Love or Money

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- from the galactic center of WTF

As of this writing, so far as Planet Perfume is concerned, the epicenter of the galaxy right this instant is the Elements Showcase in New York. Here, brands new and established can reach out, show their wares and wheel and deal, here is where you can sniff, meet and greet to your heart’s content, and here is also where the US Fragrance Foundation hands out prizes for the best in perfumery. Let’s not forget, it’s awards season, people, and even the perfume world has its Oscars. Some of my favorite perfumers will be there in person and not a few of my favorite people, too and in not a few cases, they are one and the same.

In an ideal world, I would be there at the drop of a perfume strip. Some day, so I hope, I most assuredly will. Meanwhile, I can watch from the sidelines, wonder about new releases and whether or not we perfume bloggers and writers have anything to get excited about (there’s usually something), and…well, wonder.

Wonder at that fatal WTF moment I had this morning.

You see…once upon a time, those of us who have a deep and abiding love of independent perfumers and their creations had such hopes, that some sunshiney day the rest of Planet Perfume would catch on to the astonishing level of artistry indie perfumers have been been displaying for such a long time. Perfume artistry for the mainstream market may well be a (very nearly) lost art form, but in Europe and in the US, indie perfumers and companies are working themselves and their incredible creativity to the bone to deliver those fragrant epiphanies to an ever-growing and ever more appreciative audience on the hunt for the Next Great Discovery, that next great epiphany that awaited in the storied air above our skin.

I say this because my personal definition of indie perfumery – which might be different from yours – are all those names who in a certain manner of speaking go it alone. They have no corporate bottom lines to serve, no agendas to fulfill and no marketing departments to battle except their own creative vision and inspirations. Maybe it would be better to call them artisanal in the true sense of the word – artists who practice their ancient handicraft just as perfumers did in ancient Athens or Alexandria.

Whether in workrooms, garages, on kitchen tables and in studios, they breathe a little of their own souls into everything they send out into the world. Many of them are not classically trained in perfumery at all, which doesn’t preclude staggering works of perfume art. Some of these names you might now, and some of them – not so much. And the true artisanal perfumers do all of this, not for the fame, not for the glory and certainly not for the money (usually, there is only their own) – but for love of their art.

Last year, a glimmer of hope was sparked when the Fragrance Foundation announced a new initiative – an indie category for precisely those not-so-household names so many of us do care about, wear, and adore – on our persons, in our inboxes or our ears. But it was early days, the whole concept was new, maybe change on this level just took a while, maybe the Foundation needed to rearrange its own olfactory furniture to comprehend the appeal of ‘indie’. Next January was another year. Maybe next time.

January 2013 rolled around – and lo and behold, thirty nominees woke up to find themselves nominated for that prestigious, money-in-the-bank-&-write-ups-guaranteed FiFi award. Many of them have been reviewed on TAG – names like Mandy Aftel of Aftelier, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Neela Vermeire, Kedra Hart of Opus Oils (nominated no less than three times), JoAnne Bassett, Ineke Rühland, Monica Miller of Perfume Pharmer …it makes for a long list. Many of us cheered on the sidelines and wished our friends and favorites the very best of luck, for manybe this time, things would be different? Maybe this time, they would get some of the recognition they so richly deserve and work so hard for?

Apparently not, for the five FiFi award finalists were announced and nary a single one was what I would call indie or even artisanal. Niche – OK. Yes. Limited distribution, exclusive, not-mainstream and so on. The five finalists were all brands that had either existed for some time or else launched with a splash of (very expensive, top of the line) PR fanfare (exit all the indie brands I’m personally aware of)  but…indie? Really?

And I am the Queen of Roumania.

Back to that WTF moment this morning. The winner of the 2013 Indie Perfume Award for best Launch of 2012 was…By Kilian’s Amber Oud.

I nearly face-planted on my keyboard, a habit neither my geriatric laptop nor I can afford.

Before I roast my goose any further than it already is, let me state a few things. First of all, I have nothing but the utmost respect for Kilian Hennesey and his brand. He has done an amazing job in not very many years of putting By Kilian on the world map of Planet Perfume. I can say this in all honesty, since I am completely without bias or preference. Every By Kilian I have ever tried has without one exception loathed my vegetarian, strawberry blonde Viking skin chemistry with an intensity that borders on pathological. The line has legions of dedicated fans, so I’m fairly certain they’ll manage quite well without me. My beef in this instance is not with the perfumes themselves, nor with the brand. My beef is this:

What rock did the Fragrance Foundation crawl out from under, if By Kilian is an indie brand? Not only that – what happened to those twenty-five nominees who truly are indie, artisanal brands?

