The Scentimentalist regrets to announce an unforeseen change to her schedule:
I’d been gearing up to eulogise Balmain’s vintage Vent Vert this week, until my chance sighting of the announcement of the death of British fashion designer, Lee ‘Alexander’ McQueen.
Responses to McQueen’s suicide were as stunned as they were distraught: his was, after all, an isolated and far too premature end, inflected by his own crushing experience of bereavement and loss. In the obituaries that followed for this ‘hooligan’ of haute couture, his impulse to rebellion was rightfully lauded and vaunted, as were the singularity and sheer inimitability of his fashion aesthetic.
Little mentioned, however, were the two women’s perfumes in McQueen’s portfolio (Kingdom, 2003 and My Queen, 2005), both launched following the acquisition of the McQueen brand by the Gucci Group in 2000. Neither had sold in especially enormous quantities, and both had been discontinued some time before the designer’s death. And yet it is his Kingdom that constitutes the subject of this unexpected elegy.
Without question, Kingdom is a scent that polarises opinion like few I have ever encountered, the heightened reactions it generates appearing to stem from its conflation of (the quintessentially McQueen themes of) subversion, sex and death.
For its loyal admirers, it is a high-concept, Gothic, olfactory abstraction, a heady, floral oriental of unstinting sensuality. For a great many among this number, it is exquisitely and affirmatively obscene.
For its detractors, on the other hand, Kingdom is all repugnant animality: foetid roses and festering body odour, clouded by sickly associations of spicy foods and skank. As one contributor to a perfume site notes with disgust: ‘[Kingdom is the] unwashed body parts of the female anatomy or the armpits of an aging whore.’
The culprit note in Kingdom is that highly pungent, rogue spice cumin, its generous deployment of which must rank as one of the most unapologetic in perfume history. Hence the numerous cited complaints by wearers of smelling strongly of ‘curry’ and ‘sweaty crevices’.
Yet it was precisely the predominance of this startling cumin note that had burned bright in The Scentimentalist’s mind, just a short half-hour before reading the sad news of McQueen’s demise. Having just grappled with an over-ripe bottle of Dior’s Dolce Vita – the contents of which had flummoxingly, and unusually, smelt of cumin – the dreadful memory of a Kingdom-related incident re-appeared:
On the occasion of a birthday party one summer, I had disgraced myself before a woman novelist of some renown. Amongst her gifts was a coffret of her signature scent, Kingdom, which she was sniffing before her guests with no little gusto and admiration.
Excited by the boldness of her perfume choice, and misjudging her awareness of its scandalous associations, I seized her wrist and inhaled an appreciative lungful. At this, I declared with a loud and coarse exuberance:
‘Fab!!! It smells just like [insert indelicate name for a woman’s genitalia here]!’
The assembled guests fell quiet, and I have neither been spoken to nor looked at in the eye by said novelist since.
So, while The Scentimentalist may never elect to wear McQueen’s Kingdom, and cannot even be said to find it especially alluring, she nonetheless thanks the late Alexander McQueen for gifting the world a scent of such contention and notoriety.
A scent which, in the manner of the designer who gave name to it, sees fit always to assault the senses and provoke the complacent and the conventional.