The fragrance world is thought of as one of smoke and mirrors, the apogee of advertising and branding. Yet, though right now we’re at the point of maximum bombardment, we want to make the case that scent is not a seasonal afterthought: the artistry and magic of the perfume world is worth celebrating. JOHN-MICHAEL O’SULLIVAN uses a New York exhibition as the launching point of a fantastic denuding of the spin of scent. What do you wear in bed?
There are hundreds of ways to write an article about the history of perfume. And there are approximately none of those hundreds of ways which don’t end up sounding like something you’d flick past in seconds in a dog-eared inflight magazine. You can take the cinematic approach, with lingering, hazy tracking shots panning across the rose and jasmine plantations of Grasse in Southern France – fragrance’s historic heartland. Or you can flood the page with facts and figures; this is, after all, one of the luxury industry’s most spectacularly lucrative goldmines, and it’s’ sheer size (and value) is one of the most remarkable things about it. You can telescope through a history that unfolds from dabbling medieval apothecarists and inquisitive Renaissance princesses into a flurry of fin-de-siécle entrepreneurs with vaguely familiar names – Bourjois, Guerlain, Coty – conjuring a global phenomenon out of what was until then a tiny, secretive craft. Or you can go all-out Proust on the matter, tracing the wavering lines between fragrance and memory back to your first, fascinated, illicit encounters with the strange and unmistakably adult world of colognes, and eau-de-parfums, and scented talcums (in our bathroom, it was Old Spice and Lenthéric’s Pure Silk, debris sneaked from the piles of unopened gifts that scarred my mother’s teaching career).
But whatever the spin, what all the approaches have in common is the way that they endlessly write around perfume – peppering the writing with the same mangled symphony of adjectives and nouns which colour every fragrance’s press release, describing a world scaffolded on interlocking ideas and associations without ever piercing anywhere beyond the exquisitely packaged surface of cardboard and crystal. Chypres and gourmands, fougéres and ambers: bitter almond and heady sandalwood, oakmoss and vetiver, bergamot and verbena: musky hearts and juniper bases and sparkling champagne top notes. It’s a lexicon which can be as vast and as vague (and as vigorously exclusionary) as that of wine. In fact, those words have, over the decades, become something more; a critical part and parcel of the packaging itself.
This winter, a man called Chandler Burr – the former perfume critic for the New York Times – is attempting to write the industry’s history somewhat differently. And – most crucially – he’s writing it, not with words, but with scent. In an exhibition at the city’s Museum of Art and Design, everything is being stripped away to focus on the fragrances themselves: no branding, no bottles, no ad campaigns, no slogans. Instead, a pristine white laboratory interior studded with diffusers will provide visitors with doses of twelve fragrances which define the evolution of perfume from its artisan roots into a twenty-first century science.
It’s a formidable undertaking. For most people, perfume is a far from simple or singular experience – and more often than not it’s one integrally bound up with everything BUT the sense of smell. Almost two decades on, I struggle to remember anything about the scent of cK One; but that slim, flask-shaped screw-topped bottle, and those slow, spoken-word ad campaigns trigger an instant rewind to a moment when everyone wanted to wear that one thing – whatever (and perhaps regardless of what) ‘that’ smelt like. It was less fragrance than flash mob – and it somehow made the old-school frivolity of perfume seem urgent, and compelling, and youthful, and necessary. In fact, it was a revolution – just as Paul Poiret’s Nuit d’Orient was a revolution a hundred years ago, with its spectacular Thousand-and-One-Nights launch party, and it’s’ seductive oriental exoticism, and most of all with its groundbreaking blur of the line between fragrance and fashion. It’s an unholy alliance that’s continued ever since: Chanel’s No. 5 (and No. 19, and No. 22, and No. 31): Saint Laurent’s Opium, christened with a still-remembered explosion of decadence on a Chinese tall ship moored alongside Manhattan (and, decades later, billboards with a naked Sophie Dahl sprawled shamelessly across black velvet): and Marc Jacobs’ own fragrance, launched on another New York night that filled the city with the smell of gardenias, mere hours before 9/11. It’s the offshoot which often eclipses the designer, and even outlives the house (Courréges, Joop, Piguet) – and from a sheer business perspective, it’s the thing which can keep a fashion brand comfortably afloat in the more precarious waters of apparel sales. This year alone has seen new fragrances from Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Nina Ricci, Isaac Mizrahi, Balmain, Etro, Jil Sander, Betsey Johnson, Topman, Maison Martin Margiela and Comme des Garçons; whilst the next few months will see Marni, Carven and Louis Vuitton dip their toes into the market. And these days, perfumes by and large live or die on the basis of the celebrity face, or strapline, or campaign, or bottle, released into a saturated market; Selfridges’ online fragrance store has over 1,000 products at last count, and every year a further 1,000 new scents are released.
But Burr’s point is startlingly straightforward: that fragrance is an undiscovered art form in its own right, pure and simple, with its own movements and epiphanies, slumps and spectacular booms. And that it’s genealogical – fragrances rarely start from nothing, but evolve in fits and starts from previous generations of the same thing, shifting forward each time the marriage of chemistry and intuition tosses an incendiary new ingredient, or blend, or process into the manufacturing equation. And also that behind the brand names on department store shelves are companies whose names you’ll never have heard of – Givaudan, Firmenich, IFF, Symrise, Takasago – who between them create endless new constellations of molecules every year (because fragrance went molecular a long time ago, and the aromas of lemon and vanilla and pepper that you smell are conjured out of thin air in a test tube). If he succeeds, the exhibition will shine a light – however briefly – on a rarely-seen world of radical invention and finely nuanced compromise, and on the perfumers themselves; the anonymous, people who take those molecules and compounds and essences and whip up the thing you call Tabac Noir, or Eau de Cartier, or Chanel No.5 (and the thing that you buy, too, perhaps – at least in part – because of how it smells).
Maybe it’s no surprise, though, that the whole idea of fragrance should be so exhaustingly complicated and ambiguous. From the outside, it’s a dazzlingly sensual universe – but cut to the chase, and it’s just a mix of water and alcohol infused with chemicals, applied to the skin in the vague hope of seduction or sanitation or disguise. We buy perfume for ease, and speed, and last-minute-Christmas-Eve desperation, clutching at the nearest brand or box that looks the part. On a library shelf, perfume books are classified in the applied science category, not art (and, tellingly, sit chronologically between Public Relations and Manufacturing). Even the word suggests obscurity, from a time when scents were solid things burned to release their elusive, fleeting aromas. Perfume, per fumare; through smoke.
Check back each week for a new run down of four scents: