We live in a crass, capitalistic, interconnected world of hype in which we are at the mercy of conglomerates and advertising, an ingenious science that taps into the base needs of human beings – and their vulnerable, self-doubting psyches – and then creates products that they think they want and ‘need’. Thus, what is popular, a best seller, a ‘phenomenon’, relies less on the the intrinsic value of the thing itself then how it is marketed. You need buzz: to ride the wave of the zeitgeist with slick tantalisation and the snippet, a face (or better, a body) to sell your product, to have the media, and tech-savvy cold-eyed people in your department with their eye always on the game, plugged into the matrix, and what is ‘trending’, to make your consensus-built, pre-public tested creation a hit, to slip clues to the nature of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ at least a year before the movie’s release to whip up extra interest, to get Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning smile on board to market Lancome’s best selling perfume, La Vie Est Belle.
It goes without saying that the general public are not stupid (or not entirely, although the rise of Donald Trump perhaps puts paid to that idea). Generally speaking, though, people cannot be seduced by pure garbage, a product with no merit whatsoever. There must be some substance, quality, thrill or cultural hook that makes purchase seem worthwhile, even if it is just an initial sheen or surface that lures you in and leaves you feeling as satisfied as you do when you have just guiltily consumed a Big Mac. From films to music to perfumes to books there is a common denominator that pull the great hordes in, something with ‘mass-appeal’ (have you ever tried to read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? Yes I know the plot was intriguing and all, but I personally couldn’t get past the first paragraph the writing was so appalling: for me literally unreadable). A super-hit, then, while appealing on the surface perhaps and vaguely digestible, can often be, from other angles, and seen in hindsight, a total pile of junk.
Writing this I will probably come across as a total snob. And while it is true that I was definitely born a bit supercilious – possibly because my bullshit-o-meter was working ferociously from quite a young age – in fact my tastes are not as pretentious or hipster-tastic as many self-conciously ‘arty’ or ‘alternative’ types out there who willfully only gravitate to the obscure or ‘difficult’ in order to be cool. Cinematically I can go from pure art – Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Jodorowsky, Kubrick, all the truly visual auteurs – through to the lurid, high octane schlock of Brian De Palma or Scorcese to the latest Hollywood releases quite happily: a film I particularly enjoyed last year, for example, was Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the most viscerally physical films and atmospherically coherent films I have recently seen. Musically I am equally eclectic: in a certain mood I will listen to ‘difficult’ classical music like Messiaen, Stravinsky, or the most severe and abstract electronic ambient sounds, for me the equivalent of iced rain-drops clearing out my brain moss, while at others I am MOR, jazz, Mr Electro-Pop.
That said, despite my openness to the commercially successful ( I too, went to see Avatar in 3D spectacles and quite enjoyed it), to me there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that quantity of units sold is absolutely no guarantee of quality, particularly when we are talking about art. If we look at the top 20 most financially successful movies of all time, for example, we will find such dubious inclusions as Avengers: Age Of Ultron; Transformers: Age Of Extinction, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and Fast and Furious 7. Clearly these are categorically not the greatest films of all time, even if even these I am not entirely immune to the charms of :my students once insisted we watch Transformers and Fast And Furious, and though my brain was quite numb after a certain number of minutes, I could still see the appeal, at least from their eyes : all hard bods, sass, and pumped-up energy alchemized by a hundred-million-dollar special FX, well timed jokes and ironic asides, explosions, adrenalined car chases, and robots. The films were undeniably exciting on one simple level, which is just what the public wants – and they were then put in the hands of ‘creatives’ who knew how to sell them. They then became, as fully expected, mega-hits. And who am I to judge?
While a perfume might not shift as many units as an album by Adele, whose semi-sincerity, vocal prowess, and natural beauty I can definitely see the appeal of, even though I might not listen to her myself (“Hello”, on the radio, though is finally getting through to me); it is, ultimately, still a part of the same game. A blockbuster perfume is still a cultural product that becomes part of the world around us even if it is invisible, and it makes a lot of money for its parent company (which probably gains most of its income through toilet products in so called ‘functional perfumery’ – but is there really any difference half the time?), and, like Disney and its franchises, becomes its cash cow.
