Friday, December 10, 2010

The Whole World is Mothers and Daughters: Estee Lauder Private Collection (Review and Bottle Giveaway)

Private Collection is one of my favorite fragrances, yet I've resisted reviewing it until now. Like Estee, I guess I've wanted to keep it a secret. I'm not sure why I've been hesitant to talk about it, unless I just want it to stay in some magical, imaginative domain, some fantasy realm where only I know about it, as if it were made expressly for me. It's as if Private Collection and I are dating: I'm the geek, and Private Collection is very popular, and if I bring our relationship out in the open, no one will believe me, and it will be clear that it was all in my head: Private Collection belongs not to silly insignificant me but to much more important people in the world.

High school analogies are inevitable when it comes to this one, because I have such strong memories of my teenage sister wearing it. Remarkably, I've maintained a pretty fierce devotion to many if not all the fragrances she wore when we were growing up. I remember Coco, Bill Blass, Lauren, Albert Nipon, Anais Anais. As far as I can recall, my sister wore one at a time. We didn't have a lot of money--we were quintessentially lower middle income, Middle America--and when I look back I can't picture more than one bottle out on her dresser. She didn't have a collection. She emptied each bottle before moving on to the next, which probably went a long way toward building my own attachment to them.

For months she would smell exclusively, and strongly, of a single charismatic fragrance. Like a song you hear over and over, each fragrance became a sort of soundtrack to our childhood. I smell them now and, while I can't construct a chronological time line, I move directly back into the heightened emotional landscape of that period. Impressions flood back in. I remember the way the light came through my sister's bedroom curtains. I remember the feeling I got from that. I remember the painted treatment of her dresser; the way her room looked behind me as I viewed myself in her mirror, wondering what it was like to be her, or, at the very least, not to be me. I remember the feel of the textured green carpet in the hall outside our rooms, the way it rubbed on my feet. It was comforting, like being in your pajamas.

My sister wore a lot of Estee Lauder, so the soundtrack is pretty heavy on that specific, instantly recognizable instrumentation. Estee Lauder connected mother to daughter. It reinforced a cohesion in the home. Recently, an almost satirically snotty commenter referred to me as being "geographically marginalized," because, I suppose, as a blogger, when I want to contact a perfumer, whether to interview him or befriend him or, say, sleep with him, I must negotiate it all online, as if, by not living in France, I am out of some essential loop. It's a joke, of course, because at this point, no one is geographically marginalized. Ask Facebook. There's probably a perfumer or two waiting in your suggested friends box. There is no center. The world is full of centers. There is no "there" there anymore, as another saying goes.

Back when I was a kid, to be American was truly to be stuck in your own skin, in your own pocket of experience. A term like "geographically marginalized" would have meant something then. Corporations understand this as well. Estee Lauder achieved something back then that very few companies can any more. She was ubiquitous. It was a name and a brand that signified very specific things. Very American things. America was a conglomerate of remote, far flung outposts. You were alone in your experience and the world was way, way out there, somewhere past the shag carpeting of your suburban hallway--but others, way, way out there, were using Estee Lauder too. The name was everywhere. It was on TV, at the store, in magazines, on your mother's lips. Estee Lauder was a kind of American mother figure herself, and her brand reinforced an idea that all these geographically marginalized satellite points were connected, even if you couldn't prove it yourself or see exactly how. You trusted her on that.

You saw the Lauder name in your mother's medicine cabinet. In the family bathroom. In the make-up bags your sisters and mothers used. It was a reassurance of some kind. I wasn't attracted to women sexually but I was fascinated by them. They seemed connected in ways guys weren't. They seemed to understand those distances separating everyone and every thing. There was a combustible bond there between women which I thought must be unique to the gender. Estee Lauder seemed in on this conspiracy of connection. It was a secret code, a part of that language. You'd go to the mall and women were clustered around the Lauder counter. It was always the hub. It was hard to believe they were just talking about foundation and lipstick. The way they were huddled, their excited speech, indicated some sort of strategizing must be taking place, as if, across the country, they were all plotting their escape. I wanted them to take me with them.

