Olivier Creed as a young man
Gabe Oppenheim, author of ‘The Ghost Perfumer’
I tend to trust people. I want to trust people. As much a philosophical and instinctual life stance as much as anything else (it is just too boring and unfulfilling to go through life overly wary and suspicious of other human beings, too stunting and limiting), as a person who, essentially, can also be trusted, I see no reason why not to extend the same largesse to other members of the same species. People who say ‘I hate people’ strike me as foolish (what would you rather be, an eggplant? You are also a human being; deal with it. Admit your own strengths and weaknesses, your darkness and light, your vices and virtues and recognize that you are not alone). Like everyone else, of course I have days – particularly when tired and in overcrowded places – when I feel misanthropic and crave solitude in the sense of just get the fuck out of my face. But this is more a claustrophobia thing and a reaction to too much physical proximity than a you cannot be trusted.
Considering others to be basically trustworthy doesn’t mean you are an idiot. You can still have a healthy amount of skepticism and rely on intuition when dealing with those who, for whatever reason, have become unsavoury characters with self-serving agendas; empathy certainly does vary greatly across human populations : some are simply not interested in anyone else; exploit and use others. I have strong, if sometimes flawed, antennae; but generally speaking, I think that most people I meet, even if I don’t necessarily get on with them, are fundamentally decent.
There are, of course, narcissists and sociopaths out there – very dangerous individuals; politicians, cult leaders; manipulative CEOs, those poor hollow souls who use their charisma and thirst for power and wealth to pervert the lives of others. There are also inveterate liars, who make things up from a fundamental lack of self confidence. This was one of the extraordinarily tedious aspects of being at school for me; the bane of hanging around with, or at least being forced to be in the company of, boys who ‘wound you up’ by ‘getting you’ when they told you a story and ribbed you when you believed it. Of course I believed it, dickhead, at least initially. What reason would I have not to? You told me an elaborate, if far-fetched, narrative, which I may have raised a quizzical eyebrow or two over in terms of credibility (and storytelling technique); but I listened to the end anyway, even if inwardly bored to death, because you were telling it to me.That the whole thing was inevitably just a piss-take, a lie, always struck me as one of the most utterly pathetic and pointless characteristics of heterosexual male culture – and I was so delighted to eventually get away from it.
Similarly, I innocently believed that Creed scents were what they said they were. I love(d) the gold embossed, ‘founded in 1760’ pristine white boxes. I like looking at them, resplendently ( and now mendaciously), in my collection. In fact, even the other day I naively mentioned a scent on here as smelling a little like Angelique Encens, a perfume ‘that Marlene Dietrich wore in 1933’ or something along those lines (completely nonsense; according to this fascinating book, no Creed scent existed before the mid-1970’s) and so I feel rather embarrassed . A bit stupid. Sorry for the misinformation : I , like (almost) everyone else, was duped. Creed is just a habadasher and a conman : not a ‘seventh generation perfumer’..( this whole story, of course, is not completely new to me : I saw all the headlines in 2021, but was probably too tired at the time, too dazed and confused, to look into it any further).
There are currently three Creeds in my collection : Mandarine Pamplemousse, Orange Spice, and Silver Island Water, all from discounted recycle shops and all of which I quite like. I also love Fleur De Thé Rose Bulgare; Fleurs De Bulgarie (allegedly worn by Queen Victoria in 1850, actually created in 1985); and Tubereuse Indiana (stunning) and would still like to get bottles of all those. I love Original Santal on my friend Justin, and enjoy the soapy citric neroli vibe of Original Vetiver. Though now obscenely overpriced – Creed recently sold his company for one billion dollars to a financial behemoth (and probable terrorist organization) called Black Rock, I have always rather liked a lot of perfumes from this house, even if they are generally disdained by a lot of people in the increasingly fractious and bitchy world of the perfumisti.
But then “The Ghost Perfumer” is not really about whether Creed fragrances themselves are any good. The author, Gabe Oppenheimer, thinks that they are, particularly the main scent in question, the absolute ‘panty dropping’ global smash that is Aventus – a scent that, according to men’s scent fora, is practically a guarantee to having women immediately drop to their knees (some of the sexist bullshit on these aggressively machista sites can be truly astounding; scent is nothing but an exercise in ramping yourself up for copulation ). Aventus was made by Bourdon protege Christophe Herault, who is, thankfully, thanks to the author’s digging, finally being given credit for his innovation after deliberately being keep kept in the shadows by Creed. Before, all literature referred to the creator of Aventus as being Olivier.
