But back to Gabrielle.
It seems that some people who read my corrosive review of Chanel’s latest ‘blockbuster’ the other day felt that I was overstating just how bad Gabrielle is as a perfume in and of itself: Persolaise chided me for exaggerating its alleged ‘vileness’ and suggested that the perfume is perhaps more simply disappointing than objectively awful.
Maybe he is right.
I should state here, before I go any further with this, though, that when it comes to perfume writing, I rarely do things properly. Though I will, on occasion, do things the ‘proper’ way, testing the scent out on skin, observing the scent in all its development and incremental stages throughout the day, smelling it on scent strips to get different perspectives, all of that, on the whole, I am much more reactive and decisive when it comes to perfume. I decide in seconds. I know immediately. In fact, last Thursday’s Gabrielle review, from smelling the perfume for the very first time, to pressing publish, took a maximum of eight or nine minutes, possibly even five. Lift: experience : write: print.
I trust my nose brain in these matters. I feel that I can ‘get’ a perfume, top to bottom, in less than a handful of initial inhalations. I don’t need a whole day with it ( do you?). I am a very spontaneous person. I feel a perfume in its totality. This is what a perfume does : yes, a good one has changes, gradations, revelations on the skin as time passes, the top, middle and base, but simultaneously, in one spray, you also experience all of these elements as a whole; at once, an entirety. Therein, in this fleeting complexity, lies the beauty.
With people, admittedly, I can sometimes be too judgmental in my initial, instinct-based reactions and am often proven wrong at a later date. And with perfumes, this sometimes happens too. You can revise your original opinion of a scent, discover new depths or facets, both appealing and otherwise, that draw you closer or push you away from the perfume for good. Since rediscovering my Parfums de Rosine, for example, and finding new aspects within the compositions that I had hithero ignored, I have been loving them to death : my bottles are almost empty. So I certainly am not stubborn enough not to be dissuaded from negative opinions of a perfume by new angles, viewpoints, and particularly by smelling it on another person’s skin, when you realize a perfume you didn’t like before really suits him or her (I actively enjoy being proved wrong in this particular instance). And perhaps this will happen to me with Gabrielle, you never know. Coming back from the Shima hot springs in the mountains of Gunma prefecture yesterday ( such a tranquil, pleasing and beautiful place), in our local train station, there was a fashionably attired Japanese woman in her late twenties, all in white, who was wearing Coco Mademoiselle, in just the right amount, and, I have to say, effectively: I didn’t actively enjoy the scent of it ( as I never do), but I could definitely, in that moment, appreciate that this was a well constructed, populist perfume with a modern, vaguely ‘sultry’ self confidence that she carried off with a particular, nonchalant kind of perfection.
That now well established perfume, and a continuing world bestseller, was released in 2001, we might remind ourselves: a perfume still, like so many others, in thrall of Mugler’s Angel (1992): the refractured patchouli candy floss devil that changed perfumery forever and provided the basic olfactory template for virtually all the sickly sweet, vanilla-choked vulgarities that have followed in its wake. It has a lot to answer for, that creation.
The thing is, though, Angel, quite brilliant in its way, really was a true original : audacious, outrageous, iconoclastic, a slowburning mainstream perfumery game changer that took big risks that could have ended in failure but that ultimately paid off big time. REALLY big time. It has never left the airwaves since. However, having two ‘purified’ patchouli popularity-wave perfumes on its roster already – Chance and Coco Mademoiselle, I naively assumed that a brand new fragrance from such an esteemed house of perfume – the first in sixteen years – might leave all of that behind; contain some surprises, some newness, at least a small hint of innovation, some CHARACTER, and I think it is this : the utter timidity involved here, the extreme banality, the fear of offending, the homogenization, that so offends me. To take a quartet of such luscious white floral essences but then to mute them so unequivocally under the blinding white toxicity of the make up counter so that they end up a mere colour strip of general, anaesthetized glow, is what so utterly appalled me when I smelled Gabrielle for the first time, last week; the sense of defeat, the exasperating contrast with what perfume can ACTUALLY be: something transfixing; mysterious, exciting, enigmatic.
