Friday, September 5, 2008

Binge Dieting: Secret Obsession, Magnifique, Sensuous and Other Anorexic Simulations

What is it with the latest batch of commercial releases? What aroma-chemical or marketing approach lends them all the baffling sense of sameness? Pick up Lancome Magnifique, Estee Lauder Sensuous, and Calvin Klein Secret Obsession to name several. The dry downs of the latter two seem virtually identical: politely discreet, vaguely woody, a half-assed, half-finished accord akin to someone with stale breath turning his face away so as not to offend you, inadvertently insuring you won't be able to hear what he's saying any more than you can tell what his sentence smells like. Magnifique shares with these a thinned-out sweetness in the top notes, as if someone diluted the overall composition with water and vodka and anything else she had at hand, just to see how far she could extend it before its aroma reached that barely-there threshold.

What do these fragrances and this apparent trend have to say about the buying public's desires or our cultural sensibility as a whole? Many fragrances targeted specifically to the Asian market take into account the Asian buyer's partiality to perfume so pristine it ceases to smell like perfume, creating fragrances which bow their heads and avert their eyes in deference to all who approach. Americans, on the other hand, seem to be obsessed with fruity florals, or someone thinks they are and relentlessly produces them. Add to fruity florals the obscenely, obsessive-compulsively clean. Aqua di Gio continues to be a bestseller in the masculine market, even as masculines inch ever more toward the floral. Meanwhile, Dolce and Gabbana's Light Blue is a top-seller with women and smells like something a man would spray to hide the B.O. his girlfriend finds offensive or the lingering odor of a particularly torrid indiscretion.

The Reds and Giogios and Poisons and Paris' of the eighties seemed in keeping with a culture-wide disregard for the feelings or circumstances of others, a fashion for big-shouldered, high-haired silhouettes, and an imposition of one's self onto one's environment, as if the latter weren't complete or noteworthy until the arrival on the scene of the former. Trends change but always reflect cultural values to some extent. So what's with all the anemic fragrances flooding the department store counters? Are we wishy-washy, non-committal, or simply afraid of our own shadows?

It's interesting to compare the reviews of Chandler Burr and the intellectual team of Lucca Turin and Tania Sanchez. While all three revere the great creations of perfumers past, Burr advances the idea that the practical application of these creations in the contemporary social environment is non-existent at this point, while Turin and Sanchez hold to the idea that perfumes are timeless and relevant; they no more go out of fashion than a Dior cut from 1940 or the Declaration of Independence. It's all about attitude and character, and homage without context is worthless. Change is great, but at what cost?

Burr often gives high marks to compositions which recall those vintage perfumes the way postmodern writing begs, borrows, and steals from the classics of literature, tossing all its constituent attributes into a hybrid which recalls without specifying exactly what or when. His unqualified appreciation of Sisley's Eau du Soir is a good example:

"It is an expert pastiche of the traditional French “animalic”—i.e., the smell of animal (a classic trope of French perfumery)—but in a version for the 21st century. This take on animalic is not redolent of an armpit but rather of a mink coat, which is to say it is the smell of real leather plus real hot fur. This is a visceral luxury, and Mongin builds the perfume’s top by welding it to a greenish, sleekly modern floral."

Turin's dismissal of the fragrance as insipid, empty-headed knock-off is equally indicative of his own values. The perfume doesn't even rate a review in Perfume: The Guide; rather, he knocks it in passing, in the course of another fragrance's review, as if throwing a passenger out of the car without stopping to let her out. To Turin, Eau de Soir is a perfume which recalls the classic green chypres, to be sure--the way a town in Disney's Small World attraction recalls its real time source. You can't expect to understand Japan from the little pivoting automatons in kimonos.

Don't get the idea Turin and Sanchez are living in the past. Witness Turin on Chanel No 5 Eau Premiere: "This is abstract, classical perfumery at its best," he writes, "revisited by people who do not see modernization as an excuse for screwing up." Turin will be the first to slam Guerlain for altering its classics, unless or until he feels the job is being well done. Progress is great: hurray for the future. Turin just happens to be the strongest critical voice in his field speaking out for the recognition of perfumery as art, the relevance of art to cultural history, and the importance of history to culture at large. That isn't to say Burr dismisses the past or perfume's artistry. Of Germaine Cellier, the nose behind Fracas, Bandit, and Vent Vert, he said: "an artist working in the olfactory medium." It's simply to say that Burr and Team Turin-Sanchez are necessary polar points in the modern dialog about perfume, presenting its complicated, panoramic picture to date. That Burr presents the picture using photo-realism and Sanchez-Turin represent it with the kinetic brush strokes of cubism illustrates how much room there is for interpretation.

