A very long while ago – in the blog scheme of things at least – I wrote, half-jokingly, about my grave disappointment over Fame, Lady Gaga’s woeful entry into the arena of fragranced celebrity. My instincts were borne out by the reactions of other reviewers and also personal experience when I took Fame, and Madonna’s Truth or Dare, to an excited Japanese friend’s house and got her to guess, eyes shut, which one was which. And, naturally, tell me which one she preferred.
Madonna’s plastic tuberose won out – just – but Aiko was really shocked by the banality of the Gaga (“really? really?”) reminding her as it did of Shibuya teenage trash in the mid-nineties. Its cheapness truly astounded her. My observation that Fame was not much above the level of Toilet Duck also bore interesting fruit during my summer travels: even on my first morning at Tokyo’s Narita airport I was astonished by how much the gap between personal and antimicrobial perfumery had closed. In other words, where once a woman may have smelled exquisitely, mysteriously- alluringly, for God’s sake – of an inspired orchestration of high quality essences of flowers and fruit, mosses, woods resins spices – and any toilet she may have alighted upon would probably have smelled neutral, or else of disinfectants and pine, lemon soap or bleach – a place to do one’s business in, but not to linger perchance – right now, in this current age of cheap, functional perfumery, she and her throne might blend as one. An uncanny marriage of human and water closet, where the scents we give off are almost interchangeable. A whole new angle to eau de toilette.
The scents I experienced in airport lavatories – Tokyo, Barcelona and Amsterdam, were all high grade – very pleasant as these things go, to let you dream and fend off the inevitable anxiety of flying in a metal tube across the world, to make the whole process just that little bit easier. The Narita ‘restrooms’ had a sweet, inviting little floriental smell very similar to Lady Gaga; Barcelona a rich, enveloping honey, and Amsterdam a pretty, if a touch harsh, serotonin-enhancing orange blossom that really wasn’t that far from Palazzo by Fendi.
To clarify, I am not one of those who believe in basking in the scents of nature: as far as I am concerned toilets in all homes should be equipped with fine incense to dispel smells that no-one should ever have to be exposed to, and when it comes to public conveniences I favour the strongest aromachemicals in existence, rather than the collective stench that can arise in such places (some train stations in Japan take relieving oneself on a daily basis to the level of trauma ): if they can actually smell pleasant to boot then that is great. And this functional perfumery I came across, where you almost sigh like a pervert at the urinal, really had developed in leaps and bounds.
The problem arose when I emerged from these places and I realized that the people around me, waiting with their trolleys and suitcases, smelled almost the same. Whether it is the fault of the big fragrance houses making those toilet scents just that little bit too expensive- smelling, or those same houses making their ‘high end’ commercial products smell a touch too piss-cheap, the effect was quite disturbing. When the two merge in your mind – person and toilet bowl – you desperately just want to inhale fields of grass, forests, or natural air to escape – those sweet, noxious clouds in the context of a glass-sealed, airless airport can be almost sickening.
Judging from the women round me, thick, jaunty vanillic florientals à la Flowerbomb, Dior Addict, and their ilk are obviously the standard for the Europeans: pleasant, easy-sexy, if ultimately very vulgar, and as people wafted about me in the queue through immigration I realized to what extent these in-your-face formulae lack mystery (especially at 7am, when travellers are at their most stomach-churned and sleep deprived – a full on nightclub cleavage in your grill just as you have been trying to nibble on a piece of dry toast and coffee).
Coming into Duty Free the feeling was compounded by the stench of the trite and shallow ‘fragrances’ on offer by the main houses, those market-tested nasty-smelling things that can never elicit in me much more than irritated snarls. The new releases were so banal, or down right nasty – Ralph Lauren’s ‘Big Pony’ (idiot!!) series for ‘men’ and ‘women’ winning the prize for worst value for money – such antagonizingly ugly rubbish – Christ I’d genuinely rather smell of the honeyed water closets of Barcelona.
Which brings me again to travel.
I had such a wonderful summer back in Europe (hence my rude and lengthy silence – apologies if you wondered if I had been swallowed up by a black hole, or, like some tragic ‘Little Monster’ taken my own life in despair over the abysmal quality of the Lady Gaga perfume. I didn’t – in fact I have to confess that I was watching Almodovar’s trashy High Heels on Saturday night and as the pink and red melodrama hotted up I did find myself clamouring out for Fame – something to match the cloy – and almost enjoyed it on my left arm, right during those tumultuous moments of high camp Spanish excess…I may still come round: I am trying )
.. I must say though that despite all the aforementioned cheapness I also have many quality olfactory tales to tell. I did not, in fact, spend the whole time sniffing toilets, but came across some beautiful creations, old and new, that really stimulated the palette; had some great perfume experiences, like meeting the creator of the Parfums de Rosine series, the lovely Francois Robert, and hearing the fascinating stories of his perfumed heritage (his father created one of my favourite perfumes of all time, Calèche – see my review – and Madame Rochas among many others; his great uncle was the author one of my holy grails, the original Chanel 19…I sat listening to him quite rapt at Les Senteurs): interviewing Mark Buxton of Comme des Garçons about his new eponymous collection (to be published online in Aesop magazine very soon): treasures discovered in the troves of London perfumeries and the perfumerias of Barcelona, as well as things that had been lost at my parents’ house in Solihull (vintage Diorella!)
But what I realized for sure is this: with a few notable exceptions, in the current state of perfumery, if you want to smell more inspiring than a newly scrubbed bathroom, you will either have to trawl the flea markets or e-bay for vintage treasure, or else spend over 100 pounds for a good niche scent, of which there are many (although having said that I did buy Agua Fresca by Adolfo Dominguez(1993), a gorgeous, and very reasonably priced Spanish citrus men’s cologne that perfectly suited the hot city I was in while I was there, so economical purchases obviously still can be made if you look hard enough).
However, the general releases are, on the whole, getting more and more crass; less and less artistic and quality, and it seems that I was wrong to be overly harsh on my bleached muses, Madonna and Gaga for their sickly ‘creations’ – they are obviously, as always, just going along with the trends.