What is it with the latest batch of commercial releases? What aroma-chemical or marketing approach lends them all the baffling sense of sameness? Pick up Lancome Magnifique, Estee Lauder Sensuous, and Calvin Klein Secret Obsession to name several. The dry downs of the latter two seem virtually identical: politely discreet, vaguely woody, a half-assed, half-finished accord akin to someone with stale breath turning his face away so as not to offend you, inadvertently insuring you won't be able to hear what he's saying any more than you can tell what his sentence smells like. Magnifique shares with these a thinned-out sweetness in the top notes, as if someone diluted the overall composition with water and vodka and anything else she had at hand, just to see how far she could extend it before its aroma reached that barely-there threshold.
What do these fragrances and this apparent trend have to say about the buying public's desires or our cultural sensibility as a whole? Many fragrances targeted specifically to the Asian market take into account the Asian buyer's partiality to perfume so pristine it ceases to smell like perfume, creating fragrances which bow their heads and avert their eyes in deference to all who approach. Americans, on the other hand, seem to be obsessed with fruity florals, or someone thinks they are and relentlessly produces them. Add to fruity florals the obscenely, obsessive-compulsively clean. Aqua di Gio continues to be a bestseller in the masculine market, even as masculines inch ever more toward the floral. Meanwhile, Dolce and Gabbana's Light Blue is a top-seller with women and smells like something a man would spray to hide the B.O. his girlfriend finds offensive or the lingering odor of a particularly torrid indiscretion.
The Reds and Giogios and Poisons and Paris' of the eighties seemed in keeping with a culture-wide disregard for the feelings or circumstances of others, a fashion for big-shouldered, high-haired silhouettes, and an imposition of one's self onto one's environment, as if the latter weren't complete or noteworthy until the arrival on the scene of the former. Trends change but always reflect cultural values to some extent. So what's with all the anemic fragrances flooding the department store counters? Are we wishy-washy, non-committal, or simply afraid of our own shadows?
It's interesting to compare the reviews of Chandler Burr and the intellectual team of Lucca Turin and Tania Sanchez. While all three revere the great creations of perfumers past, Burr advances the idea that the practical application of these creations in the contemporary social environment is non-existent at this point, while Turin and Sanchez hold to the idea that perfumes are timeless and relevant; they no more go out of fashion than a Dior cut from 1940 or the Declaration of Independence. It's all about attitude and character, and homage without context is worthless. Change is great, but at what cost?
Burr often gives high marks to compositions which recall those vintage perfumes the way postmodern writing begs, borrows, and steals from the classics of literature, tossing all its constituent attributes into a hybrid which recalls without specifying exactly what or when. His unqualified appreciation of Sisley's Eau du Soir is a good example:
"It is an expert pastiche of the traditional French “animalic”—i.e., the smell of animal (a classic trope of French perfumery)—but in a version for the 21st century. This take on animalic is not redolent of an armpit but rather of a mink coat, which is to say it is the smell of real leather plus real hot fur. This is a visceral luxury, and Mongin builds the perfume’s top by welding it to a greenish, sleekly modern floral."
Turin's dismissal of the fragrance as insipid, empty-headed knock-off is equally indicative of his own values. The perfume doesn't even rate a review in Perfume: The Guide; rather, he knocks it in passing, in the course of another fragrance's review, as if throwing a passenger out of the car without stopping to let her out. To Turin, Eau de Soir is a perfume which recalls the classic green chypres, to be sure--the way a town in Disney's Small World attraction recalls its real time source. You can't expect to understand Japan from the little pivoting automatons in kimonos.
Don't get the idea Turin and Sanchez are living in the past. Witness Turin on Chanel No 5 Eau Premiere: "This is abstract, classical perfumery at its best," he writes, "revisited by people who do not see modernization as an excuse for screwing up." Turin will be the first to slam Guerlain for altering its classics, unless or until he feels the job is being well done. Progress is great: hurray for the future. Turin just happens to be the strongest critical voice in his field speaking out for the recognition of perfumery as art, the relevance of art to cultural history, and the importance of history to culture at large. That isn't to say Burr dismisses the past or perfume's artistry. Of Germaine Cellier, the nose behind Fracas, Bandit, and Vent Vert, he said: "an artist working in the olfactory medium." It's simply to say that Burr and Team Turin-Sanchez are necessary polar points in the modern dialog about perfume, presenting its complicated, panoramic picture to date. That Burr presents the picture using photo-realism and Sanchez-Turin represent it with the kinetic brush strokes of cubism illustrates how much room there is for interpretation.
What would these three say about the relative sameness of modern commercial perfumery offered at the local mall; specifically, about Secret Obsession, Magnifique, and Senuous? This is the face of perfumery the average consumer digests and perhaps demands in some way. How can someone like Calice Becker go from the pungent glory of Tommy Girl and J'Adore to the milquetoast timidity of Secret Obsession within such a relatively short amount of time? Turin, at least, has sounded off regarding Sensuous, remarking, "...up close the fragrance disintegrates over the first hour into a bare array of disconnected things failing to cohere: white floral, synthetic wood, praline-like amber. All told, thin and lacking mystery."
Perhaps the modern fragrance reflects the contemporary obsession with diet and self-abnegation and a concomitant nation-wide phenomenon of obesity. Are these fragrances our way of punishing ourselves for our indulgent excesses? If we're going to gorge ourselves on the fruity gourmands and decadent pleasures of heady floral bouquets, we must, we might feel, at some point fast. At least we have the wit and erudition of writers like Sanchez, Turin, and Burr, who elevate the conversation to an ideological plane which feels as rich as chocolate and feeds the mind without indulging its apparent need to eventually deny itself pleasure.