Monday, November 28, 2011

Perfume is Dead. Long Live Perfume

Classical Perfumery is dead. You hear this a lot these days, and contrary to Mark Twain, who could reply to his premature obituary that "the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,"this artform most likely is indeed as deceased as the famous Monty Python parrot .
The simple course of time with its inevitable transformations of tastes, the hegemony of accountants at the corporations who control 95% of the market, the interests of the aromachemical giants, and the regulatory policies of IFRA reflecting those interests have combined to make so many nails in that coffin over the last decades (honorable mention goes to the wreckless non-sustianable exploitation of natural resources like Mysore sandalwood, rosewood etc. pp.).  Anyhow, when the epitome of perfumist integrity Andy Tauer is creating Pentachords rather than a second L'Air du Désért Marocain one could cynically assume he is not just playing with concepts, but perhaps preparing for the future status quo of scent creation.
But... I do not want to play the cry-baby here insisting on being pacified with Vintage Sous-le-Vent and this won't be a reactionary rant (although I love a good reactionary rant if it's in the name of endangered cultural heritage rather than endangered privileges). I just think that the situation raises the question of where the art, rather than the business, shall go from here, other than down the drain. And I certainly hope that what is currently widely offered as "niche" is not the conclusive answer, because that is too frequently striclty business involving very little in terms of art. While most niche start-ups just seem to be hollow business plans serving as storefronts for generic products from Symrise, Givaudan or IFF, many of the great niche names seem to have entered a phase of stagnation. Lastly, little is to be expected of the grand old houses in terms of creative boldness, even less as they become firmly controlled LVMH subsidiaries. The vanguard will be found among small operators with a vision, be it one-person natural perfume houses or other kinds of rugged creatives who rise to the highest standards from a belief in what they are doing. And perhaps the good news is that these kinds of folks can more easily find audiences these days through web-networks, and that they have new exciting materials at hand to complement and enrich what is left of the traditional palette. CO2 extraction and the fractioning of naturals have yielded some fascinating results and while technology per se may not produce aesthetic advances, we all know the beginning of classical perfumery lay in the chemical revolution and the new methods of extraction and synthesis it yielded.
This brings me to Undergreen perfumes, a project launched by two French fellows, Patrice Cardenoso und Jérôme Bonnet, who hired Fabrice Olivieri of Trends Lab to create their two perfumes, White and Black. Since I translated their PR material from English into German, you may consider me biased, as well as competent to judge its quality, which I found problematic linguistically and in style. I wish even smaller houses would realize the necessity of investing effort and money into well-made, culturally sensitive translations of their ad copy - it represents them and falls back on them when producing undesired chuckles rather than an atmosphere of luxury and desirability. Undergreen does not hold back with bathos when celebrating its unique selling point: embodying a new style of natural perfumery rejecting "aromatherapeutic" "new-age" aesthetics for a contemporary, trendy niche-style while scrupulously emphasizing natural origins and sustainable practices. It reminds me a bit of Ernest Callenbach's "Ecotopia," a very American ecological novel from the 70s which fuses faith in technology and Yankee ingenuity with Hippie eco-counterculture. Or of Steve Jobs. Yes, fans of Apple aesthetics will love these perfumes, too. Now this sounds like and could verily be just another marketing angle in an increasingly crowded market of high-end perfumery, but to my nose, the concept actually works and is genuinely reflected in the perfumes. I do not know to what extent the naturals employed here are manipulated in spinning cone columns or the like, but the fact ist: Black and White smell like throroughly trendy niches, without sporting what I find obnoxious about thoroughly trendy niches. Black is certainly not nearly as saturnine as the ad copy may suggest. As someone reared on truly dark vintage scents I would class this as easy-to-wear and downright pleasant. It's a bit like a de luxe version of mat; very male with its black licorice notes - but in high resolution 3-D quality. Plus there's a nice phenolic "Islay Malt" birch (and Oud?) note. In sum Black is a moderate-to-light and very pleasant modern gourmand fragrance, which excels by taking a trendy melange of notes (coffee, incense, oud, guajac) to a higher level by avoiding the usual synthetic suspects.  As a classicist I could use more murkiness, skankiness etc. here, but that's not the point - it's that this is a well-made, beautifully smelling scent in a contemporary style. I'm impressed. The same logic applies to White. It's a white (surprise!) floral (jasmine, ylang, tuberose, orange blossom, iris are all there) of great transparency, spiced up with minty zest and coconut. Touches all the bases of hipness but goes on to score a home-run quality-wise. I think it beats nasomatto's Narcotic Venus to a pulp (although it's much less muscular).
In sum, I believe Undergreen are making a meaningful addition to the perfume market and one of the most interesting launches this year (note: I was only paid for translating, not for writing this - but in any event, smell for yourself). Next, the queen of transparency, Mme. Giacobetti should work for these guys (not to diminish the accomplishment of Fabrice Olivieri in the least). I'd love to see her rendition of a green fougère in this line.