My mother tells a story about me which makes a lot of sense when I consider it in this context. Apparently, I roamed away from her at the mall once. I couldn't have been older than five. She looked all over for me. She had security searching too. Finally, the sound of female giggling and chatter. As it turns out, I'd crawled into a glass-fronted display counter. They found me because a crowd of women had gathered around to watch. I was wearing a bra as a hat. I was putting on some kind of show. Maybe I wanted to be at the counter because that's where they all seemed to want to be. Obviously, I wanted to be part of that conversation. Now that I'm older, I understand that what they were talking about was less important than the basic fact that they were talking, which is kind of why I talk too, probably.

My mother or grandmothers wore Youth Dew and Estee. My sister went through Beautiful, White Linen, Cinnabar, Knowing, Tuscany, and, most memorably, Private Collection. I don't remember picking up most of her bottles. But I can say that, picking up my own bottle of Private Collection several years ago, I had an amazing sense of deja vu when I felt the thing in my hand. The glass has a specific feel to it. Your fingers make a unique sound whistling along the glass, a hushed but emphatic kind of thing. Of all the perfumes my sister wore, Private Collection had the most gravitas. It was formal in an outdoorsy way. It felt a little like Christmas, with its evergreen aroma and the kind of emotional intensity one finds centered a lot around the holidays.

My sister was popular but intense. I still don't know what was going through her head during those years. I still wonder. She was very pretty, gorgeous really. She was feminine, but like many of the women in my family she was also very headstrong in a way which indicated deeper reserves of masculinity. Private Collection shares a certain feeling of athleticism with another favorite my sister wore, Clinique Wrappings. It's that flushed sensation of someone coming in after a brisk run in the cold. There are florals in the mix (specifically, orange blossom, linden, jasmine, chrysanthemum, rose) but I never really notice them until I force myself to. Private Collection feels like a cold air fragrance to me. It feels like the outdoors brought indoors, like frost on the windowpanes. There's a brilliance to it, a sun on snow kind of quality. Its slightly powdery feel only adds to the wintry impression.

I don't know when it was created. It was released in 1973. Company legend has it that Mama Estee reserved it for her own use, before being convinced to pass it onto her daughters out in the world. I think another reason I've resisted sharing Private Collection publicly is the fact that so many react in visceral contempt for the brand and its fragrances, almost the way we grumble at the suggestion we've grown up to resemble our own mothers. We want to enforce a sense of separation there, maybe. How many times have you seen a mother protest when her daughter doesn't apply lipstick before a photograph? How many times does the daughter rebel? Maybe it's something like that. Estee is mom and mom tells you what to do. To love her is to mind her, and maybe it's impossible to appreciate our mothers objectively. Whatever the reason, I've chosen to avoid soliciting unfavorable scrutiny about Private Collection particularly. I want to protect it from that rejection, I guess.

I have a bottle to give away--but I should be clear: this is Eau de Private Collection. I'm not sure what the difference is. It's lighter, to be sure. It lacks some of the powder. And I believe it lacks oakmoss and some of the heavier players which make the base of Private Collection proper so durable and persuasive. However, it's very similar; i.e. wonderful. The bottle is 1.7 ounces. To be eligible, you must have commented on this site before. Drawing will be conducted Monday. Conducting these giveaways, I realize, is a way for me to get back into the glass fronted counter. See you there.


Elisa said...

This is an EL I haven't spent much time with yet. Every now and then I wonder why the hell I haven't bought more Lauders when they're so easy to find and so cheap and so (to me anyway) appealing.

Unknown said...

What a lovely article. You have a great writing style.

I just discovered Private Collection this year and was surprised at how much I liked it. Please enter me in your giveaway!

Unknown said...

One of the great things about perfume is its ability to bring back powerful memories of loved ones, isn't it?

I've just discovered how wonderful some of the old Estee Lauders are. Thanks for pointing this one out. I love the PC Tuberose Gardenia but I haven't tried the original.

Nina Zolotow said...

Brian, I just want to say this: every once in a while you write a post that is every bit as good as a short story or maybe just IS a short story. In this post, the passage about standing in front of the mirror trying to imagine what it is like to be your sister is particularly beautiful and haunting. You know how in the literary world they use the term "transcending genre" for certain works that rise about their purported intentions? Well, you've done that here, in this artful (in the best sense) piece, as well as in a few very memorable others.

