How do you update a classic? Last year in my perfume history classes, I asked my marketing students to imagine the re-launch of Chanel Cuir de Russie, Guerlain Jicky or Jean Patou Joy. As a jumping-off point for the latter: “the costliest perfume in the world” was, famously, an answer to the Great Depression, and we’re not exactly going through a period of economic optimism, so that the scent’s narrative could be timely (I’d wager that was the thinking behind Lancôme’s blockbuster La Vie est Belle and its “anti-bling” pitch).
Now, Joy is just as much of a classic as N°5 and Shalimar. But unlike them, it didn’t benefit from constantly renewed ad campaigns, and has veered a bit off the radar. The house suffered the loss of its couture branch after Christian Lacroix went off to found his own brand in 1987; it slid into a 10-year limbo under Procter & Gamble’s stewardship: P&G had mostly been interested in acquiring Lacoste perfumes, sold in the same “lot”, and didn’t quite know how to develop Patou – launching the amiable gourmand Sirah des Indes as though it would recruit the same customers as Joy or 1000 was a mistake, and the now-discontinued product never really had a chance to put Patou back on the map.
The new owners, the London-based Designer Parfums Ltd., took stock of the situation, and by the looks of it, decided to revive Jean Patou as a “heritage niche” house, not unlike Robert Piguet or, more recently, Courrèges. This strategy goes along with an intense awareness of the brand’s “hybrid” status: sold in the selective circuit, with mainstream potential, but with fragrances produced more or less like niche. The in-house perfumer, Thomas Fontaine, is an independent closely linked with the niche sector: he has worked extensively for Lubin, to create new fragrances and revive older ones). He was, in fact, picked for the job because he’s got experience in updating historical scents. His compositions, like most of Bertrand Duchaufour’s or Marc-Antoine Corticchiato’s, are manufactured near Grasse by Accords & Parfums, an offshoot of the company founded by Edmond Roudnitska in the late 1940s.
The communication strategy is also closer to a niche brand’s. Jean Patou’s flagship store is right across the street from Jovoy on the rue de Castiglione, and both Thomas Fontaine and brand VP Bruno Cottard are usually present at their events. Fontaine regularly engages with bloggers: it seems they listened to their opinion when they decided which of the discontinued Jean Patous, briefly revived in the 1980s in “Ma Collection”, should be re-launched. Everybody pretty much voted for Chaldée, which started its life as the first suntan lotion before becoming a scent. The re-launch has garnered very positive reviews from people who know and love Jean Kerléo’s 1980s version.
For the past decade or so, heritage houses have been actively and openly mining their brand DNA – the codes set by long-deceased founder. It has become the most basic exercise in marketing, with Chanel, Jean Patou’s arch-rival when both couturiers were alive, setting the template. What was interesting about the presentation made by Bruno Cottard and Thomas Fontaine for the launch of Joy Forever is how forthright they were about it. As though, everyone being thoroughly knowledgeable about this type of exercise nowadays, there was no need for purple PR prose to cover it up. Besides, the lavish coffee-table biography of Jean Patou that was part of our swag bag, was there to back up the myth with impeccable historical research and stunning period imagery.
Fontaine met us in his small lab, just downstairs from the shop, to walk us through the notes and their rationale. The main idea, he explained, was that Joy brought you straight into the core of the matter: jasmine and rose, and that’s about it. It hits most of today’s consumers too frontally (my 20-year-old students liked Joy quite a bit better than most of the other classics I introduced them to, but they did find it “strong”). His idea was to insert those starring notes into a story: in other words, to put them into a pyramid. A fitting structure for a fragrance that was once publicized as “Le Parfum Roi”, The King Perfume (after all, in French, the word embaumer means both “to embalm” and “to fill with fragrance”, as in “smell good”)…
Jean Patou’s famed American connection is also explicitly worked into the notes. The couturier made the headlines when he organized a contest to recruit models in the U.S., arguing that he needed to reflect the different body types of his cosmopolitan clientele: American women’s sportier physiques were also better suited to sportswear, which Patou pioneered (his couture house had an entire floor dedicated to it). And, of course, as every perfume buff knows, Joy was conceived as a gift for Patou’s American clients after the 1929 crash kept them from crossing the Atlantic…
For Fontaine, the addition of an iris-galbanum combo stands in for the French Touch – a reminiscence of the quintessentially elegant N°19. For some reason, orange blossom is deemed “American” – perhaps as a nod to Fracas, which is as much of an orange blossom as it is a tuberose, or to Narciso Rodriguez for Her? I’d pretty much also give the added musk an American passport, because it’s clean rather than funky. Musk is usually compared to chiffon for its ethereal, fluffy effect, but it also acts somewhat like Lycra in a formula, bringing together the different “strands” woven into the olfactive fabric and making it both curve-hugging and comfortable. In addition to a more evolutive formulation, modern musks are really what set Joy Forever apart from its vintage model and give it a contemporary feel.
As a result, the scent is indeed suited to a casual chic daytime wear, and therefore achieves its purpose. Fontaine has steered clear of the fruity jams that are the current default mode of mainstream feminines, for which we should be grateful. Hopefully, Joy Forever will serve as a gateway scent to other Patou offerings – the house has also relaunched Jean Kerléo’s very wonderful Eau de Patou and Patou pour Homme in their “Collection Héritage”. More revivals are expected, and while the wittily pineapple-topped Colony might never be part of the line-up – though the exotic imagery used by much of the perfume industry sometimes has a neo-colonialist vibe to it, the name veers too far into un-PC territory – there is talk of bringing back the brunette-blonde-redhead trilogy, Que Sais-je?, Amour Amour and Adieu Sagesse… If perfumistas have any say – and it seems they do – we might be able to stop hoarding our 1980s bottles soon.
Illustration: Jean Patou bathing suit photographed by George Hoyningen-Huene (1929)