The End Of The Line For Etat Libre D’Orange - An Interview With Etienne De Swardt

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When we meet at his Paris boutique, Etienne De Swardt says that he prefers to absorb rather than generate words. Perhaps he's just feeling a little bit tired. Since his brand, Etat Libre D'Orange, appeared on the scene in 2006, he's released nearly 30 perfumes and made a name for himself as one of the edgiest, most highly-respected players in the niche world. He's courted controversy too: his Secretions Magnifiques - created by Antoine Lie - remains one of the most notorious releases of the century. So there are probably quite a few demands made on his time and on his ability to produce amusing soundbites. He's earned the right to feel tired. But then, when I smile and remind him that this is yet another occasion on which he has to be the speaker rather than the listener, he takes a deep breath and launches into a slick delivery of witticisms.

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He starts by telling me about La Fin Du Monde, his latest scent, and the first signed solely by Quentin Bisch, the young Givaudan perfumer who came to public attention in Ian Denyer's 2011 BBC documentary on the fragrance industry. As De Swardt explains, the roots of this whiff of the apocalypse lie in an encounter that took place several years ago when an older gentleman walked into his store.

"He was looking for Secretions Magnifiques and Rien. And he said, 'Are you the founder of the company?' and I said, 'Yes'. So he said, 'I want to put some blame on you. You decided to make Tom Of Finland, but in fact, all you did was just a naughty marketing approach. You don't know what's going on with Tom Of Finland. You've made it for the sons of Tom, but you did not make it for Tom.' He was a little bit furious, and I said, 'Who are you? Stop bothering me, and take the perfume for free, so you cannot complain.' And then two days later, he came back to the boutique, and I realised that he was one of the most iconic names in contemporary art.

"He is Jacques Damase. He was born in 1932 and he lives in Paris. He was the artistic adviser of President George Pompidou. He was the boyfriend of the poet Aragon, so he knows everybody. He was one of the trendsetters of the contemporary art of the second half of the 20th century. He invited me to his apartment, and then we started a kind of Pygmalion. We tried to have one session on a weekly basis, with him trying to feed me and nurture me a little bit.

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"We did The Afternoon Of A Faun together, because he said, 'Shame on you, Etienne, that you don't celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Ballet by doing a perfume dedicated to the glory of Diaghilev and the beauty of Nijinsky dancing on stage.'

Damase passed on his love of the work of Blaise Cendrars to his cultural protege. So when he suggested basing a perfume on the author's 1919 work, The End Of The World Filmed By The Angel Of Notre-Dame, De Swardt immediately saw potential in the idea. "I said, 'It could be a good name for a perfume. It's so postmodern. Let's try to work on it.'

De Swardt claims he knew straight away that this would be a project suited to Bisch. "I said Quentin has to be the one. We met here through Etat Libre D'Orange before he found his way to Robertet and Givaudan. He was a fan of the spirit of the brand."

La Fin Du Monde opens with a somewhat unexpected accord. "Quentin came up with the idea of popcorn. He said, 'Etienne, for me, the end of the world is something very cinematographic. We've seen so many ends of the world through different films. So the perfume has to smell like popcorn in a way.' He had the witty idea and I wanted to keep it. And I feel that it was fun to have a young generation of perfumers to express the permanent cycle of new life."

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Change is clearly on De Swardt's mind. "I think that I have to reinvent Etat Libre D'Orange a little bit," he says. "I want to move the brand to a new era. I'm trying to find a new way to extend the brand's visibility without corrupting the philosophy. I have 28 perfumes and I cannot add a 29th or a 30th. So I think this is the end of a cycle. And La Fin Du Monde is the final point of Etat Libre D'Orange 1.0, in a way. I want a new leap of faith for the brand. I don't know how to express it."

I put it to him that the transition seems to have started already. The well-known, cartoon-style imagery which used to adorn the testers has vanished - De Swardt agrees that their humour didn't travel well - and a larger, weightier flacon has appeared.

"The 100 ml bottle looks more institutional, more valuable. It's customised. It's to try to inject more transversal coherence. I keep on saying that, on one side, we love the frivolity at Etat Libre D'Orange, and being very serious with the quality of the formulation, and doing 300 euros per kilo as a scent cost, when everybody else is doing around 70 euros per kilo. Rien is slightly above 400 euros per kilogram. It kills my net profit, but it's part of the spirit of the brand, and that's the reason why we're still alive, because we have loyalty from consumers. That's part of the assets of Etat Libre D'Orange. But when you're far away, in St Petersburg, with a sales force trying to explain the brand and what you've put into the formulation, and what people see is a cheap bottle, then you have a rupture which does not help sales. So the idea was to try to inject that minimum safety business approach, so there's more global coherence with the brand image.

