Exclusive Interview: Christopher Chong of Amouage
Amouage, a leading luxury brand from the Middle East that was born in Oman in 1982, went through a transition seven years ago. The label’s modernization and its international expansion came with creative director Christopher Chong, a larger-than-life character born in Hong Kong and raised in New York and London. He is passionate about classical music and opera (he is a Baritone) and social media.
Ahead of the launch of the new perfume, Fate, Style.com/Arabia sat down with Chong for an exclusive first look.
“Fate” is the name of Amouage’s new fragrance. Can we smell this little beauty and can you tell me its story?
Sure. It’s very strong. I need to be careful when I spray this. It has to be [strong] because that is our signature. People will ask, “Why don’t you do a light perfume?” and I reply, “I’m not going to change it.” That’s having an attitude.
It’s [the process is] very artistic. I mean, it’s really hard to do something light. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve tried it myself. It’s extremely difficult to make something that has a feeling and has story behind it with a light fragrance, but that is not my style.
The reason why I named it Fate is because since I joined Amouage, I decided that perfumes should be about storytelling and each perfume should have a connection with the previous one, or the one afterwards. So I sowed an Amouage narrative and each narrative has a character that develops into the next perfume. Now, I decided that I have done enough stories in the first cycle and I decided to end the story to ”seal the fate.”
Is your story an Arab one?
No. I took inspiration from the Arab form of storytelling. I have to tell a kind of story that appeals to a three year-old and an eighty year-old too because perfume is all about sensuality. In the Arab region, you have to be very sensitive and show some respect to the heritage and the culture but you cannot talk about sensuality. I decided that I need to create fairytales—modern fairytales inspired by my own experiences. I borrow a lot from opera, but also literature.
This smell is an Oriental smell; it’s very strong…
It’s a version of Oriental. I’ve avoided Oriental for a long time…
What? You can’t say that, Christopher! Everything smells so strongly of oudh and amber and sandalwood. Those are the Oriental notes that Amouage represents.
Yes, but I think it’s a myth and a bit discriminating to place an ingredient with a region. Sandalwood is not Arab, it’s Chinese. They’ve been using it for centuries. That’s discriminating when one says that Arabs like certain things. It’s not true, Arabs like all kinds of fragrances but the thing that they have is much more passion for fragrance and that’s why they are much more advanced than the rest of the world. When I’m in the West, they say “Oh, this smells too Arabia.” and I say, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Regardless, Arab women like strong perfume. Describe this woman that I’m smelling right now.
When I create a perfume, I don’t think about a woman or a man. For me, a perfume should not have any gender but we are doing this in a collection for a man or a woman for commercial reasons with department stores, duty frees, and retailers around the world. Also, men are very backwards aside from the Arabs. They would not buy a perfume if it’s a “female” perfume. But when I set my mind to doing a perfume I don’t think about if it’s for a man or a woman.
So what did you think for this one? What’s the story?
I’ve created stories. I’ve created different characters throughout the past six years. This time, I have to end my story because all stories have to come to an end.
Are you announcing that you’re leaving Amouage?
I’m not saying anything. Oh my gosh, you want a scoop! I have to be very careful. [laughing]
No, I need to end the first cycle because a story must have an ending eventually so I think it’s time for me to listen to my call of fate.
What you succeeded in doing is building the number one luxury GCC brand.
I didn’t have a textbook, right? I just did things my way. Some of the things that I have done with my perfumer, nobody would ever dare to do. I mean it’s breaking the textbook, it’s breaking the traditional combinations, and it’s breaking the core.
I love the design of the box. It’s beautiful.
It’s very representative and mythical with symbols of fate. The stars, the constellation, this was so hard to do.
Do you put any ingredients in these perfumes that are rare?
There’s an ingredient in there called corperu. It’s a root that’s found in South America that isn’t popular. I cannot guarantee that it’s never been used before, but I can guarantee that you cannot smell it in another mass prestige perfume.
My other collection, the library collection, is much more experimental; we always have one or two ingredients that have never been used.
I don’t say that it is “just” Middle East. That’s why I’m so proud of Amouage. It’s not just Middle East…
Yes, it started over there and the reason why I think I got on so well with Amouage is because it’s a match made in heaven. I was born in Hong Kong, but do I come across as Hong Kong, Chinese? No. I was brought up in New York and London so where you’re born or where you come from doesn’t define who you are.
I always tell people that it’s not just Middle East. Amouage is just as good as any international brand that is founded in Paris, New York, or London. It’s an international brand. I do all my development work in Paris, Geneva, and New York. There’s so much creative energy there. Geneva is great because of the ingredient technology there.
So they work with synthetic molecules?
They do. It’s amazing. It’s more expensive because with synthetics you can capture the right smell, the right mood, whereas with raw material it’s supplemental. Synthetics are much more interesting.
Your strategy is incredibly modern but you also want to build a real luxury brand. How do you balance between keeping it luxurious and very modern?
Can I give you a good example? Even the English monarchy needs to bring somebody real into the family. I think I’m the Kate Middleton. I’m much more accessible. If you go back in history, when Amouage was founded in 1983, it was a different world. The respect for monarchy and royalty was different back then compared to now and I think that average nouveau riche customers have been a bit out of touch. They want to see something much more real and that’s why in the English monarchy they brought in Kate Middleton, someone who was raised middle class and as a real person. That’s why I think I am the Kate Middleton of the Middle East.
You want to reach a larger clientele but your “juice” is very complicated to understand.
It’s not for everyone. What I always tell people is that Amouage is not love at first sight. Amouage is a long courtship but once you fall in love that love is forever. Amouage is not an infatuation. I get a lot of customers who say, “I hate it.” and then two years later they say, “I cannot live without it!”
What’s the future of the perfume industry? How do you imagine it evolving?
In terms of the market, there will be more and more perfumes. We’ve gone through all the celebrity phases but now it’s not just the celebrities; everyone thinks that they can do it.