Walk into the New York City Miu Miu flagship on 57th’s luxury strip, and you may be confronted by exquisitely ugly jewel-encrusted running shoes made of satin and rubber, and Day-Glo yellow plastic dresses embossed with obscenely large crocodile scales. The mood is playful yet unsettling. It could be the walls, which appear to be draped in gold damask curtains—until you lean on one and realize the fabric is rigid—or the floor-to-ceiling mirrors that suddenly swing open as store clerks in mini-dresses sashay forth from hidden rooms. Look, too, at the spring campaign that was recently banned in the U.K. because its otherworldly star, little-known actress Mia Goth, is draped on an unmade bed and viewed through a crack in the door by Steven Meisel’s voyeuristic lens, making her look like an erotically charged teen rather than an of-age 22-year-old. Nothing in the Miu Miu universe is quite as it seems. This mischievousness is the secret to the brand’s quirk-prestige, and one reason such art-house ingenues as Felicity Jones and Elle Fanning clamour to wear it. It’s also a key to the label’s debut scent, Miu Miu Eau de Parfum, which hits Holt Renfrew stores this month. Two years in the making, the new juice has been painstakingly crafted to become the next cult perfume—the olfactory equivalent of an it-bag.
These days, the word “cult” is applied to everything from indie movies to mascaras, but in the fragrance lexicon, it means something very specific. “A true cult fragrance,” says Michael Edwards, author of New Fragrances of the World, now in its 31st edition, “seems to create a mystique. The juice needs to have an edge that makes people say, ‘Wow, that smells special.’ And, logically, it must not be too available.” He uses Angel, Thierry Mugler’s 1992 cocoa-tinged scent as a textbook case: “It was the first gourmand [a fragrance based on edible-smelling notes], so nobody had smelled anything like it,” he says, “and in the beginning, it was in very, very few stores. Instead, they hired a fleet of motor vans that drove around and invited people in for a personal discovery.” Perhaps this is why Miu Miu’s rollout is exclusive to Holt Renfrew for six months before it hits the masses in 2016. “Because, above all,” Edwards continues, “what you’re engineering is word of mouth.”
The new EDP will undoubtedly have people chattering. Under the direction of Miuccia Prada, perfumer Daniela Andrier achieved what she calls a “revolution” by basing the eau on lily of the valley, a floral that rarely anchors contemporary scents because it’s extremely challenging to isolate. “I thought lily of the valley would be the perfect fit because it’s full of elegance and joy, but the flower doesn’t give its smell away through distillation,” she says at the media preview in Manhattan. Decoded, that means the typical extraction process destroys the delicate flower’s fragrance. Andrier scrupulously experimented with 1,200 different iterations to simulate its essence, the ultimate formula being a precise blend of rose absolute, jasmine absolute and synthetic green notes.
The result is sparklingly floral and fresh, yet somehow soft and nostalgic. For a nanosecond, you could mistake it as girly or naïve, like the high-necked ruffles and big-buttoned peacoats in the fall collection. But then something dark itches your brain, something aggressively spicy yet soap-clean (the acid orange miniskirt to clash with those pretty ruffles). This is a one-of-a-kind fantasy note created by treating Akigalawood, an extract of patchouli, with an enzyme that transforms the hippy-dippy herb into a conundrum. Is that patchouli? Not quite. Wood? Earth? Pepper? Mayyybee. It’s impossible to place—and bound to raise questions from anyone close enough to sniff. Like Angel, some will sell their best chain bag for it, while others may loathe it. But this is exactly the kind of canny risk that makes a cult darling.
The pretty ’60s-blue bottle, topped with a heavy red stopper that doubles as an old-fashioned wrist dabber, is destined to be a vanity icon. “It’s so Miu Miu!” beauty editors cooed during the reveal, because its texture mimics the matelassé technique used on the brand’s signature handbags. That contrast of throwback blue and modern fire-burst red also shows up on boxy shoulder bags in the prefall collection. If you don’t have $1,500- to drop on the bag, the bottle is the next best accessory at only $135.
Prada Group, Miu Miu’s parent company, has been in the fragrance biz for decades with more than 43 scents, including mass-market hits like the ultra-feminine Candy. It’s surprising, then, that Prada’s irreverent little sister—the label Miuccia founded as a side project to let her design instincts run wild between collections—has waited so long to release its first spritz. But the timing, it turns out, may be perfect. Increasingly, fashion is turning away from the mass toward the cult: such mainstream stars as Kim Kardashian and Karlie Kloss are covering indie magazines like Paper and Cherry Bombe (respectively), while vaunted brands are choosing their reps less for their facial symmetry and more for their cool factor—see Joni Mitchell for Saint Laurent or all of Cara Delevingne’s campaigns. And, on the runway, trends have given way to anything-goes individuality.
Ms. Prada is a long-time master of this idiosyncrasy-over-conventionality ethos, plucking fiercely independent beauties for her campaigns: Drew Barrymore when she had barely rehabbed her coke-kid image; Kirsten Dunst after she killed her good-girl rep with The Virgin Suicides; and, more recently, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, stars of the sexually explicit lesbian romance Blue Is the Warmest Color. The latest addition to the club, and the face of the eau de parfum, is 23-year-old French-English actress Stacy Martin. She has six indie movies out this year but is best known for Lars von Trier’s controversial full-frontal flick Nymphomaniac, in which she plays the titular sex addict. (Her on-film sexcapades with Shia LaBeouf were so real, many viewers were shocked to learn they were wearing prosthetic private parts.)
In the campaign, Martin plays the opposite of her unabashedly sexy character, posing in the sweetest of sweet tableaux, complete with an adorable black kitten batting the bottle top. “The Miu Miu world is a very daring, fun and curious one that encourages and nurtures artists to develop who they are and what they do,” says Martin by email, offering a pithy summary of Miu Miu’s POV. Ms. Prada’s world, filled with rebellious and girlish clothes, young women who are as intellectual as they are innocent and as aggressive as they are playful and soft, now has a scent to capture its many polarities. It’s not for everyone, but that’s precisely the point.