Monday, January 27, 2014

Is Perfume Make-up? The Strange Case of Scented Nail Polish

It appears that the "perfume is art" crowd are being given a run for their money by an opposing force no doubt championed much more vigorously by the corporatized fragrance industry. Perfume in some circles has now become make-up! 

I recently happened upon an advertisement for a new and unexpected product while flipping through one of the many worthless magazines littering my apartment. I receive a lot of magazines in part because Fragrancenet offers a free subscription with every purchase. So that's how I ended up with lengthy, multiyear subscriptions to such publications as Cosmopolitan, Martha Stewart Living, Every Day with Rachel Ray, Better Homes & Gardens, and the magazine in which this advertisement appeared: Allure, which is devoted above all to make-up. The only magazine perhaps even more ridiculous and yet frighteningly a sign of the post-post-modern, SSRI, Twitter-twenty-first-century times may be Lucky, which is dedicated to ... drum roll ... shopping!

This is a perfect example of why I do find myself leafing rapidly through an issue of this sort of magazine before dropping it into the vertical. Who knows what one may learn about contemporary culture, society, and mores? In this case, I learned that, unbelievably enough, there is now a perfumed nail polish being made by Revlon, in its special Parfumerie line.

I was initially thinking about simply approaching this topic from a purely philosophical perspective: Is perfume make-up, after all? Is it perhaps not entirely coincidental that Chandler Burr's disappearance from the Museum of Arts and Design was approximately concomitant with the appearance of perfumed nail polish on the market? To be honest, I'm not sure when Revlon's Parfumerie collection was launched, but I do believe that Chandler Burr's fifteen minutes of fame as a "perfume is art" theorist have now elapsed.

Does this mean that the powerful "perfume is a toiletry" lobby which exerts enormous influence on the industry--and indeed perhaps is identical with the mainstream fragrance industry--has won out? This development may be hailed or scorned, but in all likelihood that will depend upon one's prior beliefs about "perfume as art" and "perfume as toiletry". 

If you already believe that all perfume is directly connected to all cologne, which began as a way for stinky people without access to frequent baths to cover up their own bodily stench, and therefore is obviously a toiletry (being a bath surrogate), then the sight of the above Revlon Parfumerie advertisement is probably not going to bother you in the least.

If, on the other hand, you prefer to think of perfume as something loftier, something higher, something transcendent, perhaps something that someone like Jackson Pollock might create, then the sight of this little splotch of Revlon Parfumerie Beachy, which may in fact resemble some artist's work of art somewhere, may be a bit disconcerting:

As usual, sherapop manages to navigate her epistemological way through this untenable duality. Yes, of course, perfume is used as a way of masking body odor or else to add some where there is none. Musk and ambergris perfumes, anyone? Yes, of course, people like Daniela Andrier and Bertrand Duchaufour and Jean-Claude Elléna and Dominique Ropion and (add your favorite perfumer) __________________ are creative spirits and bursting with talent. But none of either of these two ways of looking at perfume--as a "mere" toiletry or as an exalted "art""--tells the whole story. The truth, my fragrant friends, is that 

Perfume is perfume!

As a toiletry, the Revlon Parfumerie project is an epic fail. Why? Because the dried perfume-enamel amalgamate, which I painted onto the back of an envelope--I figured that there was no need to risk the test on my own nails, especially with bedtime on the horizon--smells just like nail polish! 

Anyone who has ever used nail polish is aware--or was at one time--of its dangerously potent fumes, so volatile and intense that it's difficult to suppress the suspicion that it may very well be causing brain cell damage each and every time that it is used. Hopefully not, but let's face it, the scent differs from that of glue (as in glue sniffing) in degree, not in kind.

I find, in fact, that this Revlon Parfumerie Beachy, which I selected thinking that it might possibly smell like Lilly Pulitzer Beachy, or perhaps even Bond no 9 Fire Island, occupies an olfactory coordinate not terribly far from the opening of Lanvin Rumeur. But that's only because that perfume opens just like the scent of a chemical industry waste factory.

