jeudi 18 mars 2010

Come and Smell the iFrags, or how perfumery has lost its flesh


Those skinny fragrances we’ve been getting of late? I suggest calling them iFrags, after our favorite boogeyman (and justifiably so), the regulatory body whose edicts have been ripping the guts and flesh out of perfumery.

In mainstream perfumery, this fleshlessness seems to me to cater to, or express, a trend towards disembodiment. In our increasingly virtual lives, the only vivid colors come from the screen; in our crowded cities, we may be afraid of imposing too strong a presence. And as Uella remarked in a comment to my previous post on the death of chypres, the stick-thin, pre-pubescent-looking girls offered to our gaze in fashion shows and shoots are also a symptom of the fear of flesh, and more specifically female flesh – anorexic bodies wafting anorexic scents.

Another observation that sparked off my thoughts was that of Octavian Coifan, reflecting on the latest Chanel show: “We are in an era of cotton and thin layers close to the skin and the fleshless, dew and petal fragrances bear witness to this.” [my translation.]

But perhaps most significantly, this spaying of perfumery comes from the restrictions, frequently based on bad, incomplete or undisclosed research, imposed by the various regulatory bodies (IFRA, RIFM, the EU’s scientific committee for consumer products, SCCP). I cannot recommend enough reading the presentation given by Tony Burfield of Cropwatch, a lone voice in the wilderness defending natural ingredients, to the British Society of Perfumers Safety Symposium on 11th March 2010 (you'll find a link to his Powerpoint presentation by clicking here). This presentation is long, complex, technical, and when I study it more closely I hope to be able to get back to it, but I’d like to quote fromThe Natural Perfumers Guild blog. Mr. Burfield explains why many perfumers come up with such bland juices. He “was informed once by a well-known perfumer working for one of the major fragrance corporations that the new generation of software-using perfumers has no problem in conforming to the avalanche of new regulations.
He interpreted this as referring to a younger generation who have probably never smelled a genuine ylang-ylang oil, or an unadulterated sandalwood oil East Indian (as they are invariably ‘extended’ at source), and have a sparse knowledge or experience of the massive range of exotic natural aromatic materials.”

Add to this ignorance the pathological fear of potential adverse effects leading to bad press and/or litigation (the recent banning of fragranced products for the municipal employees of Detroit being the most recent case in point), and the extremely high costs of generating data to conform to the new REACH European regulations on the importation of chemical products (natural essences are also considered as chemicals), and there you go: that’s why so many perfumes have no more weight, texture or character than an H&M tee-shirt. We have the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad: now we’re on to iFrags. Easy to carry anywhere you go, but a lot less fun that the rest of the iStuff.


Illustration: Portrait of Annabel, by Bernard Buffet (1960)

39 commentaires:

  1. Denyse, you are spot on.

    You see the same thing happening in the produce aisles here in the U.S. Vegetables and fruits that smell like plastic, with that scary waxy sheen. (Let alone that you only see a handful of the same stuff all year round, missing out on the thousands of other varieties of produce that really do exist, but in smaller and smaller pockets of the world.)

    I don't know what's worse, that it happens, or that consumers love the aseptic, sterile nature of all that we consume. Soon enough, water will be too elemental for our liking, and we'll resort to something.... synthetic.

    Marcus

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  2. Marcus, that's something that strikes me every time I go visit my parents in Canada. Even in season, so little of what's on offer has any taste or fragrance... It was a real hurdle when I gave my course to young American students in London: how can you recognize something you don't have a reference to, even if it's as simple as the scent of a real raspberry?

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  3. So sad and so true, but I do my share of indoctrinate anyone that read my blog or listen to me with the slightest interest. At the same time I think I´m raising little ufo´s...

    My daughters (12 and 20) borrows perfume from me and I also give them a lot of samples that aren´t my kind of scent, but still decent scents. So they go to school and hang out with friends smelling perfumes from Ava Luxe, L'Artisan, Parfumerie Generale, Guerlain and so on... 99,9% of all other girls and young womens (in their age)don´t smell like that but of the scents you´re writing about.