I don’t know how these things are judged, or what criteria even apply, but I do have to marvel at the double standard even a complete outsider with no affiliations whatsoever such as myself can see.

On the one hand, the august institution of the Fragrance Foundation are seen as doing the ‘right’, politically correct thing – acknowledging that burgeoning undergrowth of artistry that floats just outside the public awareness by at least nominating it. Fair’s fair – that’s free PR, too.

On the other, it looks to this D-list blogger as if they’re simply paying lip service to the idea, and not to either the nominated perfumers and Creative Directors, or the creativity they manage to display in spite of being tiny, artisanal businesses in a Big, Bad, Corporate world. If I take By Kilian in niche terms, it is a hugely successful brand. In other words, a brand that successfully bridges the artistic gap between the mainstream brands everyone knows, and those countless hundreds of artisanal companies no one has ever heard of, who make perfumes that might not necessarily have the same commercial appeal.

So there we have it – does it all come down to commercial, mass market appeal, that ubiquitous ten-second top note sell? And if it does, why bother with an indie category at all, if the real indies don’t stand a chance anyway? Artisanal perfumes take time to unfold their stories from top to base. (Once upon a fabled time, all perfumes did this.) They might be shape-shifting, ever-evolving chimerae that start with a bright burst of light, only to haul you along on a ride towards the dark, dark, base – several hours later. Which is no small part of their appeal to the growing hordes of perfume connoisseurs of Planet Perfume, many of who are trawling the Elements NY Showcase as I type.

Sadly, however, it looks as if I’m forced to acknowledge – not for the last time – that in a world that constantly claims all for love, bottom lines – and not true art – will always, always win. All we dedicated perfume lovers can do is shake our heads in bewilderment – and breathe it in.

Everything boils down to love – or money.

Image: Nadja Auermann in Richard Avedon’s 1995 series ‘Mr. & Mrs Comfort’.

37 thoughts on “Love or Money

  1. I read from credible sources that people had to pay quite a few bucks to even be considered for this award, and that the definition of “indie” was so broad as to include what most people term “niche”. I love Amber Oud, I’m a huge Calice Becker fan, but I have to say to Fifi, get with the beat!! They did our artisans wrong….

  2. I was at the Elements ShowCase and was able to see and smell some of the nominees and there was some outstanding nominees. It seems strange to me that By Kilian that is now so well established in all of the department stores would take the honours. I don’t say that to take anything away from the brand but more that it is a shame that less well known perfumers were not be given the recognition that this brand has already received.

  3. Amen!

    I like two ByKilians (Love and Liaisons Dangereuses), but not nearly enough to pay for a full bottle.

    On the arts in general: I think there is great mainstream work, work that is just as good as indie work. The problem is that the indie work won’t get the attention because the makers don’t have the funds. I hate when people say that the best things will get the most attention because the world will notice their merit. Not true. The gatekeepers have to approve it first, before the world gets the chance. And the gatekeepers’ approval is based on at least one of these three things:

    1.) The artist’s ability to self-fund
    2.) The connections the artist has to the industry
    3.) The perceived marketability of the product.

    It’s often very surprising what will sell and what will not, no matter how many marketing professionals think they can predict the trends. I’d bet that the ratio of good indie work is the same as the ratio of good mainstream work, and that this will always be so.

    1. I think you’re right, Joan, but I still say you can’t have it both ways – you can’t on the one hand as an official organization state that you support, encourage and promote all those indie brands, and on the other turn around and hand the prize to a brand that is anything but indie. That smacks to me of outright commercial interests – the very interests they purport to go against.

  4. My Artist friends in NY are very clear about the difference between decorative art and fine art. To many people it is the same or they veer away from fine art (art that says something) because it’s scary, it’s a language they don’t speak, cant relate to it so they dismiss it as weird. I tend to think that the judges are stuck in a time warp of 1984 when big shoulders and big hair got you the big job. I knew the prize would really be about the name recognition and packaging- so no surprise there.
    I paid $200 to enter Strawberry Passion. I heard others paid $400 but the fee was $200 at the time I printed out the entry form.

    1. The truly sad thing so far as I see it is that you even have to pay to enter at all. Or is it that all entries were more or less nominated? Pardon me, but shouldn’t the entries be judged on merit, artistry and skill? ;-)

  5. The whole point of Primordial Scents 2012 was/ is to link perfume to the sacred, the fundamental ELEMENTS, to bring us to an awe of our natural world in a way that a plastic FIFI prize would be used as a digging tool for our next fruit tree that we plant with our toddler in a garden we are creating from scratch. If we ourselves lose touch with whats important (for me the health of the bees are indicitive of a world gone mad), then we can hardly be surprised that pursuing a mainstream superficial prize results in a superficial outcome. When will we learn to put our time to better things? What is really worth our time? When there are no more wildflowers and no more bees and no more honey…….

