If you missed Part One, you can find it here.
When you wrote your article for International Business Times in 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary had just announced that the title Mx. was going to be included to represent transgender people and people who don’t want to be identified by gender. Your interest and exploration of this subject became a starting point for your fourth perfume, Mx., which came out in 2017.
Can you please tell us a bit about how Mx. subverts traditional notions of the masculine and feminine in perfumery while also creating a smellscape that includes sly winks to both binaries?
My interest in gender goes back to childhood when it became clear to me, as a budding rebel and feminist, that being labeled a girl meant being saddled with meanings that didn’t seem particularly positive. (We are all burdened with this!) Fast-forward to graduate school, where I studied with the philosopher Judith Butler (author of Gender Trouble) who pretty much put genderqueer studies (and the lexicon we all use now about gender) on the map. So, by the time Mx. became an official word in the OED, coinciding with my having a perfume brand, I knew I wanted to commemorate the moment in a perfume.
One of my inspirations for that was the 1970s perfume Charlie, marketed to women during the feminist movement. Perfume names feel magical to me, and the idea that I could commemorate the gender revolution I was living in in a perfume name felt so right, particularly since I’d spent so much time thinking and writing about how perfume often subverts gender.
The name Mx. does a lot of work, in other words! The fragrance itself plays with the softness and sweetness of gourmand notes like cacao and benzoin (representing conventionally “feminine” attributes) “mixed” (a play on the pronunciation of Mx.) with woods, and birch and castoreum (leather effect), more conventionally “masculine” notes. This blending into one perfume of masculine and feminine notes is nothing new — but calling it out as genderfluid is.
And just to swing round to a previous question, is there a representational intent to Mx.? Either to those that might be using the title and / or to the movement itself? I feel since that time, more people have begun to realize and celebrate their unique spot on the gender spectrum. Are Mx. and its more extreme version, Mxxx., an acknowledgement and celebration of that movement and those participating in it?
Yes! This perfume celebrates the gender revolution we’re all living in, and of course if you identify outside the binary and /or use Mx. as a title, how could it not be representational!
Perfume and the branding and marketing around it (as with fashion), is both reflective of the times and aspirational. And the use of Mx. as a title and the questioning of conventional gender binaries feels like the future. It’s the present, too, of course (and has been going on for eons), but naming it and acknowledging it feels like progress.
One thing I really love about the ERIS perfumes is how they do truly feel gender-flexible while also exhibiting so much character. Is that universality by design, and, if so, how much of a guiding factor is that in the process of development with perfumer Antoine Lie?
Antoine and I understand that there are perfume ingredients that people read as conventionally feminine or masculine, but we never talk about gender when working on perfumes, and luckily, most people who wear ERIS don’t care about it either.
I feel like the use of the term unisex has become a lazy, and at times embarrassing, term that exists solely to reassure people that it’s okay to wear whichever perfume they enjoy wearing; however, everyone also has their own entrenched ideas about what’s masculine and feminine in perfume based on their own personal history and experiences.
Within the term “Unisex” are a lot of concepts we are beginning to see as old fashioned: that there are notes that are intrinsically feminine or masculine (rather than coded that way culturally); that there are two genders and that each one is naturally going to go for the notes that align with their gender; but that thanks to fragrances that are Unisex they both have permission to wear the same perfume. Obviously, this is bunk.
Germaine Cellier’s fragrances, for example, called into question and deconstructed the tired perfume gender binaries: Fracas, as noted in Sainte Cellier’s description, “weaponizes” femininity through its aggressive florals, and Bandit could knock out with one punch the so-called Alpha Male fragrances of today. And both were for women! And when you learn that rose is a masculine note in Middle Eastern perfumery, or that Marlon Brando, Keith Richards, and Sean Connery wore “women’s” perfume (Brando’s favorite was Cellier’s Vent Vert!), you realize that the perfume industry would do everyone a favor by just getting rid of gender categories in perfume and instead educate the consumer about ingredients. I understand that “unisex” is a shorthand for “anyone can wear it” but since that goes without saying, do we really need it anymore?
Some of your perfumes use animal derived ingredients, all of which are able to be harvested in a way that is kind to the animals that produce them. What information can you share with people who may be concerned about the use of animal ingredients in your fragrances? How can people better educate themselves on this?
As much as I love authentic animalic notes in vintage perfumery, I would never want an animal to suffer for perfume. So with the exception of Mxxx., which has authentic ambergris and Hyraceum (Pierre d’Afrique), both of which are naturally expelled without either the sperm whale or Hyrax being disturbed in any way, the animalics in ERIS are synthetic.
The larger question for me is how many perfumes are at risk for using authentic animal ingredients that harm animals these days? It seems like something that was a problem in the past, but now, I feel like someone invented this as a marketing scare tactic. There might be a handful of small-batch perfumers using natural animal ingredients but I imagine they’re upfront about it.
And with so few animal derived ingredients that might even be considered for use in a modern perfume, how do you feel about brands manipulating the term “vegan” when all that’s required to classify a perfume as vegan is not use one of a handful of ingredients?
It’s sly marketing. It’s like writing “No fat or cholesterol!” on a package of hard candies to entice dieters. I mean, OK, all of ERIS’s fragrances with the exception of Mxxx. are “vegan” in that case. But so are 99.99% of perfumes!
Some of your perfumes feature materials sourced from Atelier Francais des Matières. Can you tell us a bit more about the facets of those ingredients and what they lend to the ERIS perfumes they’re used in?
I met Rémi Pulvérail, founder of luxury niche perfume lab L’Atelier Français des Matières (The Atelier of French Materials) a few summers ago in Paris. Antoine was working with him and they shared a perfume from Les Indémodables, Valérie Pulvérail's brand. (Valérie is Rémi's wife.) I was bowled over by the quality. He’s now supplied the ingredients for and manufactured two ERIS fragrances: Mxxx. and Scorpio Rising.
For years before he created his own lab, Rémi was a sourcer for major perfume houses, and has experience with crop-growers around the world. He is dedicated to wrenching from every petal, leaf, bud, stem, root, and rind their most beautiful olfactory facets.
In a perfume world that is ever flattening the unusual qualities of perfume ingredients to standardize each one’s scent profile, Rémi appreciates the subtle variations in each ingredient, variable due to provenance or the season of harvest. His “Grands Crus” terminology, borrowed from wine parlance, indicates that the ingredients come from rare and limited crops.
Add to that that he uses interesting proprietary technology and techniques to preserve certain facets in ingredients that might get blasted away with harsher distillation techniques. Mxxx. illustrates his attention to detail. In Mxxx., the Trinidad cacao, the Madagascan vanilla, and the ambergris are all specially chosen, and the techniques for extracting their scents for perfume preserve their special facets.
In the case of the Trinidad cacao — chosen by Antoine for its spicy, dark, animalic qualities and never used before Mxxx. in perfume — an ultrasound technique extracts the scented portion in such a way that preserves the creaminess of the cocoa butter. A “green” Madagascan vanilla, processed before it’s ripe, uses a special freezing and extraction technique to preserve a fresh, creamy, fruity, confectionary vanilla.
The ambergris was chosen by Antoine and Rémi for its balance of creaminess, saltiness, and animalic character, and in this case AFDM also used an ultrasound technique to break the ambergris down into microparticles - without heat, and without crushing it to bits - maximizing the recovery of aromatic components. And of course both the ambergris and Hyraceum were tinctured in-house. This is real luxury perfumery!
You can find Part Three here.