dimanche 30 novembre 2008

Can a perfume feel “outdated”?

The question arose when I did a post on the new Azzaro Couture, the reformulation of the 1975 Azzaro, in a French blogger’s comment. I had answered, at the time, that this comment deserved a more detailed response. Here it is.

Save for those who have a real culture of perfumery, and can thus link various composition styles to a given period, the perception that a fragrance is “outdated” is necessarily born out of personal experience. The fragrance, or the fragrance style in question, will have been worn by people of an older generation: mother, aunt, grandmother, family friend… So that floral aldehydics like Chanel N°5, powdery florals like L’Air du Temps, orientals like Shalimar, aromatic leather chypres like Miss Dior or fruity chypres like Mitsouko will register, to some people, as “old lady smells” just because those younger people smelled them on old ladies. Would they feel the same way if they had been experienced for the first time in a blind test? Not necessarily.

For decades, cycles of fashion in perfumery were extremely long: over half a century for aldehydics (from N°5 in 1921 to, say, Van Cleef & Arpels First in 1976) or for fruity chypres (from Mitsouko in 1919 to Azzaro in 1975), to name only two of the most enduringly popular fragrance families. It is only when the luxury industry changed, and when, with new business plans in which couture houses were kept alive by cosmetics and accessory licenses, and launches began to be dictated by marketing rather than by the couturier’s wishes, that launches began to multiply at such a pace that the life cycle of each product was dramatically reduced.

And why so many launches? Because “valuations of companies are based on the rate of introduction of new products”, explained industry expert Barbara Hall in a recent IFRA workshop in Brussels, quoted in Perfumer & Flavorist. Which also explains why classics are so often mutilated by botched reformulations: “the more time spent on reformulation the less time spent on new products.” Tweaking an old formula to rebalance it in order to comply with allergy regulations is time-consuming and expensive: often, brands do away entirely with the offending material or substitute some approximation. Which means that older compositions, losing the proportions that made them beautiful and justified their continued existence, languish in the limbo of “old lady perfumes”.

In a world where iPod and mobile phones become obsolescent less than a year after their purchase, where even fashion-forward garments have turned into disposable items, discarded into landfills after less than a season, thanks to chains like Zara and H&M, it isn’t surprising that this frenzy for novelty has contaminated the world of perfumery: as soon as a bottle is empty, it is replaced by a newer product.

In this context of accelerated consumption, classics compositions, with their complex structures unfolding over several hours, are also rejected in favor of juices with pleasing and easily read top notes – vanilla or fruity accords found in shampoos and shower gels.

In this launching frenzy, only blockbusters such as Angel, CKOne or L’Eau d’Issey sell enough over the years to embody an era – and thus run the risk of being perceived as “outdated” by the next generation. But is the idea of a fragrance zeitgeist still relevant, when marketing, rather than the beauty of a composition, leads the game?

The idea that a fragrance can become outdated is only relevant if you consider that fragrance is purely a consumer product (which it is, for the most part) rather than as a work of art… Of course, few new compositions can pretend to that status, even within the niche brands who claim “artistic license” though they are just as market-driven as mainstream brands.

But whether they are classics, niche or mainstream, some fragrances can indeed be judged according to the same set of criteria than works of art. Some people may think that Mitsouko is outmoded because it has been worn for several generations, but no one can argue that Mitsouko is inferior to a neo-fruity chypre like The Different Company Sublime Balkiss (which, by the way, is an excellent fragrance) simply because it is older. Jean-Claude Elléna’s L’Eau d’Hiver for Frédéric Malle is not better than Guerlain Après l’Ondée, which inspired it in spite of their 70 year age difference.

Nothing prevents me from loving both Après l’Ondée and L’Eau d’Hiver, Carnal Flower and Fracas, L’Eau Première and N°5, just as I can love both Goya and the Chapman brothers, Bernini and Jean Nouvel, Fred Astaire and Merce Cunningham, Mozart and Nirvana. Or, to stay in a more futile register: I can wear a 1960s lamé coat over a 2001 Lanvin wool skirt and a Banana Republic merino wool turtleneck bought yesterday, shod in riding boots that haven’t changed much since they were designed in the 19th century, wafting Jean Patou Que Sais-je?, a fabulous fruity chypre launched in 1925 and re-launched in 1984, to a gallery showing work by a contemporary artist who plays on 18th century baroque motifs.

