Back in late 2013, the last time I interviewed Etienne De Swardt for Basenotes, his brand, Etat Libre D’Orange, was on the cusp of a transformation. Smarter bottles. Less of the cartoon quirkiness. A focus on the global market. In other words: one step closer to adulthood. It was a delicate moment for a company that had initially attracted attention because of its non-conformist attitude.
Since then, its output has been mixed. Certainly, the names of its perfumes are as striking as ever (Hermann A Mes Cotes Me Paraissait Une Ombre. will surely remain one of the most mouth-punishing monikers of all time) but their actual smells have veered away from adventurous territory. The recent Attaquer Le Soleil – inspired by the Marquis De Sade – is a case in point. Enticing concept: somewhat less arresting juice. So when I met up with De Swardt again – in London on this occasion – I started by asking him about this olfactory homage to the creator of some of the darkest writings ever published.
Etienne De Swardt: Quentin Bisch, the perfumer, spent something like seven months with Hugues De Sade, the great great grandson of the Marquis De Sade. He was a friend of Etat Libre D’Orange and he came to the store and said, “I love your brand. I’d like to do something based on the history of my great great grandfather.” So I thought, let’s do Attaquer Le Soleil and Quentin was truly passionate about the Marquis De Sade. So somehow the perfume is quite niche and quite dark and it’s a kind of beautiful blossom of labdanum and cistus.
Persolaise: Okay, that’s fine as far as the idea goes. But my issue with the perfume is that I don’t smell any darkness in the finished product.
EDS: No. That’s my vision of the Marquis De Sade. He’s so Luciferian in my mind, so maybe that’s my post-rationalisation on the formulation itself. You know, in the perfume industry, it’s so difficult to express your emotion in a perfume when you don’t have that minimum, let’s say, vocabulary. So at the end it’s a land of magical speech and post-rationalisation. A land of fantasy and imposture. So you never know where the truth is in the perfume industry. It’s difficult to do something truly objective. But we don’t mind at Etat Libre D’Orange. We just need a nice story telling that can leverage emotion and sincerity, and Hugues De Sade was very dedicated to the memory of his ancestor.
P: So you had to make the decision that you couldn’t inject that darkness into the perfume because it wouldn’t work? Is that what you’re saying?
EDS: Yes. It was truly Quentin and Hugues together, without that much interference from me. And Quentin said, “I hate cistus, so it will be a good praise to the Marquis De Sade to make a perfume on something that I hate. It’s very masochistic.” And the tag line was: Masochists of the world – this is your perfume.
EDS: With Chandler Burr we started the discussion three years ago, based on his novel. He was there at the very beginning of the collaboration we did with Tilda Swinton. Tilda was supposed to be the heroine of the movie of his novel. Finally she said she couldn’t do it. It didn’t happen. But then she said, “I want to do a perfume.” And Chandler said, “Next time you’re in Paris, you have to meet Etat Libre D’Orange, because that’s the only fragrance house that can do a perfume with you.” She wasn’t into the Hollywood, money-driven attitude. So then we made Like This. I had been discussing with Chandler about doing a perfume for quite a long time. I said, “You are a perfume critic, so go the other way and join the other side of the mirror, and spend time with a perfumer to discover the other part of the industry.” And I said, “You Or Someone Like You is a fantastic name for a perfume, so take the story of your book and nurture a perfumer at Givaudan or Mane and do it your own way.” He was very excited, but it took something like one year to pick Caroline Sabas as a perfumer. And then another year of scent development. It was more than two years from the beginning of the idea.
P: Why did it take him so long to find a perfumer?
EDS: Because he was very meticulous.
P: What do you think he was looking for?
EDS: His vision of Los Angeles. He’s based in New York but he travels a lot to Los Angeles and the novel is set in Los Angeles. It’s a perfume of a woman who does not exist. And I love his idea of not revealing what’s inside the formulation, which is somehow arrogant, but I like it. If you want to know what’s in it, You is probably not for you. That was his idea.
P: How involved were you with the project? Did they send you mods?
EDS: Yes, they did, but Chandler was very much into it as a duo with Caroline. I was sniffing things and giving ideas, but it was a collaboration, without Etat Libre D’Orange interfering. Like This, Attaquer Le Soleil and You Or Someone Like You: let’s say they are true collaborations of freedom between an Artistic Director and a perfumer.
P: Did you give him a maximum budget?
