The high street may be awash with easy-on-the-nose perfumes, but a new wave of creatives are coming up with less conventional formulas that offer a refreshing alternative to the mainstream. The photographer Nick Knight, the artist Sissel Tolaas and fashion designers such as Boudicca and Gareth Pugh are just a few to have developed more confrontational scents, and the results are altering the world of perfumery for good.
In stark contrast to the hundreds of overtly commercial, crowd- pleasing fragrances on the market, these perfumes are an avant-garde statement of intent. Nor do they start life as a 'We need to hit women aged 18-25'- type twinkle in a marketing man's eye: they are not aimed at any particular demographic and are rarely gender-specific.
Perhaps the first truly conceptual perfume was Comme des Garçons' Odeur 53, launched in 1998. The unisex fragrance billed itself as the first anti-perfume and was completely synthetic, composed of notes such as washing drying in the wind and dust on a light bulb. It was as much about the idea as the realisation: the smell of household appliances, static electricity and uncompromising modernity stood in stark opposition to the legions of scents conjuring nature, flowers, leaves and woods. Added to that, like Chanel No 5, it was an abstract scent designed to create a new olfactory sensation, rather than a simulacrum, designed to mimic the existing smell of a single flower.
Ten years on, a new breed of innovator is trying to create similarly radical statements. Perhaps the most radical is Nick Knight's Violence, which he is working on with Tolaas. 'I've created a lot of imagery for perfumes over the years,' says Knight, 'but most of them have a romantic vision, based on the past, with the same sort of ingredients – jasmine, rose or musk. The thing is, smell is enormously powerful and a lot of perfumes are bland. Yet smells associated with things such as car tyres are just as attractive to us.'
The project began when the rarefied art and fashion magazine Visionaire asked Knight to describe the scent of one of his photos and he went back to his "skinhead" series, photographed in the early-1980s, which brought the smell of the sun on the bricks in Brick Lane, of sweat, boot polish and Indian food to mind. 'It was a moment of violence,' he recalls. 'It was the smell of violence.'
Knight's intent is not to condone aggression, merely recreate its scent and explore it. 'I'm one for realism. In life you want to see or smell things that aren't pretty too. There is lots of imagery to do with violence in our lives. We are obsessed with violence. Nearly all of our pop culture is based on it.' To create the scent, Knight has asked professional fighters to wear T-shirts during their pugilistic encounters, then send them to Tolaas to analyse and extract scent. He is writing a blog on SHOWstudio about the creation of the fragrance, exposing and detailing each step in its evolution to lay bare and deconstruct the mystical process. It is set to be marketed and launched on the website as the very first internet perfume; a limited run of bottles will be produced.
Violence, like Odeur 53, is a perfume that acknowledges we might take pleasure in the most unlikely or taboo smells; a draught of creosote evaporating off a fence, or petrol splashed on the floor as we fill up our car might be just as alluring as... well, Chanel's Allure.
Boudicca's Wode, perhaps the most truly groundbreaking recent fragrance launch, has traversed to the illicit and taboo, including notes of opium and poisonous hemlock. Moreover, Wode lives up to its name and is the first pigmented perfume spray: the cobalt vapour colours the skin blue then disappears without a trace. 'The paint dissolves through some chemical combinations – it's the magic of science,' say the Boudicca designers Brian Kirkby and Zoe Broach. 'Queen Boudicca's tribe would mark themselves as warriors. The markings, the coloration, would have been associated with bravery, courage, status, virility, fertility and heroism.' If it is possible for a perfume to transmit avant-garde principles, then Wode comes very close to it, with innovations of colour and intimations of illegality.
Before this year, it was rare for young, conceptual designers to venture into the realm of scent. The fashion brands that dominate perfumery are often the corporate monoliths. But now, the Six Scents project curated by Joseph Quartana of Seven New York, has enabled cult names such as Gareth Pugh, Bernhard Wilhelm, Preen and Alexandre Herchcovitch to collaborate with innovative noses and create their own perfumes.
Pugh's Diagonal, designed in cahoots with Emilie Copperman, is as sculptural as his fashion. 'It's a struggle between lightness and darkness,' Pugh claims. Indeed there is something quixotic and multifaceted about this scent. In one breath you get desiccated coconut and fig; in another citrus. Then comes the Elizabethan odour of clove. Other ingredients include dill, black pepper, nutmeg and black tea. 'Emilie chose notes that don't necessarily sit well together but cause an interesting friction,' explains Pugh. 'It's quite unisex, resulting in an all-encompassing effect.'
Meanwhile, the 'celebrity' perfume is taking a new direction too, as figures beyond the normal paparazzi-fodder types turn their hand to fragrance. Hotly anticipated is the collaboration between Comme des Garçons and Daphne Guinness, the aristocratic socialite whose unique haute-couture style promises to translate into an equally unusual sensory proposition.
So now there is a wealth of choice for those predisposed to the radical. Not least the new, seven-strong range by perfumier Mark Buxton, who, being responsible for the spicy and resolutely ahead of its time Comme 2, has acquired a cult following as an industry iconoclast. The new range, coming to Britain this year, relates to colours and impressions he's had when travelling: English Breakfast, for example, recalls Japanese fish markets at 4.30am. 'I didn't make any compromises,' explains Buxton. 'Often my perfumes are very different, but they still have to smell good.'
The definition of what smells good, though, is clearly evolving from the traditional notions of rose and jasmine and musk, as perfumes' new conceptualists broaden the parameters of the odours we want to wear to include some surprisingly stimulating things.
Wode by Boudicca is available at Browns (www.brownsfashion.com). Gareth Pugh's Diagonal is available at B Store (020 7734 6846, www.bstorelondon.com); and Mark Buxton's range is available at Colette (www.colette.fr). Violence is a work in progress, and will be available from www.showstudio.com. Daphne Guinness's scent will be available at Dover Street Market this spring (www.doverstreetmarket.com)
First published in The Independent, 18 January 2009