Our image-drenched era is precisely an era in which we can mix periods. Because no style predominates, and fashion tirelessly draws on the past for elements of its vocabulary, the only person who looks outdated is the one who seems stuck in a single era, who never changed her style since she was 20. It is this rigidity, rather than the elements of her look, that seems outdated. I wore Shalimar when I was 16: I don’t see why a girl who is 16 today couldn’t swap her Pink Sugar for Shalimar if she took the time to discover it (which she might, thanks to its new face, the ravishing Natalia Vodianovna).

Whether you think perfume is a timeless work of art (which is the case of most of the classics who have survived to this day and age), or whether you consider that an older composition can be worn in a referential manner (I can love Habanita precisely because it evokes flappers dancing the tango, a cigarillo between their painted lips), the question of perfumes being old-fashioned only seems relevant to me for people who work in marketing.

It is a matter of culture.

Image: Travis Louie, The Vamp, found on the superb blog Femme Femme Femme, entirely dedicated to the female figure in art.

39 commentaires:

  1. I 'm not one of those who love everything for what it is; I don 't love No. 5 Eau Premiere the way I love the original in the parfum version. Eau Premiere is cute and pretty but it 's nothing like the original, stripped of its feminine exhuberance and dark facets, it 's just an aseptic version of the original, a reflection of our politically correct society, un "sent-bon" bon chic bon genre...

    I believe most reformulations have damaged the original classics to such an extent that their new versions smell more dated than it 's supposed to. Magie Noire and En Avion are perfect examples; both original versions are timeless perfumes, their current reformulations are so heavy and unrefined, they give it a more sharp-perfumey and old-ladyish impression than the older formulations.

    I own an older Shalimar parfum from the '60s, the quality of the bergamot is superb, it 's really something you don 't get in present version.
    However, I believe when it comes to Guerlain and Chanel classics, a dab of their extraits de parfum will always be timeless unlike edt and edp which vintage or current really feel dated.

  2. Câline, I agree, cheap and careless reformulations have spoiled a great number of classics: their true beauty can't be appreciated in its current form, except, as you note, in the extrait. Chanel are particularly good at this, and I suspect it's because they've never changed hands: they can look back and forward.

  3. Digression to the discussion: By coincidence I am reading in Eliot's Four Quartets today. He speaks of the roses having the look of flowers that are looked at. And the dance between them and us, that is in time. And echoes inhabiting the garden. Everything in time (but of course, that doesn't imply that everything must become outdated)

  4. Brava, D! I enjoyed your post immensely, and it has given me lots to think about.

    I do think that, while I agree with what you say about how the dreaded "old lady" moniker is driven more by the associations we have with when, where, and on whom we first experienced certain fragrances, we do find that some fragrances "age well" while others apparently do not.

    I suspect this has first to do with the quality of craftsmanship -- a well blended, thoughtfully composed fragrance is able to engage and intrigue me, even if the olfactory signs and symbols it deploys are that of another era. For example, L'Heure Bleue feels absolutely like something out of another time to me, and yet I am absolutely enchanted by it. It is as though the technique of its composition and the thought and care with which it is executed are what render it timeless.

    On a related note, I suspect that, as in fashion, fragrances that resort to trendy tricks or exaggerations would have a harder time aging well. (Here, I'm thinking of, say, 80's shoulder pads, which might have added an interesting twist to the silhouette when first introduced, but became so overused and clichéd because they were attached on to everything in the interest of being trendy). The olfactory equivalent might be overdosage. For example, Cool Water introduced us to overdosage of dihydromyrcenol, but then it started showing up in just about every men's fragrance in the 90's and became something of a cliché. Right now, I feel like we are getting a lot of Iso E Super overdosage, and it will be interesting to see 10 or 20 years down the line how people will consider the current batch of woody fragrances.

  5. I am glad that you don't think perfumes are art but consumer products; I quite agree. It doesn't make them less important, only that objects such as perfume have a definite sense of timing, in part because you pay for them.

