Last month I met Christopher Chong, the Creative Director of luxury Omani perfume house, Amouage. Christopher was in Australia for the press launch of his latest fragrance, Sunshine. It is the first eau de parfum from his Midnight Flower collection, which launched last year. Aside from a conversation about the new fragrance, we talked about his 8-year tenure as Creative Director of Amouage, and we spoke about the brand’s direction for the future. With 40 fragrances for Amouage under his belt, Christopher shows no sign of slowing down. Last year he announced the closure of what he termed Amouage’s first cycle. Earlier this year he launched Journey Man and Journey Woman, the first fragrances of his anticipated second cycle. I had heard that this second cycle related more to Christopher’s own life experiences. In order to understand the future, I wanted to understand the past. Below is a transcript of our candid talk, covering Christopher’s own journey with Amouage, his creative process and some interesting thoughts on what might come next.
WMSSL: How did you begin your work with Amouage?
Christopher Chong: It was just by chance. They wanted someone that didn’t come from the industry. Before we joined, things had been going towards a direction that wasn’t right. It was a direction that went against the entire DNA of the brand. It was supposed to be focused on artistry, to be innovative and to be daring. Then the brand, through different management, started to go towards being more commercial, without the proper marketing tools and strategies to support it. The owner decided that it was time to change. They needed to go back to the previous generation and what they were doing. They decided to hire new management. They brought in a westerner as the CEO and they brought me in to say, ‘we don’t want someone from the industry. We want someone who doesn’t know how to be afraid and we want someone who can focus on artistry.’ That was how I was brought in to do one perfume, Jubilation. They were very excited about it because I got a lot of good press. I got good press from Luca Turin and a lot of the others. That was when the perfume blogging world started. Back then, 8 years ago, I was working with bloggers, which was new and that’s when it exploded.
WMSSL: With each new launch in the Main Collection, the tradition is always to launch a men’s perfume and a women’s perfume. Is there a reason for this when most of your competitors promote the idea of genderless scents?
Christopher Chong: I do it because we inherited the main collection. Since 1983 there has always been a man and a woman. It is more interesting for me because I get to create two different fragrances. Unlike most brands where one is a reflection of the other, I give you two totally new fragrances. I find this much more interesting. Also, it goes back to understanding your customer and market. No matter what we think about how advanced customer’s tastes have become, there is still a huge percentage that will not buy it if it doesn’t say ‘for man’. I don’t want to name countries but there are certain countries where masculinity is very important to them. If your box doesn’t say for man they won’t want it. So I have to cater to all my customers. Customers who are savvier are different. They don’t care. They just do a blind test. When these people come to our stores for consultation, they don’t care. Our salespeople normally say, ‘we don’t want you to know if it’s for men or for women,’ during the consultation.
WMSSL: Has your concept of a consultation evolved since you started with the brand? Now with brands being much more transparent with information and bloggers promoting the idea of looking under the hood of the perfume, so to speak, does this change the way you talk with your customers about perfume?
Christopher Chong: The problem with perfume is that it has been over analysed these past few years. I am the first one to raise my hand and say, I am not a huge perfume buff. I think of the 1980’s, which were so interesting. When you had to wait a year or two for a launch, it was much more special. Back then, perfumes were not overanalysed. It was much more about how does this speak to me? More importantly do I like it or not? Sometimes with too much information it confuses the consumer. It takes away your own personal judgement. You may like something, but technically you should not like it.
WMSSL: And I think some brands are forgetting the customer because they are caught up in telling a story or the ‘art of perfumery.’ They forget to allow room for the customer to become part of the conversation.
Christopher Chong: Sometimes they go too far with steering the consumer into what they want the consumer to smell. It is too easy to go into that mode of thinking for the consumer. I don’t like doing that. Then people say, ‘well what do you do in a consultation?’ For me a consultation is an introduction but it is also to allow the consumer to absorb. There are people that like to do profiling and they ask me, why don’t I do that? I say – how can I get to know someone in half an hour or even an hour? I don’t know you. It takes a lifetime to get to know someone. I don’t know you so I can’t tell you. I love it when people say, what perfume do you think I should wear. I say, I can’t tell you. To be honest, I don’t believe in profiling.
WMSSL: People are too complex to be read like that right?
Christopher Chong: It is like going to a tarot card reading. Even husbands and wives or partners do not know each other after 30 years. They still find new things, so how do you expect me to know how you should smell after half an hour?
WMSSL: How do you select the perfumers you work with? Do you approach a perfumer with a specific project in mind or will you submit a design brief and see which perfumer’s draft best suits your vision?
