By Kilian Bamboo Harmony and Water Calligraphy: Asiaxploitation Tales

Kilian is the most generous perfume house. I just clicked once on their Facebook page and I keep receiving unexpected, unsolicited samples in the mail. This is so generous and I cannot thank them enough. I have recently received samples of the new Asian Tales duo, Water Calligraphy and Bamboo Harmony. They are both lovely. Bamboo Harmony is a delicate green tea fragrance with a citrus opening and a light mossy drydown. Imagine a very refined Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert. Water Calligraphy is an almost floral cologne. Jasmin, lotus and magnolia anchor on soapy vetiver base creating a water colour serene image. I love them both. But I have a couple of issues with the fragrances themselves and the whole Asiaxploitation theme that has taken over western luxury brands.

The Asian Tales duo actually are a little bit embarrassing. While no one can doubt the excellent quality of materials they are very weak in terms of the usual perfume parameters (sillage, longevity and projection) something that cannot be easily forgiven for such expensive fragrances. They are also rather unimaginative. They have a “been there, done that”quality and as they both progress to the drydown they start smelling very similar. They feel like a for her and for him versions of the same aquatic base. I do not have an objection to aquatic scents, I see their charm and I recognize their beauty. My objection is that I was expecting something a little more imaginative from Kilian.

And this is where embarrassment comes in: is this the way the West sees the East? Why a house like Kilian who has some quite daring fragrances in their line-up have chosen this approach to create perfumes for the Asian market? Both perfumes are composed of very common notes that are heavily used in western perfumes. Many popular perfumes come to mind when one smells the Asian Tales and none of them can be accused of sophistication and originality. Where are some interesting notes like calligraphy ink, japanese incense, the myriad of japanese herbs and chinese spices? I can contradict myself immediately by saying that what I find missing form them is a western vision of Asia. Why would someone from China or Japan or Korea want to smell like calligraphy ink? If they can afford by Kilian they probably want to smell like westerners. But is this really the case? I feel that analogies should be drawn to put things into perspective. And the analogy would be a chinese perfume named “Queen Elizabeth Patchouli” or “Marie Antoinette Fromage”. If the name Water Calligraphy can show an ounce of poetic license, Bamboo Harmony is plain tacky.

I would really like to hear what real Asians think of this blatant exploitation of Asian money. To me it feels like an accident waiting to happen. In fact one such accident happened a few weeks ago when Ferrari decided to celebrate its 20th anniversary in the Chinese market, the fastest growing Ferrari market. They set up a grand evening and presented the limited edition Ferrari Italia 458 Dragon. Only 20 cars will be produced and this is a description from techblog.com: ” Limited to just 20-units and exclusive to China, the Ferrari 458 Italia Dragon features gold wheels / winglets, embroidered seats, and even a special plaque denoting that it’s a “20th Anniversary Special Edition“. It’s rumored that all 20 vehicles have already been sold”. And if you cannot believe what you are reading here are some photos of the beautiful car after Asiaxploitation vandalism. It is not yet clear who actually came up with a disasterous idea to honour the Chinese: at some point of the evening a video was screened in which a Ferrari was actually speeding on the Great Wall leaving skid marks on the only human construction visible from space, built 2200 years ago to protect the Chinese Empire. Analogies are always helpful, as long as they are properly drawn. So I suppose the analogy Ferrari used was that of a Ferrari leaving skid marks on the streets of Rome. And they were right in approving this analogy because both Rome and Ferrari are top export products for the Italian economy. However this is the wrong analogy. The correct one would have been a Geely (吉利控股集團) leaving its marks on the Colosseum. I think even the most recession stricken Italian would object. The Chinese also objected. Vigorously! They stopped the event and they demanded that Ferrari cleaned up the mess on the Great Wall. The visible one, because they made a point of how this unsophisticated demonstration of technical supremacy has probably compromised structurally this monument. Ferrari of course denied that it was their idea and blamed the whole embarrassing event on a local Ferrari employee.

My point is that if the West wants to pay homage to their newly discovered growing markets they should be a little more respectful and research their history and culture. And in this case their perfume history and culture. Calice Becker, the perfumer behind Asian Tales, is very talented but wouldn’t it be wiser and far more interesting to turn to an Asian perfumer (I am sure there are several, even though we prefer to ignore them) for a real Asian tale?

The mark of disgrace

Image of the Ferrari promotional skid marks on the Great Wall from here

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About Christos

Scientifically minded but obsessed with the subjective aspect of things. Photos copyright of MemoryOfScent, with special thanks to Pantelis Makkas http://pantelismakkas.blogspot.com/. You are welcome to link to my blog but you are definitely not allowed to copy text or use the photos without my permission. All text and main photos are originals and property of MemoryOfScent All perfumes are from my collection unless stated otherwise.

