Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Politics Of Scent

One would think beauty and perfume blogs exist in a sparkly, sweet-smelling bubble, where the writers and readers go to escape daily life and not think of the economy, North Korea and Iran. But try as we might, we aren't really isolated; the outside world with all its ugliness can touch us and creep into what we're doing here.

The good news, I guess, is that even major brands no longer ignore the blogsphere. The bad news is that they're not forward-thinking enough to understand the concept, and try to manhandle it/us with the same belligerency they show in their normal business practice. Case in point is today's Guerlain vs. Octavian Coifan.

Octavian, a perfume historian, has been very vocal about the downward spiral Guerlain has taken in recent years. He spoke up about classic scents no longer smelling as wonderful and luxurious as before (cheapening of ingredients and over-regulating the use of raw material through IFRA). Now they want him silenced. They'd rather have Octavian (and the rest of us) post their press releases word by word without critiquing. They want us to help them promote their products without asking any questions they'd rather not answer. Or else.

Blogs are the one place you can find real reviews by people who are passionate about perfume and not about advertising budgets. We'll tell you what's great and what sucks. We talk about things the industry would rather hide. And they're terrified when they realize we can't be controlled and managed the way they're used from dealing with traditional media.

The griping and kvetching on the various blogs and forums is starting to get somewhere and annoy the snot out of marketing executives. Sometimes they try to retaliate. Longtime readers might remember why I and a few others have been boycotting a certain NYC-based perfume house. I really hope not to get to that point with Guerlain.

Guerlain and its owner, LVMH, have been getting a lot of well-deserved flack for destroying the wonderful tradition of the once family-owned house. They've been recycling and churning one mass-market scent after another in tastelessly expensive packaging that seem aimed at a very specific crowd, from the Russian mob to oil nobility.

Add to that the crapification of Dior perfumes to the point they are unrecognizable (just ask Luca Turin). They also eliminated Fendi perfumes (after discontinuing the good ones- the original Fendi, Asja and the legendary Theorema). It's safe to say that LVMH is not about the art of perfumery.

Of course, they are not the only major force in the industry that thinks their customers are a bunch of idiots who would buy any dreck as long as there's a fancy label. YSL perfumes aren't any better (have you smelled Elle???). The butchering of Jean Patou by Proctor & Gamble is lamented by many, and I hope the ghost of François Coty is haunting the boardroom of his company and poltergeisting the executives with Beckham For Her bottles.

If you've found this blog because you've been searching the net trying to figure out why your new bottle of Diorissimo, Opium or Joy doesn't really smell as good as it used to be, you're not alone. While I doubt the old classics can be resurrected in the short-to-medium term, there is an alternative. Don't give your money to companies who don't respect you. Instead, search the web for names such as DSH Perfumes, Tauer Perfumes, Vero Profumo, Anya's Garden, Liz Zorn Soivohle, Roxana Illuminated Perfumes, Ayala Moriel, Strange Invisible Perfumes, Neil Morris Fragrances, Hilde Soliani, Mona di Orio, CB I Hate Perfumes and Aftelier Perfumes. Think of it in the same terms as the Slow Food Movement and supporting small, local businesses who have integrity and pride in what they do for a living.

Yes, I know it's becoming an almost political issue. It also smells better. A lot better.

Image: Pierre François Pascal Guerlain. Taken from lipstickpowderandpaint.com, original unknown.


  1. I hate to write this in the same vein that I would hate to drop a cherished friend from whom I had become estranged. I have some Guerlain scents that I love but need not buy another (reformulated) bottle of. The new Derby is good, but from the soaring descriptions of the original I can't think the one sitting at Saks isn't reformulated. (but I do love Spiriteuse Double Vanille, the one thing they've released in the last few years that didn't {literally} stink) I don't want to smell the "new" Habit Rouge or Vetiver: I want to remember them as they were. I don't want the Baby Jane Hudson version; I don't want the anodyne. But if I do smell it, I'm going to comment on it. If LVMH thinks that I am soooo very powerful that my comments will harm them, then I can give them the address to send a full, matched set of Vuitton luggage to keep me quiet.

    Just kidding. LVMH, call me...

  2. Very well said! In my opinion Octavian Coifan is a hero! I think that the art of real perfumery is about the last thing LVMH cares about, so you know what? I don't care about their crappy makeovers of great perfumes either, and I will gladly give my business to the artisan houses.

  3. Tom, right now I'm glad I never bought Oriental Brulant or Bois d'Armenie and played right into their hands. I'm still scouring local antique shops for vintage juice (just got a bottle of glorious old Dioressence), but not taking part in their dirty game.
    Now my biggest nightmare is that they'd buy Shiseido (and Papa Serge), DVF or Missoni. After all, they've already got Pucci...