Christopher Chong: In the beginning, I didn’t know many perfumers so I did blind tests. I submitted a brief and directions. They would submit their first submissions. I would go about selecting them through the first submission blind tests without knowing who they were. But now I know their style and I know certain people that I want to work with. So a lot of the time it is based on personality. I don’t like to work with big egos. I think to create a piece of work; it is not about their or my ego. It is about creating the objective. It is not about their style or my style; this is the reason why you find that there is an Amouage style, because we remove our egos. It is not creating a Christopher Chong fragrance, or the perfumer’s fragrance. It is about creating what the brief sets out. Sometimes when we work on a fragrance, it is about to be launch then we ask ourselves if we feel good about it, and we say no – there is something weird about it. Then we look at the brief and we realise, oh my god we got out of control! So we make ourselves go back to the brief. That is why I think there is a special Amouage smell because we remove our egos.
WMSSL: Aside from this, there is a definite soul in Amouage perfumes. Even when working with perfumers who create for other brands, you have the ability to push a perfumer to create something very unique to Amouage. What is your secret?
Christopher Chong: Well, as you know, a lot of your peers (perfume bloggers) haven’t been fair to a lot of us. They only give the perfumer credit. They always name the nose as the creator, but perfumers are not created out of the blue. Perfumers work with the creative director who sets the mood, the tone and the requirements. Creative directors all work in different ways so I cannot speak for others but the way I work is to always select the brief, the mood and the story. I even select ingredients before the perfumer gets to work on the brief. That’s why they like working with me. Life is a lot easier because the direction is so precise, where as some other brands may say, I want a bit of this or I want a bit of that. I want you to capture this or that. But I am very precise. I may select the ingredients and accords beforehand so they get much more prescription in creating their perfume and I tweak it at every stage with them. I might not have the technical expertise like they do. I didn’t go to perfume school but in a way they find this very refreshing because it challenges their textbook knowledge. They love it because I give them freedom, but also, I give them guidance. You have to be very precise about telling them what you want. Some have told me, so many people don’t know what they want.
WMSSL: For others, maybe the brief is simply – make me a best seller, or make it smell like such and such.
Christopher Chong: Make me lots of money! The problem now is that there are too many brands. Niche is not like niche was 8-10 years ago.
WMSSL: Where do you think it is heading if things continue this way?
Christopher Chong: Car crash! (Christopher laughs) Customers are waking up to it. I think it was different when I joined. There weren’t so many of us. When I started, I spent two years going around the world, telling people what a creative director was in the perfume industry. Nobody knew. I mean there were no creative directors back then; they called themselves perfumers, which was confusing. I was the first to raise my hand, Frederic Malle did it too, to say, no, we don’t blend, we direct, this is different. Back then, the press and the bloggers, which was very new, they didn’t understand. They said, well what do you do if you don’t blend? They didn’t understand the other aspects of creation. Like in fashion, a creative director, he or she sets the mood, the tone, selects the materials and then the whole team works together as a team. Nowadays everyone is coming out and finally saying, ‘oh we don’t blend, we are creative directors.’ (Christopher laughs)
WMSSL: This is very true. If I think of the couture industry, every creative director is much more revered as the creator of a collection compared to the perfume industry. Undoubtedly you would not have Chanel without Karl Lagerfeld or Lanvin without Alber Elbaz, but most people don’t see the team of technical experts that sit behind these designers, bringing their drawings to life. Yet in fashion, we only think of one person as the brand – the creative director. In perfume it is kind of the reverse.
Do you think the role of a perfumer has changed in the past decade? These days, perfumers are like celebrities.
Christopher Chong: It has changed. There are lots more women perfumers now too. I work with a lot of women, and these women I work with, their background is often not perfume. They started off as chemists; they did chemistry in university. Like Karine Vinchon Spehner, who has a PHD. But overall I like to work with people that are more like a reflection of me. I am actually very easygoing. I like to work with people who are also easygoing. I don’t care about my name being attached to it, and they shouldn’t too. It’s about the final product. So I tend not to work with big name celebrity perfumers.
WMSSL: What about Alberto Morillas? He is a big name.
Christopher Chong: Alberto doesn’t count! He is a legend (Christopher laughs). Recently, I did a lot of work with Pierre Negrin. Pierre is not a celebrity perfumer but he is a nice guy. I work with certain perfumers just because they are nice. That is it. In my personal opinion, they must have all the basic skills, core skills that I need, but for me, some of that mixture is their personality. It is reflected in the product. For example, for Honour Woman, I worked with Alexandra Carlin. She had just finished her apprenticeship. She was a very sweet girl to work with and she still sends me emails. She was such a nice person and that is why we collaborated. I just want to work with nice people. I mean the world is too tough and too stressful. I don’t need my work to give me any more stress!
WMSSL: So where to next? Where will you be taking us, your audience, in this next cycle, which began with Journey Man and Journey Woman?
