Anti-Aesthetic: The Scents of Comme des Garçons

“Anti-aesthetic”…signals that the very notion of the aesthetic, its network of ideas, is in question here: the ideas that aesthetic experience exists apart, without “purpose,” all but beyond history, or that art can now effect a world at once (inter)subjective, concrete, and universal–a symbolic totality.  Like “postmodernism,” then, “anti-aesthetic” marks a cultural position on the present: are categories afforded by the aesthetic still valid? …”Anti-aesthetic” also signals a practice, cross-disciplinary in nature, that is sensitive to cultural forms engaged in a politic (e.g., feminist art) or rooted in a vernacular–that is, to forms that deny the idea of a privileged aesthetic realm.

–Hal Foster, Introduction, The Anti-Aesthetic

Admirers of all things beautiful understand the allure of Japanese culture.  From the moment that the Japanese emperor opened its doors to American and European trade in the 19th century, its minimal and highly restrained aesthetic continues to inspire artists and designers with its striking combinations of color, shape, texture, and taste.  The Japanese impact our global culture in ways that are unexpected and audacious.

Among its many spheres of influence is fashion.  Rei Kawakubo established Comme des Garçons in 1973, and nearly forty years later she still wows us with sculptural clothes that blend Japanese and Western influences into confounding compositions.  Using deconstructive techniques and copious use of the color black, Comme des Garçons redefines the whole category of clothing by going against many Western fashion tropes that overly sexualizes the female body.  Using the traditional kimono as a  formal building block, CdG uses heavy cotton, wool, and layered chiffon to create volume and structure.  Instead of revealing cleavage or miles of leg, their clothes are known to obscure as much of the body as possible while leaving unexpected parts exposed.  Kawakubo nods towards the eros of fashion rather than objectifying, using fashion’s expressive nature to look critically at the culture of fashion, both past and present, and its social dimensions.

CdG’s perfume line, while it does not entirely match the rebel spirit of its clothes, subtly subverts.  The scents are made in collaboration with some of the most famous noses of the perfume world, like Bertrand Duchaufour (Incense Series), Antoine Lie (888, Wonderwood), Antoine Maisondieu (Play), and Mark Buxton (Eau de Parfum, Green and White). (1) The soft floral fragrance of Comme des Garçons Eau de Parfum is a classic of modern perfumery, while its avant garde scents, Odeur 53 and 71, called “anti-perfumes,” are abstract, conceptual works based more on ideas than conventional aesthetics.  Containing notes such as “Pure Air of the High Mountains, Flash of Metal, and Nail Polish,” and “Hot Light-Bulb, Warm Photocopier Toner, Hot Metal, A Toaster, Freshly Welded Aluminium, The Ink in a Fountain Pen,” the Odeur series uses ideas and materials as a starting place to shape its ultimate form, contrary to many perfumers who begin with a metaphor of a place or a particular kind of wearer in mind.

Perfume making has had a long tradition in Japanese culture, going back to the Heian period (794-1185 AD), the golden age of Japanese classical culture.  At court, royals and nobels, men and women alike, practiced perfumery, and they scented everything on their bodies from their hair to their clothes.  Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji chronicles life at the Japanese court in the 8th century, and she tells of the perfume guessing games played.  In one instance, Genji asks his brother, Prince Sochi, to try a perfume:

“You must help me to judge these perfumes,” said Genji to his brother. “I am sure there is no one who knows more about it than you.” The incense-burners were brought, and though Prince Sochi protested that this was not at all in his line, he was soon amazing everyone present by the incredible delicacy of his perceptions.  He would say of some perfume the ingredients of which were quite unknown to him: “There is a fraction too much cloves in this,” or of another: “Just a trifle too little aloes.” He never made any sweeping criticism, but established a sufficient number of small points to allow of arranging the competitors, all of whom would to any common critic have seemed equally unimpeachable, in a definite and justified order of precedence.

Shikibu, Murasaki (2011-12-20). The Tale of Genji (Tuttle Classics) (pp. 596-597). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

With the arrival of Buddhism in the 6th century, the burning of incense as an offering also became a daily practice, so that ingredients coming from India and the Middle East through the Silk Road became commonplace odors in noble residences as well as places of worship.  CdG’s Incense perfume series, launched in 2002, pays homage to the tradition of incense in Japanese perfumery while also emphasizing its importance in other religions:

Avignon – Catholicism
Ouarzazate – Islam
Zagorsk – Orthodox Christianity
Jaisalmer – Hinduism
Kyoto – Buddhism and Shintoism

The wide geographical scope of the understated Incense series, (Japan, France, Morocco, Russia, and India) reveals something very important about the Comme des Garçons sensibility.  If Chanel No. 5 represents High Modernism in the historical narrative of perfume, then CdG has achieved a Post Modernism by mixing and matching contemporary and ancient cultural forms and practices, rendering them abstract, exciting, and of-the-moment. Comme des Garçons celebrates the heterogenous nature of our global society, privileges questions over hard pat answers, and opens up the possibility for new identities to be formed.

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