Christopher Street: Ralf Schwieger and Douglas Bender

Christopher Street - Ralf Schwieger and Douglas Bender

I first met my Christopher Street fragrance co-conspirator, perfumer Ralf Schwieger, back in 2008. I had been working as an independent fragrance consultant for about a year, and was contacted by Mane USA to work on a few different fragrance projects.

Before meeting, I had already begun the initial research on the Christopher Street fragrance project, but was still conceptualizing… still gathering materials and building the olfactive story. After meeting, Ralf became an integral part of development. I remember a pivotal lunch conversation Ralf and I had talking about film, gender and fragrance back in 2009 where everything on this project finally clicked into place. So much of the process of building Christopher Street came from conversational moments like this. Other perspectives were added – ideas revisited – as new voices entered into the process.

It’s 2013 now, the fragrance has launched, and we continue to have these conversations together. To mark this launch, I thought it would be interesting for Ralf and I to sit down again to talk fragrance and Christopher Street


Christopher Street – Questions for Ralf Schwieger

Before receiving the initial fragrance brief, what did you know about Christopher Street?

Growing up in Europe in the Seventies, I had been influenced by gay American writers (foremost James Baldwin) early on, and knew a bit about gay New York and the Stonewall Riots – interestingly the gay parade is called ‘Christopher Street Day’ in Germany.

When I first visited in 1990 (the day Leonard Bernstein died), Christopher Street was not in good shape. It looked lackluster and the whole experience was quite a disappointment – some of the docks were still standing but the action was over. When I moved to the city ten years later, I settled down in Greenwich Village, not far from Christopher Street.

Vintage Christopher Street - Village Cigars

A big part of the Christopher Street story is its connection to New York City activism. Do you have any activist roots of your own?

During my student days I joined the local gay university group and even became a member of the student parliament on the gay list… briefly. Coming out during the Eighties was still a tough experience for me – AIDS was ravaging but activism helped me to fight back.

What about the Christopher Street fragrance project first inspired you?

The presentation to the project was introduced by a photo of a street puddle with an oil film creating a rainbow iridescence: the perfect image for the brief. I liked that the scent needn’t be pretty, even be slightly dirty. References to the bars and shops on the street were plenty. I thought it definitely had to be a sensual fragrance, I imagined somebody letting it all hang out and showing a lot of skin

Christopher Street Oil Slick

What did you think about the collaboration process in developing the fragrance?

We enjoyed a very smooth collaboration process. Once the story was understood, the final fragrance was developed in only a couple of months. I presented several ideas, but ‘Sixty Nine’ (the Mane internal name) made it to the top quite easily. It had the right amount of surprise and incisiveness.

Christopher Street '69' Fragrance Bottle

How would you describe the final composition of Christopher Street?

A part of Christopher Street had to be anchored in the Sixties, which is the reason I chose a ‘chypre’ theme: the olfactive family most successful during that period.

Leather is often a fixture of a classic chypre and here it is used together with patchouli and tobacco. Spice notes determine the character of the heart, especially clove and cinnamon; these are counterbalanced by aromatic floral notes.  The introduction had to be slightly boozy, but I played with a Coca-Cola note as well, building on the other spices in combination with lime.

CM-logo-patchouli

The motto of Charenton Macerations involves crafting fragrances that “make a statement.” For you, when does fragrance best “make a statement?”

The best statement a fragrance can make is a presentation of an unheard generic equivalent of prednisone voice, and even if the message is similar to others at least it should ring true. I try to create a chord which can achieve this delicate balance of striking a new yet familiar tone. Creation in perfumery is always prone to plagiarism and there are many copies on the market but a thorough analysis of existing fragrances might help distill the right message… the ultimate goal is to come up with an original work which can be understood.


Christopher Street – Questions for Douglas Bender

Can you tell me about the thought process behind naming your company ‘Charenton Macerations?’

Charenton was the last asylum to to play home to the Marquis De Sade. Here he was rumored to have penned some of his best work. Work mostly unseen, destroyed by his surviving family.

It was at Charenton that De Sade also staged full theatrical performances for the public, featuring a mixed cast of Parisian actors as well as other inmates. Abbé Coulmier, Charenton’s caretaker, was a huge advocate of art therapy. He openly encouraged creativity in his patients as a form of therapeutic release. This openness enabled De Sade to recreate a world of beauty inside the walls of Charenton. He couldn’t really go out, but he was free to dream… to express himself from within his isolated cell.

This always makes me think of fragrance. These precious raw materials macerating over time. Olfactive ideas waiting to escape. A thing of creative beauty trapped in a bottle. The perfect metaphor to build my company on.

Marquis De Sade - Charenton Cell

Building another niche line on your own from scratch is tough. I thought of it myself but lacked the spirit. What is most important for you?

I’ve always been a bit of a free spirit. Someone who finds pure joy in discovering new ways of taking in the world around me. Definitely never afraid to get my hands dirty for the right cause. Exacerbated teachers would politely call me “an independent thinker.” My much more poetic mother just called me “a pain in the ass.” Both would agree I go after what I want. That I openly promote and defend what I love… and how I love fragrance.

With fragrance there are two things that are really important to me. First is the freedom to create. I like to make things that have something to say. To craft fragrance with purpose. Independence grants me this freedom. The second is the chance to challenge the status quo. My work is an active reflection on the world around me. Let other brands compete amongst themselves to create the next “fruity floral for women” that looks and smells just like every other “fruity floral for women.” Let them focus on the style of the season, choose to limit themselves as much as they want… I’ll stick with substance.

Christopher Street Marsha P Johnson

What would you consider an intellectual fragrance?

Christopher Street. Creating this fragrance introduces the stories from Christopher Street, its history of defiance and liberation, into the larger discussion about olfaction today, and to an industry that clearly still has some issues in regards to sex and gender.

These issues affect how we treat one another. They affect how we market. Worse yet, they affect how we create. It’s time we all stop – even if only passively doing so – continuing to make fragrances that reproduce these tired clichés and stereotypes. That we come to terms with this part of fragrance history, and actively call out those aspects that continue to affect our present.

Let’s put all the tools available to us on the table and use them to create fragrances that are a more honest reflection of the world they speak to. Let’s challenge ourselves to do better.

Christopher Street represents a moment of doing just that.

Christopher Street Fragrance

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