Off-White And The Case of Perfume Cults

You know that banal, unobtrusive music you hear every time you’re on hold with a customer service line or in the elevator of an office building? What do you think that music smells like? Though very few of us ever hear a sound and contemplate its hypothetical scent, that is the question Virgil Abloh and Ben Gorham asked themselves when setting out to collaborate on a fragrance and accompanying capsule collection.

The Off-White founder and designer and his Byredo counterpart released their brainchild in a visual-meets-aural art installation during Paris Fashion Week. The installation features a remastered version Carsten Höller’s 2004 work “The Elevator,” quite apt for the occasion as the elevator can be filled with Elevator Music, which is what Abloh and Gorham call their fragrance. A German multimedia artist, most of Höller’s work aims to engage with its viewer, blurring the divide between art and audience. And blurring divides is exactly what Abloh and Gorham had set out to do, theirs being the divide between senses and the divide between concrete and abstract ideas.

Thomas Goldblum

“Elevator music is, in my mind, a metaphor for the space for Ben and I to describe our freedom. Both of our projects, by the nature of how we started them, gives us freedom to do and define a space,” Abloh told WWD. Abloh was intrigued by the non-confrontational character of elevator music. It is a sound that we are faintly aware of, yet it remains in the background, existing parallel to us. And he wanted a fragrance with that same essence.

There’s no doubt that Elevator Music is unique, with potential to make a large mark on the history of perfumery. Magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Elle are already speculating the fragrance to be a cult-obsession, which is a safe bet to make, given the followings both Off-White and Byredo already bring to the table. But do perfumes really get cult followings? Fragrances are so objective. Every nose interprets a scent in a slightly different way, and our sense of smell strikingly differs from our other senses. When we see or hear something we don’t like, it’s a small annoyance. But if we smell something we don’t like, it’s a huge deal, even evoking nausea in some. So if the sense of smell has so little in common with the way we decipher other types of art, how does a perfume gain a cult following?

Thomas Goldblum

Throughout perfume history, there have been a few game-changers, the most obvious one being Chanel No. 5. When Chanel presented her infamous scent in 1921, it was a new type of perfume. She had worked alongside notable perfumier Ernest Beaux to create something utterly distinctive, landing on a blend of around eight scent notes, most of them rather strong, like sandalwood, ylang ylang, orange blossom, and jasmine. We all know the iconic perfume and the history it represents, but the reality is the powerful scent is often too heavy for most people. Chanel No. 5’s fame had more to do with unifying fans of the Chanel brand and its celebrity attention. When Marilyn Monroe revealed that all she wore to bed was Chanel No. 5, that pretty much sealed the fragrance’s place as the most noteworthy perfume of the 20th century.

Yves Saint Laurent’s 1977 launch of Opium was met with attention, likely due controversy over the drug-related connotations of its name. But the fragrance itself sparked interest for similar reasons that Chanel No. 5 did at the time of its release. Opium shares many top notes with the Chanel perfume, including sandalwood and blossom. It also has patchouli notes, which emit a very love-it-or-hate-it smell. Saint Laurent’s sensational fragrance didn’t stand out from its contemporaries as drastically as Chanel’s did, as other brands in the 1970s were also focusing on spicy and citrus scents. But Opium is quite a strong perfume, easily in the same category as Chanel No. 5. And, as Chanel’s perfume gained its reputation through celebrity endorsement, Opium gained it through controversy. The implications of its name led to bans of the product in Australia and parts of the Middle East and a party of disgruntled Chinese-Americans formed the American Coalition Against Opium and Drug Abuse, demanding a public apology from Saint Laurent for “insensitivity to Chinese history.”

So according to history, the verdict on cult obsessions of perfumes is that they do exist. And in the past, they have entailed of two factors: powerful top notes and a long-term home in the public eye. Off-White and Byredo’s Elevator Music definitely delivers on one of those criteria. But as an intentional background scent, it is basically the opposite of Chanel No. 5 and Opium. Elevator Music might settle the score on what truly earns a fragrance a cult following.

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