Brian said...

Thanks, Nina. You know, I've found that doing a blog involves all sorts of moods and points of reflection. I never always know where I'm going to go when I start a post. I never really do, I guess, though I kind of sense when it's not going to be incredibly personal. The most personal posts for me come out of nowhere. Like this one. They just sort of take me "there". Glad you like.

Unknown said...

Brian, that was just lovely! I think you've really captured something about the personality of the US in the 1970s and 80s. I wish that PC and Aliage were my kind of thing - I appreciate them both but they're so very much not "me." I love Cinnabar, Azuree, and Youth-Dew, but wish they didn't remind me of a "mom figure" in my life who died too young. Cinnabar and cigarettes were such an important part of who she was...

Brian said...

I'm stealing that phrase, "Cinnabar and cigarettes." That's too good.

Katy Josephine said...

Brian, I enjoyed this post very much. Private Collection was the last FB perfume I gave my mother before she died. Azuree is the one that reminds me most of her, however, and I will cherish the bottle I now own.

My hope is that you can soon let go of the 'geographically marginalized' comment. This must have really pushed your buttons as it has appeared in almost every post you have written since. In bringing it up repeatedly, your snarky commenter is getting way too much free press.

Brian said...

Oh I love the comment, Josephine, but I expect I'll get tired of it soon. I'm like the guy who sees the banana peel sitting there and has to keep slipping on it, until someone hits him on the head with a cartoon mallet, then he can move onto doing that fifty times. Bear with me. I'm enjoying the comic possibilities in the phrase.

I'm glad you read regardless.

Brian said...

If I said something really really stupid, I can only hope that someone would exploit it to its fullest potential like a dog with a particularly meaty bone.

Kathryn said...

Your memories would make a wonderful movie. My Perfumed Life? You've written this so well I can see it in my mind's eye. And I can almost smell the perfumes, wafting through the years...

Tamara*J said...

Brian, I loved this.
You are gifted my friend.
Please enter me as I LOVE PC, it's the most glorious green chypre ever!
Along with vtg. Parure,vtg Miss Dior and vtg. Crepe de Chine.
I would adore it to pieces,it's like falling in a field of grass with the sun shining on my freckled face.
It would make me happy to win this.


sunnlitt said...

Thanks for the lovely story. I seldom comment, and don't know whether I have here, on your blog, or not.
I do enjoy reading your words about Scent, one of my favorite topics.

Unknown said...

This post was such a treat. I'm kind of baffled that someone could deduce that you are "geographically marginalized." Based on what? Certainly not your great writing, and certainly not your knowledge and experience in perfumes. Strange. I am working-class and live in middle America, but I don't feel like that makes me any less entitled to like what I like or to say what I want to say about...whatever. Hope you get what I'm trying to get across. Which is, you're great, please keep it up!

FruitDiet said...

What a beautiful post, Brian. If I had to choose one perfume house and live the rest of my life wearing only their stock, I would without a doubt choose Estee Lauder. Youth-Dew was my first real perfume love. In the Texas summer heat, I took Youth-Dew bath oil baths, then applied the lotion, then applied the cologne, then applied the powder. I really got off on the fact that I smelled like Joan Crawford did in the fifties. It's one of the only bottles I've actually finished. I then became an Estee Lauder fanatic- I currently own Azuree, Alliage, Knowing, White Linen, Wrappings, Aramis 900, and Aromatics Elixir. They're so solidly resistant to change, and they're each such complex, expansive works of art, but most of all they're SO CHEAP! If I have little money and desire a new perfume adventure, I go for a Lauder I haven't tried. Most of them are way weirder (and better) than many supposedly crazy niche perfumes, and you never have to worry about reformulation (less than with any other company, at least). I mean, there is no way that the Knowing they sell now is compliant with oakmoss restrictions. No way. Also, Cinnabar is far more faithful to Opium than the current Opium is, and it doesn't cost half as much.

