jeudi 18 novembre 2010

More thoughts on the perfumer as star



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.

37 commentaires:

  1. eleven european mystics18 novembre 2010 19:52

    I hope it is not beside the point to think about the special case of Serge Lutens. Lutens is not the chemist, but he has a vision. The great magician who brings to life his vision is not in the forefront, and yet most of Serge Lutens admirers know also about Chris Sheldrake. Then the fame of the nose is justified. A synergy of talents, and the perfume does become the center. At the time I bought Dans tes Bras UNSNIFFED because I trusted the nose, and have been loving it ever since. The same ars poetica hovered over Dans tes Bras, with added complexity and emotion. I wouldn't buy a 'big company' fragrance because a name is given, although i would test it. Sometimes, as you say, the miracle happens, in spite of the myriad interventions.

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  2. Yes, we know about Chris Sheldrake (I'll happily buy his creations unsniffed), but fortunately, he's not put on garish display as a marketing ploy to increase sales volume. That would just be too macabre....Sadly, some houses are going in that direction.
    -Marla

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  3. EEM, Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake work together with a sole common goal: for the perfume to become what it asks to become. Of course in that context, and within such a long collaboration, who does what becomes irrelevant...
    I agree that when one is certain that the perfumer is truly the author, as is the case with Frédéric Malle's line (even though he himself may intervene) it is a fine thing to trust the perfumer, because he's been able to express his vision.

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  4. Marla, even Mr. Lutens is quite protected and though he speaks for his perfumes, it is within a controlled context which corresponds to his perfectionism. He has long been honest about working with Christopher Sheldrake, but as the stories are his it is legitimate for him to speak of them. Added to this, Mr. Sheldrake now works for Chanel and though one of the conditions was that he could continue to work with Mr. Lutens, it would be awkward for him to do PR on both brands... I've only met him once and we didn't discuss the matter in the least, but he seems to be quite happy to put his creativity to the service of the perfumes...

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  5. Thanks for this post and for highlighting what's been on my mind for a little while: the fact that in many cases, it is very difficult to identify a clear auteur (or even auteurs) of a particular piece. I believe there's a section in Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent where Ellena hands over a few submissions to Hermes. They ARE all his work, but Hermes decide which one of the submissions proceeds into further development... which of course means that they've stamped their own - albeit small - authorial mark on the final product.

    I think this is all part of a growing trend. It's been happening for years on the literary scene. Regardless of the merits of their work, many authors now don't get publishing deals unless they can prove that they've got what it takes to charm audiences and journalists at booking signings and fairs etc. One or way another, all this does affect the final product, sometimes in negative ways and sometimes, thankfully, in unexpectedly positive ways.

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  6. Persolaise, it's not that a brand would pick one mod over another that's an issue:an art dealer might make a selection for an exhibition, an editor will have some input on a book, etc. Jean-Claude Ellena is actually in the best possible position, with the greatest possible freedom on the Hermessence and a power of proposition on the mainstream line. He is also the perfume who has the highest public profile, which has benefitted Hermès, but at least when he speaks of something it's his.
    As you say, the trend is absolutely not restricted to perfumery: like Jean-Claude Ellena who's got the discourse and charm to sell what he does, writers and artists are also judged on their marketably as media commodities. It's just taken a little longer to hit the intensely secretive world of perfumery.

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  7. Totally agree - this has annoyed me in so many areas - I don't like being tricked in to buying a mundane product because of the face in the PR, but it is surprisingly hard to resist. There must be something deep in our genetic code that ensures we follow the beautiful/healthy charismatic leader - it must have been good for the survival rate over time. But no longer, I think. ~~nozknoz

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  8. Nozknoz, of course finding a prestigious signature whose work we've loved will draw us to a product -- it's not just the charisma, it's also because, especially in our online culture, we've learned to appreciate that person's work. What concerns me more is the instrumentalization of perfumers when obviously they haven't been able to deploy their talents, or have just given up and delivered what the client wanted: it's using the arguments of niche and independent perfumery in a false context.

