Ann Demeulemeester is no stranger to things intangible. Speaking of an asymmetric shirt from her memorable spring 1997 collection, she once told me, “gravity inspired me and I reinforced it.” No matter the medium, Demeulemeester has a habit of leaving traces of her spirit in her creations; now she’s done so with her debut fragrance, which she’s named A.
A is for beginnings. It’s the first letter in the alphabet and the first letter in Ann’s name, of course, but also that of Adam, whose rib begat Eve in the Garden of Eden. As Demeulemeester has always embraced fluidity when it comes to gender, it should come as no surprise that A is a unisex fragrance, one whose warm spiciness whispers of a sophisticated sensuality. A is a bold and confident scent, moody even; one that shares no associations with frilly vanities or fainting couches.
“As a child, I didn’t like fragrance at all, and later I didn’t like the perfumes from my mother or my grandmother; I thought they were too sweet and too powdery,” said Demeulemeester on a call. “I would prefer to go in the woods and smell the trees and the grasses and the flowers. Those were the smells that I was attracted to; this sweet girly thing was not really what I liked.”
Demeulemmester’s habit has always been to strip away superficialities in search of the essential. That quest often takes her back to nature; thorns and feathers were recurring motifs in her collections. Fragrance presented this hands-on creator with a different challenge, engaging with senses other than touch.
“I had to find a way to explain this light and shadow, this strong and poetic side, which was always there, into a smell. I could only trust my instinct; and my instinct was the inspiration,” Demeulemeester explained. “To me it had to be something that was intriguing, something that goes back to the origin of things, to something natural, something animalistic, something mysterious. I thought about L’Enfant Sauvage, which is a film of François Truffaut about a child that has been found in the bushes that lived there alone with the animals. I always loved the story. It was always an inspiration for me, and I wanted to make a perfume that is pure and based on instinct.” Reinforcing Demeulemeester’s connection to the living world, A is a perfume, as opposed to an eau de cologne, meaning it is made of essential oils made from natural raw materials that have been cold pressed.
Since receiving a rose plant on St. Valentine’s day about 10 years ago from her husband and collaborator Patrick Robyn, Demeulemeester has become an avid gardener, one who knows the patterns of growth and seasons. A, you could say, acts a bit like rain on earth; it hits the skin with a pungent “splash” and then almost seeps into the skin, expanding, warming, transforming. There’s a lot of “ground” to cover, in the sense that the ingredients list is quite extensive. Jasmine, May rose, and birch oil form the heart of the fragrance, which has top notes of clove, cumin, ceylon cinnamon, Sicilian lemon, and Calabrian bergamot that are tethered by base notes of patchouli, vetiver, rosewood, and sandalwood.
The release of A is the realization of a long held wish. “It’s a dream that I have had for a long time. For years and years, I was thinking that one day somebody would knock on my door and say, ‘Shall we make a perfume?’ So I wanted to be prepared. Let’s say that for 25 years, I’ve been thinking of what a perfume of mine would be like,” said Demeulemeester. “What is important is that the smells that I chose, I really chose them. They’re the same smells that I would have chosen 25 years ago, and that reinforced my idea that I had to do it because I still wanted the same thing I wanted before, and I still had the impression it’s a smell that is not there.”
It was Claudio Antonioli, who purchased the brand in 2020, who presented the opportunity. “When Mr. Antonioli took over the label, he asked me if I could be present somehow, and if I could do something to reinforce the brand,” the designer explained. Like the redesign of the brand flagship in Antwerp, the creation of A was an extended family affair. Patrick Robyn took the photo of Ann that appears on the inside of the top of the canvas-covered box, and their son, Victor Robyn, designed the A. “It’s sharp as a needle,” said Demeulememster. You could also say it’s as honed as a rose thorn, or bird’s talon, both symbols connected to the maison.
Like the box, the bottle is slender and rectangular, and all its surfaces, the four inner and four outer sides, were put to use. The interior and exterior of one panel are painted black, and therefore opaque, while the other six are see-through. “For me, it was quite clear that what I wanted to do with the perfume and the perfume bottle, I wanted to have a contrast there. Inside the bottle, there would be nature, and outside, I wanted culture. I wanted a bottle that is very defined, almost modernist, really sharp,” Demeulemeester explained.
For Demeulemeester A is something like a key, one that opens yet another door beyond the atelier. “It’s nice if you have achieved something and you did it to the fullest,” the designer said of her life in fashion. “I felt like, okay, I want to be vulnerable again. I want to be nothing, to be able to try something new. It’s hard to explain… I mean, it’s this little wild child in me who wants to do all this.”
A will be sold at the Ann Demeulemeester flagship in Antwerp and online, as well as in all the Antonioli shops, Dover Street Market, London, and The Broken Arm, Paris.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com