Christian Astuguevieille eludes categorisation. The brilliant 60-something year old Frenchman is a keen storyteller. He’s also an artist, designer and the creative director behind Comme des Garçons Parfums. Just before kick-off at an auction of some of his selected works at Pierre Bergé & Associates, we got a unique insight into his creative grey matter as well as his special relationship with Rei Kawakubo and his subversive treatment of materials.

Portrait courtesy of Jean-Francois Jaussaud

Did you study fashion, design or art?

I didn’t study any of them. My educational background is in law, sociology and teaching. Everything else happened organically, following my needs and desires. I approached teaching in a playful manner, which probably informed the rest of my career. I used to do workshops for children and adults on certain materials, such as rope or paper. The whole point was to learn how to deal with materials differently and to enrich one’s sensory experiences.

Where are you based?

I’ve lived in Bayonne for 3 years now. I found this building I fell in love with. It was pretty run-down and it took me a year and a half to renovate it, but I’m glad I’m there now.

How did you go from teaching to the world of perfume?

I was working for a French house called Molinard. Their perfume range needed a drastic makeover and they asked me to build up their business again, starting from scratch. I had to revamp their store in Paris and come up with a new sales strategy. Molinard had a huge laboratory I could use for research and it felt like an endless party.

Were you trained as a nose then?

Not at all. I learnt everything working there. After Molinard, I worked for 12 years for Rochas, where I oversaw their perfume and accessory division. I guess working in fashion was just another coincidence.

What kind of accessories were you designing?

I designed jewellery lines for several French high-end labels. At one point, I was creating 14 collections a year and worked closely with a designer called Jean Colonna. I made jewellery from 1977 to the early 90s. It got to a point where my company became too big and it started bugging me. I decided to work for selected houses only, such as Lanvin, Hermès or Nina Ricci. I’ve been making pieces again recently, as Rei Kawakubo insisted on adding jewellery tables to Dover Street Market in London and Ginza. The selection changes every month.

And how did you meet Rei Kawakubo?

I met her in Tokyo in 1992. I was working for Rochas at the time and they were opening several stores in Japan. I was supposed to meet up with her PR and waited in front of her office as she wasn’t around. Rei turned up and greeted me. She showed me the video of her latest collection and asked if I could design some sculptures for her based on some pieces she had seen before. She asked me to come back the next day with some sketches, which I did. She commissioned 8 pieces directly. I had a month to make them for her store in July. In the end, I designed 25 of these pieces for her. I guess it was a test to see how much I was able to do. She then asked me to create perfumes for her, saying she wanted to do it, but had no idea how to go about it.

Rei’s brief for the first fragrance was the following: you’re in a black swimming pool where the water and tiles are black. It’s such a pleasant feeling that you don’t want to leave and keep on swimming. That was it.

How did the first fragrance come about then?

Rei wanted a bottle that was shaped like a pebble. Her brief for the first fragrance was the following: you’re in a black swimming pool where the water is black. It’s such a pleasant feeling that you don’t want to leave and keep on swimming. That was it. The Tokyo team works on bottles and packaging now. I come up with fragrance ideas, sometimes names, and she reinterprets everything. This is how we work.

What did you want to bring to the world of fragrance?

It’s very simple. We wanted to do something that did not exist before and that had nothing to do with the traditional idea of perfume. We agreed there wouldn’t be any tests and that we’d arrange everything ourselves. The possibilities were endless, from more classical scents to mad creations. The important thing was to find some olfactory signature and develop it.

Did you anticipate the success the fragrances would have?

We wanted to work with the idea of seasonal collections, with new fragrances coming up twice a year. The perfumes had to complement the rhythm of the collections, except that Rei didn’t want any link between the perfumes and her clothes.

Which perfume do you wear the most?

I tend to swap and test new ones, which drives my friends crazy sometimes. I only wear Comme des Garçons, though.

Do you think there’s a level of abstraction in your work?

Yes, there is, but sensuality is important as well. Making tactile pieces is key for me, whether it be a table, a chair or a perfume bottle. I love playing with contradictions and confusing people’s expectations of what an object should be.