- Of luxury and lemmings
Recently, while trolling trawling through the recesses of blogs, comments and forum threads scattered throughout Planet Perfume, I’ve more than once come across a confounding, if not confusing ‘trend’. Call it a tendency, call it a predilection or even a preoccupation, it’s nevertheless just prevalent enough to catch this perfume writer’s attention in the dog days of summer.
Once upon a time in this exalted fragrant stratosphere, a phrase reverberated in cyberspace:
One hundred dollars is the new free!
In other words, with price points being what they were and with niche and indie perfume houses trying to trump each other in their eagerness to scratch our luxury itch and reel in new customers, the ante only had one way to go… up. And up. For a while, it seemed that fragrant cognoscenti were only too happy to comply.
After all… you got what you paid for, right? Which was what, precisely? Olfactory masterpieces in exquisite packaging with drop-dead blood-curdling attention to detail every step of the way from a creative director’s mind to the hot UPS guy on your doorstep?
Or was it something altogether darker and more devious… a big, fat, expensive-looking stamp on your person (and your credit statement) in neon letters proclaiming:
You, dear customer, have been had.
Those were the days, dear readers, the days that implied a kind of innocence if not naïveté about the nefarious doings of that everlasting aspirational business: Planet Perfume.
Not any longer. For increasingly across those forum threads and blog comments, those customers are no longer so easily bamboozled by hyperbolic PR copy stating their brand-new snake oil is ‘distilled by angels with the morning dew of the summer Solstice from the jasmine fields of Grasse.’ (Or words to similar effect.)
Increasingly, discontent if not disillusion rumbles in the undergrowth. Whether due to ennui in the face of relentless – and endless – launches or simple overdrawn credit limits, those fragrant cognoscenti are beginning to protest that those luxurious, redolent juices we so adore to adorn our personalities with simply cost…
Too Damn Much.
Before I shoot myself in the metaphorical foot (a favorite summer pastime), let me start with what I define as luxury as it pertains to the world of perfume. I should add this is my definition and may not be yours, so feel free to argue my claims in the comments.
Luxury in a perfume brand is…
¤ The expression of a particular aesthetic approach in terms of concept, design and execution, an approach that appeals to the customer’s urge to distinguish his or her individuality from everyone else’s.
¤ Meticulous attention to detail throughout that process from idea to delivered product that makes the customer feel validated and appreciated in their choices.
¤ Although by definition a luxury brand should not be too readily available, since luxury also implies a certain degree of exclusivity, luxury in itself should not be exclusive in the sense that it excludes potential customers but inclusive, by offering them options to make informed decisions before handing over their hard-earned/ill-gotten/cash, and welcoming in new customers-to-be.
Stop for a moment and think about all those brands who might embody that definition for you. I know several niche brands that are supremely luxurious, and also quite a few indie brands who scratch my luxury itch to heights of surpassing pleasure, even some indie lines who don’t make any particular claims to over-hyped luxury and/or superheated PR copy one way or another, but nevertheless fulfill one even more important criterion which is even harder to define:
¤ That emotional response we have to a given perfume in a way so it becomes an extension of whatever mood we wish to express. In other words, if a brand with all its symbolic associations and those contained in any given juice is able to evoke an emotional response in you as the consumer, that too can be defined as a kind of luxury.
The Hijacked Concept
Perfume is the ultimate aspirational – and indeed inspirational – art form. Any perfume will perform differently on whomever wears it according to body chemistry, weather and composition.
Unlike, say, a luxury handbag that proclaims its aspirational message right out in the open; “I am the inordinately proud owner of a Chanel handbag, and you are dead-jealous because I have it and you don’t”, no one except other cognoscenti will ever know or even care you just blew your rent money on Absolute Essence of Aphrodite because you simply… Had. To. Have. It.
It is, in effect, the ultimate in private luxury. Which doesn’t mean it can’t and often does have a profound effect on your mood on any given day to literally waft smelling (and it is to be hoped – feeling) like a million bucks.
The problem is… the very idea of luxury as it exists in the general cultural imagination today has been hijacked if not altogether kidnapped to such an extent by advertising and marketing as to become virtually meaningless. Which leads to that other problem in the world of perfume, price and prejudice.
Everybody wants it…
As long as they don’t have to pay too much. Or if they should, it behooves a brand to make that price tag as painless as possible.
