Apricot dunes; the glow from a studio-lit, ochre trompe l’oeil sunset; seagulls on the soundtrack; the glistening ‘ocean’ beyond. A seasoned French actress, distractedly reaches down into the pillowing sands and scrutinizes, with her smooth cream hands, carefully placed pebbles, starfish and seaweed.
On the beach, pensive, to a backdrop of golden, solar rays…
It is probably quite hard for the perfume youth of today to imagine how exciting – and rare an occurrence – it once was when one of the great ‘houses’ – Guerlain, Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Givenchy, Christian Dior – released a new scent. They were like monuments, fortresses, designed to be aesthetically pleasing but also infallible, made to last. Perfumes that, naturally, were not designed for everyone, but once, if they did catch your senses and made you hers, would then become your perfume, to buy again and again, your signature: huge money-making engines for their parent companies, who relied desperately on these gleaming olfactory colossi to line their coffers for couture.
Rather than the constant floods and inundations of scent that we are treated/subjected to now, ever intrigued but over and underwhelmed, we were almost starved of new perfume back in those days. What you saw was all there was, and if you were bored by what you were smelling you just had to wait. A long time. Many years would pass between the launch of one major scent and the next, and to budding young perfume obsessives, always on the look out for new perfume adverts in fashion magazines like Vogue, the arrival of a long gestated new perfume always felt like a real, magnificent, event.
The concept for Dune had apparently already been thought out and worked on behind the scenes at Dior back in the 1980’s, but it was presciently decided that the next project, the purple hearted, bullet shocker Poison, was more scandalously fitting to the Joan Collins times (and their instincts were most certainly right in that regard), with the result that the project was somewhat put on a back burner for a while until the radical explosion of all things ‘natural’, pared down, marine and ozonic occurred in the following decade, when Dune then suddenly emerged as if out of nowhere: a heavily, but immaculately, made-up Venus, transpiring from the foaming waves of luxeful Perfumia to claim her crown.
At the time, I myself was a second year university student, back home for the summer, working, believe it or not, on a golf course. Although I am the last person on earth to play golf (those pastel colours; checked trousers, all that ‘gear’…….) it was, in many ways, the ideal job for me at the time: entirely solitary, surrounded by trees and nature in my wooden hut, just listening to music, looking at the sky, and finally having definitively enough time to properly read the long novels I had always wanted to read as the hours of green and blue stretched on before me ( I have great memories of losing myself entirely for days on end in great big nineteenth century tomes such as Anna Karenina). There, with the kettle boiling quietly, the birds in the trees, the occasional customers coming for a round of mini golf – I merely had to collect the money and hand out the tickets, and then take the flags down at the end of the day – passing the summer quite nicely, saving enough money to set myself up in Rome that November: I was immersed in aloneness, literature, music and perfume, and, more importantly, the great and exhilarating unknowingness of an upcoming Italian future.
Dune was released during that summer. It was a period in which samples were given out more freely at the department stores, and, as usual, I managed to get a lot of them, vials and vials of the scent which I would try on my hand while sitting outside, or even soak the cassette liner notes of the tapes that I had in the hut with their contents, to make the scent last longer, to be opened and experienced at will, so that in this way Dune formed an almost permanent scented backdrop to that carefree period and is seared in my memory as such (maybe that’s why my Prokofiev Violin Concertos I+II tape went all funny – the very reels of music themselves were drenched in sea broom and soft burnished powder of mollusc).
Although I was never entirely sure if I actually liked this scent – and certainly never wore it beyond the confines of my golf cabin – despite the fact that there was something too full, opulent and strangely off-putting about it, I knew that I was extremely fascinated by it: that weird combination of ambery, salty warmth, and floral, quite definitely duney seaness that all felt so peculiar and uneasy, yet new; compelling. It had a certain thrall. I had simply never smelled anything like it before.
Yes, this rather groundbreaking perfume, which felt, almost, as if it had come from another planet, had been proudly announced by Mothership Dior to be the very first ever‘floriental oceanic’, a very unusual concept at the time, when anything that reeked of the sea simply didn’t seem suitable, somehow, for a fragrance. It was a forceful, clinging floral amber scent with top notes of sea broom and lichen, peony and lily, immersed in a smooth marine compound, edged with rich and salty flowers, benzoin, ambers, and musks. Desperately original and popular when released, I later soon got sick of smelling it in Rome, where, together with the ultra-swimmingly sweet Trésor, it blotted the air all around it with its comeliness, the women of Rome taking it to their commendable, tailored bosoms (these women were always just so deeply perfumed ; profumatissime) with an overly great abundance of maquillaged enthusiasm.
To me, Dune always felt self-satisfied and overplenished somehow, more a performance than a perfume, with several acts, all perfectly balanced (the original formula was extremely complex): warm, emboldening and luminescent, but still, always that unsettling contrast between those sandy, decaying seashells whitening in the sun, and the more demure and feminine flowers and balsamics lurking beneath, an aesthetic tension which, when all is said and done, makes Dune the enduring creation that it is.
In a old and crowded box, dusty and thrown in together like trash, I recently retrieved a vintage parfum of Dune – the one you see in the picture – for a dollar at a fleamarket as you know I always do, and for that price I thought; well, why not. I was quite intrigued to smell this perfume again, to be able to reappraise its flaws, and its charms. And besides, I had never smelled it in extrait.
As you might expect, the current formula still on sale worldwide at Christian Dior counters is said to be a rather unsatisfying reformulation of the original perfume that was released, which was bolder; more detailed; a more extreme and delicate arc between the marine notes, the florals, and the sandalwoody ambers (these new versions of the Diors seem more like snapshots, somehow). This little bottle I got in Tokyo, a considerable amount of which proceeded to spill all over me when I eventually got the stopper off coming home on the train, was unboxed, the label worn off as well, but the perfume inside, dense and full, rich,was still fresh, intense, and rather pleasing. This smell is at once entirely familiar to me: stamped in my brain, nostalgic, comforting, even, yet still retains that inherent strangeness that the original formula always had and that made it distinctive: that insistent, almost sickly amber that also inhabits the base of Cartier Must parfum (a scent I adore); the emotional component coming I suppose from that sense, beyond the immediate, concentrated perfume essences in the heart of the perfume, of an enlivened, agoraphobic dream vista; a beach stretching off for miles and miles, and miles and miles, into the distance.