My latest post on Serge Lutens’ next export, Jeux de Peau, triggered further thought on the subject, as several of the comments centred, especially in the French section, on a compare-and-contrast game between Serge Lutens and Frédéric Malle. In many ways, this discussion ties in with something I was speaking about with Persolaise over the course of our Basenotes interview, the rise of the perfumer-as-star.
Both Serge Lutens and Frédéric Malle were instrumental in drawing attention back to perfume (and thus, to the art of the perfumer) at a time when it was all about marketing -- so were, of course, the other niche pioneers, Jean Laporte for L’Artisan Parfumeur, Annick Goutal and Patricia de Nicolaï. But though the three latter put their names on their storefronts, it was perhaps Mr. Lutens first, followed by Mr. Malle, who generated today’s name-the-nose trend.
Of course, Serge Lutens is not a perfumer, but his groundbreaking move, to my mind, was to create an entire universe predicated on the tastes and story of a single man, which contributed to the ascent of a discourse around signature in perfumery. Though his name did not originally appear on the labels, it was very clear from the outset that there was a demiurge at work: everything, from the decoration and ritual of the Salons du Palais-Royal to the names and composition style was splendidly idiosyncratic and consistent. It didn’t bring perfume back to the old days when houses were helmed by the perfumers – Jacques Guerlain, Ernest Daltroff or François Coty: it was, and is, perfume as vision of the world, with its creator as the centre, generating his own myth through scents as he had through images.
Frédéric Malle took a no less important step when he launched his Éditions de Parfums, by naming and showing the authors of the perfumes he commissioned, in order to bring the focus back on the product and the conditions of its composition rather than on a story cooked up by a marketing team and stuffed into the bottle. That too was revolutionary and so novel Mr. Malle actually wondered whether there wasn’t some reason that justified keeping perfumers in obscurity, something he’d overseen…
Coming as it did at the eve of the explosion of the online perfume culture, Mr. Malle’s politique des auteurs was so widely imitated that nowadays, there is practically no launch where the perfumer’s name isn’t put forward.
When I posted a year ago on a New York Times article entitled “Now Smell This, and See its Maker” about the rise of the perfumer as a communications asset, I was the first to applaud the trend, not only because it brought perfumers a well-earned recognition but because it meant aficionados could more easily track their favourite signatures.
Now I’m a little less sanguine about the whole deal. First of all because it isn’t necessarily truthful. Some fragrances are credited to people who may have had little or no input into the formula (and, no, I won’t tell, so don’t ask). What’s more, most mainstream products are the outcome of a team effort: apart from the perfumers, there are artistic directors, project managers, evaluators, and of course the client’s marketing team. What comes out at the end has been put together by one, two or three perfumers, but it’s been so tweaked you can’t very well talk about an author’s piece of work. Not to mention that in most of those cases, perfumers are perfectly aware that they are building a commercial product designed to meet a set of requirements: they’re not out to create new forms as they would for the likes of Frédéric Malle, though sometimes, miraculously, they do. They’re just doing their job as best they can, raking in money for their company: they’re not pouring their souls into those bottles. So that asking them to promote the product as though they’d meant every molecule of it, especially when they have to parrot the party line, is every bit as much of a marketing ploy as sticking a supermodel or a famous face on the ads.
Putting the nose forward is also, in many cases, a way of not talking about the perfume itself. When your communication strategy amounts to a meet-and-greet, of course there is a chance that the perfumer will be able to explain his/her work more authentically than the PR department, if he or she is asked the right questions. But the “rockstar effect” can easily obscure the perfume itself – “wow, X signed my bottle!". You also get the "private view" effect ("Darling, that's faaabulous")... not the best conditions to judge any piece of work, really.
Of course anything's better than the purple prose of press releases… Mind you, there’s no guarantee that you’re not being served that very same purple prose, with the perfumer-as-mouthpiece lending it credence: after all, those bottles have got to be moved off the shelves.
Besides, the strategy only works when the perfumer is a good public speaker: some aren’t, or are more confident when expressing themselves on technical grounds, which don’t necessarily translate well into PR oh-la-la. Most of these people spent years in obscurity: they’re overjoyed to get recognition, they're touched that we loved their stuff, but they’re not necessarily equipped to deal with it except in small doses… Media training is not offered at ISIPCA.
Will perfumers end up being hired by brands because of their star quality rather than their talent, though they may have it in spades, leaving their less eloquent but no less talented colleagues in the dust? Will blog cred become a factor for niche houses when evaluating submissions? We’re not quite there yet, but it seems like the market might evolve that way. Putting the perfumer forward shouldn’t be a substitute for a distinctive brand identity, inspired artistic direction and an intelligent communication strategy, or it’ll just become another marketing gimmick. Of course, coming up with all of those things is hard work. But it’s the best way of making the real star shine: the perfume.