Kiwi fashion critics following their noses

By Cathrin Schaer

Kiwi fashion critic Tim Blanks and his partner Jeff Lounds have created a perfume that has caused a celebrity stir.

Tim Blanks, along with Jeff Lounds, created Escentric Molecule, a perfume rippling through celebrity circles. Photo / Dean Purcell
Tim Blanks, along with Jeff Lounds, created Escentric Molecule, a perfume rippling through celebrity circles. Photo / Dean Purcell

Yes indeed. This is going to be, as the subject of the interview so freely admits, "one of those depressing not-what-you-know but who-you-know stories that enrages everyone".

Then again, we must consider who we're talking to. On the phone from London is Tim Blanks, arguably one of the world's best-known fashion reviewers and writers; he's a regular contributor to Vogue magazine's online offshoot, Style.com, from the front rows of the Paris, London and New York shows. Style.com, for any fashion followers who haven't perused it yet, apparently gets around 205 million page views every month.

Besides being a famous fashion reviewer, Blanks also happens to be a New Zealander. Although he left the country in 1974 and made his name in Canadian fashion television before starting with Style.com, he visits his homeland fairly regularly - his brother, Scott, runs Auckland's Classic Comedy Club.

And Blank's partner, Jeff Lounds, who keeps making jokes somewhere in the background while packing his bags, is a branding expert who's worked for the likes of Bacardi and Bourgeois Cosmetics Paris.

The pair, who've been together for 25 years, are based in London and together they - along with two other business partners - are responsible for their own fragrance.

Molecule 01, part of a range named Escentric Molecule, was the first scent Lounds created, together with "nose" Geza Schoen, a Berlin-based parfumier, around five years ago.

"It was a meeting of his nose and my business sense," Lounds quips.

Today Molecule 01 and its descendants are among some of the best-selling perfumes in some of the fanciest, luxury department stores in the world, Harvey Nichols and Liberty of London in Britain and Barneys in New York, among them. Here in New Zealand it's available exclusively at Karen Walker boutiques. Apparently there are even waiting lists for the stuff.

And tomorrow the couple will be appearing at Auckland's Department Store, at an invitation only event, to talk about how they do what they do, and why the perfume is so popular.

Unfortunately some of their story is going to be pretty difficult for the average scent sniffer to replicate. Ask Blanks and Lounds how you can make your perfume as popular as theirs and Blanks replies, laughing a little, "Just give it to Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell! Naomi's a big fan and she's always saying: 'Smell me! Smell me!"'

Blanks also happily tells the story of how the late, unfortunate Amy Winehouse used to spray it on letters she sent to her errant ex, Blake Fielder-Civil, in prison so he'd be reminded of their love. And how Beyonce bought two bottles at one of those fancy department stores once, drove around the block, and then returned to buy another six. And that was even before the magazine story about the perfume's potential to help the user score a date came out.

Lounds and Banks seem a little less enthusiastic about this bit of the story. "It's not a pheromone," Blanks says, eager to correct any believers in smelly attraction immediately. "It has 'pheromone-like qualities'."

"Well, Grazia magazine wanted to test it on a boy and a girl for the weekend," Lounds explains further. "And we thought 'this could be dangerous"'. But really it was out of our hands. They did it.

"And then three weeks later there was this piece on fragrances that will get you a date. And apparently they [the perfume users] were hit on all weekend. And this unknown company had developed this magical fragrance."

Now that's far more exciting for anyone who thinks Kate Moss is kinda past it. So does it really work?

"I don't know," admits Lounds. "But I can tell you I have been chased down the street by both men and women. And I've had more taxi drivers turn around and announce: 'I'm not gay but ...' And I always know what's coming when I hear that. It's quite flattering," he announces cheerily. "It's quite astounding."

So really, the perfume's success seems to have been the result of a pleasing confluence of buy-me-now factors: celebrities who loved it, the "romantic" potential and also, the fact that, at the beginning at least, Molecule 01 was pretty mysterious, very "boutique" as they say.

That is, nobody knew who was behind it and only small quantities were available.