Yes, I am afraid that the Revlon experiment in product multitasking has failed in this case. No worries, though, because it will only be a matter of time before the experiment is undertaken again, by day laborers working under the yoke of some driven triple-A personality CEO, and eventually some synthetic organic chemist somewhere will devise a way to insert a scent more powerful than the scent of nail polish into the nail polish so that one can buy a single product under the guise of either perfume or nail polish (what's your pleasure?) rather than buying both.

Wait a minute! How, then, could it be that the cosmetic industry is producing such a thing, working to decrease the amount of wallet share which they can siphon off the readers of Allure magazine? This case reminds me in some ways of the Starbucks Via project. Why is Starbucks trying to sell to its very own customers products which obviate the need for them to stop off in the stores to buy $6 cups of coffee? 

The answer, my fragrant friends, in both cases, is that these companies are after total global hegemonic control. Whatever beverage you may choose to drink, and in whatever format, Starbucks will be there for you.  (Lest you forget, they acquired both Tazo and Teavana!) And whichever make-up or fragrance product you choose to spend the discretionary share of your paltry Friday take-home pay on, Revlon wants to be in on it!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pre-Y2K Perfumery: The Way We Were

Review of 

Perfume: The Ultimate Guide to the World's FInest Fragrances 

by Nigel Groom 

This guide to perfume was published in 1999. To some, this may be a real turnoff. A text about perfume from fourteen years ago? Could anything in it still be true? Valid questions, yes. But also precisely why I cherish this little volume, the first perfume book I ever read, and still one of my favorites. Consider this charming little remark:
The economics of the industry are changing. More fragrances are coming out on the international market than ever before—some two or three hundred a year. Some will be successful, but many will fail and disappear.

Could Nigel Groomcould anyoneever have predicted that in 2013, there would be 2,451 perfume launches (according to the database)? In my previous post, I poked fun at the perfumistas who pronounced the best ten or so perfumes from 2013, pointing out that they could not possibly have tested even a small fraction of the perfumes produced in that year. I'm afraid that we lost some of the few links to the illustrious salon de parfum in the process, but it was a small price to pay for speaking the truth about an industry and subculture grounded intrinsically in hype.

Back in the twentieth century, it would have been possible to have sniffed all of the perfumes released in a single year. A "Guide" to perfume made sense back in 1992, when Turin first penned one in French. Today? Not so much. Today any "guide" can only serve as a marketing tool, encouraging consumers to pursue what they have not already been lured into buying as a result of mass market advertising campaigns.

In reflecting on this 1999 book and why I like it so much, I have come to the conclusion that the Michael Edwards Fragrances of the World volume best suited for me could not possibly be anything published later than 2006, when, in my considered opinion, all hell broke loose in the world of perfumery.

Why are older perfume books generally better, and why is Nigel Groom's 1999 volume one of the best? Because it captures the reality of pre-Y2K perfumery as it was when it was what it was, which it no longer is. The perfume world has undergone massive, radical, and seemingly irrevocable transformations over the course of the past decade. Let us review a few of them:

  • corporate conglomeratization: nearly every single once-independent design house is now owned by one of the huge parent companies: LVMH, Procter & Gamble, Coty Prestige, L'oréal, Puig, Eurocosmesi, Elizabeth Arden, Estée Lauder, Parlux, et al.
  • homogenization: the convergence of style of perfumes being produced by ostensibly distinct houses but under the same helm—say, Coty Prestige—is perhaps a natural consequence of the fact that those who call the shots do so for not just one house, but for a cluster of them simultaneously. 
  • massive explosion of perfume launches: flankers and limited editions have become the rule, not the exception these days, with perfumes composed and released quickly and then followed up by namesakes cynically intended primarily to exploit all of the previous marketing campaigns leading up to the latest launch—touted invariably as the best new thing since Shalimar!
  • massive proliferation of perfume houses: everyone and his mother, brother, father, uncle, aunt, cousin, second cousin, niece and nephew has suddenly awoken in the middle of the night to discover that, lo, they are "perfumers"!!!! From a few rugged individualists who set out to teach themselves perfumery, and in some cases were quite assiduous and serious about doing so, in addition to being olfactorily gifted, we have arrived at a time where people appear to be flipping coins: "heads, real estate; tails, niche perfumery!"
  • massive expansion of celebrity launches: every two-bit reality show slut now has a perfume on the market--or ten! Having a perfume now appears to be a part of the aspiring singer's and actor's marketing platform—right up there with other forms of social media: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, you name it! What next? Oh, right: a perfume!
  • Orwellian IFRA restrictions against the use of natural materials have been imposed  in the name of consumer health, with the surrogate materials being newfangled synthetics which have not stood the test of time (as the materials used in perfumery for millennia certainly have!). As a result of the willingness of perfumers to accede to tyrannical, corporate-generated demands, perfume is becoming more and more abstract, streamlined, and "clean" as a result. 