  6. YES TO Everything Perfumepharmer said! Our art should be a shout out to nature for nature! To make others aware of how amazing, precious and (sadly) rare nature’s creatures (plant & animal) have become. In the end the awards are meaningless if they are only interested in a name and an ad budget.

      1. Yes, sadness, that’s what it is. We got our hopes up a little with the Fifi Indie Award category, then saw it was the same old crumbling system in action, just when we were all starting to get excited for real change! Now we feel sadder than we did before. At least, that’s my narrative on this one.

  7. Perfectly articulated as always. I like Monica’s take on the awards in general. It brings to mind chef Marco Pierre White handing back his Michelin stars so he could re-focus on his passion and creativity rather than being a slave to retaining those stars, he also said these people judging him knew less about food than he did… Sorry if it’s a poor analogy. Love the image

  8. Ok, I’m still laughing as I write this . . . the image of you *almost* face-planting your keyboard, is hilarious! But what you say is perhaps the most pointed critique of this system I’ve read in a L-O-N-G time and I think it’s high time others took this bull by the horn so as to shed light on our secretive industry.

    I applied on a lark at the “discount rate” like Monica, and btw, I have NO beef with an application fee, it’s standard practice in every awards situation. Lord knows, I misspent my youth entering architectural competitions (and spending a pretty penny) with the ridiculous hope that my ideas would get noticed a la Maya Lin. That was a naive myth I finally let go. But my decision, in part, to enter this race was to support the new category of independent perfumer doing IT for love and not money. Ever the cock-eyed optimist.

    It was somewhat unsettling to see how the foundation changed terms midstream by doubling the entry fee. They then offered a “package” for perfumers to become members which has since gone up substantially as well. And without any tangible incentives. Do they want us or not? Cuz frankly, it’s a sacrifice to shell out those dollars when they can go towards an ounce of rose otto!

    All of this volatility on the part of the Fragrance Foundation makes me think they either don’t have their act together and are still figuring out the terms of this Indie category that has suddenly emerged out of left field. Or, they are paying lip service to the meddlesome presence of tiny Davids poking and prodding Goliath’s toes.

    The application did attempt to differentiate between “Artisan” brands and those other Indies (you know, the ones with lots of money and exposure). But it’s unclear to me how that was taken into consideration during the judging.

    Bottom line, time to set this issue aside and return to my organ housed in my linen closet. I have a lot of ideas and projects percolating (my Aquarian nature perhaps?) and I CAN’T WAIT to work on them!

  9. From one D-List perfume blogger to another, my reaction was exactly the same. In fact, one of the hardest parts about telling people I’m into perfume is then having the lengthy discussion about how much of what I review/wear/own/recommend comes from some “independent perfumer you’ve probably never heard of.” I come off as a trendy hipster type, when the truth is that for the price point, I can get a lot better juice from independents than I’d get from a lot of your mainstream FiFi-oriented Planet Perfume residents. Which isn’t to knock mainstream or to say I don’t own some of that, too, but I can’t help wonder what the point of making an indie category is if ultimately you give the win to a company with the resources and reach of By Kilian. It reeks of bread and circuses, of an attempt to appease the increasing volume of the rabble (aka US).

    I personally like a lot of the By Kilians, but the only reason I even tried them was because they were sent to me. The price point alone made me shy away from samples. Going near the samples with my virtual cart was like an disaster episode of Say Yes To The Dress — why try on something and fall in love with it when I know it is waaaaay outside my budget? That way only leads to heartbreak.

    Also, in what world does it cost $400 to evaluate a perfume? I mean, seriously. We swap and buy and send samples every day and NO ONE needs that much money for an entry fee. A fee that high is to keep people out, plain and simple.

    In the end the title is what it is — a dismissive wave in the direction of all the fine independent perfumers we out here in the masses discover and love, those doing it decidedly for the love, because given the economies of scale involved, they sure aren’t in it for the money.

    1. You said it, Diana! It’s not money that rules the artistry and creativity of the perfume world – it’s the art. But maybe the Fragrance Foundation needs to reconsider its policies concerning indie/artisanal perfumery – instead of just paying lip service to the idea.

  10. Even though most By Kilian’s perfumes do not work for me, I like and respect the brand. Amber Oud was one of the perfumes I liked (and still consider getting some). But the best indie perfume?..