To reach so many people, though, you have to compromise (surely the enemy of true art), or else you create, once in a while, a masterpiece that is not compromised at all but just so good of and in itself that something in the heart of the public can’t resist it (Shalimar, Black Swan, The Corrections): perfumes, films, or books that come from founts of genuine inspiration. These are very much the exceptions, though. More often than not, the products that become popular with the populace as a whole have been smoothed out, traded-off and accommodated to the point that they become thick, easily comprehended banalities with the skins of a rhinoceros; sturdy as steel; impregnanted and infallible. Successful. A movie like Iron Man 3 cannot fail: the people at Paramount Pictures will have seen to that, in advance. Likewise, La Vie Est Belle, a perfume I detest, will have been tried and tested beforehand, and tweaked and redirected on the poor unsuspecting public – whose reactions to what they are smelling will in large part be based on the general scent in the air (ie. crude fruitchouli gourmands, the perfumes that all women seem to wear now): ground zero to which this ‘new’ fragrance release will smell quite similar. And thus the faceless tick the boxes, and the ‘new perfume’ gets released, and the never-ending, vicious cycle of humdrum mediocrity gets perpetuated. Ad Nauseam.
In truth, Angel (Thierry Mugler) is largely to blame. It changed everything when it was released in 1992, an absolute and utter game changer. And we are still going through its repercussions, as its iconclasms reverberate through the decades in perfumery, just as Chanel No 5 was the progenitor of the majority of copycat perfumes that were released in its brilliant, groundbreaking aftermath (much as I adore my selective vintage collection, it is interesting just how many more obscure old perfumes you come across at flea markets and the like are just so boring: yet another rose jasmine woody musk aldehyde, yawn: : plus ca change), and they invariably pale next to the real thing anyway. Angel, a perfume I myself enjoy to wear in small doses, though I thoroughly understand its detractors (my sister might actually try to kill you if you wear too much of its cloying patchouli white chocolate in her presence), is great for its pared down intensity and shocking originality (at the time, at least: now it just smells a little bit tired). Like a sculpture by Brancusi, though, all was compact and rounded; essential, leaving no extraneous essence. Angel was the sum of its parts: the refracted, commercialized patchouli; the sharp fruit; the fuzzy, skin-kissing white chocolate, its hinting of the smell of sexual spentness in its final stages on the skin, its inhuman tenacity.
Since then, in ‘women’s perfumery (‘men’s’ hardly bears even mentioning and is in general to be considered quite beneath contempt, as there is usually only one concept – MACHO – though in recent years daring new additions to what can be considered masculine such as Dior Homme have attempted to create new tropes ); almost everything we smell now seems to have been built on the foundations of Angel’s tooth-wrecking and infantilizing reign – the descent into comfort and gourmand, into the mood-boosting sweetness of sugar and the slightly ‘daring’ combination of ‘patchouli’ (lab-leached variants of the real thing with some of its earthiness and woodiness but none of the soul). And thus we have such worldwide mega-hits as Flowerbomb – well constructed and faultless in its way if a little unpoetic to say the least – La Petite Robe Noire, another cheap smelling gourmand in the best sellers, and, possibly the most currently popular perfume in the world, Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle, a cleverly constructed sharp, more floral metallic Angel, and a fragrance that I personally find abhorrent. A perfume that sucks the air out from it around it. A perfume that is the smell of the headache-inducing pollution of the department store and duty free, of chemicals, and popularity.
Yes, the ‘smell of popularity’, I like that expression, as that is exactly what we are talking about here. Either the endless fruitchouli variants, or else the desexualized floral (Happy, Romance, J’Adore etc) or the pallid, laundry musk safety of a Kenzo Flower or a Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. All very competent, cunningly commercial fragrances that probably deserve to be the hits that they are because they hit some kind of olfactory mark that smells familiar and easy, that fits in with the mainstream of what is considered perfumery – the Sam Smiths and Kelly Clarksons of the perfumery department – yet which still will make the discerning perfumist, who knows real perfumery, shake his or her in vexed apathy and disgruntled irritation.