My fragrant friends, the above developments, all in the twenty-first century, have transmogrified the perfumery scene so fundamentally that some (many?) of us who fell in love with perfume in the twentieth century are having a difficult time navigating the terrain and even wondering in our less sanguine moments: Why bother?

Nigel Groom's book offers a glimpse into the world of perfumery as it once was, as it was when I, for one, developed an interest in the topic. Yes, there were parent companies; no, they were not behemoth omnivores. Yes, there were trends, but, no, there was no oud machine! Yes, there were unique bottles, but they were made of Lalique and Baccharat crystal, not covered with plastic diddily-doos! Yes, there were a few celebrity perfumes, thanks to Elizabeth Taylor. No, there certainly was not an entire celebrity perfume industry. Yes, there were innovations in the history of twentieth-century perfumery, such as the creative use of aldehydes in Chanel no 5. No, no one, not even the crassest, most jaded perfume executive in the twentieth century ever dared strip perfume of every single natural essence in the name of "health" guidelines drafted by people concerned to improve the bottom lines of the companies for which they work!

I love this little book because it offers a window into a world which no longer exists. But the perfume profiles featured describe and offer historical tidbits about the perfumes which I knew and loved: back when Samsara was still Samsara and Dolce Vita was Dolce Vita!

Here is a list of the houses covered in this slim volumewhich explicitly restricts itself to women's perfume, and spans fewer than 200 pages. The fragrances of each house discussed are indicated as well:

