Classic Perfumes, Like Fine Wines, Are Not Improved By “Updating.”

Posted on June 11, 2013

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The vast array of new perfumes can’t compare with the few old classics, and “updating” classic scents is a mistake.

I’m not one to wear perfume, but I was out with a friend a couple of days ago and as we passed by the perfume counter in a department store, I noticed that quite a few fragrances are sold under the names of various celebrities.  Nicky Minaj, Nicole Richie, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift all met my eye.  The first thing I thought was:  What the hell do these entertainers know about perfume?

Nothing, of course.  So why ever would one of these names make me want to buy a perfume?

Celebrity fragrances can be traced back at least as far as Audrey Hepburn, but there were some big differences in those days, as Robert Klara informs us.  The designer Hubert de Givenchy commissioned perfumer Francis Fabron to create a scent expressly for Ms. Hepburn.  It was dubbed L’Interdit because she initially forbade Givenchy to market it.  Thus, for the next decade, it was that rarest of things, a scent that one could only experience in Ms. Hepburn’s presence, impossible to buy for oneself.  So there we have it: the scent did not bear Ms. Hepburn’s name, and it was not available to the mass market for some years after its creation… the very definition of “exclusive.”

Fast-forward to today, and there is no subtlety in the marketing of new fragrances.  They are created and branded under a popular celebrity name for the express purpose of mass-marketing.  But what about the scents themselves?

I am no expert, but after sampling a few fragrances at the counter, my tastes fall firmly in the old-school category.  Chanel No. 5 or Obsession (strong as it is) are far more appealing to me than these newer concoctions.  After doing some reading on just what is in the various perfumes, I think I lean toward those which are “aldehydic,” and I think I know why:  my mother’s perfume was Lanvin Arpege, which was originally formulated in 1927, reformulated in 1993.  I have not smelled the new version (believe it or not, I still have a bottle of my mother’s 1960s Arpege perfume… still in the box… and it still smells great), but both are aldehydic.

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My mother’s vintage Lanvin Arpege.

Apparently, the use of floral aldehydes has fallen out of favor today, or at least, there is a lot less aldehyde content in a lot of the new fragrances, and a lot more fruity notes.  Maybe the intent is for perfumes to be “milder,” but that’s not the only issue with the ones I sampled; I just thought they didn’t smell good.  Odors are a hard thing to describe, but for lack of a better term, they smelled more “synthetic,” like the difference between a green lollipop and real limes, or the difference between a “rose-scented” car freshener and real roses, or the difference between red licorice and… and… come to think of it, I ‘m not sure what flavor red licorice is supposed to emulate.  When you have experienced the difference between these fake flavors and scents and the real thing, you know it.

Angela Sanders,  writing at the blog Now Smell This, captures the problem for those of us who have, let’s say, experience.  Apparently, after many years of success, the makers of L’Interdit thought that the perfume needed to be “freshened up,” as in:  modernized, reformulated as a “fruity floral.”  Writes Sanders:

“Many of the original notes remained, but to me it all added up to the smell of strawberry-scented shampoo.  I know that old-fashioned aldehydic florals might have scared the profit-seeking LVMH, but linking the name of a hallowed fragrance with a genre of perfume that has been done a thousand times over didn’t prove to be a smart move. Women who wore the original L’Interdit were incensed when they bought the new L’Interdit and found it profoundly altered. The younger audience LVMH sought didn’t exactly line up for L’Interdit, and why should they? Fruity florals better than the new L’Interdit were stacked cheek-by-jowl at the department store.”

Ms. Sanders’ assessment of the new L’Interdit as “strawberry-scented shampoo” exactly describes my experience at the perfume counter.  The newer scents, by and large struck me as overly artificial, cheap, unpleasantly sweet, with no sophistication.  Perfume should be about creating a sort of mystique.  If all you want to do is mask body odor, use deodorant.  This new stuff would attract bees, except that the bees know very well that this smell could not possibly come from a real flower.

So the aldehydic perfumes are apparently considered “old-fashioned,” “something your grandmother might have worn.”  Does that really mean they need to be reformulated?  Do we reformulate fine wine, bourbon, scotch, or aged cheeses simply because our grandparents enjoyed them?  No, we do not.  When something works, stick with it.

This new plethora of juvenile-smelling perfumes might be slathered with celebrity images and promoted by slick advertising, and they might make a lot of money.  In terms of marketing, they might be a big success.  But as actual fragrances, not so much.

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