Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dear Year: Reflecting on 2012


There weren't many surprises for me this year, but plenty of memorable moments. In May, for instance, after a grueling film shoot, I traveled to Portland to visit The Perfume House, my favorite perfume haunt. It was a good time to go back, as it had been a few years, and I was in a place I needed to reconnect with that original excitement perfume held for me. I discovered perfume at The Perfume House, really. I learned about Lutens there, L'Artisan, Nicolai, and scores of other fragrance options I'd never known about or even suspected.

I spent several days in Portland, which meant several days inside The Perfume House. There's a single window in the place but it's highly placed and small, and for the most part you feel you've stepped back in time, or to some pocket of time, past or present, that exists independently from the outside world. The staff feel like old friends by now, and even after all this time, having scoured the place from top to bottom, there are new discoveries, things on a bottom shelf I hadn't noticed before, or hadn't known to look for, like an old bottle of La Nuit edt, some early Rosines, and Basile, my favorite, and cheapest, discovery of the year. Basile is instant happiness for me: somewhere between Opium and L'Arte de Gucci, a subtly spiced green rose no one talks about and no one's put an exorbitantly priced sales tag on.

The weather during my trip to Portland was unusually sunny and combined with the experiences inside The Perfume House it buoyed my mood. One day, standing in the shop, I met a man who cultivates hybrid peonies nearby. He waits several years for results, and had just stopped in to show the latest fruits of his labor, two dodge ball sized peonies, one butter yellow, one blush pink. He carried them around as he spoke to the staff, talking about his process. It struck me that it takes him as long to grow a peony as it takes a perfumer to create a perfume.

The staff of the store keeps all the testers of its discontinued fragrances, so I was able to smell a few old Weil scents, Secret de Venus and Bambou. Both were beyond words, and reminded me that the past of perfumery is just as essential as the present, however hard to track down - and that the store which values this past becomes a real asset to the perfume lover.

There were only a few scents that pleased me as much as Basile. At Lucksyscent for the launch of Tableau de Parfums' Loretta with Andy Tauer, I picked up a bottle of Santa Maria Novella's Patchouli, expecting not much. I was just standing there, and it was too. So I smelled it. Turns out it's my favorite patchouli, richly herbal with chocolatey undertones, and the surprise demonstrated for me that there are still discoveries to be made, right under my nose, where I least expect them, if only I keep my mind open. It's harder and harder to do that but maybe more necessary now than several years ago, when the discoveries were so numerable I didn't have to think much about how to wait patiently for them.

The buzz this year circled furiously around fragrances that ultimately disappointed me in a big way. I shouldn't be shocked any more by the disparity between what I've heard and what I smell. I should know better at this point. Still, I was taken aback by just how boring so many of these scents were. The Ramon Monegal line was nice in places - Mon Patchouli, Kiss My Name - but emblematic as well of the high price one's asked to pay for small pleasures in the current perfume marketplace. Kurkdjian's Amyris duo was instructive, not just the scents themselves but the way they were talked about. Bloggers praised them as mainstream done well, which to me, once I smelled them, seemed like a not so coded way of saying even mediocre is exceptional when you lower your expectations sufficiently, spoken the way you do when you're in bed with the subject of your appraisal.

That told me a lot about perfume reviewing now as well. I read all the perfume blogs daily when I first started smelling, and up to the last year I continued to read even those whose prose seemed the most steeply canted toward ass-kiss. I've stopped reading all but a few now, having realized finally that for too many bloggers it's more important to know the creator of Volutes well enough to chat her up at a party than to report on the fragrance with any kind of useful honesty.

The other side of this is the tendency toward "hostility first, sober assessment later" for all things fragrant, a trend I saw more and more of on the fragrance boards and consumer review sites this year. I believe the two go hand in hand. Perfume lovers know in their guts that, however well written some of these blog narratives are, they're chronically disingenuous and often self-serving, a pretty girl insisting everyone affirm her prettiness, however ugly her behavior. More and more, bloggers seem to have crawled into bed with the makers of perfume, not just perfumers but the corporations behind them. It's only natural that the consumer, sensing this, would react defensively, distrusting everything sight unseen.

I think something will have to change, and fortunately, everything eventually does. I view this type of blogging, however current, as already paleolithic, and I look forward somewhat hopefully, though hope is against my nature, to something different, where these voices will be seen for what they are and others who haven't yet been corrupted by the betrayal of their own weak egos will start talking a little more loudly.

This shift in perspective characterized the year for me. I lost a friend in October, and the process of grief involved re-evaluation and re-prioritizing. What matters started to matter more to me after that, but I'd been moving that way for months. We're living in a highly accelerated moment, where a lot of information and many options are thrown at us on a daily, even hourly basis. We're encouraged to feel I think that we must work very hard to vie for attention, which means being heard. At the same time, we're led to believe that in this state of affairs things can still feel and be special. Who cares if by shouting I can be heard, if what the listener takes away is a lot of shouting.

