Before my meeting with Chantal, I stopped – for the first time in my life – at Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois church. The rue de l’Amiral Coligny, which separates it from the Louvre, is cluttered with trucks, security services, Redbull fridges in disorder, a crowd that has gone away, it can’t be the Gilets jaunes, it’s something else, but who?
I notice the surroundings of the church, littered with Redbull cans, this time, blue and red. The vespers are held in a small committee in Saint-Germain, a frail little lady stands a few meters from the entrance and holds out to me smiling a printout, in case I want to sing. In the nave, at the crossing of the transept, burns incense whose warm smell invades the holy building in volutes, while a young woman with a clear voice sings, and a man, standing beside her, an organ accompanies them, is it an MP3 file, or the immense metal machine hanging from the dome? The priest, sitting, looking tired, also sings, in the background, I try to imagine the secular questions that itch him, while in the course of the hymns, those I prepared for Chantal come back to me.
I leave the fresh and perfumed calm of the stone monument, part of one of the oldest parishes in Paris (5th century), to arrive at the quai du Louvre, apocalyptically deserted, what a strange Saturday. A few minutes later, as I exchanged my first words with Chantal, the mystery was solved. It was the Techno Parade, which started from there, on the quay, hence the cans and fridges, the security services and the barriers. Chantal quickly decided to open her windows wide and dance on the passage of the parade, while the eyes of the crowd gradually converged on her, who was on fire on the first floor. An old mirror was the cost, but it was so good,” she says.
A thought for Hubert Blanc-Francard – in mourning for Phillipe Zdar, his half of Cassius – whose chariot has just passed under her windows.
The large apartment is a laboratory, it is a combination of a sacristy, a temple and a herbalist’s shop. The jute bags full of vegetable materials lie on the ground – hundreds, I believe – small bottles of brown glass, highly technical, line up in the cupboards and on the old tables, Chantal points to the sofa, which I would gladly leave her, out of deference, but which I accept out of courtesy, while she sits on my right, in an armchair, perhaps after all, her favourite chair.
No click, at Publicis, then within my own agency, I launched one perfume each year. It was about the only area in which imagination and dreams were allowed.These years spent in the service of industry and advertising taught me the olfactory and marketing aspects of perfume. For Jean-Louis Dumas (former CEO of Hermès), I thought about and organized the entire strategy of 24 faubourg, right down to the film, the image of this perfume is me, from beginning to end, I like boxes in which nothing is missing. Other perfumes followed one another until the day when the opening on the olfactory imagination finally seemed too narrow to me.
A precious era ended in the 19th century, while a way of producing perfumes, with natural elements, disappeared in favour of the new and future chemical empires. Was it possible to work now as it was done in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and later on? It seemed to me that it was worth a try.
I followed this thread, and loving research and anthropology as much as travelling in search of new smells, I learned everything I could in this field. At the same time, I had to build a kind of natural kingdom, so I undertook to protect 600 hectares near Montpellier. I have been investing my money in it for 20 years, we have cleared this somewhat rough matorral which stifles other plants and deprives any oaks and boxwood of light, the work of goats, in fact, which used to eat all these shrubs. Now the sheep of the shepherds of the region are grazing. A forgotten landscape slowly emerges from the ground, composed of trees and herbs that have disappeared and are growing back after a long absence.
A disparaged and despised sense, to the point that no philosopher has really looked at its role. The nose is one of the appendixes that we prefer to avoid in the human inventory, the power of smell, our most animal sense, makes us flee. The thread is broken between perfume and flesh, not the skin, the surface; the perfume must penetrate the depth of the being, that is the reason why myths and rituals integrate this material, because of its proximity to our humors, the fluids that constitute us, I like the area where fragrance meets the body, where they mix, become undifferentiated, the fragrance is the flesh, but we can only approach it in this way if we work with living things.
I have nothing against the synthetic, there are magnificent things coming out of it, but what I am looking for cannot be born from it, and belongs to another realm, that of the living. The link between the human and the plant is what I am staging.
