It’s not all as simple as good strategy-bad strategy, but the above strategies are in fact bad. Flankers, like Fruity-Floral and Gourmand perfumes tend to suck, but some strategies are better than others. Variations on a Theme is a wonderful strategy in the hands of pros, hence the line from Feminite du Bois to Bois de Violette. Variations gives an artist the possibility of exploring other outcomes, other possibilities. Thierry Mugler would like you to believe that all the Angel iterations are Variations on a Theme when they are actually the worst of Milking the Cow. Variations work when thoughtful: Iris Poudre and Ferrre by Gianfranco Ferre by Pierre Bourdon; Aromatics Elixir and AE Perfumer’s Reserve. How about Jicky/Shalimar and Apres l’Ondee/l’Heure Bleue?
Pink-and-Blue is so ingrained everywhere else in consumption that it will likely never go away. Pink-and-Blue relies on a heterosexual couple pairing that is in fact successful in marketing. It implies everything from stability, home and family to excitement, sex and licentiousness all the while reassuring the buyer with a stable identity. Still this isn’t my world of gender and I find it limiting and grating.
But out of the mud rises the Lotus, and again it’s not simply the strategy that leads to success or failure, but the intention and likely a good measure of coincidence. Amouage aim for quality above all. They are the contemporary realization of the money-is-no-object sensibility. Yet even here, the almost reflexive gender binary (boy/girl) and it’s luggage (straight, reproductive, nuclear family) is an implicit restraint. These restrictions have been fuel both for reaching beyond the limits and producing great perfumes (the Golds, the Jubilations) and the let-downs (Honour Man).
‘Unisex’ tends to mean ‘neither’ more than ‘either’ or ‘both’, but it is an alternative. When it does succeed, the unisex approach can work intentionally (Bvlgari Black) or inadvertently (Guerlain Vetiver, Dior Eau Sauvage). The gender binary works best when the perfumer perverts it. Fracas and Bandit, Femme/Butch lesbian classics, are still unsurpassed here.
Perfumer Bernard Chant gives us a great lesson in strategy in his Lauder (and Gres) perfumes. He gave us the Bait-and-Switch, but called it Pink-and-Blue and nobody even noticed. And we think only Germaine Cellier fucked with gender and perfumery! The market appears to respond like zombies to the gender binary. It is largely unquestioning. The male buyer says, ‘It says Femme, therefore I can’t wear it.’ The Estee Lauder perfumes of the 60s-70s-80s didn’t use the Pink and Blue terminology, but they knew how to sell the image of social ambition, which has gender so thoroughly baked into it that it need not be mentioned. The Aliage/Devin country-weekend, tennis lifestyle. The urban-sophisticate, new-Oriental of Cinnabar and JHL. Azurée/Aramis, Aromatics Elixir/Aramis 900. The Lauder schtick was aspiration. It sold the Town and Country life, the best of both worlds. Implicit in this was the man-woman couple. The woman, liberated but feminine; the man, sophisticated without being gay. It’s fantasy dress-up, but it’s far better thought out than just (product) for women and (product) for man, the barest version of Pink-and-Blue.
Pivotal here is the work itself. These perfumes were and still are spectacular! The quality, artistry of composition, and fearlessness of these perfumes make them a pleasure to wear. What Chant did was to make a brilliant perfume, Aromatics Elixir, then Bait-and-Switch us with A-900. Lauder then packaged the whole deal in Pink-and-Blue and sold it to us. Whether we saw the wizard behind the curtain, or fell for the marketing, we got brilliant perfume. Given that Chant was able to make these different models by overdosage, he effectively juggled multiple strategies that never lost track of quality.
An interesting strategy, a reverse of the norm, is The Concentration-Flanker, or the Non-Flanker Flanker. Nothing new here, in fact it’s a matter of course for a Chanel perfume. If a company releases and EDP version of a perfume that had previously only been available as an EDT (plus possibly an extrait) it’s not really a flanker. Is it? The jump from Guerlain Insolence EDT to the EDP wasn’t just a change in concentration. It was a different approach to the same theme. Ditto for Mugler’s recent Angel EDT. When you consider that Insolence was in fact an homage to l’Heure Bleue, a perfume almost 100 years old at the time, which itself was a variation of Apres l’Ondee, which is the flanker?
Maybe intent and commitment to excellence are the issue. In fact, another strategy, the updating of a classic for a new generation (The Facelift ) demonstrates the point. Take a well-known classic, update it, release it as a flanker. This could be a grim prospect if done carelessly. But Guerlain and Chanel prove the value of the strategy with Shalamar Parfum Initial, No 5 Eau Premiere, No 19 Poudree. If well-done, the Facelift is one of the least cynical approaches to the flanker.
In some circumstances, the product release itself seems less the issue than the ongoing exploration and experimentation by the perfumer. From Femme to Ocean Rain, Edmond Roudnitska’s metier was the fruity chypre. Bernard Chant made Cabochard, then Aramis, then Azurèe. Imagine what he’d have made had he worked longer! Jean Claude Ellena and Bertrand Duchaufour have created artistic movements in the perfumes that stem from their philosophies. Calice Becker and Christine Nagel have rewritten the rules for entire genres, respectively the floral and the Oriental, over the course to date of their careers.
Were these artists just producing flankers? Obviously not, and again, intent and commitment are key. Exploring a theme while setting the sights high may not always lead to success but it’s doubtful you’ll have success without them.