The publishing mogul/poet Felix Dennis is blunt about it: “The problem with the great idea is that it concentrates the mind on the idea itself…But unless the idea is executed efficiently and with panache and originality, then it doesn’t matter how great the idea is, the enterprise will fail.”
It’s a nifty piece of wisdom, and has always struck me in regard to the grand old firm of Guerlain, whose business model for many years was less to create than to perfect.
You didn’t wear Guerlains for their startling uniqueness, because almost nothing of Guerlain’s was unique. You wore them for the quality of the materials used and for the careful handling of those ingredients. Guerlain’s execution was what shone through. The origin of the idea was not important. Caron might create, Coty certainly did, even Jean Patou from time to time produced creations, but Guerlain guerlainified, and the results were charming, very high quality, with a delicacy all their own.At least that was true for a very long time. Sometime in the 1990s it began to change. Guerlain, which still featured Jean Paul Guerlain at the helm, began to do something it had never done before, it began to innovate. This was in part because of the sale of the firm to LVMH in 1994.
After that new perfumers were brought in to work on different fragrances and among the many who did, was Mathilde Laurent, responsible for some of the freshest and liveliest scents to come out of the old company in a hundred years. She worked on the first generation of Aqua Allegorias, producing the green and minty Herba Fresca, the creamy Ylang et Vanille, and the almost Victorian rose of Rosa Magnifica, as well as her masterpiece Pamplelune, surely one of the greatest citrus fragrances ever done, and the dusky Lavande Velours which foreshadowed her wonderful Guet Apens with a big violet note.
All of these were striking because they had something unexpected about them, something unprecedented, yet they still contained references to Guerlains of the past. You could find a bit of Quand Vient L’Ete in Laurent’s Terracotta Voile d’Ete, a lot of Guerlainity intelligently updated in her Shalimar Light, even an enchanting iris reminiscent of Apres L’Ondee in both Lavande Velours and Meteorites, the latter being yet another scent released around 2000.
These, and not the big blockbusters – L’Instant from 2003 or Insolence, 2006 – struck me as being the way that Guerlain should have carried on into the 21st century. The blockbusters were contemporary, Maurice Roucel perfumes, very carefully composed and tested, and they sold, but there is nothing particularly Guerlian-ish about them, and the delicacy that usually marks Guerlains was nowhere evident. These were big productions, big deals, and smelled like them, but might as well have come out of any number of perfume houses for all the distinctiveness they possessed.
The limited editions from those early years of the 21st century are another story. Philtre d’Amour was sharp and clever and sprinted along the path of superlative Guerlain citruses, Vetiver Pour Elle was an excellent re-weaving of Vetiver leaving it as light as a flower garland, and Plus Que Jamais, an elegant re-orchestration of Jardins de Bagatelle, turning that staccato tune into a meandering piece by Ravel. All are credited to Jean Paul Guerlain, which may be corporate shorthand for “Never mind, shoppers, it’s a Guerlain.” Even worse, none is still in production.
The Firm changed its strategy again. Other perfumers were brought in, the Art et Matiere Line was started, and the venerable company began to return to its old ways, that is of letting the competition innovate and then executing those innovations with the customary Guerlain expertise.
But I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone if Guerlain had promoted Mathilde Laurent to in house perfumer, or even if they had hired Patricia de Nicolai, who is a Guerlain by blood? Did both ladies hit a glass ceiling? Were there just too many new ideas? Were there irreconcilable differences? Was Guerlain not ready for a female in house perfumer?
Who knows, but either way, judging from the brief rush of creativity that came out of the company, like a belated jet from a crumbling fountain, at the turn of the century, it may have been Guerlain’s loss.
(guerlain image via Moonik and wikipedia)