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  4. Rebella, I hope your little ufos spread the word (and the beautiful smells) -- and that they'll grow up in a world where those scents are still possible.

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  5. Yes, even the simple smell (and texture) of an unadulterated raspberry is a novel discovery. I fear it is only the beginning (and yet the middle) of destroying all that is real and natural. That which smells like nothing wins -- and in the commercial world, the ones who win are those who appeal to the masses... heaven forbid that we have our senses shocked (pleasantly or not).

    Marcus

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  6. Marcus, don't get me started! I'm lucky enough to live in France and to buy most of my produce in season, along with ze stinky cheeses and real baguette. It's been quite an education since my North American childhood...
    But if young perfumers, even with this French culture, have never smelled many natural materials, how can they even attempt to infuse richness in their blends, especially with the budgets they're given?

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  7. I add my voice here, because I feel it's important to do so. Where else can I speak up to defend perfume, of all things?
    Lately, I've been given reality checks all over the place-- in the blogs, forums, and in my own personal interactions with people.
    When do we say enough is enough? I'm drawing the line in my own life; I will not stop wearing something because my staff don't like it. I was wearing Havana Vanille at work recently, and an employee flat out told me that she didn't like it. Too bad for her!
    If we start wearing only what's acceptable, pretty soon we'll all smell like laundry musk and essence of water.
    Take a stand. Wear Shalimar in extrait at work!
    I do ; )

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  8. Danielle, good on you! I must say I've never had complaints about Havana Vanille (or about any perfume), but then the only person for whom I would refrain from wearing a particular scent would be a lover... There are so many smells that are much more offensive, as anyone who's worked in an office where someone's just heated up some fish will confirm...

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  9. right now i am suffering from a severe rash due to a perfume but this is a rare occurence and i would not ban substances because of it unless they were proven to be harmful (like the molecule in the old Absinthe). and on another note, i rarely get put off by a perfume i don't like but recently my boyfriend and i were at the theatre and the whole time we had our noses in our scarf, someone was wearing an incredibly potent perfume (the whole 90 minutes, the intensity of the smell did not decrease) and a very unpleasant one: imagine 100x concentrate of perfumed soap. it was terrible. fortunately this is a rare occurence and it seems that in recent years people wear perfume more discreetely than before.
    from your article i did not really understand what the basis was for banning a particular component...

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  10. Columbine, clearly that person at the theater had overdone it -- it's a matter of good education, unless perhaps it was an old lady (older people often lose some of their sense of smell and unwittingly overapply)...
    As for the restriction or banning of perfumery materials, a lot has already been written about it (see the Natural Perfumer's Guild blog), but in a nutshell: skin rashes, photo-sensitizing, carcinogenic properties (the tests are usually carried out on lab rats at doses far exceeding any human exposure), impact on reproduction, etc.
    From what I've understood from Mr. Burchfield's presentation a lot of the science restrictions/bans is based on is defective, inaccurate or inaccessible to the public (and thus can't be challenged).

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  11. Denyse, exactly. You only use what you know. And if precious materials are denied them... we'll get full bottles of nothing.

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  12. This is so sad... Personally, I find this new thinness in perfumery even less bearable than the ubiquitous fruit-patchouli combo. Love it or hate it, but at least no one can deny it does smell of something. These new things - the new Balenciaga and others - omg... This is just so disheartening - especially for someone who loves real perfumes.

    I think this is the ultimate expression of the overall shallowness that's just been getting deeper and deeper (sorry, no pun intended)). Nobody wants the real stuff anymore, be it in fashion or perfume.

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  13. Anonymous, between the loss of knowledge and the cost-cutting... I don't know, it's just getting to depressing to consider.

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  14. Fashionistaag: there's still good, gutsy, creative work being done on both fronts. And people who believe in it. But at least designers aren't being denied fabrics (well, I guess they might be, for budget reasons).

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  15. denyse, one correction. Those quotes attributed to me were from Tony Burfield. The entire text was taken from a Word .doc he forwarded. Sorry for the confusion.

    Here's a good quote from me, though: I had a long phone conversation with a retired American perfumer, a very well-known gentleman. After his recounting the story back to the Scandinavian dermatologists to the present, with his bemoaning all the regulations that were heaped upon the perfumers, one by one, I asked "How did you all let this happen?"

