Thursday, May 6, 2010

Of good smells and bad taste

In the 1890s nouveau-riche Americans shocked Old Europe with their unique combination of immense wealth and what appeared to the English, French, German, Italian etc. better classes to be an utter lack of cultivation. Starting in the 1990s it was Russian oligarchs and their entourages who did their best to confirm the platitude that superwealth married to a lack of cultural sensibility will produce the most astounding aesthetic carbunkles. The gaudiness and excess of Moscow's superrich has been amply documented. Needless to say Old Europe's fashion & beauty businesses then and now, large and small, have always used their cultural capital to sell good taste - or bad - to the new money. A small but conspicuous Italian venture called Xerjoff, founded by Italians Sergio Momo and Dominique Salvo in 2004, has specifically targeted, as the name already suggests, the new rich Russians with an extensive and expensive line of perfumes. In fact, they do their best to make Creed and company look like drugstore scents.

Now, at first sight the whole affair could easily be dismissed as a typical hot air balloon. For starters, the English language copy on the website and product is appallingly faulty and vacuous, clearly the result of overly literal translation from the Italian by an amateur. As a former translator I have never understood this slovenly approach to language among international companies for whom image is essential. Is it so difficult to get feedback from competent native speakers? After all, how would you feel about a $300,000 Maserati whose computer system notifies you to "please to be putting on seat belting for driver safeties"?
Secondly, Xerjoff suffers from the industry epidemic that has now fully infected niche firms - throwing way too many products on the market in too little time. Xerjoff already features three distinct lines, the flagship XJ 17/17 (weak name) with four scents, Shooting Stars (twelve scents) and Casamorati (four scents). Such speed inevitably comes at the cost of originality, as even the best noses will be reworking established formulas.
Lastly, the styling of several of the products - particularly the high end Murano flacons of the 17/17 line and the faux retro Casamorati series - is an aesthetic nightmare. Whatever money can buy is thrown together to create costly kitsch that would make designers from Aalto to Wagenfeld rotate in their graves - though Jeff Koons may perhaps squeal with delight, as perhaps will the designated target group in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

BUT - VERY BIG BUT - setting aside the aesthetic repulsion and instant-niche skepticism, one delightedly discovers that the gaudy canisters do not contain some nameless industry swill of the "who cares what it smells like as long as it costs thousands" variety, but very high quality essences, some of them stunninghly beautiful and worthy to be smelled and worn by fragrance aficionados(few of whom will ever be able to afford them) rather than superficial millionaires. As I was told by someone who knows the numbers, Xerjoff, contrary to many supposedly high-end niche firms, actually invests unually high amounts of money into the best essences and is, in this respect, on par with quality-obsessed one-man houses like Tauer.

You can read numerous perfumista impressions on an extensive basenotes Xerjoff testing thread based on a sample extravaganza aimed at introducing/hyping the brand to/in the US, but I'll limit myself to three cases in point here:
XXY from the 17/17 line is an overly sweet, rather uninspired unisex (?) scent, so generic in its combination of fruit, floral and amber that you may just as well buy some $40 mainstream product, if you're in it for the perfume rather than the exclusivity experience. A 3/10 on the perfumery scale, but a 10 for nouveau-riche-silliness here.
Much more impressive is the 17/17 lines Xerjoff homme, a bow to the grand Knize Ten - equal, perhaps even superior in quality and a bit more rounded and creamy to suit contemporary tastes. Imagine K10 pushed in the direction of Creed's Royal English Leather and Lutens Cuir Mauresque. So, here we have a truly top-notch, if not highly original scent of deep, rich leather, suitably dark, but without excessive harshness. An 8 on the perfume scale for an excellent variation of tradition that may well become the personal preference of many a perfumista and will introduce nouveau-newbies to good rather than merely expensive perfume.
The big winner in this trio, though, is Kobe from the Shooting Stars collection (€ 384 for 50ml) - the best and most interesting men's neroli scent I have ever tried. Superb essence, supplied with unusual longevity, free of the unpleasant off-notes marring, e.g. Czech & Speake's (reformulated) or Norma Kamali's Neroli, and creatively blending citrus (bergamot and orange notes supporting the neroli) with resinous notes of labdanum, rosewood, styrax, benzoe and restrained oud. This is innovative, intelligent, beautiful and I want to know who did it. As to the price: considering that Creed was asking $ 405 for 50ml of a pretty synthetic-smellingAND short-lived green floral (i.e. Windsor) I'd say you're almost getting Kobe at a bargain. Ah, but let's not get snotty. If we leave all the hoollaballo aside, what we have here is a small house producing many good and several great perfumes for too small an audience. I hope those rich Russians appreciate just how fine these smells are, before the next luxury hype vies for their attention.


phibess said...

Let's not forget that the refill flacons of the frags from the shooting stars collection will cost you around £95 which is quite reasonable- unlike the silly prices of the refill bottles of, say, MDCI frags which cost over €200. Hence you don't need to be a rich Russian to own and wear some of these frags incl. Kobe - if you're not too keen on those fancy bottles, that is.

Angela Cox said...

I had read that you are only allowed to buy a refill if you can take in a bottle so this sounds hopeful. I have to admit to liking some of the bottles . I have to wonder who did the translations , your example of what it might look like on the car site had me in stitches .