digging (into) vintage: Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, 1977

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Perfumer Jean-Louis Sieuzac made some of the most memorable perfumes of the 1970s-1990s. Of course, at the time who knew? The perfumer was still in the closet and wasn’t credited with his work except within the confines of the perfume industry. Recognizing the perfumer is pivotal in revising perfume history and though it doesn’t undo the intrinsic secrecy (read: paranoia) of the perfume biz, it does shed light.

Looking back on Sieuzac’s work, I’m struck by how influential it was. Yves Saint Laurent’s era-defining Opium (1977) smothered the oriental genre in spice, making the previous big-girls like Shalimar and Youth Dew seem quaint. In the 1980s Sieuzac reshaped the men’s market with the twin brutes Hermès Bel Ami (1986) and Christian Dior Fahrenheit (1988). Think of them as respectively the gasoline and the match tossed on the leather genre. Later, as if to stuff the genie that he released with Opium back into the bottle, in 1991 he composed Christian Dior Dune. Dune is the the perfume that sat aloof and alone at the cusp of the 80s and 90s. It managed simultaneously to refer to the disproportionate scale of 1980s perfumery and the sense of concession and atonement of the perfumes of the early 1990s.

But Opium wasn’t the only perfume of Sieuzac’s released in 1977. He also made Oscar for Oscar de la Renta. Though it won the 1978 Women’s Fragrance of the Year Fifi Award Oscar was overshadowed by Opium, which crushed everything in its trajectory. At the time, I doubt that it was common knowledge that Oscar and Opium were siblings in the Sieuzac family. Compared to Opium, whose name and scent suggest the unquestioning pursuit of pleasure, Oscar’s terse mixed floral tone would have seemed regressive. The endlessly imprudent phrase ‘old lady perfume’ comes to mind. Opium’s relationship to tradition was to break from it by surpassing it. Oscar’s goals were less radical. It was asharp, starched white floriental in the lineage of Caron Bellodgia, Dior Dioressence and Guerlain l’Heure Bleue—perfumes that might not have been intended to be distant but are continually cited for their remote beauty. Oscar shares l’Heure Bleue’s classic bittersweetness with a similar midpoint between glacé resinousness and acrid powder. It is a potent, almost forceful fragrance but its tone was so conservative compared to its contemporaries that wearing it gives the sensation of falling backward, stepping away from the accelerating dynamic of the late 1970s.

Left: Oscar de la Renta early 1970s.  Right: Yves Saint Laurent 1974

Fashion and perfume have gone hand-in-hand for years and from the angle of marketing perfume provides an easy buy-in to otherwise exclusive brands. Many women have worn No. 5 for years even though they’ve never been able to afford Chanel couture. The association tends to relegate perfume to the role of fashion accessory, but it can make for an interesting read. The two photos above capture the two sides of what would very soon come to be called America’s “culture war” and the brands’ perfumes were a perfect match. Oscar suited the de la Renta brand’s goal of dressing the ladies-who-lunch while Opium captured the Yves Saint Laurent brand’s desire for a new chic: the androgyny, the Studio 54 vibe, the casual affluence. Sieuzac deserves great credit for straddling this nascent divide and creating two exceptional compositions in the process. It cannot have happened inadvertently.

Demythologizing perfume history lets perfumes speak out and find new meanings. Oscar might have appealed to a woman who faced the rush of the ’70s with a cautious personal style—it was designed to. But years later the conservative sensibility falls away and the perfume can find new associations. The point is not so much that tastes change but that quality will out. Sieuzac’s perfumes cover a range of genres and styles but the common thread is their excellence. Perfume’s language is an openly debated question in 2015. Jean-Louis Sieuzac’s perfumes from 1977 comment subtly but precisely on the issues of the day and are a record of how perfumery speaks and can be read. It’s unfortunate that in 1977 the work of the perfumer wasn’t publicly attributed to him. Within the next two decades that closet door would start to open. Better late than never, my hat is off to Jean-Louis Sieuzac.

(top image, Phyllis Schlafly in 1977)

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