What would these three say about the relative sameness of modern commercial perfumery offered at the local mall; specifically, about Secret Obsession, Magnifique, and Senuous? This is the face of perfumery the average consumer digests and perhaps demands in some way. How can someone like Calice Becker go from the pungent glory of Tommy Girl and J'Adore to the milquetoast timidity of Secret Obsession within such a relatively short amount of time? Turin, at least, has sounded off regarding Sensuous, remarking, "...up close the fragrance disintegrates over the first hour into a bare array of disconnected things failing to cohere: white floral, synthetic wood, praline-like amber. All told, thin and lacking mystery."

Perhaps the modern fragrance reflects the contemporary obsession with diet and self-abnegation and a concomitant nation-wide phenomenon of obesity. Are these fragrances our way of punishing ourselves for our indulgent excesses? If we're going to gorge ourselves on the fruity gourmands and decadent pleasures of heady floral bouquets, we must, we might feel, at some point fast. At least we have the wit and erudition of writers like Sanchez, Turin, and Burr, who elevate the conversation to an ideological plane which feels as rich as chocolate and feeds the mind without indulging its apparent need to eventually deny itself pleasure.


ScentScelf said...

I really like your positioning of the Burr/Turin/Sanchez dialectic as a useful tool for the exploration of perfume as art and the associated sidebars--what value innovation? how to regard history? etc. These observations cleanly hit the mark for me.

As for the suggestion of a relationship between gourmand scents and wasting/denial of food behaviors--the idea has a strong opening, but for me, not so much lasting power. After all, anorexic and bulimic behaviors really ramped up in our culture before the gourmands came to power. What to do with a powerhouse like Giorgio, which was big when thin first became in? And what of our own clean marine craze, prior to the current fruity and/or we say the smell of nearly nothing echoed the desired body image, rather than provided a faux answer to the body's demand for sustenance?

Thank you for serving up such tasty food for thought, which inspired in me a new round of perfume reflections.

Brian said...

Hey there.

Yeah, it's interesting to think about. I'm not sure I believe that the popularity of gourmand frags has a strict relationship to eating disorders and body dysmorphia issues myself. I'm more interested in the strange coexistence in perfumery now of what seem like very different, if not opposing, tendencies; specifically, the simultaneous popularity of excessively rich fragrances in general, be they fruity floral or gourmand, and the anemically clean and utterly weightless.

I'm wondering what that duality might say about the culture producing it. The eighties were about animal excess, sure but this feels different. For one thing, due to restrictions and economic imperatives, the animal instinct as such seems to have been removed from the equation. Adding to this, the present trend is somewhat schizophrenic, rather than relentlessly the same.

What I see now seems to have more to do with alternating between indulgence and abstinence; thus, the eating disorder analogy. We want to binge, go all the way, we deserve it, times are hard, we want the biggest, richest, most luxuriously over-the-top we can find--then perhaps we feel guilty, remorseful, or simply gluttonous, and we go the opposite direction.

Just one possibility or interpretation among many, obviously. Admittedly, I'm more interested in opening up the question than trying to definitively answering it, or maybe I'd just rather leave the answering to more informed, eloquent minds such as the Burr/Sanchez/Turin triumvirate.

ScentScelf said...

Ah, but if we leave that responsibility entirely up to the current triumvirate, we run the chance of missing gems they don't uncover, even if they are slightly less polished than the trio would present. :) You do well to open the dialogue.

And I thank you for accommodating my own thoughts of the's nice to have an opportunity to work out thoughts in (virtual) conversation. With explorations like this, who knows if there is an end point, or correct answer?

BTW, if forced to honestly reflect, I might have to point out that my scent purchase pattern reflects the indulgence/abstinence pattern you observe.... ;)