Perfume fulfilled a thousand functions, magical, pharmacological, social, it protected, healed, killed, and preserved the dead. The living is always wounded by chemistry, which may perfect its imitations of the natural, however close it may be, something in it hurts us.
When my arms started to age, I thought to myself, it’s very annoying, but on the plant side, if my arms become branches, it’s very beautiful. I see the world as if I were a tree, the phenomenon goes even further, I feel the connections between humans and plants. I perceive the plant that will complete, or match, the individual in front of me. I’m a little ashamed, it’s very animal, this way of sniffing each other.
The phenomenon only occurs when I have an interest in the person, it is a way of coming into contact through the plant, which, in a way, mediates the relationship. I don’t see plants walking in the street, I have to enter into a form of proximity, moreover, I can’t see very well, from a distance.
I don’t use it, and I would never use it, what a horror to think that there would be animals in my perfumes; it’s not the smell that bothers me but what you have to do to the animal to make it contribute to the material of a perfume, the world has renounced these practices. I like animal smells, and the plant, when it comes into contact with us, passes into that kingdom.
I don’t wear any, when I’m inventing some for people, when I’m smelling for someone, I shouldn’t be embarrassed by my own perfume, the page should be blank. Outside these periods, on the contrary, I have to find my way back into the smells, and my perfume.
Sense: l’État de grâce, l’Enfant de Cœur, l’Amer Supérieur, Saint Glin-glin.
(Four fragrances from the Odeur de sainteté collection).
You feel their very different universes, this richness and these nuances are very complicated to elaborate, and the people who work in synthesis are very far from achieving it. The plant sends us so many signals that we must be able to capture them, to domesticate them. To create perfumes with plants, you have to start by doing what I do with them; accompanying them, living with them, talking to them, allowing them to grow back, I address the plants as one prays in heaven, so it is, I am obliged to collaborate with them, otherwise, nothing happens. One can see it as an esoteric or magical practice, but it is only a question of addressing a part of our world, and making this matter that is common to us vibrate.
1, 2, or 3?
A single smell can hold the desire high enough. Synthetic materials and perfumes, which are not very complex, can be easily combined, with a result that is always a little simplistic and cold. The depth of the plant is different, no smoothing, the materials express themselves in turn and the richness of the information they deliver – in a living person, who herself gives to feel what she is, and what she lives at every moment – is such that careful handling is preferable. I fear that the over-multiplication of perfumes will lead to cacophony, however, one can imagine a very sensitive and sensual being, who knows how to play with his body and the perfumes that inhabit it and complete it. I’ve done it before, sometimes I’m a little bulimic.
Odeur de Sainteté
An artistic experience that leads to commerce is still quite classic. I was fortunate to be chosen and accompanied by people I love, including my brother, throughout the creation of this Odeur de Sainteté. After many years spent in an advertising agency assimilating everything I could learn about the perfume market and its marketing, the trends presented few mysteries to me. I started with these smells, not old, but composed as they would have been centuries ago, up to tailor-made fragrances. This work allows me to concretize these vegetable impressions that I feel in the presence of certain humans*. Art does not consist in sticking a smell, however fascinating it may be, on a living being, but in perceiving in this being something of the order of visceral necessity, of deep desire, the more I touch this, the more I gain passion, the more I go through its memory, and what we find will be translated into olfactory expression, via plants.
I meet the person, and I immediately know if something will happen. If I do not feel enough the individuality, the difference of this being, it is not attributable to him or her, I cannot bear what is in each being, some of them escape me completely, so I suggest to the person to go through the smells I have already created, and if everything goes well, we agree on one of them.
I feel closer to people who are driven by research, an artistic or scientific approach, no matter what, a lack that I manage to grasp. Sometimes it sometimes takes me an infinite amount of time, I remember a woman whose emotions I couldn’t discern, but it was me, and not her, who was at fault, I finally managed to do it. These approaches are long, I am no faster than a shrink, but the perfume I will create will have a very deep connection with its host, with its most intimate naturalness.
