You thought the subordination of creativity to marketing, the tyranny of focus groups, the bid for a quick buck rather than the painstaking development of a beautiful product go back to, say, the post-Opium 80s?
After reading Une Vie au Service du Parfum ("A Life in the Service of Perfume"), a compilation of articles and conferences by Edmond Roudnitska (Thérèse Vian Éditions, 1991), you'll know that it all started back in the late 50s. The great visionary perfumer was already denouncing what's still wrong today with the industry, at a time we think of as part of the Golden Age of perfumery.
But think back to the 60s and early 70s: which perfumes were truly groundbreaking, which created new forms, introduced new notes, rather than expressing variations on forms conceived in the 1920s? The social and sexual revolution never truly translated in bottles... Eau Sauvage, of course. Chamade, a beautiful expression of the hyacinth-galbanum-cassis bud green accord that expressed youthfulness in perfumery. Rive Gauche, though it was Calandre that introduce the odd, metallic rose oxyde. N°19 and Cristalle. Then Roudnitska again with Diorella.
Mr. Roudnitska was already right... It's a shame he wasn't heard.
The translations are mine.
A flood of mediocre perfumes… in 1959
“The failures of the past twenty years, if they haven’t served the Houses that suffered them, have finally turned against beautiful perfumes, which we will soon be unable to appreciate. The public, harassed by so many brands, deceived by a flood of questionable products which skew its judgment and taste, is getting used to mediocre or trivial productions. Thus, the consumer ends up losing the respect he once felt for beautiful perfume, which was considered a jewel up to then.”
The Ascent of the Money Men… in 1965
“If composers continue to compose, they no longer have the power to decide of the choice and launch of a perfume. The great creators of the past were the sole masters of their business; they created and they were the ones who decided, they told their sales departments: sell this. Today, sales departments, misled by gratuitous analogies with the successes garnered in other economic sectors, impose their views (…) and say: do this for us.”
“The great perfumers of the past knew how to wait for a new perfume to find its place and impose itself. But once in place, it was there to stay. Today, if those in charge are reticent when confronted with new notes and if they stick to fashionable notes, isn’t it because, more or less consciously, they want to make money right away, without thinking of the future?”
The Industrialization of Perfumery… in 1969
“Basing themselves on industrial marketing and imagining (…) they know the needs of the market, they try to influence composers to make them produce what they believe to be the taste of the public. Most composers, weak, tired or helpless, do what they’re asked instead of freely expressing their own vision. Then promoters take over the perfume, apply the treatment conceived for industrial marketing and transforming it, quite simply, into an industrial product. And so little by little, beautiful perfume is killed and replace not by “commercial” perfume (…) but by industrial perfumes, prepared by disenchanted composers. (…) These products can deceive as long as, in the mind of the public who is misled for a time, the brand image prevails on the image of the product.”
Muzzled talents… in 1971
“In 1971, a dozen perfumes* were launched in France; most agree few of them are worthy of our reputation. So how is it that everyone agrees to say that a perfume isn’t good after its launch, and that there wasn’t one person in the House that launched it to notice it before? It is the current system of choice, because it is a system, that is defective. It is even appalling.
When I see the choice of a new composition subordinated to the opinion (o so superficial) expressed by one hundred, two hundred or even five hundred women, when it must please millions of women in the world if it aims to be a great perfume, I wonder if I’m dreaming. It is truly the triumph and glorification of irresponsibility, but it is also the negation of art and the stifling of talents.
For talents exist, I am convinced of it, who not only are afraid to express themselves but are forbidden to do so. How can we blame them for their lack of daring with all the pressures they are subjected to, after the veto opposed by incompetents who have the power to decide?”
Perfumes launched in 1971: Bigarade (Nina Ricci), Chicanes (Jacomo), Empreintes (Courrèges), Ho Hang (Balenciaga), N°19 (Chanel), Rive Gauche (Yves Saint Laurent), Sikkim (Lancôme), Via Lanvin (Lanvin), Vivre (Molyneux), Weil (Weil), Yves Saint Laurent pour Homme (Yves Saint Laurent).
Portrait of Edmond Roudnitska giving a conference in 1952.
Quotes reproduced with the gracious authorization of Michel Roudnitska.