Thursday 22 June 2017

PERFUME at Somerset House

Somerset House in London has to be one of the most beautiful venues for any exhibition, but it's even better on a hot summer evening. This is how it was on Tuesday when I visited the new installation simply entitled PERFUME. With a tag line describing it as “a sensory journey through contemporary scent” I really had no idea what to expect. Except for a few slips from Lizzie Ostrom, aka Odette Toilette, during a day out with baby Ostrom it was a total surprise. So, was my original impression that it covered everything from "semen to cookies" correct? Come with me into a "world of pure imagination".

The fragrance industry has evolved beyond recognition since the days of Houbigant and D’Orsay and companies have finally realised that they need to accept and embrace these changes or, to put it bluntly, go out of business. I know that this might sound harsh but customers are turning to emotive or provocative perfumes in an effort to escape the onslaught of the “marketing department” juggernaut. Star names like Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, even Poppy Delevigne cater for a mainstream audience but what is there for the more experimental scent wearer that craves originality?

PERFUME takes the visitor on a journey through ten fragrances (which I’ll let you discover yourself) that have expanded the perfume experience and pushed the boundaries of what is “acceptable” in the world of scent. Some of the major contributors to this trend have been companies such as Firmenich, Givaudan and Symrise working in the exciting field of synthetics. We need to remember that even Ernest Beaux stated, "we'll have to rely on the chemists to find new chemicals if we are to make new and original accords.” Synthetics can add a character, an effect, and a texture that can’t be created by naturals alone.

The exhibition starts with a nod to ten of the major fragrances from the 20th Century, including Youth Dew by Estée Lauder and Giorgio Beverly Hills, as well as a reconstructed L’Origan de Coty. The later is available to smell thanks to the Coty laboratories and it is something that I would advise you not to rush as it is breathtaking. From here the journey really begins and we are introduced to the ten modern fragrances during a wander through Somerset House’s numerous rooms. Each is given its own space, its own surroundings, and you are encouraged to explore them blind without any thought about which fragrances you are smelling.

After the first five the names are revealed and again after the second set you also discover what you have been smelling. The environments are designed to give you clues, such as a post-coital bed and a leather-strewn catholic confessional, but by removing the names you are encouraged to use your own memories and experiences to process the scents. With a final stop at the Givaudan lab, where you can see the perfumers creating specific fragrance accords, on Tuesday it was a glorious fougere, the exhibition is complete.

PERFUME runs at Somerset House from 21st June to 17th September and is curated by Claire Catterall and Lizzie Ostrom.

[Image of Comme des Garçons installation courtesy of Eglija Vaitkevice]

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