CARLOS HUBER is the Creative Director of Arquiste: a house that creates fragrances inspired by specific moments in history. Carlos Huber visited Bloom Perfumery this spring, to introduce the new Arquiste scent: L’Etrog Acqua. I was fortunate enough to be invited to meet with him for a one-to-one exploration of the Arquiste line.
iBeheld: Your background is in restoration architecture. An understanding of balance and proportion is essential to architecture, and to perfume as well, no?
Carlos Huber: Absolutely. When people say ‘Do you miss architecture?’ I’m like, ‘well, to be honest, not so much – because I’m still working in a very similar way’. There’s still a design process, an idea of proportion and scale, there’s an idea of materials and there’s the actual research behind all the stories that then serve to create the perfume.
So I actually work like a preservation architect in perfume. I don’t work like a regular architect – I have always the obligation to follow research. Every fragrance for me starts as a story, starts as a place – a site. It involves a site visit, it involves the research, it involves the bibliographical sources and then we get to a choice of materials.
Have you always had an interest in history?
I grew up in Mexico City and the weekends that I loved the most were when we went to the centre, when we went to the old neighbourhoods. I always liked design, but the things that always made me more interested and more passionate were the things that had a history behind them. They had gravitas for me.
History is what brought me to architecture and history is also what brought me to perfume. Rodrigo Flores-Roux has been my mentor in fragrance and he taught me for a year and a half. He’s a very successful, very important perfumer, and what made me really connect with him was the history part.
Rodrigo would tell me about Neroli and I would ask, ‘well, what is Neroli? Why that name?’ And then he would say ‘Aah, well, there was a Princess in the seventeenth century … she loved orange blossom and she had that custom of using a lot of orange blossom as fragrance and in her gloves…’ and I was like ‘Ah! Now you took it somewhere more interesting than just saying ‘it’s the distillation from the orange blossom tree.’
I would ask: in the seventeenth century: were people spraying perfume? Or were they using it as powder, or what? And when Rodrigo explained a lot of those things … what fascinated me the most was that they were more modern than we think. They thought of room scents, already back in the day, you know? It wasn’t necessarily sold as reed diffusers or candles in the same way, but they actually had a lot of things that we share right now.
I love that about history, when you realise we’re not that modern or that special. That’s the purpose of these fragrances: to actually take you back, inspire you, bring that moment to you, not necessarily turn you into that old eighteenth century powdered woman. You want the essence of what is significant about that and to bring it to your own reality.
It’s radical to stop something from decaying. Same thing also about perfume: preservation architecture is about preventing something from rotting away because we think that it has a value to our society and we want to preserve that – well, in fragrance, you use all these scents and you perfume yourself to actually remind yourself of living things.
Perfume’s a very important thing. It’s not only about vanity, it’s not about the ads with the models, it’s about a need that we have to believe in beautiful things, to smell beautiful things; whatever they mean to us, whatever is beautiful to you, that actually takes you away from that imminent truth that in the end it all decays. It goes away and it’s corruption.
Scent for me is all about evoking something, so I love the concept of a fragrance that tells you a story. Do you have a particular story, not necessarily the fragrance that goes with it, that is your favourite from the line?
The Fleur de Louis. I’m VERY much in love with the seventeenth century. I’m always happy to live right now, and I’m interested in what’s coming up next because I think everything can be better still. But, having said that, I’m really interested in Spain and France at that time. The rise of France as a hegemony, of Louis XIV taking control of the country and having this incredible team to actually make it the Number One country in the world. The decay of the Spanish Empire, the Baroque period, the contrast of everything; church and theatre, incredible technique and wealth and precision and perfection in the arts, and then squalor in so many other things – it’s a very passionate time.
It’s something that – ever since I was a teenager – interested me. I saw a series on TV that I haven’t found again, ever … a series on Louis XIV. There’s a scene where Louis XIV meets his future wife (the Spanish Infanta) for the first time. It was a very important thing, at that time, for two courts to get together. Basically, the Spanish are handing over also the importance of the country – that’s when France goes up and Spain goes down. Without knowing. And I think that’s what gave me so much information to then create the fragrances, the precision and the detailing. It was so detailed, so meticulous, the description of one court and another, that you could smell it. That was the first thing that made me think you can have a fragrance from all this.