    His response: "We were asleep at the wheel."

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  16. Anya, I've corrected my post to lift any confusion on the authorship of the quote.
    As for what you tell me, I've heard the exact same thing from retired perfumers: "we thought it was a passing fad, that it would blow over."

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  17. Denyse, that was me (anonym). I hear you, and it's painful to think about. I tell you, capitalism is of the devil, and you see it manifest in so many ways...

    Marcus

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  18. Marcus: and the devil wafts laundry musk, clearly.

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  19. HA!

    Don't forget fruity florals mmmmmmmm.

    Marcus

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  20. The loss of flesh may have many reasons, and I think IFRA is not really the *one*, or the only one. It gave an excuse to push the accelerator into cheapening the perfumer's palette. When the *bans* challenged a $ making material, vanillin, IFRA had to make a strange marche carrière. (so was vanillin dangerous or was it not?) ;) When IFRA is not convenient, it ceases to be law. Très commode.
    Now it is more important to produce a new launch, than to produce a good perfume: it seems novelty sells (for a while, and with low initial investments, you make the buzz and then move on).
    And people identify perfume with monster sillage, the lady at the theater above, or your commenter not caring about a colleague's distress, proof how much damage a "perfume lover" can do, even without IFRA.
    If someone complains about your perfume it means you're wearing too much.
    BTW, a bit of flesh did appear at the fashion shows this year: Prada began, LV follwed. With quite a lot of it, actually.

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  21. Zazie, of course I agree with all your arguments: it *is* about the dollars and making formulas more cheaply and quickly. And it *is* about getting out launches. IFRA may be the symptom, but it's a telling one.
    About the comment above by Danielle, I didn't get the feeling her colleague was in distress, just that she said she didn't like the fragrance, not quite the same thing.
    I haven't followed the shows recently, but there was bound to be a little backlash, that's how fashion goes. But the waifs still reign.

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  22. "Ifrags", Haha that cracked me up!
    Younger generations of perfumers have never smelled the most precious natural oils... that sounds promising!

    I had my boyfriend buy Vanille Galante for my birthday, although it's delicate, lovely and made with real vanilla absolute, it feels anemic and thin. Next year I'll ask for Amouage Jubilation 25! LOL

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  23. Uella, I thought about JCE while writing this piece, but he couldn't be part of it because with him, the search for "l'impalpable" is an aesthetic choice -- if anyone knows beautiful materials, it's him, though I suppose a method of bypassing regs would be to offer weaker concentrations. But Vanille Galante is a lovely haze, you might enjoy it come warmer weather.

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  24. I want to clarify, for Zazie and others, because I realize there is a difference between responsibly wearing whatever you like, and offensively wearing whatever you like.

    My employee (previously mentioned) sniffed my wrist, because it has become the habit of many with whom I work to do. If someone is in an intimate range, my perfume lets them know it.

    Perfume does many things; it can invite, it can say "yes", it can say "stay away" (as Columbine experienced), and it can simply smell good. My perfumes, as different as they are, usually say (to someone standing that close), "you are this close by my consent and on my terms."

    As Denyse mentioned, the only person I'd cease and deist for would be my lover--my husband--as he's the only one I say "yes" to at close range.

    In my mind, the danger in the trend toward thin, sterile fragrances isn't just how they smell, but what they say; which is little or nothing.

    I want impotence in fragrance as little as I want it in my man ; )

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  25. sorry--I posted above as Danielle (FYI).

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  26. Danielle, that's what I'd understood. The people I deal with professionally are often presented with a wrist, so I know exactly how that scenario unfolds, except that no one has ever said outright they didn't like something. At most it'll be "it's strong".
    I'm not much for impotent fragrances: at least there's *some* control over that, whereas for men, well... sometimes the body/mind thing goes into a short-circuit even for the best of them!

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  27. Very astute.

    I'm saddened to see this going on everywhere, not only in fragrance, but in food, music, art...the list goes on. I read recently a quote from a professor at a highly respected American university, that he can no longer assign a book of more than 200 pages because his students don't have the focus required to finish something that long. We are going faster and faster, but to what end?

