Talk about being prepared.
Shortly after Italian retailer and entrepreneur Claudio Antonioli acquired Ann Demeulemeester in 2020, he approached the founder and asked if she would create a perfume for the house: Turns out the Belgian designer had already spent more than 20 years contemplating, crafting and perfecting a signature scent.
She had long ago spent time in the Pays de Grasse region of France — considered the birthplace of modern perfumery and a mecca for flower cultivation — to study notes, and visited the Osmothèque in Versailles, home to the world’s biggest scent library.
“I do believe that people knock on my door when they need me, or when they are right for me. And I thought, one day somebody will knock on my door and say, ‘Let’s make a perfume,’ and then I have to be ready. It’s as simple as that,” she said over the line from her home outside Antwerp. “I knew exactly already for years what I would like to do, the notes that I liked, and what was the idea.
“I also thought it was a nice enrichment for the brand because I’m a bit romantic,” she continued in her understated way. “I thought, ‘OK, a brand also has its perfume.…It was an old dream coming to reality.”
Anointed A, after her first initial, the amber-colored, genderless perfume will be unveiled at a launch event at the historic Ann Demeulemeester flagship store on Leopold de Waelplaats in Antwerp Thursday. It will also be sold at anndemeulemeester.com and in select specialty stores including The Broken Arm in Paris, Dover Street Market in London and Antonioli boutiques in Milan, Ibiza, Turin and Lugano.
Here is a fragrance project born without any brief, market study or focus group. It’s Demeulemeester’s first new creation under her name since relinquishing the creative helm of her fashion house in 2013.
“I didn’t have a formula, or a plan. Of course, I had all the ingredients in mind. But how do you translate 30 years into a scent? It’s a very good question, and also the most difficult to answer,” she explained. “So the only thing I could do, and what I always do, is follow my heart.
“Making a perfume, more than anything else I have ever created, has to do with instinct. It’s ethereal. I don’t have a material, like a fabric, or a shape. It involves other senses and something nonmaterial and non-tangible,” she continued. “So I completely trusted my instinct — almost like, imagine a wild child going into the forest and imagining, ‘What would she like to smell? What would be intriguing? What would go to the origin of beauty?’ This kind of thinking.”
Demeulemeester described A as rooted in nature, with an “animalistic” aspect, and other qualities hard to put into words.
“It has something mysterious. For me, it has to be fascinating. It also has to be sensual, intriguing,” she said. “Well, that’s how I’ve always thought about fragrance.”
These days, many designers enter the perfume arena with a wardrobe of scents.
“For me, it’s very precious to have thee perfume. Making 20 is easier than making one — you have to make a real choice. You have to go to the essence of what you want to say,” she explained. “It’s also romantic to have one perfume that has to cover man, woman and child.”
Demeulemeester has faint fragrance memories. She grew up in the Flanders countryside, not far from the French border.
“The only thing I can say is that, as a child, I was attracted to nature and I loved the smell of grass, flowers,” she said. “I don’t have a particular memory of a perfume. I didn’t like the perfumes worn by my grandmother. I thought they were too sweet and too powdery.”
In fact, Demeulemeester said for most of her life, she did not wear fragrances until she created her own, occasionally using essences, or scenting her house with fresh branches or other cuttings from the garden.
“Last week, my husband was in an art gallery, and somebody came up to him and said, ‘I really need to know what that smell is, it’s so beguiling. Please tell me.’ It’s nice if you have a remark like that — then you know that what you did has a reason to exist because we are not the only ones liking it.
“You make something, you start from your heart, you make it in a way you think is beautiful,” she said. “But then I can only hope that other people will like it.”
Her signature scent comes only in perfume format, which means a high concentration of essential oils derived from cold pressing natural materials. A 75ml bottle will retail for 330 euros.
It opens with top notes of clove, cumin, Ceylon cinnamon, Sicilian lemon and Calabrian bergamot. Demeulemeester allowed that these elements are surprising. “But they are also fresh and they are like a little bit of wake up,” she said. “And then it goes quite quickly to the heart of the perfume.”
Here, the designer contrasts jasmine and May rose with birch-oiled leather, a combination she finds strange yet beautiful. Underneath are base notes of patchouli, vetiver, rosewood and sandalwood.
“I don’t have to explain you that I love leather. I used a lot of leather in my life,” she said, referring to her signature collection, which she established in 1985, winning international acclaim for her soigné tailoring and dark glamour. “And I like the smell of leather, too.…As a child, I sometimes visited with my father the tannery of a family member, so I was familiar with the smell of leather.”
In the 17th century, fine leathers were treated with essential birch oil as part of the tanning process, which “was a very expensive and very chic smell to have,” she noted.
Antonioli put her in touch with Italian nose Nicola Bianchi to perfect the formula. The perfume will be produced in-house by an Italian fragrance atelier.
“Inside nature, outside culture,” was how Demeulemeester described the flacon and packing, which she designed with her photographer husband Patrick Robyn, and their son Victor, a graphic designer and photographer.
“I wanted something really strong and almost modernistic,” she said of the square column, as emphatic as a skyscraper, with a glossy black facade, the designer’s name writ small. Visible through the juice is the letter A, tall and sharp like the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, one side of the letter a sharp pin.
The perfume comes cradled in a sturdy, modernist box, all its surfaces wrapped in white painter’s canvas. Sheltered inside the lid is a postage-stamp sized portrait of Demeulemeester from 1992.
“That was a special request from Mr. Antonioli. But I had nothing against this because I think this little portrait explains very well the perfume,” she offered. “If you look at the image, it’s me, but it doesn’t really look like me. It’s like an image of a little wild child, and for me that goes to the heart of this perfume. So I was OK with that.”
Demeulemeester described a seamless collaboration on the project with her husband and son, so much so that “in the end, we didn’t know who did what. We did it together.”
“I’m a designer, and I love to design not only clothes, but I also love to design other things. It’s what we do — we create. That’s what makes us happy. And if we have a good idea in a day, then that’s a good day.”
A graduate of Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Demeulemeester was one of the original Antwerp Six who helped put that small Belgian city on the global fashion map.
She began showing in Paris in 1992 and quickly became a fashion star, with WWD anointing her “Queen Ann” in a headline following a blockbuster collection in 1995 that would influence runways in other fashion capitals. She counted her musician friend Patti Smith among her muses, along with poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Hermann Hesse, and artists such as Jackson Pollock and Jim Dine.
Demeulemeester mined a dark and romantic fashion vein, and built on an inimitable approach to tailoring that often referenced menswear and military styles. Delicate blouses, sumptuous leather jackets, sturdy riding boots and feather necklaces were also part of her mix of tough and tender.
Sébastien Meunier took up the reins after the founder’s departure. Following the Antonioli acquisition, the house experimented with an in-house team, and had a brief dalliance with Paris-based designer Ludovic de Saint Sernin.
Its new creative director Stefano Gallici, previously menswear designer at the brand, is to show his first collection during Paris Fashion Week on Sept. 30.
Since exiting fashion, Demeulemeester segued into ceramics, initially creating tableware for Belgian homewares brand Serax. She has since expanded into lighting, vessels and furniture.
“I think if you have a voice, it’s not so difficult to express it in different mediums,” she said.