Oppenheim also sees the brilliance in at least three other masculine classics, Green Irish Tweed; Silver Mountain Water and Imperiale Millesime; all huge financial successes; all of them widely copied.The quality of perfumery at hand is never the problem here. The problem is that the person who claimed to have made them, the ‘master perfumer’, Olivier Creed, is no such thing, is not even a perfumer – he stole all the formulae from the legendary Pierre Bourdon (Kouros, Cool Water, Feminité Du Bois, Joop!), or rather, coerced that celebrated perfumer into letting him take the credit. Made a great fortune as a result, but cheated Bourdon (and others )out of what was rightfully theirs; not only a very cushy retirement package promised when Bourdon finally lay down the scent strips (he received nothing but a couple of tailored suits); but any recompense for their work, other than the base rate for a perfumer’s submission. Utter miserliness, in other words. And a swindle of the highest (lowest) order; : an outrage.
Which is how Oppenheim begins his book (and continues throughout its duration); full of rage. Part of me loved the muscularity and propulsiveness of the writing in this exciting exposé of the perfume world – he was a boxing journalist before, and the pugnaciousness comes through in the often self-consciously clipped, yet exhibitionistic, prose : there is a David vs Goliath fearlessness here that gives you an energizing dose of adrenaline as you read – the man is single-handedly taking on a behemoth; pennilessly staying at his scent hating parents’ while investigating the crime, interviewing scores of industry figures ; perfumers, distributors, anyone in the know, and you have to admire the ruthless ambition on display – a Netflix documentary is apparently in the works (obviously); there will be more books published on perfume, and I will hungrily read them. As someone who grew up wearing Kouros and knows it inside out, it was fascinating to hear how the perfume was developed; I have also worn Joop; hate Green Irish Tweed but can see it objective merits; reading about all of these classics and how they came into being, for a perfume lover, is exceedingly absorbing. Aside some sections, particularly in the middle of the book, where the ins and outs of all the business transactions become rather boring for someone like me who zones out very easily when there is too much reality, statistics and graphs ( I was, at these stages, slightly skipping pages waiting for more venality on the part of Olivier Creed – as craven and cartoonistically villainous as The Hooded Claw – or else more origin stories about how perfumes such as Opium were created – fascinating! Ripped off from Youth Dew – there is a lot of borrowing of ideas detailed in this book, which will be highly engrossing for anyone familiar with all the perfumes in question – I could smell them all as I am reading, it’s like my adolescence and young adulthood coming back to life – we hear of how different perfumers crafted accords, floral; aldehydic, to be grafted onto the essential spiced template of Opium; there is also plenty of other ‘insider gossip’ about a whole set of classic fragrances as well, from Eternity to Angel to Paco Rabanne and many more. From this angle, considering that the author apparently only started writing about perfume in 2019 (what an upstart!) when he became interested in digging further into the origins of the fantastic fragrances he was wearing at the boxing ring, the amount of information unearthed and revealed for our entertainment and pleasure is quite the accomplishment.
There were two things I really didn’t like about this book, though. One was the repetition. The psychological underpinnings of the book are based on the father-son relationship between Rene Bourdon – a stern and hard working man who pulled himself up from his bootstraps and became head of the offices at Parfums Dior (thus Pierre grew up in a household where all the mods for the latest Diors like Diorling and Diorissimo and the like were lying around the house for him to peruse; Edmond Roudnitska a regular presence and muse – all these details I of course gorged on with great relish) — the problem being that the father showed little love or affection for his son, creating a unfillable void which Creed then opportunistically filled by exploiting the young perfumer’s emotional vulnerability. Father- relationships have a tremendous impact on a person’s life. And Oppenheim has a natural writerly skill in building these portraits. It’s just that he keeps ramming the same point home again and again throughout the book, as if we hadn’t managed to notice or comprehend the first time, continually underlining the daddy issues (why are Americans so OBSESSED with talking about daddy issues?!!!) – to the point where you feel patronized and exasperated. An editor would have come in very handy.
A much more objectionable, nasty, even malignant thread running through this book is a very, to my mind, unnecessarily cruel and vindictive critical emphasis on people’s appearance, particularly as they get older. I have never come across this before in a book (which, I suppose, does add to its originality). I understand the trigger; Oppenheim is furious on Pierre’s behalf, who he deems too timid and lacking in self confidence (BECAUSE HIS FATHER DIDN’T GIVE HIM ENOUGH LOVE, SEE?); he hates Olivier Creed with a blinding passion that part of me loves; gone is any impartiality or attempt at objectivity, though he does calm himself down a little at the end of the book, crediting Creed with at least being one of the best scent appraisers in the world, even if he has done perfumers out of their rightful inheritance; we later on hear of other companies, such as Montale/Mancera, which also have a lot of ethical potholes (the whole industry sounds like a nightmare, to be honest); as a boxing enthusiast, he is fighting in Pierre’s corner; we get that. And so he throws a lot of punches. And boy are they mean.