"Plus China is on board to sustain the cost of development. 20% of the shares of the company belongs to a Chinese group. They control part of the tobacco business in China, so they have much more money than me. It's a 'love money' injection. They're very excited by the spirit of the brand and they said, 'Okay, you need help to grow. Don't corrupt yourselves in terms of brand development. Try to be a little bit more clever. Look at the bottle. Maybe you could be a little bit more 'value for money' for consumers far away from Paris' trend-setting attitude. Try to be cool and give them a beautiful bottle.'"

He pauses to think when I ask him whether the influence of these investors might cause the essence of his brand to be diluted.

"That's the permanent debate. If you are the heir of a Saudi family and you have a lot of money and you want to go into perfume, to protect the cash investment, you definitely have to go for consensuality and something without asperity. Etat Libre D'Orange was created without any, shall we say, 'cash protective attitude'. It was a kind of anti-commercial attitude, to create a true DNA that you can nurture, and then, from that, get it macerated into something a little bit bigger and stretch a little bit. So the idea over the last five, seven years of Etat Libre D'Orange was truly to create a core brand philosophy without bowing to a group of investors. And now I think that we can accelerate, without any expectations of immediate Eldorado.

"We're moving the brand from, let's say, €1 million net sales, to, let's say, €1.5/2 million, without corrupting the brand philosophy. In a way, it's good payback to the perfumers. We need to have respect for the perfumers, because of the time dedication given by Antoine Lie to create Rien or Ralf Schwieger to create The Afternoon Of A Faun... we need to have that respect so the brand can move on to that minimum turnover on which we can auto-finance the system. And maybe in the next three years, we won't create any new things, except sublimating what we've already created. We could do the Ultimate Intense Slut version of Hotel Slut, or Eau De Secretions, as a lighter version of Secretions Magnifiques."

I raise my eyebrows when he tells me that his brand is just about to enter the culturally sensitive Qatari market. Only 10 Middle East-appropriate perfumes will be chosen to start with, he says, but then he grins and chuckles. "It's quite funny because we're discussing with a big player in Iran, and he said, 'I just want Tom Of Finland, because I know a cafe in Tehran, owned by two gay people, and they could make a massive success for the perfume.' But obviously we try to select the less sulphurous perfumes for certain markets."

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Flagship Store, 69 rue des Archives - Paris 3e


When asked about the issue of anti-allergen regulation in the perfume industry, a thoughtful expression crosses his face.“What's going on in Europe is a true problem, but it's a good thing. I was discussing it with Jean-Jacques Chanot, the Head of Mane. He said that we very much think about what we eat, because we think that it could generate cancer or different problems in our biochemistry. But nobody really knows what goes on when you put something on skin, especially with alcohol. It goes to your brain and kidneys and everything. Nobody truly knows what the reaction could be. For example, when you buy a new pair of jeans, you don't know what's happening in the interaction between your skin and all the elements that have been used to tint the jeans, which then go into your blood. So in fact it's very important that Europe is now focussing a little bit on what the consequences could be. There's a shifting situation in the spectrum of ingredients you can use. It's time to see that the skin is a beautiful barrier, but it's also something easy to penetrate.”

With these thoughts, he comes full circle and offers a few, final words on his brand's new baby. “La Fin Du Monde is a kind of anti-despair perfume,” he says. “When you're just about to commit suicide, or when the world surrounding you is collapsing, the only thing you have to take with you is a perfume. Frivolity will save the world. We're in a society where we like to own, but in fact, we become depressed without any global vision or religion. We're a little bit lost, so in fact we're saved by frivolity and entertainment. And I think that when the world is collapsing, the only way to stay alive is to rush for frivolity.”
About the author
Persolaise is a four-time Jasmine Award winning writer with a lifelong interest in the world of fine fragrance. His perfume guide, Le Snob: Perfume, is published in English by Hardie Grant and in German by Süddeutsche Zeitung. He has written for Sunday Times Style, Grazia, Glass, The Scented Letter and Now Smell This, amongst others.

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