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Meadham Kirchhoff vs Sissel Tolaas

The rebellious design duo go head to head with the eccentric scent provocateur

It's become somewhat of a ritual that every season Meadham Kirchhoff fill their show space with a scent. It's the one part of their show experience that cannot be captured on film, revealed on Twitter or translated in anyway by the virtual world. It's an intrinsic part of their work and forms the basis for each collection. When we visited them in their East London studio recently, they revealed that by next season they will have their own scent, created in partnership with the traditional perfumery Penhaligon's.

Ahead of their SS14 show this afternoon, we invited the duo to go head to head with Berlin-based scent provocateur Sissel Tolaas. Believing there is a massive disconnect between society and our understanding of the world of smell, Tolaas seeks to educate and switch our sense of smell from subconscious to conscious. She has an archive of 7,000 individual smells – including several hundred types of faeces, the smell of her daughter from birth to present, and ‘leave me the alone’, the scent she wears when she wants to be avoided.

All those involved in the following discussion had no awareness before of each others work; here are the results.

Dazed Digital: I wanted to bring you all together because you both work with scents, but you approach it in very different ways. I want to start by asking you about the connection between scent and memory…

Sissel Tolaas: Smell is always connected to memory, and most of this process happens subconsciously. We operate on the look of things, but the most efficient way to store memory is through smell. We have smells throughout our entire life, from the very beginning until we die, and we store all of these smell memories in our subconscious but use maximum twenty per cent of it. I think that’s a shame. How can we educate humanity to use the nose for other purposes than breathing?

We live in a world deodorised, pasteurised, sanitised, perfumerised for our protection. We are missing so much important information about our surroundings. I think it’s about time that we start to challenge the tools we have on our body for different purposes. I call it software on our hardware body. What I did was make the process conscious. By having discovered, or rediscovered my nose, I have started to use all the [scent] memory I had stored subconsciously over all these years. And it’s amazing.

Benjamin Kirchhoff: It’s different for us. I think it’s less connected to the idea of memory than it is to the idea of making people feel something. It’s a combination of elements: the runway, the scent, the set, the movement, and everything that goes around it.

Ben Kirchhoff: It’s different for us. It’s less connected to the idea of memory than it is to the idea of making people feel something

Ed Meadham: But in real life I really like that fact that perfume is a mask and a barrier, an expression, a statement…

Sissel Tolaas: That’s not what I’m saying. I think there is a dimension to it that is missing; we don’t know what we are covering up. We have an ID as unique as our fingerprint, called smell. If we found our smell, and were familiar with it and would like to play with it, we can add perfume.

I have nothing against commercial products, perfume is the best invisible garment, and it’s fantastic if it works. But look at the department stores with perfume corners: how are you going to choose? There’s no respect. If we had more conscious human beings who look for a specific smell that fits their personality, we would have a completely different display of those kinds of products. I don’t like everyone walking down the street smelling like Chanel No.5.

Ed Meadham:  I think that’s a facet of human nature: most people don’t actually have taste. They don’t know what they like in terms of clothes or interior decoration or smell. Most people will wear Chanel No.5 because they know of it.

Sissel Tolaas: That is because smell has never been a topic of conversation in society. We learn to read, we learn mathematics, we learn everything about hearing and looking in schools, but we don’t learn anything about the chemistry of a nose and what it can do. It’s a shame.

Ed Meadham: I agree.

Sissel Tolaas: I think it’s changing; science is getting more trust funds, so we have access to research. People are thinking and asking questions and being more critical. How do you know what’s in the bottles we are putting on our body? We are very aware of the fabric we are putting on our body, but imagine the things that are going beyond the skin.

Ed Meadham: I’ve always wondered, if you’re an alcoholic, are you not supposed to wear perfume...

Sissel Tolaas: People are thinking and asking questions and being more critical. How do you know what’s in the bottles we are putting on our body?

Sissel Tolaas: So what are you guys doing with smell?

Ben Kirchhoff: We’ve been working with Penhaligon’s, the British perfumer, for four years now.

Ed Meadham: We scent each collection and it’s paraphernalia, the invitation, the production, everything.

Ben Kirchhoff: When it arrives in store it will have the scent that we used on the runway. It’s about creating another, evocative dimension to the clothes. It links back to what you were saying, that people have the experience of clothing and feeling fabric, but no association between that and the scent that is associated with the garment, and with visual language.

