– a retrospective of Christopher Chong’s twelve years at Amouage
The story of the perfume business of these past twenty years or so goes that there are three basic business models for indie perfume houses.
The first is to build your brand to its maximum potential as quickly and efficiently as possible, so you can sell to Estée Lauder, Coty, Unilever etc., and live comfortably off the compound interest for the rest of your days.
The second – a great deal more demanding, not to mention uncertain – is to put the capital I in ‘indie’, and just damn well go for it or die trying. Stick to your unique, creative vision. Do your thing. This approach has been known to work, especially if the juice at least matches the ambitions of the one(s) who made it as well as the tastes of those who bought it.
But there’s also a third option. This one, too, is not for the faint of heart. And to the best of my knowledge, it has succeeded precisely once, for reasons I’ll get back to in a bit. But first, a little time travel.
Once upon a storied time, the perfumer Guy Robert was approached by a new Omani perfume house with an unusual name: Amouage. From the Arabic am-Waj, The Wave, as in a wave of emotion. There was no budget, no constraints, simply a desire to make the greatest, grandest of all g-words perfume, add the frankincense with the mostest as a salute to Oman’s fragrant past, and call it Gold.
Goldis precisely that: a finger-woven, hand-embroidered, multi-layered silk brocade of a perfume, gold of course.
So he did. It became a very inside secret, a molten gold of perfume in a jewel box of a perfume house in Muscat.
But what if that wave could be more? What if it could swell across the world? What if it were the byword of a perfume company known across the globe, in stores of its own and in other stores too, a name associated with drop-dead luxury (before the word itself became meaningless), glamourie, and complex, fragrant stories? What if maybe, just maybe, Amouage were just a little more inclusive? What if they wanted to write literature in perfumes? Or music? Or heartbreak? Or beauty?
What if heard the question, and twenty-five years later, answered the wish.
As of this writing, I don’t know whether or not David Crickmore, the now former director of Amouage, or Christopher Chong was hired first.
Yet once again, it makes a great story: Man has random conversation with stranger in airport while waiting for a flight. Got a job before he landed. Begins job. Sets perfume world on its ear and keeps it spinning. And whirling, And wondering.
He wrote movies, shot ads and promotions, did the endless round of interviews and magazine spreads and questions about ‘inspirations’. It could be anything: movies. Operas. Literature. Music. Life.
Always, there was music in the backstory and music in the perfumes. Along the way, the music changed as it played, the perfumes began to breathe their own unique stories on unusual skin, the kind always and only satisfied with the best, because there isno other kind.
With his past as a model, he had no problems with photo shoots or cover shoots, whether in jeans and an Adidas jacket at his desk, or serving drop-dead, stop-traffic Des Esseintes unrealness in a lilac suit so sharp, my eyeballs bled from just looking at the photo. Yet that too, was part of the job description; to be the spokesperson, the Idea Guy, the dedicated Perfumaniac with a capital P andthe Marketing Makeover Marvel Man.
If you think about it, all of the above is several jobs in one package called ‘creative director’, but where some creative directors are rather casual about their jobs, you never forgot Christopher Chong, who was never, evercasual about his. He became the focal point of an industry and the poster boy for we legions of perfume writers and aficionados great and small. And as one, we held our breath for the next release, and wondered as we waited.
This was how luxury perfume was done right, from the first rumors on Basenotes to the perfume writers at their laptops tearing out their hair, teasing out the stories from the perfumes, and sometimes, vice versa.
Back in the early Pleistocene era ca. 2011, we were a gaggle of gal- and guypals who wrote about perfume, and some of us had written about Amouage. I would always pretend I wasn’t listening in on their conversations. Amouage was too rich for my blood and always would be. Therefore not for me, thank you.
Those ladies persisted. “Oh, you just wait for it, girl. Once you go, you can’t go back. Etc. Etc.”
Then, one day, Christopher Chong’s face popped up on Facebook in a link to an interview on his latest perfume. For whatever reason, I was ordering samples to try that day. I read the interview. And blew 22€ on two Amouage samples, hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed.
The first sample was Ubar. I came home from work one day, tore open the package, and out rolled Ubar as if ordained by kismet. I sprayed a tiny spray on my wrist. Whereupon I had to sit down, or I would have hit the floor. This was the most opulent, outrageously textured, dense, drop-dead perfume I had sniffed in my life. From across the room, a gargantuan red human grizzly bear grunted his approval.
I had to write about it, just for kicks. Just because. I think that was the night I located the Oxford online thesaurus.
Thanks to Christopher Chong, I would need that thesaurus. For two days later, I sat down with my notebook, my laptop and Ubar. And wrote a tale of a courtesan, a perfumer/conjuror, of time travel and traveling through time, of self-definition and of rediscovery. There was no rehearsal, no warning, no research sessions or note-taking, no noodling around in a notebook, even. I wrote as if by ghostly dictate, and would come to learn, sometimes, the hard way – that was the way and the wave – of Amouage. Always, I would be bereft of words, overwhelmed with something, in the grip of something – something I had to try to articulate, or die trying. And always, the stories seemed to come easiest and smoothest, when I simply sat myself down and sniffed/listened to what they were trying to say.
