When it comes to calling bull on the fragrance industry, some do it more literally than others. Take IIUVO, the upstart niche English brand by Tomi Ahmed and Leo Gibbon, which has burned past perfume hyperbole and florid doublespeak first with scented candles, now with actual perfume.
Ahmed and Gibbon launched their small but ambitious line with home scents two years ago, building on word of mouth at independent retailers and influential international boutiques such as Totokaelo, 10 Corso Como, Browns and Liberty. Last year, their cult-followed trio of candles was joined by Bullshit, a collaboration with Mexican conceptual artist Stefan Brueggemann that, thankfully, is a salvo against industry bull rather than smelling like it.
Regardless of how it smells, a profane product name is catnip (witness the blasphemy-heavy current self-help bestseller lists). Similarly, retailers can't get enough of a limited-edition scent from Tom Ford Private Blend that prominently features the f-word in its double-barrelled name. The difference is that Tom Ford Beauty is a brand in the portfolio of Estée Lauder. In an increasingly consolidated cosmetics industry, Estée Lauder has been gobbling up niche luxury challengers such as Le Labo and Frédéric Malle, but IIUVO is resolutely indie. Its approach is as iconoclastic as its popular candle with the expletive name.
Would-be disruptors Ahmed and Gibbon are unassuming former Comme des Garçons Dover Street Market visual merchandiser and sometime DJ, respectively, both in their late 20s, irreverent but with an earnest sense of play about perfume's non-sensical promotional tradition and the vagaries of vague nomenclature.
During a visit to Canada last month, they visited like-minded retailers to expand their brand, one shop floor at a time. This season, IIUVO has launched Edition One, a collection of personal scents – perfume developed in collaboration with natural-raw-materials fragrance house Robertet. Since neither company is classically trained in perfumery, the distillation of their ideas for non-gendered perfumes was mediated through their creative direction – a process Ahmed says "is like a director having a cinematographer to execute and contribute to a final vision."
Edition One consists of three fragrances: Fonteyn, Soigné and Gilot, inspired by dancer Margot Fonteyn, well-groomed musician Miles Davis and artist Françoise Gilot, respectively. Fonteyn is the one that lingers and is equally inspired by auteur Stanley Kubrick. What could the two possibly have in common that could be smelled and bottled? A bittersweet mix of art and botanicals: wormwood, cardamom and freesia. Unlike unwearable conceptual-art scents or even the more abstract and plasticky scent that perfumer Azzi Glasser created for an installation room of Somerset House's Daydreaming with Stanley Kubrick exhibition last year, IIUVO's olfactive angle on the creator of The Shining is digressive – it's Kubrick's early photojournalism rather than his films – and personal. The brand's Kubrick connection is that Gibbon grew up around flowers and scent; his mother was a florist in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, and was the Kubricks' personal florist. The compellingly dark beauty of the filmmaker's work has the same eerie pull as some recently found vintage footage of legendary ballerina Fonteyn dancing to a Frederick Ashton ballet in the shadow of a male figure.
This season, the reality of what's in the bottle lies somewhere in between art and commerce.