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  9. What an interesting perspective! Thank you.
    It is so important to keep in mind that the mainstream perfume business is still exactly that, a business, first and foremost, even when they dress themselves in the artists clothes by using the face and voice of a perfumer as a marketing tool. Artistic freedom can't be expected in the same way as with independent houses, even if the nose might be the same.

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  10. Olfactoria's travels: I liken this to the old-style Hollywood studio system. It still produced distinctive styles. It all depends on whether the client's marketing team gives leeway to the perfumer: for instance, the original Lolita Lempicka was clearly Menardo, and L was clearly Roucel. It's not full artistic freedom but these are products of artistry.

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  11. I love that you give to everything a second thought and you are not afraid of self contradicting. I appreciate dilemmatic persons.
    And it looks like a dilemma.
    I think Serge Lutens and Frederick Malle are two very different things. SL is Serge Lutens, it took his genius, from Feminite du Bois by Pierre Bourdon to Iris Silver Mist by Maurice Roucel, Gilles Romey with Rose de Nuit and all the ones of Cristopher Sheldrake, they are all part of a huge picture dreamt by Serge Lutens.
    Frederic Malle, on the other hand, had a project of making great perfumes and gave the freedom to different perfumers and, to my nose, Editions de Parfums is like a collection of very different styles. In fact, the perfumers really put their own print. Dominique Ropion is very Domique Ropion and the same with Marcel Roucel or Olivia Giacobetti or Pierre Boudon or Sophia Grojsman.
    Of course, probably behind every perfume there is the work of many others. And I bet you know a lot about it J. But, again to my nose, the perfumers really have different personalities which in the end come somehow out from perfumes. And there are 3 kind of situations:
    - a perfumer works with SL and SL sucks the perfumer in his vision, the perfume is a SL dream and perfumer's talent and dream;
    - the perfumer works with FM and there are talks and the perfumer develops his\her own idea and dream of perfume;
    - the perfumer works for a big brand who wants a perfume based on the last marketing studies, the perfume is a waste of perfumer's talent because it is what it was supposed to be before was born and the perfumer just left a bit of his\her print in there. Here probably it doesn't make sense to name the perfumer, it doesn't matter at all.

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  12. Oh, I would never want this to happen! But reading your article I felt this could some day happen, as it happens in some fields, and that image is the main thing and if you are talented at convincing people then you get the full package. Some perfumers are not like this, and they follow a path that has nothing to do with marketing, they follow beauty in the shape of a perfume,they follow the soul, the touch the soul and they may be shy. I tried some time ago Musc Ravageur, Carnal Flower, Iris Poudre, and I felt spirituality and sensuality in these scents, especially in musc ravageur. They are free to create. Are they easy to talk? Are they well spoken people? Who cares if everything is said int the scent.

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  13. Come on, wheteher the spotlight is on the brand, or on the perfumer's name, it doesn't change the cards on the table. Not that much. What kind of marketing strategy is adopted by a brand doesn't change the fact that ALL houses, the niche and the mainstream, rely on smart (amd less smart) marketing techniques to draw customers in.
    It might be the bottle, it might be the nose, it might be the logo, it might be the friendly blog, it might be the perfume draws hosted by friend-bloggers.
    If the technique is succesful, the customer approaches the juice.
    But whether the juice manages to prompt: 1) a purchase, 2) establish a loyal relationship with the customer, well, these are additional and separted issues.
    I defy any of us perfume blog readers to go on the street and ask the average sephora customer a name of a favorite perfumer...
    The perfumer as star is not happening now. There is a trend, but I don't see it affecting the outcome, i.e. the juices, in a really relevant way.
    I see it rather as a tool, as effective and deceptive as a list of notes (or the purple PR prose): it provides me with a possible feeling of what might be my appreciation of the fragrance.

    As ususal, you don't know until you smell. And buying something based on the list of notes, or on the perfumer name, I leave it to the rich and wealthy. Me, I go in the B&Ms shops and test.

