A Mighty Spectacle of Action and Adventure – An Interview with Etat Libre d’Orange Founder, Etienne de Swardt

Etat Libre d'Orange: The Most Scandalous Perfumery on the Planet
Etat Libre d’Orange: The Most Scandalous Perfumery on the Planet

If you were to ask me which fragrance house has really pushed the boundaries of what perfume can be I would answer Etat Libre d’Orange without a moment’s hesitation. They arrived on the scene in a whirlwind of spunk and accompanied by a plethora of bold olfactory characters, ranging from high class hookers to smoking sirens of the silver screen. The house rubs noses up both the wrong way and the right way, taking pleasure in the delightful and the depraved. In short, they are the most scandalous perfumery on the planet but they’re also one of the most substantial with fascinating fragrances that more than live up to their provocative names and inspirations.

The man behind Etat Libre d’Orange is Etienne de Swardt, a self-described troublemaker. Having spent many years ‘working for the man’ at LVMH, as it were, de Swardt broke free from the constraints of boring everyday big business perfumery, which included scents for cats and dogs, to create the ideal ‘anti-brand’. He launched his perfume house not with a slogan or a mission statement, but with a battle cry. Etat Libre d’Orange marched into war in the department stores screaming “Perfume is Dead, Long Live Perfume” at the top of its smoke-filled lungs. The scents were the weapons – missiles that exploded, destroying inhibitions and preconceptions. Etat Libre d’Orange was a chieftain tank and Etienne was the maniac at the wheel.

Having been a big fan of Etat Libre d’Orange ever since I encountered their phenomenal Jasmin et Cigarette one drunken evening, I jumped at the opportunity to pose some questions to the rebellious renegade that is Etienne de Swardt. In one of the most fascinating and frankly hilarious interviews I’ve had the pleasure of partaking in for The Candy Perfume Boy, Etienne tells us what led him to perfume, whether he could create anything more shocking than the blood, sweat, sperm and saliva of Sécrétions Magnifiques, and what is next for the brand. So buckle up, leave your inhibitions at the door and get ready for one hell of a ride, because Etienne de Swardt is in the building and he’s in a mischievous mood…

[Please note that there are a few NSFW images below]

The word on everybody's lips...
Suggestive Scent…

TCPB: Etienne, thank your agreeing to answer some questions for The Candy Perfume Boy. I’ve been a massive fan of Etat Libre d’Orange since the brand first burst on to the scene. I’m always intrigued to see what challenging and beautiful scents that come from the Orange Free State, which itself is a landscape that is forever changing. But before we get into all of that, tell me, what was your first scent memory?

EDS: Miasmas & secretions, I was born the year of the dog, 1970, I have been trapped forever in what we call oral stage, very much vomeronasal before being truly olfactive. I follow the diktat of Jacobson’s organ; the eternal claim of “let me in and taste you” should stay our fragrance house motto. Sécrétions Magnifiques is the alpha and omega, a place where everything starts and ends.

What led you into the world of perfume?

Vanity and…dogs, mostly dogs. The way they sniff and collect hormones openly on the sidewalk. I won’t give you the cliché of Proust and the “edifice monument du souvenir”. Just attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. And a little bit of Poetry, New Caledonia and South Africa, I’m the son of a true farm boy of the free state “Pioneers, O Pioneers, come my tan-faced children…”

What inspired you to create such a rebellious fragrance house?

Laurence of Arabia 1962, “the trick William Potter is not minding that it hurts” and the psyche of Scott Peck “On the road the less travelled”.  Etat Libre d’Orange should stay “a mighty spectacle of action and adventure!”

Do you think Etat Libre d’Orange woke the industry up?

No, but I have tried as much as possible to be a breath of fresh air, a fragrance house that washes away the sins of the (boring) beauty clichés and leaves the skin luminous, we are the radiance of the natural self, like Hermann, Tilda, Nijinski and Tom. A farandole of glittering nonsense, the last and ultimate consumerist shield to protect you from committing suicide. A mid distance between Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides, somehow an evangelist of the early talented productions of Sofia Coppola. We are dramatic and fantastic in a land of ineluctable tragedies.

Blurring the Lines…

Initially, Etat Libre d’Orange seemed to have a thirst to shock and push olfactory buttons.  Would you say that ethos has changed with the latter releases? 

10 years of slutty behaviour and I needed to buy a new car and pay the bills, then I partially joined the usual imposters of our industry, but I have not yet corrupted the brand philosophy and our Hermann is even deeper than Putain des Palaces, he came from dark 19th century romanticism and he rides a giant invasive stallion over all trends and doesn’t mess around with marketing and free posm aka point of sale material.

Would the battle cry still be “Perfume is Dead, Long Live Perfume”?

Frankly I do not know if we are the most sincere perfume house of the fragrance industry or the worst refined abject marketing initiative. I presume we stand somewhere like Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. We pretend, we fake and then we strike like social cobras but I do cry sometimes “dans les nuits où il fait grand froid”, nous sommes des enfants du tremblement.

Could you ever create anything more shocking than the infamous Sécrétions Magnifiques? What would it smell like?

Arff I don’t know, virus was its code name when I wrote the first intention many years ago at LVMH. It came from the early 80s AIDS ages, when I was a teen over-scared by contaminations and the formidable duality of attraction.  In between your legs, la femme est l’avenir de l’homme.

How is a fragrance developed? How closely do you work with the perfumers?

It’s like sucking you thumb,

except it’s not yours,

it’s a penis.

Absolutism like a Sith Lord, an impostor level 7, more seriously I story tell and they create freely but “words over formulations” is a traditional recipe.

Bondage or Nothing…

How do you choose the perfumers you work with?

Under tables, bribery, kidnap their kids, rape their lovers in dirty butcher shops.

I do sometimes let the wind murmur their names. “My dear Ralf Schwieger thank you for the memory and bravo for being so transversal with no immediate judgement. You will be a formidable Nijinski dancing on stage in Paris 1912, please go and enjoy your time with Justin Bond, salty Myrrh shall prevail on the fragile bare nape of virgin nymphs and don’t get too naughty with Justin.”

Speaking of MX Justin Vivian Bond, you’ve collaborated with subversive icons (Rossy de Palma and Tilda Swinton, just to name a few) who would you like to create a scent with next?

Jacques Damase who passed away 3 years ago and was for me much more than a mentor, he was my Diogenes, strong, agile and fragile, curious and eclectic. He deserves a fragrance for his pathway into the 20th century, gone with the wind with all his art and his books.

Also Rock Hudson, Rufus Wainwright and Edna Mode (incredibles)

Which perfume from the brand do you enjoy the most?

Cologne, a silent and elusive seduction.

With so many more niche brands around now in comparison to when Etat Libre d’Orange launched, what is your opinion of the state of niche fragrance today?

“Mummy is on a diet, we are all gonna die”

What’s next for Etat Libre d’Orange?

Sabotage, burn the place down and transform into a dog sitting centre to take care of Howard’s dogs. N.B Howard owns the Fragrance Factory which distributes ELO in the UK

Join the Discussion

What is your favourite Etat Libre d’Orange fragrance?

Let me know in the comments box below!

Images are my own. Samples via Etat Libre d’Orange.