Trying to break the mould in practically any sphere of creativity is difficult, and a risk. This is why the big movie studios are apparently less and less willing to try something new, and stick instead to their blockbuster franchise sequels and, on the side, just to win some accolades, their yearly release of ‘quality’ Hollywood Oscar-bait (actually my least favourite kind of film, for their strict, conservative adherence to preconceived notions of what constitutes ‘good taste’ and ‘quality’: in acting, in set design, in screenplay- you couldn’t get me to watch Eddy Redmayne, in The Danish Girl, for example, if you paid me). Other than these two types of films – action blockbusters based on superheroes saving the world (why, oh why, why why why do people – ‘adults’ – like superhero movies so much? I will never, ever, understand it), and ‘issue’ based, show-your-acting-chops dramas like The Imitation Game (yes, Cumberbatch was brilliant, in a way (though I personally didn’t believe a word of it), and the story was uplifting, and then crushing, and I cried a bit, where I was supposed to, so it was good, stolid entertainment even if it was, ultimately, for me, just an obvious ploy to try and get Academy Awards): other than these, the studios are simply too afraid to try and do something original, to go out on a limb.
In truth, despite the rave reviews these kinds of films receive on Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes (critical consensus is always something to beware of for me) I often find that the slated films, or those with very low scores, the ones that are vilified and scorned and hated by the Quality Police, the ones that failed at the box office, are actually more enjoyable. They take more risks. They don’t care. They say what they want to say. They are fun. A bit weird. More liberated, and free of conventions or expectations. And by far most importantly, they try something new.
So we come to the commercial failures. The films, or books or music or perfume that no one buys – the ‘flops’. And in the cruel and ruthless world of dollar-based evaluation, something that doesn’t immediately bring home the bacon is usually considered a failure, on every level ( I don’t think this is quite the case in somewhere like France, however, where art is more respected and where a film can win the Palme D’Or at Cannes and still not make any money). In perfume terms, though, I think it is even more difficult to branch out, as the public in general is less equipped to analyze the olfactive than they are with other creative media – we live in a largely visual arena and so know how to process the memes of the constant visual media – whereas commercial perfume tends to be a more enveloping bank of conformity that becomes the air in the bar, pub or club that we are accustomed to and are thus more unwilling to break away from for the simple fear of smelling wrong.
As a result, when perfumers do dare to try to follow their instinctive muse and a head designer comes on board and says yes, sometimes interesting scents are released into the world that nevertheless come crashing down and are quickly discontinued. I am not really talking about niche, where word-of-mouth and willingness to be different is much stronger, and thus the perfumes are judged more on their olfactory worth than on their image (although the sheer number of perfumes released now, with each new niche house always beginning with a whole phalanx of scents, an entire olfactory spectrum of fragrances all in one go, means necessarily that a fair few of the creations will fall by the wayside as an inevitable result of natural selection), but more about the bigger investments by the more well known fashion houses that require much more of an initial investment in terms of product design and promotion, perfumes that are then withdrawn in a silence of embarrassment and never heard of again while the ‘creative department’ goes back to their ‘directives’, their ‘mood boards’, and square one.
These are the perfumes, then, that Olivia, my co-contributor, and I will be looking in this new series: “ Successful Failures”, perfumes that came and went, but that managed to gain some die-hard fans in the short time that they lived. Discontinued perfumes that disappeared but that can still be found if you look ( at discount online perfumeries, T.J Maxx and the like): a far better fate than reformulation, at any rate, which is a disgrace, and an indignity that any quality perfume should never be subjected to. Rather a perfume be in hiding, surely – unknown and waiting to be re-recognized in its original form, as it was intended – than be a shadow of its former self, an imitator, a brain-scooped, cheaper, more synthetic, doppelganger.
And so, ‘without further ado’, to the Successful Failures, the Good That Died Young. The Beautiful Rejects. And the first in this series today we will be starting with (sporadically, when we feel like it), is Theorema (incidentally, one of my favourite films – Teorema or Theorem, by Pasolini, an exquisite Italian masterpiece), released by Fendi in 1998, and now, like the film, for those in the know, something of a cult favourite.
Take it away Olivia.
Fendi Theorema (1998)
Theorem. There is something in that keystone of pure mathematics that hints at astral beauty and the awe of the unknown: the study of space and structure, of change and motion, the meshing of abstraction and logic. The tracing of patterns in an unfathomable chaos.
In a sense, there is a reflection of this in Fendi’s defunct perfume from 1998, Theorema. A wonderful balancing act of legible complexity, it is a harmony of disquiet and languid lean whose soft, diaphanous features drape over a garnet bone structure. Both supine and regal, the abstraction of the composition seems perfectly logical when worn on skin: comfortable and eclectic. Like those algebraic abstractions, there is a sense of something ethereal and outside of ourselves and yet, at the same time enveloping us.