EDS: No limit on the budget. This is an affordable one. You know, it’s approximating the standard of Etat Libre D’Orange, but usually our standards are very high, in between 200 and 300 euros. And this one is a chic, nice, qualitative creation.
P: Does the scent tie in with your personal vision of Los Angeles?
EDS: No, because that’s something truly subjective. And I decided at the beginning to let Chandler take the lead with the Artistic Direction. You need one captain on board. That’s the sincerity of our fragrance house.
P: Who decided when it was finished?
EDS: Caroline and Chandler. I was involved in the final fine-tuning, but it was very much Caroline and Chandler. He was 100% into it. And yes, he had that phase of perplexity, discovering that one day you like a note and the next day you decide that it’s a piece of shit. So he was very confused by that process. But it was a good learning curve for him. You know, the problem with doing a perfume is not the art. It’s making it rotate on the shelves, the whole economic process at the end. It breaks me. When you do a perfume, you have a passion at the beginning, and then you have to face the land of constraints, which is part of the game. But I see more and more newcomers in the perfume industry – at Exsence or Pitti – and I say to myself that they will lose a lot of money.
They come with passion. They put a hundred thousand euros into it. And they don’t realise the idea is not what you do at the beginning, but the idea is your capacity to last and make it rotate and to organise the sell-through. So many newcomers have that minimum cash from their own savings, and they spend it and they go bankrupt. And I feel sorry about that. But it’s Darwin’s survival of the fittest. That’s the way it goes.
P: Okay, so this is a good moment for me to ask how things are at Etat Libre right now. How is version 2.0 of the brand faring? Do you have to pay more attention to commercial issues, precisely because the environment is so Darwinian?
EDS: Creation is not everything. You need to protect your capacity to last. You need a minimum supply chain. Minimum structure. Organisation. You need to protect your cash. I was very much into creativity four years ago. Let’s re-boot, let’s do a counter-revolution. And my Chinese investors, who don’t have the majority of shares, said, “Etienne, the idea is not to develop Etat Libre D’Orange like a gallery of haute couture. The idea is to be balanced between creativity and pret-a-porter.” You have to bow a little bit to the constraints of the trade. And you have to protect your original creations. So you need a structure. Etat Libre is not corrupted, but structured, in order, first of all, to respect the commitment of the first perfumers, the talent they gave me at the very beginning. And respecting that means organising the company a little bit. So, you know, just to promote a revolution or a counter-revolution or a new opus, in fact is more or less betraying what was created. Reinventing yourself doesn’t mean breaking yourself from what you did.
P: So is the company currently achieving what you’re hoping to do or are you still trying to figure out what that balance feels like?
EDS: Last year, for the first time, we got minimum net revenue. For the first time in ten years, we broke even. This year, we’re going to be +10% net growth. So now the company is fully protected by the crusade of sincerity of the last 10 years. There is a loyalty to the brand because of the brand’s DNA.
P: Was that 10-year span always part of the original plan?
EDS: No, Etat Libre D’Orange went from one accident to the other without any five year plan or a strategy like Procter & Gamble. I created the company without any vision. The idea was a cry of freedom.
P: Okay, I don’t fully believe that. You had an artistic vision, very clearly.
EDS: Yes, but I was not money-driven, otherwise it would have been better to buy cobalt in Africa and re-sell it. I was getting more money as a consultant after my Oh My Dog experience.
P: So you do feel your current strategy is working?
EDS: It becomes teamwork. I’ve got two partners on an operational level. And now the Autocracy d’Orange has become a kind of republic. But it was valuable to be an autocrat at the very beginning to truly create and forge the DNA of the brand.
P: What’s your view on smaller brands being bought up by the big boys?
EDS: I was with Silvio Levi yesterday, the distributor of Creed and Floris in Italy. We discussed about all these newcomers. They sniff the exit strategy scenario. I see more and more financial raiders coming into the business. They pick up the minimum story telling, but they invest money with a vision of an exit strategy to sell the company to a group. It’s funny. I see more and more brands which, right from the beginning, are totally organised. And when you meet the founder, it’s like, “Yes, before perfume, I was in software and finance.” They’re clever boys and that’s part of their appeal, somehow, that survival of the fittest. But I see more and more financial raiders coming into niche because they sniff a good exit scenario with LVMH or L’Oreal. I think it has corrupted the industry a little bit, but that’s the way it goes.
P: And what about the future? What should we expect next from Etat Libre?
EDS: Something very British.