Christopher Chong: When I first started, people didn’t know who I was. It took customers and the press some years to get to know me. Now I think we have reached a stage where they know more about me than I know about myself. So I decided that in the next cycle, it is much more direct. Like in Journey, I told people about my passion, what I like. For example, I like Chinese film noir, Chinese cinema. It surprised me that some press and some customers, they shared those same passions with me, and that created a dialogue. For this new, second cycle, I want to have a more intimate dialogue with the world, rather than telling my story behind a narrative. So this becomes a much more personal narrative.
WMSSL: You mentioned Journey Man. It is a fragrance that I really relate to. As far as my journey with fragrance goes, Journey Man reminds me very much of fragrances I smelled back in the 1990’s as a teenager becoming interested in men’s fragrance.
Christopher Chong: A lot of current trends are coming from the ‘80s and ‘90s gentlemanly smells. When I go to America to do press interviews the press say to me, ‘your stuff is very difficult to wear. They’re so strong.’ I have to say, wait a minute here. Think 1980’s. You guys gave us Giorgio Beverly Hills and Bijan for Men! You guys gave us all of those fragrances in the 1980’s. You are telling me that this (Amouage) is strong? They are tame in comparison.
WMSSL: And what about the Opus Library Collection? How will this continue to evolve?
Christopher Chong: It took some time to be accepted by customers. The core clientele are so different. In New York, there is a lot of the fashion crowd wearing it because they are much more daring. The Library collection allows me to explore. I see it as my couture. It gives me the opportunity to be experimental, which I may filter down to the main collection. For example, Opus VII was all about galbanum, which I still don’t have in my main collection yet. But galbanum is a tough ingredient to use; you either love it or hate it like marmalade. The latest one, Opus VIII is about a marine-ozone molecule. I wouldn’t dare to do that in my main collection. I would get slaughtered. But the Library Collection allows me to do it my way without being too worried about the market result. So I think that is good because we all need something like that to play with and to see the market’s reaction. 2 or 3 years later, I might use those same ingredients again but in the main collection.
WMSSL: Finally, what about the Midnight Flower collection? Where does this new collection fit in with the existing perfumes?
Christopher Chong: So this is the first EDP from the Midnight Flower collection. I launched this collection last year in honour of my dog that passed away 2 years ago. It was a huge shock and I was in mourning at that stage and I wanted to express the close relationship that can be shared between a human and a dog. I wanted to come out and tell people about my mourning and in many ways I was scared. I thought people wouldn’t understand. When I did, I was really shocked by the support I got. A lot of people said they spent many years staying quiet because they were too scared and too embarrassed to talk about their hurt and the pain. My story is about having courage and saying it’s OK. So this collection is basically in her honour. Midnight Flower was her pedigree name. I got her when I started at Amouage. We went through this whole journey together, and she was part of my smelling process. If she ran out, it was no good and if she ran around in circles, it was a good perfume. I wanted it to be a celebration of who she was, the joy she gave me, and her characteristics. She was a very funny, quirky and crazy little dog. That is why it is all about a celebration of happiness. It started with three candles and I launched another candle, this year, called Smile. The inspiration behind it was a raspberry macaroon. What brings a smile to your face? When you see dessert! So this collection allows me to do things that I couldn’t do in the main collection because people don’t think this is sophisticated. I’ve reached a point in my creative process where I want to do things without the pressure. Sometimes I want to do things for fun. Life is too short. I don’t want to be all moody, dark and scary. Memoir was scary you know! Sometimes I want to lighten it up. This first EDP is called Sunshine. It’s a gourmand white floral. It has opening notes I have never used before like almond and blackcurrant liqueur. It has a bright, sweet opening and then it has white floral notes of jasmine, osmanthus and magnolia. Then it has juxtaposition. My signature darkness in the basenotes is cade, papyrus and blond tobacco. And it’s a new cap. I wanted to represent happiness. I wanted this to be a happy scent. The box is also slightly different. I wanted the box to look different from the main collection. I made a floral sun pattern. You can also remove this (Christopher removes the padded insert from the box) and use the box to keep your jewellery or your trinkets. This is recycling. All our boxes are made of wood. I don’t understand minimalism. It is not my style. And it is something different from the Main Collection and the Library Collection. Even the colour is something I would not do in the Main Collection. So this collection has special meaning to me. It gives me the freedom to have fun. Life is very short. It is very important to have fun!
If you would like to read more about my experience of Christopher’s latest creation, Sunshine, visit my review and first guest post on US perfume site CaFleurBon.
Thank you to Agence de Parfum, Amouage’s exclusive distributor in Australia and New Zealand, who invited me to interview Christopher Chong during his recent visit to Australia.