samedi 30 juillet 2011

Who needs Photoshop with perfume?


One of Karl Lagerfeld’s funniest aphorisms is his “With a handbag, we’re all model-sized”. Presumably this explains why fashion companies make scads of money with these often extremely expensive, “aspirational” items, as they do with most accessories: unlike clothes, whatever your age or size you can pull them off.

The same could be said for perfume, of course. Most people buying it are buying into the myth: a few millilitres of Chanel, Prada or Yves Saint Laurent when all you can afford from those brands apart from that are sunglasses or cosmetics.
But perfume is radically different from makeup, a point that was driven home as I was reading one of the many columns prompted by the ban in the UK of two ads for wrongful advertising: one by L’Oréal featuring Julia Roberts, the other by Maybelline featuring Christy Turlington, both women so thoroughly Photoshopped their arresting features are barely recognizable. 

When I was editing a woman’s magazine, I gave a lot of thought to the fact that by definition, those magazines thrive on fuelling our insecurities. Their articles offer us ways of becoming better lovers, better mothers, better professionals, better cooks; of achieving the perfect skin, the perfect decorating scheme, the perfect look for the season. Of course, living in the real world, we don’t have the time or money to carry out all the instructions. Women’s magazines are like consultants, really: if their advice pans out, it’s our fault for not following it adequately. But we forge on consulting, in the hope we’ll get it right some day. Except, that is, for the size zero (unless we’ve got the genes for it) and the Photoshop. So that however healthy our self-esteem, there’s always a moment when we’ll compare that office-party snapshot with practically any picture put out by a glossy, and decide from now on we’ll wear a full burka.

Not so perfume. It is not meant to smooth out our flaws, whittle down our waistlines, ape celebrity styles. It is the ultimate one-size-fits-all: a thing of beauty we can carry on our bodies all day, every day. Unlike handbags, it doesn’t say “look at me, I can afford a Prada”. Even if you do buy it to buy into the Prada myth, who’ll be able to tell?  And even if you do wear it to promote an image of yourself, it acts differently than lipstick, sunglasses or a handbag: not only outwardly, as a projected aura, but inside you, through the air you breathe. Perfume needs no mirror to produce beauty, and thus subverts the beauty myth.

Of course, big brands still advertise perfumes through the images of impossibly beautiful women or men: wear me, says the product, and one spritz will give you an orgasm/make you find true love/turn you into a babe magnet. Advertising thrives on the visual, and most brands haven’t found a way out of the trite fairy-tale scenarios that make all the ads, ultimately, look the same, just as most mainstream perfumes ultimately all smell the same.

We are in the era of Photoshopped fragrances, and because the people who buy them don’t derive aesthetic and emotional satisfaction from them, just the initial thrill of grabbing a few drops of an image, they never become attached to them. This is why the niche sector, which doesn’t rely on advertising and therefore, doesn’t draw on our insecurities, is the only one in the industry that’s posting a healthy growth. For all the derivative, me-too niche brands currently glutting the market, and the escalation in prices designed to titillate snobs and oligarch arm-candy, it remains, by dint of its business model, essentially more honest because its subject remains perfume.

There is, in a way, something selfless about fragrance, because it is a beauty that allows us to forget about our beauty, or perceived lack of it: spreading outward but also inward, invisibly. True aesthetic enjoyment: walking with beauty. Try to get that out of a handbag. I can’t even find my wallet in mine half the time.

41 commentaires:

  1. Absolutely wonderful post, and I couldn't agree more!

    Barbara

    RépondreSupprimer
  2. What a great article. I couldn't agree more. The whole advertising side of perfume, is possibly why I'm a niche snob. I have serious problems with the whole celebrity-face of this or that house-thing. Wearing perfume, to me, is about enhancing your own personality, (creating an aura as you said), not taking on someone elses.

