Monday, October 22, 2018

Perfume as a Personal Story: The Historical Beginnings

The heirs of the aristocratic perfume tradition of post-Middle-Ages Europe were precursors, innovators, pioneers who helped establish modern perfumery as we came to know it, but who also carved out a path for the following of that artistic and commercial sector, drawing crowds to their boutiques and their wares in an unprecedented way. This last bit however isn't far removed from the enthralled reception that the modern niche perfume consumer bestows on today's fragrance celebrities, such as Serge Lutens, Frédéric Malle, Francis Kurkdjian or Jean Claude Ellena, to name but a few.

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A La Corbeille de Fleurs, Houbigant's boutique situated since the late 18th century in the then-uncelebrated Faubourg Saint-Honoré, helps make the spot le dernier cri among wealthy bourgeois who shop a few decades later for his trendy perfumes, such as Fougère Royale, composed by acclaimed perfumer Paul Parquet. Le Trèfle Incarnat for L.T.Piver was famously created by head Jacques Rouché and nose Pierre Aremingeat under the direction of chemist Georges Drazen of the Ecole Polytechnique; it soon became a sensation that had tongues wagging on the house that issued it.

Les Salons de Palais Royal by Serge Lutens in Paris, the abode of the Lutensian opus, can be said to be today's modern version, a Mecca of innovative compositions which changed the scenery for everyone following in their niche steps. The perfume-smelling booths at the Frédéric Malle boutiques across two continents are testament to the desire to dedicate time and energy to selecting perfume, but it is the frames with perfumers' portraits on the walls which remind us that authorship is the core of this brand who first dared make the connection between éditeur (as in Editions de Parfums) and auteur (as in cinema).

Some creators, like the Guerlains, have been immersed in the trade since they were in diapers; Pierre-François Pascal Guerlain saw to it that he created a dynasty of perfumers and perfume directors which successfully survives to our days as Guerlain. Some others however were self-made wonders. François Coty is an emblematic figure in that regard, none the less because he lent an attentive ear to the public itself; heeding their needs, their desires, their suggestions with the perspicacity that is the mark of a true genius. But he also imposed his own ideas, drawing from forgotten relics (his iconic Coty Chypre perfume drew on the ancient cypriot fragrances that had trickled into Europe in the form of cosmetics) or by offering novel suggestions (such as L'Origan, what can be argued to be the first "floriental" perfume).

His "school" taught a great many scrappy upstarts, giving them the confidence to venture where others had faltered, until Coty's own unfortunate demise which risked leaving that gigantic business headless. Luckily for Coty perfumery, François Coty's divorced wife had a brother-in-law, Philippe Cotnareanu, who was immersed in the business. Cotnareanu changed his name to Philip Cortney and under that pseudonym took rein of the colossal portfolio, until 1963 when Coty and Coty International were eventually sold to Chas. Pfizer & Co. for $26 million. But it is Coty's success in the perfume world which made it possible for everyone else in the beginning of the 20th century, from Russian émigré Ernest Beaux for the fledging Chanel fashion "griffe" to Ernest Daltroff at Caron, or for Alméras who first took the creative reins chez Poiret and then composed a pleiad of 1930s fragrance masterpieces for Jean Patou.

What unites all those past greats is the vision of perfume as a personalized story, a momentous revelation: fragrances created for specific circumstances, for an occasion, a happy day, for a woman (a woman, please note, and not the woman). This approach implied a directed and directive concept, providing the public with a product on which it was not consulted first (no marketing focus groups voting on perfume!) but which didn't disregard it either. A path which assured the consumer that what was offered to them was well devised for them, a product of artistry suggestive to the powers of seduction, but also heeding to a time signpost, to cultural bearings of the time, transforming them and popularizing them into trends: a best-selling book, like La Bataille influencing the creation of Guerlain Mitsouko, a trend such as Les Ballets Russes ushering orientalia into European fashions and the arts, you name it, all influenced the creators into a fertile dialogue with their time and age.

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