Olivier Creed: Master Perfumer, or Master Manipulator?
I want to preface my remarks by saying that my thoughts on the Creed brand are not entirely favorable. Creed's self-image as "royal" purveyors of fine fragrance is, at its core, unintentionally funny. Nobody with an ounce of intellect wants to be recognized solely for being the personal perfumer for inbreds, no matter how wealthy they are. Lacking a Royal Warrant, the commercial projections of tassels and feathers and pomp and circumstance are merely a veneer over talent, which shouldn't be disguised in the first place. The irony is that Creed has always been ahead of its time, despite their insistence on stamping "1760" everywhere, as if the brand is universally known for its eighteenth century masterpieces. This is all to say that Creed doesn't need the extra flair.
I think Aventus is overrated. Aventus is "the scent of the century" only insofar as we're seventy-seven years away from the end of it. A lot can happen in a lifetime. Several bigger and more influential perfumes are likely ahead. I've always felt that Aventus was more of a timestamp than a fragrance; its release coincided with the moment when internet hype had caught up with the fragrance community, and thousands of "fragbros" could assail the world with news of their chest-thumping expenditures in one unanimous and unending salvo. By 2010, it was clear that we had devolved from a casual word-of-mouth world to a blood-soaked colosseum of keyboard-warriors, and Aventus proved it.
Lastly, Creed's retail prices have become utterly absurd. I remember when a four ounce bottle cost $250 directly from the boutique, which was bad enough. That 3.3 ounces now costs $500 is patently insane. Creed is good, but they're not that good. When a brand hikes itself over the $400 mark, it's time to pass. I don't care what the story is, or how good the fragrances might be. There's pricing for premium quality, and then there's just pricing to keep people out. Creed is clearly engaged in the latter practice. I'd have a modicum of respect for them if they kept churning out Aventus-sized hits, one after another, but Viking and Viking Cologne were both met with tepid reviews, and Wind Flowers has a flatulence-inspired name that the company should be embarrassed of.
I mention all of this to point out that I'm not a "Creed Fanboy" who takes every simpering opportunity to defend Creed and defile its enemies. When someone like Gabe Oppenheim comes along, I give him the benefit of the doubt. His recent nonfiction book, The Ghost Perfumer: Creed, Lies, & the Scent of the Century casts Olivier Creed as a superlative perfume evaluator who twisted his credentials and used one of the best perfumers of the last fifty years to form a billion dollar company. The "Ghost Perfumer" in question is Pierre Bourdon, author of masterworks like Kouros, Cool Water, and Dolce Vita. Oppenheim's core contention is that every time the young and upcoming Bourdon lost a brief for a designer fragrance, Olivier swooped in and stole it for Creed.
For this to be possible, Oppenheim has to illustrate the character dynamics of these two men in a way that is both convincing and historically accurate. I haven't read the book, but I have watched Oppenheim give several lengthy interviews with various personalities in the fragrance community, and having heard the author's take on the subject ad nauseam, I have some issues with it. The dynamic he describes is one where Olivier was a rakish Hitchcock villain, all tweed suits and ties, tall and handsome, a man who was bored with his family's tailoring business and wanted to make a name for himself in the perfume industry. Pierre was the young and naive son of a Dior executive who sought fatherly approval from anyone who would give it, and somehow found it in Olivier, who promised him the world if he would just look the other way whenever his ideas were stolen.
The first of these ideas was for Lancôme's Sagamore (1985). When Pierre's brief was rejected, Olivier was there to snatch it up and name it Green Irish Tweed. According to Oppenheim, Olivier paid Pierre nothing more than a few custom-tailored Creed suits. Oppenheim suggests in many interviews that Cool Water was Pierre's revenge bid against Creed; when GIT gained commercial traction, the perfumer sought to undermine its uniqueness by thrusting a near-identical and much cheaper alternative into the designer market. The rest is history: Cool Water wound up being the more famous and popular fragrance, and GIT remained obscure until the internet could lend it a hand.
I find this anecdote fascinating. It rings true in the sense that there's no way Pierre Bourdon did not at least contribute to Green Irish Tweed. The similarities between it and Cool Water are too strong. Also, Jean-Louis Sieuzac is on record saying that he wished Sagamore had never been attributed to him, because it's been discontinued for many years, while GIT and CW remain in production. What's also interesting about this story is it suggests that something like Tres Nuit by Armaf, which is basically GIT on a designer budget, smells the way Sagamore might have, had Lancôme been a little wiser. But there's one thing that doesn't really make sense to me, and Oppenheim never attempts to explain it: If Creed wanted Bourdon's work, why didn't he just hire him?
