published in SSAW Magazine Spring/Summer 2013, p. 196-205

The scent of a woman, the scent of a man. Do we perceive it, or rather feel it? A dialogue on the reality and fantasy of fragrance making with Christian Astuguevieille – the perfume artist who substitutes the beautiful horror of Patrick Süskind with a very own proposal for the ultimate fragrance. Kindly inviting us into the olfactory universe, philosophy, craft and creation process at Comme des Garçons and his close collaboration with celebrated founder Rei Kawakubo.

You work in a conceptual, multi-disciplinary surrounding and develop scents in a very specific yet mysterious manner. Please give us a quick visual tour through your workshop. What do we see?
I am a very diverse artist. As I create perfumes, furniture, jewellery and I paint, my workshop can go in all sorts of directions. It’s a melting pot of all the projects I’m working on at a specific time. It can really vary depending on the moment, from a crown I crafted for one of Rei Kawakubo’s shows, to a collection of rings I’m working on, or an array of little perfume bottles. It’s really not just all white and only perfumes.

When did you start working with Comme des Garçons?
I started working for Comme des Garçons in 1992.

What influence does Rei Kawakubo have on you?
Rei Kawakubo, through her creativity, leads us on new, uncharted olfactory territories. Innovation and olfactory creativity would be the key words of our relation.

How many scents have you created since and which one are you most proud of?
We created around 60 fragrances. I like them all, but my favourite would be Odeur 71 (and Odeur 53) as we really went through a genuinely original olfactory challenge, a different research on unexplored fields. These two scents were really pioneers when they were launched about 10 years ago, and that is also what interests me, being a forerunner in my field.

What did you learn at Comme des Garçons that you'd never have had experienced otherwise?
Comme des Garçons taught me to be wary of the overly beautiful.

How is the idea for a new scent born?
It can have different origins: a word or a sentence spoken by Rei, a new substance brought to my attention by a perfumer, something, anything, be it at the country or in the city, that acts as a detonator and prompts a new olfactory idea.

What was the most absurd proposal for a scent?
I once sent my perfumer team to check out an overheated photocopier at the end of a long day and asked them to use that scent in order to create a perfume.

Is there a perfume concept you had to turn down?
No. Every research field holds an interest to me. As a principal, I never set anything aside. What has not already been done is tomorrow’s idea!

Once an idea is established, how does the development proceed?
When a concept is born, we summarize it into a few words that we will express to a perfumer we are used to working with. Words have a very important role to play in a perfume’s construction. It is essential to establish a specific vocabulary with a perfumer in order to best understand each other. We develop such interesting relations, that when I say “yellow” to a perfumer I often work with, he instantly understand what that means.

How long does it take to create the final product?
From a perfume’s first brief to its launch, it can take from 9/10 month up to 3 years! It is very variable and depends on how many thesis and antithesis we go through.

What makes a scent 'unique'?
Both the singularity of the perfume’s formula and the person wearing it.

Can every smell be recreated?
Yes, on a molecular level, every smell can be recreated, the only difference being the time it takes to do so.

Do you include anti-smells as core principle within the composition process?
No, we worked on anti-smell thematics as well as more classic perfume research. It’s important to be open, not to limit oneself. There should be no sectarianism in creation.

How do you re-create 'disgust'?
First off, we would need to define what ‘disgust’ means to both interlocutors. Just saying a word is not precise enough; we all have different connotations that are very personal. It’s really a cultural issue. So we would define the concept and then start the creation process.

Please choose an olfactory challenge you'd prefer to tackle: rotten fruit, cable fire or dog pooh?
I find rotten fruit very interesting. It’s a real scent, found in nature. You can get a whiff of it after strong storms in Hawaii for instance. It’s very vegetal, putrid, and thus very rich.
I would also be interested in cable fire… but as I must only chose one…

Which scent took the longest?
The two Odeurs: Odeur 53 and Odeur 71. Especially Odeur 53 as it was so innovative. We laughed a lot. We spent about 8 to 10 month saying, “no, this is not it, it’s too beautiful”. I worked very hard trying to make it less beautiful, different.

How many variations of an initial 'idea' are produced and tested?
We do not test. From the initial brief until we decide on the specific path of what a perfume will be, we can have 30/50 leads, it’s very fluctuating. On the other side, sometimes only 4 tries can make the magic happen.

Do you develop several perfumes simultaneously? And do they influence each other?
Yes, I always work on 5 or 6 different olfactory paths. It is very important to keep them tightly partitioned, so that they don’t influence one another.