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  28. Thanks, Denyse, and all, for a post and comments worth reading and thinking about. The fleshless body metaphor is so apt. Coincidentally, I was trying to describe Histoires de Parfums 1969 (Revolte) the other day and the comparison that came to mind was the lush figures of actresses at the time. --nozknoz

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  29. Olfacta, that's what my teacher friends tell me as well, so what to do? Write short books, I guess.

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  30. Nozknoz, there *are* fleshy perfumes out there, when there's enough budget to put good naturals in them (or good synthetics for that matter). And slim ones that strike just the right notes. Even a fleshless proposition can be fine, if that's the aesthetics of it. But mostly it just smells like imagination constrained by budget and toxicologists.

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  31. Denyse, you're right, and they get away with it because so many people are addicted to constantly buying lots of new, disposable stuff rather than holding out for a perfume or item of clothing worth wearing for decades - the mall culture, shopping as entertainment, chasing the unattainable image of Beyonce or the next celeb rather than finding one's own sense of style. I'm very grateful that you and other bloggers devote time and energy to letting us know where to find real value and delight in fragrance and to revealing the true nature of the Emperor's new clothes. Not that I can imagine you doing anything less. --nozknoz

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  32. Well, you're talking to a woman who's had some pieces in her wardrobe for over 10 years (and that's not counting the properly vintage pieces). I touch the fabric of the mall stuff, go pfff, and can't bring myself to even try it on.

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  33. Ce commentaire a été supprimé par son auteur.

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  34. carmencanada, I just sold my bottle of Vanille Galante (I'm sure I will regret it later). Although I admire Ellena's aesthetics of the ephemeral, I need to detect the perfumes I'm wearing after 20 minutes, it was too fleeting and weak for me to enjoy, it also felt as if nobody knew I was wearing fragrance and that bothered me too.

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  35. Uella, I wore it the other day and found it more long-lasting than some of the other Hermessences (yes, Osmanthe Yunnan, I'm looking at you), but it's not a powerhouse for sure... Still, it's a light texture done right: you know it's an aesthetic choice for Ellena, not a cop-out.

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  36. Spot on nozknoz. It's a shame that so many give into all things that vanish.

    Denyse, your work is here at the right time!

    Marcus

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  37. Marcus, don't know about that... after all, I'm preaching to the choir, aren't I? Though I've been getting a lot of hits from a big lab lately...

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  38. totaly agree. I can hardly remember the time when me and my friends like a novelty from a Grand Mark. With few exceptions I could say they all suck, smell cheese and in general there are no that deepness we used to enjoy buying perfumes of this kind. The new Nina Ricci is the same like that Marina de Burbon sold at every corner in Moscow 10 years ago as a masterpiece of French. At my perfumery classes the guy from Firmenich told us that DKNY Apple smells like an average room odeur. The list is endless but this is just a result of long-term devolution started many years ago since companies like LVHM have started to control the business focusing on nothing else but EBITA growth. If companies launch about 1000 novelties in a year to keep market in shape how we could expect quality from them, even from the best of them. And another thing is suppliers which actually settle the rules in any business and in perfumery as well. It’s much easier to sell formulas if there are less natural raw materials that hard to get in the same quality every time and more chemical ones which quality are easier to manage.
    The only thing I believe is the consumer power. Even average taste could sooner or later be exhausted by clone perfumes. And I think that it’s very important to secure the real perfumery now both from greedy companies and from stupid scientists. I think there are many places in the world, including Moscow where people still value the real Fragrances and where the traditions and passion could save the real perfumery from total dilution.

    Vladimir

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  39. Vladimir, I can only agree. I also hear a lot of people here in Paris complaining, either that everything smells the same, or that their favorite perfume has changed beyond recognition. But sales attendants are briefed to say "madam, it's your sense of sense/body chemistry that's changed" and usually, the complaints go no further. I wish customers would vote not only with their money, but by expressing their disappointment!

    About suppliers: usually, with tje budgets their clients give them, it's no wonder they can't include noble materials...

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