INFANTA EN FLOR
This is the Spanish one. Spain has always loved orange-blossom. Then you have the suede kid glove that was always perfumed with a specific formula that already at that time was called ‘Spanish Skin’. It was very famous all over Europe and that formula is in here as well. We have the orange blossom, we have the immortelle flower, and rose as well, and then that leather part that also gives you a bit of an equine thing, but it’s soft. It’s a fragrance that when you first smell it, it’s very baby-like: a baby cologne, but it has this leather sexual thing –
Almost as soon as I smelt it I was thinking that this is the scent I would wear when I needed someone to forgive me, and to be sure that they would! (laughs)
Yes, because it’s innocent – but then, it doesn’t lie …
FLEUR DE LOUIS
And then the French. This is the Golden Age of the original French bouquet of flowers. Jasmine, orange-blossom, iris, rose and then the woody notes of the pine and cedar wood. These are fresh woods, woody notes that are still so salty and crisp and green. But you have these very starched [notes]- the iris, the powder; this very proper, elegant court showing up. For me it’s very unisex. I think because it’s floral it’s understood more as a feminine scent? But really … Nobody said that flowers were not meant for men.
That was still going on when Marie-Antoinette married her Louis, wasn’t it? The stripping her of her Austrian clothing and dressing her in French fashion
There’s a very interesting book called Nuptial Fictions by Abby Zanger that is all about this moment. It talks about the political body of the Queen; how this girl was not just a girl. You wouldn’t marry someone from your own country because you can gain so much more from a dowry and from a political truce if you do an accord with another country. But the conflict with that is that you have to make her a national when she is actually a foreigner. So how do you describe the actual transformation of this Spanish woman into a French Queen?
There’s so many references to how when she was finally dressed in the French manner she was sweating. She was proving that she was a healthy woman, she was fertile, and so the sweat was healthy, and also, she was sweating the Spanish part of her out. She was becoming French. And again the idea of fashion was very political, was ‘this is how we wear things here and how you wear things there’. There’s a conscious effort to make herself different.
It starts getting murkier in the eighteenth century when everybody starts adopting what is the French taste. There’s a book called When The World Spoke French and it regrets, but understands, how English became the international language. It says that French didn’t evolve to adapt to other cultures and to take in other influences and all the technical aspects, but it also says that the French revolution made everything that was French: National – whereas the idea of France was an international one.
You mentioned the Revolution – I would love to smell something inspired by the Revolution. It would probably smell pretty awful wouldn’t it? All blood and steel …
Aleksandr started with the French Revolution. I wasn’t interested in the cutting off of the heads, frankly, or the prisons, but it’s a very interesting period: an awful period, but life goes on whilst The Terror is happening. Fashion keeps going. There’s still creation. All these different fashions that people were wearing around the French Revolution: the red ribbon, the chopped hair, the hairstyles and then the smells.
For Marie-Antoinette and in the late 18th Century something that was very favoured was fresh flowers; soft florals, powdery scents, very clean and fresh and hygienic. This was a reaction to the previous generation … Louis XIV hated perfumes. When he died, the Regime then was all about animalistic. It’s all very sexual; it’s orgies; it’s all these things. Casanova would say that when he met an old courtesan she reeked of animalic perfumes and that was old-fashioned. So, in Marie-Antoinette’s time it’s all about hyacinth and rose and violet and all these soft floral notes.
That seems to go with the Petit Trianon and the pastoral play-acting.
Exactly. Natural. Rousseau as well, the Noble Savage return to nature, all of that. So then you have the reactions of the French Revolution – cutting the heads off these people that like the soft and the subtle and la douceur de vivre. And what the young generation, the sons and daughters of the guillotined aristocrats, start wearing are the animalic fragrances from the past because this is when France was absolutist, when France was a world power, the heyday of the Ancien Régime. So they are harking back to that. They didn’t last too long. And then you start getting a little bit more of those soft florals. So that’s actually what is happening from the revolution to the Empire.
Aleksandr started with that thing. It’s a Russian story, it’s not at all about the Revolution but that has its influence. After the animalic notes and all that, what happens in France: it’s Napoleon, right? And Josephine. Josephine survived the guillotine. Josephine is one of this generation of young women, so, of course she loved musk, she loved the animalic part of musk and amber and all this, but she also loved violet.
Napoleon and Josephine – especially Napoleon – become celebrities, all over Europe, because the French Revolution becomes a Universal Idea for all the different countries and all the young people in other countries. And so Napoleon becomes a celebrity endorser, in a way. And he loved Eau-de-Cologne. And she loved violet and musk. So these notes in the early part of the 19th century become fashionable all over Europe.