Where do you source your ingredients?
Olfactory research labs regularly present an array of raw materials. Depending on our thesis, they get supplies from resellers from around the world. For ‘Patchouli’, we didn’t find the original source fine enough. We asked the laboratory to search for a better quality and they went all the way to the producing country to be sure it would be exactly what we were looking for. For other scents, the source can also be captive formulas created by laboratories and then proposed in correlation with a project.
How do you document and retrace the smell of a 'garage' for example?
For ‘Garage’, it all starts with a souvenir. We are all familiar with a garage; we’ve all known one at some point. A garage populated by an old car that has been there forever. It’s a very specific smell that is part of our collective culture. We tried to emulate this smell with 2 perfumers, to go at the core of its identity. This is an example of a very fast perfume. It only took us 3 sessions to create it. We were really in synch with the perfumers. This perfume starts out as a very raw “garage” smell, but what’s interesting is really its evolution. It becomes a very beautiful scent, smoky, a very qualitative blend. What’s also interesting with this project is its name. Garage is always a conversation starter!

Do you have an archive, a collection of components, smells, flavours?
I do not have an archive. If I need one, I love to go to Versailles’ Osmothèque (famous French perfume library) to smell perfumes from different time periods, the 20’s, the 50’s… from Coty, Poiret, Worth… Very particular scents anchored in a day and age. It’s very reenergizing! These maestros wrote perfumes a very long time ago that are still modern.

Do you travel a lot to collect new fragrance elements? Is it even possible to collect a smell?
Yes, it is possible and even important to collect smells. We keep them all tucked in our memory. I have travelled and still travel a lot. Each time, I am very attentive to certain smells, I always keep my nose and memory fully open to get as much in as possible. In creating ‘Champaca’, I drew into my memories of Indonesia, where I had travelled to many times. Balinese dancers always have champaca flowers in their hair, the delicate fragrance gliding with every movement.

Which technologies and machines are being used?
The perfumer’s brain! He translates the brief into a formula that is then implemented in his computer.

Which principle do you base the construction of the scent on?
At Comme des Garçons there is no base principal, everything is possible! We always try to construct, and deconstruct, in order to be dazzled.

Once the final composition is decided, what happens next?
Usually, once the final composition is decided we have a meeting with the Perfume department team and smell the new scent. If it is unanimously validated, we move on to packaging. Rei Kawakubo gives the artistic impulses to the Tokyo design team and really follows the process closely.

Who names the perfume?
We usually have a code name during the creation process. Once it is final, Adrian Joffe, Comme des Garçons’ CEO, names the perfume alongside Rei Kawakubo.

Is there an internal inauguration, a ritual of celebration?
No, there are none. We do a very informal presentation of the new product to journalists in order for them to see it and smell it, but no big specific event.

Who wears a new perfume first?
The research team, the perfumers and I. We need to understand how the scent reacts to our skin, how it evolves. It’s also interesting to wear it outside, have people talking about it, let us know what they think about it.

Do you have a favourite smell?
Instinctively I would say a fresh cedar wood that was just chopped down. It’s a very peculiar smell, with the tree’s sap adding a special gist.

How has your own personal 'taste' developed during the years of your career?
I have worked in perfumes since 1975, so you can imagine that in that time frame, my taste has evolved, it’s more refined. However, it also varies depending on the period. Taste can be very fluctuating.

Does your own perception change gradually?
Yes, olfactory perceptions change, they become more refined. I have different desires today also because of what’s possible, research evolution.

Do you regard yourself a scientist, composer or artist?
An artist, without a doubt!

What did you study?
I studied at Les Arts Décoratifs, a prestigious French art school. I then went into education and worked as an educator for the youth for a few years. My first encounter with the world of perfumes started in 1975. I learned about the trade, how to create briefs and develop scents, help a perfume evolve. However, I am not a perfumer. What I find interesting is specifically to not use the proper, peculiar perfumer’s vocabulary.

What did you dream of as a teenager?
I always wanted to showcase the senses, in one way or the other. I was very sensitive to sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. As a child, I lived for a while in the South of France. The walks I would take through lavender fields, hot figs on a summer’s day, a leaf crackling in my hand, all these memories contributed to my sensory desires.

How would you describe your own smell?
I think in a way my own smell has been modified. As soon as I am not working, I always spray myself with little drizzles of Luxe Patchouly from Comme des Garçons. When I walk by, my friends recognize me by my Patchouli scent. It has become part of who I am in a way. Just as Süskind’s Perfume hero has no scent, I wonder if my own smell has not been replaced by Patchouli’s.

Which scent would describe your most beloved person?
It would be the scent of skin. Everyone has his or her own specific smell. Skin is very intimate. So, yes, it would be skin, the smell of one’s skin texture.

Let's create a perfume together, right now. How would you compose a perfume that portrays 'The World'?
I would try to find a perfume that would represent the idea of pollution. People that will smell it would realize it is time to act, to do something before it is not too late.

Your philosophy in once sentence?
Try to create as often as possible and give people joy through creation.