I have Estee Lauder's fabulous, LITTLE ME-esque autobiography, which is filled with the kind of blatant Hedda Hopper-style LIES that make all the best celebrity autobiographies. It features pictures of her posing in lab coats and tinkering with bottles as she suddenly stumbles upon the formula for a new masterpiece of perfumery (not, you know, the French scientist that actually did it). She regales the reader with tall tales of improving the appearance of just about anyone in public in mere minutes by smearing on some of her patented Estoderme Youth-Dew Elixir, or whatever it was. It comes with a "personalized" letter from Estee herself, inviting the reader to enter a world of wholesome American beauty. I highly recommend it.

RM said...

Wow - what a fantastic post. Thank-you for writing this, it was a real pleasure to read. I envy people who can write/talk about themselves and their lives with so much honesty and naivety. This doesn't really sound like something I could wear but perhaps my wife would appreciate it, so I'll gladly be entered in the draw!

KathyT said...

I love, love, love Private Collection, and I still have a stoppered bottle of the parfum that I purchased sometime in the 1980s. As I teenager, I frequented the Estee Lauder and Clinique counters gathering up bottles of Aliage, Cinnabar, Estee, White Linen, and Aromatics Elixir. They are all still so wonderful to me, but I don't pull out the Private Collection parfum too often because it is a little too much at times. I love that I can still go to the Lauder counter and smell those old favorites. I enjoyed the article so much - it made me smile to think of teenage girls ever wearing those sophisticated (to me anyway) fragrances! I wish that I still had my teenage fragrance collection with the EL fragrances, Rive Gauche, YSL Y, Anais Anais, Calandre to name a few. One thing that I think is interesting is that I never remember anyone complaining about all of us teenage girls wafting trails of Aliage and Aromatics Elixir - not particularly subtle fragrances. Have modern sensibilities changed that much because I almost feel aggressive when I wear a small spray of Opium.

I'd love to be entered into the drawing please. Thanks!

Angela Cox said...

I spent my childhood sneaking into my elder sister's room to "borrow" her Emeraude . I loved it then so recently bought a vintage as I am one now . My other sister loved Wrappings but I must admit I don't know what that smells like. I keep seeing it on E:Bay and must get her one. As soon as I had money I threw myself at Guerlain's Jicky and Vol de Nuit , then Quadrille, Bal a Versailles . One day I found Guerlains giving me headaches .When I became a Mum I couldn't afford perfume and my husband was addicted to Evelyn so he bought it for my birthday , Christmas , Mother's Day , Remembrance Day ( err no sorry not that one). So when I inherited some money from my Mum it was enough to start all over and the fantastic Une Rose was my first purchase ,then a lot of Carons and on and on . I must try Private Collection next time I am in town. My elder sister no longer likes Emeraude and isn't a great fan of fragrance .I am working on her though !

RM said...

Sorry! I meant 'vulnerability' not 'naivety.' (And I think I spelt it wrong anyway!). I'm a moron - see what happens when I try to look smart? Lol.

Veroushka said...

Long time reader, first time commenter, but I'm going to comment anyway because I enjoyed this post so much. my entire childhood my mother only ever owned one perfume, Chanel No. 5.
One year I decided to buy her something else, something that I would choose just for her based on how I see her and what I know she likes and I chose Yves St. Laurent's Nu. She loved it, and wore it until she ran out (I freely admit to helping myself to a few squirts, as well) and we went to buy another bottle only to find that it was discontinued.
I have a small decant now that I keep for special occasions, when I want to channel a bit of my mother's strength. It seems to work. :)

By the way, the snottiness of that one commenter was so epic that I'm still not entirely sure it wasn't a troll. Seriously, who writes like that?

Marina said...

No need to enter me, just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your... post seems like too small a word.

Anonymous said...

I did not get on with Private Collection - or, indeed, any of the EL scents at all, since (I feel compelled to explain every time the subject comes up) there is something common to the Lauders that I cannot really *smell*, but which makes my stomach turn over. The only scent I didn't find it in was Pure White Linen Light Breeze, which is such a bottomless little fragrance that there was no point at all in buying it, simply to say that I did indeed own a Lauder scent.

My aunts wear Lauders (Knowing, Beyond Paradise) and they smell wonderful. It must just be me. In any case, please don't include me in the draw.

I have to tell you, Brian, that I am always powerfully moved by your posts dealing with family and childhood. Thank you for sharing part of yourself, and in such a lovely way.

