It can happen. For preference, you need a hit to avoid that catastrophe. It doesn’t have to be a mainstream hit. You don’t have to come up with the next J’Adore, but you do have to come up with something that makes the perfume world buzz just a little- like a disturbed hive.
Certain perfumers have a knack for this. Andy Tauer certainly does. His L’Air du Desert Marrocain still comes up on lists of things that the perfume-obsessed wear, and write about, and rhapsodize over. Pierre Guillaume is good at it too, he only has to stare hypnotically at a camera to sell perfume bottles, although the heck of it is, his stuff is surprisingly good, and if he resembled a cross eyed nanny goat I’d still think so.
Tom Ford, who actually does resemble an elegant, but slightly cross eyed bear (a dandified bear, but let’s not beat about the lair – a bear*) nonetheless is a consummate art director and put things like Nu into production at Yves Saint Laurent. People are still complaining about its discontinuation how many years after it happened? Ford seems to understand instinctively that what is controversial may work best in the long run, and so he’s art-directed Envy at Gucci, as well as Rush, and then Black Orchid and White Patchouli under his own Tom Ford brand. He consistently hits the scents into an interesting out field, even if not all of them are home runs.
Some perfume houses don’t come up with a hit per se, but they do establish a distinguishing style. You can tell that someone is wearing their product even if nothing has really become famous. Etat Libre d’Orange is an example. Their scents shock initially, and their packaging is designed to shock further, but the perfumes underneath those epater les bourgeoises top notes, soon become wearable-even mundane.
The style stratagem is working for Christopher Brosius at CB I Hate Perfume as well. You may not have a single Brosius perfume that you love (although I love Cradle of Light) but you know his supremely evocative work, and the clarity of his water based scents. His stuff does not smell like anyone else’s. There again it’s a matter of style over a single success. All of these perfumers and entrepreneurs get it right. What about the ones who don’t?
I always think dolefully of the lost house of Gobin Daude. That line consisted of five perfumes made from high quality materials done by a young French perfumer the eponymous Gobin Daude, named things like Biche dans L’Absinthe, and Jardins Ottomans, and Seve Exquise. Whether their distribution was not wide enough, or there was not enough financing, I couldn’t say, but they went out of business only three years after being founded, beginning in ’02 and closing in ’05. It was very depressing, because at the time, there was not the plethora of niche firms there are now.**
People will pay large amounts for any of the bottles that turn up and I still roll my eyes with annoyance at myself when I think that I didn’t buy any even when I knew they were on sale at Takashimaya! Ridiculously few dollars a bottle. The damage was irreparable, the perfumes were gone, and the only cogent reason I ever read for their failure (I read it I think on Basenotes) was that the line leaned towards chypres at a time when the public liked two things: fruities and vanillic gourmands. Swedish Fish were the way to go back in ’02 and there was just no point in trying to persuade the perfume buying populace otherwise. Perhaps it would be different now, but I cannot help thinking that if one- only one- of the Daudes had caught on, like Biche dans L’Absinthe, they would be around today. After all it only takes that one crack of the bat to hit it out of the park.
* Being periodically cross-eyed myself, I hope Mr. Ford will not be offended. After all, he takes a better picture than I do and wears clothes better than I do. In fact I have a sneaking suspicion that he’d wear my clothes better than I do. Come to think of it, the bear would probably wear my clothes better than I do. There’s simply no justice in this world.
**I’m indebted to the Non-Blonde’s website for refreshing my memory on the Gaubin-Daude’s.