Jean Paul Gaultier’s Divine in the wild. Photo JMC.

Every so often, a fragrance saunters into the market, demanding our attention with an air of undeserved audacity. Jean Paul Gaultier’s Divine (2023), however, feels less like a sophisticated, daring entry and more like a grandiloquent crash. Its limited notes of meringue, marine, and white florals, are drowned out by an overpowering accord of calones. Perhaps creator Quentin Bisch aimed for a balance of sweetness and tanginess, but could not resist the temptation to infuse Divine with beastly strong synthetics.

This olfactory dissonance immediately transported me to my less-than-pleasant encounter with Elizabeth Arden’s Sunflowers (1993). Sunflowers, with its boisterous cantaloupe and unsubtle jasmine, always felt like a misstep in the realm of perfumery. If Sunflowers was a blinding midday sun, Divine is its noxious eclipse.

Imagine, if you will: Sunflowers, in all its sickening cheer, takes a calamitous plunge into the chemical vat from Troma Studio’s The Toxic Avenger (1984). The resulting concoction? A scent so jarring, it’s almost comedic. It’s as if Divine was Sunflowers’ sinister twin, brought up in the shadows of chemical spills and horror film reels.

Of course, I’ve a certain appreciation for the unconventional. Gaultier, the one-time enfant terrible of fashion, the genius behind Madonna’s audacious wardrobe, surely knows a thing or two about shock value. But with Divine, the shock is less of awe and more of sheer disbelief. It’s as if he tried to replicate the audacity of Madonna’s cone bra, but ended Ed Hardy rhinestone dragons instead.

I am all in favour of the return to powerhouse perfumes to banish the compliant Cleans and Phlurs, but this is not the way. In sum, Gaultier’s Divine, in its ill-fated attempt at olfactory theatre, does play out like a comedy, where the punchline, unfortunately, is on the unsuspecting wearer. If one ever wondered what melodramatic distress smelled like, Divine might just be the unfortunate answer.

Madonna in a Gaultier creation from 1990’s Blonde Ambition tour, reflected in the Divine flacon. Via Getty Images.