Love or Money


– 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’.