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  14. Maria, the 3 types of situations you describe could sum it up, but there are variants: niche brands not as knowledgeable, or not as ethical as FM get fobbed off unoriginal stuff, or put it out deliberately; niche brands don't have a clear artistic direction and leave it up to the perfumer, who may or may not develop something that's right for them (you ony get the right answer if you know how to ask the question).
    As for contradicting myself, I'm siding with Baudelaire who said the right to contradict oneself and the right to leave should be counted amongst Human Rights!

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  15. Vintage Lady, Maurice Roucel is a bit gruff but he can talk up a storm! Dominique Ropion is thoughtful and more technical (though he's said to be quite the joker when he knows people better). I never met Pierre Bourdon. I find it fascinating to go into details with perfumers, but you're absolutely right, in the end the perfume speaks for itself -- it just need to call attention to itself when it comes out, and that's where a good brand name, and marketing in the service of the perfume, rather than the reverse, comes in.

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  16. Zazie, I don't know about average Sephora buyers, but the more sophisticated clientele in Paris do know some names... But then, it's part of the culture here.
    As for marketing, it's important, but as Jean-Claude Ellena says, it should be at the service of the product, not the reverse. But in this context I'm also talking about brand identity and artistic direction in niche brands, which seems to be relevant: as you say, if the product is good people will buy and come back. But if there's nothing to draw you more to one brand than the other, how will you find out about the product? The difference is in the vision, which comes before the marketing.

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  17. I think one of the problems is that execs may put the cart before the horse, in other words, take the easy way of getting lots of Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube coverage BEFORE working out an exact aesthetic for the brand and those who represent it. Most marketing pros are under 40 and may never have had any real experience with aesthetics or art movements; they've been inundated with every sort of thing, changing quickly and kaleidoscopically, practically since they were born. Sort of like channel-surfing without realizing there are, once in a while, actual shows worth watching....
    -Marla

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  18. Marla: quite. Not to mention that Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are FREEEEEE! Win-win situation when you have a limited promotional budget, like the overwhelming majority of niche brands -- who, justifiably, may prefer to pour that budget into the bottles.

    Of course, the blogs play into this, some becoming virtual perfume CNNs picking up every bit of news, rumour and stray info, 24/7.
    As the niche offer has developed exponentially at the same time as the blogs, it has been leveraging the blog culture, which in turn has appropriated the niche offer. One perfumer working for IFF was actually telling me that there were niche olfactory "codes" spurred on by the tastes of the online perfume community.
    This is neither good nor bad, it's just the way it's happening.

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  19. Denyse, I like the critical distance you've brought to my mind. That seems to be a theme of late...I just read Brian's post over on I Smell Therefore I Am about Etat Libre d'Orange, and the same idea was going on. Plus, reading more Marx and materialism yesterday did the trick, but I think keeping the critical distance such thoughts promote can be beneficial. As I said on the other blog, why do we buy what we buy? I fall into the same trap as others where if a certain perfumer's name is attached to the product, that affects my attitude. But your perspective points out that even that name attachment may not necessarily be valid, which is good to know. Although maybe since I traffic mainly in niche houses this isn't as much of an issue? I like your concluding sentence, too: it's about the perfume anyway. I've already found myself putting some distance into my perfume habits over the last few months, and I think a healthy skepticism mixed with good bloggers engaging in dialogue over perfume is helpful. Cheers!

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  20. Jared, I read Bryan's post too and found his points relevant. Like him, and like a great many of us, I do put some store in the name of an author, and find myself influenced by it. Why not? It's another piece of information to help us orient ourselves in the gigantic glut. And it also offers a point of entrance, a way of reading something that remains rather less legible than other works of the mind, like books, pictures or music.
    It's normal that at this stage in the evolution of the online perfume discourse, more of it is devoted to thinking over issues rather than doing straightforward reviewing.
    That said, in the case of niche houses, the perfumer *does* have more chances of having turned out an original piece of work... But niche is a distribution system, not a guarantee of artistic originality.

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  21. Perfumer as a star is already a big trend. Just look in the catalogs of Avon and Yves Rocher for 2009 and 2010 and you'll see there how the creator becomes a part of the promotional "tour de force". This has some limits unless the creator has a strong connection with the brand - if you invest too much in a name that is not exclusive, there is a big chance that next season your competitor will hire him, capitalizing his image.
    If l'Oreal would decide tomorrow a plan to promote DR (Cacharel, Armani, etc) it will be Frédéric Malle who will harvest the results too.
    Maybe the question is .... a star, but in what galaxy?