A spiced, woody oriental with a gourmandish character (but whose sweetness is light years from the ethyl maltol caked sugar vats of many current launches), this perfume shares a bloodline with those fiery powerhouses of the 80s – Opium, Cinnibar and Fendi’s own Asja – by way of the mellow cedar fruits of Lutens. However while the fingerprint of those Lutensian spiced compotes can definitely be felt throughout Theorema, here it’s as if that leitmotif has been sketched on rice paper: hefty notes of spice and woods, of vanilla pods, fleshy florals and fruits are made diaphanous and wear like gossamer. Opening with a dusky orange bolstered by nutmeg, cardamom, pepper and rosewood and making it’s way through a floral heart – jasmine, rose, leathery osmanthus, ylang all freckled by cinnamon – to a sumptuously teaky base of benzoin, guaiac, sandalwood, amber and patchouli, this perfume is a stunning drape between disquiet and extreme comfort. Theorema is sunshine and earth: puffs of silk and fire.
The orange note, delectable and almost russet coloured, coupled with the chocolatey benzoin and patchouli makes for a much lauded mirage of confectionary. Specifically, for a time, it radiates a giddying apparition of Terry’s Chocolate Orange scooped out greedily from the woolly toe of a Christmas stocking. I must emphasise though that this is a very grown up version of a bonbon: there is no refined sugar here, nothing cloying in the least and it is instead toasty and cosseting, delicious and entirely of an adult palate.
The white florals in the heart, so often fleshy and lush, here take on an almost carnation like zing – the baseline of the spices buffs them with gauzy shades of chestnut and hazel, rich and piquant with their innate abundance peaking through as if glinting with caramel tones in lamplight. The rose, washed over by the milkiness of sandalwood seems baked by a late autumnal sun. Instead of buxom and bold petals, this is more a milky, spiced pomander of dried burgundy rose petals and cloves.
But while this perfume retains a lush and womanly aura, the woods and spices lend it a very slightly dirty (but not animalic) edge. There is a wonderful tension poised between delicate notes and heavy ones, a leathery laced and tangy hem that hints at secrets and misadventure. It is a perfume midway between the woolen snug of a cuddle and the sticky, sweet trace of nectarous booze on lips, a mingling of incense with gingerbread. It is all welcoming and warm smiles in that broad Italian way; confident and complex, restrained enough for elegance but hinting through fogged windows at delicious kinks. The sum total is sensuous and knowing, comfortable and self-assured but with a quite intoxicating hint of something more disarming: just underneath the coze and spiced panettone is a frisson, the whisper of cat-flick liner and a nightcap Gauloise.
Truly this is a beautiful, intelligent fragrance but despite all the virtues I’ve written about above, it flopped horribly. Its surprising lack of tenacity perhaps was a factor – a downside of the admirable transparency of the composition is that is does wear lightly (although the parfum – a true unicorn! – is richer and more unctuous as you’d expect.) But released as it was in 1998, it shared shelf space with the likes of Baby Doll, J’Adore and Rush and perhaps this auburn elixir was just too out of step with broader commercial tastes at the time. Truth be told this, while not a difficult perfume is perhaps not universally appealing especially to noses less accustomed than they likely would be now to the smoky, disarming qualities of ingredients such as oud.
If it were released now, under a swishy niche label and with a stratospheric price, I have no doubt it would be a sensation. There are however alternatives, perfumes with a kinship to Theorema that could quench a yen. Perfumer Christine Nagel did in fact resurrect the concept of her earlier composition in her 2004 release for Armani Prive, Ambre Soie – a similarly atmospheric perfume reminiscent of smoked ginger and the darkest cocoa powder. Givenchy Organza Indecence, released only a year after Theorema (and similarly discontinued but still easier to find) rifts on the same idea but extends the vanillic aspects and fleshes out the fruit with rich plummy swathes.
Etat Libre d’Orange Like This is a more distant descendant – drier, edgier but with the same russetty palate and evocation of warmth and home comforts. The brand new fragrance from Parfums MDCI, Les Indes Galantes, however is much closer to the bone. Rich, complex and Christmassy its interplay of winey fruits and spiced woods are throatier than Theorema, but there is enough smoky speckled vanilla pod and burnished tickly fruits to wrap you up with the same interwoven tendrils of goodwill and allure to satisfy the craving – it’s gorgeous and very much worth checking out.