Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Year That Was 2010 (Version Brian)

I should start out by telling you that I didn't smell everything there was to smell in 2010, because I wasn't by any stretch exhaustive, and I think maybe that's what we've come to expect out of these annual summaries--some kind of self-appointed, authoritative overview. I do make an effort to smell new things--but much of what came out this year sounded so dreadfully uninspired to me that I didn't bother to track it down, and a weird feeling of anomie started sneaking in right around Spring.

It was a depressing year. While I appreciated attempts by some of niche perfumery's more recognizable names to branch out of their comfort zones, I couldn't help feeling that they were following the lead of larger brands, engaging in what seems at this point to be the overall corporate strategy of smoke and mirrors. Put another way, pissing on your leg while telling you it's raining. I might not have taken the offense I did to L'eau Serge Lutens, for instance, had it not appeared at a time when the company was silently reformulating some of its best fragrances. Sadly, when it comes to acknowledging these sleights of hand, Lutens is no different than Dior. Both assure you quality and uniqueness. Each feigns innocence when asked about self-mutilation. At some other time, L'eau and last year's Nuit de Cellophane might have struck me as a willful expansion of Luten's trademark boozy stewed fruits and woods sensibility. Instead, they seemed like insult to injury.

A few weeks back, I wrote about perfume snobbery among bloggers. It was--and continues to be--our most popular post, though popular might not be the best choice of wording. Some viewed it as insufferably snarky. I mention it now not just because I know it touched a nerve at the time but because I feel that its subject had a lot to do with what made the year so dispiriting. The post, for me, was a reminder that what distinguishes a blog is passion. When I first started reading perfume blogs several years ago, I was attracted most to their enthusiasm. Their writers were, I think, more than anything, opinionated enthusiasts. I didn't need them to be informed, necessarily. The world is a big place, and much of that diversity is represented online. I was always able to find something when I needed it, after a simple Google search.

With the proliferation of perfume bloggers this last year or so came a a subtle but significant re-alignment of the conversation. It was no longer enough to be enthusiastic. One needed to be informed; by that I mean one needed to be more informed than someone else. I like information, and I like to know that I'm getting the right information. Specialists are...special, for sure. At the same time, I don't need everyone to be an expert, and I've never cottoned much to cultures of know-it-all's. I suppose, again, that at some other time, this emerging snobbery would have been mildly entertaining to me. But it seems to me that it goes hand in hand in some way with developments in the fragrance industry at large. Worse, fragrance manufacturers have increasingly grasped the usefulness of the perfume blogger and, beyond her or him, the community of perfume lovers, and have seized opportunities to exploit those avenues for marketing purposes. It comes down to trust, for me.

The sense that public opinion is being heard is something to feel hopeful about. The sense that it's being manipulated in yet a different way is frustrating. The sense that I myself am being manipulated by a blogger in much the same way the industry lies to me (about everything from connections to quality) is infuriating. At a time when the industry should be criticized more soberly than ever, drinking the Kool-Aid might best be avoided. Being appointed to hand it out isn't a distinction I would toot my own horn about. Often this year I found myself wishing that bloggers spent less time impressing me with their credentials and a little more time expressing an honest, sincere opinion.

I don't have a list of bests to offer. I do have some thoughts on the year that was:

1. If the above paragraphs bum you out, Tauer perfumes has something that will cheer you up. It was wonderful to see so much care and thought put into the presentation of Andy's fragrances this year, especially because, for once, the design scheme wasn't simply a distraction. When Shalimar and Opium change their "look" it typically means a litany of nips and tucks to the formulas as well. When anyone can get anything anywhere, and needn't add to their collections of this and that, packaging becomes ever more important. One wants to open or hold something unique, something which feels handmade. Tauer has always understood this, in the sense that his fragrances have been consistently well constructed. The new packaging is keepsake-worthy, matching the peerless qualities of the scents. Far from butchering the fragrances which already existed in his line, Tauer released several more. Carillon Pour un Ange was all the antidote I needed to the abundant lack of imagination prevalent almost everywhere else this year.

2. With so little going on in the landscape of contemporary fragrance, I re-framed the picture, taking the opportunity to look back. Finding some of the older versions of the fragrances often discussed on the blogs reminded me not only how good they once were but how impossible attempting to discuss something which changes so imperceptibly over time can be. Older Habit Rouge was a revelation--leathery, sweet, potent, plush. Smelling it, I instantly wondered which one the blogs I'd read were talking about. Were they discussing, in their reviews, the latest version, which lacks the magnificent depth and drama of the older version? Must de Cartier was once a bizarre conflagration of chocolate, galbanum and civet. It now lacks the civet and, more importantly maybe, the longevity which allowed one to discern these unusual contrasts at length, in all their subtleties. The list is long. I didn't set out to look for anything in particular. I kept my eyes open and looked in unlikely places. Even old Byblos was a revelation. It wasn't that these things had changed beyond recognition. It had more to do with depth and detail.