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  22. Octavian, thank you for bringing up that point, you're absolutely right. I was thinking more in terms of brand identity, but building up a "nose-for-hire's" name is indeed running the risk of benefitting his or her next client... Which is another argument for building up stronger working relationships with one supplier and/or perfumer, who can then contribute to brand identity both through notoriety and olfactory signature.

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  23. And of course, all of this remains somewhat "dodgy" until copyright for the perfumer can be worked out in the intellectual property sphere. It's no good having a perfumer as "star" if they hold no legal rights to their creations. So many issues here, but one that springs to mind because of IFRA is, at what point during reformulation is the perfumer no longer the author of the perfume (assuming they are not the reformulators)? Without legal copyright, this is a huge, grey mess. Painters, illustrators, composers, and authors all maintain copyright. Why not the perfumers? It seems so medieval at present, with the perfumers as the serfs.
    -Marla

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  24. I love the idea of perfumers getting recognition for their work, but at the same time, I think of my experiences in the classical music industry and groan.

    It's frustrating how often one sees a big-name concert listed with everything BUT the music they'll be playing. And when going to these concerts, it's not at all safe to assume one is going to see something interesting even if the soloist or ensemble is known for adventurous repertoire. I think I really will launch into a psychotic episode if I ever pay 80$ for back-row seats to hear Czardas or Carnival Of Venice again.

    So, as with music, in fragrance it's ultimately the composition that matters to me.

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  25. Marla, I suppose it's no easy matter to get legislation on the issue. What about the stuff where there are a whole bunch of people who had input? What about stuff like Comme des Garçons, where someone like Christian Astuguevieille, the artistic director, had the idea, oriented the development and decided on the final cut? I'm playing devil's advocate here, and I'm convinced there should be copyright, and protection for formulas... but it's not an entirely clear-cut matter.

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  26. Sugandaraja, in the case of perfume, the big name is never the composer, it's the brand... Only Frédéric Malle puts the composer's name on the bottle. So we're not quite there yet in perfumery...

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  27. Well, in the case of group projects, it could be done in the way scientific research is done, listing PI, Co-PIs, techs, and so on. Patent is a different animal, of course, I'm just referring to copyright. Team perfumes, if the team is a consistent one (Lutens/Sheldrake) could maintain copyright as a team. Where it gets very complicated, I think, is that the brand has the perfume's name trademarked, is that correct? So that is really the huge mess as I see it, especially in terms of reformulation....There's the perfumer/perfumer team, their company, if they are employees, and the brand that owns the name of the perfume. Oh, and the owners of any captive aromachemicals used in the perfume. Complicated! Any intellectual property lawyer/perfumistas out there who want to comment on this jambalaya??
    -Marla

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  28. Marla, yes indeed, the name of the perfume is copyrighted by the brand. As for the rest, it *is* complicated, isn't it? But I know there is a company that intends to start a think-tank on the issue, to lobby the magistrates... So things may evolve over the coming years.

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  29. At the end of the day what matters most is the end result. Is Idylle a good perfume because Guerlain communicated on the name of the nose? Frederic Malle's concept of giving perfumers free rein with no budget restrictions doesn't always work as good as you think it would. Nose technicians often lack visionary skills and work better under the leadership and pressure of someone like Serge Lutens (Iris Silver Mist is Maurice Roucel's best ever) or even marketing constraints of perfume houses. The perfumes of the Frederic Malle line are composed with high quality ingredients but they feel very predictable, conservative and cold..maybe he's working with the wrong "authors" and besides, Malle works with a small clique of noses, some of them have done several perfumes for him already. Mathilde Laurent is one those rare perfumers who have the talent, the magic to be both visionary and technically innovative. When I tried L'Heure Fougueuse and L'Heure Brillante, I thought she's fantastic at conveying emotions in perfumery without necessarily telling a story.

