digging (into) vintage: Cacharel Anaïs Anaïs, 1978

Photo, Susan Meiselas.  Hanging out on Baxter Street, 1978.  From The Prince Street Girls | New York (1976-2011)

Perfumers Roger Pellegrino, Robert Gonnon, Paul Leger and Raymond Chaillon

Cacharel Anaïs Anaïs is an unsurpassed example of top-down design in corporate perfumery. Employing marketing strategies intended to launch products into the advertising pantheon of ‘Household Name’ commodities such as Coca-Cola and Tampax, Cacharel relied on fantasy and ubiquity to plant itself into the mind of a generation. Was it successful? To answer the question ask a random sample of Europeans and Americans ages 45-65 if they recognize the bottle. Or remember the advertising images. Or knew someone who wore the perfume.

Since Anaïs Anaïs was first launched, its ad campaigns have had a soft-focus, gauzy, vintage vibe that encourage a nostalgic revision of one’s own youth. Romanticized/eroticized images of teenaged girls play with a libido of purity. It’s a version of girls-school fantasies that have fueled erotic narratives for years. Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby was released in 1978 and Blue Lagoon was starting production. By 1980, nothing would come between Brooke Shields and her Calvins. Pedophelia was in the air.

1978 was also the height of disco and its mood of running blind-folded toward a future of bigger and better everything. Anaïs Anaïs offered a retreat from the mania and ambition.

The fascinating thing about Anaïs Anaïs is that the message of its advertising is at odds with the perfume itself. The marketing creates a world of perpetual adolescence, relentless youth. Infantilization is an easy sell in fashion and beauty and Cacharel used imagery that highlighted a particularly passive ‘gaze of youth.’ The images were of pretty girls whispering secrets to each other, doe-eyed groups of girls cheek-to-cheek looking shyly at the camera, and impossibly-angled mirror shots where the girls’ heads are averted, but their reflections gaze wanly at the camera. The images play with quaintness, but the numbness of the subjects is disturbing.

At the time of Anaïs Anaïs’s release, mainstream perfumes performed very well on a set of olfactory criteria that had been perfected and were expected even in drug-store perfumes. Evolution, endurance, dimension. A mixed-floral was expected to have depth. Anaïs Anaïs’s might have been a youthful version of the mixed floral, but it adhered to a traditional structure and from the perspective of 2015, Anaïs Anaïs could easily be placed beside Nina Ricci l’Air du Temps, Worth Je Reviens and Ivoire de Balmain in the line of staid femme-florals.

The imagery might have been of a listless adolescence ad nauseum, but the perfume was a sweet variant on the dry mixed floral.  It was a primer on ‘old-lady perfume’ for girls and suggested not a wish for a endless puberty, but a desire for maturity. It might seem odd in 2015, where rage at any appearance of age is considered a part of healthy self-esteem, but girls used to strive to be womanly.  They rushed toward adulthood as fast as they could.

From the perspective of post-fruity-floral 2015 it is a stretch to see Anaïs Anaïs as sweet in the contemporary gourmand sense. Despite vintage Anaïs Anaïs’s galbanum-oakmoss one-two punch, though, the dewy quality of the central lily note is pleasantly lush. In fact, the perfume’s progression from sweet topnotes to dry, rich basenotes hints at a progression from youth to womanhood. Despite the advertised images, the perfume carried the message that adulthood and the benefits of maturity were not only inevitable but desirable. With this inherent complexity, is it any wonder Anaïs Anaïs became the signature fragrance for so many?