With tuberose and gardenia being on point ingredients again right now- see Stella McCartney’s Pop, or Gucci Bloom – and taking into account as well the huge popularity of Tom Ford’s Neroli Portofino, a big burst of orange blossom, it seemed to me that Chanel truly had the opportunity here to create a real paradigm shift away from the now nightmareish ‘patchouli’ factory gourmands I thought we were all sick of, into more exotic, fresher, more temptingly floral climes, while still remaining Chanel, naturally – this house always reigns in and masters its ingredients to make them fit perfectly into the formality of its palette – but more youthful; uninhibited; sensual, even capricious.
And so, being an optimist at heart (honestly), and liking the idea of a soft, surreptitious white floral that I might even get away with as a work perfume on my brand new white shirts for a while, I somewhat excitedly, stupidly, approached the Chanel counter with a wide-eyed hope of pleasure, only, immediately, incontrovertibly, to be greeted by a thick, invisible miasma of boredom. The very ESSENCE of banality, clogging the air; Japanese sales assistants lackadaisically lacing their plastic panelled environs and ubiquitous scent strips with this familiar, nothingy smell that I and you have smelled a million times before: a smell that invades your exhausted, airport dreams, without a single tuberose or jasmine or ylang ylang flower in sight. In other words, the thing had been focus-grouped, pasteurized, and business- convened out of all potential originality ( who knows what Oliver Polge’s initial sketches were like?) into resignation; smoothed down into a lobotomized, mundane humdrum of consumer palatability: a mean; an average. Consumer tested beforehand, for months, for years even, to the edge of its very death.
With such a reality, I also believe the imagery and advertising will have been chosen for the presentation campaign for Gabrielle in a very similar fashion. Quite carefully. Because a nondescript perfume needs a celebrity. A celebrity, any celebrity, who is riding the moment, popular, and not necessarily one who would even conceivably like or wear the perfume ( there is no way that Kristen Stewart is wearing this, at least not of her own free will ); but someone ‘hot’, of the times, who can attract the attention of the desired demographic; a face, if you like, for facelessness.
Of course, perfume advertising, to a large extent, has always worked this way. The only real way to magnetize a largely smell-illiterate public to your product (especially if it doesn’t even smell very good ) is to bypass the lesser sense – smell – with the far more modern and developed one – sight – and forge a presumed connection with the celebrity in question so the buyer at least subconsciously thinks to herself, well if she can wear it, so can I.
Julia Roberts, homely, relatable, ‘normal’, yet also beautiful and glamorous, was a very canny, if expensive, choice by Lancôme for La Vie Est Belle: she is a talented, natural actress and mother who ‘speaks to the people’ but maintains a career as a world renowned superstar. She has an absolutely killer smile. And even if she has faded from view a little in recent years, it is not too far fetched to imagine Julia Roberts wearing a sweet gourmand floriental like Lancôme’s uber popular bestseller, at home, playing with her kids, much as you can just about imagine Charlize Theron: blonde, goddess like, fresh as a rose flower, clad in the better and more expensive editions of J’Adore Dior.
But just as I do with actress Angelina Jolie in the advertising for Guerlain’s latest mainstream release Mon Guerlain (less said about that name the better), with Kristen Stewart at the helm of Gabrielle I also feel a very big smell/visual disconnect indeed (am I alone in this?). Stewart is still very much one of the fashion and film world’s ‘it’ girls, graduating from her morose vampire teenager/ Robert Patterson’s girlfriend in ‘Twilight’ days to her current pansexual, but largely girl-loving ( and label hating) incarnation as party gate crasher, indie actress and generally ultra trendy lesbian fashion icon. Quite liberated. A new template, in a way, for girlhood, womanhood. Someone who makes their own path and walks it. Refreshing. Absolutely none of which, none at all, though, is to be found in ‘her perfume’.