And the wonders kept on coming, with Epic, with Lyric, with Jubilation 25 (now, simply called Jubilation), the first perfume Christopher Chong unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Memoir (either version) still blows my mind when I sniff it, Beloved feels like another skin.
Which is another thing with the perfumes he created. They could each and every one make the most mundane Mondays in mom jeans seem haute couture occasions, as if the world just wasn’t grand enough for you.
He began in glorious fashion with Jubilation, but he continued on with perfumes huge in their scope, their sillage and their storylines, playing on some grander, more refined stage at an operatic pitch he seemed to conclude with Fate.
There was a nudge in other directions before then, when he launched Opus I-IV in 2010, and used the Library Collection to tie himself closer to literature, presenting the perfumes like precious tomes, which of course they were. But the Library Collection was, I believe, also where he got to play with other inspirations and unusual ideas. A blood note? Civet! The Tragic Case of the Missing Iris Galbanum? Billionaire band-aids? Read all about ‘em, people!
I sensed a shift away from that now-famous operatic pitch some time around Sunshine Woman, and even found something of a shift in Fate. Fate – another two masterpieces – was softer and dare I write it, fluffier than previous releases, as was Sunshine Woman. When Journey arrived in 2014, it seemed a bit less histrionic (nothing wrong with histrionic) than earlier Amouages, as if it played out in a more intimate, subtler key. I felt that with Journey, Christopher really hit his stride as a perfume storyteller. The Secret Garden of Lilac Love, Blossom Love and Love Tuberose (who doesn’t?) bloomed forth and conquered hopeless romantics everywhere.
On it went, that march of time, and on they came, the Myths and the Figments, the Brackens and the Beach Huts. They came to new Amouage stores and more Amouage stores and many, many other stores. Christopher Chong was everywhere in the press, in a newspaper, in linked interviews on Facebook groups and pages, on Instagram. Always twinkling in the light, spreading the magic and the glamouriearound as we all waited with bated breath for the next, new and often confounding Amouage.
I’m not a fan of the “West-meets-East” explanation for Amouages singular aestethic as expressed in their perfumes, and mainly in the perfumes Christopher created for them. I find it overly simplistic at best and insulting at worst, trying to pigeonhole geography and cultural stereotyping to explain the contents of a perfume bottle. I’ve read descriptions like “if Middle Eastern perfumes were made in Paris” to explain Amouage’s appeal, and they always make me want to scream.
Why not just … experienceit, and judge it for yourself? Just open your mind, park your preconceptions around the back, and breathe it in. The perfume itself will tell you everything you need to know.
If the perfumes themselves weren’t so breathtaking – even today in an increasingly overcrowded niche perfume industry – then all the PR razzle-dazzle in the world would not have made them sell, but sell, they do, and not for cheap. One interesting thing I’ve found in exploring other stratospherically priced brands is how quite a few try to recycle his many ideas – and fail.
Around 2016, there were murmurs in the underground of Planet Perfume, mumbling that Amouage had gone mainstream, big time. As if it were the most cardinal-red of sins.
As if Christopher Chong had somehow slipped his halo a little by becoming one of the biggest smash success stories of the perfume industry of the early twenty-first century and was personally responsible for Amouage losing a little of their ‘knock-‘em-out-of-the-ballpark’ luster simply for being and above all things else, creatinga success story. Breaking the rules, shaking things up, rattling all our cages that persona, perfume and PR could co-exist so seamlessly, so elegantly embodied by the one man who cooked it all up and served it to a public ravenous for opulence and richness, for texture and story.
Except I strongly suspect that no matter how large he loomed in interviews across both print and digital media, he could never have succeeded from such a cold start without a lot of help.
It gives me a great deal of pause for thought that David Crickmore, the former director of Amouage, resigned his position around the same time as Christopher Chong. For if Christopher got the PR ball rolling, David Crickmore surely knew a thing or two about how to keep that ball rolling in all the right directions. If that sounds spurious to you, then consider this: there are now over 70 Amouage stores worldwide. They are sold everywhere, including in Copenhagen, which really messed with my mind when I found out. Amouage is the brand it is today because of Christopher Chong, and also because David Crickmore gave him the support and the framework to do it in, and so did everyone else at Amouage.
As for me, it seems a tad sacrilegious to write, but simply put, I feel a bit like Perfume Elvis Has Left The Building. No one else has done what he did, and in this new and changing landscape, I doubt anyone could.
Christopher Chong took his cape and his magic with him, and I wonder what he’ll do with it, and where it will take him. Wherever that may be, I thank him for all the dreams his work has set alight in my own perfume writing these past eight years from the bottom of my black and twisted heart, and wish him nothing but the superlative best of absolutely everything. Which was the gift he gave to all of us; writers and bloggers, aficionados and newbies alike.
A gift, from the inimitable Mr. Chong.
With thanks to the Very August Personage. For everything.
Photo: Amouage. Used with permission.