  6. Thank you for this post, I was waiting for it after our last conversation. The perception that only our period has seen so many launches is not quite true in terms of history. Just looking back in the 20's-30's we can see an impressive number of brands/bottles that didn't leave any trace. Only collectors book like those written by Christie Mayer Lefkowith, ads or even trademarks can show that even the past "suffered" from this. Of course not 700 but again a great number compared to the degree of novelty to which people used to be exposed to.
    Today we are less overexposed to single ideas and maybe the diversity in terms of fragrance types will change even the idea of "outdated".
    It is funny to smell "old" ideas like a Youth Dew accord in a new Tom Ford (Moss Breches) or the White Linen musky aldehydic note in a recent celebrity scent. When bottle, communication and a small new note is brought up just to create a small diversion, the illusion is perfect. Who whould be able to tell the difference if not a fragrance connaisseur or somebody who had a strong personal experience/association with that type of perfume?
    My "problem" with both No5 and l'Air du temps - is not their age -(I have no "old lady" perception) but the fact that they were too much copied - I cannot stop remembering a certain famous brand of hair spray.
    Something very funny can be noticed in France in the personal care area. You would expect to smell new and "trendy" ideas for a new brand of deodorants mass produced. I had yesterday a great surprise, to find the entire smell range of a brand I used in highschool from Elida Fabergé bottled in a new, modern, trendy range. And the owner of the brand was not the same. Now.... that's a novelty for products supposed to sell because of their smell and not of their ads/dreams.

  7. Stella, you know time has a way of doubling back on you -- the subconscious has no notion of it! Which is probably why smells have a way of short-circuiting time.

  8. Jarvis, those are excellent points and should be added to my arguments to qualify any sweeping judgements I might have made.
    Your comment on L'Heure Bleue would be valid for any work of art from the past: what would be the point of composing like Mozart, painting like Manet, or writing like Balzac today? Yet we still enjoy their works fully.

    As for trendy overdosage, you're right, though there are so many different trends in perfumery that they can hardly be called trends at all. But over certain periods of time, it's the copycats that make the template fragrance seem dated, rather than the groundbreaking fragrance itself.

  9. Dain, I believe I wrote the opposite... Fragrances *are* consumer products, but perfumery should be thought of as an art form. Of course, a fragrance is linked to the time period in which it is produced, but as for the fact of paying... well, we pay to experience other artistic productions, which doesn't make them any less artistic.

  10. As the French say, Octavian, "rien de nouveau sous le soleil".
    Old ideas are packaged as new to unsuspecting customers, which must mean they don't smell that old, after all (fashion does this all the time, but it's easier to spot because of all our visual resources).
    I also have trouble with N°5 and L'Air du Temps: admire them immensely, can't appropriate them. As Jarvis points out, successful ideas have been so copied they become a cliché of themselves, and you need to make quite an effort to find a mindset in which to experience them as they were first conceived...
    The same goes for music (Vivaldi's Four Seasons, for instance) or the cinema: anyone expecting to be blown out of their seat by Citizen Kane, regularly voted the greatest film in history, will be disappointed: the novel forms introduced have become part of filmic vocabulary to such an extent that by the time you see this classic movie, it can feel trite.

    And you're right, of course, about the sheer quantity of fragrances that were launched throughout the 20th century: only the best have survived (though sometimes in pitiful shape), and, barring some exceptions like Iris Gris, it's just as well.

  11. (yes, time has "depth", and the same point below the surface may be reached from different points on the "surface" (the line of "nows"), thereby annihilating the feeling of the flow of time..)
    Agree with you about perfumery as a form of art. Great abstract perfumes like No 5 may be seen as just as good examples of modernism in art as (f ex) Kandinsky´s numbered compositions

  12. Yes, Stella, N°5 is both of its time and timeless... The same could be said of all the greats: little time-travel capsules that bring you back to the moment.

  13. I enjoyed this post and the comments. It occurs to me that if you are new to perfume then sniffing everything has enormous value as a sentimental education. Perfume, like books, is not a way to pass the time; it's a way to live lives you might never otherwise know. If we subvert the need to identify oneself with the perfume (and hence the repulsion from the old lady we don't want to admit we are becoming) then we can enjoy perfume as we might a song or a story or a movie. There might not even be human characters in some forms of art or communication with which to identify.

