DESIGN SA-born perfumer Etienne de Swardt is enchanting the world with his unique boutique scents
Meet Etienne de Swardt, the South African-born scent connoisseur whose unique boutique perfume brand Etat Libre d’Orange occupies an ultracool corner address in the heart of Paris
What happens when just the right amount of ennui and nonconformity give rise to sublime innovation and joie de vivre? The result is the ‘Orange Free State’ in Paris, where, when you’re offered the ‘grand tour down the rabbit hole in the land of frivolity and other scented nonsense’, you can expect a fragrant fantasy world.
Perfumer Etienne de Swardt gives the impression that he has always tilted a bit off-centre. ‘Everything is between black and white,’ he says, ‘and the best answer is always in the grey.’ Born in Pretoria, De Swardt grew up on the French territory island of New Caledonia, and after studying at ESSEC business school in Paris, took up a position at luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, where he worked for the fashion house of Givenchy.
In 2000, he independently launched a pair of perfumes for dogs, cats and their humans named Oh My Dog! and Oh My Cat?. And in 2006, bored with the limitations imposed within the traditional business of beauty, De Swardt established Etat Libre d’Orange – literally, ‘Orange Free State’ – which was named after the area of South Africa where his father was born and De Swardt spent plenty of time as a child. He says that he chose the name for its synergy with a place of striking contrasts, indescribable colours, rare beauty and constant changeability.
Although the brand’s perfumes are available through many retailers globally, there is only one Etat Libre d’Orange boutique store in the world, and it can be found on the famous Rue des Archives shopping strip in Paris. Bold and audacious – just like its products – the boutique is the perfect showcase for its fragrances, all of which are housed in unfussy square bottles so that nothing distracts from the precious ‘juice’ within. With sharp edges reminiscent of the corner on which the store is positioned, the perfume bottles sport variations on the brand emblem of a tricolour cockade that conveys the message of post-revolution liberty.
De Swardt’s unabashed storytelling approach and intriguing product names piqued industry and market curiosity from the start, and he explains that each of the 34 fragrances in his collection has been created, rather like poetry, to awaken the imagination and inspire freedom of expression. In short, he has created ‘a different kind of perfumery that’s intelligent, with a point of view’.
Sensuality dominates De Swardt’s fragrance names: there’s Attaquer le Soleil Marquis de Sade, with its connection to the infamous French nobleman and pornographic writer of the mid 1700s. Tom of Finland is an ode to burly homoerotica, while The Afternoon of a Faun is inspired by ballet danseur noble Vaslav Nijinsky, whose daring performances of the ballet by that name had French audiences of 1912 in a frenzy. And don’t be fooled by the apparent delicate sweetness of Don’t Get Me Wrong Baby, Yes I Do, whose candy-pink charm conceals a feisty young woman armed with jazz moves and adult intentions.
Once he has a dreamed up a story, De Swardt shares his brief with perfumers and aromaticians at Givaudan in Vernier, Switzerland, or at Mane in the French region of Grasse, both of which are renowned experts in the art of chemical composition. Over the years, he has also collaborated with many an interesting celebrity to create their scent of choice.
Actress Tilda Swinton, for example, says Etat Libre d’Orange showed her it was possible to ‘provide the smell of snow, of mist, of my grandfather’s greenhouse’. Nose Mathilde Bijaoui at Mane took Swinton’s specifications and soon, the actress had a liquid memory of her home in Scotland, redolent of gingerbread, dogs and children’s feet, all neatly captured in a scent that she takes with her on her travels.
An aromatic agitator who is allergic to convention, De Swardt’s brand of delicious eccentricity is embraced by grateful beneficiaries and admirers of design, art and style who are a little out of the ordinary. Thank goodness for scents that, as he puts it, ‘cling to the body and persevere in the mind’. etatlibredorange.com Metropolitain Cosmetics stocks a selection of Etat Libre d’Orange fragrances in South Africa (metrocosmetics.co.za).
T HIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE F ROM TOP
Perfumer Etienne de Swardt; the provocative interior of the Etat Libre d’Orange boutique store in Paris (far right and right) was designed by Shed Design (shed-design.com); roughly translated, Fils de Dieu du Riz et des Agrumes means ‘The son of God and rice and citrus’.
OPPOSITE PAGE, CLOCKWISE F ROM LEFT
The perfume brand offers 34 unique fragrances; actress Tilda Swinton’s celebrity scent Like This; Archives 69 is named after the address of the only Etat Libre d’Orange store, at 69 Rue des Archives in Paris.