Etienne de Swardt: The Dangerous Man behind Etat Libre d’Orange

Meet Etienne de Swardt, the provocative perfumer behind the much talked about French perfume range Etat Libre d’Orange. Etienne is launching his controversial brand here in the UAE, and The Tezzy Files had the pleasure of having a chitchat with this enigmatic perfumer cum business maestro.

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Etienne spent his childhood years between South Africa and New Caledonia, and found himself in the vibrant city of Paris in his early adulthood. He is a graduate of the prestigious business school Institut ESSEC, and his impressive CV lists LVMH and Givenchy as his past employers.

Etienne’s very first stint as an independent perfumer involved creating luxury fragrances for pets. The most notable of these were the ‘Oh My Dog!’ and ‘Oh My Cat!’ scents.

Having established himself with animals, it was just a hop, skip, jump and a massive leap of faith that led Etienne to the creation of Etat Libre d’Orange.

It takes a dangerous man to make a dangerous perfume.

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Please share the story behind the creation of Etat Libre d’Orange. What does the name translate to?

Etat Libre d’Orange was created to be a land of shameless frivolity, joyful nonsense and of insubordination.  We want to give an alternative experience of perfumery. We would rather talk to amateurs than simple consumers. The brand is open to everyone, inclusive of all especially the enigmatic, the stateless smugglers who love to live on the borders a place where everything starts and ends.

The name translates to Orange Free State, my birth place in South Africa as I am the son of a farm boy from the free state but raised on a French island in the South Pacific. I relate to Bill Murray in Lost in Translation !

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Etat Libre d’Orange offers 25 unique scents. How do you go about creating a memorable scent? Is it something to do with your own experiences, or more in tune with scent combinations that work well together? How much of your work is Parisian influenced, and how much is influenced by your South African roots?

Feelings are the most important things. Memories are imprints of a particular mindset at a moment in time. With scents, you access the feelings directly and it triggers memories.

What we do is we tell stories with strong emotional loads to perfumers and then let them free to create the scent they feel.

We are good igniters. We are the artists of words and feeling, the perfumers are the artists of the formulation itself. The joining of our minds creates our scents.

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Of all the scents you have created so far, which has been the most memorable for you, and why?

The Afternoon of a Faun, our creation based on the 100th anniversary of the Russian ballet in Paris was a formidable initiative blending together the art of poetry, music, dancing.

We went into the biography of Vaslav Nijinski dancing in 1912 at Theatre du Chatelet, a rocker before his time making scandal on veil; outrageous, disturbing and sublime was his performance.

So are we with our collections. He was the true core DNA of our philosophy. This program belongs to poetry and the curse of beauty; nothing is forever !

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The creation of Like This with Tilda Swinton was also such a wonderful experience! Without an army of Hollywood lawyers, herself, the perfumer and ourselves just went on to create something beautiful together. It is a rare moment in time when the stars align and you get to create something that just feels right. Pumpkins, Scottish smoked whiskey, ginger, carrot seeds… all at once twisted with vetiver. The portrait of a mysterious lady, protective and dangerous like a Venus.

They say every person has a signature scent. Can scents be broken down by personality type? If so, what personality scent are you?

I belong to criminal leather and sensual suede dominated by a feminine pernicious flower facet. I love contrasts where you do not rush for the obvious.

Twilight, genders confusion and elusive seduction are our favorite hunting methods. Open spirit, no dogmatism except a crusade for quality and here comes Etat Libre d’Orange.

Maybe that’s why I keep on creating. It’s the only way to make sure you are alive, born existentialist ! Like a shark breathes when swimming, we feel alive through perpetual creation and fantasy.

You did a stint with Givenchy, created luxury pet perfumes, and finally created your ‘audacious’ Etat Libre d’Orange range. How different were these experiences from one another? Was it tricky moving on from pet perfumes to luxury scents for humans?

Born eclectic, pet and fragrance lover what a giant leap for mankind 😉 The core initiative is still the same, i.e. emotion and sincerity.

‘Oh my Cat!’ was a disaster and a huge flop of my 30’s.

Etat Libre d’Orange is more or less a turn into the adult age, becoming patient.

‘Oh my Dog!’ was a coup, ELO is a destination walking the road the less travelled with true fans who want to feel alive the by the scent of their skin.

Etat Libre d’Orange has collaborated with big names from the world of scents. Please elaborate.

I suppose it is thanks to the way we work. When you ask a perfumer to create a scent for you and you give him total creative freedom without the usual cost constraints, you ignite something positive, an organic chain reaction that will blossom bringing beautiful minds in the wake such as Tilda Swinton, Rossy de Palma, Tom of Finland…

We don’t calculate the return on investment that much, we just pilot the company without reporting to banks. We are still free of Orange and I hope it will stay that way for as long as possible.

Would it be safe to say your motto “Our Business is Pleasure” has erotic connotations given some of your controversial advertising themes?

With everything we do, someone is going to find an erotic connotation to it.

Well maybe that’s because there is one… aha!

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But essentially we only try to leverage emotion and excitement. Sometimes it is through erotica, but there are many more facets to what we do. We speak to the mother with her newborn child, we talk about going back home and finding your roots, we talk about the conflict of femininity reaching to masculinity.

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To be sure you exist, you have to create, that’s the doctrine of existentialism. Etat Libre d’Orange is merely a platform of existentialism with a very widely opened mind.

I have to admit that the best motto is “We Are So Vain”. I love John Keats, he is my everything. If you have to remember one thing about Etat Libre d’Ornage then please note that we are f…king confused but we crusade for quality, and poetry is our rusty compass. Lost but still alive!

‘It takes a dangerous man to make a dangerous perfume’. Have you landed into any trouble with the censor boards for your advertising?

“For the better of the worse, so long they speak of it!” could be the way we go about things.

Censorship is not that big of a deal for us. We always find ways around it, to distort what we do. So, essentially no, it never was trouble. And I run fast when needed!

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Some of your product names seem to hold a social message, e.g. ‘Delicious Closet Queen’. Tell us more about these.

It is no so much about the social message but rather the life stories we all share.

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Last January we received an email from an American who received Fat Electrician a Christmas present. He told us he burst into tears when he read the story behind the scent. He WAS the Fat Electrician, the cursed beauty condemned to live the daily struggle with no shine.

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We get these emails fairly often. There is a social agenda with what we do. Only the pleasure is to know that, sometimes, we touch people deeply.

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Etat Libre d’Orange is greatly influenced by its address: ’69 rue des Archives intersection of all that is exciting and notorious in this neighborhood’. The brand’s identity is definitely Parisian, but do you plan to adapt it slightly for the UAE market? Can we expect to see the launch of a UAE-influenced scent?

The creation of Rien Intense Incense is somehow a move in that direction.

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At the same time, we made fun creating scents especially for a market, that’s what the #OudIsPassé was all about.

We are insubordinate, even to ourselves. What we do we don’t really know, until we actually do it.

And 69 is a lucky number, a delicate invitation to each other. We are the dark side of the fragrance industry pretending we are luminous. We are the positive and constructive anti, we strike on skin like cobras and yet remain universally feminine somehow!

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The Etat Libre d’Orange range is available in Boutique 1, Make Up Etc and O Concept. Read more on this deliciously controversial brand on their website.