While visionary is far from how Christopher Chong would describe himself, it is an apt characterization to the accomplishments he has made, successfully helping transform an obscure Oman product to become a coveted international brand and championing the creative director position in a world that has trouble understanding what his contribution is to perfumery.
His career trajectory has been an interesting one. With a degree in Comparative Literature from Fordham University in New York, he eventually pursued a Master of Arts in Literature, Languages and European Thought in London. But he dabbled in fashion editorial when he started his own modelling agency and since he was multi-disciplined, eventually ended up immersing himself into the exciting world of classical music specifically opera.
But that was a lifetime ago and while his speciality may occur to some as all over the place, they melded perfectly well as they helped enhance one of his innermost strengths — his ability to tell a story.
It is easy to see the experience in his years. Being the Creative Director, a role that combines brand management, marketing and production supervision, culture design and perfume creation, of Amouage for 12 years now, he thrives in launching a product knowing full well how to both entertain, mesmerize and impress even the most vocal of critics.
CREATING the story
“I was always fascinated by science fiction movies and as a child, everything was about escapism. There was no better way to escape but by travelling through a wormhole,” was his opening remarks during the launching of his newest creation, Portrayal, the fifth chapter of the second cycle of his Amouage narrative.
He went on to describe the inspiration behind the scents — the life of London’s roaring 1920s and New York’s grooving 1980s with Madonna almost front and centre of the era. He looked for the common denominator between the two periods and finding what connects them together, plunged into the perfumery process.
“I want you to remember these three separate scents,” he said pulling three different coloured bottles and spraying them into three different thin slices of paper.
For Portrayal Man, he made this writer smell Violet Leaves, Vetiver and Cade in three neat orders and for Portrayal Woman, he layered Jasmine, Craven ‘A’ Tobacco dusted with Vanilla and with the base called Elemi. Many of them are unfamiliar scents with one reminding this writer of barbecue.
A master storyteller, it was easy to follow his thought process and after the short demo, it was easy to understand what he meant when he said that “Portrayal is for the bold.”
With his knowledge and passion for what he does, it was easy to get lost in Christopher’s jargons. But it wasn’t always the case.
An industry outsider
“I didn’t come from the industry. When I had my first launching in 2007, I was told by some people that they only came to watch the mess that I was creating and that what we have is an embarrassment,” he shared.
“When I started, Amouage only have six fragrances. It was a brand that nobody wanted. Even in Oman. Internationally, it didn’t have a market. Overall, the business was so minutiae, I was so shocked,” he said.
“But when you are not an insider and you don’t know what you are doing, you don’t know how to be afraid. So you are able to go all the way without the textbook fear. I just did what I have to do,” he added.
He shared, “In many ways, the evolution of Amouage put Oman to the international map. Before people just thought of Amman in Jordan. People knew about Oman because of Amouage. So I just thought, you’d been too quiet and exclusive in the region, now we need to kick up many notches — we need to play with the international big boys. I wanted to be as good as other perfume houses.”
Today, Amouage, led by CEO David Crickmore over 10 years, has more than 40 personal fragrances with almost half a dozen of collections fragrances owning 22 standalone shops all over the world and sold in 70 countries with The Amouage’s Factory and Visitor’s Centre in Seeb producing 20,000 bottles a week.
For Christopher, measuring the success of a fragrance is not through its sales performance in the first three months but rather its longevity.
“For me, success is the longevity of a product. That 10 years from now, you still have a following. That people are still talking about your perfume the same way that you started it. This is where I come in, this is where I am good at,” he said.
Jubilation 25 is the longest and most popular scent that Christopher has under his belt with many Omanis still preferring this scent to this day.
“There is no bad perfume. A bad perfume only happens when a person does not trust him or herself.... Basically, one has to be brave enough to say that ‘That perfume is me. I like it,’” his answer to people who kept asking for an opinion when buying a fragrance.
“They are not wearing it, you are. Sometimes the cheapest, whether it’s half priced or on the lower range of things, can work for you, can smell magical for you. There’s no bad perfume. Only bad judgement,” he said.
“A scent that you are selecting is a reflection of who you are. It has to speak to you and when you find the right one, you’ll know. People always ask me; how do you know that you finish the formulation? I don’t know. There is no step by step way of telling until when a product is finished. Somehow you know. So when you smell that perfume, you know,” he said.
“What I do as creative director in a nutshell, I am not a perfumer. To be a perfumer, you have to be qualified — with a Chemistry degree and years of training and exams, basically a scientist. The creative director of a perfume house follows the same concept as the creative director of a fashion house. They do not sew the garments or style it but rather, they create the inspiration, the story, the direction. I put together the inspirational sources, the references and make them come together. The job is basically 24/7 working with different time zones. It’s continuing to grow, continuing the creativity and continuing to challenge the olfactory industry. It is selling the story and making sure that the narrative is coherent. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to be authentic and to be honest to yourself. It’s the best way to benchmark a perfume. Have you done your best and are you actually satisfied?”