Sunday, February 21, 2010

More on Baudelaire: Response to a Reader

I started the following post as a response to a comment left by RM, a reader, after I reviewed Baudelaire by Byredo. You can read that review elsewhere. As usual, I was far too verbose (i.e. full of hot air?) and exceeded the word limit, so I'm posting both RM's comment and my response here. This is a dialogue that goes on all over the internet. It didn't start here and it won't be resolved here, certainly not on my two cups of coffee. I would need six this morning to even approach lucidity. But it's something Abigail and I talk about a lot in our emails to each other, and the spirit of this debate often finds its way into our posts.

RM's comment:

I don't know if I agree about the whole idea of perfume ethusiasts and the media etc. dismissing cheaper products on the basis that they're of lower quality. The posters on NST for example are always on the look out for "cheap thrills" and will be the first to sing the praises of any good perfume regardless of whether it's celebrity, designer, niche or cheap or expensive.

I think the general public sentiment never lies and if a company, whoever they may be, consistently release crap people will notice. If you're a musician for example, there's only so many crappy albums you can release before people just stop buying. But release one good song after another and we'll start paying attention. No one can ignore quality and a unique point of view for very long. And I think in this case, there hasn't been enough hits to achieve a certain level of respect from the fragrance enthusiasts and the like.

I think that if a perfume is good, people will say so, regardless of which brand releases it and what price point is sells for.

My Response:

RM, I think you're probably right about the love for the steal/find. I think we all are looking for one. Bad example? At the same time, I think a bias coexists with that hunt for the hidden in plain view, contradicting itself. How many times have I read in a makeupalley review that something smells of, say, Exclamation, and is therefore unforgivably bad? Plenty. That hypocrisy fascinates me, and sometimes annoys me. One of my favorite bloggers is Angela on NST. She heralds a lot of so-called drugstore cheapos, most recently Bill Blass Nude.

I think I might have been more specific by saying that we often seem to have a bias against mall or mainstream fragrances, which also tend to be less expensive. I understand that. The selection at the mall depresses me. But I find some amazing things there, and I think that mass market environment can produce very interesting work. I find the stuff Kurkdjian and Sophia Grojsman have done for major brands like Estee Lauder, YSL, Gaultier and others to be their best. Whereas when they have less curatorial influence their creations feel more wan to me, less focused. If anything, I feel an all things to all people bid in the Maison Kurkdjian line, which is something he himself has admitted as his goal in one way or another. How is that better than his Fleur du Male, executed for Gaultier, a brand which also operates along some corporate bottom line?

I don't agree that things which are good find their audiences. I'm not sure who ended up with Van Gogh's ear, but I think he or she would have been short of it had VG found more favor in the marketplace during his lifetime. I guess you have to qualify "very long". Was Van Gogh's lifetime very long? That's how long his quality and unique point of view were ignored. Bonnie and Clyde, which was a total innovation in terms of editing and style, was passed up at the Oscars the year it was made, except for best supporting actress and cinematography. Paula Abdul won several Grammies, I believe, and her wonderful, unique songs still litter the airwaves, beaming out into the provinces. People love the stuff. Coke is super popular, and it rots one's teeth.

Seems to me there's often a discrepancy between what's in fashion, what sells, and what's any good. Many people adore the fragrances of Britney Spears. Even Chandler Burr sings the praises of Midnight Fantasy or whatever it is. I'm not sure as many people as you'd imagine are smelling a rat there. On the other hand, people truly fault artistic ventures for trying to find an audience in certain ways. Sometimes, I admit, probably with good cause. I'll go with your musician example. Liz Phair was an indie recording artist with a pretty loyal following over the course of her first several albums, all of which were released on indie labels. Her next move? Hire Avril Lavigne's producers and songwriters. Why? Because, she openly admitted, she wanted to be successful. I.E. (in HER case) write the kind of song that takes root in people's heads until they pull out their wallets and throw money at the cash register to make the voices go away. Something like that. It definitely hurt her fan base.

