The Softest Sell


– when image is everything
At one important point in Quantum Demonology, one of the characters says “I can believe anything for at least five minutes, it’s all in the persuasion.”

So if you stop to think about it a little further, would you not agree with the statement that nowhere is that persuasion more emphatic than with …perfume? That art most ephemeral of all, fleeting as a spring wind, yet a perfume can engrave itself upon your memory and your emotions in such a visceral manner, it might as well be hewed in Carrara marble by Bernini to endure for eternity.

We buy, consume, wear perfume for so many reasons – to reflect our many and often disparate selves on any given day, to celebrate spring, summer, fall…or the first snow. We wear perfume to seduce and entice, or simply to seduce and entice ourselves into a newer, better self, however we choose to define it. We use perfume to define or emphasize a mood, a feeling, a certain emotion. As in…

“Today, you don’t want to mess with me. I am cool, confident and completely collected. Today, I wear Chanel no. 19.”

Or…

“Tonight, it’s you and me. The world stops at the door. Tonight, there are no…cell phones, no Twitter feeds, no Facebook status updates. Tonight, there is only now. So tonight, I shall wear Tabac Blond, for you alone…”

So by association, and by associating all the images conjured up in naming only two perfumes, two whole movie trailers play in the reader’s mind…Armani suit, well-behaved hair, an impeccable presentation of the ten most relevant facts a client needs to know to take the bait and pay the bills. Don Draper, eat my dust!

Or something black and slinky, something altogether different for an altogether different purpose…some time definitely after dark.

At least, that’s what yours truly tells herself in front of the perfume cabinet. Your mileage – or your perfumes – may vary.

But in choosing, buying, consuming perfume – whichever one you choose for whatever reason – you are buying into not just the juice, you are choosing, buying and wearing an entire aesthetic, as well. This was brought to my attention by some of the comments I received for my blog on Etat Libre d’Orange’s ‘Vraie Blonde’. Which got me thinking…and as we all know, that means trouble!


Behold, one of the glories of the twentieth century – Jacques Guerlain’s immortal ‘Mitsouko’, beloved, worshiped and adored by perfumistas and normal women alike since its creation in 1919. Because…it’s perfect. It is every bottled aspiration any woman and many men could ever hope to have, and – it’s Guerlain, who broke new ground in a world of ostensible soliflores with the still very modern ‘Jicky’ in 1887, and even then, they had been in business for over sixty years. Guerlain, to our jaded minds, wafts heritage, class, refined taste and a certain refined aesthetic native to France especially, where all aspects of life are sensual pleasures to be celebrated, explored and taken to entirely new heights. Buy a Guerlain perfume – almost any Guerlain – and you are buying an entire history in a bottle, all wrapped up in the heady aura of…Mitsouko, Shalimar …It is a compliment to your most excellent, discerning taste in that most excellent, ephemeral art form that is – perfume. In the unlikely if not implausible event anyone says it smells ‘weird’, please, just shoot that ignoramus on sight!

At the other end of that same super-sophisticated aesthetic spectrum, we have…the line of Serge Lutens. Whereas Guerlain has its nineteenth-century heritage to claim as its own, Serge Lutens as a perfume house has only existed since 2000, and yet, it would be fair to say that few other lines – and indeed few other perfume houses – have done so much to explore and even refine the singular and very personal aesthetic inclinations and preoccupations of M. Lutens and his perfumer Christopher Sheldrake. The brand, the concept, the very perfumes themselves are unique and uniquely intriguing, not least because this is not a mainstream brand, and these perfumes are nowhere near mainstream.

Yet the branding – of a super-luxurious, super-exclusive, inside secret of the cognoscenti fits the perfumes, even though many of them are challenging, shapeshifting, mercurial creatures who seem to take a life of their own on skin and bloom in ways we may or may not like. A Serge Lutens perfume can be difficult in a way no Guerlain can, can be downright obstinate and insistent and you can likewise insist that this…thing…on your skin is a horror story not even John Carpenter could cook up, until that one day, that one day you catch yourself thinking – as with Tubéreuse Criminelle pictured above…whoever could have guessed that gasoline and mentholated mothball could evolve into such peerless beauty? So you are hooked forever-and-a-day, and there is no cure, no panacea, no balm for that spot on your soul that only a Lutens could find and appease.

Meanwhile, we’re still in luxury territory, still within the safe and beautiful confines of sophistication and discernment and our own most excellent taste. There’s no disparity between the juice and the brand, nothing we need to outright reject, because it’s still…perfume. A necessary adornment and the only accessory that really matters, as Coco Chanel once said.

