Upmarket/Downmarket Perfume

"What do you smell?" Sherlock and friend from The Telegraph

“What do you smell?”
Sherlock and friend from The Telegraph

This issue used to strike me as very important long ago.Choice of brand was crucial.  Or so I thought at seventeen. Now this matters far less to me.  I smell all sorts of things and know that many releases are merely rehashes of earlier perfumes, and so  wear whatever strikes me as genuinely interesting pretty much wherever it came from.  But I am naive on this point because the truth is that brands and branding matter a lot.  During the Great Depression of the 1930’s the fatal error among perfume companies was to move downmarket.  You might think that this is counter-intuitive, but in fact it was vitally important.  If your image was exclusive you stood a good chance of surviving the economic wreck, if by contrast you decided to sell your scents in cheap retail outlets like discounters or drugstores, your chances of market share loss were pretty good.  It was Saks Fifth Avenue or bust for perfume companies then. Continue reading

The Emperor’s New Scent

It was Mrs. Bonaparte, aka Josephine, who turned the general on to scent.  Left to his own devices, Napoleon might have preferred the smell of gunpowder in the morning, but he was besotted by Josephine and perfume was – civilizing.

It is something of a stretch to say that he brought perfume back into fashion.  Those who survived the Terror needed some cheering up, and if that meant champagne and perfume,  so be it.  He certainly did nothing to stop it, as a more dour sort of dictator might have done.  The coast was officially clear, the old royal perfume house of Houbigant returned to Paris, and the good times began to roll once more.

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An Explosion of Brands

 John Singer Sargent  Promenade during the uncrowded fin de Siecle

John Singer Sargent
Promenade during the uncrowded fin de Siecle

Believe it or not this happened once before.  You may think that nothing like the multiplication of perfume niche companies has ever been seen in the history of scent sales but back in the early twentieth century something very like this happened.

Frankly I’ve long since lost count of the number of new niche fragrance houses that have debuted in the last three years or so.  Some of them will survive of course, and many will not, but back in the teens and twenties the world of perfume was similarly flooded. Continue reading

The Zaftig Floral

Florals come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are fusspots, some are exercises in carnality – tuberose comes to mind – and some are simply comfortable.

Of all these varieties, I find the comfortable ones, the ones with curves and a tendency to sit down on the job quite a lot the most pleasing.  They are seldom completely synthetic, since formulae that are molecularly sparse just don’t conjure up the requisite Mae West or Lillian Russell curvature. You need some big juicy naturals there to fill out a bottle.  The zaftig perfume is bodacious.

She’s also built for comfort and not for speed, so the formula is never simple or sleek, and the zaftig is seldom a soliflore perfume.  In fact I can’t think of a one that is based on a single flower.  They need to be big generous bouquets, the sort that fill your arms and start falling all over the carpet.  What actually fits this criteria? Continue reading

Chypre 2.0

Periodically perfume people mourn the death of the chypre.  It’s supposed to be down to the restrictions on oakmoss which was the constituent that gave the chypres so much salty depth and dryness.  Now you cannot use oakmoss in amounts large enough to produce the chypre effect, or you have to use low atranol oakmoss which is, from the chypre’s perspective, rather like trying to pass off a gelding as a stallion.  You just know something is missing.

Among those who comment about perfumes these days the positions on chypres are mixed.  Perfumistas sorrow over their absence but in practically the same sentence they also accuse them of formality, of masculinity, or of being difficult to wear. Still there are many good ones to be found on the internet. Continue reading

The 1912 Overture Part II

Not every perfume released in 1912 was actively influenced by Coty’s decade dominating hits.  Houbigant, which had left off the last century with an unprecedented perfume (Fougere Royale,1882) was due for another world beater.

Their business had begun in 1775.  Jean Francois Houbigant had opened a boutique called A la Corbeille de Fleurs on the rue Saint Honore.    Wigs were the fashion of the day (see The Powdering Gown), and for reasons that pass modern understanding,  people insisted on powdering them – maybe it put off lice? Whatever the reason, Houbigant supplied the powder.

He also sold hair pomade, and floral essences, which gets us back on familiar territory.  The making of him was the patronage of Madame du Barry, the equivalent of a thirty-dollar Good-time Girl, whom the aging king Louis XV had installed as maitresse en titre. Continue reading

The 1912 Overture part I

There are watershed years in practically every field, and in perfumery, 1912 was the year of grace.   It is one hundred years since Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs, and Caron’s Narcisse Noir were introduced, amazingly, all three are with us up to the present day.  They are all classics and are all, in their various ways, ground breaking.

It’s hard to conceive of a time when fragrances weren’t launched with the  outsized caution and undersized budgets of our own era, and yet those pre-war years were the time of Francois Coty’s rise, and his competitors were responding to the market dominating successes of La Rose Jacqueminot (1904) and L’Origan (1905), especially the latter.  On the strength of these blockbusters, Coty  built a factory complex outside of Paris capable of producing thousands of bottles a day, and he was in the process of conquering overseas markets as well.

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