So in 1837, when we are going back with Aleksandr, the most popular essences of the time at the Russian court were violet and eau-de-cologne. But of course there’s a whole other story: the military fashion that has become men’s fashion. Now men wear boots all the time, they wear military uniform for regular wear – that’s the English fashion. So then you have the leather boots, you have fur coats because it’s cold, it’s the winter in Russia.
Of course, this perfume is about the day that Aleksandr Pushkin gets ready to go out for his duel. So he starts by getting ready; this is a gentleman’s toilette. What would he have most likely worn? Violet and eau-de-cologne are notes in there. We start with that. There is that cool aspect of the violet, and the cool aspect also of the cologne.
Then we have the leather boots, the bear-fur coat, the animalic notes of musk, amber; things that you smell in the fur and in the Russian man. This fragrance is very much a skin fragrance – the nuances of the animalic stuff especially, you feel more in the skin. And then you go to the forest and you have the birch leaves, the birch tar, the fir balsam; all those woody notes that evoke the forest clearing where the duel took place. And actually the birch tar, which is the smoky part – I love that because it almost gives you the pistol. Would you like to try it on?
I like this very much. It’s a strong man, but a strong man that you can cry over. A man that you can mourn for.
It has a masculine dandy thing, but then it has a lot of sophistication, it has a lot of nuances, there’s a sensitivity to it.
Violet always brings vulnerability as well … A sense of … oh, (swoony voice) … it’s really, really lovely.
Another fragrance is about nuns misbehaving in a convent. (Laughter) In Mexico, we had a lot of convents back in the days of New Spain. Mexican convents are actually where Mexican food is born: a fusion between European technique and ingredients and native ingredients, and techniques as well. Chocolate, vanilla, tomatoes, corn, and then the Asian spices.
And this is a chocolate formula – recipe, I would think – that dates from a real convent in Mexico City, that involved jasmine, smoked chillies, cumin, pepper, oregano, all these things. As you know, coco is very bitter – it took some time to get to the chocolate chip cookie – and this is one of those things that at that time they were experimenting on.
We have the incense of the church in there, the cedar wood beams. We also have the body of the nuns: the animalic. The idea of the body was very important for a mystical experience at this time. St Theresa of Avila said always that the mystical experience was tied to the body; we are not angels.
I’m almost seeing this scent in my mind’s eye: something sheer like a silk veil but with a kind of solidity to it as well?
Right. Well it’s interesting that you call it a veil, because for all those heavy and deep notes, and how deep a story it sounds, with the incense and the chocolate and the sweat and the nuns – it’s actually quite translucent. It’s not a light fragrance, but it’s a fragrance that is like intricate lace: it’s complex, but it lets you breathe. That’s what I like about it.
It’s amazing, because it’s not translucent or light in the sense that it’s watery or ozone – it’s completely different to that. It’s such a heavenly scent that you could drive someone crazy with this – literally! “What are you wearing?” “I’m not, you’re imagining it.”
BLOOM PERFUMERY: AMINA – IT’S VERY POPULAR – THAT’S WHY THE TESTER IS EMPTY!
L’Etrog Acqua is launching this summer?
It’s coming out in June and there’s a new format: the 100ml bottle and we’re also doing this new cap.
So L’Etrog Acqua… In the 12th century Jewish communities in Calabria would harvest the citron lemon. That’s why Italy has this strong connection with citrus. It was the Greeks, the Arabs, and the Jews that had settled – this Babylon of Mediterranean cultures over there.
They would build these cabins, and [celebrate] a thanksgiving. And in this you take an Etrog citron, a twig of myrtle, a branch of willow, and a palm frond and bless all these elements because they all represent different parts of the body but also different types of people. The citron smells and tastes, so it’s somebody that is both wise and good. The myrtle smells but doesn’t taste, so it’s somebody that is wise but not good. The willow branch has neither, so … (Carlos shrugs) But it doesn’t matter, you take them all and you bless them because that’s humankind. It’s a very nice story and all about giving thanks.
So, imagine yourself dropped into the night in Calabria, in this very mild sweet weather where you have the woody envelope of the cabin, and the citron that is housed in there with you. You’re spending the night there and you’re eating dates because that’s what is falling from the palm trees.