But for every Liz Phair there's somebody like Robert Pollard. His band, Guided by Voices, put out dozens of popular albums. Indie labels. Gradually, he got the chance to be produced by Ric Ocasek of the Cars on a major label. He'd always loved Ric Ocasek. Is that a sell out? A lot of his fans thought so. When Stephen Malkmus left Pavement and started a solo career, people cried sell out, too--I guess because, what, he changed his sound? "Mob mentality" works both ways, championing the mediocre as often as slamming the pretty decent.

It's probably a lot more complicated than either of us can get at. I think we're both simplifying. It's hard not to make sweeping generalizations in this format, probably.

But back to Byredo. I notice a bias against them. Whenever I speak of my love for Pulp it's like I've said I sort of like underarm hair on women. People take issue. There must be something wrong with me. Don't I know women only let their underarm hair grow to be deliberately provocative? And yet to me Pulp is just so fantastic, so supremely pleasurable. I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a really great fragrance. Turin and Sanchez dismiss it as basically a glorified candle. That was weird. I looked and looked for a wick and couldn't for the life of me find one.

I was shocked to read bad reviews of Baudelaire. Like Monika, I love the stuff. I think I could have made more sense out of someone simply saying it wasn't his or her thing. But in the face of all this Kurkdjian love, I'm apt to wonder why the same microscope of suspicion and cynicism isn't applied to both parties. It leaves me wondering whether there's just something I don't know about Byredo. That's the only way I can make sense of it.

The hating on Bond makes more sense to me. I've had firsthand experience with the brand's attack dog tactics. At the same time, some very good perfumes have been produced by that line, no more or less synthetic or crowd-pleasing than any other niche line, to my thinking. Bond's own ratio of hits to misses is pretty impressive. Creed gets people's hate on too, as Abigail says. I think, like Bond, they set themselves up for it in some ways. They trade on this idea of regal exclusivity. Any time you put a crown on, you're daring someone to knock it off. Not everyone's going to buy it and bow down. Not that I spend much time in a crown, mind you. I swear. Still, Creed's marketing strategies can largely be ignored, as you can hop right on the internet and order most of their line for more than half off their outrageous price point. This makes it a lot easier to judge the fragrances on their own merits, so I wonder why more people don't.


Chuck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...

Chuck! I hate that you deleted your comment. It was full of so many insightful things. I think you're right about Byredo being uneven. And yeah, an upstart. I can see that perception, though everything starts somewhere, and these days, with the older houses reformulating their scents back to basics, they seem to be reverting to square one anyway more often than not. And true, lines like Lutens and Chanel can be just as uneven in a multitude of ways. I agree, when it comes to a good exlusif from Chanel over a decent Byredo, I'm apt to choose Chanel--but no fair! Chanel is something like 80 ounces for the same price. Oh but that Cuir de Russie. Thanks for the comment. Don't delete next time. It was far more interesting than the post itself.

Chuck said...

Hi Brian,

Thanks for the kind words! I had actually not intended to delete my comment for good -- I just wanted to edit it, so I tried to delete it and then repost it. But when I did that, it vanished for good. :P Do you have the power to undelete it? If so, that'd be great!

I agree that everything starts somewhere, and I hope that in time Byredo gets the respect it deserves. (And it's true, I guess that comparing Chanels to Byredos isn't entirely fair -- for example, the Chanels are EDTs while the Byredos are EDPs). Thanks for a really interesting series of blog posts!

a blog by Brian Pera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...

comment by Chuck:

I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis, and I think there are a few more subtleties to the strange dislike for Byredo.

One of them is that Byredo -- unlike, say, Maison Francis Kurkdjian or Tom Ford Private Blend (two inferior lines in my opinion) -- is seen as something of an upstart: they arrived as if out of nowhere, with a line of $200/bottle fragrances. It's hard to overestimate the impact that cachet has on perfume fans: the Maison Francis Kurkdjian line is extremely disappointing, but simply having the Francis Kurkdjian name on a fragrance will give it clout that it would otherwise not have.

