Saturday, December 3, 2011

My ugly divorce from Mitsouko

Upon draining the last drop of my beautiful 3.1oz gold-encased bottle of Guerlain Mitsouko, I reached immediately for my back-up 2.5oz bottle containing, I naïvely thought at the time, the same precious elixir. Not so, I was devastated to discover. All of the charm and seduction of the opening had disappeared, leaving a vague, watery opening in its place. As the fragrance dried down, it improved somewhat, but only near the end was I able to recognize anything even faintly resembling the Mitsouko so dear to me. My natural conclusion was that the new bottle, in the classic design, had simply sat on a shelf at some warehouse with sketchy climate control for far too long.

Relieved by these ruminations, I set out undaunted, with a spring in my step, to purchase a new replacement, anxious to be reunited with my favorite perfume. Upon the arrival of the package harboring my treasure within—or so I thought—expedited to my domicile by one of my favorite on-line emporia, with whom I have never had troubles of any kind, least of all the receipt of spoiled perfume, I ceremoniously ripped the cellophane off the box, marking with flourish and even a touch of melodrama what was to be the beginning of a greatly anticipated reunion. I slowly removed the nozzle, savoring the moment, and sprayed some on.

To my horror, I found the same insipid opening I had recently sniffed upon spritzing on the contents of the back-up bottle which I had soberly reasoned must have gone bad. As the famous and frankly plaintive adage goes (pace George W. Bush), “Fool me once: shame on you. Fool me twice: shame on me.” Now I was forced to accept the tragic fact: Guerlain had indeed fiddled with the formula. Whether this unthinkable act was carried out in an attempt to conform with new health restrictions imposed on the perfume industry or simply to save money—or for some other obscure LVMH reason—mattered little.

Whatever the ultimate explanation of this hatchet job might be, it had become as clear as frosty vodka in a lead crystal glass that my days of savoring Mitsouko were now officially over. I do believe that I felt every bit as cheated and jilted as the faithful spouse and homemaker whose formerly devoted husband suffers a mid-life crisis and runs off to the Caribbean with his dental hygienist, leaving only bills and bitterness behind.

When asked to name my favorite perfume, it used to be easy to answer: Mitsouko. To give such an answer today would simply be false. Moreover, to those who have only sniffed the reformulated perfume, such an answer would cast doubts on my own perfumic prowess! That is her favorite perfume? I can imagine those aghast at what Mitsouko has become snickering quietly to themselves. And they would be right, because this Mitsouko is not a perfume that I have any real interest in wearing, and I'm not at all sure that I will ever again.

Reformulations of perfumes such Mitsouko originally launched long ago—when different materials were available and the qualities of certain materials were quite different as well—have been said to be necessitated on various grounds. The legal banning of the use of certain substances is certainly one of the most frequently cited rationalizations for reformulation, but there are obviously many others as well—involving probably more often than not purely economic factors, which play an important if not paramount role in managing businesses.

In many cases, it seems likely that someone in the upper management echelons deemed it financially necessary to cut the production cost of a perfume. The strategic goal need not be to increase the net profit per bottle, as reformulated perfumes are often sold at lower prices as well. The reasoning in such cases appears, then, simply to be that it is more profitable to sell many bottles of a less expensive perfume at a lower price than it would be to sell fewer bottles of the original perfume at an elevated price. The name of great perfumes is the most powerful marketing ploy that there could possibly be. Do whatever you like to Shalimar—reformulate, water it down and even sell it in Walgreens for only a few bucks—but continue to call it Shalimar, and people will buy and wear it, you may rest assured. I'm talking to you, LVMH—though you apparently got the memo long ago.

Many famous perfumes with noble lineages and reputations spanning decades have been reformulated, including such classics as my formerly favorite perfume. Mitsouko can be found in many shapes and forms, and although all bear the same name, only those corresponding to the formula in my first bottle of this perfume actually contain what I regard as genuine Mitsouko. (It is possible, of course, that my first bottle did not contain the original formula, but I fell in love with it anyway...) The second and third bottles, which I purchased in the twenty-first century, harbor, to my dismay, a far less noble perfume disguised in the regal robes of Mitsouko and claiming to be the same, though this is obviously not the case, for it is but a cheap imposter.

In order to relive the wonderfulness of my earlier Mitsouko experiences, I now must settle for removing the cap off the original bottle, sniffing the beauty still there to be found, and then reminiscing about what it was like to wear a truly great perfume. When I attempt to wear either of the two imposter perfumes, rather than finding myself enraptured in olfactory delight, I find myself depressed. (Although I'm no aficionado of country music, a bit of wailing Willie Nelson music in the background would not be unfitting.) Merely donning one of the reformulations of Mitsouko is enough to induce in me a Proust-length meditation on the imminent Fall of Western Civilization and the nature of human corruption. Once a person has taken a single tiny step onto that slippery slope, by sacrificing even one formerly sacred value, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse the damage done.

Perfumes, too, have a hard time traveling back in time, dragging themselves up from the dregs to their formerly pure, unadulterated state. When all has been said and done, it may ultimately be impossible for those who betray their loved ones to ever regain their trust again. The first, most natural, reaction to such a betrayal is anger. Why me? What did I ever do to you, Mitsouko? But this anger is misdirected, ultimately futile, and perhaps even self-destructive. Mitsouko has changed, effectively hit the road with some half-wit harlot half my age while keeping the same name and leaving me in the lurch, devastated and dazed.

(written in September 2011)

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