I originally wrote this a few months ago, and want to share it with all of you now, given my newfound love for the department store gem, Estee Lauder Sensuous.
As we are now in the midst of a recession here in the United States (don´t kid yourselves folks, it´s not coming, it has arrived like a biblical plague), I´ve been on something of a mission trying to find beauty in the many department store fragrances I´ve ignored over the years. Yes, I am a “niche snob”, mostly wearing scents available exclusively online, or in places that would require a very expensive plane ticket in order for me to buy them in person. Despite my admission of snobbery, I do tend to, on occasion, troll the shopping malls looking for something inspirational. Sadly, the malls in my area are now filled with empty walled-off spaces and there are no exciting “Coming soon…” signs to indicate that there will again be life in these barren retail shells. That they are simply gone is indicative of the hard economic times that have now befallen those of us in the dwindling American middle class.
Hard times have suddenly and severely curtailed my niche perfume habit to the point that I´ve been looking for a fix at the department store level. I´ve been “slumming”. Sure my current collection could keep me wonderfully and excessively fragrant for the rest of my life, but as a perfume lover, there is never enough. I am always on the trail of something new and exciting, but I´m beginning to realize that my avoidance of what´s out there in the fragrance Zeitgeist has been for good reason.
There are two things contributing to my malaise: Firstly, a good many of the department store fragrances I´ve smelled recently have two things in common: fruit and flowers. Secondly, I read Chandler Burr´s latest book, The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York. Admittedly, the book was more of an olfactory wake-up call than the actual concoctions I was sniffing. Who among us can claim insider status in the world of commercial fragrances the way Chandler Burr can? I may not be a New York Times book critic, but I say with heartfelt honesty that reading this book has completely changed my perspective on fragrance; especially the mass-marketed scents for sale in department stores. I´m not saying there aren´t any appealing options, but more often than not, there is safety rather than edginess; fresh, clean and friendly as opposed to lewd, nasty and interesting.
Of course, not everyone wants to smell like jasmine left to macerate in an ashtray (Etat Libre d´Orange´s Jasmin et Cigarette), but on the flipside, if my only choices were Ralph and Tommy Girl, I´d blow my brains out. Well, not literally, but you know what I mean. It´s not that I don´t appreciate the art of fragrance – I do now, thanks to Chandler Burr. Generic department store fruity-florals are, after all, the creations of artists: Perfumers. But, when it comes to scents created to appeal to the masses, these artists are not invoking their own creative instincts; they are given an olfactory road map laid out for them by a bunch of marketing execs in monkey suits sitting in a boardroom. I have this vision of Donald Trump sitting, “Apprentice-style”, at the head of a table the size of a hockey rink with Jean Claude Ellena, Dominique Ropion, Olivia Giacobetti and Michel Roudnitska, giving each one of them grief for screwing up the task assigned to them. I can literally hear it: “Jean Claude, your version stinks! YOU´RE FIRED!”
I have great admiration for these artists and their willingness to comply with the marketing wishes of the monkey-suited set. They are paid handsomely for their time and trouble, so why not? But, there´s got to be some degree of frustration at having their creativity stifled in the name of capitalism. Long before I knew who Chandler Burr was, some of my favorite niche fragrances were those created by the perfumers I mentioned: Parfums DelRae´s Bois de Paradis by Michel Roudnitska is a scent I adore, along with Bvlgari Eau Parfumee au The Vert by Monsieur Ellena, Idole de Lubin by Olivia Giacobetti, and Frederic Malle´s flat-out amazing Carnal Flower, courtesy of Dominique Ropion. Of these, only Bvlgari´s green tea scent is now considered mainstream. When it was introduced in 1992, it was something new and different. The others wouldn´t be able to command even an inch of a square foot of retail space in the fragrance department of any American mall-anchoring department store. It is partially for this reason that I love them so much. When I put them on, the likelihood of running into someone else wearing the same scent as me is pretty slim; except maybe if I’m spending a fair bit of time browsing at Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman or perusing the offerings at Henri Bendel. But, given my present financial state: penny-pinching and prowling Macy´s, Bloomingdales and Nordstrom, I am more likely to be assaulted by Angel or whatever the fruity-floral celebu-scent du jour might be.
It would be unfair of me to conclude this essay without revealing some mainstream perfumes that don´t make me want to blow my brains out. They would be: Sarah Jessica Parker´s Lovely and Covet, Givenchy´s Organza Indecence (a bit hard to find these days, but not impossible), L de Lolita Lempicka, Donna Karan´s Cashmere Mist, and her very first scent, Donna Karan New York, Burberry Brit, Kenzo Amour, and my most recent discovery, Max Mara Le Parfum. This is just a partial list.
In happy times, as well as not so happy times, I can manage to find scents that will lift my spirits, regardless of their cost and availability. It all depends on how motivated I am to look for them. There are gems hidden everywhere, even in department stores.