Perfume counters in department stores are chaotic places come Christmas. Perfume is, perhaps better than anything else, adept at distilling an essence, and increasing its expanse and presence on demand. For this reason it is, in itself, held in small vials, which allow shop-keepers to place a lot together in a relatively small area (for the amount and range of products concerned). So, come Christmas, these aisles which are usually just right a fit for you and a few others, happy to sniff around, become cramped, frenzied affairs, with all manner of hands clamoring around and grabbing and spraying noxious odouers onto dripping strips of paper.
It was in this setting a few weeks ago that I spent some time going through and sampling whatever was in front of me – less intent on making a purchasing selection (I am currently and inarguably poor) and more intent on trying to grasp what each perfumer was trying to do with their perfumes, how they went about trying to do it, and to what extent they were successful. My perfumery knowledge is still largely amateur, but I thought it an interesting and engaging activity to do while I killed time before I went off to buy some shoes.
Some perfumes were clearer than others. Dirty English was obvious – it’s grimy, alcoholic smell communicated a kind of audacious disregard for cleanliness only seen amongst the vilest and most attractive of 60’s rockers. It was very soon unpalatable, my nose moving into sneezing fits to be rid of it. I tried the new scent my Issey Miyake, which was called A Scent By Issey Miyake, and encased in a kind of iconic reference to a perfume bottle, and found it a kind of excited, fresh, green scent which danced around a lot and then proceeded to go absolutely no where. But perhaps the scent itself was so post-modern that I didn’t understand its cleverness. I moved on. And then I hit upon this:
I have seen advertisements for Sean John’s “I Am King” pop up unhelpfully on my browser whilst attempting to read something else, and it featured the man dressed in a tuxedo, riding a jet ski, and some seemingly non-sequiter shots of some bronze shaded women lilting and wilting about in bikinis. Much like Sean John/P.Diddy/Puff Daddy’s entire career, the spot was tongue in cheek enough to shield him from a certain degree of scorn, but not tongue in cheek enough to actually be remotely interesting. It didn’t help that he used the most trite of all imagery – the James Bond scenario: the “meat-lovers pizza” of male fantasy, so utterly bereft of imagination or intrigue and catering for the largest, shallowest of puddles.
If you check the notes list on basenotes.com (which is very handy for these things), I Am King reveals a list which includes the following: French Berry, Mediterranean Water, Lemon Crème, Key Lime Pie. Let’s keep those four ingredients in mind, and for the sake of comparison, lets look at what basenotes.com lists as some of the notes of the previously reviewed Invasion Barbare by MDCI: Lavender, White Thyme, Bergamot, Violet Leaves.
French Berry, Mediterranean Water, Lemon Crème, Key Lime Pie.
Lavender, White Thyme, Bergamot, Violet Leaves.
Can you see the difference? One of these fragrances is bullshitting you. Bullshit is very common in all forms of design, fragrance design not excluded, because it essentially very easy to do. To appreciate the aesthetic worth of anything designed you must be willing to take a certain leap of faith that the designer is affecting you as they intended to. Because these effects very easily slip below our conscious radar, which tries to justify to ourselves certain things for certain reasons (‘Of course this chair is a classic of modernism, I paid $4,000 for it’ the most usual excuse), bullshitting is so simple to get away with. Believe me, as a former A+ design student, I know this. But the designers of I Am King give themselves away with this completely ridiculous notes list. Key Lime Pie? Seriously? As a top note, it hits you as soon as you spray it on – this disgustingly false lime accord which smells almost like a stupidly sweet insect repellent. But more to the point – why? How on earth does Key Lime Pie work with anything else there? My housemate made a good point – it was like they called up Sean John and asked him what he wanted for his new fragrance. Looking around at the meal in front of him, he simply listed some of his favourite foods. This is a fragrance not only lost, but lost and panicking, terrified, with out a clue of where to go or what to do.
It also reveals my problem with celebrity fragrances. Because were this fragrance in any other bottle in any other name, nobody would buy it. But because it is attached to the success of Sean John and the stupidly large advertising campaign to go with it (also, I assume, pressure on retailers to stock it – as there was a full shelf with nothing but I Am King alone, whereas most fragrances stood on 1/8th of one), people will buy it. And within a capitalist society, where monetary success is the central motivation of companies, it will become a successful fragrance.
The problem is not that it has a celebrity attached to it and it is successful, nor am I suggesting that all celebrity fragrances are terrible - my problem is that they become successful for reasons other than the fragrance in itself. And for a fragrance – something that should be purely aesthetic and purely personal, this becomes something of a minor tragedy (and a major tragedy for the perfume industry), as it then allows people to make shitty, sub-standard products and get away with it because they have the right label, the right face, and throw around enough money. This happens enough, and soon the mainstream avenue is littered with this formula, as the motivation of economic success, now achievable without any kind of artistic success, is not enough to guarantee a product of any real discernible value.
This is how mediocrity reigns supreme: people let it. You should never buy a fragrance for anything but the way it smells. Otherwise you have to ask yourself: why am I really buying this? How empty is my life that I am forgoing what my senses say in favour of what the label says? You are essentially selling your sense of smell short.
Scent is the most personal of our sensual interaction with the world, and the least cerebral. To attach it to the entirely cerebral social construct of celebrity is to completely miss the point of a fragrance, and completely miss out on what makes them so wonderful: the lack of thought, the pure, unadulterated enjoyment.