“Stay alive, through creation.”
Meet Etienne de Swardt, the scent saboteur and genius steering Etat Libre d’Orange, an evocative perfume brand situated at 69 Rue des Archives, a calculated corner address in the heart of Le Marais, Paris.
The afternoon I spent with Monsieur de Swardt in the third arrondissement was a revelation in what happens when the right amount of ennui and non-conformity give rise to sublime innovation and joie de vivre. And when one gets offered the “grand tour down the rabbit hole in the land of frivolity and other scented nonsense” there’s no doubt that what awaits is an intriguing and fragrant wonderland.
Etienne de Swardt gives the impression he has always tilted left of centre. “Everything is between black and white”, he says, “the best answer is always in the grey.” He grew up in the French New Caledonia, and after studying at ESSEC, the top business school in Paris, took up a position at LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate where he worked within the House of Givenchy. In 2000 he independently launched a perfume for dogs, cats and their humans – Oh My Dog and Oh My Cat – and in 2006, bored with the limitations imposed within the traditional business of beauty, established Etat Libre d’Orange.
His audacious approach and intriguing product names piqued industry and market curiosity and ruffled the establishment magnificently. There was a new agent provocateur en ville, a sorcerer of smell in search of creative emancipation and ways to celebrate originality on the stage of olfactory theatre. In fact, since launching in 2006, Etat Libre d’Orange has become, to coin their own phrase, “a respected actor in the world of perfumes.”
Etienne is a flamboyant storyteller, and each fragrance in the collection is created, like poetry, to awaken the imagination and inspire freedom of expression. He has created a “different kind of perfumery – intelligent, with a point of view”. Sensuality dominates his descriptions and I sense a petit dalliance with the darker side of la vie. Attack of Marquis Sun of Sade for instance has a connection to the infamous sexual deviant of the mid 1700’s, while Tom of Finland is an ode to burly homo-erotica, and The Afternoon of Faun is inspired by danseur noble Nijinsky whose performance of that name had French balletomanes in a tizz in 1912. And don’t be fooled by the apparent delicacy of Yes I Do, all sweetness, light and full of ballerina-like grace, but where marshmallow pink charm conceals a feisty girl-woman armed with jazz moves and adult intention.
Once he has dreamed up a story, Etienne shares the brief with perfumers and aromaticians at Givaudan and at Mane in Grasse, renowned experts in the art of chemical composition. Even the ingredients that conspire to make magic in a bottle have mysterious names like opoponax, safraleine, orris, ambergris and, the most alluring additive of all, fine champagne. De Swardt has collaborated with many an interesting celebrity to create their scent of choice. Tilda Swinton, who had worn Penhaligon’s Bluebell for 20 years, said that Etat Libre d’Orange showed her it was possible to “provide the smell of snow, the smell of mist, the smell of my grandfather’s greenhouse.” Mathilde Bijaoui at Mane noted her specifications and voila, she had a liquid memory of her home in Scotland, redolent of gingerbread baking, dogs and children’s feet, all neatly captured in a fragrance that she takes with her on her travels.
Etat Libre d’Orange literally means Orange Free State, the birthplace of his South African father and where Pretoria- born Etienne spent time as a child, in Bothaville to be precise. He chose the name for its synergy with a land of striking contrasts, indescribable colours and beauty and unpredictability. There is only one store in the world, in Paris, although the perfume is available through hundreds of retailers globally. The design of the bottle is unfussy, on purpose, so that nothing should distract from the juices within. The vessel edges are sharp like the corner where the store is positioned, and the emblem is a tricolor cockade that conveys the message of post-revolution liberty.
Etienne de Swardt is an aromatic agitator, allergic to convention and we are the beneficiaries of that delicious eccentricity. He has exported his imagination into a signature sharp edged glass receptacle and has given the world perfume that ‘clings to the body and perseveres in the mind.’
One of life’s more frivolous quests must be in finding a signature scent, a perfume that makes one feel nostalgic and simultaneously spectacular, a little apart from the crowd, and where people are momentarily transported by a whiff of something utterly lovely. Having a fragrant identity that resonates is a deeply satisfying thing.
Welcome to the Free State of Orange.
Etat Libre d’Orange, is situated at 69 Rue des Archives, Le Marais, Paris. www.etatlibredorange.com
An edited version of this story is in the latest House & Leisure magazine (September 2017)