10 comments

  1. I’m with you on the disconnect between the expectations from a perfume as expensive as By Kilian’s creations are and actual perfumes. But it’s only from our – regular people – standpoint. The same way you and I will not think twice buying Jo Malone’s cologne that we liked somebody in whose regular price range By Kilian’s creations are will buy these: they are very nice perfumes, you should agree. I’m a firm believer that luxury isn’t (and shouldn’t be) for everybody.

    Now about all that East-West thing. I tried to search but I haven’t found anywhere any mentions that Asian Tales collection had been created with the Asian market as a target. And if not, if it ” “was first conceived as an olfactive voyage, yet soon transformed into a spiritual journey as meanings behind symbols and words became increasingly significant and relevant. As the creation took shape, every detail was placed with careful attention and with the intent to pay homage to this great culture.” (from By Kilian’s press release) it doesn’t have to be authentic: it’s enough if it corresponds to our, “western” view of Asia: after all, we are those who will be paying for it.

    • I agree that Kilian is a luxury brand but those two do not smell the part. This is my point. They are simple and do not show much effort in coming up with a concept. I have tried Grossmith Hassu-No-Hana, another westernized image of the East coincidentally but with a historic value reportedly, and I do not mind about the price tag there because it smells like luxury.

      The Asian trend is a major marketing trend and it is everywhere. Ferrari Dragons, Piaget Dragon watches. Serge Lutens, Guerlain and Kilian in a more discreet way. The Asian market is the only growing market at the moment. I do not really think that we have to have an official press release to get the idea behind this.We are supposed to have a globalized economy and an even more diverse world culture and information. This is why I find this approach to the East a little embarrassing.

  2. I deeply enjoyed reading your post as Asian-Western releations is a subject I feel passioneate about. I also really don’t understand this Kilian release. When I read about the “Queen Elizabeth Patchouli” or “Marie Antoinette Fromage” my head just kept spinning. Imagine if a Chinese luxury tea company was going to get the Greeks hooked on expensive quality tea. Would it be a good idea to choose 2 mediocre tasting blends and name them, say, “Olympus Oolang” and “Zeus Sancha”? That would just be plain weird!
    Another interpretation is that they are marketing these fragrances to Westerners with a “thing for anything Asian”. This makes me angry. Asia is HUGE. There is so much there. Just imagine all the different cuisines, temple rituals, plants etc etc and they came up with THIS? 2 fragrances that smell like lots of other Western style fragrances? I don’t mind flirting with Asia but they could have done so much better.
    Or maybe they’re trying to do both things at the same time and failing both ways? But By Kilian should be savvier than that, shouldn’t they?

  3. I think they should. They should have paid the money to do some real research on far east perfuming habits and ideally colaborate with an Asian perfumer (there has to be someone!!!) to create something as evocative as their other releases.

  4. I love Kilian’s perfumes too but I do think they are conventional through and through, and that’s partly why they are so successful. The brand is not looking to do anything very new or different, I think their aim is to do conventionally beautiful in the best way possible, similar to Amouage. You have to look elsewhere for creativity in niche, like Pierre Guillaume or L’Etat or Duchaufour.

    • Hi Lucy. They are not avant garde but most of them offer something new to the idea or the ingredient they explore. I do not think that these two are on a par with the rest of the line and their starting point, the Asian olfactory world, could have offered excellent material. Take Encre Noire for example: it isn’t revolutionary but it’s use of ingredients (iso E super) and notes (vetiver) was new and has been extremely interesting and successful. Encre Noire could have been sold as an “Asian Tale” fragrance and I wouldn’t object. To be honest I was expecting something close to this.

  5. Pingback: How I smell: a disclaimer « Memory Of Scent

  6. Pingback: Asian Tales by Kilian: Bamboo Harmony and Water Calligraphy | Scentsate

  7. I hadn’t even thought about the politics of it. But you know, you’re right. Even Bamboo Harmony, a great perfume, smells like Tommy Girl Platinum. That reminds me of an article I read in New York Magazine a while back criticizing the unoriginal way Asians are presented in the media: http://nymag.com/news/features/asian-americans-2011-5/

    • Politics in marketing are not a bad thing and actually they are expected. But as you say it is a little simplistic to assign blandness as the main characteristic of products created for the Asian market. Especially when this market is as culturally diverse as it is.

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