Only two paragraphs into the book we are told:
“…But very soon, Monsieur Olivier Creed will have crepe-paper skin and a round, jutting chin. His cheeks and forehead won’t quite sag, not right away – but they’ll seem subject to a slightly greater gravity than the rest of him. Unimpeachably handsome once, he will become a pendulous fellow over the next decade, before becoming fully pot-bellied after yet another”.
I was quite gob-smacked when I read this. It didn’t seem relevant to the story. Just spiteful and mean (and also rather childish). I understand heightened emotions – Christ I have unleashed so much on here, which many of you will have been privy to over the years – sometimes it embarrasses me that it is all there for anyone to see but I have no intention of going back and redacting myself as it is a testament. Hypocritically, I also remember ripping apart Donald Trump’s appearance when in a fit of utter hate filled apoplexy in a post that I remember being rather hilarious, so I totally get where Oppenheim is coming from. He is angry. Words are powerful. They can vent your spleen. They can express your righteous indignation. And make you laugh in the process. And if Creed – biking around arrogantly as in the picture at the top; swanning around in limousines superciliously watching over ‘his’ creations in his proliferating boutiques presents himself as some kind of handsome lothario then I suppose that his appearance is fair game. It’s just that almost everyone in the book also gets this treatment; Gabe’s pitiless eye will rove over the contours and inadequacies of your face – crows’ feet, lined foreheads, crinkled eyes look out ! – body – stomach bulges, male pattern baldness and clothing – he once, as a teenager, entered the Best Dressed Man In America contest – and then render them on the page in wincing and punishing detail; even, amazingly, his ostensible heroes (I had been wondering about this throughout the book; with Creed being painted as such a hideous monster, I had been looking at the pictures of Bourdon, not someone traditionally handsome, and wondering whether he would also get ‘the treatment’ (is the author himself an adonis, incidentally? I would never ask such a question usually, only doing so because appearance is made so much of in this book; woe betide you if your shoes aren’t absolutely perfect or there is a hair out of place or something not tied with the exact panache that is required ; honestly, this is pure body/fashion fascism and I hated this aspect of the book ; if I scrutinize the pictures of Oppenheimer above, while on first impressions a perfectly handsome guy, if I really wanted to I could make criticisms about his physical imperfections; but I never would. By that measure, any of us would end up fanned and destroyed. An alternative title for this book could, in fact, have been ‘Aging Is A Crime’.
… But sure enough, later in the book, the hero of the story, the great Pierre Bourdon, eventually does have his aging face and body rather callously dissected;
“The years were not unkind to Pierre Bourdon’s body, but they were also not inevident.
His greyed hair – parted on the left side of his scalp, the bulk of it combed over to the right, had grown hard and thin, its former bounce, the silky resilience of its earliest days, that period during which he’d lost his virginity on the begrimed floor of a maid’s room long ago.
His eyes……deeper set in his skull than you remembered, unblinking and black, cold beads on the floor of a frigid river, unreachable first and impenetrable on top of that. Those eyes.. were also ringed by thin radial lines, wrinkles spreading from the outside corners of his peepers toward his cheek bones and ears, like a child’s depiction of the rays of the sun.‘
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s my own insecurities. It happens to all of us. In photos of thirty, forty years ago, we *do* tend to look younger and less time-worn. I was a pretty boy then; now I am middle aged ;; but so what? As the writer of the book,I suppose this physical overscrutiny is the author’s stylistic prerogative, and it does in fact serve to delineate the sheer stress that many of these individuals have undergone in the clandestine, backstabbing world of perfumery. And while unpleasant at times (women also get treated the same way, don’t worry – it is quite equal opportunity – a bulbous nose here, a drooping eyelid there), these wrinkled, lined, untrim olfactory renegades and geniuses are very effectively brought to life on the page. It is great investigative journalism; Oppenheim is a natural reporter and writer; he gets in there. He is frank; open; forthright; courageous. And in dealing with a scandal of intellectual theft and opportunism of such a gargantuan scale, risking serious legal repercussions – how the hell did he get away with publishing such a potentially libellous book, when Creed and Blackrock have so much money to burn in striking back? (I think it was the sheer chutzpah of all this that ultimately made the book so deliriously involving); with his sheer angry, strutting ferocity and nerve (and undeniable arrogance). this author probably was, ultimately. in many ways, with his unsparing gaze —- the only one who could actually have ever written it.
