Asking my students today what their New Year’s Resolutions were, one cute little twelve year old girl piped up and told me that she ‘wanted to eat as much chocolate as possible’. I thought this was kind of refreshing as an antidote to all the deprivations and self negation that we usually associate with January, even if it might not be the healthiest option.
I myself, I would say, have a slightly above average sweet tooth. I have always loved chocolates and cakes and sweets and goo-laden puddings, but I don’t, on the whole, eat them abnormally or in excess (except for when I do, and then I gorge: hands literally dangling in the honey jar; oozing, filling filled truffes; ganaches, I sometimes even shovel in straight sugar if it is absolutely necessary).
Conversely, I can also go for weeks without eating chocolate or many things sweet: I just go off them, for a while, feel much more in the mood for savoury, the acidic and the acetic, then out of the blue, usually get mid-afternoon, get that chocoholic need for the sugar rush high and find that I can’t resist.
In perfume, I can sometimes go pretty sucrosey too when I need to as well. Again, definitely not all the time (or I’d wrench my own skin off), but I have been known to drench myself, quite happily, in such molar-melting scented delights as Molinard Vanille (sugar sweetened vanilla ice cream), Montale’s Bourbon biscuit laden Chocolate Greedy, even Vanille Extrême by Comptoir Sud Pacifique (burning play doh dollies drenched in hot vanilla sauce); Jungle L’Eléphant by Kenzo (spice and licorice and monstrously artificial dollops of ylang ylang, patchouli,and plum), and to name but one other of my candy shop of perfumed confectionery, Serge Lutens’ wrongly maligned Louve – that rose and almond-musked menace that in all honesty I do really rather adore.
My bulimia and diabetes-baiting credentials established, we see that I am a ripe recipient for Bonbon. I am unafraid of even the very sweetest of perfumes when the mood strikes ( I sometimes even get midnight cravings for Lady Gaga’s Fame, all apricot molasses and candy floss, when I am watching films my Pedro Almodovar). There is even, somewhere my collection, a perfume solid of Britney Spears’ tantalizingly sugared cupcake medley, Fantasy. There, I have said it.
And so we find me running, panicked, in San Francisco Airport after a delayed flight from Miami International, rushing frantically to get to our gate, but still, while running, managing to do a very quick tour around the reeking Duty Free concession that is nearest to Immigration…..oh, Bonbon, that will do, he cries, as he slaps two finely drenched scent strips into his passport and proceeds then to go through customs thinking that he must be in close proximity to the toilets (because a lot of toilets, these days, do actually smell a bit like this).
A bit embarrassing, actually, as the wary, if handsome, immigration officer then opens up my passport, eyes me judiciously, just enough, and the sickly smell of pink, synthetic sweetness wafts up from my stamps of Indonesia, my laminated photo.
Later, on the plane I see it differently (mind you, there was no food on American Airlines, I was probably starving). It is not so bad, though, really. Trying to be kind, in these days of stark cruelty, I kind of like it. Yes, we’ve smelled this kind of floriental thing at least a million times before (this ‘newest perfume’ is utterly recognizable to you and me), in its long gestated genesis from Laura Biagotti’s Roma, through to Viktor & Rolf’s own Flowerbomb, but therein lies the crux: we have smelled it a million times before. I am thus a bit let down, as I do quite like the work of those venerably eccentric fashion designers from beautiful Amsterdam and was hoping for something more.
I have been to two quite interesting exhibitions of Viktor & Rolf’s, when they were up and coming and at the apex of their trendness about ten years ago. One was in Tokyo: ‘Colors’, I think it was called, and it was really quite quixotic; deliriously pleasurable, held by the Kyoto Costume Institute and attended by the wacky, the elegant, and the fashionable. Rooms divided by colour: black, white, red, blue, each section containing a dress by the duo themselves alongside pieces of historical costumery from centuries back, through to clothing from recent decades in similar colours but drastically differing (if artfully complementary) shapes, and designs. You would be immersed in black : lace, and vampiric widow embroidery, sombre, all consuming, then emerge, say, into yellow, and the effect, as you came out into a new and all encompassing colour, was impressive and startling.
The second Viktor & Rolf exhibition that I went to was in the form of a giant doll’s house at the Southbank in London, also enjoyable, my friend Laurie and I wandering about the coutured and curated splendor quite enjoyably (if then craving a lunch of fish and chips). The fashion creators are inventive, and curious, even if it seems that their semi-surrealist schtick might be currently running out of steam.
Which is why they need their Flowerbomb more than ever, now one of the world’s most popular, best selling perfumes. It is well-made, balanced, almost the sina qua non of this genre in a way -the only problem being that I am just sick of smelling it. That vanillic, strap-shouldered, bust-sticking, Saturday night out for a shag, vulgarity (oh, the snobbery), the quintessential lack of mystery, yet the quietly , irritating, in-your-face-ness of it all. No, it is not perhaps quite as vulgar as I am making out (that would be La Vie Est Belle), but it does seem that, nice on the flesh though it may be, you smell Flowerbomb wherever you go now. It is absolutely everywhere, and has become the new modern ‘female bares all’ icon of the dance club and the pick up bar.
Lancême’s latest atrocity, and it is an atrocity (I’m just exercising my right to free speech, don’t shoot me), is the repugnant, and très very objectionable, to me at least, La Vie Est Belle.
I hate this perfume.