"That's the power of niche and I think that's been happening a lot in fashion as well," argues Blanks, who, in his fashion writing, has always been good at analysing populist movements and figuring out what comes next.

"People are customising their own spaces, using clothing and fragrance in their own way. It's all about emphasising who they think they are as individuals. The ultra-niche as an antidote to gigantism," he muses, "that's very alluring for a lot of people these days."

And of course, one mustn't forget the brand's secret weapon: Blanks. "Because I have worked in the fashion industry, oh, since the Great Pyramid was built," he chortles, "I really do know just about everybody. And I'd say, look at this, look at what my boyfriend just did."

Despite his fashion writing work and his connections, Blanks doesn't feel there's any conflict of interest to worry about.

"Because I don't write about Escentric Molecule," he says. "The one time I did write about it on Style.com, I said something like, this is my boyfriend's perfume, it's great. Full disclosure, always," he insists.

Nor will he be giving up the day job anytime soon, no matter how much more successful the perfume brand, which is just about to launch its own body wash, becomes: "No, I would never. I don't have that much to do with Escentric Molecule really," he insists. The other thing neither Lounds nor Blanks will be doing anytime soon is making Escentric Molecule candles. And the way they both say "candles" in such a horrified tone makes keriophobia quite amusing. So why all the waxy hate, guys?

There's laughter over the speaker phone.

"Well, Anita Roddick, who started the Bodyshop, was a very good friend of mine and we always used to laugh about candles," Blanks explains. "I mean, the margins on candles, for God's sake, they're ludicrous. People can make tons of money on candles.

"People always say to me 'why don't you write a book?' But why would I want to add a book to the pile of books that people are already not reading? And why would we want to add a candle to the pile of candles that people are already not lighting?

"Anyway people are running out of names for candles and perfume," Lounds jokes, somewhere in the background. And with that, the fortunately perfumed pair go back to packing for their trip to New Zealand.

TIM BLANKS ON ...

Writing fashion reviews:

With music criticism or movie criticism, it's a little more consumer-ised. Because you might read a review to see if you want to buy the CD or go to see the movie. But it's unlikely you would read a fashion review just to see if you're going to buy the clothes. So I do write about the music and the sets and the makeup - because my attitude is that I like to put people where I am. You know, I think it's more meaningful to give them a chance at the experience rather than tell them what I thought of a mini skirt or a bra top or a peacoat or something. That is the one bit of the experience I can dutifully report on: the feeling of being at a [show].

Honest fashion criticism:

Can I be honest? Would I call a spade a spade? That [question] cuts right to the very nature of what a critic is and what you want from a critic. I suppose the notion that [fashion] criticism can be compromised comes from the fact that fashion advertising wields such a big stick, that if you badmouth someone, they will pull their advertising. That's the popular perception anyway. Which is kind of strange. Because we review God knows how many shows - almost a thousand shows - each season, and the vast majority of those people are not advertisers.

Fashion as entertainment:

In the late 80s and 90s fashion became an adjunct of the entertainment industry, in the same way that the entertainment industry expanded exponentially. Now everyone has an opinion about everything. And the internet has fed a sort of hunger for fashion that is, in many ways, an uncritical hunger.

Becoming a journalist:

I get asked to talk to journalism students quite a lot but I can't stand up in front of a bunch of students and be honest about what I think they should do. Because I think you should just do it. And they say "what's your advice?" It's: "say yes to everything". Because that's what I did.

Individual style:

It's funny when people start expressing their individuality in fashion and suddenly there are a whole bunch of people who all look exactly the same, who all think they're expressing their individuality.

On magazines:

I love magazines. I am a religious magazine consumer. Our local newsagent says we are just about the only people still buying magazines. There is something so gratifying about holding a magazine. And there's the fact that you can go back to it. How often do you go back to things online?

Style.com has just come out with its second print issue - it's a funny thing, that notion, because it feels a bit like a step back. But from what I hear it's going really well. What it did really prove to me is that the fashion industry is quite conservative. The advertisers really respond to print. Style.com might get 20 million page views a day. But nothing means as much to an advertiser as being able to hold something in their hands.

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