An Australian Fox in the Hennessy House
An ambassador from the New World heads to the Old in celebration of Hennessy's new bottle design collab with artist JonOne
Jetlag was my blanket in the grey dawn as I shuffled down sleeping Parisian streets, out of time with all but the returning shift worker in his medical scrubs and cloistered earphones and the delivery driver in his van, bleary eyed but watchful as I pass. Envoy of the new world, fresh-arrived in the old, I had come to Paris to see an old French brand leverage a new American aesthetic, and splash an artist’s ordination upon their bottle.
A rebrand is always a fraught proposition. Our identities are rarely what we perceive them to be, but are perhaps an average of other’s perceptions of us. When we rebrand we try to radically alter that perception. Hennessy has a new bottle. It’s colorful, and aggressive, and it’s trying to shift the tone of the ancient liquor house’s identity. Rivers worth of brandy must have flowed down these stone streets, bottle-by-bottle, in the 500-odd years since the locals of Cognac began distilling wine to preserve it in the holds of Dutch galleons. Or so I presume, until I much later learn that over 95% of Cognac is exported to foreign markets – so less of a river and perhaps more of a stream. Old worlds with identities formed by pressures and needs flowing from foreign shores. Eyes and visions near and distant shaping the qualities we describe as local.
I first meet the artist behind the new bottle, JonOne, later that day in the collection of paint-spattered spaces that form his studio in the quasi-industrial outer suburbs of Paris. JonOne cut his teeth on the grime-laden subway carriages and underpasses of New York City in the poverty-torn ‘80s, before relocating to Paris and there finding his fame. Born in Harlem to Dominican parents, JonOne represented the new America to his early Parisian audience – an enticing land of vibrancy and edge. He takes a chaotic and repetitive approach to his art that most commonly sees his name scrawled ad infinitum with or upon layer after layer of different colored paint. It’s oftentimes a dramatic effect, and at its best recalls the fractal-like depth and meditation of Jackson Pollock but with a verbal hastiness that speaks to permanent markers on train doors. It’s an idealized variant of that street-cut aesthetic that is treasured on the walls of whitebread affluence, yet despised on the walls of urban concourses.
JonOne stands atop a table, slightly stooped below the low ceiling of his central studio, addressing a gathering of journalists plucked from across North America. He has an infectious enthusiasm, unabashedly dropping words like “genius” in a self-relational context. To be fair, his success speaks volumes, and his journey has lead him from being “poor, dirt poor, with no money” as he would tell me, to being hung in some of the world’s leading galleries and art spaces, including in the mesmerizing industrial Beaux-Arts palace of the Grand Palais, at an art fair we visited that morning, several hours after my pre-dawn stroll.
Atop the table JonOne spoke fondly of Hennessy, though his bottle design for them – or indeed any bottles of the famous cognac – remained hidden for now. The design – which I would see a month or two later upon a computer screen back home in Los Angeles – is the 8th “Urban Artist” collaboration for Hennessy, and is perhaps less of a rebrand and more a repeat move to broaden their appeal. About 580,000 units of JonOne’s Hennessy Very Special Cognac will be released in limited edition. Other artists who have developed their own style of Hennessy bottle include notables like KAWS, Futura, and Shepard Fairey. JonOne’s design is one of the best, and the lively graphics clash appealingly with the more mannered and staid Hennessy bottle.
The day after our first meeting, and a world-away from the narrow paint-pocked walls of his studio, I interview JonOne in a grand sitting room in a stately French chateau – a white neoclassical pile on the shores of an almost insultingly idyllic lake in the heart of Cognac – the Hennessy family home since 1841, and the brand’s prestigious guest house since 1963. The journey here had been a jetlagged whiplash of an early train ride across the meandering fields of tilled soil that bisect Paris from Cognac.
But sitting now, before a gold rococo clock, facing JonOne with his girlfriend and business manager to one side, and one of the Hennessy reps to the other, JonOne’s conversation isn’t exactly stage-managed, but there’s a certain fenced feeling to it. “I’ve already gone through terminology where I’m vandal, to graffiti writer, to graffiti artist, now street artist,” JonOne tells me, “it’s always a regroupment of artists into one big package.”
The artist is forthcoming about the need for commercial success: “For a lot of artists money is a taboo, and they don’t want to associate their art with money – they do it more as a therapeutic form of expression, and I respect that. Money is important for me because one of my aims is that I have so much money that it’s not a problem, so you can do whatever you want creative-wise. But at the same time money has never really been my aim. My aim has always been to be able to paint and express myself, because if it was money I would have quit a long time ago.”
Fenced but honest, it will be later that night in a glorious greenhouse attached to the main residence, several Hennessys deep, and flanked instead by an incorrigible collective of the hardiest of the journalists, where I get a deeper glimpse into the man. He possesses a softness of personality – a bright eyed lust for living, but a hardness too, and his anecdotes run the gamut between graffiti covered trap houses and commercial success in the gilded finery of the Parisian art world. He has the rigidity and flexibility of a man who’s lived a truly unique life.
His choice as a new ambassador of Hennessy is an interesting one, and speaks to both a savvy adventure into branding and marketing, and to cognac’s reputation as a drink of choice for more urban-attuned African-American communities in the New World. It’s a popularity Hennessy has cultivated for decades, with the progressive marketing of the first spirit ads in Ebony and Jet in the early ‘50s, and the recruiting of 1948 Olympian Herb Douglas during a fractious period of the civil-rights movement. Now the brand is synonymous with rap and hip hop, spanning hundreds of lyrical references and video clip cameos – Tupac named an iconic song “Hennessy,” while in The Life of Pablo Kanye recently pondered, “Who needs sorry when there’s Hennessy?”
Unquestionably, Hennessy today is a product of both the idyllic vineyards of Cognac, the mercantile lanes of Paris, and the grazing concrete and cultural flourishing of the American street. “If you walk around France, compared to where I grew up,” JonOne muses, “everything here is craftsmanship evolved, even the buildings are chiseled like this,” he gestures to the ornate black marble fireplace beside us. “Being around so much beauty, and being able to live in Paris, sometimes I go outside and I go around the Seine and I see all the lights lit up on the old buildings – it’s like a walking museum that you’re living in. It makes you humble in a sense because everything was built before you, and so it brings you down to earth.”
Earth, soil, and concrete, another early train flung us back towards Paris, most of the journalists deflating into slack-jawed sleep. Disembarking into the mid-morning hive at Gare Montparnasse, I was soon lost in the throng. Shuffling feet back towards the New World, another traveller returning with dreams of the old.
The writer travelled to France as the guest of Hennessy.
Written by Gus Donohoo