If you have been under a rock in a cave in the Sumatran soil, you might have missed the discussion around Guerlain's modus operandi of the last few years. Let's do a very brief recap for those of you who might have: First there was a colossus who bought an historical house: LVMH (that's Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesy) ~the Guerlain boutique at 68 Champs Elysees is getting refurbished and Guerlain starts to produce "niche" and exclusive lines within the brand as well as "for old time's sake" re-issues for those who have access to select distribution and serious trust funds. Then someone pronounces "The End of Civilization as We Know it", when news of a reformulation of one of the house's masterpieces leak: the perfume community sounds its barbaric yawp through the rooftops of the world and Isabelle Rousseau's mail gets spammed. Then that someone changes their mind about a year and a half later pronouncing the pneuma of the original living on in the current juice (sorry, I don't want to go there). In the meantime, industrious Guerlain launches juice after juice, flanker after flanker and name change after name change like the equivalent of Japanese labor on strike: working a 64-hour week. Do they even have time to smell the roses?
And when outsourcing is proving too incoherent, when Jean Paul is petering out after years of faithful service, they hire one of their Givaudan protegés, their own resident nose.
Last but not least, they issue out their take on erotic tittilation that reads like Régine Deforges on crack for Carnal Elixirs ~a MUA reader succinctly described it as "some Paris Hilton Goes to Versailles nightmare script": if you haven't yet read it, do so on Perfume Posse and don't miss the comments. I admit I didn't make the "charnel house" connection right away but the prose was such a deepest shade of purple I didn't have available grey cells left to proceed the data.
And of course prices are skyrocketing all the while: on everything, up till now cheap and cheaper, as if some strange magnetic force is making them all stick together like iron particles .
What exactly is happening to Guerlain? That's not me asking; that's the whole perfume buying public who lowers their brow in awe and respect when entering the Abode; an abode which will become a mausoleum if they lose that respect.
Let's take things from the top. Lutens was on the vanguard of the conceptual fragrance line. When the Salons du Palais Royal opened its doors in 1992, there was no one doing "niche". Apart from those who had small artisanal businesses at the back yard of their homes and they were lovingly preparing batches for themselves and their friends, of course. Or the special commissions by rich people to specific perfume houses. But these are not general exempla, emulated by many.
Lutens went where no one had dared set foot before: art-directing a whole series of scents that were inspired by specific visions of a very individual culture, made with traditional care yet modern flair ~in essence, a pioneering act of defiance to current trends (I am reminding you these were the ozonic/marine 90s). He must have lost quite a bit of money at first, as both the formulae were expensive (too many costly natural ingredients) and the packaging, decor and scenario were fine-tuned like a fine specimen by Stradivari.
Success comes to those who wait and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: A few years later almost everyone was doing their own Lutenesque vision.
The exclusivity factor caught on and everyone started realising that the lack of "marketing" on Lutens's part on the Paris exclusives was indeed an admirable marketing tool: the oldest one, actually ~deny this which could be had and you create desire!
Consequently, this avalanche of exclusive lines within big brands who cater for two different clienteles, it seems: The hoi polloi and the connoisseurs. [The latter term can be thought to be an euphemism for those who are willing to spend a lot of money and energy hunting down what is elusive yet not always worthwhile, but I will return on this at some other time].
One house followed another in this "game". Hermès was the first to launch an exclusive line of haughty-mighty sparse fragrances (like eating raw artichokes is the pinacle of savoir-faire) for their "boutiques only" just when they hired a resident nose in a move that was crucial: the Hermessences.
I am pretty sure Chanel saw the desirability factor of the Hermessences and launched Les Exclusifs in turn: appearing like elegant sketches rather than finished oil on canvases, they utilised modern interpretations of older spermatic ideas in previous fragrances of the house. Even Lancôme re-issued some of their past successes in La Collection, including Cuir, and Givenchy did Les Mythiques.
What was Guerlain to do? The above houses were not primarily perfume houses. Hermès is a glorified saddlery. Chanel an iconic fashion house who had their own cornering on chic that needed modernising in the 80s to get out of the moth-balls of inertia. Givenchy is a designer house relying on the designer's quixotic pursue of elegance, not for some time now. Lancome was skincare and cosmetics and try to convince me otherwise.
Guerlain had a legend in their hands: Shalimar (amidst myriads, assuredly, but I'm willing to accept it's their calling card) as well as an arch-snob that demands an acquired taste much like a Trapeze-monk-produced-beer fermented in the bottle (ie.Mitsouko). With the craziness about gourmands in recent years surely they could have tapped that potential and produced something sophisticated and rich in that vein. After all their exquisite treatment of vanillin has consolidated their mythos. Would it be enough?
I think they were terribly late with their Spirituese Double Vanille (which admitedly sounds much worse than it actually smells; fist faux pas). Their Shalimar Light was brilliant and they should have pursued in that course stylistically (not in the onomatopoieia part though, because it evokes sugar-free sodas to mind and that wouldn't help; second faux pas).
Guerlain realised they couldn't be left out of the "game" everyone was playing: Enter L'art et la Matière line ~at least visually, but also semantically, very much inspired by the Lutens portfolio. Guerlain fans are crazy about Guerlain anyway, but this allowed them to approach a segment of the niche audience who was after more conceptualised, modern series with lyrical and strange names ( à la Tubereuse Criminelle, which is surely behind the Rose Barbare or Angélique Noire moniker).
It seems to me that Guerlain is on an especially precarious balance: they need to respect their historical tradition (which after all, as an historian, can't help but respect) and to enrich it with some modernity (otherwise they will get obsolete and slowly die along with their old customers). But the practical problem is Guerlain afficionados are not interested in modernity: they want tradition! That die-hard core base is too small to sustain the house alone, however, so they need to corner the modern market (new parties interested in the "hard to get") as well as the mass market to get profits that would fuel the above two scenarios.
Therefore they neededed to proceed with segmentation, which they did on the antithetical poles of tradition and modernity:
1) the Il Etait une fois line for the serious traditionalists and collectors in Baccarat crystal bottles with special etchings and Jean Paul's boutonnière molded out of wax (über-tradition of the upper echelons with a price tag to reach the stars)
2) the classic stable of dependables, such as Shalimar, L'heure Bleue, Vétiver et al, with some lifting ~that never gets admitted~ for the old, loyal fans (conservative traditionalists)
3) Les Parisiennes for the younger fans with the desire to hop to Paris and get a memento from a great museum-store (tradition and modernity hand in hand: limited editions that scream "new" in old, royally embossed bottles; travel exclusives that created a following but now put on their party clothes and are unwilling to stay overnight unless you order Veuve Cliquot with those nachos)
4) L'art et la Matiere line (audience: the press people, the niche fans, the blogosphere, the marketing people at rival firms getting a heart attack ~modernity that shows we're alive and kicking, by Jove!).
These moves did revamp their profit margin and their "niche" appeal as well as the interest of collectors and perfume lovers of vintage.
And now they growl "for the animal in you" with their mojito-sounding Guerlain Homme and play light bondage games with their Elixir Charnels. It's like a temporary tattoo for kids, hidden in a bag of Cheetos: be a man and go the whole hog with it, damn it!
Will these moves see them through thick and thin in the future? I am very much afraid that they are not ready to see just how deep down the rabbit hole goes...
Photography by Maria Brink courtesy of What Up Thug blog. Guerlain garden at EPCOT courtesy of anelson823