“I am an endangered species”
– Christopher Chong
If you read yesterday’s post you will know that luxury house Amouage have just launched a brand new duo of fragrances – Imitation Man and Imitation Woman. Inspired by the glamour of 1970s New York City, these hazy, hedonistic fragrances speak of Amouage Creative Director, Christopher Chong’s personal journey to the city in this most iconic of decades. Moving to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1975 as a young immigrant, NYC presented an entirely new set of experiences for Chong, who was fascinated by the fashion, art and subcultures that quickly surrounded him. In Imitation he celebrates these elements but also the freedom of growing up in such a fascinating metropolis at an audacious time.
I was lucky enough to be invited to join Amouage in the Big Apple for the launch of Imitation* and during my stay I got some time to sit down with Chong to quiz him about all things Imitation, Amouage and perfume. This was my first time actually meeting Christopher Chong, but after several years of social media interaction it feels like we have known each other for quite some time and he had always struck me as an olfactory visionary with a strong character. So when it came to meeting face-to-face I was not disappointed! Below you can find our chat, which covers the inspiration for Imitation but also details how Chong works with perfumers to translate elements from real life into olfactive form. Enjoy!
TPCB: Imitation as a duo of fragrances is inspired by your personal journey of emigrating to New York in the 1970s and growing up on the Lower East Side. What was it like for you arriving in the city at that time?
CC: When I first arrived I’d never seen snow before and there was a blizzard. This is why we gave you a snow dome at the launch – because I see New York as a snow dome, that was my first reaction, my first understanding of America and New York. It was a massive cultural shock because I wasn’t born in the west and I’d hardly ever seen any westerners in Hong Kong, except in films, and I’d never seen other ethnic minorities. I was expecting to see more caucasians, but when I came here there wasn’t one; instead l saw latinos, blacks and Hasidic jewish. It’s something that I didn’t understand so I felt like I was transported to another planet. Also there was the language barrier – I didn’t speak a word of English. In the good old days the world was different – you didn’t get any extra help so you are just thrown in and you sink or swim.
This area was very rough, it’s not like what it is today – it’s exactly what J Lo was saying from the hood, this was actually like the hood here, it was scary and dangerous and it’s completely 360 degrees from what you see now. After a certain time you wouldn’t go out. It’s the place where all of the immigrants migrated, living in small tenements. It was dangerous – drug dealers, prostitutes, cocaine…
How did coming into this new world, where you’re experiencing new things and entirely different cultures, impact your creativity?
Creativity is a personal truth. In order to be creative you have to open yourself up – you cannot hold back, you have to free your mind and your heart, and you have to be adaptable. I think that all of that exposure has given me all of the tools and the kind of perception skills required to be daring. If something is shocking to you, you just can’t hold back. I’m just beyond shock now. So a lot of people say to me “I don’t think there is anything you haven’t seen or experienced” and I say “there are a lot of stories I’m not telling you and I’ve done it all”.
Were there any specific elements of the Lower East Side and New York City that you wanted to translate into the Imitation fragrances.
I wanted to translate the energy – the thriving energy, and also the street art. It wasn’t called street art in those days, it was called annoying graffiti and it wasn’t as artistic as it is now today. Also I saw these people who, although they were very poor, I saw the way they were dressed and for a six/seven year old it was extremely glamorous – going to the discos and clubbing all night with big afros – those are the images I’d see on the buses and billboards around here. Charlie Girl! it was the time of Studio 54. It was a different society, also what was most inspiring, I think kids in those days had a better education system, not academically, but they were more street smart. In the old days we didn’t have the protection of authorities or social workers to say that “you’re a child, you can’t do certain things”. I know it’s bad, but children weren’t so protected in those days and we got the freedom from a very young age to go out onto the street, to live on the streets and explore. The freedom of that movement and the Charlie Girl, and the people that I saw in their late teens and twenties, coming back from the clubs and the way they were dancing in the streets. There were a lot of street carnivals around here in those days – during a heatwave all of the Latinos would be drumming on the street and I loved the way they dressed. There’d be singing and dancing, it was very exciting. I took a lot of that inspiration into the perfume creation.
Thinking about what you’ve said about it being less safe and sanitised, we often see fragrance as something idealistic – you’re meant to smell the most beautiful you can, so was it important for you to get some of the New York grit into the fragrances as well as the glamour?
I have never believed in beauty, in the sense of so-called commercial beauty, you know that. I want to first, talk about the reality of life, for example in your favourite perfume, Honour Woman, I talk about death. How many perfumes dare to talk about suicide and death?
