give way to twilight blue. They make California Dream, the atmospheric new cologne, the collection’s swansong: the pièce de résistance of what the brand calls its “pictorial dialogue” with the artist. 

California Dream, the new fragrance by Louis Vuitton
California Dream, the new fragrance by Louis Vuitton

“I love looking up at the sky above my hometown,” Israel explains. “Its colours are specific to LA and always remind me of home. In a city as sprawling and horizontal as Los Angeles, sandwiched between desert and sea, the sky exists as a kind of infinitely expansive canvas. For me, it represents open-ended possibility, optimism and positivity.”

Alex Israel’s Self-Portrait (Marine Layer), 2015
Alex Israel’s Self-Portrait (Marine Layer), 2015 | Image: © Alex Israel, courtesy Gagosian

This sense of optimism and joy chimed with master perfumer Jacques Cavallier Belletrud, who painted his own interpretation of the LA sky at sunset in scent, “capturing a moment that prolongs the happiness of a summer’s day”. “Great artists have this fantastic way of summarising things quickly,” says Cavallier Belletrud. “The colours Alex uses are very genuine and true – and soft, even when they’re bright– and the light of his pink directly influenced the creation of the perfume. He’s more California than me; he’s very precise and he has a very tender way of explaining things, instantly capturing a lot of emotion.”

Alex Israel in Los Angeles
Alex Israel in Los Angeles | Image: Graham Walzer

Cavallier Belletrud’s aim was to create warmth that gives way to coolness (including, quite literally, on the skin), “as time passes and the light changes”. The scent melds layers of explosive freshness (mandarin, with a citrus and floral aspect) with warmth (coming from the musk ambrette and from vanilla-tinged benzoin, “with its soft, crackling heat”) and softer notes such as pear. Israel describes its depiction of sunset as “uncanny; it’s perfect”. And he should know.

Other perfumes inspired by place: Armani/Privé Gardénia Antigua, £137 for 100ml EDT (available from 2 April)
Other perfumes inspired by place: Armani/Privé Gardénia Antigua, £137 for 100ml EDT (available from 2 April)

“Sunset is my favourite street in LA,” explains the artist, who lives near the Sunset Strip. “It is also my favourite time of day; it’s when I feel most connected to nature and when, no matter what I’m doing, I always stop and take a deep breath and feel grateful. That deep breath and that expansive field of colour above, and the freedom and excitement that’s associated with life in the American West, that’s what the perfume is really meant to capture.” 

Other perfumes inspired by place: Tom Daxon Laconia, £155 for 100ml EDP
Other perfumes inspired by place: Tom Daxon Laconia, £155 for 100ml EDP

It’s not the first time Israel has dipped a toe in the luxury goods world. In 2010 he launched his own eyewear, inspired by the California freeways – speaking at the time about how not everything he does “has to be art” – followed in 2018 by a casual clothing line, Infrathin, named for the term coined by Marcel Duchamp (his “patron saint”) to describe the immeasurable difference between two “identical” things. “Making non-art or making things that are in-between or art-adjacent can be incredibly freeing and inspiring,” he explained at the time. “That freedom and inspiration often pours over into the next body of work.” 

Other perfumes inspired by place: Maison Margiela Replica Springtime in a Park, £96 for 100ml EDT
Other perfumes inspired by place: Maison Margiela Replica Springtime in a Park, £96 for 100ml EDT

Being no stranger to working with creatives in other disciplines – he enlisted Baywatch co-creator Michael Berk to write the screenplay for his film about surf culture, and collaborated with the writer Bret Easton Ellis on large-scale paintings – Israel relished the challenge to distil the visual and the sensual into something more potent than the sum of their parts. “Scent, for me, has always been tied to memory,” he says. “It’s hugely important to how I work, to narrate the story of my life and time. And it’s a means towards activating one’s imagination. I’d never worked with scent, and I’ve grown to appreciate it so much more through this project.” 

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The process took more than a year. And Israel is thrilled with the result. “LA represents the American Dream, freedom and the possibility of fantasy and reality coexisting side by side in the exact same time and space. Perfume is fantasy and your body is reality, and these realms are brought together through this fragrance. Los Angeles is conjured not only in scent but also in spirit. In a way, the fragrance is almost an allegory for fragrance itself, and I think that makes it truly unique.” 

As for Israel, what’s next on the horizon? “More sunsets, I hope.”

This story was originally posted on 26 March 2020.

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