Sunday, September 16, 2012
Miss Dior le Parfum: One of Those Things That's Not Like the Other
Dior has never been one for leaving a good thing unbroken. Maybe it's closer to say they've never been much for leaving well enough alone. Fahrenheit, while nowhere near what it used to be, remains within the company's inventory, but has spawned something like seven flankers - and counting, surely. J'Adore, a bit of a ghost of its former self as well, has been parlayed into its own cottage industry, with about fourteen related "versions", including limited editions, seasonal variations, anniversary distillations, and one extrait and absolute after another. Since launching in 1999, J'Adore has been subjected to these updates or additions annually. Addict and Dior Homme have been handled similarly.
At the same time, Dior has shown some superficial sensitivity to the preservation of its antiques, housing them, however renovated, within the collection called "Les Creations de Monsieur Dior", a funny name maybe, considering the monsieur in question would presumably be Christian himself, whose name has been removed from the brand for some years, which is simply now referred to as "Dior." It's questionable at this point just who Monsieur is meant to mean: Christian, or François Demachy, the man responsible for overseeing these various "collections" and for re-orchestrating (i.e. reformulating) their constituent fragrances.
Diorling, Diorella, Diorama, and Dioressence bear little resemblance to the scents they once were. Demachy has argued that the auteur theories about perfumers are overstatements, if not misleading simplifications. A fragrance like Ungaro Diva, commonly regarded as an early composition by Jacques Polge, was in fact, Demachy has asserted, more collaborative, representing the work of several well known perfumers, among them Demachy himself. I don't doubt it; nor do I believe that our romance about perfumers and the sanctity of their work properly accounts for the bigger picture reality of business as usual at a large aroma-chemical corporate entity like Givaudin or Symrise.
Demachy has something more at stake in this line of argument promoting the devaluation of single authorship in mass market perfumery. Dior's parent company, LVMH (of which Demachy is "super creative director"), has moved to take over Dior's fragrances, previously owned as we knew them by chemical corporations (such as Givaudin and Symrise, et al) which copyrighted the original in-house formulas. By creating these variations, Dior and LVMH seek to restore their ownership and control; slightly different names, slightly different formulas, made with materials other than those owned by the companies who patented them. The fact the resulting fragrances bear little resemblance to their namesakes is I guess apparently neither here nor there, unless you are a consumer who fell in love with the originals. Still, you have to ask yourself what Dior doesn't seem to be asking itself - is it worth holding onto these names if they gradually move so far astray of recognizability that what's in a name means next to nothing? Demachy says yes indeedy, by contesting, however justifiably, issues of authorship.
Miss Dior Cherie and Miss Dior are the first real indication of what all this means for those of us with our fingers on the atomizer. Created by perfumer Christine Nagel for Givaudin, the original Miss Dior Cherie was maybe one of the best iterations of what we now know as the category fruity patchouli. It had an interesting tension to it, part strawberry, part caramel, part buttered popcorn. It bore some relation to Angel, but was brighter somehow, its contrasts, though bold, not quite as confrontational. Some loved it, some hated it. I suppose a fragrance has a right to be divisive. In the last several years, Dior and LVMH seem to have used Miss Dior Cherie as a litmus for how far they can take Dior's fragrances away from their vocabulary, and as a barometer for the usefulness of that vocabulary in the first place.
Miss Dior Cherie is now, for all intents and purposes, Miss Dior, and Miss Dior is something no one talks about. We all know it existed. We all know this Miss Dior is not that one. That Miss Dior, I imagine Demachy would be the first to point out, was already very little who she'd once been. She'd been, as we say, gutted. Though still recognizable, facelifts had rendered her indefinably altered. We lamented the changes, however hard they were to pinpoint. Demachy seems to be saying that nothing remains the same, so laboring over a name is a pointless endeavor. But trying to pinpoint the changes, I'd argue, with an existing reference point - i.e a name - was useful in some way. What happens when the reference point is evacuated entirely? The reference points are arguably essential, if only to attempt to qualify how over time things inevitably change, and what change means as an ongoing reality.
The conversation generated by those kinds of ongoing comparisons (between original and reformulation, for instance) is killed as far as Miss Dior is concerned. Before long, it will be as if the conversation never happened. The conversation will live on in our minds, vague over time, the way the original Miss Dior, or its facsimiles, will. Imagine the dialogue at your local department store now, where the Dior sales associate will look at you foggy eyed when you assert that there was once a Miss Dior of a different stripe, that Miss Dior is not in fact simply Miss Dior Cherie renamed and rebottled. Try to imagine a conversation of this kind, dealing in nuance and subtle distinction, with associates who still actively contend there is no difference between an eau de parfum and an eau de toilette. These are, typically, people who, as it stands, treat anything they don't stock as fictitious. I have to question Dior's game plan, after my experience buying Miss Dior le Parfum. The Dior associate who helped me spent twenty minutes trying to track down just what I was looking for, with all the boxes (Miss Dior eau de Parfum, Miss Dior Cherie EDT, Miss Dior Cherie EDP, Miss Dior Eau Fraiche, etc.) lined up right under her nose. Try cultivating brand loyalty when determining what exactly the brand is involves an afternoon-long excavation.
Miss Dior le Parfum smells lovely. There are remnants or echoes of original Miss Dior Cherie in it, though nothing I can discern remotely connected to the original Miss Dior. Like much of what Demachy has done, there is an abiding amber creaminess to Miss Dior le Parfum. It's rich, if not particularly expansive. There's something like strawberry in it, marinated in an abundance of vanilla, amber, and refined patchouli. One wonders, smelling it on cloth or paper, whether anyone involved in its creation ever actually smelled it on skin, because on skin that richness becomes a bit self-absorbed - rarefied and stingy like the girl at the party who knows everyone will eventually come to her. Like J'Adore L'Or and Hypnotic Poison Eau Sensuelle, both also by Demachy, Miss Dior le Parfum approaches embarrassment of riches, in the sense that it is almost too refined to bother with pleasing anyone but itself, let alone you. It makes the most sense on a paper strip, where it plays out slowly.
It's one of the more exciting things at the department store counter right now, and that makes it seem very exciting indeed. How exciting is that, when the barometer is lower than the final stages of a drunken game of limbo, where the bar is down where only the truly inebriated would dare to crouch? I love it, with some kind of qualification I can't put my finger on, but who can spot much with a moving target? What exactly am I comparing it to, and why bother? It's a great fragrance: something old, something new, a department store fragrance done well. It invites a series of fantasies. It lasts reasonably well. And it has no relationship to anything I can attach emotional significance to.
It has nothing at all to do with its namesake, and hardly needs to, so I suppose the problem for me lies with Demachy, Dior, and LMVH. While I sympathize with their position, I find their tactics dishonest and offensive. It's a small thing, ultimately. They're telling me that the name means nothing. And yet they're fighting hard to keep it, which indicates otherwise. We all know, as consumers, that these names do in fact mean many things, many infinitely personal things. These creations live with us and become parts of our narratives. I trust Demachy, at least, knows this. It's one thing to be told that things change and that, for instance, the fragrance your mother or your grandmother wore as an integral part of her identity and your understanding of her will go the way of all relics. It's quite another to assert that you might as well play fast and loose with these cultural signifiers, insisting on the one hand that they mean very little, even as you work hard to capitalize on their mystique.