The nose is a doorway to imagination, but even more so, and science is once again interested in olfaction. Relearning the sense of smell will lead us to rediscover some essential elements that have been forgotten by humans – for example, the ability to feel the diseases we believe are reserved for dogs.
Do not get too damaged with chemical materials, do not lose contact with this sense, in an environment like that of Paris, this large polluted and chemical basin. Thank God, the Techno Parade and all its dances have cleaned up the city and the quai du Louvre for some time to come.
The garrigue of Montpellier in which I walked so much and the nearby sea, Africa, my other cradle, West Africa, Mali, Niger, Egypt, also, very long ago, I followed a perfumer, in the Cairo market, the smells were known to me. To be able to produce odour, you must have lived on land with which osmosis has occurred.
Memory must be vivid and not frozen. I was born in Montpellier** in a pastry shop – I slept above the oven until I was 1.5 years old – in front of a church, and the vespers or Sunday service continued in our house, the faithful left with the dessert cake, the name Odeur de Sainteté is no stranger to this, apart from the fact that the perfume has always been inextricably linked to the rite, I would add that when in 2003 my brand was born, the religious was in the air, like a cherry on this cake.
I had to open a door in this spiritual world, in order to enter it, I, the living woman, the key, is the playing with the words of the religious apparatus, the arrangements that I propose***.
I have always loved sarahs, (a cake invented in Montpellier, made of a marzipan cake passed in the oven and covered with a butter cream dipped in chocolate or coffee fondant) that look like your shoes, (thin fawn leather moccasins, showing a saddle stitching with unbleached thread, on the upper, editor’s note) I am fascinated by your shoes, if you cut the front, like this (gesture towards my shoes), they are sarahs. I bought exactly the same ones, for their similarity to this cake. What matters to me is no longer really the taste of the cake, but this material, alive, this fine and animal leather, this color and this shape, smooth, tight, and slightly curved.
One of the most beautiful smells I ever smelled was on the back of my second son’s neck – why my second son? the first one will be jealous – he was sweating a lot, his hair so fine, in soaked clumps, it’s overwhelming. His feet, twenty years later, it is a completely different olfactory landscape, but the whole thing holds in a deep unity, we must absolutely rely on what we feel from the other, if you do not like the smell of someone, do not insist, it does not mean that his/her smell is bad, but only that between you, it will not work.
Le Parc de Saint-Cloud
We met there in memory of my Subodore installation, uninstalled from the lime trees that sheltered it, it remained there for three months, it’s a bit like we had deliberately avoided it. My work consists in reviving, through the scents, the memory of people who have left their mark on certain places. At the Palais Royal a few years ago, then at the Parc de Saint Cloud last spring. Five women who have crossed the history of the city and the park, to each of them were dedicated two perfumes, as well as two texts that I wrote, anecdotes, their stories. Catherine de Médicis, Henriette d’Angleterre, the Princesse Palatine, Marie-Antoinette and Joséphine de Beauharnais, I saw them walking, dying, making decisions, succumbing to desire, despair, love, and laughter, their emotions remained, accessible somewhere in the air, in the trees, in the ground.
Again for the National Museums, I am preparing an olfactory production, which will take place on a permanent basis, in a Parisian venue whose reopening is scheduled for next year, I can’t say any more, until spring.
* “For you, it’s the helichrysum,” she tells me, it’s hard to imagine the pride that has discreetly invaded my being, thank you.
** Capital of medicine, apothecaries and perfume, in the 16th and 17th centuries.
***Sainte Nitouche, la Menthe Religieuse, l’Amer Supérieur, l’Eau Culte, l’Enfant de Coeur, l’Homme Quantique, l’État de Grâce, Marie Madeleine et l’Immaculée, le Cuiré, Saint Glin-glin et Sainte Barbe, sont les enfants bénis de Chantal Sanier.