Monday, June 22, 2009

making history III: the usable pasts of creed and farina

After a long hiatus we now conclude our look at history and perfume with two extremely juxtaposed approaches of perfume houses to their past: call it source-based history versus history as myth. According to Family Business Magazine the Perfume Houses Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichsplatz and Creed are among the oldest family-owned businesses, tracing their beginnings to 1709 and 1760, respectively. Not surprisingly, their age and history plays a key part in both company’s image and marketing. Roughly 30,000 visitors annually tour the old Farina premises in the heart of Cologne known as the birthplace of Eau de Cologne, which house a store, museum and the current managing director Johann Maria Farina’s offices. The company stresses its 300-year dedication to quality, a glorious past as the leading perfume manufacturer for a 200-year period, and a wealth of illustrious clients. Similarly, Creed’s reputation is built around its role as purveyor to the rich and the beautiful, from the royal courts of yesterday to today’s Hollywood elite, as well as references to old artisanal traditions passed down from generation to generation. Both these firms do indeed have a genuine history, as opposed to the many brands who borrow past names but are really newly formed ventures. And yet, the way they deal with their histories could not be more distinct. Succinctly put, one could say that Farina Gegenüber has almost obsessively displayed its history to the public from the necessity of defending its position and reputation against innumerable plagiarizers and forgeries, boasting a series of 2000 court cases which has not yet ceased. Creed, on the other hand, has always felt a need to both obscure and rewrite its history from the desire of wishing to appear as a 250-year old fragrance house, rather than as a respected tailor’s who happened to dabble in fragrance and only became a perfume house proper in the late 1960s or beyond (there is little evidence even for this late period). The purpose here is not to judge these approaches, but to illustrate how two comparatively small perfume houses with no major PR budget use and have used history under differing circumstances to position themselves in a competitive market up into the present, where their businesses create status illusions and confirmations and emotional fantasies for high end consumers in the niche market. Such fantasies, as one should never forget, are the basic product perfume houses sell, for which their fragrances are simply carrier substances, like alcohol for essential oils.
Creed: A Royal Fantasy
The Creed entry in Family Business Magazine reads:
“In 1760 King George III appointed James Creed to make fragrances. In 1854 the company moved its operations from London to Paris. Both Prince Charles and the late Diana, Princess of Wales, commissioned the company to make scents for them. Today, owner Oliver Creed produces 238 fragrances.“
The problem is that such testimonials tend to be unsubstantiated and, more importantly, that there is no available evidence for the historical relevance, or even the existence, of Creed perfumes prior to the late 20th century. The oldest flacon I have ever seen an image of seems to hark from the late 1960s or early 1970s and bears the name of Olivier Creed. Major visibility seems to have arrived in the 1980s with Green Irish Tweed.
No documents, novels, advertisements, letters of the 19th or 20th century mention Creed perfumes, while the family frequently appears in the context of tailoring. Fashion dictionaries and museums feature works by Creeds, but every perfume history I have read is silent. One of the rare statements from within the family is a ghost-written autobiography by one of its “black sheep” Charles Creed (1909-1966), the uncle of Olivier Creed. Primarily an account of his own exploits at tailoring and womanizing it does make references to the family history and its meteoric rise to fame after 1850, when Henry Creed opened a Paris office and collected Royal Warrants from the French Court and Queen Victoria for clothes and riding habits. While it may be that Creed furnished fragrances as well, as did Guerlain, Farina and other renowned names of the day in perfumery, there is simply no available evidence. The internet spews out frequently conflicting dates and wearers of older Creed perfumes, which in their present form cannot possibly have existed prior to the advent of modern natural-cum-synthetic based perfumery in the 1880s. The beautiful Vintage Tabarôme was thus supposedly made in 1876 for George IV (b. *1762, c.1820, d.1830), Green Irish Tweed for Cary Grant (1904-1986) – it is now undisputed that Pierre Bourdon collaborated on GIT, perhaps in the mid-1980s, and would rework some of its key ideas in Davidoff’s Cool Water. GIT just may have been Archie’s deathbed wish, but the facts do not actually compute.
Olivier Creed, then, has chosen to rewrite the complicated history of a fashion house’s 19th century rise and post-WWII fall into a brand story for his own fragrance enterprise and it has been an unconditionally successful strategy that enables his company to charge a premium for its products in retail contexts. The pomp and circumstance surrounding Creed, from the imitation Prince of Wales ostrich plumes suggesting a Royal Warrant that does not exist, to the monotonous incantation of stock phrases and name dropping by Creed representatives and in PR pieces is also cause for derision, e.g. by Luca Turin, but admittedly, it is a spiel that most everyone in the business plays in one way or another.

