Ever since the Maison Martin Margiela brand made its perfume debut - and won considerable critical acclaim - with Daniela Andrier's Untitled, critics and commentators have appeared reluctant to write about its subsequent scent offerings. But it has plodded on regardless, starting a sub-range called Replica and building it up to what is now a portfolio of 10 fragrances. If you should ever encounter them at a department store, I'd recommend a sniff. For one thing, they've been composed by some of the world's top perfumers, including Jacques Cavallier and Alienor Massenet. More interestingly though, they occupy a space at the intersection of several practices and styles within scent-creation, in much the same way that the brand's clothing line found an intriguing territory at the point where fashion meets anti-fashion.
The range's original trio remains an accurate indicator of the whole collection's aesthetics and intentions. Beach Walk, Flower Market and Funfair Evening were designed ostensibly to evoke a particular time at a particular location, as specified on the lid-free bottles' matter-of-fact labels. The former, for instance, is allegedly a representation of a shoreline in Calvi in 1972 whereas the latter is a scent-capsule of an amusement park in Santa Monica in 1994. Such assertions are, of course, as meaningless as they are entertaining. None of us can travel back in time to the Corsican coast to verify the authenticity of Beach Walk, so we have to accept that, to somebody - MMM's Creative Director, one presumes - the perfume provides a convincing olfactory portrait of that very locale in that year.
But of course, worrying about their verisimilitude misses the point of these fragrances. It is in the very specificity of their labels that we ought to detect their playfulness. Could ANY perfume act as a comprehensive summation of a beach in Calvi in the early 70s? No, almost certainly not. But by making the claim - by throwing down the scented gauntlet, so to speak - MMM brews a beaker-ful of questions about what we want and what we expect from perfume. Do we require it to be a time-warp to the past or to speak of the present? Do we need it to transport us or to keep us rooted? Do we hope that it will conjure a concrete location or an abstract notion? And, depending on our answer to that last question, do we need its smell to be upon our bodies or in our surroundings?
Whether all of the perfumes in the collection stand up to this sort of navel-gazing is open to debate. I'd say a few of them are too simplistic and mono-dimensional to form little more than a faded Polaroid. For instance, By The Fireplace (heavy on sugared chestnuts) and the aforementioned Beach Walk (a crude attempt to conceal a marine note beneath sweetness) are a touch too easy to dismiss as overpriced room scents: pleasant enough, but lacking distinctive power. However, there's no doubt that a few of them are more mercurial, offering unexpected depths and contrasts just when you think they have nothing else to offer.
Of these, one of my favourites is also one of the latest additions to the range. Lipstick On sounded as though it would be an unpalatable sugar bomb - a blatant attempt to cash in on the current appetite for sweet notes. But its inclusion of a paper-dry iris and a sweeping, green galbanum rescues its central violet accord from the pit of retro cliches. Tea Escape is deceptive too, lacing a sour, cut-grass note (shades of Herba Fresca) into the ethereal fabric of rainbow-hued soap bubbles. And Lazy Sunday Morning avoids what would have been an obvious path (ie laundry musks to evoke bed linen) and presents sheer, close-to-the-skin floral notes that do an excellent job of conveying comfortable intimacy. This lack of preciousness is perhaps the range's chief asset and the reason it deserves more attention than it has received from the scent community.
For the record, the other perfumes in the Replica range are:
At The Barber's (Louise Turner; 2014) - a musky fougère, reminiscent of YSL Rive Gauche Pour Homme
Jazz Club (Alienor Massenet; 2013) - an attempt to add a twist to 'masculine' wood-cigar notes by topping them with syrupy pineapple; doesn't quite convince, but still, nice try
Promenade In The Gardens (Carlos Benaïm; 2013) - a rain-soaked juxtaposition of quiet mosses with edgy herbs
The creators of Funfair Evening, Beach Walk and Flower Market (all 2012) are Jacques Cavallier and Marie Salamagne. Fabrice Pellegrin made Tea Escape (2014). Louise Turner put together Lazy Sunday Morning (2013).
And in case you're wondering, I find Funfair Evening too sickly to be worth the ride (candy floss should be eaten, not worn), but I do enjoy the optimism of Flower Market's greens, pinks, yellows and reds, exploding out of a bouquet.
[Reviews based on samples provided by Maison Martin Margiela.]