16 responses to “REVOLT OF THE UNDERDOGS : : : ”THE GHOST PERFUMER: CREED, LIES, & THE SCENT OF THE CENTURY” by GABE OPPENHEIM (book review)”
Wow, this is one of the best book reviews I’ve ever read! Have you considered submitting it to The Economist or a similar publication?
That is a great compliment. Arigato.
I don’t know. I just suddenly wrote this morning on an impulse having read the book last week.
Nobody’s perfect… I haven’t read the book but I have listened to an interview with the author and frankly he didn’t give me a good impression either. Still, if everything in the book is true, I’m glad it’s been brought to light. I actually quite liked Green Irish Tweed when I smelled it. Didn’t know about Montale having unethical practices, but am glad I don’t own anything from either of these brands.
The author does seem very full of himself. He is talented, though – and I do want to read more!
Journalistic exposure of unfairness exploitation and deceit is so valuable. So is maintaining a clear eyed decent sense of trust. Gladwell’s book Talking to Strangers, was a reframe for me about our natural human trust of each other as a virtue we need to maintain, because its what makes the world work to the degree that it ever does. I started Ghost Perfumer and put it aside after the first few chapters but now will pull it ahead in my queue to finish it. It’s a balance to maintain, that the avalanche of excruciating exposures and backstories don’t undermine the functional wholesome within us.
A very good way of putting it. Awareness is good, but too much cynicism is horrible.
I totally agree.
I have one Creed: Angelique Encens. I hardly ever wear it but is quite lovely. I got it on Ebay dirt cheap, until the seller realized (after I had bought it!) that s/he made a huge mistake & could have sold it for way more. So s/he just canceled the deal! After some arm twisting I finally received it!
So pleased we both like that one, Lili oder nicht
Narcissists are obsessed with looks. This author looks average to me?
Creed always was shady. The hype, BS, and over the top marketing lies were consistently too much. Passing oneself off as a master perfumer and claiming dead celebrities commissioned their products was ridiculous.
Still, Spring Flower was my first niche purchase. I loved it, too bad the reformulation is awful.
A double insult! Not only did they halve the sizes of their bottles and double the prices, they reformulated it as well? How different is it?
I actually think that the Creed scents have a unique freshness to them that isn’t found anywhere else; so even if the blah is bullshit, I don’t think the perfumes themselves are. The more I think about it the more nices ones I remember, like Bois Du Portugal
Spring Flower used to have the most amazing realistic ripe, juicy peach in its opening. Now it’s flat, like cheap air freshener. The Creed signature ambergris note is gone too.
I have several Creed faves, I thought most were quite well done and original. There were some honkers like Fleurissimo ( white floral with ketotic halitosis), Aventus just seems like another banal male freshie to me but perhaps it was groundbreaking on its release?
Creed made scents that people loved to wear, you didn’t have to be a perfumista to appreciate them.
Yes: can’t really argue with that
My god, this was a bloody brilliant read. Vintage Chapman. I agree: this should be published!
Never a fan of the whole Creed thing. Something mendacious and narcissistic about the company, pompous and aggressive, overblown. But I confess to owning a bottle of Fleurs de Bulgarie, which is gorgeous and to my mind not overpriced for the quality and concentration.
Back to your writing. I love when you opine about people, their behavior and beliefs. I could read you for hours. It’s soul-satisfying to have you explore things in this kind of depth from your incomparable perspective. Thank you, dear N.
This makes me VERY happy to read, because this is what the Japan book will be like (IS like – I have done quite a lot already and when I come back from Hawaii will get stuck in again). I never know if all my pontificating is truly interesting to other people so this gives me a real boost. Xx
As for Creed – Fleurs De Bulgarie – LOVE it; unique, actually regal and poetic and melancholy. Even if you might be gnawing your lips as you read, for various reasons, I think you would be transfixed by much of The Ghost Perfumer.
I found Oppenheimer’s writing so deeply obnoxious I could not get to the end, though as you note there is so much repetition I doubt I missed anything new. His preference to speak on behalf of his subjects robs us of the insight into what Bourdon actually thought and felt about his arrangement with Creed. Even his characterization of perfumes as “copies” of others seemed simplistic – no perfume can be created in a vacuum, and surely there is a difference between taking inspiration from other perfumes to develop a new composition, and creating something that smells identical to an existing perfume. Ultimately, his skewed perspective made him an unreliable narrator. And ugh, the endless daddy issue nonsense…
It IS obnoxious quite a lot of the time, I agree – a very male showing off style of prose; angry and aggressive. But for me it was also a really exciting journey into a world that most of us don’t have the opportunity to enter – so kudos for him for truly going for it.