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  30. Uella, I share your admiration for Serge Lutens and Mathilde Laurent, but don't feel the need to use Frédéric Malle as a counter-example, since I think he's on the same side, that of real perfumery.
    I agree that using Thierry Wasser as a spokesman for Idylle doesn't necessarily add to the campaign or the scent: it's more a way for Guerlain of maintaining continuity.

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  31. I will put my hand up here and say that Bertrand D signed my bottle of Amaranthine and I was totally starstruck! But I wouldn't have bought it just because I'd been talking to him. If I ever got to meet Chris Sheldrake, it wouldn't endear me to the latest SL, so the meet and greet approach only goes so far. That said, the presence of the perfumer on the spot may shift a few more bottles to some who wouldn't otherwise have been interested, as with book signings. Heck, now I think about it, I once bought a Jilly Cooper at a book signing because she came to our small town, so there's an example of completely aberrant purchasing behaviour...

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  32. carmencanda, I'm very well aware that Lutens and Malle are on the same side of haute perfumery but like I already stated, all I care about is the end product. Asides from Une Fleur de Cassie, Malle perfumes don't excite me enough, where's the humor, the decadence, the provocation there?
    I need variety of styles and themes in perfumery, not only I don't get that with the Malles but to me they're all bourgeois at its worst and most boring; serious scents for people who think so highly of themselves.

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  33. Vanessa, you could say book -- or bottle -- signings were manifestations of the fetishization of the commodity: said commodity acquires a magical quality from having been put in the real presence of the author. It must work since publishers keep doing it (perfumers a little less). I went through the experience a few times as an author and it's weird to be, in a way, your own sales rep.

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  34. Uella, it wasn't my aim when I wrote this piece to turn this into a SL vs. FM debate. Both are significant in the industry, both have brought important contributions, and there should be more like them, except that now, with so many brands popping up, I'm not sure whether a new original "editorial" voice could be heard.

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  35. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par l'auteur.

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  36. I can't imagine why perfumers/marketers etc. are surprised by this development. Any such 'authentic' information(here, the name & reputation of the perfumer) is always going to be vulnerable to semantic 'emptying' if incorporated into the rhetoric of marketing.

    The problem you describe is similar to what happens with note/ingredient lists - names of specific raw materials are added to copy along with their place of origin - & although in some cases no doubt this is an honest attempt to draw the attention to the perfume itself & highlight quality it's now merely part of the (fictional) story. So the notes mass perfumery describes as 'jasmine' have very little to do with jasmine per se - & by identifying 'jasmine' with the hideous synthetics it's sometimes used to describe no doubt many people assume they don't like the stuff, or else stop paying any attention to the information. The falsity of the discourse as a whole has 'emptied' the authentic referent it's appropriated.

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  37. Parfymerad, I don't think perfumers or marketers *are* surprised, at least that's not what I said...
    You're right to bring up the matter of the ingredients list, which serves to authenticate the product, except that it never has until some brands -- thinking of Hermès and Frédéric Malle amongst the bigger ones -- started giving out the names of synthetics when the note was such it didn't "imitate" nature.
    That said, to me the lie is not to say "jasmine" when what you've got is a jasmine effect, which could be more relevant in a blend than sticking in real jasmine e.o. or absolute. It's pretending that real jasmine is a key note when it's been doled out in homeopathic doses -- basically showing a vial of jasmine absolute to a vat of the blend. But I don't think people really need to know that "jasmine" is hedione + benzyl acetate + jasmolactone, etc. If the nose gets the illusion, that's fine.
    Things get a little dodgier with the fantasy notes, but then again, apart from suggestive-sounding molecules like Cashmeran, will we be better informed by reading "silk wood", or whatever is behind it?

    The problem of giving out notes actually comes out every time a new launch is announced, as much as it does in the store: you say "patchouli" or "cumin" and you're bound to have a lot of people say "well, it's not for me, I can't stand X, Y or Z", whereas it's always the *way* these notes are used that counts. The best example is people coming up to SAs saying they hate florals, and then blithely stating several favorites that *are* florals...

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