Walking up the steps of the Musée de L’Homme, or Museum of Man, I am charmed by an oversize advertisement that’s been unfurled in front of the adjacent Musée national de la Marine: LES MARINS FONT LA MODE, or “the sailors make fashion.” Welcome to Paris, where the idea of sailor chic is deemed worthy of its own exhibition.
Indeed, in this city where fashion is taken most seriously, the Musée de L’Homme—home of items such as the skull of the physicist René Descartes—is actually closed for renovations until 2012. But on this morning in early June it’s been opened privately at the behest of a highly influential designer who hails from the other side of the planet: Issey Miyake, born in Hiroshima and based in a Tokyo studio since 1970, but very much a son of Paris, having studied here and later choosing the fashion capital as the site of his collection presentations since the mid-’70s.
The 70-year-old Miyake has news, and so the shuttered galleries of a Paris museum in the 16th arrondissement have been made available to showcase his singular vision, which often has transcended fashion to become a conversation about art, artistry and craft. From essence to completion is a journey Miyake undeniably enjoys, a concept wholly evident in that which climaxes this private showing: A Scent, the designer’s first major new fragrance launch for women since the iconic—and still wildly popular—L’Eau d’Issey 17 years ago. The final room in Miyake’s temporary exhibit unveils dozens of the clean, highly minimalist bottles in perfectly precise rows, all of which appear to be emerging from one gargantuan piece of glass; at the other end of the long table, the bottles meet the unfolded paper packaging before seemingly rising—or ascending, as the play on the scent’s title is intended—into the air, a finished work Miyake is ready to present to the world (it arrived at Saks Fifth Avenue in August and expands this month to include Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom next month).
An intensely private man, you will not find Miyake at this event; only later does he volunteer a bit of insight, but true to his nature does not offer lengthy, flowery explanations, pointing only to the duality of “simplicity and beauty” when asked what he seeks in a fragrance. He approaches effusive only when explaining the 17-year gap between the two major fragrance launches. “We launch a new product when we find something we feel is both relevant and pleasing to everyday living, not due to any sort of timetable,” Miyake says. “Our choices do tend to gravitate toward the essentials in life, because that is our basic philosophy.”
Nathalie Helloin Kamel, vice president of Issey Miyake Parfums, is well-versed in the delicacies of shepherding new endeavors with someone who possesses an artist’s sensibilities. “Working with Mr. Miyake is very much like working with an artist, because this is what he is, and so you know that the projects will be driven by only what’s inside him, not by any outside pressures or deadlines,” she says. “You also know that his inspiration will also come very much from the mind of an artist. When we did L’Eau d’Issey, Mr. Miyake said he wanted it to smell like water; with A Scent, he said to me, ‘I want it to smell like the air,’ and I thought, OK, how do we interpret this?”
Four perfumers, or noses, were each tasked with realizing Miyake’s vision. Daphné Bugey, whose past work includes scents for Kenzo, Hugo Boss and DSquared, won the competition with her green, woody, floral fragrance, which since has been likened by Miyake’s team to evoke the idea of Japanese mountains. Notes of hyacinth, verbena and jasmine add elements both green and floral, while Bugey also sought out the woodier galbanum, a rarely used note derived from the resin in the root of a tree largely found in the mountain slopes of northern Iran. “This has been a forgotten ingredient, but we have been able to make use of it thanks to new extraction techniques,” she explains. “Mr. Miyake wanted a very natural sensation, but one in which you couldn’t clearly recognize any one part.”
There’s an undeniable effervescence about A Scent, and in the days following our morning at the Musée de L’Homme, I am increasingly drawn to its lighter-than-air vivacity, a notion that no doubt would please the man who desired just such a spirit. “Curiosity and happiness are at the core of my work,” he says. “Design is never static, but it is only possible after constant exchange of ideas, aesthetics and sensibilities. I create not to express my ego or my personality, but rather to try and bring answers to those who are asking themselves questions about our era and how we should live in it.”