Saturday, August 25, 2012

If Fragrance is a Thing of Wonder, Why Do I Always Try to Put It Back in the Box?

A few days ago, doing some maintenance on the blog, I realized that I don't often review recent fragrances, and I started thinking about why that might be. Plenty of new things come out - there's a constant stream of things, and many of those are worth talking about. I could write a post every week about something new.

I used to think I was stuck in the past. Most of my posts are about fragrances that took hold in my memories a long time ago, even as far back as childhood. I don't think of Coco or Private Collection or any number of eighties fragrances without viewing them through a complex prism of memories involving my sister and high school friends and experiences, for instance. I tend to think about fragrances as specific points in time, and only have much to say about them if I've lived with them through something or they've fused with a nexus of recollections about people I've known.

I smell new things all the time. There isn't much that hits the market I don't smell and develop impressions about. But those impressions always seem premature, sort of flimsy to me. How can I really know a fragrance until it's lived with me? I marvel at other blogs. They remain so current. They have early impressions and those impressions seem definitive, written with an assurance that's pretty foreign to me so early on in my experience with a scent. I can see a film and know what I think about it pretty instantly, at least with the confidence to express an opinion about it, however much that opinion might evolve over time. With fragrance it's different for me. I feel like I know next to nothing about a fragrance and can't trust my initial sense of it with any kind of certainty after a few first impressions. I feel that way about people, too, however much I'm smitten with them at first.

I once interviewed several bloggers, asking them how they go about reviewing fragrances. I talked to about five people, all of whom said that they spend anywhere from a few days to about a week with a fragrance before writing about it. Like everyone else who loves perfume we're excited to start talking about it. We fall in love or we don't, and we document the affair. I've always trusted these early reviews, relied on them, hungry for other people's ideas about scents I'm coming to for the first time myself. That's part of my daily conversation. But the conversation that really sustains me is the one where people talk about a fragrance they've spent years with, revisiting it again and again over time under constantly changing frames of reference. It isn't just our own feelings that change. Culture itself shifts around a fragrance, distorting or revealing undiscovered facets.

Once we write about something, we rarely go back to revisit it in print, and yet we all know that the way we felt about a fragrance a month or even a year ago can seem totally alien to us when we smell it today. The fragrance boards are full of comments about virtually every fragrance on or off the market, detailing the time we've sat with them and the way we either confirm our first impressions or come around to the previously unknown attractions they've harbored. Myself, when I write a post, I always feel the pressure to look at something I haven't before; revisiting something I've already covered would be redundant, or would in some way undermine my credibility. If I disliked it or felt ambivalent about it last year but have since changed my mind, why should anybody read what I might have to say? Clearly it's untrustworthy. I'm supposed to stand by my opinion. What happens, though, when we're not standing together any more? Isn't there something to be said for being candid about that? Doesn't it say something important about scent?

The truth is, there isn't a day where I don't go to the perfume cabinet and pick something up, even something I've smelled regularly, and think, wait a minute, what's that? Where did that little thing come from and why didn't I notice it until now? The day to day reality of perfume for me isn't really reflected in the way I've written about fragrance. The way I feel about fragrance day to day is constantly shifting and re-situating itself. It's full of doubt and discovery and epiphany. Disappointment that turns to satisfaction. Estrangement that becomes intimacy. The blog is a ceaseless thrust forward, clocking things off one by one, avoiding the reality of fragrance's mercurial nature.

Isn't that a lot like the worst parts of the fragrance industry and the marketplace in general? I'm constantly bemoaning the way things are simplified or distorted by perfume creators and marketers, and yet the way I approach perfume in print supports that culture and those trends of impermanency and novelty. Something new every day. This is the latest: onto the next. By simplifying fragrance into a single, definitive entry in my quest for the new surprise or delight, am I contradicting how I really feel about it and what it means to me? Am I colluding with an industry I often feel hostility or bewilderment toward in confirming that one word is the last word?

I smelled Balenciaga Cristobal Pour Homme this morning, on a rainy, sleepy day here, and I liked it so much better than the last time I saw it. Sometimes the vanilla is all I smell, and I think of it as a sugary behemoth. Other times, I smell it and everything seems perfectly balanced. Sometimes it's more masculine; sometimes more androgynous. Even a fragrance like Coco, which I've always loved and never doubted, shows me new things, new textures and feelings, every time I smell it. Private Collection is often like an old friend - but I return to it each time feeling that as much as I've loved it all this time, I've also diminished it, because I can't see all of it or see it as it truly is. I keep projecting onto it, depending on my mood, and even though the projections are positive they feel like they have more to do with me than Private Collection ultimately.


Elisa said...

You've reminded me of something that I've wanted to do but keep forgetting to follow through on -- I want to do a kind of "then and now" column where I re-review things I smelled in the past, things I like more or less than I used to or just understand in a different way. For example when I first smelled Agent Provocateur I thought it was very prim and ladylike and not at all dirty, considering the source. I liked it a lot then and I like it a lot now, but now it seems very sultry to me, like an older woman speaking in a throaty smoker's voice. I think it was just my expectations when I came to it the first time, expecting it to be "sexy" in an obvious way, in the way that Victoria's Secret catalogs are, like a cloying kind of sexy. Anyway I'm sure I have more perspective on many things I reviewed more than a year ago. It would be good to revisit. I actually think it would IMPROVE my credibility/integrity, by bringing my opinions up to date.

Marko said...