  14. Great article, particularly the explanation of how personal association influences what the culture interprets as an "old lady" scent. Many of us, if we are fortunate enough, will live well into our 70's and 80's. Because of this the concept of what is "old" has changed from the time classics like Mitsouko were made. Fragrance lovers cling to classics because they relate to qualities that transcend time and leave a distinctive mark. In a down economy this perspective stands a chance of being embraced by the culture (less money to spend, more consumer particularity regarding quality). Think about it. The concept resonates deeply with being green as well, something we can no longer ignore.

  15. Cait, what you say about subverting the need to identify with a perfume resonates with my experience: you need to go beyond like/don't like, would wear this/wouldn't wear this, towards what the composition itself is saying.
    I've only been a signature perfume person once in my life, for ten years: but I believe the perfume took me to where it wanted me to be, rather than me appropriating it. But that's another story. Now I prefer many stories.

  16. Thank you Michelle. I, too, hope that there may be less fragrances produced/consumed, but better ones.
    But I do wonder what will constitute an "old lady perfume" in our own old ages: nothing emerges clearly enough, and so many current mainstream compositions are so hysterically "young" that you can't imagine them connotating anything else in the future. While I do think J. Guerlain, Beaux, Daltroff, Roudnitska, Fraysse, Carles or Cellier probably had ideas of doing something new that represented a new generation (from Tabac Blond to Diorella), I don't know what "young" may have meant to them in terms of notes or styles. Or if the idea was relevant at all...

  17. j'adore le photo que vous choissez!

  18. Oh dear, how silly of me. I know I'm in the minority in this, but I definitely think perfume is artisanal, rather than art, just the way that Carine Gilson lingerie, Manolo Blahnik, NARS, and Lanvin are exemplars of artisanship, not lesser but different, since you must live with them and pay for them. I understand why people like to think of perfume as an art; it's to assert that this ought to be taken seriously, but IMHO to know that a consumer product I have bought is quality craftsmanship, either in design or material, is reason enough to respect it. When I buy something like that, whether it's a dress or an eyeshadow, I like that feeling that someone, someone human, was responsible for the product I hold in my hands. That it wasn't mass-produced or market-researched, and that's very special and luxurious in this day and age, and to call it artisanship, I don't think, is to disrespect it.

    This may just be nitpicking definitions, however. I'm sorry to have rambled so much on your blog.

  19. In art one can do many things, "reflections" over one´s limitations (like paintings ending up being a black 2-dimensional square), but also "reflections" on materiality and physical conditions. Why should one not regard, for example, Ellena´s "work" on the theme of water, and the other elements, as art?
    Why shouldn´t what we appreciate through olfaction be as high valued as what through sight or hearing.
    That perfumes are placed on something that moves around, should at least be irrelevant..

  20. Perfumequeen, isn't that picture eerie? It's part of a series of monstrous "Victorian" portraits by the artist Travis Louie, whom I discovered thanks to the blog that's credited at the bottom of my post.

  21. No reason to be sorry, Dain! Your line of argument is quite sustainable, though if we're going to get into nitpicking (the pedant in me loves it ;-)!), fragrance, like ready-to-wear, shoes (I'd balk a bit at makeup, without dissing makeup artists) or design, is usually industrially produced in series, and thus, not strictly artisanship (unlike couture).
    I assimilate it more to design and ready-to-wear as a general rule: series produced more or less industrially based on artistic criteria, but intended for use rather than contemplation.
    That said, one could argue that this depends on the use that is made of it: you can "contemplate" a great fragrance for its intrinsic artistic value rather than just treat it as lovely accessory...
    See, I'm pretty good at rambling too!

  22. Stella, I've addressed your thoughts in the above answer: I think fragrance can be both. "Portable intelligence and beauty" as Luca Turin would say, and an artistic endeavour: the example of Ellena is well chosen. There is research and thought in his work that goes beyond the commercial value of his compositions.

