Our editor-in-chief Haleh Nia interviews Christopher Chong, Amouage Creative Director at the Chedi Muscat.
I’m on the magnificent grounds of the Chedi Muscat, walking into an opulent lounge decorated with plush couches and filled with the intoxicating scent of Amouage’s new perfume, Fate, when my eyes meet with Mr. Christopher Chong, creative director of the niche luxury fragrance house founded in the Sultanate of Oman in 1983.
He’s wearing an impeccably tailored suit and has shiny, slicked-back hair and a smile that can light up an entire room. He’s the same man I noticed was observing myself and a group of editors during lunch at the hotel’s main restaurant earlier that afternoon. He was sitting a table across from us – probably not even eating, just quietly surveying – and offered a few warm smiles when one of us presumed he would be the subject of our interviews.
He’s not yet a household name, but by the time I have finished our interview, I hope he will be.
It’s a pleasure to meet you, Christopher, and congratulations on the launch of your new fragrance, Fate. Tell me – how did the idea for it come about and what is the inspiration behind the name?
Delighted to meet you Haleh, and thank you for being here with us.
Since I joined Amouage around 6 years ago, I started the process of storytelling. My background is in the Opera and I treat each of my creations as a chapter of a story, or a song of a cycle. In each one, there is a male and a female character and each of them evolves into something different. Each of them is a perfume. And this is the finality of what I have created for each perfume; the last chapter of the story, if you will. I decided that it is time to set my characters free, to go on in the real world, to face the fate of the customers.
I did hear today about your background in the Opera. So what happens after Fate?
This is a new song cycle. It is going to be something different.
I also heard today that your biggest market is Russia. Do you think this particular fragrance will do well there?
Definitely, I know it will. Because they placed a huge order! (Laughs)
So they love the scent behind it? What other markets do you think might respond well to it?
The Middle East.
It is a very oriental smell.
I must say that people here [the Middle East] are very into a certain fragrance smell. This is a very complicated fragrance. You have to have complicated customers to understand it. The best part of the world is that in this region, people are quite sophisticated when it comes to perfumes. This is part of their culture. It has always been different, new, and challenging. Amouage is not easy to wear. It is very sophisticated, dramatic, and challenging. It suits all the people in this region perfectly.
Absolutely. The Middle Eastern consumer wears perfumes differently than other wearers. They are more experimental with it; it’s almost a way of life. Even in their cars, they have fridges stocked – not to keep their drinks cool but to store their fragrances and spritz themselves throughout the day.
I just think that they are much more advanced. They like to blend them, mix them, combine them together.
I think you have been called the most luxurious perfume house in the world. The “Hermès of the fragrance industry” comes to mind.
Yeah. It is really, from the packaging right to the scent, the way everything is constructed. It is beautifully handcrafted. We spend a lot of time in developing the packaging because I know that in our key markets, packaging is very important to all of our customers. When they smell a sophisticated fragrance, they want to see that sophistication in the packaging as well. Especially in Asia and the Middle East.
There is something so beautiful about your bottles that you almost want to leave them on your vanity table as decorative items.
So funny that you say that, because I just came back from my Asian tour promoting Amouage and a lot of customers said that they sometimes buy it not to wear it, but because it is so beautiful.
My thoughts exactly. So how long does it take to create a perfume, from the conception of the idea to the launch of the final product on the shelves?
In the perfect world, just to create the juice, it takes 24 hours. But most times, it takes 18 months to 24 months just from the beginning to end.
Is there is a lot of pressure to produce a certain number of collections per year? Most ready-to-wear designers complain these days about how quickly the cycle moves – does the same apply to perfume?
I have to do one for the main collection and one for the couture collection every year. It is very difficult, but I have a great job and for me it is like doing my homework. It is difficult sometimes… For instance, about three years ago we were days away from launching a perfume globally and I just could not allow it to be released. It was just not good enough. So sometimes you are under pressure, but I have a great team that understands me.
