Recently, I've been exchanging emails with Elena over at Perfume Shrine about a series of mysteries revolving around Youth Dew and its somewhat unknown related iterations, all of which were released during a little blip on the Lauder screen in the mid seventies. It's been fun playing detectives - the fragrances have come and gone, so it's all harmless mystery. Things get a little more serious, I learned, when a more established fragrance is forced into what is considered by its die hard fans a weird sort of early retirement. I'm speaking of the latest Youth Dew reformulation, but I'll get to that.
In 1977, Estee Lauder released Soft Youth Dew, a flanker to her flagship fragrance. At least, I think she did. Pick a day, any day, and run a search on Ebay for Soft Youth Dew. All you're ever likely to find are half ounce gift with purchase bottles. It's almost as if the fragrance was put on a giveaway trial run and quickly considered ill-advised, without ever actually being put on sale. Stranger still, when I did find something other than a half ounce bottle of Soft Youth Dew, it was a vintage tester bottle. The juice in that tester bottle smells very little like the Soft Youth Dew contained in the half ounce bottles, several of which I've smelled. It's much closer to Youth Dew proper, with a hand extending firmly toward Cinnabar.
Cinnabar was released a year after Soft Youth Dew, and the bottle it comes in hasn't changed much over the years. What has changed is the cap, and the name. Soon after the appearance of Soft Youth Dew, Cinnabar was introduced under the title "Cinnabar, Soft Youth Dew Fragrance". The cap for the earliest spray bottles of Cinnabar is identical, except in color, to the cap on my Soft Youth Dew tester bottle. Viewing these together was the first time I'd thought about a direct, explicit connection between Youth Dew and Cinnabar. When you remove Cinnabar's cap, you see that the bottle looks very much like the original bath oil and cologne flacons for Youth Dew. Many people have commented on a connection between the fragrances, but that has always been a perceived connection, based on ingredients and standards of classification. Those earliest bottles for Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar, as well as the commingling of their names, makes their intrinsic connection crystal clear.
Also clear: Lauder had no apparent problem with a connection being made. Either way, she would succeed: Cinnabar might, on the one hand, trade on the success and lineage of Youth Dew; on the other, it might break new ground as something quite different, for those who didn't really fancy Youth Dew much. Soft Youth Dew disappeared. Youth Dew and Cinnabar prevailed, the latter presenting some formidable competition for Opium, a similar oriental released the year before.
Elena pointed out to me the possibility or probability that Lauder and Yves Saint Laurent might have been in competition over the choice of Opium's inro style tasseled bottle. Had Lauder won, the strategy for Cinnabar's marketing might have been different. Opium, of course, won, but Lauder clearly next bested Yves, choosing a name for her oriental which embodied inro without having to shape itself as one. There was a bit of been there done that to Lauder's decision in packaging Cinnabar anyway. For years she'd been presenting solids of her fragrances in decorative compartments one could attach to a dangling chain. Essentially, as Elena pointed out, the inro-themed idea was first hers. Besides which: While Opium was a provocative name, Cinnabar was a richly evocative one, whose associations reverberated in the consumer's imagination, as opposed perhaps to simply scandalizing or titillating it.
Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar/Soft Youth Dew Fragrance weren't the first times an Estee Lauder fragrance appeared and disappeared in short order. Soft Youth Dew competed with Lauder's own trio of fragrances: Pavilion, Celadon, and White Linen, one of which will sound very familiar to you, two of which you've possibly never heard. It wasn't the last time the Youth Dew franchise was openly toyed around with, either: years later, Youth Dew Amber Nude was there, then not.
In between all these up front conceptual tinkerings have been behind closed doors tweaks and adjustments - and not just of Youth Dew but of all the Lauder scents. Almost everyone realizes that Youth Dew has changed at least a little over the years. The animalics it originally contained had long since been removed a year ago or less (or more), when the fragrance changed more than ever before. Until this latest change, Youth Dew die hards remained content(-ish). The juice remained that nice dark balsamic brown. Its oils pooled luxuriantly on the skin. Its smell contained a thousand childhoods, and motherhoods, a menagerie of memories and remembered moods.
Want to see a shit-storm? Visit the Lauder page and peruse the customer reviews for Youth Dew. Notice that around this time last year, the objections began. They haven't stopped since. "This is not my Youth Dew," wrote YouthDewGirl, age 55-64, El Cajon, California. "I do not know what Estee Lauder has done to this fragrance but it is terrible now... Bring the old Youth Dew back again!"
