So perfume legend Jean-Paul Guerlain is in the news again for racist remarks. This time it’s because of an anti-immigrant rant at the Eurostar workers who helped the septuagenarian get his wheelchair to a London-bound train: “France is a shit country, this (Eurostar) is a shit company and what’s more the only people who serve us are immigrants,” he is alleged to have said to two black men and an Asian woman.
This outburst came as Guerlain awaits a verdict in French courts for racist remarks made during an October 2010 television interview. “For once, I set to work like a negro,” the perfumer said to a reporter, describing his process in creating Samsara (1989). “I don’t know if negroes have always worked like that, but anyway…” Translations of Guerlain’s comments vary, but from what I understand, he actually used the work nègre, which is closer to the English pejorative nigger.
Apparently, to “work like a nègre” is an old French saying. “The first part of my phrase was something I heard my entire childhood when I worked in my grandfather’s garden,” Guerlain has said. “I come from another generation. It was a common expression at the time.” An old man may be forgiven for using a crude and outdated expression, but his questioning the work ethic of black people makes it clear he understands the saying and its context. A man who has warm, collegial relationships with non-whites wouldn’t say something like this—it wouldn’t occur to him. To a man of Guerlain’s wealth and age it seems, non-whites in France are colonials and servants.
It’s hard to reconcile this France of 2012 with my vision of it as a haven for black American intellectuals like Richard Wright, the Mississippi-born novelist who lived in exile in Paris from about 1946 until his death in 1960, around the time Jean-Paul Guerlain’s career was beginning. Wright and other great African-American writers, like James Baldwin and Chester Himes, found a sense of community and relative freedom from the racism of American in the 1950s.
But there it is. It’s also difficult to reconcile the ugliness of Guerlain’s comments with the beauty of his perfumes. Habit Rouge, one of the great men’s colognes of the 20th century, was created by Jean-Paul Guerlain in 1965; I can smell none of the pettiness, in Habit Rouge, of his treatment of those who would help a wheelchair-bound man in a train station.
Examples of despicable people who have made beautiful things abound. Former Christian Dior designer John Galliano was the subject of another recent French trial for racist rants. Coco Chanel had a lengthy affair with a Nazi intelligence officer (and may have been a Nazi spy herself). She was also an anti-Semite who battled with her Jewish former business partners. The painter Edgar Degas was a nasty anti-Semite. Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad was a Nazi sympathizer in Sweden during the War. Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun was a boisterous Nazi supporter a couple decades after he won the Nobel Prize. Hugo Boss used forced labor during WWII to make Nazi uniforms, an obscure fact for which his namesake company is now apologizing.
Most of those examples are from the past and show crimes much more egregious than tasteless and hurtful remarks, but then in 2012 we’d like to think Galliano and Guerlain would know better. I’ve read that there were protests outside of Guerlain’s boutique on Paris’s Champs Elysées. M. Guerlain has apologized for the first incident and the company has made a public show of distancing itself from him.
As consumers, our investment in brands is more than financial, it’s psychic and emotional. To think that something as visceral as fragrance may have even a tacit connection to bigotry is extremely disappointing. To admire a man for his creative gifts, and then to hear that the way he sees the world is narrow and compassionless is a betrayal of sorts.
But in the end, my reaction to this is more pity and bewilderment than anger. To stop wearing Guerlain fragrances as a statement would be powerful if the House of Guerlain actually represented bigotry, but it doesn’t. I’m comfortable claiming Habit Rouge for my own not just because of my personal associations with the scent but because it’s clear that history is on the side of those of us who pity the Jean-Paul Guerlains and John Gallianos of the world; they are, mercifully, anomalies.