Monday, March 14, 2011

Eternity: Cleaning Up The Eighties with Calvin

Christy Turlington, saddled with motherhood, daydreams of a night out at Studio 54

For a long time, I regarded Calvin Klein's Eternity as its own sort of stand alone monolithic entity.  In my mind, it sat on its own somewhere, out of context.  It was so all over the place during the time of its release and for several years afterward and was such a brilliantly art-directed phenomenon that it seemed more like a cultural attitude than a scent.  You smelled it everywhere, on everyone.  It seemed so definitively of its time, yet it wasn't anything particularly new (Tania Sanchez has remarked how closely it resembled an earlier Caron, which itself was pretty traditionally floral; a little stuffy, even) and in fact it essentially took an older form, the dowdy floral bouquet, and shoved it into the big shouldered stance so popular in the eighties.

Sophia Grojsman, the perfumer behind Eternity, was of course the go-to woman for this kind of treatment.  She'd done Paris, the quintessential neon floral, several years earlier, and excelled at pumping up the volume without sacrificing density.  Her fragrances of that time were loud without being shrill.  No one has really matched Grojsman in terms of radiance.  Her fragrances, especially the scents she created between the mid eighties and the mid nineties, were radiant to the point of radio-activity, translating the baroque intensity of classical perfumery represented by a fragrance like Bal a Versailles in a uniquely contemporary way.  A Grojsman fragrance took over the senses in a way very few eighties scents, as loud and bombastic as they were, managed to do.  They were powerful but because of their radiance felt buoyant rather than heavy.

Obsession, which came out in 1985, was really Calvin Klein's first massive success in fragrance.  Obsession was one of the heaviest of the heavies, as dark, deep and mysterious as Eternity was bright, buoyant and straightforward.  Even the ads for Obsession were dark: dimly lit scenes viewed through screens and colored filters.  Josie Borain was the perfect model for the Obsession campaign, and really the first sign of Klein's still unparalleled brilliance at creating powerful associative images and personas which brought his fragrances vividly to life in the imagination.  Borain was the athletic-to-the-point-of-boyish Calvin Klein consumer wandering into the exotic oriental territory of Obsession.  The ads depicted her sensual saturation in a nocturnal  world of hedonistic abandon, emphasis on random couplings and sweat.  Obsession was Klein's mass-market version of the often anonymous nightlife excesses popular among the early eighties Studio 54 celebrity demimonde.

Religious Iconography: Madonna and Child
By the late eighties, he was focusing less on the bi- to omni-sexual aspects of middle America's latent fantasy life, and his own libidinous practices, once much publicized, were made, at least officially, a thing of the past.  Eternity was about matrimony, motherhood, and the responsibility of kids.  The names say it all.  Obsession was about heated moments, fugitive, fleeting encounters driven by capricious animal urges.

Eternity was about commitment and tradition and implied a more binding series of motivations, less about impulse, more about incentive and investment.  The ads were shot on or around the beach.  Christy Turlington was as quintessentially Calvin Klein as Borain had been, but nowhere near as athletic.  She was all-American, but not particularly outdoorsy.  Her tan seemed to come from afternoons spent outside the family's summer home, rolling around in the waves or fields of grass with her progeny.

In some of the Eternity ads, the children rest on her back like the weight of a newly assumed responsibility, and the look on her face, while mature, can be read as resignation as much as beatitude.  Most of the ads involve the presence of children, and the children are carried or sheltered in some way.  The tangled poses of limbs and skin recall the compositional strategies of the Obsession ads, but sex has been replaced with sentiment, and black and white reinforces the subliminal impression of returning to a cleaner, more self-restrained time.

Eternity felt like a baptismal cleansing.  It was so bright and so forceful that it seemed to want to atone for past excesses and indulgences.  It was like wiping a slate clean--as if one night stands at Studio 54 had borne children rather than disease, resulting in gain rather than loss.  Another aspect of Grojsman's work is that intrinsic sense of cleanliness it has.  Super saturated, it's also magnificently scrubbed.  You rarely get animal undertones in a Grojsman fragrance.  There's no real animus there, no feral alter ego.  Her fragrances are sensual without anything approaching sleaze.  Until Bvlgari Pour Femme, Eternity was the cleanest of them all; cleaner, to my nose, than even Calyx, which came out the year before Eternity.  Calyx, while happy and sunny, has a moodiness Eternity lacks.  Eternity says, Civet?  What's Civet?  Eternity would never think to consider a cat's ass.

Family as Everything
The fragrance smells predominantly of violet, carnation, and musk.  The carnation is slightly spicy but the violet softens whatever bite it might otherwise have.  Eternity feels fantastically clean without being particularly soapy.  It is floral without coming off as prim or prude.  Either of those qualities would come off as a whitewash, and might have sunk the ship of Calvin Klein's enterprise.  Eternity was meant to make tradition and conservatism seem infinitely sexy, and it succeeds because of Grojsman's style and the approach of the ad campaign, which is as much a form of porn as the ads for Obsession had been and the ads for every subsequent Klein fragrance would be.

Bruce Weber, who photographed Turlington and "family" for the promotional images, was to photography what Grojsman is to fragrance, managing to make "crisp" and "clean" into some kind of charisma approaching but never touching sex.  Weber's photography, even at its most revealing, felt all-American, fresh scrubbed, tanned, and chiseled like classic Greek sculpture.  Like Grojsman, Weber creates impressions which are iconic and emblematic.  The result of Weber's, Grojsman's and Klein's combined effort was a fragrance that felt like sunshine and nostalgia in the form of heady amnesia.


Karin said...

An attractive co-worker (also roommate) soaked herself in this in the early 90's. When she'd walk by, all of the guys' heads would turn. I found it headache inducing - way too "radiant" as you mention. Even the memory of it gives me a headache!

Brian said...

Yes, Karin, most definitely a no holds barred assaultive clean

FruitDiet said...

Eternity reminds me a lot of Amarige because of that FORCEFUL slutty/chaste dichotomy about them about them. Both came out at a time when 80's powerhouses were still the dominant trend, but they have a reactionary soapiness to go with their bombshell boozy fruity floral sides that says "marriage" and "commitment".

Nothing compares to Calvin Klein when it comes to advertising campaigns. I love all of the perfumes themselves, they are all strong and have a distinctive character, but I can't get over the brilliance of providing such fleshed-out self-images and aspirational lifestyles to go with their perfumes. One can have nothing but all the CK perfumes up through CK Be and you'd have something for every mood and occasion. The campaigns create this incredible two decade long narrative that stretches from late 70's decadence (Obsession) to reactionary values (Eternity) to the sleek, futuristic 90's (Escape) to the optimistic anti-fragrance statement (CK One) to the pessimistic anti-fragrance statement (CK Be). What other house has EVERY BASE COVERED in this way? None.

Brian said...

It's no secret that your facebook posts of late inspired me to revisit Eternity, Fruitdiet. I feel the same way. I don't think anyone, even Tom Ford, has been as singularly brilliant as Calvin Klein from a marketing point of view--not least because the scents truly spoke to the ad campaigns. You look at Eternity ads and they FEEL like the perfume smells. So it is with all of them. Ford is a good example I think for comparison because he kind of illustrates how half assed so many enfant terribles are when it comes to a shocking campaign. The scents never smell like the ads look, with the exception of maybe M7, for YSL. They're empty signposts, leading nowhere. They titillate without a fantasy to make them concrete. Those Ck ads were just shockingly brilliant, top to bottom, thoroughly thought out.