  4. Thanks, D.. I just re-read the chapter about perfume in Deluxe. So very sad.

  5. Great article G!

    IMO it's not even worth wasting breath or computer time on these corporate giants. I fully agree with your closing statement to support the indie perfumers who truly care about perfume as an art.

    It is akin to the slow food movement. You are absolutely correct. Let's support small businesses who support other small businesses (farmers, bottle and compact makers) rather than these faceless conglomerates.

  6. You're not wrong, Gaia, but what if those small houses are inaccessible either due to location or money? I am a fragrance fiend on next to nothing (<10,000 USD) a year.

    Beg for decants?

    Make my own ("3 drops vetiver, 2 drops Oil of Newt, four pinches Orris, and 4.5 drops ylang-ylang")?

    Give up wearable scents, and just dream of flowers during an interminable Ohio winter?

    I do love this blog.

  7. I totally agree with you about the great perfume houses going down the pan!

    I stick to niche fragrances, like Fresh--I won't waste my money buying crap from Dior, Guerlain, or YSL anymore!

  8. What twits they are not to see that folks like Octavian are the perfume companies' best friends because they stir interest in the field. Ah, well, it won't be that hard for me to live without Guerlain. It hasn't been that hard for me to live without Bond No. 9. Around the time BN9 was part of bullying decant sellers off of the Bay (I remembering them being especially threatening to one lovely decant seller who had done nothing to deserve it), I realized that I had tried almost all of the BN9s available then and found most of them boring unto tears and/or painfully overpriced for my taste.

    When you think about it, they're sort of doing us a favor. It's so hard to choose what new releases to try out of the hundreds and hundreds every year. Every time you can cross a perfumer off that list, it makes the decision so much easier.

    As to the question posed by anonymous @1:28, well, at least The Perfumed Court sells plenty of small artisan/indie samples. You may be stuck giving up some quantity for some quality, but I don't find the indies necessarily more expensive than Guerlain, Chanel et al.

  9. Perfume MonkeyJune 24, 2009 4:11 AM

    The small niche perfumer, especially the natural ones are the future of perfume. Its all about a paradigm shift in the world of business my friends. When an old, outdated, out of touch system is dying it kicks and scratches to stay alive until the end. Large corporations are interested in one thing only, profits and survival. The end is coming and trying to silence the opposition is their last attempt to hold onto to something as they tumble into obscurity. If you listen carefully you can hear the giants falling.

  10. This reminds me, in a way, of the big entertainment company's fight against 'illegal' downloads. Instead of listening to what the consumer is telling them (that their business model is hopelessly out of touch), they threaten people with lawsuits and loss of internet access. Crazy.

    I totally agree about Guerlain! And as far as supporting indie perfumers, I'm already there. Their scents are, in many cases, innovative and beautiful (I'm wearing a Mona di Orio today, and it's lovely). Though I agree they can be hard to source conventionally.

  11. Hi Gaia:

    I was targeted by Bond No. 9 lawyers a full year before Liz Zorn, but I wasn't confrontational about it, kept quiet (at the time.) I had just released Riverside a month before, so I pulled it and just recently released it as RiverCali.


  12. Thanks, Trish. I had a feeling you'd approve ;)
    Sad to think how once upon a time Guerlain was a family business, deeply rooted in its community.

  13. Anon, I understand where you're coming from. It is hard to budget for good quality scents, and prices aren't getting lower. However, it's not like the big companies have friendly pricing. One of the biggest complaints against the LVMH brands is exactly that- while they lower their production costs by using cheap ingredients, their prices keep climbing. They're producing fake luxury at our expense.

    As for the indie perfumes, they come in many prices, some more affordable than others. And as another commenter below mentioned, sometimes getting a decant is the better option.

    I wish you all the best and hope you'll have better financial days soon.

  14. Jamilla, I hate to say it, but LVMH is now the owner of Fresh...

  15. PF, you're perfectly right. In such a saturated market with so many releases every year, one less brand to worry about is not a bad thing. I can't keep up with all of them, and would rather devote my attention to those who actually make the good stuff.

  16. PM, yes, the world is changing and it seems that many of the big brands are late to see it. It's in the way they operate, the way they do business and their view (and fear) of the web.

  17. Tania, I hope all the indie perfumers learn how to utilize the web for marketing and sales. Some already do it beautifully, others (like Mona di Orio) are still too far behind.

  18. Anya, I remember the incident surfaced after what happened to Liz. It definitely made it clear that this company is a bully and played part in many people's decision to take their business elsewhere.

  19. I'm not one to leave comments unless seriously motivated. I read your blog a lot. Truly shocked ,I am. And you are right, I read it to get 'real' reviews.
    Perfume bloggers must survive !

  20. Great list of artisan/indie perfumers. May I add Ava Luxe and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz to it?

    I find that I truly enjoy buying from these perfumers; their products are such a personal expression.


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