In the space of a decade, Etat Libre d’Orange has carved its own niche in niche perfumery. The French house is built upon a reputation for having a quirky sense of humour, provocative storytelling and innovative fragrances. Etienne de Swardt is the brand’s founder. Based in Paris, his brand now boasts a collection of over 30 fragrances. Before Etat Libre d’Orange, Etienne worked in a more commercial area of the fragrance industry. In his role as an executive and trend consultant for LVMH Perfumes & Cosmetics, Etienne realised the risk-averse multinational conglomerate stifled his adventurous sense of creativity. Starting his independent perfume house was the logical next step. Etat Libre d’Orange gave Etienne the freedom he needed for his own ideas, like the Tom of Finland fragrance, a concept he had unsuccessfully pitched to LVMH.
Two years after declaring independence, Etienne launched his own Tom of Finland fragrance. Touko (Tom) Laaksonen was a Finnish artist whose drawings represented the unspoken fantasies of gay men post-World War II. His pencil sketches turned the male gaze on itself and through his technical skill as an artist he blurred the line between erotic art and pornography. His work was foundational before the rise of artists like Robert Mapplethorpe during the late-1960s Sexual Revolution. The Tom of Finland pseudonym caught on when Physique Pictorial magazine published his drawings for the first time in 1957; the editor simply credited them to “Tom of Finland.” At that time censorship laws were strict. In some American states, publishing full frontal male nudity attracted a punishment more severe than a conviction for committing violent crime. Gay fetish, S&M, voyeurism and cruising were common themes in Tom of Finland’s work. In interviews he spoke about having a light-hearted and fun approach to sex and homosexuality. He thought the general public took these two subjects too seriously. Maybe the reason why this collaboration between Etat Libre d’Orange and an artist like Tom of Finland makes sense is the parallels that exist between their works. Both approach taboo subjects with a sense of defiance defused with humour, as is the case with Etat Libre d’Orange’s Secretions Magnifiques, a fragrance that glorifies bodily fluids. Its packaging features an illustration of an ejaculating penis and balls, the sort of drawing boys giddy with puberty scribble on the back of school textbooks during class. Putting this type of graphic on a perfume bottle seems like a deliberate “f*** you” to an industry steeped in tradition and formality.
So what does a fragrance inspired by the art of Tom of Finland smell like? It’s surprisingly debonair. It’s the romanticised ideal of Tom of Finland’s hyper-masculine characters. The irony of the whole thing is that the subject matter probably repels many ‘perfume’ people, and perfume is a repellent for a many of the people in Tom of Finland’s world. Gay leather bars and clubs often impose a smellcode along with their dresscode; men wearing cologne get turned away at the door. In a subculture where the poster boys are cowboys, leather-clad bikers and men in uniform, the hyper masculine ideal is fragrance-free.
My first impression of the Tom of Finland fragrance was that it’s unexpected. It doesn’t cross any olfactory taboos. It evokes fine leather, supple and buttery to the touch, a stark contrast to the artist’s butch leather-clad subjects. Instead it’s a mild-mannered and sophisticated fragrance, which is never cloying. In an interview, Etienne spoke about wanting to steer clear of obvious and banal references. The Tom of Finland Foundation, which preserves the artist’s work, were also interested in a fragrance that would enhance a man’s natural odour rather than camouflage it.
Perfumer Antoine Lie created the fragrance formula. Although the perfumer has proven skill in creating fragrances for a broad range of clients, from Quicksilver to Giorgio Armani, it’s his work for brands like Comme des Garcons, CoSTUME NATIONAL, Nu_Be and Etat Libre d’Orange that epitomise the perfumer’s avant garde spirit. Along side his contemporaries Mark Buxton and Geza Schoen, Antoine Lie is one of a handful of pioneers in a new aesthetic school of perfumery, rooted in the values of futurism.
Lie’s Tom of Finland fragrance begins like a winter morning in Finland. The country’s icy climate is referenced with an opening of lemon and aldehydes. Anisic notes provide spicy warmth, which later evolve into saffron-infused leather. This opening sequence is decorated with notes of green galbanum, pepper and geranium. The Nordic sauna finds a reference here with an inclusion of a birch leaf accord. Branches of the tree are traditionally dried and used in Nordic saunas to beat bathers on the back, which improves circulation. These leaves give off a dry green odour very different from smoky birch tar that has been used to construct leather accords in perfumery for decades. Tom of Finland’s leather accord is dominated by Givaudan’s patented molecule Safraleine. It’s a complex molecule, which to my nose hovers somewhere between cold leather, spicy saffron with a touch of jammy osmanthus flower. The leather accord gradually settles, evolving into textured suede. Warm base notes of tonka bean, styrax and vanilla are contrasted with notes of salty vetiver and ambergris. Tom of Finland finishes as a modern skin scent of woods and leather.
Etat Libre d’Orange’s Tom of Finland fragrance charters new territory that was mapped out by the ultra-masculine 1920s leather fragrance for men Knize Ten. If your 21st century taste in aesthetics have caused you to overlook a bottle of this fragrance on perfume store shelves because you think Tom of Finland’s art now reads as being a little kitsch, I recommend giving the fragrance some attention next time you go shopping. Especially if modern leather fragrances that wear close to the skin are your thing. Discard the box if it is not to your liking and you have a modern, well-designed bottle and a modern leather fragrance that performs in all climates and at all times of the day.
Perfumer: Antoine Lie
Creative Director: Etienne de Swardt
Release Date: 2008
Typology (via Fragrances of the World): Woody oriental