By now, a lot of us are aware that there’s often a severe disconnect between price and epiphany. In some cases, you certainly don’t get what you pay for, and in others, the price point is ridiculously low for such stellar stuff.
Some brands I could mention – although I shall restrain myself, just – are prefabricated sheep dressed up as semi-bespoke wolves. Not so long ago, I had an opportunity to try one highly touted brand launched to a great deal of fanfare a few years ago as being the Brand With The Mostest Of Everything. (Insert your own over-the-top adjectives here). At that price level, I was expecting at least an out-of-body experience or an ‘Exorcist’ moment – eyes rolling to the back of my head, convulsions of outright olfactory ecstasy, head rotating a full 178 degrees etc.
It didn’t happen. What did happen was this: I had to sit down in amazement. Next thing I knew, I was digging frantically through my perfume cabinet and finding the original inspirations for nearly every single one of them. They were exquisitely crafted, high-quality perfumes, no question about it. I just wasn’t ready – assuming I even had that kind of expendable cash to spend, which I emphatically don’t – to buy into anything that basically had ‘sucker’ printed on the bottle in 23-karat gold.
So what are we buying?
Ladies and gentlemen… we are buying an experience. We buy perfumes on the assumption that they will somehow make us express what we could otherwise never say in words, to reflect our best (or worst! ;) ) selves, to surrender ourselves to a dream we want to reflect, a persona we want to be, a uniquely personal story we wish to tell without words. But I have to marvel at whether or not there isn’t some kind of mind over money disconnect at work in the background.
Because as we complain about the price, we’re really complaining about the deplorable state of affairs that keeps us from buying it right this instant, to jump on that express train of lemmings in the wake of a new review, to distinguish ourselves and our own impeccable taste above the hoi polloi who settle for aspirational masstige rather than the ‘real’ deal, the silly fools.
Meanwhile, the perfumer/brand owner in question might very well be the kind of obsessive-compulsive nutcase who insists on the highest level of quality he or she can sustain or support as a brand.
If that means it costs the sun, the moon and the stars in raw materials, packaging, execution, time and the many sleepless nights keeping the whole wretched enterprise in the black, all the while dreaming up new launches, new directions, marketing, PR copy, distribution, new epiphanies, then…oh, well.
Perfumery is an aspirational business, after all.
Which means there will also always be a market for those prefabricated sheep in wolves clothing, since who’s to know except the brand owner laughing all the way to the bank as the juice in question is not, in fact, fabricated by cherubim working in moonlight on those fabled Provençal hillsides, but by a very prosaic anonymous supplier who trucks it in industrial steel tanks?
Who cares? We’re buying the dream.
Here’s a paradox for you. In my nearly three years as a perfume writer, I have never been so penurious in my life. But as my late mother used to say in a wry comment to her own rags to riches to rags life story:
If you can’t afford anything, you can at least aspire to the best.
My first four perfume reviews came from two years of accumulated birthday presents, hunted down on discount sites at bargain prices. The one full bottle I’ve bought in all this time (since we can all agree decants, splits and unloved bottle bargains from dear friends don’t count) was my reward for completing my first novel. I saved up for it by forgoing hair dye (a perilous undertaking as a (vain) woman in your forties, I might add) for nine long months – the time it took me to write my book, in fact.
The day it arrived – exquisitely packaged, with a personal card, with numerous extras, with that magnificent, splendiferous perfume of perfection within that equally exquisite bottle – I felt as if I had arrived. (I also cried, I was so happy.)
It became infinitely more than a perfume (and indeed, it’s mentioned several times in the book itself, so hotly did I covet it), infinitely more than a personal adornment or accessory – it became a symbol of all I had sacrificed to write a very personal story, a statement to all I could now achieve and become, a testament that I had the power to manifest any dream I desired.
Three years on, I still have that bottle, the only one of its kind. The dream is tantalizingly close to coming true. By now, I have about 8 ml left.
But that beautiful bottle, the value it represents, the song its contents sing on my skin and the way it always makes me feel to this very day, is not simply an expensive luxury. It is a treasure that makes me happy every time I see it in my cabinet, and maybe, in our relentless chase after our own lemmings over that cliff, this is what we’ve forgotten in our bellyaching over pricing and our eagerness to have our prejudices validated by our peers.
A beloved perfume, regardless of what it costs, is a treasure to be cherished, worn, adorned and adored.
In other words, the ultimate private luxury.
Think about it. Isn’t that what you should be paying for?
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