Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Overrated: I Smell Hypocrisy
I've been called splenetic before. I won't lie.
I had to look it up, and when I understood what the word meant, I didn't entirely disagree. This might lead you to believe that I'm a mean, nasty guy who keeps to myself. And of course I might be--mean and nasty. But the truth is, I love reading and talking to other bloggers. I love reading the various fragrance boards. I belong to a few of the more popular communities--and even a secret society or two. I've made many friends there, believe it or not. Every day I visit these sites and forums and do my share of reading. Often it feels like I'm at these places all day. The windows seem always to be open somewhere on my mental screen, and the discourse wafts in and out of my consciousness. It's a matter of record that we all routinely disagree there. Mostly, we agree to. I love knowing that the fragrance I love might be disliked by someone else. I like reading what gets other people talking, even when I don't have much to say about it myself.
So what gets my goat, exactly--and where's it getting from? I can't say. Overrated praise for the subjects below is simply "in the air", wafting in and out of the screens--not just on blogs but in forums, boards, fragrance site customer reviews. I don't pay tons of attention to the source. I just smell the general stench of something fishy after a while. The last time I wrote satire or, um, rather...angular...commentary, it was as though I'd slain a bunny in a field of dandelions. Surely there's room for creative dissent? Judging from our site's stats for that post, there is, and people secretly love to hate a strongly phrased, technically unpopular, opinion, believing themselves superior to someone's verbalization of things they'd secretly like to say themselves. I suppose in this case Duchaufour will be the bunny and again I have a sharp weapon in hand. So be it. I like a conversation, and I enjoy saying what it seems I'm not supposed to say. Like any community, online or off, we have our heroes and villains. I often want to illuminate the underdog and scrutinize the hero. Collective heroes tend to baffle me. What makes these people or things so great? Who died and made them king? And to what extent is our appreciation of them socially contagious?
Lately, several heroes and trends have continued to rub me the wrong way. Don't take it too personally.
1. Bertrand Duchaufour.
Who else but BD could top this list? Really, the way some bloggers gush about him, I sometimes think they must be sleeping with the guy. What other perfumer has had this much to say the last several years? Like Britney in the late nineties, Duchaufour seems to be everywhere all at once lately. Every time you look up, another perfume is flying at you. As they say on The Hills, "Random." The Petite Mort project was embarrassing--something like Britney shaving her head late at night in some squalid tattoo parlor on the strip--some end point of over-saturation resulting in crazy. I speak of Petite Mort using the past tense, because I wish it to go away. Like every perfumer, BD has his hits and misses, but for someone as apparently well loved online as he seems to be, the ratio of hit to miss seems pretty skewed. I've been so unimpressed with so many BD releases that I wonder what the hits might have smelled like had he focused a bit more. Mind you, I'm no perfumer. I just smell the stuff.
Look, they've made some lovely scents. Much of it smells fantastic--for all of ten minutes. L'Artisan was one of the first niche perfume lines to hit my radar, and I admit, I'd smelled nothing like it. However, of all the niche lines, L'Artisan is the least represented in my collection. There are some problems, mainly to do with persistence. Often, these feel like little sorbet things; it's as if they're meant to cleanse your palate, then poof, away they go. L'Artisan seems to me to be incredibly chic and slightly contemptuous. It mocks your need for longevity, as if expecting such a thing from an expensive fragrance were something so terribly declasse that only the truly, deeply stupid and poor would admit it. I rarely hear a word in print about the line's woefully poor lasting power.
3. Jean Claude Ellena
Where to begin with Ellena? The vegetal minimalism is fantastic, in doses, but as a few others have mentioned, the perfumer's style begins to feel somewhat provisional. Celery mist a perfume rarely makes. Funny, then, that as his compositions become sparer their prices scale new heights of pretension. I appreciate the fact that Ellena advances minimalism in an art which is typically about excess and over-complication. At the same time, coupled with the elitist marketing strategies and branding of his parent company, Hermes, what Ellena does ends up feeling like an advertisement for a parched, peckish way of life, dwelling in a rarefied air space where anorexia is exalted and deprivation in general is viewed as valorous. If this is luxury, I'll have a burger and fries, thanks.
4. Sucky, So-Called Collaborations
The Petite Mort project is really the Saturday Night Live parody of a trend which is all over the niche fragrance industry lately. Sad that it takes itself so seriously.
