It’s become the norm to name the perfumer, and I’m all for the practice. Until not long ago, the perfumer was in the closet. Today the perfumer might compose the formula for the perfume that winds up in the bottle, but there is still more hidden in the process than is shown. Although the perfumer was camouflaged in the past, the process seems to have been more straightforward. It followed the model of solo authorship that most other arts of the time followed. Surely there was some degree of collaboration of ideas between Christian Dior and Edmond Roudnitska, but Dior made the frocks and Roudnitska made the perfume.
If there is a system for producing perfume, then there is a way to interpret it. Perfumes can be read as creative and commercial products. The model for conceiving and creating perfume is like that of any other commercial product: market analysis, objective, prototype/feedback, marketing/sales. Or, in perfume lingo: the brief, evaluation (the focus group) and the PR.
The brief is the directive given to the perfumer. It conveys the intent/target/goal that the perfume producer would like the product to accomplish. It might include simple language (‘A perfume that smells like air, but better and more air-like.’ ) but it’s the moving target that lasts until the final mod is selected.
Creative direction and evaluation happens at many points in the creation of a perfume, but the bottom line is the focus group. A panel of ‘civilians’ is used to hone the perfume. It is limited by the scope of the questions it asks and tends to fulfill the goal plugged into it. If you want a sweet perfume, you’ll wind up with the sweetest perfume the general public will tolerate. Because they value consensus, focus groups produce generic ideas. Because the points of comparison are existing products, they favor conformity and imitation over innovation.
Marketing, an opinion: Specifically, the beauty industry sells consumable/disposable goods. More broadly, it sells self-enhancement. Its approach is to make you feel alternatingly ecstatic and terrible about yourself.
So, if the system guarantees perfumes on the mediocrity-to-crap spectrum, how to explain the exceptional mainstream perfumes? A few patterns defy the dive to the middle and have created a strong track record for the mainstream:
1) Gender Populism (or, Right Place, Right Time): The Garçonne, Molinard Habanita. The Tomboy, Revlon Charlie. The Liberated Men, Grey Flannel and Paco Rabanne pour Homme. The Androgyne, Bvlgari Black.
5) Inertia: Buyers have reaped the benefit of perfume’s glacial rate of change and have had hundreds of gorgeous chypres, aldehydic florals, and fougères to choose from for decades. The downside is when a model overstays its welcome. Remember the musks of the 1960s-70s? The gourmands, aquatics and fruity-florals of the 1990s-00s?
Drilling through mainstream perfumery is a long-odds gamble. There’s a lot to dig through, but if you know how to look, there are phenomenal perfumes.
(Image, The Stepford Wives)