The supposition at play here is that because of Pierre's daddy issues and personal insecurities, Olivier could save money by taking advantage of his vulnerability and pilfering his ideas for free, which might explain why he sidestepped hiring the perfumer. But that's a God of the Gaps theory, the Gap being what Pierre offered to Lancôme in 1985, versus what eventually became Green Irish Tweed. There's no way that the rejected brief that Pierre submitted to Lancôme was turn-key for Creed. Someone had to tinker with it, edit it, and eventually reformulate it into the Creed fragrance. And all of this had to be done in the span of a few months, if Oppenheim's timeline is to be believed. Who supplied Olivier with the finished fragrance? How was Bourdon's vision merged with Olivier's?
The other problem is one of circumstance. By 1985, Pierre Bourdon had already gained global recognition for his work on Yves Saint-Laurent's Kouros. His landmark musky fougère was hailed as "The Most Expensive Perfume in the World." YSL launched the fragrance with a widely-publicized party featuring celebrities and industry names. Kouros went on into the eighties as one of the brand's bestsellers. It is still in production, and still commands a premium. Finding a vintage bottle of Kouros is like finding a nugget of gold. So the suggestion that Pierre Bourdon was sulking on the sidelines waiting for validation from Creed is a bit hard to swallow.
But let's give Oppenheim the benefit of the doubt here, and say he's correct in his analysis of what happened. He says that Pierre told him this. He says that Sieuzac confirmed it. And he says that it didn't stop there; in 1995, Olivier stole another rejected brief from Pierre, this time for L'Eau d'Issey, and made it into Silver Mountain Water. He presumably did it again and again with Millésime Impérial, Spring Flower, and Original Santal, although there's not as much mention of these. The SMW story is a mirror image of the one for GIT, and yet here it's even less plausible. By 1995, Pierre Bourdon had authored Cool Water and Dolce Vita for Dior, both hugely successful. He'd also created Féminité du Bois for Shiseido, which was an iconic niche subvariant of the plummy violet-woods idea that eventually became a Serge Lutens mainstay.
Are we really to believe that Pierre Bourdon was yet again a victim of Olivier's modus operandi? That his brief was pinched and turned into Silver Mountain Water? One thing that Gabe Oppenheim repeats in each interview is that Pierre Bourdon explicity joked with him about how bad Olivier Creed was at creating a formula budget. According to this story, because he was bad with numbers, Olivier would just tell his team to stack the formulas with the most expensive versions of everything. Can't decide which amber to use? Just use real ambergris. This is what Oppenheim claims Bourdon told him. But is that what Pierre Bourdon actually said? Because when pressed by Persolaise on the ambergris question, Oppenheim contradicts himself and says, "Oh no, it's all Ambroxan."
Again, Silver Mountain Water didn't just magically materialize from the brief for L'Eau d'Issey. Someone had to sit down and reformulate the idea. There are moments in his interviews when it sounds like Oppenheim is saying that Olivier took the formulas and simply upgraded the materials, i.e., took the exact formula for Sagamore and instead of using cheap synthetics, used real iris butter, real lemon verbena oil, etc. But again, GIT never smelled that natural to me, and I doubt that the original formula that Pierre Bourdon submitted for Sagamore was exactly what was used by Creed. Same goes for Silver Mountain Water. So who was doing the reformulating, who was doing the modding, and who actually created these perfumes? Maybe the book explains, and I just need to read it, or perhaps we're all expected to take Oppenheim's word for it, full stop. I don't know.
He describes Olivier Creed as a "Master Evaluator" of perfumes. He compliments Creed as someone who could identify a "hit fragrance" simply by putting his nose on a whole bunch of things. He suggests that the brand's success has relied on Olivier's ability to detect the exact version of something that will make it hugely successful. He implies that Olivier Creed has an excellent nose in this regard, but in the same breath says that he isn't a perfumer. Everyone says that he isn't a perfumer, and never was. But how can the man be an excellent perfume evaluator for an independent brand that doesn't employ an in-house perfumer, and not wind up being the perfumer himself? Is everything stolen? Are there eight or nine jilted perfumers floating around the industry, hating Creed? If so, why hasn't one of them ever taken legal action? There's a house, and there's a house of cards. Which one is Creed?
Oppenheim is asked this, of course, and his response is always that Creed strikes a verbal agreement that the other man can never pass up. He tells them he'll help them launch their careers by giving them a crack at a Creed, or that he allows them to cite their Creed creations within the confines of the industry to get other work, or that he simply leases his name to their portfolios to lend them street-cred. Apparently Jean-Christophe Hérault was allowed to tell the public that he authored Aventus, the first to be given this freedom. But again, Hérault was apparently not paid much for his trouble.
Whenever Oppenheim discusses this, I sense his confusion. He doesn't seem to have a strong grasp on the subject matter, and at times doesn't even seem familiar with the very industry he claims to have covered here. For example, in his interview with Persolaise, he slips up and claims that Thierry Wasser was fired from Guerlain. When asked about this, he backpedals and says he was "ousted," or that he thinks he was ousted based on a phone conversion he had with Wasser. Meanwhile, Persolaise and his audience are like, What the fuck is this guy talking about?
