That 70s Feeling
A homegrown Omani creation that stands out as one of sultanate’s successful international brand forays, Amouage is no longer just about being one of the most luxurious and expensive perfumes in the world. Creative director Christopher Chong, with no background in the fine art of perfumery, has managed to create immensely complex and evocative fragrances, that tell a different story each time.
This year, to launch Amouage’s 2018 mainline fragrance in the US, Chong chose New York’s Lower East Side, as homage to the neighbourhood that served as his inspiration for Imitation Man and Imitation Woman. We find out what inspires and excites Chong and the brave new direction he took with the new line that draws heavily on his memories as a young immigrant in New York in the seventies.
Why is it called Imitation and tell us what these two fragrances are all about?
It’s inspired by the 1970s life imitates art movement, Andy Warhol and of course Oscar Wilde’s famous essay. Imitation Woman is all about the days of Studio 54: Think Bianca Jagger and Jerry Hall, the confident and fabulous Charlie girls, when the popular fragrance was a rich, powdery floral. I used cassis (blackcurrant bud), which today is something that you love or hate. In the fifties, it used to be very popular, particularly in French perfumeries, because it was raw and sexy and that’s the new direction I am going in. By the way, cassis in its raw form smells like a woman who went to the gym and didn’t use deodorant.
For Imitation Man, this was my first time working with a pheromone and I created a leather and castoreum accord. It has citrus in there, the fresh smell of vinyl records, so typical of the seventies and of men who were confident in themselves and didn’t feel the need to assert their masculinity.
In designing a perfume, can you rate which element (or elements) are the most important and helpful in the process?
I don’t think its one element. I think all creative artists start from within, of who you are as a person. Some elements may be about who I am, where I came from and my experiences and others about what I like, what kind of art I like, what kind of personal encounters I have with people. Then, like a collage, you cut it all up and you piece it together into a picture. From that picture, you create a singular narrative and that is when your mind starts to go wild.
The hardest bit is not to piece all the other artistic elements together: The most difficult is speaking the truth.
Have you ever had a muse for one of your perfumes?
Maria Callas has been my muse since day one. A scandalous woman, she had the kind of voice some people loved, some people hated but she knew she had a very unique style, and she did it her way. She was my muse for my second perfume Lyric. Lyric was the telling of my story of a young ambitious soprano who wanted to immortalise her voice, so she sold her soul to the devil.
And many years later, she came back to my mind in Opus Nine. I wanted to create a scent for camellia, which doesn’t have a smell, you can’t even extract it so you use your imagination to recreate the accord for camellia. Her 1958 opening night La Traviata performance in Lisbon was my inspiration for that: that night she gave an amazing performance and it was also totally flawed.
What I learnt from her is that what you do may not make everyone happy but try to be as honest and realistic as possible. She made me believe that there are honesty and beauty in mistakes, and that is why Opus Nine was dedicated to Lisbon’s La Traviata.
Formal training vs self-taught? Technique vs creativity?
When I started 12 years ago it was the beginning of a new trend in the perfume industry. It was about conceptual creativity: We started this trend of working off concepts and then working with technicians – the perfumer. Quite like fashion design really and this gathered global momentum. Earlier they only talked about how expensive the ingredients were, how complex the formulations were, but we created storytelling – we opened the doors come as we did from different walks of life.
You learn techniques along the way, because while you can have as many concepts as you like if you are the creative director, you are the leader of the pack. If something goes wrong you have to be the one who comes up with the solution. I go to a lot of workshops, I learn from perfumers and I also work with ingredients departments and get familiar with the tech they are using to distil new ingredients.
What’s that one moment that changed your path in your professional life?
I don’t think there was any one moment. It was more like a natural transition where one door shut and another opened. It depends a lot on you as an individual how you feel about something not working out: You may think it is the end of the world, which has happened to me many times. But sometimes, it can be the most beautiful thing because it forces you to open up your eyes and your heart to other possibilities.
I would have never imagined I would be in this industry. I was doing a PhD preparing to be a professor of literature and media studies. Then I spent all those years trying really hard to be an opera singer. It didn’t work out. It all depends on how you perceive it and in time you recognise that the biggest disappointments can become your biggest gain.
If you could go back and redo your work life, would you want to and what would you change?
I have spent a lot of time in the past basically complaining that things could have happened in a better way. Now looking back, I believe in fate and that without those experiences I would not have been able to do what I do today. At those moments it is difficult to accept the downs, but looking back you understand that there was a reason why those things happened. It turned me into the person that I am now and gave me the experience that I have now.
If tomorrow someone told you could be the world’s best opera singer or the world’s best perfumer – what would you choose?
Opera singer – my heart is still in music. I have clinical anxiety – may be that’s why I left. I get very, very anxious before I have to perform – I just shut down. But anyone who knows me, know that if they push me onto the stage and the spotlight hits me – its magic. I love that world.
Have you ever stopped a stranger to ask what they are wearing because you liked the perfume?
No, because no one has ever excited me yet.
How a person smells – is that what you first notice about them?
Even before you see someone – your first impression is how they smell. And when they leave, what they leave behind as a final impression is also how they smell.
From your childhood is there any particular fragrance or smell that has stayed with you?
I am Chinese – there are smells everywhere! I was born in where people believe in fresh produce. So you know it’s the smell of the wet market, the fresh produce, fresh meat and vegetables.
What does a person’s choice of perfume tell you about them?
It tells you about their taste and taste is subjective. It also tells you about their true self. For example, I’ve tried to choose a perfume for somebody who looked sweet and angelic, but there was a devil inside. So, all the ones with sweet notes would be rejected by her as she would probably prefer really complicated notes.
Is it true that the same perfume would smell different on me and another person because of how it reacts with our skin?
It‘s more because of your nose, not your skin. It’s really about picking up different signals from the same perfume. Skin chemistry has an effect, yes, but the core structure of the smell will be the same for everyone. For example, your skin may pick up the leather, mine may pick up more of the jasmine. That is all. But if I give you a floral perfume, it will not smell like petroleum on you.
Who is your celebrity crush?
I am not into celebrities. They are just performing artists and they are human like me. So why are they more special than others or why am I more special than people on the street?
What do you spend most of your money on?
Furniture. My latest craze is antique furniture and vintage watches. That’s why I am always poor.
How do you advise we go about choosing a perfume for ourselves?
Never go with your friends. It leads to peer pressure and pressure buying is never good. You have to be honest. You smell with your own personal history. It brings back emotions and past experiences.
It’s easy to buy something nice but perfumes have to speak to you. When you go on a journey in your mind, or when it triggers a memory, that’s when you know you have found the perfect perfume for yourself. One that you are wearing for yourself and not for someone else.