Artists & Perfumers: 86 posts

Articles about perfumers, artists and other interesting personalities. Also, please see Interviews.

Frida Kahlo and Shalimar

“They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality,” Frida Kahlo once said. An artist is inseparable from their art, and this idea is particularly dramatic in the case of Kahlo, whose body of work is based on the explorations of self. Of the 143 paintings Kahlo left behind, 55 are self-portraits, brutal, honest, startling. What’s more, Kahlo was conscious of the power of the image, and she also fashioned self through her choice of clothes, colors and accessories.

I admit that I didn’t appreciate the importance that Kahlo assigned to her clothes, jewelry and perfume until I saw the exhibit of the artist’s possessions at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The image of the Mexican artist—the colorful skirts, the flower-decorated braids, the unibrow—entered pop culture to the point that we risk forgetting the artist behind a fashion icon. In order to understand her art, is it necessary to know that Frida Kahlo wore Guerlain’s Shalimar and Schiaparelli’s Shocking and draped herself in Mexican dresses and Chinese silk?

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Niko Pirosmani : A Movable Feast

The paintings by Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918) throw me off balance. It may be a strange reaction to art, especially to the one depicting animals, people feasting, gathering grapes, or fishing, but Pirosmani is not an ordinary painter. Why are the deer’s eyes so much like human eyes? Why do the revelers raising their horns full of wine look so serious? What are they celebrating? What went through the artist’s mind as he sketched and what did he intend for us to see? What motivated him to paint?

Most likely–and we have so little information about Pirosmani’s life that we can only guess–it was hunger that prompted Pirosmani to take up the brush. Born in 1862, in a village in the Kakheti region of Georgia, he didn’t have any formal education, and his stints as a train conductor and cattle herder ended in failure. He learned painting from itinerant artists and he wanted to open a workshop producing signboards. It almost came to naught. The first order he painted for free, while the second one never came. He remained poor and hungry for the rest of his life, a vagabond and a pariah.

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Amina Ali : The Cake Wizard of Lahore

This story is part of my Pakistan travel diaries, describing my discoveries and encounters with inspiring individuals I met during my trip.

Amina Ali is a Renaissance woman. An artist and the CEO of Lahore Children’s Center, she’s also the mastermind behind Delish, a patisserie specializing in elegant, creative cakes. When I first met her, I was so impressed by her range of talents that I had difficulty conceiving how a single person could juggle so many responsibilities. Yet, after spending more time with Amina and exploring Lahore together, I grew to realize that she is very much the denizen of her city, energetic, vibrant and multifaceted.

I first came across Delish through the stories of friends who visited Lahore. “Amina’s cakes are works of art,” said an acquaintance who often travels to this ancient city in the heart of Pakistan’s Punjab province for the Literary Festival. “What’s more, the taste is heavenly,” she added. I grew intrigued when I learned that Amina started her business at the back of her house, teaching herself the art of pastry and cake decor. Whatever I knew about Lahore suggested that such an endeavor wouldn’t be for a fainthearted person.

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Paul Poiret on Selecting a Signature Perfume

Who was the first fashion designer to launch a perfume? It was most certainly not Coco Chanel and her No 5. The first couturier who linked fashion and perfumery was Paul Poiret. His rise in the world of fashion happened at the turn of the 20th century. Although his success was as meteoric as his fall was swift and tragic, he left an indelible imprint on fashion and created a modern sense of couture and dressing, the very road that Chanel and other fashion designers would follow.

Poiret’s autobiography, King of Fashion: The Autobiography of Paul Poiret (V&A, London 2009) reveals him as a complex character that he was. While in its pages he can come across as pretentious and self-congratulating, his passion for art and fashion is moving. So is his openness to taking risks or even bearing opprobrium. “Do not kick up a fuss for something that is not admissible today, because  tomorrow it will be,” he writes. He knew what he was talking about it, since one of his first designs, a kimono coat elicited a vehement rejection from a Russian countess. “What a horror! When there are low fellows who run after our sledges and annoy us, we have their heads cut off, and we put them in sacks just like that,” she said. This kimono-coat was to become one of Poiret’s hits.

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Paul Poiret : The King of Fashion, the Sultan of Perfume

Sometimes I imagine how our views on fashion would have been different if Paul Poiret, rather than Coco Chanel, presided as the arbiter of style in the post-WWII era. The two designers were among the most influential in the beginning of the 20th century, but their approaches to couture were completely different. Chanel’s famous dictum was “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” Poiret, on the other hand, loved fantasy and opulence, introducing elaborate gowns, harem pants and lampshade tunics. He was inspired by the Arabian Night Tales, Persian paintings, Greek art, and the Japanese kimono. He also loved perfume and was the first designer to launch a fragrance collection.

Poiret was born in 1879, the son of a cloth merchant in Paris’s working-class neighborhood of Les Halles. As he wrote in his 1931 autobiography, The King of Fashion, even as a child, he had been fascinated by shapes and colors, and he collected unwanted silk scraps to make dresses for his sister’s doll, turning her into “a smart Parisienne one moment or a Chinese empress the next.” After successfully selling his etudes to the couturière Madeleine Chéruit, Poiret continued his career in fashion by working with prominent designers of the era like Jacques Doucet and the House of Worth. It was just a matter of time before he opened his own boutique.

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