  23. D, I have read and enjoyed both your posts and the comments several times. Thank you.

    Regarding future "old lady" perfumes and the "hysterically young" scents of today -- I wonder if sweet fruity florals and/or gourmands like Vera Wang Princess (to randomly pick) will in the future signify "old lady." But I think not -- I am wondering whether, like them or not, there is something inherently young and immature about the way they smell, and they can only be the fragrance of youth. On the other hand, if one looks back, in a way they resemble the original simple floral compositions like rose or violet water in their sweetness. I am always shocked when I first visit something like Youth Dew or Evening in Paris and realize young girls were wearing something so alluring and mature, but again perhaps that's my own characterization.

  24. I forgot to add -- have fun with Lee! It's impossible not to...

  25. Thanks March! I don't think the fruity florals will ever smell "old lady" either, because they connote sweets (candy, juice) which are associated with childhood foods. They might smell dated some day though. Not sure either.
    When you smell even post-WWII scents touted as "young" like Ma Griffe, or the "Miss" -- Dior and Balmain -- it is indeed surprising by our standards. But then, somehow, a lot of what was sold to women back then would not register as overtly feminine anymore: fragrance has undergone a gender specialization (outside of niche) just as it drank from the fountain, not of youth but of immaturity.

  26. Oh, yes, I'm looking forward to seeing Lee, yay!

  27. There is so much to enjoy and address here and I will return later tonight when I have more time to talk about art and old ladies, but right now I just want to pick up on something remarkable that went by very quickly in your post: "The valuations of companies are based on the rate of introduction of new products." REALLY? The valuations by whom and for what? Are we talking about stocks here? Do new productions outweigh profits from old stock? If this is true it explains so much...do say more if you can.

  28. Alyssa, from what I understood, the expert, Barbara Hall, was talking about stock market prices going up when there were launches. I only read the article about the IFRA workshop in the Perfumer & Flavorist newsletter, they don't say anything else about the matter... But it is interesting, isn't it?

  29. D-thanks for clarifying that statement a bit. I want to know much more--maybe I'll poke around a little.

    I have now read all these thoughtful comments and your post twice and have so much to say about art and age and contemplation that I find myself at a loss for where to start...

  30. (And here I am, having visited most every day since the post went up, and still pondering my comment...

    ...which includes a side observation on the illustration, which continues to be quite arresting--in no small part because I keep seeing a morph of Carol Channing & Shelley Hack, which I then want to connect to whatever offering I make to the discussion of dated-ness.)

  31. Alyssa, I'd like to know a lot more too. In fact, a full investigation would be in order -- I'm sure premium company fund managers, for instance, have insights on this sort of thing...

  32. ScentScelf, I know the feeling! sometimes I feel that way when my artist and critic friends are discussing. I'm sure I have great insights to add but they don't quite shape up because there are too many!

  33. Denise, they look very tim burton esque. I love how creepy they are.

  34. well I suppose that some classic scents can be looked at as passe in the way that A-line skirts would be: passe if you're a slave to fashion, but if it fits you? A classic. Sad the so many of them are anodyne to the originals

    I would looove to smell vintage En Avion

  35. A-line skirts are passé? Oh dear. And me wearing them... ;-)
    Tom, I'm not quite sure there's anything called fashion any more: there are fads, ideas (now copied within days after a show), "it" pieces and the shifting codes of tribal uniforms. The only thing that can look démodé is a fad that's not old enough to have made into retro status.
    I've never smelled vintage En Avion either... Would love to.

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  37. Yoiks! That photo gives me the willies!

    I find I have the opposite prejudice from most contemporary consumers (at least in this country) -- at this point I'm reluctant to sniff almost any new releases. Not much new & interesting seems to have come down the pike for a while, and I don't find gimmicky or "shocking" interesting, so I have to be pretty intrigued to even bother.

    Is perfumery art? Based on the way I feel when I'm wearing Tolu or Ambre Sultan, I'd have to say yes. Anything so transformational must fall under the heading of art, as far as I'm concerned. I can be as moved by a sniff of a fragrance as I am by the sight of a Rothko painting; and when it's all said & done, isn't art about emotion, love, spirit -- all those squishy non-quantifiables?

  38. Hi A.! Transformational is pretty much what art is about... And the squishy non-quantifiables definitely play a major part. Shall we speak about the sublime? Yes we shall!
    (and, yes, that picture is creepy, in a fun way.)

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