Since its launch in 2006, Etat Libre d’Orange has gained notoriety and a large international cult following with its provocative perfumes and tongue-in-cheek humour. With perfumes such as Putain des Palaces, Attaqeur le Soleil Marquis de Sade, Fat Electrician and Encens et Bubblegum, Etat Libre d’Orange has walked a fine line between shock value and scentsory awe.
The man behind this Paris-based niche perfumery, Etienne de Swardt, was born and raised in South Africa. The name “Etat Libre d’Orange” is a witty word play on the Orange Free State, the South African province where De Swardt lived during his formative years.
After working for big fragrance names like Givenchy and weary of the conventions and limitations of perfumery, De Swardt launched Oh My Dog! and Oh My Cat!, his fragrance range for pets, which humans could wear too. Cheeky bugger!
My first encounter (“experience” is too tame a word) with Etat Libre d’Orange was with Je Suis un Homme, launched in 2006. Although that bottle was emptied many years ago, I still remember it as a heady collision between citrus, spice, leather and cognac notes. Not the usual, for sure.
I wangled my South African background to get an email interview with De Swardt. For a change, I had to turn off my overly vigilant inner editor to retain the drama and flow of his manifesto-like answers. So mostly I have shortened and explained his answers where necessary for clarity.
After more than 10 years in the industry, has Etat Libre d’Orange achieved what you set out to do? The objective is still too confused to measure a pertinent achievement. Sabotage will be the final destination, with all our narcissism, scented exactions, calculated pathos and endorsements of rogue heroes and heroines blended on one magnificent fire. I would love a purifying fire at 69 Rue des Archives [the address of the Etat Libre d’Orange store in Paris] to consume a decade “à tout faire de travers [doing it our way]”.
You started out as an agent provocateur in the industry. Is that still your motivation? I was born a sophisticated Shakespearean impostor, lost in between South Africa and New Caledonia. I was shaped by womanity, materfamilias, gay but elusive multiple (step) fathers, literature, cloud soaring, instants in the wind and, of course, my own departed. Hence, I am fucking confused and disturbed. But thankfully I have all the codes of vanity, arrogance and narcissism, knowing all that will be gone with the wind, revenged by our finitude and hazardous biology, so I bow to Diogenes’s cynicism.
Using your latest fragrance, You or Someone Like You, as an example, briefly talk us through your conceptualisation and creative process. Just a good name to ignite the process and federate the passions, and a good extra bonus of existentialism with my knowledgeable Chandler Burr [the acclaimed American author, journalist and perfume expert] on board. Chandler is a crusader of aesthetics on the road less travelled. Alive and kicking this is what we are, knowing the end is a Greek tragedy. In the meantime, let’s be dramatic, frivolous and genuine.
With its notes of blood, adrenaline, sperm and saliva, Secretions Magnifiques created a huge sensation when it was launched in 2006 and still upsets or delights people. Looking back now, what do you think of it? My beloved virus, my favourite crime scene, why did you betray me, trapping for so long our land of plenty in a swamp of miasma, saliva, sperm and other encoded fluids of duplication and reproduction. I was born in 1970, the year of the dog, and I sniff around not like a perfumer, but like a hound, hunting high and low body intimacies.
What’s your favourite Etat Libre d’Orange fragrance? I love all my scented freaks equally. They all speak my very universal disorders. Etat Libre d’Orange is a land of plenty, inclusive of all neurotic but charming darkness. It’s where a Fat Electrician shall dance an eternal farandole with a powdery slut, a leathery Tom of Finland, an abject ylang-ylang Charogne, the synaesthesia of a Nijinsky dancing the faun in 1912 at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the eternal feminine killer’s kiss blending jasmine at twilight with a seductive cigarette, a naive Justine lost in between vice and virtue, but deliciously perverted by a Luciferian Marquis of Sade. They are all for You or Someone Like You.
Has your definition of success changed since you launched Etat Libre d’Orange? Penitence is my lot in life, stoicism and cynicism my brothers in arms. I hope that all these existentialism-scented manoeuvres since 2006 will help me to buy a Jonker JS-1 Revelation sailplane, designed in Potchefstroom, South Africa, by two talented brothers. Soaring is a place where everything starts and ends, driven by humility.
What fragrance are you working on now? Vos Beaux Yeux Vont Pleurer, inspired by the poetry of Ray Bradbury and David Bowie (Martian Chronicles + Serious Moonlight), the curse of beauty of Rock Hudson, Edna “E” Mode [from The Incredibles], Roxy Music’s Love is the Drug and WD-40 Multi-Use products to keep our souls away from rusted parts. Disturbed, isn’t it?
What are your thoughts on the current state of the perfume industry? Mutation and survival of the fittest.
Are your fragrances distributed in South Africa? No, we are too “incompris” [misunderstood].
Apart from its name, does South Africa inspire your fragrances at all? Etat Libre d’Orange is the best blend of 21st-century Voortrekker spirit and existentialism à la française. Tell the Ruperts [the wealthy South African family who founded Richemont] that I don’t want to sell my house to LVMH or L’Oréal. But I would be happy one day to dance the carmagnole in the Great Karoo around the camp fire with protective laager people, my family, Walt Whitman or Alan Paton – the same universal, drifting, contemplative saga of pain and beauty on the limitless borders of New Caledonia, Colorado or Kroonstad. I am the true son of a Free State farm boy with vast memories of Bothaville and meat pie…