It is one of those perfumes that make me genuinely angry ( do you also have any perfumes that literally make you feel furious? I used to feel that way, if in duller intensity, about Chanel’s horrendous Allure, and remember that Helen also had a real thing about Kenzo’s Flower (the submissiveness, the wanness), and also Addict (again, the blistering vulgarity). My sister, also,feisty and tempestuous creature that she is, fumes internally when she is sitting next to someone who is wearing too much Thierry Mugler Angel on the Tube….)
I don’t hate ‘La Vie Est Belle’, though, (ugh the name, so cod continental), because I think it is a badly made ‘bad smell’, like Kylie Minogue’s calamitous ‘Darling’. I hate it because it is so obviously of the consensus. Never have I smelled a more clearly market-tested fragrance (except, perhaps, Estée Lauder’s execrable Modern Muse, which does in fact need to be gunned down). This trying-to -please -the -nation -anosmic approach always leads to a kind of dumbed down, lobotomized, ‘free-for-all perfume’, consumer tested to within an inch of its life, until it eventually embodies everything, and thus, ultimately, embodies nothing.
It has everything, though. The faux vanilla. The fruitchouli (ugh, how sick am I of that smell now? Aren’t you?). The ‘woodsiness’. Even a false-oudh, fruitaceous vignette in the dying, sink-clinging amber final sludges. I know, because when Daphne, my Lancôme loving mother-in-law, gave me a miniature bottle of the stuff as part of my Christmas present, after inhaling it painfully for a few minutes, I poured the contents right down the bathroom sink, thinking that I might later use the bottle (which isn’t half as bad). And there, when I walked back into the bathroom of our house on Anna Marie Island, Florida, this last holiday, was an almost exact replica of the final stages of Lancôme’s very own Midnight Trésor, which I have smelled quite enough of, thankyou, with its notions of ‘oud’, and overly tenacious blackberry, and its naughty potions.
On top of all of this niggling, synthetic persistence, a peachy Julia Roberts grinning maniacally as though her life depended on it, then go ‘tonka bean, praline, gourmand notes’ and then, of course, we go the ‘orange blossoms’ and the ‘jasmines’, the powdery, neck nuzzling iris, and course, to finish, some fruityish, dipstick top accords of pear, and orange, and blackcurrant ( I clutch my throat).
Apparently achieved after ‘three years of probation’ and ‘5000 versions’, with three very well know perfumers at the helm of the enterprise – Anne Flipo, Dominique Ropion (who I love), and Olivier Polge (who also created Flowerbomb, incidentally), it astounds me to think that despite all that talent, this ultracommerical, immediately headache-inducing bilge was all they could come up with.
Yes, it fulfills the criteria specified. Yes, it is a well made perfume, so forgive me if you are weeping sad and bitter tears into your teacup as you read me savage your favourite. But there really is something about this perfume that makes me feel a life-sucked out, overly lit, lifeless, and saccharine-riven kind of despair.
I was hoping for more, though, from V & R’s Bonbon. I thought they might try and do something daring.
With one megahit safely under their belts with Flowerbomb, why not really amp the ante this time and give us something shocking? Go for broke, try and make a scent that smelled like no other and grab your own, sugar-dusted market share?
When Angel, the daunting, stinking, boa-wearing Godfather of all these patchouli chocolate creatures that we smell all the time all around us now was released to an unsuspecting public back in I99I, it was genuinely, and absolutely, groundbreaking. Mind-boggling, even. I can still see me and Emma, all those years ago in London, on a Sunday probably, post party, with atrocious, spirit-induced hangovers, her giggling and gagging and trying hysterically not to puke as I kept bringing all the Angel samples I had bagged the day before in Knightsbridge right up to her nose, and she lay in bed and begged me, finally to stop, as it was making her ill and genuinely nauseous, both of us baffled and laughing our heads off (‘What the hell is this?’)
It was weird. It was sickening. It was futuristic and kind of wonderful.
And transfixed you, though, whether you hated it or not.
It was new. It was original.
It was a true iconoclast. Patchouli. Caramel. Mango?
Yet here we are again, all these permutations, and more than two decades later, years and years of this sweet vulgarity (and still, no perfumes that have been half as interesting). Caramel, again: peach, orange blossom, sandalwood, amber and all the rest of it, not as interesting as Prada’s relatively creative Candy, with its admittedly rather trying overdose of industrialized benzoin ( I prefer the latest L’Eau version): sugared, quite cute, and much better than the dastardly Belle at least, and I can imagine it smelling rather delightful on the right kind of (teenage?) girl who will pull it off nicely, pout sweetly, and get all the boys at the party.
But still. A perfume this attenuated, with a Marie Antoinette-ish name like that, despite its steadily crafted, pleasingly artificial shimmer, and a certain, satinesque depth ( I don’t actively dislike this scent at all), comes across as a bit weak, and even pathetic. To me, it is just very symptomatic of the recent (too long now) lack of innovative intrepidation in mainstream perfumery.
The perfumers, and their backers are so scared.
Bonbon should have been screaming. It should have taken the gourmand variant in new and gaspingly sweet directions. It should have been the very cakest of the cake, the sweetiest of the sweets. It should have made your teeth start to fall out from ten feet away, as Def Leppard’s body-thawing anthem Pour Some Sugar On Me suddenly began quaking from the speakers and the woofers, and you melted, smiling, sensuously and willfully as a candy cane, onto the sopping, disco, floor.