The distinction between a flanker and a variation-on-a-theme might seem trivial at a glance, but it is significant. They are both versions of existing perfumes, but their intentions and outcomes are quite different. A flanker is a spin-off of an existing perfume. It is a creature of the marketing department, and though there are varying styles of flanking a perfume, the concept is the same in each case. Flanking attempts to tap into an existing market by relying on name and brand recognition. Flankers reflect the low expectations that lead to them. Overdosing/underdosing a note of the original composition or adding adding a currently popular note (iris, cotton-candy, oud…) is about as far into creativity as the flanker dares to venture. Flankerism is not an inspiration, it is a tactic.
The variation on a theme is a different beast. It is a perfumer’s opportunity to revisit the ideas of an original perfume. Flankers favor repetition over creativity. Variations-on-a-theme, on the other hand, call for creativity and the examination of ideas.
To understand the flanker, look no further than the Thierry Mugler line. Their leave-no-stone-unturned approach is one of the more nakedly ambitious styles of branding. Vertical flanking is nothing new (eg. Angel la Rose/Violet/Peony/Lily) but Mugler’s horizontal, note-du-jour style of flanking an entire line is a particular horror. Les Liqueurs de Parfum, Les Gouts de Parfum, Les Parfums de Cuir. The cynicism and disdain for the customer of slapping a new note on each of your basic set of perfumes (Angel, A*Men, Alien, Womanity) reveal the grim heart of the flanker.
From the perspective of the PR department flankerism is a perfect corporate strategy. It reinforces product obsolescence and brand affiliation simultaneously, a marketing Holy Grail. The buyer must balance the conflicting desire for the known (‘his’ A*Men) and the new (and new=better) version. Mugler hopes your solution will be to buy both. It’s the classic devil’s bargain: it give you A*Men Moonessence over Havana with one hand and snatches a piece of your soul with the other.
I admire artists who scrutinize a concept over time to illuminate ideas more fully. Two perfumers whose work has pondered a set of sophisticated themes over the course of their work are Edmond Roudnitska and Vero Kern. Roudnitska’s exploration of the fruity chypre and the animalic cologne draws a line from Rochas Femme to Mario Valentino Ocean Rain. Along the way, this deliberate investigation produced Diorama, Moustache, Eau d’Hermès, Dior Eau Fraiche, le Parfum de Thérèse, Diorella and Dior Dior. Hardly a set of inconsequential flankers. Vero Kern has slowly and deliberately produced a line composed of five quite distinct perfumes. Each one is revealed in three versions, the Voile d’Extrait, the Eau de Parfum and the Extrait. Both perfumers prove that a good idea extends beyond one perfume.
The perfume brought my attention back to the debate is Bruno Fazzolari’s Au Delà Narcisse des Montagnes. (Released in 2014, briefly re-released in 2015.) Though it shares the name of the original, a classic flanker strategy, two features make it categorically not a flanker. 1) In artisanal fashion, its limited production was based on the availability of materials. 2) It was made with an expensive narcissus absolute that made the formula costlier to make than the original. Flankers are sometimes produced in limited release, but the rationale is either an appearance of exclusivity or a market analysis that favors a short window of release, then on to the next flanker. It’s safe to assume that flankers are never made with a more expensive formula than the original.
The original Au Delà is a floral chypre with a focus on the languid white flowers, jasmine and orange blossom. It is a contemporary take on a traditional genre and exudes the forceful elegance that the best floral chypres are known for. Narcisse des Montagnes takes a greener turn than the original, examining how a crunchy narcissus note gives the perfume a spring feel compared to the original’s sultry summer drape. It’s a recognizable structure seen from a different angle and I imagine wasn’t simply the result of an addition of a new floral element. The shapes of the perfumes are similar, but the top and heartnotes of each rest differently on similar salty, mossy bases. Editing and targeted changes produce a perfume with a different inflection than the original. A distinct emphasis. A new mood. The progression from the original to the variation is similar to Roudnitska’s evolution from Eau d’Hermès to Dior Eau Fraiche or to Kern’s bridge from the extrait to the eau de parfum.
Tableau de Parfums (Andy Tauer and Brian Pera), Bogue Maai, Papillon Artisan Perfumes Salome, Au Delà/Au Delà Narcisse, and Fazzolari’s Seyrig, have been at the center of the recent exploration of established genres by artisanal perfumers. The post-niche exploration of historical genres, especially the jinxed chypre, is a small but significant pattern. It’s too early to pin down the meaning of the trend, but it does point to the developing relationship between perfumer and audience that artisanal work fosters. Restoration of forms that are well-known to their audience examines the expertise of both the audience and the artist. More of this!
(Sculpture by Marta Klonowska, after Portrait of a Young Young Girl by Charles Dagar)