From portraits and controversy towards the absurd
Exit the King, created by Ralf Schwieger and Cecile Matton is the latest member in Etat Libre d’Orange collection. This chypre whose name and story refer to Eugene Ionesco’s play (1962.) is also the third episode of what appears to be Etienne de Swardt‘s perfume narrative about the perfumery itself.
I can’t think of many other houses whose perfumes are so vitally rooted in an inventive and sometimes complex narrative, and so far the meanings Etienne de Swardt served with Exit the King are, unlike the perfume itself, the most exclusively demanding, even hermetic and very dark.
To grasp them, one needs to go beyond the freshness and lightness of the perfume to the paraphrase of Ionesco’s play, featuring as the description of Exit The King perfume:
The kingdom from Ionesco’s play is staged on the known address: at the corner of 69 rue des Archives, in the Marais, Paris, at Etat Libre d’Orange flagship store, which is described “like a frontier, where the old world ends and the new world begins”.
The name of the king who is about to die isn’t Berenger. The King is named Etienne. When the curtain rises, Etienne is already yielded in submission to a new sovereign, a woman named Lola, and he is sentenced to lose his head.
Before his death, Etienne presents his last perfume, the new chypre for the new world coming after him.
The perfume’s name is Exit the King.
While Etiene rambles about what perfume should be, Lola – “she is the new soul, the new role, she is desirable and she has conquered” – is condescending and does not understand his visions about the perfume delivering entropy.
– Perhed on the scaffold before the guillotine, you speak these three words (Exit The King) like a farewell to the troubled world. – she says to Etienne, the king who’s time to exit has come.
So, here is Etienne – the rambling, soon dead king of the old kingdom / Etat Libre d’Orange, and the creation with his signature, made for the world he will no longer be a part of, is named “Exit the King”, after Ionesco’s play famous for strong criticism of the forces ruling the modern society.
Quite a striking description for a chypre that doesn’t smell either old or groundbreakingly new, but is contemporary light and bright, wearable, undemanding, and enjoyable.
Is there a catch?
Or is it just a commercial rambling, aiming at those who like to read stuff that sounds smart, and the perfume targeting those who like their fragrances “not demanding, but also please not commercially common”?
That’s the question I asked myself while smelling Exit the King, and there is no easy or the light answer.
I am a devoted lover of Etat Libre d’Orange.
I followed perfumes and stories from the very beginnings of the house, and in return, Etienne de Swardt offered me the most amusing and sometimes even demanding fragrant journeys, filled with lots of different emotions and an equal dose of thinking and questioning.
Trough the most of 15 years long journey was rewarding on the very personal level: I fall for a good story, and I loved Etienne de Swardt’s creative concepts because the best ELDO’s perfumes unmistakeably managed to support and bring to life Etienne de Sward’s narrative.
The actual correspondence between the story and the way that perfumes smelled was sometimes so realistic that it made my nose and my mind play the game: which came first – a chicken, or an egg?
Putain des Palaces, Secretions Magnifique, Divine Enfant, Fin du Monde, The Afternoon of a Faun, or Philippine House Boy – to mention just some creations rounded by amazing correspondence between the perfume and its narrative – often caught me in a circle while trying to answer the question – which came first, the creative concept, or the realization?
In the best creations from the early ELDO, the story was fully delivered in the perfume, and there was lots to smell, lots to think about, and lots to tell, so the outcome of the game I played for my amusement did not matter, as I felt that both – the perfumes and their contexts/narratives – were equally worth my words.
Then, in 2014., Etienne de Swardt decided to turn the new page, announcing the big change – ELDO 2.0.
It was done in a characteristical style, with the launch of the perfume with the significant name: La Fin du Monde – The end of the world:
“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.”“The End Of The Line For Etat Libre D’Orange – An Interview With Etienne De Swardt” – by Persolaise, published on Basenotes on 31st January, 2014.
Back in 2014., when Etat Libre d’Orange 2.0. was announced, even Etienne de Swardt could not tell where is ELDO planning to go. The interview (please, read it) was very informative about the core values and possible future business strategies, but we had to wait for the reinvention and the birth of ELDO 2.0.
Judging of what I knew then, I could only presume that the moderately controverse stories about nature and culture have come to an end with – bang! – La Fin du Monde.
