Friday, September 21, 2007

Time Regained


In the world of perfumes anachronism is nearly always a bad thing. But lately, with the publication of books by Luca Turin, Chandler Burr and Mandy Aftel, there is growing interest in the fragrance formulas of the past. Some of this is mere curiosity, alloyed to a rather academic nostalgie for famous accords and revolutionizing synthetics; some is marked by the re-emergence of vintage dressing trends. In today's Women's Wear Daily, reporter Matthew W. Evans quotes fragrance development consultant Doreen Bollhofer as saying that, despite the stale state of creativity, perfumers can scout inspiration in fashion trends such as "formality and sophistication." Often these dressed-up trends evoke a long-lost world of distinctions, i.e., between day- and evening wear: casual, chic, and formal. The fragrances of yesteryear, by and large, were sumptuously layered compositions that mimicked the elaborate layering of the current fashion: underpinnings, petticoats, wraps, and hats, hats, more hats. Think of any of Aimé or Jacques Guerlain's masterpieces: Jicky, Mitsouko, Shalimar, L'Heure Bleue. They are intricately layered and detailed stories. Heck, L'Heure Bleue is a veritable Tolstoy novel! The fragrances of today – deriving from their ür-scent, Chanel No. 5 – are the talismans of upward mobility, i.e., lifestyle scents. They do not so much tell the perfumer's story as they do the story of a time period. E.g., Opium tells the story of the drug-fueled sexual ebullience of the late 1970s and early 1980s; Drakkar Noir, the story of fetishized money=sex Wall Street greed; and Polo – an interesting case study by itself – basically a retelling of The Great Gatsby ca. 1978. But in each case, the perfumer was telling the brand's scripted story, not his own. To borrow a term from the marketing lexicon, he was blending "to spec." And, with it, advertising was becoming life. The grassroots niche fragrance movement, with its momentum building for the last decade, may very well effect among the LVMHs and Gucci Groups of the world a shift back to the fleshed-out narrative of the great scents. How many celebrity scents can be launched for the pleasure of fifteen-year-old ingenues before the rest of the customer base wishes for something more; in short, wishes for a message, if not a short story, in a bottle?

Image credit: 35mm photographic still, Raoul Ruiz's Les Temps Retrouvé (1999).

9 Comments:

Blogger carmencanada said...

I haven't had the time to fully wrap my head around every theme you touch on in this post, but two things strike me -- and both are linked to the very way in which fragrance reviews are written... A topic to which I've been giving quite a lot of thought.
1/ Fragrance as a narrative. Of course, this isn't just metaphorical, as it's linked to the physical development of scent on the body. Writing one's own story to it - with characters, events - is one way to transfer the olfactory impressions into words. Another is to turn the notes into characters in their own right.
2/Fragrances as translations of brand identity. As you very rightly point out, Chanel N°5 started the genre. I recently wrote an article for a French art review on the way in which Jacques Polge treated the "signs" of Chanel's perfume heritage in his Exclusives, contrasting it with what Karl Lagerfeld did with the viral multiplication of Chanel signatures (the quilt pattern, the camellia, the chains, etc) in fashion. Polge needed to work both with the history of Gabrielle Chanel and with the elements of the classic Chanel perfumes, which he seemed to deconstruct in a post-Jean-Claude Ellena way to yield rather minimalist compositions.
Probably a thesis in there somewhere... Anyway, great, inspiring post, thanks!

September 24, 2007 at 2:06 PM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

Thanks, yes! I am most interested in how we choose a scent or, alternatively, how a scent chooses us. The "dressing up" trend (though a few years old already) may spark a post-minimalist phase in fragrance development. With new methods of scent extraction, the "abstractive" tendency of many synthetic accords may be joined to a renewed appreciation for "naturals" (esp. in view of the growing concern/respect for sustainable products and the many new scents discovered in the natural world over the past decade). Likewise, the efforts of perfumers such as Guy Robert, Vero Kern and Roja Dove among others to return perfume to its rightful place as a high-end, i.e. luxury, commodity may hopefully spur the sorts of "personal" narratives you cite, as well as the penning of more stories in scent for the generations that follow us. The "storied" fragrance is a rather recent development, however, and its linkage to socio-cultural developments and the collective Uc. may be the very thing that decides whether truly great scents (the ones that permeate a set of memory-chambers inside us) will return or whether, with global warming and tidal surge, we'll be bathing (drowning more likely) in a sea of eau de cologne.

September 24, 2007 at 4:11 PM  
Blogger Marie Fatime of Damascus said...

Just joining carmencanada in expressing my relish for the literary analogy.

September 25, 2007 at 4:25 AM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

If the 19th century was about hygiene and light florals and most of the 20th about "glamour," what is the 21st century about? Originality? Personal narrative? This is what I'm grappling with.

September 25, 2007 at 9:49 AM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

Carmen, I am anxious read your article on Jacques Polge. Please send me a link or give me instructions on how I can find a copy. Thanks.

Also, I was remiss in responding to your comments re his reinvention of Chanel. Going beyond the "signs" of Chanel's perfume heritage, Polge goes further still to reinvent Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's proto-minimalism, her distaste for frippery, flounces and finery.

September 25, 2007 at 1:47 PM  
Blogger carmencanada said...

Can you read French? Unfortunately, the article is in a review called "Particules", only distributed in French galleries, and they never got around to posting a pdf file online. I can send you the Word file though. Vero Kern, whom I suppose you're in touch with since you reviewed her fragrances, has my email address.
There's a lot more to say about your response, as to the future of perfumery. I think the "storied", complex fragrance will find its way, notably through viral marketing and personalised contact rather than huge, unaffordable campaigns. The characteristics could be a certain level of difficulty in their "reading" -- disconcerting notes, unusual development (sometimes non-linear). But the classic Guerlains had that already, and did tell stories.
Coming back to Chanel, I like your remark on Polge. I've written to him and got a response: now it's just a matter of getting through the PA barrage... On another note, you know Chanel reached out to bloggers for the re-launch of Coco Mademoiselle. Interestingly, the buzz agency that orchestrated that campaign didn't invite a single perfume blogger... The ones that were there were apparently told, by Polge himself, that Chanel N°5 uses only natural ingredients, which is, of course, false. Any perfume connoisseur would, of course, have put that to rest...
I'm looking forward to your further explorations of the topic you've started to explore.

September 25, 2007 at 2:13 PM  
Blogger Marie Fatime of Damascus said...

Am I just a dittohead to carmencanada? I second her request that you explore this topic more, adding it to my earlier request that you write about Florence again (the David Leavitt book rests on my shelves, to be read soon; your thoughts might be just the right complement).

September 25, 2007 at 5:53 PM  
Blogger Lucy said...

Wonderful post, V!

Who knows what the 21st century signature of scent will be, but my intuition is that the layering and personal aspect will be provided by the layering of scents. Many are now made so they can be layered, not so much one on top of the other, rather one on one part of the body, another elsewhere. I have been doing this a lot lately myself, and I notice many others mentioning the practice. Also I think this can be done with both a very complex scent such as a Guerlain (perhaps on the wrists) and another, simpler one (such as one Vetiver from Etro on the neck).
Or a vintage fragrance and a modern one. Also the practice of changing fragrances frequently creates a personal story of sense memories -- a diary of a kind, like Tuesday I talked to V, I was in a cloud of Mitsoukou, then Thursday I met with C, and we were each wearing a Creed, she a vintage formula and I a modern one...

September 29, 2007 at 5:21 AM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

I love the idea of a fragrance log or diary. We should all sign our posts with the scent we're wearing that day!

October 1, 2007 at 11:57 AM  

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