SCENT OF AN ICON

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Etienne de Swardt, founder of Etat
Libre d’Orange Parfums

Lewis Carroll once wrote: “When caught between two worlds, create one of your own. Others will invariably follow.” In many ways, this describes the life’s journey of Etienne de Swardt, the South African-born style-meister who was raised on a South Pacific island and today heads one of the most cutting-edge fragrance houses in Paris.

As founder and president of Etat Libre d’Orange Parfums, he has drawn upon his life’s experiences – some might say contradictions – to create some of the most trend-setting and sexually suggestive fragrances imaginable, re-envisioning the very concept of what colognes and perfumes are meant to be.

His is a visionary world, merging fantasy with history, film with fashion, eroticism with wit. And with his latest creation, Tom of Finland Eau de Parfum, De Swardt has taken what is one of the most revered homoerotic icons and turned the very nature of gay sexuality on its ear.

In many ways, it was an impossible task – capturing the essence of what a “Tom-man” should smell like. As rendered by artist Touko Laaksonen (who published under the name “Tom of Finland” from the 1950s to the early-1990s), the “Tom-man” was primarily rendered a world of black-and-white, possessed of exaggerated musculature and bulging, outsized genitalia. By parts hardcore and humorous, the images gave rise to the popularisation of the gay leather subculture, which continues to flourish today in pornography, fashion, international Leather Pride events and even our own Johannesburg-based SAleathermen organisation.

So what is the scent of an icon? How do you put into a bottle all the facets and contradictions of what Tom truly represents?

In order to answer that, one has to first go back and trace the path from which De Swardt began this less-than-conventional journey. Born in the Free State to a South African father and French mother, De Swardt spent only part of his early childhood here before his family decided to immigrate to the idyllic island of New Caledonia. But it was those early years – or as De Swardt himself admits, the “romantic ideal” of those early years – that grounded his otherwise expansive world-view; so much so, in fact, that the company’s name translates from the French to no less than the “Orange Free State.”

After studying economics at Institut ESSEC, one of the most prestigious business schools in France, De Swardt spent seven years with Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) in marketing and conceptual development, where he honed his talents for identifying market trends. It was during this time that De Swardt began work on a dog fragrance for LVMH, an idea that was eventually dropped as being too risky for the parent brand. But for De Swardt, who considered himself a bit of a risk-taker, it was the ideal vehicle from which to launch his own entrepreneurial concerns.

In 2000 Oh My Dog! fragrance debuted to much fanfare and market interest, with high-end retail distribution throughout much of Europe, North America, and Asia. But the company’s fortunes soon hit a wall after the 9/11 attacks, whereby interest in luxury pet goods quickly diminished.

While he often proclaims himself a “faker” or “bullshitter,” you quickly realise that he’s anything but…

Undeterred and armed with an almost indefatigable optimism, De Swardt decided to launch a line of meticulously crafted human fragrances (utilising the talents of such world-class parfumiers as Antoine Lie and Antoine Maisondieu) that, in De Swardt’s own words, are “free from every taboo, where insubordination and olfactory eroticism reign supreme.”

Before long, De Swardt and his team would begin capturing the very essence of that ideal in a number of boldly conceived fragrances, sporting such titles as S̩cr̩tions Magnifiques (Magnificent Secretions), Putain des Palaces (Hotel Slut), or the Marlene Dietrich-inspired Jasmin et Cigarette, which is, unsurprisingly, redolent of jasmine in a smoke-filled bǫte. And while the accompanying package labels are no less provocative Рa cartoonish ejaculating penis for S̩cr̩tions Magnifique, bottle-blonde pubic hairs on a brunette model for Vraie Blonde (True Blonde) Рthe fragrances themselves, even to a dilettante like me, are both elegant and evocative.

It was ultimately Sécrétions Magnifiques that caught the attention of Durk Dehner, the president and co-founder of the not-for-profit Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles. Intrigued by the non-conformist sensibilities of De Swardt and his colleagues, Dehner soon agreed to commission a fragrance that would encapsulate the Tom ideal.

No brief was given and, at first glance, the team assembled was no less unconventional than the concept itself: De Swardt, a heterosexual parfumier (Antoine Lie), and an Old Guard gay leathermen.

A typical Tom of Finland man.

“Particularly with (Antoine) Lie, the idea of a straight man creating a Tom fragrance was perfect,” recalls De Swardt. “We didn’t want to restrict the creativity or keep to the Tom lore of the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

In doing so, Lie created a strangely identifiable yet elusive fragrance that layers saffron, mint, and pepper atop aging irises. Elements, that at least on paper, reflect little of the imagery we associate with Tom. Sure, the hints of musk and suede are there, but are Tom purists truly ready to trade in their “no cologne” ethos for a fragrance with notes of vanilla and tonka beans? (What the hell are tonka beans?!)

“We created the fragrance for the ‘sons of Tom,’” asserts De Swardt. “Perhaps it’s more Fifth Avenue than Priape (the North American fetish retailer), but it’s true to what Touko Laaksonen’s art was all about. Playful, beautiful, daring.”

In the end, Dehner was clearly sold, giving his full endorsement to the creation. And when listening to De Swardt, who speaks with the animation of a first-year art student, one can’t help but be similarly sold. Declarations that might seem otherwise flamboyant or whimsical are underpinned by De Swardt’s unforced sincerity and thoughtfulness. While he often proclaims himself a “faker” or “bullshitter,” you quickly realise that he’s anything but. He’s simply a guy with an instinctively disarming nature, readily searching for hints of common ground.

And perhaps that is what’s at the heart of Etat Libre d’Orange’s success. The knowledge that, as people, we often “bullshit” ourselves with our own inflexibilities, straitjacketed by the very icons we embrace. With Tom of Finland, De Swardt may not have discovered the vehicle by which to transcend sexual orientation (imagine your sister giving her boyfriend a bottle, complete with a free dirty drawing inside), but perhaps in his own small way, he’s led us toward opening our minds just that little more and finding that elusive “common ground.”

Etat Libre d’Orange is an official sponsor of SAleathemen’s HELLFIRE: REDEMPTION Party on Friday, 29 May at Station Bar in Centurion, centerpieced by the first, national MR. SALEATHERMEN Competition. For more information, visit, www.sale

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