Etat Libre d’Orange’s great story about the world and us in it, in which almost every perfume creation presented a separate subversive or socially controversial episode (Secretions Magnifique, Putain des Palais, even Jasmine et Cigarettes and Fin du Monde, to the point), or the interesting portrait (Vrai Blonde, Divine Enfant, …oh, there are so many…) ended in the smell of popcorn and gun powder.
But, opposite to what happened in Blaise Cendrars’ La Fin du Monde, the avant-garde screenplay which insipired ELDO’s perfume with the same name – the end of the world / a big change did really happen:
Behind the smoke of the self-perpetuating play with words, ELDO has changed the style.
Now it does seem like the King exited in 2013. After a while, probably in 2016., I stopped feeling the same excitement when the new ELDO’s perfume was announced.
Though I could still recognize the same characteristic witts behind the stories (You or someone like you), along with the carefully measured dose of postmodernist patchwork or cultural provocation (Marquise de Sade, Yes I do), and all this still sounded great, none of the perfumes launched after two years pause, which was announced at the beginning of 2014. in the interview with Persolaise, did not pull me in and make me think about the perfume, and what it does.
As much as I tend to fall for the great or just greatly told story, for me it is always about the perfume and how it smells:
Stories are the most magnificent and powerful creations on their own.
But, once paired to perfume, the narrative succeeds its might to the olfactive creation and becomes – only the support.
The same as the titles on the screen are quite pointless if the screen is showing different, less, or nothing, to me the story or the imaginative description is quite non-essential if the perfume does not deliver it on its own device.
I more prefer just facts, then.
In 2019. came the change – I was drawn back to ELDO, again because of the story.
But, this time it was because I smelled a speciffic spice added to the descriptions and meanings behind the two perfumes: Fleurs du Dechet / I am Trash (2018.) and She was an anomaly (2019.).
The spice was the reference on modern perfumery, because the two florals made in collaboration with Givaudan themed technical inovations in creation and production of perfumes:
With recycled perfume materials, Fleurs du Dechet answered to the global struggle for the preservation of the planet. But, in the typical Etienne de Swardt’s manner, the modern industrial solution challenged “natural”, and the witty point was once again expressed in the name:
While not at all being dirty, “Trash” is provocative, because it opposes the commercially exploited, sometimes misrepresented, very popular concept of “clean“.
She was an anomaly, released in August 2020., presented the result of a partially non-human creative process, powered by intuitive choices of just developed proto-AI, Givaudan’s Carto.
I found interesting that both perfume challenged still prevailing traditional concepts by offering a different, industrial and non-personal solution to what in fact is existential to perfumery – the perfume production and perfume creation.
But, as much the stories behind Fleur du Dechet and She was the anomaly intrigued me as a perfume lover – the perfumes did not – both perfumes were just decent florals.
However, I was glad that ELDO came up with the replacement for the narrative about the world and us, and that is the narrative about the perfumery. I once again became curious about Etienne de Swardt’s concepts and anxious to see where he’s taking self-referential narrative next.
I did not expect that the next creation on the same path will enter the territory of absurd, and rightfully claim it in more than one way.
What an apt name Exit the King is!
It’s the institutions and tradition simbolised in a powerful figure of a king, and – in perfumery – what can better represent the life-altering change than chypre?
By the 2000. the meanings behind syntagmas “classic chypre” and “new chypre” were already as carved into stone in everyday perfume talk, while barely few can clearly define what the new chypre is, on its own.
Smelling Exit The King, I could almost see old chypres losing their might and then taking the pose in synthetic material pajamas, handling the fact that the long history of greatness has passed away, because the perfumery is changed, coming up with new chypre, for the different world, and the different consumers.
While Fleur du Dechet and She was the anomaly left me pretty much indifferent on how the narrative reflects on the olfactive creation, in Exit the King didn’t. It was the striking contrast between the story and the perfume that made an impact: Schwieger / Matton creation and Etienne de Swardts description of the perfume made me think about the perfumery and us in the similar manner I used to think about the world and us, while smelling the best of ELDO 1.0.
Well, that’s something, if not all.
I am still ambivalent about Exit the King, because I kind of like it – on its own.
Exit the King is unchallenging, easily likeable chypre: fresh aldehydes and musks on top are tickelingly soapy, and a bit peppery, but not scratchy.