    RépondreSupprimer
  3. I agree with your article wholeheartedly, and I'd further the idea that the indies and DIYers (so many here in the US!) are even more aligned with perfume-is-about-perfume. I've been really heartened to connect with so many indies here who not only make beautiful perfume and sell it at reasonable prices, they make their own ingredients, too! While I'm here, I'll be learning distillation and enfleurage, and I'm already making lovely tinctures from my garden, and materials sent to me from around the world. Slow perfume is the way!
    -Marla

    RépondreSupprimer
  4. Well said!

    cheerio, Anna (not-in-Edinburgh for now!)

    RépondreSupprimer
  5. What a joy of a read! Thank you very, very much

    RépondreSupprimer
  6. Barbara, thank you. It just came to me in the throes of reading a column in the Guardian...

    RépondreSupprimer
  7. Asali, I was thinking of this because many of my friends, people with very exacting tastes in movies, arts or music, are entirely put off by the perfumes ads they see on TV or in the magazines. Many aren't even aware there's another world of perfumery out there... But they hate what they see of the mainstream part through adverts.

    RépondreSupprimer
  8. Marla, as you know I'm not very conversant in indie perfumery, which seems to me very linked to the crafts movement of the Anglo-Saxon world -- been reading up on that in a fascinating book called "Thinking through craft" by a V&A curator. Very academic, but I do recommend it.
    I think you can be slow or you can be quick, as long as you're good... But certainly there must be great pleasure and discoveries in making your own tinctures.

    RépondreSupprimer
  9. You are right, it really is a part of the Anglo Saxon world (though in the States, that is expanded into the Anglo-Saxon/ Hispanic/ African American/Asian American world!), and grown from a complex cultural history. It's certainly growing stronger in the States now, since our economy and government are in turmoil. People are rapidly going back to the "old ways" of do-it-yourself, selling and buying local products, and teaching others how to make all sorts of things. The botanicas of the Hispanic community have been doing a thriving business with their locally-made perfumes and tinctures for decades now. It's actually rather exciting times....I'll certainly find the book you recommended and give it a read!
    -Marla

    RépondreSupprimer
  10. Brava, D. Absolutely lovely, thoughtful, wonderful post. I'm going to appreciate my daily spritz even more than usual today.

    RépondreSupprimer
  11. Denyse,

    This is a wonderful post - enlightening, funny, spot-on. Thanks for this!

    xoA

    RépondreSupprimer
  12. Thank you, Denyse! I can't imagine what it's like to grow up in the photoshop era. I was insecure enough when the models were just beautiful but real. It's just so wrong. And I love your observation that perfume is different because it directly affects that person who wears it, too, not just how she or he appears to others. This is something to think about.

    The other thing that bothers me about marketing is the promise of instant transformation. Change and accomplishment take patience and work - whether it's writing a book, being an athlete, achieving social change, creating a new business, developing relationships and anything else that's real. ~~nozknoz

    RépondreSupprimer
  13. nozknoz-
    Your comments on meaningful change in life are spot on!
    -Marla

    RépondreSupprimer
  14. Don't you think mainstream perfumery thrives on fuelling insecurities and selling dreams of perfection?
    Even Guerlain does it. Idylle's ad is nothing but an airbrushed silly young model and when asked to comment on it, Thierry Wasser only had this to say about the girl and the fragrance: fresh, young, feminine, sexy.

    Emma

    RépondreSupprimer
  15. I love this blog! And I love nozkoz's comments.

    Sincerely,
    Carole

    RépondreSupprimer
  16. Marla, as far as I know this movement is not as developed in France. Mind you, there's such a grand tradition in perfumery here than it would seem somehow blasphemous. Mind you, if the only choice were between uber-commercial Frankenscents sold in malls and botanical blends produced locally I suppose I'd take the second option. But I must admit I'm glad I have other options.

    RépondreSupprimer
  17. Amy, spritz on! It's a subversive gesture. Whoda thunk?

    RépondreSupprimer
  18. Musette, my pleasure! Sometimes it kind of all comes together...