By October, I knew several things: I knew that those two modes of consciousness work together destructively and are in fact actually contradictory, and I knew that I needed to step away a little so that I could somehow get back in touch with what does matter in life. At this point I need to believe, with confidence, that some things do matter. If every new perfume release does, then really nothing can. I want a little more intention in my life - in the things I value and connect with. And I want to believe a connection can transcend the next several minutes or days the way we like to say perfume can. Like my friend, a profound perfume is unique in its ability to reach you and bond with you. The most impressive thing about it shouldn't be how much money it has or how many friends in high places. I need to learn I think that the exceptional peony comes after a patient wait, and that the waiting is as important and valuable as the eventual appearance of the flower.

I hope everyone's had a good year, and is out there making personally meaningful discoveries, and perseveres in the belief that ultimately the best barometer is your own mind and heart.

33 comments:

queen_cupcake said...

Beautiful post, Brian. Thanks for keeping it real! I'm having a quiet day, sorting my dozens of perfume samples and have rediscovered many I didn't remember I owned. So it is time to thin out the herd... Nice to read about your trip to the Perfume House. I would like to go there some day. Warmest wishes to you at Christmas and for an excellent 2013.

princessglee said...

Thank you so very much for your refreshingly heartfelt burst of honesty. I learned a new word while reading your post--paleolithic, and a new phrase--"hostility first, sober assessment later".
I bought a new fragrance today Peoneve by Penhaligon. Because I was suffering from "hostility first, sober assessment later" I almost by-passed my beautiful new discovery. The peony seemed to be the "it" flower or fragrance of late and I was having no part of it. Then I decided to use the best barometer that I have, my own mind and heart and made one of the best purchases ever.
Happy holidays!

Marla Robb said...

Thank you for your refreshing comments on the state of perfume bloggery. I left perfume blogging this year after 7 years of writing about everything scented. One of the big reasons was the "coziness" that's developed between many bloggers/blogs, and the businesses/noses/corporations behind the perfumes. Some so-called blogs are now just for-profit PR machines, in thin disguise. Others aren't making money from PR, but have become like a high school "in" group, promoting their favorite people (usually friends) without much honesty, and completely ignoring others. I just couldn't trust much that I read anymore, and I didn't want to be a part of it. I still read a few mavericks, though, and that's a lot of fun! Have a wonderful 2013.

Brian said...

Merry Christmas, Cupcake. You should definitely put Perfume House on your travel list, up there with the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, and the Taj Mahal.

Brian said...

You've made me curious about Peoneve, Glee. I too thought "meh". But one person's meh is another's mecca. I need to check it out.

Miss Conduct said...

Brian, is that Basile for women or men? I just did a quick Google and both look interesting and are available for cheap. I am ALL ABOUT inexpensive 80s gems that, if released by a current niche house, would cause widespread fawning on these here tubes. I suppose I could just blind-order both, since it will be a while until I can get to Portland.

Brian said...

Hi miss, it's Basile for women. I've heard about Basile man but never tried it. If you try it, let me know?

RM said...

Great post, Brian, and I feel the same way - even though I'm a nobody and probably shouldn't have an opinion either way on these things! I think it's funny and a little sad when I read a negative review on a blog and think to myself, "oh, she doesn't know that perfumer so of course she would feel comfortable being honest."
And you've inspired me to seek out some different scents too - the unsung heroes and the under-the-radars.
Hope you had a good Christmas/holiday!

Blacknall Allen said...

Hi Brian, you do make some excellent points here. There is too much rapprochement between the makers and the bloggers. Small potatoes, moi, so I don't get solicited often and never sent more than one small bunch of samples. I write what interests me about perfumes current or otherwise.
Perhaps we should institute a blogger's oath? Similar to the Hippocratic Oath: First Write No Commercially Motivated Mendacity?

Cheryl G. said...

Dear Brian,
You saw into my soul and put words to it. It's all so true. While my love for scent has not abated, my pursuit has. This is not what life was meant to be.
By the way, I want to thank you belatedly for the bottle of Loretta I won awhile back. I gifted it to one of my students. A girl with little who will never recognize the monetary value of the perfume. I had her promise to wear it one day so I could finally smell it.
Thank you and may you find peace and joy in the new year.

Vanessa said...

I have historically had problems loading your site - to my great chagrin - and am so pleased that my pc decided to lighten up just as you posted such a thought provoking piece.

Happy New Year!

Susan said...