  1. Amouage: Amouage
  2. Antonia's Flowers: Anotonia's Flowers
  3. Elizabeth Arden: Blue Grass, Red Door, 5th Avenue
  4. Armani: G
  5. L'Artisan Parfumeur: Premier Figuier
  6. Baccarat: Une Nuit Etoilée au Bengale
  7. Parfums Balenciaga: Le Dix, Rumba
  8. Parfums Balmain: Vent Vert, Ivoire
  9. Bijan: DNA
  10. Boucheron: Boucheron
  11. Bourjois: Soir de Paris
  12. Bvlgari Parfums: Bvlgari pour Femme
  13. Parfums Cacharel: Anaïs Anaïs, Loulou
  14. Parfums Caron: Fleur[s] de Rocaille (1933)--nb: this is an error! Fleur de Rocaille (1993) is pictured, not Fleurs de Rocaille (1933)!
  15. Cartier: Must de Cartier, Panthère, So Pretty
  16. Carven Parfums: Ma Griffe, Eau Vive
  17. Parfums Cerruti: Cerruti 1881
  18. Chanel: No 5, No 19, Allure
  19. Mary Chess: Mary Chess
  20. Parfums Chloé: Chloé, Narcisse
  21. Chopard: Wish
  22. Clarins: Eau Dynamisante
  23. The House of Coty: L'Aimant, Vanilla Fields, Monsoon
  24. The House of Creed: Royal Water
  25. Crown Perfumery: Marechal, Crown Bouquet
  26. Parfums Salvador Dali: Le Parfum, Le Roy Soleil
  27. Davidoff: Cool Water Woman
  28. Desprez: Bal à Versailles
  29. Parfums Chrisian Dior: Miss Dior, Dune, Dolce Vita
  30. Dolce & Gabbana Parfums: Dolce & Gabbana
  31. Parfums d'Orsay: Etiquette Bleue
  32. Escada: Escada, Sunny Frutti
  33. Parfums Fendi: Theorema
  34. Ferregamo: Salvatore Ferregamo pour Femme
  35. Floris: Stephanotis, Gardenia
  36. Jean-Paul Gaultier: Jean-Paul Gaultier
  37. Romeo Gigli: Romeo 
  38. Giorgio Beverly Hills: Giorgio, Wings, Ocean Dream
  39. Parfums Givenchy: Amarige, Organza, Extravigance
  40. Annick Goutal: Grand Amour, Heure Exquise
  41. Parfums Grès: Cabochard, Folie Douce
  42. Parfums Gucci: Envy
  43. Guerlain: L'Heure Bleue, Samsara, Champs Elysées
  44. Gale Hayman, Inc.: Delicious
  45. Hermès Parfums: Calèche; 24, Faubourg
  46. Carolina Herrera Perfumes: Flore, 212
  47. Houbigant: Quelques Fleurs, Raffinée
  48. Iceberg: Iceberg Twice Ice
  49. Perfumes Isabell: Mandarin
  50. Parfums Joop!: All About Eve
  51. Joseph: Parfum de Jour
  52. Donna Karan Beauty: Donna Karan New York
  53. Parfums Kenzo: Parfum d'Eté
  54. Calvin Klein: Obsession, Contradiction
  55. Parfums Karl Lagerfeld: Sun, Moon, Stars
  56. Lalique: Parfum Lalique, Nilang
  57. Lancôme: Trésor, Poême
  58. Parfums Lanvin: Arpège
  59. Estée Lauder: Knowing, Pleasures, Dazzling Gold, Dazzling Silver
  60. Ralph Lauren: Safari, Polo Sport Woman
  61. Parfums Lelong: Indiscret
  62. Parfums Lolita Lempicka: Lolita Lempicka
  63. Parfums Loewe: Air Loewe
  64. Jo Malone: Lime, Basil & Mandarin
  65. Nicole MIller: Nicole Miller
  66. Issey Miyake: L'Eau d'Issey
  67. Molinard: Habanita, Molinard de Molinard
  68. Parfums Montana: Parfum de Peau
  69. Popy Moreni: Popy Moreni
  70. Thierry Mugler: Angel
  71. Parfums de Nicolaï: Sacrebleu
  72. Rifat Ozbek: Ozbek
  73. Jean Patou: Joy
  74. Penhaligon's: Victorian Posy
  75. La Perla: La Perla
  76. Parfums Paloma Picasso: Mon Parfum, Tentations
  77. Parfums Robert Piguet: Fracas
  78. Parfums Paco Rabanne: XS pour Elle
  79. Oscar de la Renta: Oscar, So de la Renta
  80. Nina Ricci: L'Air du Temps, Nina, Deci Dela
  81. Parfums Rochas: Femme, Madame Rochas, Alchimie
  82. Royal Doulton: Doulton
  83. Parfums Yves Saint Laurent: Paris, Opium, Yvresse
  84. Jil Sander: Jil
  85. Schiaparelli: Shocking, Zut
  86. Shiseido: Feminité du Bois, Vocalise
  87. Alfred Sung: Sung Forever
  88. Elizabeth Taylor: White Diamonds
  89. Tiffany & Co.: Tiffany
  90. Parfums Trussardi: Trussardi Light Her
  91. Parfums Ungaro: Diva
  92. Parfums Valentino: Very Valentino
  93. Van Cleef & Arpels: Van Cleef
  94. Versace Profumi: V'E, Blonde
  95. Madeleine Vionnet: Madeleine Vionnet
  96. Vivian Westwood: Boudoir
  97. Les Parfums Worth: Je Reviens

That's it! The author apologizes for the abridged list and explains that selection was necessary, but what I find interesting is that I have tested and reviewed most of these perfumesand even own a fair number of them in vintage form! For me, this book is a keepsake text about how the world of perfumery once was, back when a perfume launch was an event, not a tweet. 

It would be possible to select a "Best of" from this entirely manageable group of perfumes, or even among all of the launches available at that time. In 2013? Good luck sniffing your way through the other 2000+ perfumes! And why bother, when it is obvious that the multi-mega-launchers are mostly doing Lego composition these days, lacking inspiration, insight, and often skill as well?

I read a dismissive review of Nigel Groom's 1999 book at Amazon. The angry reviewer denounced the work as "worthless". It is true that this is no longer a guide to perfume today. That point should be obvious from two words alone: Miss Dior

Back in 1999, Nigel Groom no doubt believed that he had produced a perfume guide. Instead, what we have here is an archaeological find!