I personally actually quite like Kristen Stewart, as I do all of the actresses mentioned here. In fact, I had noticed her in a few films that she made before her caterpult to teenage superstardom, enough to pause the film during the credits at the end and make a note of her name. She somehow stood out to me, both with her idiosyncratic beauty and peculiar acting style, so I am confident that she pretty much is the real deal, not just some vacuous cipher. She knows what she is doing. She was great in Clouds Of Sils Maria, a French film she made with Juliette Binoche and directed by Oliver Assayas that D and I saw at the cinema and really loved; she was charming in Woody Allen’s recent Cafe Society. But from her image – spikey, sharp, and with her quite boyish, ‘directional’ sartorial choices, you just KNOW that this young twenty seven year old hipster would never, ever, give herself a big dose of dullard, sorry a spritz or two of ‘Gabrielle’, before leaving her apartment on the arm of some rake thin model: no no no – it would be something far more edgy and androgynous, cool – if she even wears scent at all.
On the same note, the mad, good, but dangerous to know Angelina Jolie, one of the fiercest women around in showbusiness, director of war films, divorcer of Brad, fearless campaigner of mastectomies and hysterectomies as preventive cancer measures for genetically vulnerable women such as herself, badass bitch in such films as Wanted, Salt and Girl, Interrupted, is EXTREMELY misrepresented, in my view, by the pink, fluffy teenage bunny rabbit that is Mon Guerlain. I have only spent marginally more time with this sweet little tchotchke than I have with Gabrielle (who in comparison, acts strangely middle aged and scarily conformist so long before her time : at least Mon Guerlain does actually smell like a sweet young girl about to be kissed on her first date); but although it wasn’t for me personally – and I am definitely not the target audience! – I thought that, though too pralined and caramellized for me to bear for too long, the segue from a fresh, natural lavender note to a perfected, vanillic new generation Guerlinade, is, in many ways, the idealized, sweet, sugared almond scent for a young girl of thirteen or fourteen, still with braces on her teeth perhaps, leaning in, blushing, at a French country fair, closer to her equally blushing beau. In this context, Mon Guerlain could, I imagine, smell very pretty, beautiful, even. Imagining it on Angelina Jolie, feral, Olympian, Earth Mother, psycho, however, is more difficult. More like a joke.
There was a time when an outstanding new fragrance release by one of the big fragrance houses – Poison, say – could rely on its scent alone to bring in the money; aided, of course, by an artistically provocative advertising campaign (often featuring unknown models ) to augment the mental associations and imagery of the perfume. Alternatively, a relevant actress or other celebrity could be hauled in for this, one whose persona chimed with the smell of the potion : Jerry Hall, darling of the Studio 54 set, reclining among tiger skins and souks for that ultimate 70’s perfume, Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium. Paloma Picasso for Mon Parfum, appearing as herself. Scarlett Johannsson for Dolce Gabbana The One, all red-lipped and curvaceous. Perfect. I quite liked Nicole Kidman for Chanel No 5 also, a successful combining of the classy, the classical, and the present (and Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis’ daughter for the new L’Eau – ideal). Or Kate Moss for Calvin Klein’s CK One, who perfectly personified the contemporary waif-like nineties grunge chic of the times in the clever black and white advertising campaign from which, if you lived in the city, there was no escape.
The thing is, that perfume was actually really new and original at the time. And the photography used on those billboards and in glossy magazines complemented it to the point that the smell and the imagery coalesced successfully in your mind – you BOUGHT the hype. Well, a lot of other people did, anyway. But when the smell in the bottle itself is subpar, or just bland, generic, boring, as an ever greater numbers of perfumes are these days undoubtedly are, tempered by such a fear of overstepping the mark (ie. being creative or too different), I feel that much, much greater powers of visual persuasion are now required to rope in that great majority of perfume consumers who, sadly, know not what they do, lost within all the department store madness ; the artificial lighting, the dross and fragranced sameness. The viscous, sugared dirge in the ‘air’. The All-seeing ‘Perfume’ Pushers, knowingly, cynically, blindly leading the Blind. Making you look: not smell. Because without the structure of a celebrity endorsement or expensive modelling contract, a mainstream perfume, it would seem now, cannot survive on its inherent olfactory qualities alone. No. Right now, far more than merely ‘putting a face’ to a perfume, for a perfume like Gabrielle, or even Mon Guerlain, the art of manipulative celebrity fronting is, for the major perfume houses, in actual fact, more like subterfuge; a cover up ……………………a mask.