    RépondreSupprimer
  19. Nozknoz, my turn to agree... I'd add, though it has nothing to do yet everytthing to do, that having learned to do research and to write before internet and word processors structures thought and work processes differently. Back in the days, neither information nor the transformation of a written piece were a click away.

    RépondreSupprimer
  20. Emma, I don't think perfect beauty is the product claim for perfume, in the same sense as it is for skincare, haircare or makeup. It's more the dream of romance, and in certain cases, of a type of narcissistic eroticism (thinking of the Belle d'Opium ad, which reprises the themes of the original Opium campaigns). It's still preying on our desire to be an unattainable fantasy woman... But even Idylle or Belle d'O don't make us believe we'll have a flawless beige mask instead of a face or magically grow hair extensions.

    RépondreSupprimer
  21. Carole, thank you. I also think Nozknoz's comments are very wise.

    RépondreSupprimer
  22. I love it. It reminds me of a post Luca Turin did back in his blog, which I was reading again in enjoyment last night. This also reminds me of conversations on the arts in general, those distance-based being favored over the immediate. The visual/aural get the status of art whereas immediate or close things like taste and smell fight for recognition. I'm sure there are biological arguments involved, such as we humans shifting in our evolution from a smell-based species to visual as we rose to two legs. But that's an evolutionary/biological way of seeing, and I'm sure perfume offers another way of being that can engage in discourse beyond the biological. I've subtly noticed it myself as my sense of smell has risen in my esteem and I start to inhabit the world differently because of my perfume passion. It's still a work in progress, and I can't say I can fully articulate it, just as it's difficult to "describe" a smell to someone. But I wonder, too, on knowing quality when it's smelled. If the label has come to mean currency and value, which requires the Pavlovian substitution, I wonder how we can sniff out a rat even if it has the label is attached (and who knows a "Prada" when they smell it?). I suppose a healthy dose of discrimination is necessary, a skill to be developed both in the visual and the olfactory.

    RépondreSupprimer
  23. Jared, I'm still trying to work out what to say about the artistic status of perfume (not to get scary or anything, but right now this involves reading Heidegger).
    But about recognizing quality when you smell it: today I was at the lovely niche perfume shop Marie-Antoinette in Paris, and an American lady walked in with her 13-year old daughter. She smelled a few things, zeroed in on the Parfum d'Empire, and commented that they smelled substantial and full, not like the perfumes she was used to (though her standby, it turned out, was the excellent Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert).
    Granted, she was clearly a woman of some culture and education, but not necessarily olfactory. Yet she and her daughter fell in love on the spot with Osmanthus Interdite and the new Azemour. Quality tells...

    As for recognizing Prada perfumes, there *is* actually a distinctive olfactory signature, and a real consistency in the line. I'd say there's a good chance the vibe they give off does, subconsciously, say "Prada" -- at least the spirit of it. Unlike other fashion brands that don't have the least bit of an olfactory identity...

    RépondreSupprimer
  24. Loved this post. Just loved it.

    RépondreSupprimer
  25. Very true, not much to add apart from "agreed". I think this is why I tend to be so niche-biased, especially in terms of releases of the last decade.

    I think it must be very disheartening to work for some of these flush-and-forget, seasonal release lines. Even if you manage to combine budget limitations, marketing requirements, and the standards of the target audience with a successful artistic statement, your creation will lie forgotten in the bargain bins by the next season.

    RépondreSupprimer
  26. Diana, thank you, that's sweet of you to say.

    RépondreSupprimer
  27. Sugandaraja, I think that for most perfumers, there's what they do as a job, and what they put their heart into. They're well-paid people, so I'm not going to cry too much for them, but I doubt they pour their soul into most developments. On the other hand, if I were Olivier Polge, say, I'm not sure I'd be too happy about what's happened to Dior Homme... but that's another story.