It's pretty clear what happened there. Gabe had been bumping his gums about Wasser being on the outs at Guerlain, which obviously got back to him, and he phoned to set the record straight. He then grilled Oppenheim for saying he was "sharing responsibilities with Delphine Jelk," and added, "Well, if that's how it is here, why don't you just call Delphine, then?" and hung up on him. Gabe thinks the phone call proves Wasser was unhappy about being made a "figurehead" at Guerlain. It actually proves the opposite.
This is idiocy of the highest order. It's obvious that Oppenheim was wrong about Wasser's position in relation to Jelk. Wasser knew it, got pissed, and called Oppenheim to make it clear that he wasn't going to discuss anything about the industry with him anymore -- he could call Delphine for that -- sarcasm served. Who knows what made Oppenheim think Wasser had been fired, but he's clearly wrong. If you're just getting into writing about the perfume industry, it's a bad look to offend Guerlain's top nose.
That particular moment in the canon of Oppenheim interviews is the one that made me sit up in my chair. It was in that instant that I realized that Oppenheim has a processing issue. He reads into things, rather than listening to what is being said. It raises the inevitable question: If he bumbles a basic fact like Thierry Wasser's employment, how much of what Pierre Bourdon told him got scrambled-up in the book? What if Bourdon merely wasn't paid enough when he worked for Creed? In other words, what if Oppenheim simply missed the part about the perfumers wanting their ideas to go somewhere, rather than nowhere at all? If price was no obstacle, and if Olivier was really as carefree about budgeting as he is made out to be, why wouldn't perfumers take their ideas to him first instead of last?
The thing I find least credible about Oppenheim's story is the daddy-issues angle of his biographical account of Bourdon. Supposedly his Dior-adored father found young Pierre's compositions to be inferior, and frequently said so. This created a sense of insecurity in Bourdon that Olivier preyed on, according to the book. It's silly to suppose that the man who founded Takasago Europe and signed no fewer than five blockbuster releases in the span of ten years was some insecure pushover who got steamrolled by a then-unknown businessman with an invisible brand. The polarities of who these men were was the opposite of how they're described. Olivier Creed was a nobody in the eighties. He was probably fumbling around for a marketing angle well into the nineties. By 1983, Pierre Bourdon had already conquered the industry. What need would he have to turn to an unknown entity? Creed would likely have begged Bourdon for a brief.
Supposedly much of Oppenheim's book was spurred along by Jean-Claude Ellena, because Ellena's brother Bernard was apparently one of the first perfumers to be taken for a ride by Olivier. Oppenheim says that Bernard Ellena created Creed's Acier Aluminium, and that he was never compensated. Supposedly this gave Jean-Claude the impetus to help him write the book, and again, if this is true, it's mind-blowing. But this tidbit invites another gremlin into the narrative, because prior to Green Irish Tweed, the Creed brand had many "grey-cap" creations on the market, things that were considered excellent, yet which mysteriously have no attributions other than to Creed himself. The listeners can content themselves to say, "Bernard was behind Acier Aluminium," but who was behind Royal English Leather, Royal Scottish Lavender, Ambre Cannelle, Epicea, Orange Spice (which was pre-Kouros), Royal Delight, Santal Imperial, Chevrefeuille, and Zeste Mandarine Pamplemousse?
I call this the Great Grey Cap Mystery. Nobody has been able to explain it. How did Creed churn out so many solid EDTs before they were even a household name? Who was doing all this work behind the curtain? How did the brand manage to maintain such a high level of workmanship and material quality decades before internet notoriety gained them hundreds of millions in annual sales? Where did this level of perfumery pedigree stem from? If Creed himself was merely an "evaluator," then who else assisted with creating his pre-millennium range? The EDTs were vaulted in the late 2000s, just before Aventus was released. I've read countless basenotes and fragrantica forum threads discussing how fraudulent Creed is, yet I've never seen anyone explain where these fragrances came from. How did Olivier manage it? It remains a mystery.
Luca Turin thinks Oppennheim's book is excellent, which gives me pause. Turin is so fiendishly biased against Creed that I almost wonder if his real name is Luca Turin Creed, a black sheep trying to disassociate from his family. In the 2008 edition of The Guide, he repeatedly contradicts his glowing estimation of Bourdon. His reviews piss all over Silver Mountain Water and Millésime Impérial. He says, "Erolfa always smelled nasty to me." Tania Sanchez gives Individuel and Thé Brun two stars each, which Turin agreed with. Turin loves Kouros and Cool Water (calls Bourdon a genius), but the only Bourdon Creed that gets four stars and a nod is GIT. It doesn't figure.
But then again, whenever Creed enters the picture, things seem to get kaleidoscopically weird. Up is down, left is right, cats live with dogs, and Pierre Bourdon is the little guy who got taken for ride after ride. Or maybe Gabe Oppenheim is the wrong man to write a book about this stuff? He was just a sports writer before this book, so I'm not sure how much of what he says should be taken seriously. Then again, I'm just a blogger, so you shouldn't take what I say very seriously, either.