Thursday, January 17, 2008

Too many launches? Some perfume history...

We have been saying it among ourselves -and hearing it discussed in perfume circles- constantly recently: there are just too many launches. Enough!

So it came as a mild surprise upon reading Le Parfum by Jean Claude Ellena in French (on which more commentary later on) that it might have always been so, actually...
In the span of Les Années Folles (the 20s) and a little later, the surgence of couturiers/fashion designers gave rise to the marketability of perfume as a means to consolidate the image of the designer, the unique positioning of each house. And thus it might have inadvertedly inaugurated the modern commerce of fragrance as a commodity to indulge as a final step in creating a "look".

Paul Poiret was on the vanguard: a true "dandy" of the Belle Époque who realised that it was vital to imbue everything produced under the umbrella of his name with his unique spirit and image. His line Les Parfums de Rosine is celebrated for the quality, although he commited the romantic error of not signing with his own commercially established name but with his daughter's; which might have cost it in the marketability stakes.
Poiret was the first designer to hire a professional perfumer-chemist, Maurice Shaller. Between him and Henri Alméras, la maison Poiret produced 50 original perfumes between 1910 and 1925. It bears repeating: 50 different perfumes in 15 years. The number is impressive, to say the least! Surely not that different than what most major houses do these days: one launch for autumn-winter and another in the summer (often a flanker of the previous one) and perhaps a male counterpart to satisfy that portion of the market as well.

The Callot sisters, couturiers themselves, also imitated the move and decided to create a fragrance line of numerous offerings that would be circulated exclusively for their esteemed clients. The evocative names range from Mariage d'Amour (=marriage out of love) to La fille de roi (=the king's daughter) to Bel Oiseau Bleu (=beautiful blue bird) and we are led to believe they were catering to the ever expanding desires of the bourgeoisie who were frequenting their boutique.

During 1925-1950 French couturier Lucien Lelong was ever prolific, producing 40 fragrances in a short span of years, before retiring in 1952. The first ones bore the cryptic symbols-more-than-names A,B,C,J, and N.
The number of launches though is impressive: almost 1 new fragrance every 7-8 months! Think about it.
The Guerlain catalogue is also rich in numerous launches, often in the same year. Case in point the multiple fragrances created within 1828, 1834, 1873, 1890, 1895 and 1922, to name but a few ~although they do have the difference that they were commissioned by patrons. But still, this shows that fragrance houses were prolific even back then.

In light of the above it is perhaps not entirely correct to accuse houses of producing too many products. What is more accurate is to realise that there are simply astoundingly more perfume companies, designers, niche perfumers, celebrities and various entities today, all tangled up in the dubious world of perfumery. Perhaps they have cottoned up to the fact that perfume is "the most indispensible superficiality", to quote Colette, and therefore have been producing fragrance as a quick means to make a point, consolidate a brand or simply to make a quick buck. But they have had illustrious paradigms to the practice: who can blame them, really?

Pic by TonyM/flickr


  1. That really does put things in perspective. Personally I've always had less problem with multiple releases from the same house (hoping it means said house is putting a lot of effort and thought into building a catalog), than with the fact everyone and their cat are releasing a perfume.

  2. Andy09:08

    I have to finish my reading of Elena's book then (or did I miss it?): INdeed, a fresh take. 50 Fragrances in 15 years.... furthermore: I go with Gaia... not having a cat myself I am on safe ground there ;-)

  3. Doesn't it, G?

    I agree with you: some houses have a rich tradition, so it seems somehow "expected" that they will release a couple a year. Others are really coming out of the blue with multiple releases that seem like sketches of one complete fragrance...
    And of course having anyone releasing their own! It does add up.

  4. Andy,

    the part where this is mentioned is actually in the history part in the beginning: Naissance de la parfumerie moderne.
    I found the book interesting and mean to comment further on soon.

    Of course you are on safe ground about this.

  5. Dear Helg,

    Thank you for bringing up Paul Poiret...Most people think that it was Coco Chanel who was the first designer that ventured into the world of perfumery and associated clothes-designer houses with fragrances, but it was indeed, as you allude, Paul Poiret that was the first one..


  6. Thanks D for your comment. It is a widespread myth that one about Chanel, but no...there were many others before her.
    Perhaps it is perpetuated based on what has survived after all those years and what brand of them has established itself as better known ;-)

  7. Anonymous21:21

    I had read about Paul Poiret and his fabulous fashions and perfumes in Vogue a couple of months back. While I like his using his daughter's name for the perfumes (how sweet is that), I agree with you that it was a mistake to not use his name instead.
    I agree with Gaia above that the problem with the multitude of releases is not the legitimate houses and independent perfumers releasing scents, but the "cats" as well, meaning that the others churn out perfumes not to create a scent(meaning a work of art), but just to make a buck, like you said. And just for the record, I don't see anything wrong with wanting to make a buck, but normally that should be along the lines of "ok, I'm creating a nice product to make the consumer happy, and will make money selling said product." Thanks for letting me rant, just a personal pet peeve of mine.

  8. Fascinating, E. I can't help wondering whether the overall quality of perfumes was better in those early decades. Maybe not. The handful that have survived were the cream of the crop, obviously, and I think it's safe to say that there are at least a couple of winners coming out each year now. So perhaps we're no worse off than the grandmothers we envy.

  9. Agree with Bittergrace: quite probably, all of those launches were not particularly interesting and I suspect that many houses just tweaked their bases to churn them out, even in the 30s/40s. Indeed, with a few notable exceptions (houses that died out, formulae that were lost or irreproductible), maybe the "survivors" of the 20s era are the ones that deserved to survive, never lost their appeal.
    Re: Chanel. Indeed, Poiret was the first and I'm sorry I never got to smell the original Rosines. But whereas Poiret's spectacular designs fell into what the French call "the dustbin of history" because they were just not compatible with women's new lifestyles, Chanel's classics show a remarkable consistency between the scents and the clothing, as well as an enduring relevance. She's clearly won out in the modernity stakes. That's why we can still, today, wear the little black dress with Chanel N°22, or a sweater and skirt with Chanel N°5, lots of exotic bangles with Bois des Iles, a tweed jacket with Cuir de Russie or a floaty cream chiffon sheath with Gardenia. Rather than, say, tottering along in a hobble skirt, turban perched on our head.
    In a famous, perhaps apocryphal anecdote, Poiret once asked a black-clad Chanel: "For whom are you in mourning, Mademoiselle?"
    She answered: "For you, monsieur."

  10. Sabina, I hear you. When everyone launches a fragrance, somehow the mystery is lost and it becomes mundane...Not that I am averse to the economic side of producing perfume, but like you say it should be a nice product. In fact that was exactly F.Coty's axiom: Take the best product you can make, invest it in beautiful packaging and you will have something that women will want and a business that the world hasn't seen before.

  11. Dear M, that was exactly my point. We tend to nostaligise about a past we haven't even witnessed first hand, sometimes.

  12. D, your sartorial reference is succinct: indeed times had moved on and what was relevant before wasn't anymore.

    BTW, Regarding the black garb, I always liked the quote in The Seagull: "I am mourning for my life". Not the most optimistic of course, but an arresting reply.

  13. Anonymous18:25

    Helg, you have been providing me with the most interesting tidbits of info about perfumery. Thank you so much for all the wonderful work you are doing here. Please keep up!


  14. Dear Abigail,

    thank you very much for your most kind words. I will try :-)


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