Meanwhile, Byredo's collaboration with the fashion entity M/M (M/Mink) was celebrated for its unusual end result--a fragrance which smelled like blood and animal hide. What kills me about this, if I can go on a tangent, is that, until M/Mink, Byredo was criticized for not being cutting edge enough, as if Byredo wanted you to believe very desperately that it WAS in fact cutting edge. I never heard anything from Byredo's marketing department which begged me to believe so. The Byredo perfumes are 200 bucks for 100 ml. This isn't terribly expensive compared to many other niche fragrances. Kurkdjian's fragrances are 175 for 75 ml, to use as an example a perfumer and a line many seem willing to forgive anything and everything. L'Artisan and others can release the most insipid fragrance imaginable, charging arm plus leg for it, and no one bats an eye. It isn't as though Byredo is charging any more than any other niche scent, nor claiming to be any more fantastic. In fact, their marketing has been very quiet--admirably understated, I would say. They aren't making any claims any louder than any other supposedly staid niche line. Now that they've come out with something relatively unwearable, everyone jumps to say they're finally doing it right, and the price is irrelevant. It's as if Byredo finally figured out how to play the game--pander to a blogger's insufferable snobbery by creating a brief which means nothing and can be imagined to mean everything.
While I love Etat Libre D'Orange and realize that the Tilda Swinton fragrance, "Like This", is simply the next in a series of celebrity collaborations, the first being a perfume with Rossy de Palma (very good, by the way), I continue to be astonished at how lovingly people discuss the tasteful-to-the-point-of-banal Like This, and annoyed at how often their slobbery encomiums include a dismissal of everything PRE-Swinton at Etat. Etat has, from the beginning, created playful, wearable fragrances based on imaginative ideas and collaborations, priced pretty affordably to boot. They rarely needed gimmicky briefs or collaborations because their overall enterprise was generously playful and wide open. How odd that just when they become most boring (A Josephine Baker fragrance! Sex Pistols in a bottle! Available at Sephora!) they're seen to have arrived.
Every time I hear a blogger say, "I always disliked Etat, but Like This won me over," or something to that effect, I think of the snotty popular girl in high school who discovers the cool indie band when it appears on Letterman, six records into its career, playing its very worst, most TV-friendly song, and suddenly declares it's now okay to like them, because they're finally getting it "right". Think of the hypocrisy. Etat has never been forgiven by many of these same bloggers for releasing Secretions Magnifiques, years ago. Strange that Byredo should be praised for a fragrance which hits many of the same notes--with just as much gusto. And rather than admit that Etat was ahead of its time and that they might have been wrong about Byredo too, the popular girls simply say that finally these bands learned how to play good music. Strange, too, that so many celebrity fragrances which are no less interesting and no more banal than Like This should be derided out of hand.
Collaborations like M/Mink, Petite Mort, and Like This, whether with a celebrity or cutting edge fashion entity, would be much more fascinating to me were the fragrances better and the inspiration more compelling. As Dior perfumer Francois Demachy said recently, "Don't tell the marketing people but briefs are very similar to one another, always for the same kind of woman, the same kind of man. Briefs are just a term of reference...You can do whatever you like." So it is with these collaborations. Ultimately they feel interchangeable with more mainstream releases--it's just that in this case, they're all aimed directly at that snobbish blogger and perfume lover who says only something different, even wretchedly bad, will do. These aren't collaborations. They're briefs; key words plain and simple.
I don't mind an impolite fragrance. I don't see a need to curse Estee Lauder for the rest of my days for daring to speak too loudly or too crudely or whatever it is her fragrances are accused of. It really seems like snobbery to me. The stinkiest, most irredeemably vile niche fragrance gets all kinds of kudos for the very same qualities, it often seems to me. I'm really not too worried about my office mates. I can't remember the time a fragrance, even one I disliked, bothered me enough to write an anonymous letter. Why is it that a fragrance can smell like orgasm as long as it's done by a trendy perfumer, is priced outrageously, and smells like suggestion more than sex, while a fragrance which I can easily afford and which rolls my eyes back into my head with pleasure is just too much to bear? I'd rather not talk about manners when it comes to fragrance. It seems like just another way to avoid discussing what really matters; quality and creativity.