First of all: YAY!YAY!YAY!!! You guys are back!!!! Around the end of March, I quit "stopping by" ISTIA (with my morning cup of coffee), because it appeared that you and Abigail had a) lost interest in perfume b) became too busy to keep up the blog......I was quite sad to say the least. (on the up-side, it forced me to seek out and find some new fragrance blogs to add to my roster of morning readings...although I found some really wonderful blogs out there, none of them had/have ISTIA's ability to make me contemplate how fragrance can changes one's ideas about self, memories and the world around us....I'm SO stoked your back!!!)

Secondly, I agree whole-heartedly with the post today. My perception of fragrances in my collection change ALL THE much so, that I realized this summer that my 200+ collection is more like a "20,000+" collection due to my changing perceptions of fragrances in general and the ever-changing, situational experiences I have with each individual fragrance. But I also think this has a lot to do with being an Artist. I have found in the last few years that I am more and more interested in revisiting older choreographic work I have done in the distant past and "tweeking" it/updating it/discovering new things behind the messages in the movement/etc. It's not there aren't any "new ideas" out there to choreograph about - but there is something incredibly satisfying about truly knowing something so well (because I originally made it), yet still discovering nuances and inferences buried deep within the context of the work. It reminds me of who I am as an Artist, where I came from, and even how drastically different my creation process has evolved.

And I believe that "fragrance perceptions" fit into this tenet as's not so much that the fragrance is changing (albeit, sometimes it does due to age, light, and heat) - but more so, I am the one who is constantly changing and growing and thusly bringing a new "personal history" to the equation....and sometimes that can even "change" the memories associated with fragrances.

Again, so glad you are back - or, more appropriate to the topic at hand....I'm glad I have "re-discovered" your blog.

Brian said...

Hey Elisa,

Yeah, I think it has to do with expectations, and also maybe just where your head is at in general when you smell something at any given time. When I smelled things at your place, even things I was familiar with, they smelled different to me somehow. Just the different context and a different influence changed them for me I think, along with the change of weather. That happens with me when I watch a movie with someone else sometimes: it can almost be like a different movie, because I'm reevaluating my opinions based on how the other person is reacting to the movie. The then and now idea seems like a really fun way to handle the shifting sense of smell. You going to do it?

Brian said...

Hey Marko,

Good to hear your voice again, too.

I don't know that I ever lost interest in perfume. I think it has more to do with writing about it - and over the course of four years and a weekly habit of putting your thoughts down, you're going to end up wondering sometimes what you have left to say or how you might keep verbalizing your thoughts.

Life has been busy the last two years, and for me a lot of that has had to do with perfume, so it's weird that the more my life was consumed with it the less I had to say about it. Again, I don't even know that I had less to say. I think my feelings and thoughts were just more complicated at times, and I didn't always know how to fit those thoughts and experiences into the practice and format of this blog.

I don't really think of it as even a diary, though I used to in a way. At this point, even though we have readers who come to it looking for the latest post, I know that, based on my own blog reading, blogs are sort of a compendium of thoughts, an ongoing catalog. You read the latest but you also go on your own personal idiosyncratic hunt through the archives, which are grouped chronologically but experienced achronologically. Once I realized that I felt a little freer to just put down what I'm thinking and feeling, because in the end it's all of a piece.

I think in some way perfume engages that artistic spirit in most people who love it, regardless of whether in their personal lives they're technically artists in general. It's something that invites reflection. It guides your thoughts or your thoughts guide it. It's contemplative, which is I guess part of the reason I'm ultimately not sustained by blogs that constantly rate and tick off new fragrances; they aren't accounting for that weird way perfume has of constantly shifting and engaging and pulling an about face.

mals86 said...

Oh, now this is a fascinating post. I have over the past couple of weeks reread some of my early reviews and am surprised at the way my thoughts and perceptions have changed... how my emotions have and haven't changed, as well.

I reread books so frequently and habitually that I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me that I should revisit reviews. We listen to the same music, study the same art - we develop relationships with these inanimate things, and the relationships morph, don't they?

BTW, I am really thrilled to see new content on ISTIA. (And a much-easier-to-load format.)

Oh yes... meant to ask: are you still wearing Loretta as frequently as you had been? I wrote my review of it, and then I put it away (well, in my defense, it's SUMMER, duh, hot n' humid, and the broad was about to murder me). But lately our weather's turned a little cooler, and somewhere at the back of my mind is the idea that I can't wait for Loretta to start messing with my brain again. Because it's So Huge and So Weird and So Dark and So Just Freakin' Wrong - and So Addictive, as well.

Brian said...

Hey Mals,

I thought of you while writing this post, because I feel like you're an example in a lot of ways of a blogger who does revisit things, through your scent diary, and through that you show a little about how a scent lives and evolves with you.

I do still wear Loretta, though I feel like it has more to say to me, or I have more capacity to listen, in fall. I've been making some short films for Loretta in advance of the October release and have spent a lot more time with it a little more critically than when I was just "wearing" it. By critically I guess I mean trying to think more in terms of what "kind" of scent it is, as in what kind of images and mood would be true to it.

But I'll tell you, I've been wearing Miriam more than anything lately. That scent is a good example of a fragrance that changes a lot with me over time. I guess I smelled it first over a year and a half ago, and though I loved it at the time it came out, I also pegged it as certain things which precluded me from seeing it fully or even other ways.

When I first smelled it I thought it was very sweet. It's funny. I don't get that much now. And Miriam does something to me and my mind and mood I can't really explain.

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