3. The mall was full of few surprises. How could the industry have lost the plot at a time when it was so easy to find a narrative thread? More than ever before, people verbalize their favorites online. It's all there, at the click of a mouse. Many of these fragrances seemed like punchlines to jokes told while I'd been out of the room. The most uninspired, for me: Marc Jacobs Bang, Aramis Cool Blend, Gucci Guilty, Van Cleef and Arpels Oriens, Paco Rabanne Lady Million, Estee Lauder Sensuous Noir, Dolce & Gabbana The One Gentleman, SJP NYC, and Armani Acqua di Gioia. In a different mood, I might have liked a few of these a bit more. Sensuous Noir is an improvement, I think, but it feels as well like a bid for ubiquity; odd coming from already ubiquitous brand. Pleasures Bloom and Wild Elixir hardly sweetened the lump.

4. Note to Etat Libre d'Orange. Less Like This. More like that. You will never be mall-paper. Embrace what you are. Stop trying so hard. So, people didn't get the cartoon imagery. So people balked. A lot of people don't like David Lynch, either. How ironic that you released the Sephora exclusives Sex Pistols and Josephine Baker, when you already embodied punk and puckish so well before. Even stranger that those fragrances embodied their inspirations less than your existing line already had. CC this to Lutens, Dyptique, and Comme des Garcon.

5. Thank you, Lush, for injecting some fun into this tedium, with Gorilla Perfumes. It wasn't just that Lust, Orange Blossom, and Tuca Tuca were so fantastically robust and irreverent. Check out the website. These people understand what fragrance lovers want and why they're looking for it online. The interviews with the perfumers are informative and conversational. There are opportunities for readers and users to comment. There is a sense of activity and exuberance on the site. And the B Never Too Busy to be Beautiful scents were reintroduced, which is reason enough for gratitude. The response to this (the site, the concept, the spirit of the overall project) was apparently overwhelming. The Gorilla site has closed until sometime early in 2011. Check it out then.

6. Dear Bond No.9: Did you alienate Maurice Roucel? If so, consider writing a letter of contrition. I know, I know, humility isn't your strong suit. I have a feeling you're the type to suckle a grudge like a vacuum catches up in a rug. Fine. What of Aurelien Guichard (Chinatown) or Michael Almairac (Fire Island, etc.)? Too busy, those guys? Made some enemies, did you? Here's a suggestion, and I'm the first to admit I know nothing: slow down. You released way too many fragrances this year. At the same time, you raised your prices. These fragrances left much to be desired. Poor in persistence, lacking in imagination. I could go on, but I'm already bored. High Line was just silly. Washington Square was a little better, but little is nothing to brag about at the bottom of a deep well. Roucel is just the rope you need to lift yourself out.

7. Against the tide, I loved what Amouage had to offer this year. Memoir Man and Woman are stunning. Amouage seems to be the one house where I can be expected to gravitate toward masculine over feminine. Gold for men is even more baroque than for women. Jubilation XXV is a masterpiece, the one Bertrand Duchaufour fragrance which puts a chink in my ambivalence about that perfumer. Memoir is astonishing, as was Opus I. Yes, there are ghosts of other fragrances in the mix, shifting behind the scenery. It's also true that they are exceptionally good, and in every way that counts there is nothing else remotely like them. Expensive, yes. And worth every penny.

8. My favorites: Yosh Omniscent EDP (a remarkably rich and satisfying update on the oriental; even better when you compare it to the reformulated travesty that is "Opium"); Mona Di Orio Cuir; Ninfeo Mio (sweet, salty, figgy, green); Hypnotic Poison Eau Sensuelle (an interesting variation, if nothing shockingly innovative); Orange Star, Eau d'Epices, Carillon Pour un Ange; Sartorial; Womanity.