    RépondreSupprimer
  28. carmencanada, mainstream perfumery is using the same marketing techniques as the cosmetic industry. Models of perfumes ads are all airbrushed girls selling romance of course but also sex and youth. I don't think Donatella Versace sells personality and character, or at least the idea of a womanly woman in a bottle. We talked about how noone but Lutens in the perfume industry would launch a carnation soliflore in this day and age.
    These mainstrean fragrances are all girly fruities marketed to teenage girls and that includes Guerlain and Cartier.
    Basically, if you're a 45 yr old woman and you don't wear Lutens or Malle, you either smell like raspberry or fresh & clean all day.

    Emma

    RépondreSupprimer
  29. Wow, an amazing piece Denyse, thank you. The sentence "it is a beauty that allows us to forget about our beauty, or perceived lack of it: spreading outward but also inward, invisibly" totally touched how I feel about perfume and why it is so special to me. I don't know how but I feel like my perfumes transform me over time somehow, not changing me into someone else but somehow bringing out something in me that was hidden before. This sounds nuts but I'm posting the comment anyway!

    RépondreSupprimer
  30. Emma, true: what's sold is youth, i.e. seduction, i.e. romance. Yesterday I was in a lovely new niche shop and the lady was asking for "not too strong, not too sweet, not too floral, not too..." My first impulse would have been to say: "Well why don't you just spray on some Evian?" My second impulse would have been to explain to her that "too" this or "too" that just meant she hadn't found what suited her.
    But of course, when one is used to innocuous like juices, anything will be "too-too".

    RépondreSupprimer
  31. Tara, not nuts at all! I was speaking with a perfumer the other day and he said he deeply believed that there were some absolute values in perfume notes: things that resonate with anyone. Perhaps opening ourselves up to that resonance is part of that transformative process Nozknoz was writing about a few comments above.

    RépondreSupprimer
  32. Denyse,
    A really excellent post!
    We seem to be experiencing an almost exponential increase in fragrance launches, both mainstream AND niche, and the fact is, photo-shopped ad campaigns aside, few of these new perfumes are what I'd call truly beautiful, with the potential to become a classic.
    BUT, they are affordable (mostly)so that we, the average non-oligarch arm candies, can choose to experience our own beauty in our own way, too.
    And that's what I love about perfume - it creates a story from my own memories, and as soon as I wear it,I feel it's mine. It's my story, my beauty, and I find that empowering.
    You're right - no handbag or pair of shoes has, or ever could, do that for me.

    RépondreSupprimer
  33. Kay, you're spot on about the way we appropriate fragrances -- when they've got enough going for us to tell ourselves stories... Although, I was arguing to a friend yesterday that even the most simplistic juice, if it's worn in a certain context, given by a certain person, has certain associations, can probably become intensely moving.

    One thing is for sure: any scent you appropriate becomes bespoke -- no need, thank God, to be the proverbial oligarch arm candy for that!

    RépondreSupprimer
  34. I have to say, I agree whole-heartedly with you Denyse. The whole sex/orgasm/babe-magnet angle is used in so much. I'm no prude by any stretch of the imagination, but it annoys me to see sex for the sake of it, even in films. It's a yawn-fest when there's that "love scene."

    Slightly off topic.

    I sometimes think the mainstream perfume houses are like Antarctic penguins. Maybe they all want to ditch the Photoshop era, but they're all to scared to jump into the ocean of unknown. Who's going to make the first jump?

    RépondreSupprimer
  35. Liam, I usually find that the sex scenes are the right moment to take the loo break...
    As for the penguins, I guess they'll have to jump when the ice starts melting under their little webbed feet...

    RépondreSupprimer
  36. Thank you for the enjoyment I had from reading this article. I agree with your outlook on the mainstream advertising.

    RépondreSupprimer
  37. Lovely post, Denyse. Sorry I'm always late to find them and read them.

    RépondreSupprimer
  38. Jarvis, well, you know I don't post that frequently so coming in a few days late doesn't really matter.

    RépondreSupprimer