Friday, March 15, 2013
Had Some Work Done: Halston
Even when I was a kid and I knew nothing more about perfume than the fact that I liked it, I could see a through line from Halston, which came out in 1975, to Lauren, which came out three years later. The name Bernard Chant meant nothing to me, but the perfumer's signature was all over both. They shared a pillowy, woody warmth I now recognize as one of Chant's trademarks, a quality that carries over into Aromatics Elixir, Devin, Aramis, Aramis 900, Alliage, Cinnabar, and even his sparkling (maybe blinding) white Estee. The advertised personas of Lauren and Halston couldn't have been more far removed from each other - Halston had the decadent whisper of Studio 54 carnality; Lauren looked forward to the buttoned down reserve of the eighties - but every girl and woman I knew seemed to wear both, and their heady effects, unique among chypres, whatever their diverging promoted fantasies, seemed interchangeable to me.
Ask almost anyone who wore them or smelled them then what they smell like now and they'll invariably tell you Halston and Lauren have been butchered beyond recognition by cost-cutting reformulations. They'll say neither is worth bothering with. I can't argue a case in favor of present day Lauren, which definitely smells not only gutted but entirely rethought to me, but I part ways with popular opinion when it comes to Halston.
For a long time, I agreed, if mainly on principle, and railed at the perfume powers that be, though I took great pleasure from any version of Halston I got my hands on. The ten to twenty dollar iteration available in drugstores over the last ten years or so seemed very much like what I remembered from the mid seventies, if sharper and brighter. The husky voice Halston once hummed in seemed to have become a little shrill, the woody warmth a little cooler, but all the basic parts still seemed present, if spinning in slightly different directions.
This week, I ordered a vintage bottle from Ebay, a collectible edition with silver in place of the iconic plastic bottle parts. Spraying it on, I was surprised how little has changed, compared to what I've been led to believe. I won't argue Halston hasn't changed - at all - but I will argue that it's changed a lot less than people say. I would also argue that the changes in the formula have less to do with cost cutting, and more to do with regulations, which isn't to say cost of production hasn't been an issue in the changing face of Halston; it's just to say no more than in most fragrances.
For the most part, I'm surprised at the apparent pains taken to preserve the spirit of the original perfume. Plenty of people raised their voices at the prospect of alterations to the cherished classics at Guerlain, but who was going to make a fuss over the long-forgotten, drastically demoted Halston brand? Clearly, no one had to bother much trying to keep the thing intact. The fact that anyone did seems pretty commendable to me.
The biggest difference - and I realize that, to some, it's all the difference in the world - is the absence now of natural musks in Halston. Again, can't argue here that those musks don't make a difference. You spray on old Halston and those musks give it something special, something deep and resonant. But, risking heresy, I have to say I've never found myself pining much for those old natural musks. I appreciate their presence in vintage perfumes. I discern the difference. But to me those musks, however much they flesh out their host perfumes, have the adverse effect of poorer longevity on my skin. They're so "natural" that they become a sort of second skin, and after about thirty minutes they disappear. I tend to like more presence in a perfume. I don't mind it smelling perfumey, if perfumey means more "there". My lifestyle doesn't find me "sweating it out" on the dance floor these days, and certainly old Halston must have reactivated once it hit the mesmeric glitter ball reflections bobbing around at discotheques like Studio 54.
Other obvious, inevitable differences would be the subtraction of the better half of the original formula's oakmoss, now restricted down to a bare minimum, and, I'm guessing, higher grade sandalwood. You can't fault Halston's new owners for downgrading when it comes to sandalwood, when even high end lines are doing the same, with similar, sometimes even less thoughtful, results. That said, I admit there has been, in all the various redesigns of Halston, a pronounced dullness, a crudeness missing from Bernard Chant's original construction. Until now.
I love vintage Halston, but I prefer the version I got yesterday from the drugstore, which seems to be, judging by the label on back, the most recent formula. After a few sharp minutes, it smells remarkably similar to the collectible edition - so much so that I'll take the much more affordable reformulation over the cherished vintage. Oddly, this latest iteration is closer than ever to the fragrance my sister and all her friends seemed to be wearing way back when. It has the added bonus of enhanced projection. All that woody splendor feels amplified and sort of sings off the skin, radiating in peachy herbal waves from the body. It doesn't need heat to liven it up like a refreshening late night bump of coke. For the first time, vintage or more recent, I can discern Halston's constituent parts - balanced lines of marigold, rose, cedar, pathcouli, vetiver, ylang, and jasmine. It lasts more decently than most of the niche fragrances I own, and feels a lot more satisfying overall. Nothing smells like Halston these days - with the exception of this reformulation. And frankly, no "new chypre" smells more like a chypre is meant to smell than this cheap little denigrated number. I'd wear this stuff over any number of contemporary so called chypres any day, and consider it far more valuable in many ways than their drastically opposed price tags would suggest.
If the throwaway, disrespected drugstore Halston can make chypre smell this good in the present tense, it begs the question: why are the larger, more respectable corporations charging so much to make it smell so impeccably foul?
(How to tell which version you're dealing with: The version I tend to like the least has the name Halston printed on the glass of the bottle. The ingredients listed on the back of this version's box go something like, "alcohol, fragrance, water" and a few blues, yellows and reds, each followed by a distinguishing number. This version is manufactured by EA Fragrances Co., but slightly earlier versions (early middle period, let's say) list FFI Fragrance International. The slightly earlier, FFi version is even less preferable to me than the allegedly wretched EA version. Go figure. Earliest versions of the fragrance list Halston as the manufacturer. These versions will tend to have all natural musks and oakmoss ratios intact. They smell the richest, the most plush. The most recent version returns to the blank bottle, sans imprint of the brand name, and everything but the kitchen sink is listed on the back of the box. Middle period boxes have, on the inside, a pattern of interlocked H's. The most recent formula, and late middle formula, has this as well, but the cardboard sleeve containing the perfume, nestled inside the box, is plain, whereas during the early middle period, the cardboard sleeve bore the pattern as well. Of the middle period, I probably prefer late FFI version, which smells more like a chypre than its younger EA sister. If you go hunting on Ebay, your best bet is to stick with bottles still in their boxes, so that you can communicate with the seller about these various distinguishing characteristics. But I recommend the most recent version as well, and it's available at most drugstores. Got all that?)