Thursday, December 22, 2011

on the term "functional" in clothing, perfumery and food

In Germany "Funktionskleidung," i.e. functional clothing is the uniform of the middle class, especially as regards jackets.Legions walk around in hiking or trecking gear by Jack wolfskin, or, if you wish to be more exclusive, The North Face, or, if you're a trendy pseudo-elitist, perhaps Moncler. The term functional as applied to these synthetic textiles is ambivalent. On the one hand it (rightly) suggests that they are purely functional, without any pretension to style or aesthetic expression. On the other, they (wrongly) seem to suggest, that a traditional Crombie, Chesterfield, Duffle or Caban made of wool  is somehow dysfunctional or at least a lot less functional. Which may be true in the antarctic or when climbing the Nanga Parbat, but certainly not in some Western European city center.
Likewise, functional food conveys the image that its "conventional" alternative somehow fails to  function in terms of  providing specific nutrients, which the latter, as a redesigned industrial product sold at a premium supposedly does perfectly. Of course, the primary function of functional food is to generate profits for the food industry and little else. Again, nobody in the prosperous parts of the world requires complements of this sort to a regular, intelligent diet.
In fragrance, the distinction between functional and "haute" perfumery is old and seems entirely sensible. The former employs perfumery a means towards modifying (theoretically: improving) a product, be it cosmetics or car seats; the latter constitutes perfumery as an aesthetic end in itself aimed only at titillating our noses. But there's the rub. I doubt this distinction is still capable of being maintained in view of the nature of the perfume industry today. For one there is not much "haute" in most "haute perfumery" these days. The great mass of releases are formulaic, redundant, assembly-line concoctions made from the cheapest available materials and the only way you can tell them apart is by the Potemkin image campaign they are dressed up with. In fact, it is often hard to tell a perfume from a cleaning product, because both use the very same materials. Thus, to me, Jean Claude Ellena's Jardin series for Hermès smells in no way like gardens, or like luxury, but like a series of airport toilets heavily deodorized with various fruit-and-floral scented sanitary products (Frankfurt "uses" Un Jardin sur le Nil"). And this is the work of one of the grand present-day perfumers, so it is said, who has more time and funds on his hands than most.
Besides industry policies dictating the cheapening of perfume, there is also a problem on the consumer end. A lot of people's noses have been entirely denatured. We all know of the tests with children who prefered artificial strawberry flavors in yoghurt to the real fruit, because they had been socialized into viewing the former as "strawberry" and could not handle the complexity, refinement and sensory challenge of the real thing. Well, most people are so overexposed to functional perfumery that apparently they no longer realize how strong and far from natural smells fabric softener, cleaning, and cosmetic products smell. When I sleep in so-treated bedsheets, I have to wash my pyjamas - sometimes twice - because from contact alone they reek to the heavens of "April-fresh" dihydromyrcenol infusions.Consumers seemingly don't mind or even demand of their personal fragrance to reproduce the virtual smells of their chemicalized environment - a vicious circle from an outside perspective, but a wet dream for Symrise or Givaudan. Ultimately, 99.9% of  perfumery today is functional - it's primary function is generating "haute profit." Like everything (and everybody) else in a neoliberal system, that is the criterion by which it will be judged. Happy 1984, err, 2012 y'all.

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