I too remember being a child on the fringe of those adult-women chats. My mother's friends weren't prone to discussing beauty, and I can't remember ever going shopping with her for such things as makeup or fragrance, but that "we are women, we are together, we matter to each other" feel in the air, and my provisional inclusion in it, were such a strong pull to belong and be part of that group. I can't remember ever wanting to be a boy. I was content to be a girl, and looking forward to being a woman, and I think those chats between my mother and her friends or sisters-in-law had to be part of that contentment.

Brian said...

Thanks, everybody. I'm always shocked when I write posts like this. I write them thinking, who wants to hear this stuff? Yet the responses I get prove me wrong, because I love hearing al your stories myself. I feel like we all gathered at the Lauder counter.

Ms. Rachael, I actually pretty much know who left that comment, and I know he was serious. It's hard to believe, but true. Part of the fun in dragging it out was the prospect of prolonging his embarrassment. I do think people should be embarrassed to say such extravagantly stupid things, even when said anonymously. But I also think it had a lot to do with Lauder and the post, and the experience of growing up in America. Part of what's lost now is that geographical marginalization. I would hate being too remote to get perfume now, I think, but sometimes I miss that innocence too. I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of. And of course the act of reading a blog is a curious mixture of geographical marginalization (all of us, from each other) and what it means to transcend that through reaching out.

Fruit Diet! I saw this book two weeks ago! At a used bookstore. I hope it's still there. I can't believe I passed it up but I thought, how good can it be? Now I know I was deluding myself.

Muse, I loved your thoughts. You know, I don't know I ever wanted to really be them, the women in my family, but I wanted to be special, the way I felt they were. And I so agree. Their conversation seemed so exalted sometimes, even when sharing recipes.

Brian said...

The winner is: Ms. Rachael. Please get in touch by email with your mailing info? Congrats!

ScentScelf said...

I waited until the show was over to tell you I'd come back for the second run. No freebies required.

Ever since you first tossed out an "all the world is mothers and daughters," I've kept that as a theme in the back of my brain. Somewhere. The funny thing is, from one girl's point of view, my very first reaction when I hear that is reactionary. I know, in a world of sister love, of Wild Wacky Women, of Purple Hat Societies, of talking to your ta tas, I should immediately embrace the words and come in.

But I have to back door it. Because I like what you are talking about.

When it comes to Private Collection, I take this meandering and say that I like to think that Estee held on to it, because as long as she did, she could hold it in non-gender limbo. She could assign to it HER first, other accoutrement as required by a given day.

But that is the joy of talking in your head, no? You can develop a narrative as it suits.

When you put the words, or the perfume, out there, it becomes subject to other narratives. Which has its own pleasures, of course.

So long as nobody tries too desperately to hold on to The Center, but maybe at most A Center, no?

Thanks for putting your words out there. I hope whoever got/gets the PC has fun with it. And if they don't, that they pass it on.

Brian said...

I'd forgotten that I used the title until after I posted, but it seemed like a sort of sequel to me, so it fit.

Ah the Purple Hat society. The line comes from a film. A QVC-like saleswoman speaks it at a board meeting, trying to defend her usefulness to the network: she has quantifiable relationships with her viewers, she argues. She's a slightly deluded character--my favorite kind--in the sense that she probably overestimates the impact of what she does, but there's a back door truth to it, too, that even she's blind from seeing. So the line, I think, was definitely meant to have that front door/back door tension to it, balanced somewhere between sentimental cheese and something a little deeper and harder to articulate.

Who knows if the Lauder story is even true? She was a saleswoman. And I think to some extent there was something of the carnival barker to what she was doing. The whole step right up thing. One of the things I really love about Estee Lauder as a persona is how very door to door it is. In her bag is a more exalted form of snake oil salesman. I appreciate that. It's very American. That pitch, the marketing strategy. Look how effective and resonant it's been: part cheese, part sincere.

ScentScelf said...

Persacktly, as the commenters sometimes say in assumed voice. I don't know if the Lauder story is true or not...but I varnish up the layers to suit me. When I am in that mood.

Anyway, now on to catch up with the Hughes crew.