Friday, January 28, 2011

Losing Religion: When You Stop Smelling Jesus and Start Smelling a Rat

Reading reviews on selections from the Cartier Les Heures de Parfum line this morning over at Bois de Jasmin really got me thinking. In case you didn't read it, the post began:

"The deterioration of perfume's luxury status has resulted in some new marketing strategies on the part of high-end brands. The most obvious one has been to create niche lines within the main range that are distinguished from their commercial offerings both by the elaborate nature of packaging and the impressive prices."

By way of example, Victoria included: Chanel Les Exclusifs, Hermes Hermessence, Guerlain L'Art et la Matiere, Giorgio Armani Prive, and Christian Dior La Collection. The Cartier line, Les Heures de Parfum, didn't thrill her. It hasn't thrilled me either, and unlike Victoria, who seems admirably philosophical about it, I'm increasingly frustrated by these exclusive lines and the promotional strategies behind them, to the point of resentment, which is where my mind started to go after reading her reviews.

It might be a class thing, to some degree. As it is, I often struggle with the aspirational fantasies used to market many mainstream and luxury line fragrances. I'm on board with the fantasy part, but the rest of it tends to annoy me, unless the object smuggled inside this fantasy truly is unique. For the most part, I find that the entire luxury goods ball of wax is designed to intimidate and divide, and while anyone who reads this blog periodically knows I'm not afraid of a certain amount of debate, fragrance for me is, however personal, also intensely communal.

For me, it's about sharing and participating--in your fantasy, in mine, in the exchange of memories and impressions. I understand that the objectives of the fragrance industry are quite different, and that these things are only interesting to its marketers and manufacturers inasmuch as they can be turned into trends and revenue and made to fill out the contours of a bottom line, but when it comes down to it I don't really care what the fragrance industry is doing, as long as the fragrances are worth talking about and the ability to share in them persists.

I remember walking into Cartier off Rodeo Drive during a visit to LA a few years ago. In memory, the place is all gold and red velvet, little spots directed at specific places on glass shelves, attracting your gaze, if not your devotion. Stores like Cartier are very quiet when you walk in, as if everyone has been hushed speechless by the atmosphere of anticipation. Les Heures is meant to extend that reverence and devotion in a slightly different but related direction, and in fact the fragrances are--or were two years ago--located around the corner from the jewelry cases, in the nooks of a formidable column. As if stowed away like a special secret. I'd read a lot about Les Heures and was excited to finally smell them.

The perfumes feel almost hidden, and I felt I was sneaking in to get to them, the way I used to steal into my mother's and grandmother's medicine cabinets to smell their scents. Sometimes you're ignored in these shops--it depends on who's looking at what and how much it costs and how likely it is they'll buy it--but in that hushed atmosphere a newcomer sticks out very noticeably. A Cartier saleswoman approached me instantly. She wanted to stand there while I smelled the fragrances. It made me feel self conscious, particularly I guess because of the way I was dressed. These things are ingrained in me from my childhood, that feeling of being "less than" around certain indicators of status or prestige, even though my adult self thumbs my nose at them, and though, let's face it, plenty of terribly wealthy people walk around in worse.

It's funny how we keep falling for things like these exclusive lines. We WANT them to be special, to validate our awe, and of course their marketers understand that. It's their competitive edge. I just wish they would make the fragrances as special as the experience of entering the store to smell them, holding the bottles in hand, being in the rarefied atmosphere of these shops. I suppose what I want when I hold that bottle in Cartier to my nose is a big whiff of Jesus--something to make me believe. Instead, it's like the moment you're told there's no Santa Claus and you put together just who's eating the cookies you put out.

It was a curious moment, at Cartier. I'd smelled them all. I went from one bottle to the other with rapidly diminishing expectations, yet my hope held out until the last one. And when I replaced it on the shelf, it was all gone, the mystique, the sense of division, the class stuff. I thought, my t-shirts and jeans make zero difference, there's no less or more than here, this feeling I have is a total lie of the mind. It's liquid in a bottle. The world is full of liquids in bottles. I was suddenly aware of the banality of the silence in Cartier. Nothing spectral about it, or even particularly silent. I could hear the "business" of it. The phones ringing, the computers, the office chatter, the street noise. My mind had conspired to make it special, based on years of conditioning and collaboration with the people responsible for shaping Cartier's image out in the world and delivering product which had the potential to deliver on its promise. My devotion was based largely on willing suspension of disbelief.