"The new generation will never know what they have missed," according to Mother01, age 55-64, Elkton. "They will try the new version and move on, because it is nothing special now. The original scent was used by four generations of women in my family."
You get the picture. So do they. This litany of objections, as several note in the "reviews", demonstrates how savvy the loyal consumer is. The Lauder lady at the counter will tell them nothing has changed, just as I was told yesterday at the mall, but the longtime Lauder buyer smells rat. In a sense, Elena and I have been, in the last few weeks, enacting our own version of this online commiseration, comparing our impressions and theories about Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar and their relationship to Youth Dew original, testing personal perceptions against those of a peer.
For us, it's innocent sleuthing. To the Youth Dew Loyalist, changes to the formula are a far less entertaining affair. For the Lauder brand, this breach of contract with the consumer is serious business indeed, and if the reviewers honor their word, the company will realize they only thought they knew what a slump in sales truly meant. Reading these reviews I thought, don't mess with loyalty. Then too, I thought that anyone who's ever gotten into an argument with a woman of a certain age should know better than to try to pull the rug out from under one. Tell her you're selling insurance out of Cambodia and need to dip into her pension, maybe, but messing with her fragrance is folly.
Still, I thought, how bad could it be? So I went and smelled it.
I don't think it is bad. In fact, I like it. It's a fine fragrance, better than most, on its own terms. The problem is that Youth Dew can't be separated from its own terms: that's a lesson Lauder might have learned herself with early Cinnabar and Soft Youth Dew, and it's a lesson Tom Ford must have surely learned the hard way with Amber Nude. As the Lauder sales associate told me yesterday, the biggest obstacle for Amber Nude was the fact that no one seemed to be able to figure out it wasn't meant to REPLACE Youth Dew. Thus the constant refrain: What happened to my Youth Dew? Hard to sell a flanker when it sits between the original and its loyalist.
The feelings for and against Youth Dew are strong enough that no side really wants to see something slightly different. Take it or leave it, yes. Six or half a dozen, not so much. "Everything that made Estee Lauder's original fragrance so unforgettable is still here," read the ads for Soft Youth Dew. "It's all just a little s-o-f-t-e-r." Apparently, not soft enough, or too soft altogether when it comes to lovers and haters of the original.
The newest Youth Dew is more leathery to me. It still comes in the Body Satinee, the cream, the dusting powder, the bath oil, the deodorant (head scratcher, that one). All are arguably just as penetrating as Youth Dew's ever been, in any concentration. The oil won't be pooling, but the fragrance sticks around. No more cola colored contents. No more deep, dark, recesses of the earth balsamic structure. It can hardly be said that this Youth Dew is younger, or hipper, less stately than Youth Dews past, so it's hard to believe the changes have been an effort to win new consumers. It's a woody oriental, with less floral decadence than it once, even recently, had. Stealth woody orientals aren't selling like hotcakes, last time I checked.
This version, in fact, reminds me more of an exercise like Amber Nude and Soft Youth Dew than it does a reformulation. In effect, in all but name, a flanker. In some ways it reminds me of the reformulated Magie Noire's relationship to its original. It remains, however dark and oriental, surface bound somehow, lacking that weird vintage resonance. Still, for me, if not for the Lauder website reviewer, it's unmistakably Youth Dew - and latest Youth Dew's version of surface is still far deeper than the majority of contemporary fragrances.
It's interesting to consider what Lauder, still living, might have made of all this - let alone to ponder whether she would have allowed it in the first place. I like to think she learned some kind of lesson with Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar, though I don't know just what that would be. In truth, her handling of those two related fragrances, however superficially confusing, was done intelligently enough that no existing fragrance was compromised, no established name muddled. It's hard to imagine Estee, who spent so many years building her empire, woman by woman, relationship by relationship, countenancing this kind of maneuver, which amounts to betrayal in the eyes of many of those women. Better to have let Youth Dew die, she might have thought.
Which is exactly what the ladies on Lauder's website are saying.
(Pictured: the changing face of Youth Dew - from Youth Dew to Cinnabar and everywhere in between. Top photo: Cinnabar, Soft Youth Dew Fragrance. Second down: Tester bottle for Soft Youth Dew. Third down: Early bottle for Cinnabar. Fourth down: Early Youth Dew cologne bottle. Fifth down: Magazine ad for Soft Youth Dew. Sixth down: A hybrid Cinnabar/Youth Dew/Soft Youth Dew bottle, with Youth Dew's silhouette, Soft Youth Dew's name, and Cinnabar's branding.)