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.