Famously, you have no previous experience and no training in the perfume world. How did you do achieve all your success despite this fact?
I was born in New York and you know how New Yorkers are. They have this kind of motivation that if they believe they can achieve something, they will. There was no training period for me – it was all organic. When you ask for help, there is plenty of help. There are a lot of massive perfumers who are able to teach you. I am very lucky. Some people have to go to perfume schools and have to study chemistry. I don’t. I have private tutors. I have the best perfumers around me. They find it quite refreshing to work with me, too, because they are not working with a textbook case and because I challenge them. They love that.
So it is less about the science and the chemistry, and more about emotions.
One massive perfumer, world-famous, just gave an interview. The interviewer asked him: “What do you find so fascinating working with someone like Christopher Chong?” He said: “He gives me air.”
Tell us about your role as creative director. How frequently do you have to be in Oman?
It just so happens that the house was founded here [Muscat, Oman]. I do all of my creative work in the London office, where we have a sales team to look after the European market and also the American market, which is expanding very quickly.
Where does the inspiration come from for a new fragrance? Does it suddenly come in the middle of the night?
Sometimes it does happen. I remember it happened in the middle of the night. My dog woke me up at 2 o’clock in the morning and I had to take her out. That inspiration came when I saw the full moon. Sometimes it doesn’t. But I am always thinking ahead with what I am doing. For example, I already set up the theme for the next five years. It is different facts that you collect everyday in your life journey. And then one day when you put the pieces together, you just take different factors of your life experience and place them to your story. That’s what I do.
You are a storyteller.
Yeah. It is very important to be receptive. Not to be narrow-minded. You need to be open to all opinions that you might have not been agreeing to. Even to be nosy and try to overhear people’s conversations. I love overhearing. I love when you are sitting in a café and listening to what they are saying all around.
I saw you watching us at lunch today.
I saw you and it was all recorded.
(Laughs) No, of course not!
(Laughs) What are your thoughts on celebrity fragrances?
I don’t believe in celebrities, they look like crap. What can they say about the perfume? About the process behind it? When you meet them, all they can say is “It’s fabulous, I love it. It is my favorite. It is amazing.”
It is very inspiring to see a homegrown brand from the Middle East, so well-positioned and with such strong branding and international credibility. Does Oman itself affect the inspiration or manufacturing process at all?
No. Because I don’t want people to say: “Oh, these ingredients are from the Middle East.” That is such a racist thing to say. That is so patronizing. I hate that when it comes to the Middle Eastern market, they give you oud, but oud is synthetic. And that is so patronizing. So I refuse to use oud, because I don’t want to be patronized in the country which gave birth to Amouage. The region gave birth to Amouage, it has to be proud of it. I also want to explain to people that these ingredients are not Arabic. These ingredients are admired by the Arabs because they have such an advanced knowledge of perfumes. People here are much more sophisticated with blending these ingredients. One ingredient without which I don’t picture a scent, that’s Frankincense. Oman is quite famous for Frankincense, but we know it is endangered. So we don’t use any of the Omani Frankincense.
I refuse to use oud, because I don’t want to be patronized in the country which gave birth to Amouage.
You’re set for a lot of expansion in the next few years, with a number of boutiques and shop-in-shops planned. Which of the two do you prefer more?
I prefer shop-in-shops personally. I like to look at other brands too; I am not obsessed. I just want to make a claim. Someone who thinks that I must wear Amouage all the time, I just want to say: No. I am not obsessed. It is my job, I create something beautiful at work, but I also appreciate other people’s work. Frederic Malle’s, for example. His fragrances are exquisite.
Are you friends with him?
No. We don’t know each other.
Do you think you would make good friends?
Yeah. I think we could be best buddies. We work with similar people.
Maybe a new reality show all about you guys. The title could be This Makes Scents.
(Laughs) That would be incredible.
Any thing else you would like to add?
I just wanted to mention that we are fabulous. Now let’s Instagram!