Monday, July 28, 2008

Yes, but is it original?

"Newness is in the mind of the artist who creates and not in the object he portrays.[...]What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough."
~Eugene Delacroix, May 14, 1824

With this aphorism in mind, this past weekend I was contemplating whether perfumery still possesses originality. Originality in art manifests itself in both subject choices (what to tackle) as well as style (technique). The fact that perfumery can be an art form if the people behind it are so inclined is undoubted in my mind, as I had elaborated a few years back wondering what constitutes art in perfumery and what does not. I had also mused on whether post-modernism influenced perfumers. This train of thought was re-kindled by a comment on Denyse's Grain de Musc: the new Serge Noire is great, per our combined opinions; “yes, but is it original”? asked BillyD.

In The Thought Gang, the British author Tibor Fisher wrote that all ideas were covered by the Greeks long ago and we're merely rehashing the collectively forgotten. This is the conundrum of the artist: "I won't look at what has come before, I won't go to galleries or museums, I won't read or talk to artists, and thus I can't help but be original." Is this even possible? Is it even desirable?

Originality in perfume seems somehow unattainable today, if only because Serge Lutens has been so instrumental in the emergence of original compositions and niche perfumery in general, raising the bar high for others as well as himself.
Nevertheless the first niche lines were probably L’artisan Parfumeur founded by Jean François Laporte and Diptyque by Yves Coueslant and Desmont Knox Leet. The former started by issuing lighter compositions than the mainstream brands, inspired by nature and focusing on forgotten or completely novel ingredients (Mûre et Musc, L’eau du Navigateur, Prémier Figuier, Vanilia, Bois Farine) ; the latter, striding over the more picturesque scenery of Greece, coming up with intensely unusual compositions such as the herbal L’eau trois, the strange beast of L’Autre or Eau Lente, inspired by historical descriptions of the time of Alexander when such concepts were the Ultima Thule .
But it was Lutens that shrouded his craft with prestidigitation, a touch of Japanese aesthetics and the opulent tradition of the Arab world. The boom of the Internet made this small, elitist line with the exquisitely unique fragrances a cult item, prompting others to step their toes in the pond of niche. Some of them, such as Les éditions des Parfums Frédéric Malle had original ideas: acting as a book editor to a lineup of authors-perfumers who compose what they want without commercial restrictions. Some other brands capitalized on the new boutiques such as Aedes, Luckyscent and First in Fragrance, to issue their own less original paradigms.

Who bought all those fragrances?

Some ask praise of their fellows,
But I being otherwise
Made compose curves
And yellows, angles or silences
To a less erring end.
Thus delineated E.E.Cummings his desire to go off the beaten path in 1926. This was very much the mindset of the audience which Lutens first accosted in his foray into Les Salons du Palais Royal de Shiseido in 1992. I recall an article by Susan Irvine for the British Vogue in mid-90s which quoted someone who didn’t want to go out to dinner and have the waitress lean over smelling of the same perfume; therefore she went for niche! It seemed that there was both an elitist and snobbish streak running through.
And although I have been a perfume lover as far back as I can recall, when I first immersed myself into the Internet world of perfume boards before the boom of perfume blogs in 2005 I remember it increasingly impressed me as if the more weird a composition was, the more devoted its fans were and the cooler they were perceived by others. It was as if an unwritten rule set the measure of sophistication as liking fragrances that would produce confounded whispers and raised eyebrows among the non-initiated. The hallmark of a cult, if there is one!
“Ohhh! Dust-on-an electric-lamp accord!” the collective frisson of excitement was palpable as we were reading the notes in Odeur 53. What had happened to Guy Robert's axiom that a fragrance must smell pleasant?
Other times it was the quest for the rare, the hunt for the pearl beyond measure, a fragrance forgotten by time, mere dregs at the bottom of a derelict bottle hiding in someone else’s attic and auctioned at exorbitant prices.
Soon brands cottoned up: they began to bring out fragrances both resurrected like Phoenixes from the ashes (i.e. Guerlain, Lancôme) and based on the most provocative or outré concepts (ie. état libre d’Orange, Le Labo, By Killian).

And someplace between this and that, myriads of brands issuing the 174th Ambre or the 48th Cuir and noses coming up with small cupcakes accord ~as if larger cakes smell differently~ we became jaded. The thrill of discovery was over. Have the niche brands stopped being creative and original or have we changed? I propose to you that it's a little bit of both. Releases in both mainstream and niche lines multiplied 50-fold in the last decade, meaning it was impossible in terms of time and brainpower to come up with something unforeseen; also, when one is sampling things more than actually wearing a constant rotation of favorites (which is what often happens to perfume writers and enthusiasts such as us), there is an amount of jadedness setting in. It is as if we know what we’re going to smell before we inhale, we know what we’re going to read before we lay eyes on the promotional text and as if we couldn’t really be bothered to hunt the new down anymore. There is ennui and boredom. Is it significant? Will perfumery suffer because of the waning interest? Probably not, judging by the fledging brands mushrooming up every day or the new Myrmidons banging fearlessly down on Aedes’s door, eager to sniff the newest this or that.