9. Despite my apparent rancor, I enjoyed many things on perfume blogs this year. Marina at Perfume-Smellin' Things and Victoria at Bois de Jasmin made welcome returns. I'd missed them. When I first started reading, I consulted their blogs regularly. Okay, obsessively. I continue to rely on them. I continue to enjoy the customer reviews on makeupalley. I find myself visiting basenotes a little less frequently than I once did, though I'm not sure why. Fragrantica has become the go-to reference site for me for various reasons. I read most of the newer bloggers. Muse in Wooden Shoes keeps a great scent diary, which weaves her experiments with fragrance in and out of her everyday routine. I like reading her experience of life as much as her thoughts on what she smells. A favorite continues to be OlfactaRama. There's a gravity and a breadth of knowledge to the writing, and a bullshit detector, all of which I find addictive. OlfactaRama has been a real godsend to me: I rely on her perspective, her erudition, her sense of humor. Elisa Gabbert brings a unique set of qualities to her blog, The French Exit. It isn't always or even often "about" perfume, though it touches on fragrance enough to count as a perfume blog of some kind to me. Gabbert observes with a poet's attention to detail and the compelling disconnect of someone attuned to the specific over the exhaustive. I love her writing and I love the comments on her posts. That's another thing. The comments are often half of the equation on my favorite blogs. Katie Puckrik is inimitable and, I think, gets better and better at what she does. There's a confidence there and a comic sensibility I really enjoy. The best thing I saw, probably, was Pyramus' series on the eighties over at One Thousand Fragrances. The crowning piece was the most personal thing I've read on a perfume blog, and I appreciated it more than I can say--in all its rambling, close-up to zoom-out splendor. I always look forward to, and enjoy, reviews on peredepierre and Yesterday's Perfume. I continue to love Notes from the Ledge all out of proportion. I read them all--new blogs and old. Among the older blogs, props must be given to Perfume Shrine, another I've enjoyed obsessively.

10. The best part of doing this has been you.

Please see the other participants in this Best of 2010 Exercise:

Scent Hive
The Non-Blonde
Smelly Blog
Roxana Illuminated Perfume
DSH Notebook
A Rose Behind the Thames
All I Am a Redhead
Schreibman's Live
Portland Fragrance Examiner
Sorcery of Scent


Anonymous said...

What a great look back over the past year! I really enjoy your style and how you boldly state your opinions that I find spot-on most of the time :)
Thank you, Brian, for your candour and refreshing perspective.
Totally with you on the Tauer! Carillon pour un Ange is perfect (this is stated enthusiastically, not knowledgeably;)).

Beth Schreibman Gehring said...

I love this..and although I haven't yet read thepost about bloggers yet (and I will) I wholeheartedly agree. As one of the writers for perfume Smellin Things and Sniffa mag I sometimes feel a bit silly because I definitely lack the knowledge that many of the others have. I love perfume though and I try to convey my passion for it with a bit of imagery and a simple description or two, because those are the tools that I have. You're right..the facts you can find pretty easily. I started reading and subsequently writing about perfume because I was enchanted by the places that the writers took me to. I'd love to see a return to that myself! Thanks for being so bold!

Ines said...

I really like your perspective on the perfume industry as I often feel I lack the objective thinking gene. :)
Happy New Year!

queen_cupcake said...

Dang it, I ought never to read other peoples' comments before leaving mine. I too appreciate your honesty & sincerity. And if that manifests as tough love for us perfumistas, well [Singing now] "That Was The Year That Was...Now it's gone, let it go...

Elisa said...

Great post. I hate making year-end best-of lists for the same reason -- I've never smelled/seen/heard/read anywhere close to all the perfumes/movies/albums/books released in a given year, so it feels dishonest. The best books I read this year were The Emperor of Scent, A High Wind in Jamaica, and Howards End. Pretty sure none of those came out in 2010. :) As for perfumes, I started taking them seriously as a hobby/lifestyle about a year ago, so my best discoveries of the year are pretty much the best discoveries of MY LIFE at this point.

I'm honored to be included in your list! So glad this blog is thriving. Happy new year!

Flora said...

Wonderful post! I am the same as Beth who commented earlier, an enthusiast who does not have the technical knowledge or the ability to try everything that comes out, but I try to share my love for perfume anyway! Hopefully there will always be a place for those of us who are true amateurs in the perfume blogosphere.

Rose said...

I haven't read the original post yet but agree with much of what you say here about bloggers/ opinions/ the perfume industry.

I started blogging because I just loved perfume and writing about it- then I started writing about all kinds of thing. With popularity come offers to review things and it can be hard to not give a nice opinion about something offered for free- I try and be nice to everyone but I can't claim to like something I don't and I'm not free advertising.

What I say I like, I really do and I really do wear (even the mens quite often)

I don't know how blogs will progress and I don't know how perfumes will either.

I found it hard writing about new scent highlights this year- although on reflection I forgot and did like the L'Artisan Vetiver very much and I think mens scents are getting a lot more interesting- especially thanks to Mr Tauer! I would like to see more cherishing of the oldies too, more inventive marketing of them

Wishing you a very happy 2011

stellaglo said...

wow! like a breath of fresh air! consider me a newly obsessed fan of your blog.

Olfacta said...

Thank you Brian for the kind words! And it has been an, er, interesting year. Made more so by reading your words...excuse my clumsy prose please, we were out late. My father once told me "ladies never drink gin" and now I know why.

Marina said...

