Reading reviews on selections from the Cartier Les Heures de Parfum line this morning over at Bois de Jasmin really got me thinking. In case you didn't read it, the post began:
"The deterioration of perfume's luxury status has resulted in some new marketing strategies on the part of high-end brands. The most obvious one has been to create niche lines within the main range that are distinguished from their commercial offerings both by the elaborate nature of packaging and the impressive prices."
By way of example, Victoria included: Chanel Les Exclusifs, Hermes Hermessence, Guerlain L'Art et la Matiere, Giorgio Armani Prive, and Christian Dior La Collection. The Cartier line, Les Heures de Parfum, didn't thrill her. It hasn't thrilled me either, and unlike Victoria, who seems admirably philosophical about it, I'm increasingly frustrated by these exclusive lines and the promotional strategies behind them, to the point of resentment, which is where my mind started to go after reading her reviews.
It might be a class thing, to some degree. As it is, I often struggle with the aspirational fantasies used to market many mainstream and luxury line fragrances. I'm on board with the fantasy part, but the rest of it tends to annoy me, unless the object smuggled inside this fantasy truly is unique. For the most part, I find that the entire luxury goods ball of wax is designed to intimidate and divide, and while anyone who reads this blog periodically knows I'm not afraid of a certain amount of debate, fragrance for me is, however personal, also intensely communal.
For me, it's about sharing and participating--in your fantasy, in mine, in the exchange of memories and impressions. I understand that the objectives of the fragrance industry are quite different, and that these things are only interesting to its marketers and manufacturers inasmuch as they can be turned into trends and revenue and made to fill out the contours of a bottom line, but when it comes down to it I don't really care what the fragrance industry is doing, as long as the fragrances are worth talking about and the ability to share in them persists.
I remember walking into Cartier off Rodeo Drive during a visit to LA a few years ago. In memory, the place is all gold and red velvet, little spots directed at specific places on glass shelves, attracting your gaze, if not your devotion. Stores like Cartier are very quiet when you walk in, as if everyone has been hushed speechless by the atmosphere of anticipation. Les Heures is meant to extend that reverence and devotion in a slightly different but related direction, and in fact the fragrances are--or were two years ago--located around the corner from the jewelry cases, in the nooks of a formidable column. As if stowed away like a special secret. I'd read a lot about Les Heures and was excited to finally smell them.
The perfumes feel almost hidden, and I felt I was sneaking in to get to them, the way I used to steal into my mother's and grandmother's medicine cabinets to smell their scents. Sometimes you're ignored in these shops--it depends on who's looking at what and how much it costs and how likely it is they'll buy it--but in that hushed atmosphere a newcomer sticks out very noticeably. A Cartier saleswoman approached me instantly. She wanted to stand there while I smelled the fragrances. It made me feel self conscious, particularly I guess because of the way I was dressed. These things are ingrained in me from my childhood, that feeling of being "less than" around certain indicators of status or prestige, even though my adult self thumbs my nose at them, and though, let's face it, plenty of terribly wealthy people walk around in worse.
It's funny how we keep falling for things like these exclusive lines. We WANT them to be special, to validate our awe, and of course their marketers understand that. It's their competitive edge. I just wish they would make the fragrances as special as the experience of entering the store to smell them, holding the bottles in hand, being in the rarefied atmosphere of these shops. I suppose what I want when I hold that bottle in Cartier to my nose is a big whiff of Jesus--something to make me believe. Instead, it's like the moment you're told there's no Santa Claus and you put together just who's eating the cookies you put out.
It was a curious moment, at Cartier. I'd smelled them all. I went from one bottle to the other with rapidly diminishing expectations, yet my hope held out until the last one. And when I replaced it on the shelf, it was all gone, the mystique, the sense of division, the class stuff. I thought, my t-shirts and jeans make zero difference, there's no less or more than here, this feeling I have is a total lie of the mind. It's liquid in a bottle. The world is full of liquids in bottles. I was suddenly aware of the banality of the silence in Cartier. Nothing spectral about it, or even particularly silent. I could hear the "business" of it. The phones ringing, the computers, the office chatter, the street noise. My mind had conspired to make it special, based on years of conditioning and collaboration with the people responsible for shaping Cartier's image out in the world and delivering product which had the potential to deliver on its promise. My devotion was based largely on willing suspension of disbelief.
What I'm wondering is, how much longer can corporations like Cartier afford to keep diminishing our expectations? When these "Exclusive" lines, which are meant to stand apart, instead reinforce our sense of interchangeability, it's only a matter of time before we lose faith altogether. It seems to me that they are perhaps making themselves money in the short term while cashing in on equity they will need in the future. What happens to a place like Cartier when you walk in and notice the lighting before the goods? It's probably not the best thing that when I smell one of these fragrances, I immediately start asking myself what makes it so special it should cost so much. The truly great fragrance, once smelled, justifies "all".