Perfumes came and went, perfume houses bloomed and died, all of them to the last bottle catering to our need for definition, our hunger for the extraordinary, the necessary, the hotly coveted…luxury, even if it were the only luxury we could afford, even if we would never wear or afford haute couture in our lives, we could aspire and breathe in that rarified air and for a moment believe ourselves to be…rare, exclusive sophisticates.

But times were changing, people’s perceptions of luxury and branding were changing – even luxury brands were – and are – becoming watered-down commonplaces, available to anyone with enough rubber credit and a bad case of the ‘screw-it-and-I’m-worth it’s. Other lines joined the fray in upping the ante to maintain that exclusivity, through price tag or limited distribution, all to better separate the plebes from the patricians, the cognoscenti from the clueless. Some of those lines merit their outrageous price tags, and some are just more…noisy hype in a world where everything is hyped as ‘luxury’, to the point where it can be hard to define what the word even means any longer.

Which was where that blog entry came in. Because in the comments, I came across several statements that quite simply stopped me in my tracks. It was a Japanese ‘satori’ moment, an ‘Aha!’ moment, when with a few select words, my entire perspective on perfume changed. Possibly forever.

In an Internet age, when everything new-ish is so five minutes ago, when chocolate, bath towels and even something so mundane as toilet paper can be marketed as ‘luxury’, along came …you guessed it…another perfume house, and this time, nothing ever would be quite the same again.

Enter the renegade perfume house of Etat Libre d’Orange, and pictured above, quite possibly the most universally reviled and deplored perfume ever created. No one who has ever experienced it can forget it, and many simply don’t have the stomach to try. It doesn’t even stop with the perfume itself. It’s the entire concept of the line. Because some of the comments stated quite unequivocally that the brand itself and its marketing concept was enough to reject the line entirely, and that was what stopped me cold.

Etat Libre chose a very different approach to marketing themselves as the Next New Kid On the Block. Instead of über-sophistication and exclusivity, they chose to sell themselves on shock value – and a certain adolescent – or tongue-in-cheek, if you prefer – image, and a definite salacious slant. With names such as ‘Putain de Palaces’ (Palace Slut), ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong (Baby I Don’t Swallow’) or even the infamous ‘Secretions Magnifiques’, they turned perfume marketing and branding entirely on its head, and even managed to raise quite a few hackles in the process by challenging all preconceptions as to what constitutes ‘perfume’ – that it must be beautiful, it must be luxurious, it must by definition be a continuation on an eternal theme – to smell good. And anything that smells…good must perforce be marketed like perfume has been marketed since the beginning of time – with the aesthetic we have come to associate with….perfume. Sacred, special, sophisticated, mirroring back to us our own…sanctity, uniqueness, sophistication.

Not so, if Etat Libre is anything to go by. They may have advertising copy Beavis and Butthead could have written (on a good day), their perfumes may have salacious names, and one of them may indeed be the bottled Texas Chainsaw Massacre in full Technicolor, 3-D and Smellavision, but all the same, they are doing quite well for themselves in spite of – or because of – that iconoclasm that dared to question our preconceptions of perfume and perfume marketing.

I have no problem with either personal choice and preference or iconoclasm – I actually gravitate toward it more often than not. If some would prefer to reject Etat Libre’s creations simply for their Beavis and Butthead aesthetic, well – it’s a free country, right? We’re inundated with choices every day. The old cliché – to each his or her own – is nowhere more true than in perfume. One woman’s Poison is another woman’s Obsession, etc.

Personally, I would never write off a new experience of any kind I might stand to learn something from. (If nothing else, I could always use it in a novel!) I would never reject an entire line on principle, because in my daily life, no one would ever know about my super-deluxe-exclusive-only-available-every-other-decade-limited-edition-and-distribution-vintage-in-18K gold-bottled…perfume. My surroundings would pass their judgment something along the lines of…good/bad/yuck/let-me-rip-off-your… etc. Which is fine by me.

What is very fine indeed by me is the occasional…huh-huh…Beavis..check-this-out-dude…reminder that sometimes, marketing can take itself too seriously, perfumes can certainly take themselves too seriously, and what we really need to do is just…chill out, laugh and let our hair down a little. There is a space and a headspace for our longing for the ephemeral dream that is perfume, for that flawless, shining moment of transcendent beauty that gives us such joy simply to exist, to live and to breathe! There is a place for our inner teenaged longing for irreverence and off-color, too, should we be that way inclined.

And above all, sometimes we need a reminder – that it’s only perfume, people! The softest sell of all!

Images:
Illustration for Le Galion’s ‘Snob’ by C. Maurel, 1957, belledepub.free.fr.
Vintage Guerlain Mitsouko, guerlainperfumebottles.webs.com
Limited edition Serge Lutens Tubéreuse Criminelle, megsmakeup.com
Etat Libre d’Orange Secretions Magnifiques, Etat Libre