Imagine the morning after … you step out of that cabin and you have the misty green and the heavy droplets of water from the morning dew gathered in the lemons. What would that smell like? With all the branches and the leaves and the wet grass and the bright, juicy citrus…
My mouth is filling up! (laughs)
It is mouth watering. So, for L’Etrog Acqua we took out the dried fruit and emphasised all the citrus notes and the woody notes. It’s a bit more masculine actually, more traditionally in that realm of the elegant Italian man who smells of citrus and cologne. More green. The emphasis is on the fruit, on the citrus, on the green, on the moss, on the lavender, all that – it’s less about the cabin, more about the structural and cultural aspect of it, the nuances of the warmth and the cool. It’s really about nature.
THE ARCHITECTS CLUB
And here we have The Architects Club, which is a completely different animal. Now we’re in London, 1930, dusk. Cocktail time. This group of architects have been working in the renovation of Claridge’s, a Victorian hotel that is a bit stale, but still very high-class. They need to modernise it, to make it very ‘in’. And cool. And modern. And young.
They start designing in this new style – Art Deco – that is the hottest thing, and they start renovating the spaces little by little. They have the Smoking Room, which has this very cosy, small, intimate, very English Club feel, where they can smoke their pipes and their blond tobacco and their cigars. But then you have the Bright Young Things, the flappers and the Gatsby kinds that are bursting in and just taking over the space. And they’re drinking a very interesting new fashionable cocktail – a gin martini.
So you start with the gin martini, with the juniper berry, the angelica root, the orange peel … Then, the very original architecture from that time; the velvet sofas, leather panels in the walls, brushed steel, the frosted glass: all those ingredients … that frosty part of the martini shaker, the glass … then the warmth of the pipe and the wood and the velvet – all of that.
It’s a fragrance that goes from the juniper berry – a fresh green sparkly beginning – to the warm amber comfort of the vanilla and the oak and the guaiac wood and the pepper wood. The fragrance has a lot of inflections, it has a lot of twists and turns because vanilla goes from cosy to sexy to dry to smokey to leathery. And it’s quite oily actually, [it has] a high perfume concentration so you really feel the weight of it.
It’s making me want to go out.
Get a martini?
Yeah, go to a party!
It’s really about that first drink, that gives you that warming feeling of well-being. That first one. The Architects Club definitely has a masculine tone but it’s also unisex, universal, anyone can appreciate it or get close to it. Would you like to try it on?
Mmm, that’s good, and not at all what I expected. It’s not the story that I was expecting either. My feeling with this is that I’d like to wear it like a trophy. I wouldn’t actually like my own bottle, I’d like someone else to own it and me to wear it – is that too wrong? (laughs)
Well, from my side, we want you to get the bottle! But whatever you like! For me, it’s such a tenacious scent, it really clings to clothing and to the person so that it’s almost like they left a scarf … something that you can smell again and again. It comes back, and the memory of that person comes back to you.
It’s not that I wouldn’t buy my own bottle, it’s more that I would possibly lie and say the scent belongs to the man I was with last night …
It’s a more masculine scent, it works beautifully on women’s skin but it’s more woody, more amber, it doesn’t have any florals – it’s one of the few that don’t have any florals at all.
I really like all of the line. The big bottle (100 ml) is new isn’t it?
Yes, the big bottles offer a better deal for people because we can give them a better price and I think that also matters here, especially, because we are an imported brand. Our price here is a bit higher than in the States. So this is a better deal.
Is the US your home territory?
I’m based in the States. At this point we’re in 17 countries now. The UK is important because its such a centre for everything and we have good partnerships here – Bloom is a good example of that!
I recommend that you explore the full range of Arquiste perfume at Bloom (ideally, in store). At the time of writing, LEtrog Acqua is yet to arrive in store, so why not follow Bloom on Twitter to keep up to date re. news of its arrival?
I guessed correctly that Aleksandr would appeal to my fierce, dramatic side, but I didn’t expect that Anima Dulcis would put me into such a blissfully distracted state of being that I would leave without my samples!
Arquiste perfumes are beautifully balanced, distinctive scents: all are lovely, but one in particular will speak to your soul … Anima Dulcis is The One I’m saving up for – with an RRP of £125 for 55ml, it’s not an impulse buy, but the sense of joy and serenity it fills me with is worth every penny.
If you ever have the opportunity to hear Carlos Huber speak about scent, architecture and history, take it! He is a mesmerising story-teller, and a very charming person. Many thanks to Carlos for the interview, and Bloom for inviting me to meet with him.