Happy New Year, Brian and thank you!!!

Brian said...

Olfactoria, is Carillon not to die for? I put some on yesterday after reading your comment and even after a bath was enjoying it immensely, far into the evening. It's truly radiant stuff.

Brian said...

Beth, it's good to feel silly. I try to feel silly as often as possible. It's feeling stuffy that really gets you into trouble. I have a major soft spot for Perfume-Smellin'Things. I remember when I first started perfume-reading and -smelling and would spend hours on that blog. I trusted Marina's sensibility implicitly, and would roam around the blog learning about all kinds of new things. Then I went and hunted some of them down. I always go back to the excitement and enthusiasm on that blog because it re-orients me, reminding me I loved the people around perfume as much as perfume itself.

Brian said...

"Oh, Cupcake."

I just wanted to say that.

I ate those biscotti in what seemed like seconds flat. My stomach thanks you. My waistline curses you.

Brian said...

Elisa, I love Howard's End. Had you read it before? Any other Forster books you've read? I'm reading Mildred Pierce right now, in anticipation of the Tod Haynes adaptation which will be airing on I think Showtime this or next month. It's an AMAZING book. I never realized how good it could be. I started it two days ago and it's turned out to be one of the best things I read all year. It's pulp, a potboiler, but so smart about class and gender and sexuality--and motherhood!--and is infinitely more well written than many more high-falutin novels. Highly recommended. And I feel I must look up everything Jmes M. Cain did now.

Brian said...

Flora, the amateurs ARE fragrance. My mother was an amateur, and my grandmother, and everyone I've known, and they've connected more genuinely with perfume, more spiritually, even, than any expert I know, who can tell you what Ambroxan is and what a perfumer said yesterday about the state of the industry but can rarely account for or even speak to what a good or even bad perfume does to the mind and emotions. Long live amateurs.

Brian said...

Rose, I know, it was tough-going, sometimes this year. Okay, a lot of this year. I went backwards rather than forwards. But that's okay. I think backwards is the only viable direction at the moment, and points the way forward.

Brian said...

Stellaglo, thank you! And feel free to speak up whenever.

Brian said...

Olfacta, gin is truly dreamy--a real floaty kind of booze--but watch out for those mornings after!

Brian said...

Thank YOU, Marina.

Elisa said...

This was my first Forster read. I just loved it -- it might be the most feminist novel I've ever read! I also read Evelyn Waugh for the first time this year.

I will put Mildred Pierce on my list!

ScentScelf said...

Dear 2010 (Version B),

Can I tell you that this is the perfect cap to a benchmark year? You started the year with your usual bluster, then you went quiet for a while, then you came back roaring. You've entertained, delighted, and made me grow deeply thoughtful...sometimes all in one post.

Perfume break: Breath of God. Thank you, Lush, thank you. I had finally broken down and tried my sample, thinking I was smelling history, and within the month, you announced it coming back. Thank you.

Can I also tell you that I have always been a fan of the dialogue? Wherever, whenever I find it, I breath a little breath of {no, not God} happiness. Because, as much as I appreciate merely visiting a good post, I love hashing it over. You sling good hash.

Perfume break: LMAO, Bond. Take that. Just like that, what you said. Though now I remember what you said about Like This. I disagree. I like that Like This. Me liking it, of course, means ELO's was a brilliant strategy, creating something like that to demonstrate that one needing knock one's block off in order to be clever. But that is just how I think. And how I like it.

Last thing I'm going to tell you--this time I won't ask. I was in the middle of, NO, okay, getting ready to but procrastinating writing my retrospective, such as it is, and then I read this. You redirected me, because I almost once and for all avoided the elephant in the middle of the room. I saw it. It was pink. It called me Livingston. I bantered with it. I think I'm done.

Let it be known that in whatever form you choose, I hope you carry on in 2011. I look forward to the Year That Will Be.

Scent Hive said...

Brian, I really enjoy your intelligent candor and hope for more of it in the new year!

Thanks for being a part of this blogging event and keep on doing what you're doing!

Happy New Year,

Anonymous said...

Brian, I have discovered your blog this summer, and I really enjoyed your reviews and articles. I know that you have been around much longer than that, but I just did not have an opportunity to blog as much over the past couple of years (and my blog reading dwindled too.) So, I am still catching up! Once I started blogging again, I realize that it is the interaction with other bloggers that makes it such a satisfying endeavor. The bigger the community, the more chances we have to inspire each other. That is my take on it.

I kept thinking that Ninfeo Mio was a 2009 launch for some reason, otherwise, it would have made it on my list too. As it happens to be, I am wearing it this morning! There are so few fragrances with a strong, leafy green note, and this facet makes Ninfeo Mio especially appealing to me.