Perfumers Say the Darndest Things

Whenever a cultural figure says something terribly boneheaded, (some of) the public is forced to reconcile their warm feelings and positive associations with the figure with this embarrassing new information. In America, by now we’re used to broadcasters and radio personalities saying racist and sexist and offensive things in unguarded moments during interviews or while filling hours of otherwise repetitive air time. These individuals, invariably white men, apologize, get fired, and then reappear in a different job at a later date. It’s almost routine now.

This time it was legendary French perfumer Jean-Paul Guerlain, who used the n-word in an interview in such a casual and flagrant manner that it seemed like something out of colonial times. Guerlain, the former head of the eponymous 182-year-old fragrance company (known for Shalimar, Jicky, Habit Rouge, etc.), was talking to a France 2 television interviewer about how he created the Samsara perfume to impress a woman:

“One day I told her—and I still called her Madame—‘What would seduce you if one was to make a perfume for you?’ and she told me, ‘I love jasmine, rose and sandalwood.’ And for once I started working like a [racial epithet]. I don’t know if [racial epithet] ever worked that hard.”

He issued the obligatory apology and Guerlain, which was acquired in 1994 by luxury giant LVMH, added that the old man had retired in 2002.

This reminds me of the flack that comes every time a local reporter covering an exhibit of Impressionism points out that the great French artist Edgar Degas, revered for his bathers and ballerinas, was an outspoken anti-Semite. “How can someone who created such beautiful things be full of such ugliness?!” they cry. It forces everyone to re-examine the way they see the art. Can we see any trace of hatred in the paintings? Are we inadvertently supporting awful things if we get pleasure out of the works?

And now fans of the house of Guerlain, myself included, must ask the same questions. What the hell do we do? Should I dump out my bottle of Habit Rouge? Jean-Paul Guerlain created the scent in 1965. A man who would say these things on television in 2010 must be arrogant and isolated from modern France. He can apologize all he wants, but this isn’t someone accidentally saying a naughty word in a moment of frustration.

Then again, let’s take a step back. Those of us who don’t speak French can only take the word of CNN that this is what he said and that this is how it’s translated. A commenter on Now Smell This who claims to be a native French speaker wrote:

“travailler comme un nègre” is actually an old, attested French idiom. It means, more or less, “to work like a slave,” referring to an exhausting, arduous work, and it’s not racist per se (we still routinely refer to a ghostwriter as “un nègre,” without any racial slur intended ). So, it would be missing the point to be shocked by the sole use of the N-word.

Thing is, “travailler comme un nègre” is now obsolete, for obvious reasons, and the vast majority of French people didn’t realize he was “only” using an old idiom… so much that there was indeed an immediate outcry in France after M.Guerlain’s interview.

The real issue is actually what he said immediately afterwards: “not that N*** always worked that much, but well.”

That makes a little more clear, but it doesn’t make me feel a lot better. I guess what’s most troubling is not evidence of a hatred, but of a man who has little regard for an entire group of people.

When a work of art—be it a painting or a fragrance—enters the public realm, it gains a place in the culture outside of its creator. We all, everyone who has worn Habit Rouge, have a piece of it, and a stake in it. Guerlain’s little comments are a part of that, as the attitudes that bred them are a part of a greater, more complicated man. I’m surprised, then a little angry, then disappointed, and then I move on.

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