A Sensory Journey: Mark Buxton

The Comme Des Garçons collaborator discusses contemporary scent.

Perfume – A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House; Photographer – Peter MacDiarmid

Perfume – A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House; Photographer – Peter MacDiarmid

Traditionally in media speak, a ‘PR chase’ would refer to the cat and mouse email chain leading to an interview, photoshoot or, as the case may well be, rejection; on an uncomfortably hot afternoon in late June however – having forgotten our arrangement for a quick chat about Somerset House’s recently launched Perfume: A Sensory Journey through Contemporary Scent and having decided instead to make the pilgrimage to Dover Street Market’s Haymarket residency – a physical PR chase is what ensues to prevent Mark Buxton from crossing the road at the Lancaster Gate end of Waterloo Bridge.

A heavyweight within the fragrance industry for several decades, Buxton is essentially the man behind to the Comme des Garçons scent legacy, responsible for the house’s iconic debut and plenty since: 2, 3, Man, White, Cologne… Elsewhere the perfumer has likewise created for Burberry and Karl Lagerfeld, while in 2008 he founded his own practice – By Mark Buxton, rebranded in 2012 as Mark Buxton Perfumes – and more recently he had a hand in Christopher Shannon’s first aromatic offering through his work with Verduu (he creates all their perfumes).

In his latest role he’s one of 10 perfumers tapped by curators Claire Clatterall and Lizzie Ostrom for Somerset House’s summer exhibition. Exploring scent and predominantly scent alone, the show does away with bottles and packaging for the most part, offering up a challenge to those enamoured by Instagram (smell has yet to translate through a camera lens innit).

Over a glass of wine and through sunglasses that never quite budge, Mark reminisces about working with Rei Kawakubo, his own public persona, and really bad marketing.

How did you first get involved with Perfume: A Sensory Journey through Contemporary Scent?

I got contacted by one of the guys, they said that they were looking for 10 perfumers and they had a shortlist and my name was on there. They explained that they thought I had something to say in the industry for certain creations I’ve made for my career – and Comme des Garçons 2 is one of them. My first thought is, I’m not a very big public guy in general, it’s not that I like to hide behind my work, but you get so many requests. But when I saw the shortlist there were quite a few people I knew on there, which I also appreciate in the industry, so I said yeah let’s go for it.

Why Comme des Garçons 2 specifically, was that your idea?

No, they chose the fragrance. Why Comme des Garçons – ‘cause it’s perhaps one of the most trendiest, well known niche brands, if you want to put it like that, and I created the DNA for the Comme des Garçons, the first one – and the second and others – and it became an enormous success worldwide, and it really gives, I think the identity or the DNA of the Comme des Garçons brand in general, so why not a Comme des Garçons fragrance, I wouldn’t have taken 2 I would have taken 3 because I think it’s the most eccentric of the fragrances that I created for them, but they wanted the 2, I can live with that.

How do you approach translating a brand though scent?

Well it depends. I was in the industry for 25 years, and there when you get briefed on any plan, it’s like a very classical brief where they’re talking about a successful young lady, 25 years of age, has a great job, BMW Cavalier, all these clichés, and then if you read between the lines you see exactly what direction they would like to go into; it’s about moneymaking. On the other hand, if you talk about niche, which I’ve been doing now seven years – since I left the industry and got my own company – there the less information you give me, the more creativity you’ll get. You just tell me you would like a creation around the rose on a photocopy machine, what would it smell like for you? What is your interpretation? That inspires me more than giving me pages about some kind of mood board and stuff like that; I don’t really need this.

Perfume – A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House; Photographer – Peter MacDiarmid

And your first commission for Comme, the brief was anonymous right?

The first one yes. The first one we ever worked on, I remember our marketing director said, “Look guys, I have this brief. They are only briefing three companies, and I can’t give you a name but it’s one of the most creative designers around at the moment, and there is actually no brief, do what you want, but they are looking for something really new and inventive which hasn’t been smelled before on the market.” I remember we made our first selection and presentation and we got swept off the table. They said “no, you didn’t understand anything, this is commercial, we want something really innovative, new, which doesn’t exist. We’ll give you one more shot.”

At the time I’d just come back from Morocco, and of course when you go to Morocco you go to the famous souk, and I must admit, this mixture of all the smells over there, all these spices, the amber they sell, the carpets and everything… But when I got back – I have a scrapbook where I try to capture images or impressions; it can be a person, it can be the souk – just when I smell certain odours together and think “this is interesting somehow” I scribble a formula down. This accord I scribbled down, and when we got a second chance I showed it to our evaluation team and marketing and press team, they all said, “It’s bullshit, it’s not a perfume it’s an accord,” and I said, “So what? They’re not looking for a perfume if you ask me. I mean we had great fragrances but they said ‘no, it’s commercial’” so I convinced them to show him that, and when she came back she had like a banana [smile] on her face like “wow”.

Christian Astuguevieille, who was the creative director at the time, the middle man for the fragrances, he said, “Wow, that’s it! This is something like extraordinary,” and when he showed it to Rei Kawakubo she said, “Wow, this smells like a drug.” Of course, with him being like, the middle man he said, “Yeah, we have to modify it a bit.” So we made over 90 modifications and then when we showed it to her the second time a few months later she said, “No no no, it’s not that. I want the first one you showed me, that’s my fragrance. So we went back to the first one and that was it. So actually I made the fragrance, or created the fragrance for her, without knowing it was for Rei Kawakubo, but without any modifications; that was it.

What makes a perfume iconic?