What I'm wondering is, how much longer can corporations like Cartier afford to keep diminishing our expectations? When these "Exclusive" lines, which are meant to stand apart, instead reinforce our sense of interchangeability, it's only a matter of time before we lose faith altogether. It seems to me that they are perhaps making themselves money in the short term while cashing in on equity they will need in the future. What happens to a place like Cartier when you walk in and notice the lighting before the goods? It's probably not the best thing that when I smell one of these fragrances, I immediately start asking myself what makes it so special it should cost so much. The truly great fragrance, once smelled, justifies "all".


prettybottles said...

A+ post. I love this, "And when I replaced it on the shelf, it was all gone, the mystique, the sense of division, the class stuff. I thought, my t-shirts and jeans make zero difference, there's no less or more than here, this feeling I have is a total lie of the mind." - Because it IS a lie. Consumerism is a trap, it's like a dream we must wake up from.

Brian said...

It is a trap in a lot of ways. At the same time, we love some of these fantasies and the places the products take us. Those dreams. So it's kind of complicated. I feel like there's almost no reciprocal exchange at this point between maker and buyer on a corporate level. And the option have exploded wide open, in cartoonish proportions. It makes the truly indie and niche so much more attractive, because they're paying more attention to that age old pact between consumer and manufacturer, making these objects truly special in some way that doesn't crap on the dream.

Elisa said...

This is why I don't want to pay $200+ for a bottle of perfume *even if* I love it, even if there's nothing else like it. It's like saying it's OK for companies to create a mystique out of unattainability. Better ingredients cost more, but not that much more.

Anonymous said...

Brian, this post made me a little bit sad, but at the same time buoyed my spirits.

I think that there are similarities here to the satirical dialogue you shared with us re: the old guard and the new rogues (bloggers), and today's post reinforces my vision of you as the standard bearer for those of us in the "t-shirts and jeans" category of perfume bloggers/lovers/readers.

Pulling back the curtain, exposing the wizard, breaks down these artificial divides and helps to foster a greater sense of community ---which, for me, is the best part of this passion of ours. :)

Brian said...

"It seems to me that they are perhaps making themselves money in the short term while cashing in on equity they will need in the future."

Spot on. And I think this problem can be extended to include many, many (primarly US-based) corporations outside of the luxury industry as well.

Great post.

Brian said...

I think that's why I connect with so many readers about drugstore scents, Elisa. It's just the joy there in smelling something great. The rest is stripped away a little and you get the direct connection with a scent--when they're good. I ran across this bit from the Tania Sanchez review of cheapo Aspen in Perfume: The Guide the other day, wondering why I'd never really retained it before:

Aspen is "...better than most of the luxury brand variations on the same theme," which is "surprising till you remember that the great secret of the non-luxury perfumes is that the only allure they have for the buyer is their smell."

Zanne said...

Ok, gotta gush: Brian, your writing IS one of those rare *Gem* perfumes ~ In the mad embrace of the first few notes, my world goes Silent, & I'm Transported ~ how do you do it? OY, Sensei (this is my new nickname for you 'n Abigail :) ), you do Far more than help us martial art through the overwhelmingly huge world of scent ~ Your pieces so often transcend to straight-up Wisdom about the larger Human experience. So, *Thank You* & *Salute* for being you and doing what you do! This post especially moved and inspired me.

Peace & Groove :)

Brian said...

Dee, it's a variation on a theme, I guess. Before, I was trying to laugh about it, because of course it's absurd the way this stuff is packaged and sold to us. Every once in a while I wake up and go to write a post and it doesn't seem to funny at the moment!


But the conversation redeems things for me. Truly.

Brian said...

Thanks, Brian.

I agree. You can look at anything right now and this is happening. In one way, it's thrilling: we're able to have this conversation because there is so much and so many, etc. It makes room for us and this conversation. But it gets wearying at times because you want things to be special, and good. And being pandered to is so tedious after a while.

Brian said...

Wow, Zanne, thanks. I...don't know what to say. I'm super thankful people read this blog and comment. And that we've made connections with people.

I was telling a friend yesterday that I really enjoy writing on this blog because it seems as if it's not really always or even often exactly "about" perfume, and discovering how much you can bring into the conversation without losing your connection has been interesting to me.

I told my friend that what I think people seem to really want online is a story and a conversation, an engagement. I think we get it wrong thinking people simply want entertainment. That's kind of a by product. So it's fascinating to see how far you can go expanding and deepening that core connection, "perfume".

I think cartier and the corporate strategists are really getting this all wrong. They're totally misapprehending why people respond and return to blogs and products and brands and people. Nice packaging is a slap in the face if the chocolate inside has melted.

