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:
Roxana Illuminated Perfume
A Rose Behind the Thames
All I Am a Redhead
Portland Fragrance Examiner
Sorcery of Scent