Not very many!
Also with Memoir I talk about the uncertainty of gender. I talk about crossing over to the other world. Do you know any niche brand that would dare do that? For me I am the kind of person that believes that there is beauty in the unconventional, at the other side and I always want to embrace that.
A lot of those concepts are quite abstract – how do you translate them into an olfactory form?
The stories are complicated. The reason why I do that is because it encourages my team to free their minds. If I get too simplistic or too much of an organised narrative, people become lazy and they give you the textbook. If I get complicated I give so many options to my narrative and brief it opens people up. If they don’t know what I’m thinking they try to imagine what I’m thinking, so it’s taking my interpretation to a different level.
Why the name Imitation for these fragrances?
First of all I was inspired by a lot of the luxury brands around me at the moment. For many years there’s been a lot of fake Gucci, Chanel, YSL in Chinatown. These brands are just fed up entirely of shutting them down so recently they started imitating them and sold a fake collection, and I thought hey, that’s cool – that’s a cool new movement that’s happening. Also ‘Imitation’ because of Andy Warhol – he was the biggest artist in the ’70s and he took objects and imitated them into life. I was also inspired by Oscar Wilde’s essay on art, on how life imitates art so our strap line is “life imitates art” and that’s also how I see my life has been evolving.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the fragrances is the velvet and vinyl accord in Imitation Man, can you talk a bit about the inspiration for that and how you created it?
Velvet was a key fabric that I saw a lot – it was one of the key elements. Going back to your question about translating my story into olfaction, the two questions connect. We sit down and take certain key elements of that decade and translate those elements into the olfactive. If we try to do it exactly as I want to do it, it’s mumbo-jumbo. Velvet was a key fabric of the 1970s and also the vinyl record – I remember saving up my pennies to buy the single vinyl and I always remember the smell, the fresh vinyl, you open it and it has that synthetic smell. I used a lot of raw ingredients to recreate that, such as ylang ylang and violet.
Velvet and vinyl are quite contrasting textures. Imitation Man and Imitation Woman are also very different in style. My perception of the Woman is that it’s very grand, very audacious and the Man is more intimate. Was it deliberate to have that contrast between the two fragrances?
I have always done it like that. I have never, ever created one fragrance and then have the other one copy it. I don’t want to do flankers – I don’t do flankers! I know a lot of people do. I have a perception – always create two separate fragrances in their own entity. Imitation Woman was inspired by the olfactive style of the ’70s, I just wanted to modernise it and reinterpret it my way. The style of the ’70s was very aldehyde, floral powdery, you know Charlie From what I remember women were extremely sensual. Women partied 24 hours in the ’70s and they still looked good. You look at old images and people looked more beautiful back then. When I went to school in the morning at 8am I’d see these club kids coming back home to change and go to work – I’d think “my God they look glamorous, I wish I could be like that some day”. So I took that kind of style, which is so sexy, and I put in blackcurrant bud, because it is very sensual and smells like a woman’s sweat. Then I imagined what I’d seen in TV, that kind of smokiness at the end of the party, which is the reason why we put the resin and incense in the base. I was thinking about what would Jerry Hall and Bianca Jagger wear to Studio 54 – those are the divas and this is a divas fragrance, It’s perfect for you!
Absolutely, you must remember when you say Jerry Hall and Bianca Jagger, always follow that with ‘The Candy Perfume Boy’.
Yes! The key ingredient of Imitation Woman is the aldehyde but in the old days they only had one aldehyde but now they have hundreds to play around with. In a way it’s an advantage for me to create a scent that someone from the 1970s would desire because they were limited back then. With Imitation Man, no matter what we do when we travel back in time we have to study the popular olfactive style of the time. Back then it was strong citrus and the fougère so I used those two elements as my starting points at the opening. Then it goes into the second element which is the vinyl record. Have you noticed that men were very sexy in the 1970s?
They had amazing body shapes. I remember going vintage shopping when I was younger and wondering how men would fit into those tiny waisted trousers! Men were extremely sensual, they were not vulgar sensual, they were just sensual. I tried to translate that into the base. The most important thing was the pheromone and you know there is no such thing so we needed to recreate it, so we created a pheromone accord, which I tested on people first. The pheromone accord was very strong leather and castoreum. I tested it on people – half of the people I tested it on, the young people, said it was so fresh and like jasmine. I tested it on the older people and they would say “what the fuck is that? Don’t you ever spray that stuff in the office – that smells like sweaty balls”. I said that I don’t know what sweaty balls smell like! For me and the youngsters it smelled like jasmine. We applied that into the perfume in a very small amount to give that extra kick in the sensuality.