Brian, couldn't agree more about the state of blogging. I took up blogging this year, but I'm feeling very ambivalent about it lately - I feel as though I have a lot to say, but that perhaps a blog isn't the best format through which to say it. The blog culture also perplexes me. It seems so transparent that multiple of the old guard blogs (which I confess to still reading) have become PR vehicles, yet, people still flock to them and celebrate them. I can't quite understand why. Is it for the giveaways? To feel closer to the celebrity perfumers? To reify the centers of power? Or just because people aren't reading critically? I really don't think it can be the latter - for just the reason you say - people don't seem to trust the blogs anymore. I feel dirty, yet I keep reading these blogs. WHY? I don't know.

I think it's all going to morph. I wish I was some kind of futurist and could figure out how. But I feel that blogging is dying - the other blog I wrote for, which was pretty successful in its niche, closed its doors this fall. Its closure was supposed to give me more time to write about fragrance, but that hasn't really happened... ah well.

My favorites of this year? I found a lot of things to like. Maybe not as many to love. But it's hard to know when a like will unfurl into a love, for me.

Brian said...

Hey RM.

Well, nobodies buy a lot more perfume than somebodies. And if nobodies didn't read or buy or smell, some bodies would have no one but their bedfellows to talk to. I think the kiss ass stuff used to be funnier. Now it's like watching Jerry Lewis do his twenty year old jokes as a seventy year old.

Brian said...

Hi Marla. I have to agree. The top ten lists this year read like The Emperor's New Clothes. It is a bit like high school, where everyone wore the same thing and had the same hairstyle - only I don't remember the in-crowd in high school congratulating themselves so much for their open-mindlessness.

Brian said...

You know Blacknall, maybe we should take that oath. Or we could simply start calling a spade a spade. Most bloggers are pretty honest (not just with readers but themselves) in saying forthrightly that they're highly opinionated. I just wish there was a little more...diversity of opinion?

Brian said...

Cheryl G, what a great gesture. Did your student ever wear it for you?? I hope so!

Brian said...

Happy new year Vanessa! I'm glad you at least have a discriminating pc, even if I beg to differ with it!

Marla Robb said...

Brian,
Thanks for your comment! The high school analogy works particularly well because so many of the bloggers now actually know each other personally, and so many niche brand noses/owners have made big efforts to know the bloggers personally, that it has become almost impossible to remove yourself emotionally enough to be critical. For example, I was sent some samples by a fellow blogger from a new niche house. I hated them. I told her so. I wanted to write a post about the reasons I hated them and how that tied into some bigger trends in perfumery. I heard from several people, via email, "No! X is such a good friend of mine, you can't do that to X! You'll hurt X's business! X is wonderful, and so are the perfumes, you're just not smelling them correctly...." I felt so conflicted I just gave up the post and reviewed the perfumes on MakeupAlley....Then I gave up perfume blogging! This coziness started happening bigtime about 2010....Definitely a double-edged sword....

Brian said...

Hey Susan,

I think it's pretty complicated. I think blogging itself will be changing at some point soon. I don't know how, exactly - whether for better or worse - but it seems to have reached a saturation point. Everyone speaking at all times about everything - and nothing. A tone which is increasingly aspirational and deceptively impersonal. Content which must keep abreast of the ever morphing online and off-line attention span, which has currently stretched so thin it might as well be flat-lining.

It's the aspirational tone of many blogs that wears on me most. Perfumes have gotten more and more expensive, for less and less good reason. A rare kind of oud, you say? An oil extracted from the anal gland of the almost extinct Peruvian Heenie-Hiney Cat? Perfumers have come out of the woodwork but must participate in persistent distortions about the industry and their role in it. Perfumes themselves have grown less and less dynamic, luxurious, robust, poetic, satisfying.

Rather than comment on all or any of this, too many blogs gush and fawn about their meetings with perfumers or corporate heads or the brilliant minds behind this or that marketing success. They pride themselves on announcing the newest, not yet arrived trend, talk about the intersection between art and commerce like someone at a board meeting, so entrenched in the commerce aspect they believe they're still seeing the art side soberly. On the rare occasions they criticize a perfumer or a blogger, privately or publicly, with any kind of candor or honesty, they do an almost instantaneous about face, when said subject comments on their posts - "He likes me! He really likes me! - becoming best buddies with them, immediately revising or neutering the original offending remark. It's not usually a surprise when the two then engage in some kind of dog and pony show duo, capitalizing on the new connection in a way which promotes both parties.

The flip side of this is that on some level I think they realize what they must sound like, and to adjust the imbalance they choose whipping boys and really rip them apart. This gives them the air of discriminating taste and a sense of impartiality. But it further mucks things up because a real sense of proportion is missing.

When The Perfume Guide came out several years ago, many people loved it, and still regard it as a bible of some sort. Many people also found Turin/Sanchez to be unduly negative or bizarrely biased. The truth is that you can't write personal opinions without personal biases involved. Turin has at times his own bedfellows and whipping posts (see Calice Becker for the former, Mona di Orio and Lorenzo Villoresi for the latter). He knows everyone and has probably either been in their lab or had lunch with them.