    1. If so, then we are ALL…Jade Empresses of the Universe, Undina! ;) Thank you for commenting. Like you, I have a great deal of respect for By Kilian as a brand – I mean, how can you not when samples are sent out to all the members of your Facebook page? Something no true indie brand could ever afford…

  11. At the Oscars there are rules about certain categories, that you can’t vote unless you’ve seen all the nominees. These are for more obscure things, like documentary short. The results of the voting are usually good because a group of people who care make the effort to watch all the nominees, and then they truly do choose from among them.

    From what we’re seeing here, I doubt there are such rules for the FiFi. The problem in voting on indie lines for the people who are voting – I SUSPECT – is that most of them haven’t smelled most of the indie scents that are truly indie. They are small distributions, after all. Now you might say they shouldn’t vote if they haven’t smelled them – and I’d agree. That’s what happened with the Oscars. I hope that someone reviews the rules and makes it clear that in the indie category for the FiFis, you can’t vote unless you’ve smelled all the nominees. Because when something like By Kilian wins this category, as great as By Kilian is, I suspect it’s largely because it IS better known and most of the voters simply wouldn’t know the other scents.

    Or maybe they already have that rule and they’re just silly. Amber Oud is nice but it isn’t the best of this breed this year.

    1. No, Censer, and that’s part of the problem in a nutshell. I can’t say how the voting process happens or even who does vote, but from where I’m watching, it looks decidedly questionable. And yes, there were other and more spectacular perfumes that deserved the accolades Amber Oud received – in good faith or not! ;)

      1. So there you go. If the organization is large enough and enough people care about the quality of the indie category (I’m really hoping they do!), the organization needs to change its rules that you must smell all the items in that category before voting.

        Also, if there are entry requirements (I’m kind of wincing at that $400 I see above, because while a small business should be able to invest that kind of money in something that will return a lot of recognition, I know a real indie producer may not have that kind of money to dispose of this way), they should go solely toward providing samples of the perfume for the judges. Or, like at the Oscars, a smaller group of judges committing to this category. (They don’t let everyone judge the smaller categories – but they hold screenings or provide copies of many of the categories, and people who commit to voting in the smaller categories have to attend a screening or watching a copy. Something similar would need to happen for the indie perfume category.)

  12. Unscreener, the issue isn’t the $400, $200, or any other price in and of itself. The issue is that all of the Fifi “nominations” are self-submissions. There is no actual “nomination” process, but rather a paid submission that anyone can do if they want to lay out the money for the dubious privilege of saying that their product was “nominated for a Fifi Award”.

    It’s not fair to compare the Fifi awards with the Oscars. I’m not entirely sure how the Oscar nominees are selected, and I don’t doubt that the committees who make the decisions engage in their own share of industry politics, but I’m pretty sure that Oscar nominations do not occur through a process in which any actor/director/producer/etc. who wants to say they were an “Oscar nominee” can just pay a fee and submit their own work.

    1. Well, Elen, you nailed precisely what I thought, too – that merely submitting and paying the entrance fee is not a true “nomination” or even a distinction, only a submission. Which is yet another reason the FiFi selection/nomination/award process is, shall we say, a questionable entity.

      1. All nomination processes result in certain results. The self-nomination with a fee weeds out people who aren’t serious (taking a bottle of essential oil and slapping a label on it on the theory that they might as well), but also is a barrier to entry for small operations. The “People who care about fragrance should know about these labels” idea means that if people in the Fifi voting pool DON’T happen to know the output of a particular small perfumer, that person will get overlooked in putting together a nomination list. Having serious fans/people in the business nominate perfumers they love runs the risk of a large clique or paid group drowning out a single nomination for a truly wonderful entry (the “it’s a popularity contest, not a quality contest” argument).

        One good way is to have a panel of screeners take in all open nominations (even free nominations, even fan nominations) and boil them down to a set of real nominations for vote. But that requires judgment calls that are also unattractive to many (“They said my entry was just an essential oil with a nice label, but I’ve worked on it for two years! That’s not fair!”). Also, how would anyone agree on what makes a qualified screener? And, the Fifis like most industry organizations largely runs on volunteers – more labor tends not to get done. There are pluses and minuses to all options.

        Personally I think that the voting in this case shows that even if something is nominated, the voting pool hasn’t smelled it and doesn’t vote for it. And that’s something that requiring sniffing/screenings to vote can cure. But it doesn’t address the nomination process, only the voting process.

    2. No, Oscar nominations have to come from the voting body. Which means if they didn’t see/hear about/know your work, you wouldn’t get nominated. “Nominated” certainly carries different degrees of prestige for different industry organizations! :-)

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