Something to do with how long the perfume can survive, in this jungle out there. If you think that there are between 800-1000 new launches every year, you have to put something out which is outstanding, not necessarily by the design of the bottle, or the name, or any designer behind it, but the fragrance. It has to be something surprising, unique, outstanding, where people say, “Wow. This really has something new about it.” You see the success later on, after two, five, 10 years, it’s still there on the market. Nowadays everything is hit and run, they launch a fragrance, they boost it for one year, next it’s gone. They’re already making a flanker and they’re calling it black and they’re calling it double black, triple black and light and winter and summer, all this bullshit. All marketing, trickle down.

Before a perfume becomes iconic, you have to feed it, support it, you have to believe it. Like for example Yves Saint Laurent, after 10, 20, 30, 40 years it’s only one, it’s Opium; it’s their column which they build on. And that’s what I mean, you have to believe in the fragrance and you have to support the fragrance to stay alive in this big jungle.

You’ve discussed elsewhere, your irritation at feminine, masculine and unisex labels in regards to scent. How do you see the industry changing?

I think fragrance has changed over the last 10 years drastically. I never drew a line between masculine and feminine because I don’t believe in it. What is masculine and what is feminine? And I hate the name unisex, unisex sounds like a neutral, as if it’s nothing, as if you have no sex. So I think that with fragrance becoming more and more visual – we are writing more about it, we have all this media, bloggers, even Facebook, and all these mediums, there is a lot more information going around. We’re talking more, people have more knowledge about fragrance, and I think people are becoming more curious as well. We don’t have to hide behind big names like Chanel or Dior or Guerlain, that is where niche odours became very important in this big field. Especially with celebrities and freaks – they don’t want to smell like the latest La Vie Est Belle when millions of people are all wearing La Vie Est Belle because it’s the latest fragrance from Lancôme: who gives a shit?

So they are seeking something more unique, something more personal, and that’s where this whole niche family came up, and it’s growing – it more or less owns 5% of the market nowadays. They are small brands, big brands, whatever but, where people are seeking for something more eccentric, more unique. Nobody asks themselves the question anymore is it for men or for women; when I see the customer coming to the boutique in Paris, nobody ever says, “What is your bestselling feminine fragrance?” I know so many men who wear a rose. Why not? I mean, I love roses; I give roses to my wife because I like the smell myself, so why is rose feminine?I don’t like clichés, in general. I think people are becoming more and more open minded about all this, more curious, and more and more into these niche directions.

Perfume – A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House; Photographer – Peter MacDiarmid

Perfume – A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House; Photographer – Peter MacDiarmid

And in terms of aesthetics – the bottle for example – how important is this for you?

Well, it’s always easier, or more aesthetic I think, if you have a beautiful bottle with a nice design, than some cheap stuff with a cheap bottle and a plastic cap which weighs like 2 grams. I think it has a certain influence on the fragrance as well, if you’re attracted to the packaging or the bottle, the design. Let’s take the example Comme des Garçons, it’s better if you have this in your bathroom then some cheap square bottle with a printed name on there. See what it I mean, so it has an influence, that’s for sure.

Totally. And have you ever been disappointed by the packaging a fragrance you’ve worked on has gone into?

It’s very special because in the big industry, whatever you want to call it, they sell the whole concept; the packaging, the name, the bottle, and the fragrance which goes together. I always say you can have the most outstanding, unique fragrance, and you can also have a shitty bottle, shitty packaging and shitty branding or something like that, and it will not work. Even if the fragrance is great – there will be a few people who will recognise there’s a great perfume in there, but they won’t want to buy it because it looks cheap or shitty in their bathroom. And you can have the same vice versa; a beautiful bottle, crystal, well made, heavy, good brand, whatever, and you have a fragrance in there that’s just too mainstream or doesn’t work at all, and, you know, there is always this…

I’ve been disappointed, sometimes I’ve thought ‘fuck, this great fragrance I’ve created has gone into this brand, and the brand doesn’t deserve the fragrance’ or vice versa. For example, I made a fragrance for Karl Lagerfeld and it was in this series called Kapsule and they made three at the time. Mine was ‘Kapsule Light’, there were two others, and it was a rose, a masculine rose actually, a rose which could please anybody, but it was spicy, woody, very original. And Karl chose this – it was a bit similar with Rei Kawakubo actually – when he smelled it for the first time he said, “I’ll take this one for the ‘light’.” Don’t ask me why he called it light but anyway that was the key at the time. Modified it for months and when he smelt it again he said, “No, this was not the first one I smelt, I want the first one.” So we went back to the first one; after we’d done the fragrance which I think is the best I’ve done, when I saw the bottle and the design I thought, “What is this shit?” It didn’t work at all and I think one or two years later they took it off the market.

So back to the exhibition. What’s it been like working Claire and Lizzie?

It’s mainly Skype, telephone, emails. The thing I like about this is the passion behind it, the love. The energy they put in, this I find rather amazing because it’s something that we don’t see quite often with being the creator on the other side, we’re sitting in our lab creating fragrances for Tom, Dick, and Harry. I like that they’re trying to give a message to people, and to present things in a different way.

Finally, what makes this exhibition so unique?

I just think their approach, how they present things, every single fragrance, the different décor, the different support, how they present the fragrances as well. It’s very difficult to communicate fragrance, talk about fragrance in general, the vocabulary is limited. I mean there are a lot of freaks out there which love perfume and fragrances, but to really set up a whole exhibition like this is a lot of work, it’s very challenging, and I think we did a good job, so I say well done to the guys.

Perfume: A Journey Through Contemporary Scent is open now until 17th September; book here.

Zoe Whitfield
A Sensory Journey: Mark Buxton

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