Flowers bloom coquetting with fleshy undertones before they dive in a slightly dirty bodily warmth of patchouli, but that’s just done right – the drydown won’t embarrass you if you take Exit the King to your workplace, so feel free to spray it on.
The base is a distant offspring of old chypre’s mossy base, only thinner and more smiling, but that’s how the world is today, and you can only profit from the attitude – everyone likes shiny happy people.
Exit the King will surely be a nice companion to those who expect no edge, but still hope for dignified, restrained comfort the classic chypres used to offer, but now served cheerfully, with the light hand.
ELDO managed to again shake me with the striking contrast in Exit the King, but I am still not so enthusiastic in general: while being very nice, the three perfumes refering to the perfumery are showing the tendency of heading towards unchallenging and commonly wearable perfume territory, which offers no space for engaging olfactive thrills.
That is completely fine, and it’s just me… But.
Though in Exit the King Etienne de Swardtis erudition and witty associations served me a chypre with an engaging narrative, I find it hard to settle with just that, and I still awfully miss the same hit from the fragrance itself.
I still long for some idea like delicate green Jasmin enveloped in banned cigarette smoke, or a silent gun powder drama being nulled by the common popcorn smell.
I might not miss blood and sperm, but I’m immensely glad and thankful these accords were created and presented in the perfume.
I still hope for some brilliant match from heaven or hell, like the scent of raw and warm, naturally pink and very private femininity uncovered and then subtly hooked on the scent of lipstick and powder.
Yes, I miss how provocative and true message about culturally uncontrollable natural femininity was translated in politely subversive musky delight.
Maybe it’s time for me to make the clean-cut and finally stop thinking about Etienne de Sward’s ELDO as enfant terrible of perfumery – and start thinking of ELDO as still brilliant enfant terrible of perfumery’s narratives, period.
Would that mean that the King exited, or is left only with his words, while the kingdom of Free Orange State is ruled by something or someone like desirable Lola, with her long sexy eyelashes, or the commercial calculation?
Can it be that such a difficult, dark trusth has been served together with the name of a light fresh chypre? I don’t know.
But, this is exactly how Eugene Ionesco conveyed the important messages about the ruler and the loss of power in his theatre.
Yep, that’s the catch.
My devotion and love for the house which still possesses the power to create such a great narrative – like this about the perfumery is – might also end up in a silent absurd:
One day in not so distant future ELDO will release a creation which will make me spend all my words on the context / story, leaving the message about perfume / the matter on mute.
And, what’s the point of the story – then?
That’s when entropy becomes the absurd.
I’ve come dangerously close to that, but this isn’t happening just yet, because Etienne de Swardt’s ideas are still accompanied by a powerful wild card:
A masterful perfumers, and still striking creative concept with many, many questions opened, and none answered.
That’s the reason why in this ELDO’s Ionescoesque play, you encountered a half-mute observer, dealing with the play and the story, with the past and the present, with the existential questions and the absurds. That happens in this sort of theatre.
Experiencing Exit the King as an olfactive piece for me resulted in exactly that.
Wondering if that was the intent of the creative director feels like I’ve fell on a smart, but very dark joke.
“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.”Etienne de Swardt, the same interview
In the end, for those who did not get much from written above, or that maybe feel they did not learn enough about how the perfume actually smells, here it comes:
Exit the King is nice, and it made my day nicer.
I lightheartedly wore it, and I enjoyed it.
If you didn’t watch or read Ionesco, and you like your perfume light and bright, forget about all that’s written.
Etienne de Swardt is not the king that exited in the play – he is a hero of the game!
Also, don’t worry about Etat Libre d’Orange – the house is once again just being programmatically dramatic, it’s all about this postmodernist stuff, the smart people actually wrote the big bunch of essays about matching high and low and blending words about “the real” and those about “the imagined” into the same smooth surface we call narrative.
So, let’s keep things simple:
Everything is fine with Etat Libre d’Orange, just grab the popcorns, and you’ll see!
And please, don’t believe to the absurd ramblings of Ionesco’s reader. Instead, believe in what makes sense, and here it comes, loud and clear:
Every good story must have a hero, and a happy end, so the good story about the perfume, or a review, must have them, too.
Because Ionesco and the absurd won’t save the world, or make your day great – frivolity will.
Remember that, and please subscribe to the newsletter.