The second is that the quality of the Byredo line varies wildly. For every amazing fragrance like Baudelaire or Bal d'Afrique, there's a Chembur or Blanche that would be overpriced at half the price. Of course, many hyped lines are also wildly variant in quality, but I think that the perception of Byredo allows people to fixate on the lesser scents in the line and ignore the better ones.

Finally, I think that price is an issue. Even the Maison Francis Kurkdjians are reasonably priced; and at the $200 mark, do the Byredos really compete with, say, the Chanel Exclusifs or the Malles, for example? I like Byredo a lot, especially Bal d'Afrique, but given a choice between a 100ml Byredo, a 200ml Bois des Iles or Bel Respiro or Beige, or a 50ml Carnal Flower -- well, Byredo will sadly lose.

(And, as for public sentiment determining quality, this is just wildly wrong: Think about awful movies such as Transformers or bands such as Creed and Nickelback)

Nina Zolotow said...

Just wanted to say this is very interesting. I think it's impossible to evaluate any work of art completely objectively. We always have a "frame of reference" (or "transference" to use the Freudian term) that we bring to a work, be it music, literature, visual art, or perfume. So, yes, we're going to be affected by the name of the perfume, the price, the story behind the brand, etc. Therefore, it's a good thing to examine our prejudices, no matter what we're looking at (or smelling).

Nathan Branch said...

"I think the general public sentiment never lies and if a company, whoever they may be, consistently releases crap, people will notice."

I just can't agree with that. I've smelled so much bestselling "crap" on department store and drugstore shelves that I was literally convinced I was losing my mind -- how was it possible that these bottles were flying off the shelves when they smelled like variations on laundry detergent, sweet tarts and weed killer?

The packaging and marketing costs for products are generally about a gazillion times higher than the cost of the actual item itself, so it's simply not true that consumers will consistently seek out quality and reward it with their dollars.

We're obvously far more interested in sizzle.

For example: set a movie in space (or in the future), blow a bunch of sh*t up and I'm there. Does that mean it's a good movie with any lasting cultural impact or intellectual insight? No. But I'm still lining up to watch it.

Re: Byredo. I only tried Rose Noir and Chembur, and was woefully unimpressed with both. I can see that I'm now going to have to swing the wagon train back around for a closer look at Pulp.

RM said...

Ok, that's not fair. Everyone else is way smarter (not too mention funny) than I am which leaves me at a distinct disadvantage! LOL
And upon reading your response Brian and others I'm inclined to agree; just because the people like it, doesn't mean it's all THAT! However, in my defense (I never explain things properly) by "people" I was probably meaning the perfumistas of the world who take an active interest in these things and in my, completely amateurish I
might add, view are normally pretty spot on in seperating the good from the bad.
I've heard many good things about Pulp across the boards so you're not alone on that one. And I've heard many people criticise the By Killian line and their lofty aesthetic and high price points too - so again, you're not alone!
The boards haven't been raving about old Francis K (ok he's not old but it just sounded good at the time) either so your view pretty much lines up there as well.
So I guess my point is...what is my point? Now I'm completely lost. Wait, maybe that the cynisism related to Byredo you've perceived is attributed to snobbery and some sort of bias and the examples used to highlight this point to me, don't seem that different to what I've read around the traps. Pretty much everything stated in your post, I've read others echo. Except that perhaps you like Byredo's products more than the general perfumista public. Does that make any sense at all?! Told you I was crap at explaining things.
Maybe my point is that if you'd like me to give Byredo a chance, I definetely will because I respect you're opinion and will give anything a try. But I'm not sure that any perceived negativity about Byredo products amongst perfumistas can be attributed to snobbery or bias - maybe others just don't like them, as scents, regardless of whatever they feel about the house.
Whew, that was a long and rambling response wasn't it? I mean, yours made sense and was funny and insightful and mine is a mish mash of confused ideas! LOL
Love reading your blog BTW, always a great read!