Farina Gegenüber: History as a Weapon
Like Creed, Farina Gegenüber is a firm with a rich heritage, a fact that nearly broke its neck when it failed to adapt to changing consumer patterns after WWII. After a long, slow decline, the family bought back all stock in the company from outside investors and began reconstituting the brand as an exclusive niche firm, recreating its historical flacon designs, stressing its unique selling point as the original Eau de Cologne, and restricting sales to selected outlets who may not sell the brand’s discount nemesis, 4711. As with Creed, this has proven a successful strategy that invests the product with a high prestige value. But contrary to Creed, the history of the Farina fragrance is unusually well documented, as it had become the subject of conflicting claims by competing Eau de Cologne firms inventing their own foundational narratives and frequently stealing the Farina brand name ever since the late 18th century. The Farina archive is one of the most complete company archives in the world, it has been used for a number of academic studies in economic history and it documents the history of Farina cologne extensively – Royal warrants, orders by the celebrities of the day (we are talking Goethe, not some American Idol runner-up), historical advertising. While this does not preclude different interpretations of Eau de Cologne history, a basic factual record from which to proceed is extant and available and has formed the basis for evidence in many of the court cases fought by Farina (and they did win them all). Does this mean that Farina Eau de Cologne is a more authentic or better perfume than, say, Creed’s Bois de Cedrat (a light citrus cologne supposedly formulated in 1875)? No. The Farina you buy today is also a reformulated product containing synthetics. It is meant to preserve and convey the spirit of the original while catering to the wishes of contemporary consumers, e.g. in terms of longevity. However, while Creed long emphasized its reliance on ancient infusion methods and avoided the mention of synthetics (there have been modest concessions in more recent PR blurbs, as would seem necessary considering the obvious high content of synthetics in most Creed releases since the mid-80s) Johann Maria Farina, who is a trained pharmacist and perfumer, openly embraces the ethos of modern (i.e. post 1880s) perfumery and its use of naturals with semi- and fully synthetic materials.
Creed and Farina have chosen very different paths to create “usable pasts” for their brand, which are themselves in many ways determined by the nature of those histories. They offer fascinating insights for the historian of smells into the depths and shoals of the past of perfumes as well as lessons on the fictions involved in fragrance branding for the student of perfume culture today. But for the simple lover of perfume truth lies only within the flacon and history - is bunk.


Anonymous said...

Bravo! An excellent look into the fake credentials of the industries most overblown house. Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

Just amazing.. great post

do pheromones work said...

Its good that there is a offer fascinating insights for the historian of smell into the depths and shoals of the past of perfumes as well as lessons on the fictions involved in fragrance branding for the student of perfume culture today. WE are all known that the perfumes have been used even in the past centuries and have been highly valued in every cultured.


Anonymous said...

just wanted to say thank you for sharing this knowledge. I have to admit to using creed and feeling great that It was the same fragrance that had been worn for centuries. Now i feel like a fool who fell for the usual tripe that is spewed from PR companies daily

dukeofpallmall said...

Don't worry. I felt the same way when I started to research Creed. Royal English Leather, supposedly made for George III, but really leatherized version of Coty's L'Origan, was my first Creed. You know what? It is still a beautiful fragrance and can be enjoyed entirely for its own sake. That's the problem for me with this kind of marketing - it potentially obscures the actual beauty of the fragrances and some people (many non-perfumistas in particular) will wear them just because of the supposed history while some will not wear them because they despise the faux history.

Bob Johnson said...

One thing I always find interesting about the Creed claims is that, unlike with just about any other older fragrance, you never hear people saying "Oh, I remember my grandmother wearing Creed, back when I was a small child."

If Creed was available in the 40's or 50's, there would be living, breathing people alive today, talking about how they wore the stuff back then, or how their parents did, but unlike with other well-known fragrances, that's a comment I've yet to hear.

Anonymous said...

There is no more polite way to say this than to state the truth as directly as possible here: it is pathetic, repulsive, and offensive that Creed's dishonest fraud is perpetrated while trying to sell anything, let alone small bottles of fragrance priced at over $300 (US$) each. I NEVER trusted Creed to begin with, for exactly some of the common sense reasons outlined by others above. For example, I am a fashionista and perfume collector, so I always found it very suspicious that unlike the other great houses (the beloved Guerlain, respected Caron, treasured Ferragamo, honored Hermes), I had never heard of this "Creed." Now I know Creed relies on a fake history, and that puts into doubt all their other claims: Are Creed's ingredients really "all natural" (whatever that means)? Lies, I am sure. Are Creed flacons really all hand-blown? More lies, no doubt. Most of them are plain and cheap looking anyway. By the way, as for the Creed scents themselves, I find them completely boring, and incredibly WEAK, especially considering they are all supposedly Eau de Parfum concentrations (which is, undoubtedly, yet another Creed lie). Apparently, the only "creed" at Creed is greed. I wonder who actually owns them... does this Creed father and son duo even exist? Or is it owned by some shady organization somewhere in the likes of Dubai, etc.?