It is interesting for us to play with the idea that you can talk to people without hearing their voice. We don’t send press releases to stores because we think a customer, an individual, should have a relationship with the garment on its own. Any form of sensory experience they have with it should inform them whether or not they know who we are, whether or not they have direct communication with us.

Sissel Tolaas: What, is your invitation a perfume bottle?

Ed Meadham: No! The invitation comes in various forms, but it is essentially paper that we scent.

Ben Kirchhoff: We will choose a scent with Penhaligon’s, from their archive. They give us the perfume and we scent everything.

Ed Meadham: It completes the message of an imaginary character, the person we present in the collection. Each season the perfume is chosen according to what we think is appropriate for that character. We’re about to launch our first perfume with them soon; so far we’ve been choosing scents that exist already.

Sissel Tolaas: Are you doing one for each show also? Creating a fragrance for each show?

Ed Meadham: Well no, it takes quite a long time and skills we do not possess.

Ed Meadham: It completes the message of an imaginary character, the person we present in the collection. Each season the perfume is chosen according to what we think is appropriate for that character

Sissel Tolaas: I’m curious. How do you advance the fact that you use scent? We get the message that you do it; it could be time to challenge the fact that you do it.

Ed Meadham: In time. It’s only been going on for four years.

DD: When the collection is presented the scent is such a big part of it, and that’s interesting because a lot of people’s experience of your work is online and they never experience the scent – is that something you think about?

Ben Kirchhoff: That’s why when we send the collection out we try to recreate as much of the experience of the show as we can.

Ed Meadham: I don’t think I have ever thought about that. I never really think much beyond what I am presenting; the Internet offers everybody ways of seeing, interacting and commenting on everything past a point that I have no control over. People make of it all kinds of different things.

Sissel Tolaas: That’s why I don’t have a website. It’s never going to be possible to have scents online, but also I work so quick that I will never be able to update in the same tempo as I work. I don’t see the point. 

DD: Do you think technology is giving us a better idea of how scent can be used? Or do you think it’s getting worse?

Ed Meadham: Personally I think [technology] is confusing the message.

Ben Kirchhoff: It’s very much what you were saying earlier: there is an assault of scent on your nose when you walk into a department store. It’s not offering choice; it’s not offering anything other than which brand you decide to assign to.

Sissel Tolaas: Exactly. And as long as you don’t have access beyond the glass, to know what is in the bottle, no one really cares what’s in it.

Ben Kirchhoff: I love scent, I love perfume, and I really don’t care how much money I spend on it, but I absolutely detest the experience of buying it. I hate everything: the counter, having to smell fifty thousand smells in order to choose one. I hate the pressure, the assault that is imposed on you. Even when you go to a boutique, it drives me insane this poncy way of approaching it.

Sissel Tolaas: The ideal situation would be a cabinet: you go in with the bottle, there is a mirror and complete silence. The best scenario is that you would be naked with it

As you said, it’s not to do with the commercial but the education aspect of it. People don’t arc back on their memories or how they have developed as individuals to choose what scent they want to be, what scent they are, how they want to compliment themselves. It’s quite infuriating.

Sissel Tolaas: The ideal situation would be a cabinet: you go in with the bottle, there is a mirror and complete silence, it is like a vacuum, and you stay with the smell for a couple of minutes. You see your reaction, you feel it all over. The best scenario is that you would be naked with it.

Ed Meadham: Out of curiosity what is the first bottle scent you remember? For me, smell is not that tangible, but every year when my mother would get the decorations from the loft and I could smell the tinsel; that’s one of my favourite smells.

Sissel Tolaas: In my case every smell is an amazing smell, because that’s what I do full time. I’m kind of over the notion of singular sensations. My original archive is 7,000 smells. In reality, I have a lab with 5,000 chemical components of scents I have replicated.

I have never used deodorant in my entire life. Ever. I have never bought a bottle of perfume. I have a daughter, she is fifteen, and she has been my guinea pig since she was in my stomach. She has the most alert nose I have ever come across. Nevertheless, I have an issue now because she is in the middle of puberty, and she is aware a lot of her friends are wearing deodorant, and she doesn’t really know why they do it, why they want to cover up. I think it’s about having a more experimental relationship with these issues.