Brian said...

RM, I'm not all that smart. It's a lot of hot air. I just like the conversation, and I'm glad you brought it up. I'd love to hear from you more often. It's weird, anytime I try to make an argument I realize there are holes in it. For every rule an exception. So it's difficult and foolish to think I could find some definitive truth on the subject. The only relevant truth probably is that these things are super complex, and that complexity involves all kinds of contradictions.

I think more than anything I'm puzzled by the few reactions to Baudelaire I read recently. Baudelaire strikes me as at the very least an honest effort. I've noticed some hostility toward Histoires de Parfum as well, a line I REALLY love. But after reading your response I went through some of the Byredo reviews and realize the judgments are a lot more balanced than I indicate.

Oh the curse of being full of it!

Nathan, WOEFULLY? What a great word. Sizzle, on the other hand, is a recent buzzword that totally baffles me. It's as if the word was just discovered. I see it everywhere. It's like the new "tweaked". People are divided by Pulp. I think I have to acknowledge that it truly is mutant in some way, and you either like that or you don't.

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with Nathan's post.

Marketing, especially perfume marketing, is a very powerful tool. When I was young, I did actually buy perfumes because they were part of a vision of who I wanted to be -- even when they irritated my nose, and I couldn't find anything worthwhile in them.

Perfume, more than most other consumer goods, is vulnerable to the suggestion of critics' opinions and marketing campaigns. There is no objective way to evaluate it; it is about perception, memory and creating and experience through scent, and as such purely subjective. And not only do we all smell differently (I am sometimes anosmatic when it comes to J.C. Ellena's work), but our perceptions of those smells is personal as well.

Strongly-worded critiques can change someone's opinion and alter their perception of a perfume very easily... And personally, I think that people who are not used to making such judgements, who are not used to evaluating works of art and defending their evaluations, are particularly vulnerable to the power of suggestion.

And Nathan, don't forget to try Baudelaire...


Nathan Branch said...

Brian -- you know, I'm wondering if perhaps that's the first time I've used the word "sizzle" in a comment. It *is* everywhere right now, and I must have read it so many times that it just naturally flew from my fingers.

Of course, when talking about marketing and packaging, "sizzle" is a word that sums things up neatly, nicely and with great effect. Why make something merely "pop" when you can make it "sizzle"?

Monika -- I forgot to add that Abigail and Brian managed to nudge me into purchasing a bottle of Baudelaire. I don't know how they do it, but I often find myself hitting the "submit order" button after reading a tag-team effort by the ISTIA-istas.

I've never regretted it, either.

Abigail said...


Your "tag-team effort by the ISTIA-istas" made me roar.

Not that we're *trying* to do this to you - but it's amazing that it's working - and with a good track record no less! (fingers crossed you love Baudelaire)

Fernando said...

Clearly there are things that influence people's reactions. I've always been puzzled by Luca Turin's ultra-positive comments about Patricia de Nicolai, especially when confronted with his actual reviews of her fragrances. Or with his total dismissal of Mona di Orio. One would guess some kind of personal aspect is interfering.

For houses like Byredo, I think price point is a big factor. If you're going to charge that much, you need either (a) a huge, very positive track record (Chanel, Guerlain, even Kurkdjian) or (b) something truly good. And first impressions matter: if the first contact doesn't please, it's easy to assume that's going to be the "standard" for that line.

In the end, though, we have to admit that there's a huge subjective element to perfume reviewing in general. Among wine geeks, one often hears the comment that the wine that tasted so good when you tasted it at the winery is less interesting when you taste it again at home. Being on vacation, in a beautiful setting, with someone interesting... all that affects our impressions. I think it happens with perfume too, no matter how objective we try to be.

The only cure is for those who have a different take to speak up and say so. Thanks for doing that!