Brian said...

brian - I feel like there's a general "corporate cynicism" towards consumer customers (again, especially in the US) - like "yeah, let's make sure we can extract as much cash out of them as possible. Make the bottle shinier, people love that shit. Give them some more synthetic fruity florals - they will spend money on it because they're idiots!"

and with the way most companies are set up (have to show immediate and consistent results to shareholders) the mindset seems to have shifted over the past few decades to "make as much money as possible RIGHT NOW with no regard for long-term profitability or even brand dilution." I can name so many companies that have this problem...

so the luxury perfume market is just a symptom of this mindset, I think.

Angela Cox said...

Wonderful post Brian . I am infuriated by exclusive lines lack of availabilty. I so wanted to try Chanel 22 without spending half the price on train fare to London . It was only Persolaise telling me I could phone that helped. In fact per ml. it's no more expensive than other Chanel but they sell it in 200mls .Perfumes I could only buy in Paris drive me crazy . I heard recently that you are not allowed in Harrods in jeans . If this is true they must be mad .My husband wears jeans all the time when not in his work suit and his money is as good as anyones.

Olfacta said...

...and then, at point of purchase, the retailers that sell these $400 perfumes require that the floor sellers be ignorant about their product, bad at sales, and likely to sneer at your inferior clothing while they chase you around shilling their crap and making sure you're not lifting the testers. I'm one blogger who almost never goes into a department store, much less a luxury store, and I've managed somehow! It's so much more fun to discover a great perfume at a price most of us can even consider paying, and, thanks to the internet, there are lots of ways to do that now. Brian, thanks for having the cojonesto bring this up.

p.s. -- I think all that posing by the likes of Kilian Hennessey or Pierre what's-his-name is just, well, silly.

Brian said...

Yeah, Olfacta, a writer friend of mine who loves perfume (favorite, I think, is Dzing!) interviewed Kilian a few years ago and was shocked at his contempt for the consumer and the banality of his overblown ego.

Tania said...

Great post, brian. I've had that feeling too, in high-end boutiques, but you know how to put it into words. I've been thinking about Coromandel for a while, but I resent the whole luxury perfume ethos, especially their stupidly high prices. The SAs are ofetn totally up their own arses, too.

Sometimes a good smell is all you want, and a nice drugstore perfume with no pretences makes me happy.
But last night I was shopping and found myself bemoaning the lack of drugstore scents available.
Used to be Boots stocked all the Lentherics, Revlons, Prince Matchabelli etc. Now all you can find on their shelves are 15 varieties of 'So...' and Charlie, and a gazillion Impulse body sprays. I had a hankering to sniff Cachet again, and was disappointed.
But I hope they are still all available in US drugstores.

Brian said...

Hey Tania, I've missed you. You know, as it happens, I have an extra bottle of Coromandel and would be happy to send you a little stockpile if you like. I am NEVER going to use even ONE of these bottles up.

I do find cachet and others here in drugstores and in fact one of my biggest thrills about traveling is getting to troll old out of the way drugstores. They invariably have old stock and good oldies in general. I've found so much at these places. Including Cachet. Which I love. How would you describe it? It's green somewhat to me, and floral, and other things. Not sure.

Henrique said...

Sincerely, they are good fragrances. But the price they charge and the exclusive factor makes you expect much more of them that they deliver. But i think that they consumer which they are target, rich consumers i`d say, doesn`t seem to care. It`s the impression that i have with the normal consumer, i mean, the non perfumista one which follow the blogs. People doesn`t seem to be so aware of fragrance this day, either in the massmarket or in the prestige line. I don`t see this trend ending so soon - while there are people with money willing to pay for exclusivity, they`ll still sell.
My experience with them was out of a store, trying samples that i purchased. My complaint is about how light the are, and about the price. The rest, i think that most people is underating the line, which is coeherent, well-constructed.

Tania said...


I've got a new job, so unfortunately I have a lot less time for surfing. I still come here every couple of days for my 'fume blog fix, though.

You do? Well, a little stockpile would be very much appreciated - thank you so much! :-)
I know, those bottles are pointlessly humongous.

Well then, next time I go to the US, I'm going to make a point to visit some drugstores! I have no idea why our drugstores don't sell those things any more. I recall a treasure trove of Cotys and Yardleys and Lentherics.

Cachet.... I remember it as sweetish, non-indolic floral, but no specific flower stood out. Like a bouquet caught glowing in sunlight. It had pretty good sillage, as I recall.
I don't remember thinking it was particularly green at the time, but thinking back, perhaps it was - something like Halston Catalyst, only without the herbal edge.
And I remember that it was sold as smelling different on every woman.

Brian said...

Tania, email me so I can figure out how to get you some Coromandel. Also, I saw some Cachet in a drugstore her last night. Only 16 bucks!