-and yet, for all that, he also seems able to maintain a somewhat fearless attitude and approach to speaking about art and commerce as simultaneously conjoined and separate entities. He's able to talk about being at a launch party for Guerlain and yet won't hesitate to take the brand to task for potentially mishandling a reformulation. He might or might not be invited back. It doesn't seem to matter much to him. Compare this to the average higher profile perfume blogger, whose praise is profuse and whose criticism is tepid at its most extreme, who would have nothing much to offer by way of authority or veracity if he or she were no longer able to say Rodrigo Flores-Roux whispered industry secrets in his/her ear, while incidentally complimenting him/her on the cut of his/her shirt/blouse.

I hope the trend is eventually toward honesty sincerity and against this current type of retrograde 1980s style cronyism disguised as postmodern individualism. Time will tell.

sherapop said...

At last I have discovered where the free-thinking perfumistas convene! How refreshing! ;-)

Brian said...

Certainly the grumps, Sherapop. That humble pie you've brought to the potluck looks absolutely delicious. You'll have to give me the recipe. Leave me some when you go at least, and when this gastric reflux abates I'll feast on it. Sour grapes give me the worst indigestion I guess.

sherapop said...

I may not be the queen of blandishment, but "Humility" is my middle name.

If nothing else, I know what I do not know.

...

Or do I??????

Brian said...

Be right back. I'm going to go look up blandishment.

Mimi Gardenia said...

A very happy and blessed new year Brian . I read all your wonderful and superbly written posts anonymously. But I'm out today because I love your writing , feel what you are saying as I have felt the same.
Thanks for this lovely piece. With much love xxx Mimi G

Brian said...

Thanks for coming out of anonymity, Mimi. It's great to hear from you. I hope you have a great year. Things have been rough in 2012 so I'm really crossing my fingers for the best in 2013.

Joan said...

Thank you!

Marla Robb, I feel the same way. The perfume blogosphere feels really cliquish to me. I like writing, so I still post every so often, but it gets discouraging for sure.

Juraj said...

Hello,

I have just discovered your nice blog. Brian, really, really nice post. Not saying just as a new perfume blogger...

Juraj
BL'eauOG

Anonymous said...

Brian, I just wanted to say I'm very sorry for your loss and appreciate the honesty of your posts. Also, your love of Basile is prompting me to comment and to look further into what else you like.

I used to see it advertised in Architectural Digest in the 1980s but never saw it in shops. A couple years ago, I saw it on ebay, listed simply as "Italian Designer Perfume." At just under $10, it was a no-risk unsniffed buy. The top-notes were wonky but I loved it and bought a back-up bottle. It's so 1980s that the bottle has shoulder pads - wonderful! ~~nozknoz

Unknown said...

Wow. What a terrific read. I have to say one of the best things about I Smell Therefore I Am is that I can read about how much one loves or doesn't love a certain perfume, how the perfume does or does not relate to you guys on a personal level, and then why. Nothing more, nothing less. My only complaint is I wish you would both write more. I feel like I'm sitting down with someone who shares my love for perfume and just dishing. Thanks for that.

Michael said...

Brian, I only read your post today, but really enjoy your honesty and forthrightness. As a perfume blogger myself, I don't really know how I am perceived, but I totally identify with your criticism of the way bloggers have increasingly become obsessed with being on the cutting edge of what is happening in the industry and cosying up to the perfumers. It strikes me as a name dropping exercise, a stroking of mutual egos.

Carol said...

I too just saw this post - I was so busy over the holidays that I missed it. So sorry for your loss this past autumn.

I'm getting less and less comments on my blog even though it's super easy to post to it - I think because I post what I feel about the perfume I sniff - and a lot of times, I'm just bored.

Here's wishing you all the best in 2013!



Island Missy said...

your words ! keep writing please.

Trebor said...

Happy belated New Year, Brain! I've been meaning to comment on this post, since December, but have been quite busy recently.

I'm actually glad a fellow blogger has brought up this issue. I've been noticing a certain smugness (and at times cattiness) from certain established perfume bloggers, as well as spotting the emergence of the 'WordPress Clique' (those who have a sharp eye will know what I'm talking about). As you mentioned in your post, it is indeed egotistical but also somewhat juvenile. Although I'm in the UK, the mention of a high-school mentality rings very true.

Whatever happened to reviewing fragrances merely for the love of it? Whatever happened to being completely honest, regardless of the perfumer or fragrance house? Sadly, it now appears that some are merely using their blogs as launch pads for their own perfume industry aspirations (which wouldn't be so much of a problem if they weren't so underhanded about it). As you already pointed out, impartiality has been cast aside and I, for one, am definitely not a fan of this approach.

But what really bewilders me is how many blog readers/followers have yet to see through all this self-centred BS. It really does make you wonder...