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Aug / Sep 2014
Uncommon Scents

WRITER: Nadine Khalil

From singing notes to smelling them, Amouage’s creative director Christopher Chong hasn’t entirely left his opera background behind as he usually draws from musical masterpieces. His latest fragrance, though – a tribute to the smoky Jazz clubs and Chinese Film Noir of his youth – is more personal.

 

It’s sweltering mid-summer in Dubai. Inside, sheltered from the sun’s blinding white glare, we are talking about gradations of darkness. “When you smell the evolution of this scent, you’ll see it’s all about lighting and the layers of shading,” Christopher Chong tells me, as we sit in The Address Downtown’s Club Lounge, his perfectly manicured fingers wrapped around a cup of jasmine tea.

More than that, the perfume is as much about cinema. To better understand, I spray on some of Amouage’s latest scent, Journey – the men’s version on my right wrist and the women’s on my left – as I watch the film made for its release. It unfurls on my skin with an inky intensity as the orchestral soundtrack begins. The clip features Chong writing amid thunderstorms and exploding fires, a red sun rising and an eagle in flight. It’s seductive, a series of stunning black and white stills, interspersed with colour, mostly deep red hues, and there’s a beautiful Asian woman who mirrors Chong’s movements.

In real life, the creative director’s a bit of a dramatist, himself. “I can’t lie, I didn’t go to perfume school,” he explains when I ask him how he got into the business. “You know how life is, you don’t know where it will take you. You plan to do one thing and end up somewhere else.” He pauses theatrically. “Of course, I could have just made all of that up.”

It would be easier. As we laugh together and he continues his story, it becomes apparent that the narrative of how this former opera singer ended up at the luxury perfume brand founded by the Omani royal family 33 years ago, isn’t linear.

“I think, in retrospect, they knew what they wanted, they didn’t want anyone from the industry,” Chong says referring to his hiring by the firm’s CEO, David Crickmore. Looking for support in turning Amouage into a luxury brand that could compete internationally, Crickmore’s overhaul began as soon as he joined in 2006.

“By chance, we met at an event,” Chong continues. “David asked me how I felt about perfumes. I told him I saw them like music. They use the same language. The notes of an aroma remind me of operatic scores. The shading, loudness or softness of a perfume, I see as musical notation.”

Having trained to be a Lyric Baritone after a degree in comparative literature from New York, Chong had just moved to London to pursue a Masters in Literature, Languages and European Thought, when the pair met. He didn’t know much about perfume but by using the only analogy that made sense to him, he managed to impress both Crickmore and the headhunters at Amouage. “So David asked me how I felt about coming to Paris for an interview. I said, why not? I’m starving.”

And Chong was struggling with his profession. “I wanted to be a superstar. I wanted to be in the Moscow Opera. If I can’t have something I want, I kill it,” Chong says with intensity, the performer in him re-emerging.

“I know that’s not a good thing to say, as an artist. I should have been happy singing in a barn but I thought if I couldn’t be the kind of performer I wanted to be, then the music world would understand. At least with Amouage, we knew where we were going. They were searching for a singular vision: to make the brand international and develop a strong customer base.”

By accepting the interview, Chong had already made up his mind to leave opera behind yet he continued to extract from it. For his very first perfume, Jubilation, he drew inspiration from Rusalka, a Czech opera about a nymph falling in love with a human who cannot see her. She sings to the Moon to convey her longing. “I sought music that articulated the nocturnal beauty and mystical power of the moon. ‘Song to the Moon’ was the aria I chose as an illustration of my vision and an expression of unfulfilled longing and hope that captured the story. Jubilation describes this moment in the darkness.”

And the list goes on. Turandot inspired Epic, Madame Butterfly inspired Honour and Lyric (based on the concept of a young opera singer’s quest to immortalise her voice) was inspired by Maria Callas.

“You see, perfumes are all about love and sex where I come from,” Chong adds. “I didn’t know anyone from the Middle East and I didn’t have a single Arab friend at the time but I thought that in order to speak to everyone, I would create perfumes that tapped into the storytelling tradition from this region, such as Shehrazade, which is also universal as well.”

If you think Chong’s urge to be centre stage simply disappeared with his debut at Amouage eight years ago, you’re wrong. “No one knew who I was at the time. Now, I’m coming to the second cycle. I’m taking from my life experiences.”

Journey relates to this metamorphosis. According to Chong, it’s the era of Chinese Film Noir, from the silent films of the 1920s, the Kung Fu and gangster films of the 70s and 80s and the New Wave films of the 1990s, that inspired the new scent. Born in Hong Kong but moving to New York at the age of six, Chong says his family would watch these films at home. “It was our way of relating to each other as a family,” he explains.

Another, perhaps even stronger visual reference is Art Deco in Shanghai, that brief but glittering moment in 1920s and 30s China as the country began to modernise and looked westward for inspiration. “In a way, that’s my story too. I was thinking about East meets West, when feminism arose and the jazz clubs of the time,” Chong explains, “the smoky darkness of opium dens and dodgy underground societies. It was a very romantic world then.”

I flash on a strong image of a woman, the one Chong envisions in his film. She has glossy lips and a transparent black veil in the film, which Chong holds onto as he writes. “Can you imagine her descending into one of these underground places, wearing a fur coat? Perhaps with a cigar in her mouth,” he muses. “I used tobacco leaves to evoke this sense of light and dark shades. Your nose can see that.”

 

Given the deep, rich smokiness radiating off both wrists, mine definitely can. From the right, the men’s scent has evolved to something sharper and spicier, probably from the top notes of Sichuan pepper, Bergamot and green cardamom. There’s also a burst of juniper berries and incense. On my left, the smokiness is quieter, more a leathery aroma of pipe tobacco softened by floral accords of Indian jasmine, Sambac extract and Freesia at the heart, with vanilla and musky undertones. There’s a whisper of apricot and Jasmine tea, nutmeg and a touch of extraordinary Osmanthus, which Chong tells me is so expensive, it was only used by the Chinese emperor in ancient times.

It’s not only the ingredients that are luxurious. The perfume is sold in gold boxes with a radial compass pattern (to symbolise the journey) and bordeaux crystal bottles, 24-carat gold caps accented with crimson Swarovski crystals.

While I reckon that Amouage normally isn’t a scent for every occasion – its drama, complexity and usually bold, woody fragrances that unfold in rich layers of twists and turns aren’t that easy to wear – Journey for woman isn’t characteristic. It’s something I could wear all the time.

If the men’s is dark, a heavy nebulousness of smoke, the women’s is light and more restrained, the evaporating wisps on top. The build-up is beautiful, a kind of olfactory crescendo that after our hour-long interview, has evolved into something fleeting, a trail of scent on my skin, a sense of misty smoke so fleeting, I can barely capture it, though I want to.

It’s intoxicating and seems to appear and disappear in the same way the tops of the buildings do, once I’m outside again, almost invisible in the heat haze, but not quite.

 

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