Thinking about Imitation Woman specifically, It reminds me that the work you have done with Amouage has been very innovative. You don’t follow trends or cliches and your work is outside of what everyone else is doing. No other brand would really launch an aldehydic floral in 2018 – it’s a classic style. Is it your intention to shake the industry up a bit, to wake people up and do something different?
That is what I’ve always been doing from day one. I have an ‘I don’t care’ attitude. Obviously it has to make money, but I want to be the leader of the pack, I want to be the zeitgeist and I want to be steps ahead of what the market is doing, and what the market is going to do. I’m very, very fortunate because I don’t think anyone in the industry, even the very super niche, has the kind of freedom I have. I think I’m the only one in the industry that has it and that’s what the perfume industry is missing. In the old days, you know the ’20s, they all behaved like me. It seems like I’m this alien from the ’20s who has been transported to now. I’m an endangered species and if anything happens to me, I think the perfume industry is in trouble. Don’t you think so?
You definitely approach perfumery from a different perspective. It’s interesting because not everything you make for Amouage resonates with me, which I think is a good thing because if I liked every single thing in your brand I’d think you were doing it wrong because you weren’t being challenging or daring.
Listen, I don’t make everything that I like myself! I’m creating art, I’m not going to do the same stuff over and over again. I thrive in my work tension, my personal anxiety tension, I thrive to find a new olfactive style every year.
Which perfumers did you work with for Imitation?
For Imitation Woman I worked with Pierre Negrin and for Imitation Man the perfumer was a new discovery. i’ve been waiting to find a new perfumer. People say why don’t you work with a new perfumer, help them and groom them, but for me the talent is not out there at my level. To do the kind of basic stuff, many can do it, but the ones who are able to understand my level of perfumery, there aren’t. In twelve years this is the second time I’ve found a nose – Leslie Girard, she is so new and she gets me. The first time was Karine (Vinchon-Spenher) and she’s a big shot now, when I discovered her she was a trainee. Now again I was so happy to find, many, many years later, that there is someone who has that ability to have that ‘I don’t care’ attitude and go all that way.
Is the ‘I don’t care’ attitude the talent you look for in a perfumer?
To have that ‘I don’t care’ attitude and to be brave. Obviously to do those things you’ve must have the skills.
How does the collaboration with the perfumers work?
Difficult. They have to put up with a lot. I don’t care how famous they are sometimes, they have to put up with a lot. If halfway through a project something doesn’t work out, even with a famous, big name, I will kill the relationship. It’s not about them or about me, it’s about what comes out at the end. So the relationship can be tense but at the end everyone is happy and we know we did the best.
How do you know when the composition is done?
The more modifications we do, the worse it gets. That is when you know you’ve overdone it and when we start cleaning, cleaning, editing. You see that it’s not improving and it’s going backwards.
I suppose that the creativity tendency is to continue exploring and sometimes you need to bring it back to the brief.
Yes and despite the fact that I might not have the experience of some of the perfumers I work with, when there is an issue with the formula they look at me to provide the solution.
For Imitation you have created a film which tells your story and you’ve done this for many of the fragrances. Why is the visual interpretation of the fragrances so crucial for you?
Only for the main collection. I started doing it since Jubilation when I started with Amouage. The reason I do films is because there is no singular textbook language to describe perfumes and the emotions, and narrative behind them. We all use different ways and styles of articulating it, and people get confused so the best impact is a visual. I want to relate what I’m thinking and what we’re creating with that singular language of the visual.
My last question is simple: what’s next?
More perfumes! I’ve just started working on four different perfumes – four different collections. Life goes on in the perfume world. After this it will be the third edition to the Secret Garden collection in August. I haven’t done the Library Collection for three years so the big anticipation is for next January.
Christopher, it has been a pleasure!
Imitation Man and Imitation Woman are available in 50ml and 100ml Eau de Parfum. They are currently available in Muscat and online, launching in all Amouage boutiques on 01 June and worldwide on 01 July.
Read my full review of Imitation Man and Imitation Woman here.
Images are my own. *Amouage invited me to the NYC launch of Imitation, for which they covered the cost of my flights, hotel and breakfasts. During my stay I provided coverage of the trip, including the launch, on my social media accounts.