John Sloan wrote in Gist of Art in 1939:
"Sometimes it is best to say something new with an old technique, because ninety-nine people out of a hundred see only technique. Glackens had the courage to use Renoir's version of the Rubens-Titian technique and he found something new to say with it. Cezanne may have tried to paint like El Greco, but he couldn't help making Cézannes. He never had to worry about whether he was being original. Don't be afraid to borrow. The great men, the most original, borrowed from everybody. Witness Shakespeare and Rembrandt. They borrowed from the technique of tradition and created new images by the power of their imagination and human understanding. Little men just borrow from one person. Assimilate all you can from tradition and then say things in your own way. There are as many ways of drawing as there are ways of thinking and thoughts to think."
A thought well-worth keeping in mind for the perfumers and art directors of perfume brands. And for ourselves, as well!

Pics courtesy of mondino-update and manuelZx48K on flickr


  1. While I can identify with the desire to be innovative, and deplore the facelessness one encounters in so many mass-market offerings, I have to admit I've grown tired of niche pretensions. What makes something great? Is it the affectation of "genuine" design, or is it the enjoyment that I, as the consumer, feels?

    BTW, I've fallen in love with YSL Y. Thank you ever so much for introducing me to this underappreciated gem.

  2. Anonymous15:44

    It's hard to admit, but yes, you're right (as usual): I have been testing far too many things, neglecting what I have and love. That may have to do with becoming bored. As to why there are so many new niche lines and why they produce more or less similar things now, I can't tell, but maybe they have seen that there is a market for that sort of thing and following just like the big brands do.
    Thanks for the article!

  3. Anonymous15:53

    Thank you, Helg, for a well-thought, explorative post. Originality is not necessarily something I've actively sought, as my decade of studying contemporary art and theory complicates that very idea. Your comparisons to artists appropriating a technique, yet arriving at a work that is definitively their own, seems quite fitting with how I've approached the too-numerous choices before us in fragrance. Now, I have certainly chosen many scents simply because they are beautiful and/or comforting--a sheer pleasure to wear, original or not. On the other hand, I seek an aesthetic that would be particular to a perfumeur, whether or not the compositions are wholly "original" or new. Of course, since I most want to wear the fragrances, the aesthetics of these perfumeurs need to match my own desires and needs and the history of my nose. With that, it is little surprise that only a few perfumes rise up to that.

    Rather than feeling disappointment that so much (niche) fragrance is repetitive/derivative and poorly made, I feel elation that I've discovered four perfumeurs (who own their own small houses) whose works I would now by unsniffed (at least, until *I* change somehow). That does not mean that these perfumeurs flip the notion of "perfume" on its head, like Serge Lutens in the earlier years. It means that their work is meticulously crafted and holds together, dances together, under my nose, while displaying an identifiable aesthetic in terms of construction and approach to material. The art is alive and well. I am not worried. (I'm also not sniffing everything under the sun--that would certainly make me jaded.)

  4. Anonymous16:41

    Yes, the conundrum: Ignore the past, be sure to repeat it; consume the past, can't avoid repeating it.

    Yet, there is always something to be appreciated in "merely" doing it well (would you NOT go to a performance of a beloved musical piece because you've heard it before?), and certainly in doing it divinely. And sometimes we put the past together with a fresh observation, no?

    Of course, there are many other permutations on the possibility for "innovation" within these confines, including the simple "it's new to me." That said, those who spend a lot of time exploring and doing and trying would do well to remember to appreciate what is already there. Good for life, no?

    Thanks for another thoughtful post.


  5. I admit, niche hasn't really impressed me in a long time, sure I wear a few niche scents, but the reality is rarely am I truly taken with them. Add the insane prices and what would seem a new lense issue on scents (how many same smelling ambers do I need) I think niche is hitting a bit of a road block. Where as I think mass available is actually trying to get its act together to some degree: the new Sensuous, Infusion d'Iris, and Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia.

  6. On my darker days, I might say that the only originality left to perfume will either be a revolt against the new restrictions, a sort of Prohibition-effect causing a breed of contraband perfumes OR the real investment of individuals and perfumers in the creation of "couture" custom-made scents. But the brighter angels of my nature point to the constant challenges which face commercial perfumers in the creation of novel accords for a variety of non-perfume products on a shoe-string budget. Perhaps true originality lies outside the ken of connoisseurship after all, like when Duchamp turns a urinal into an artwork.

  7. Anonymous21:24

    Dear Helg,

    Wow, once again a very thoughtful article...and you picked a very interesting time to post it, right after Chandler Burr tore Ellena's "Un jardin apres la mousson" to pieces due to the lack of complete innovation. (You know that I don't completely agree with Burr's thoughts...)

    I think the bottom line for me is whether the new incarnation offers any additional benefit compared to the old one, content and development wise. If the new juice is rising from the ashes of a brilliant flop then I'm more than happy to get to know the new incarnation (see LT and TS's comments on Kenzo Flower). However, I get very upset (just like you do) when a well-composed yet sub-par copy is launched simply to challenge the era's popular fragrance...

    My rule of thumb? Shall I be glowing with joy if someone walks up to me and tell me, "The thing you did (insert anything) was really your best work."??? Boy, I would be very upset with myself if the compliment is about a plain plagerization of someone else's work....


  8. Dain,

    your questioning seems valid: it's a thin line to be sure.

    You're very welcome, isn't it a beauty? :-))

  9. Sue,

    you're welcome and thanks for stopping by.
    I guess some saw that there is an audience, a passionate audience at that and followed suit.

  10. Catherine,

    I am glad that it resonated with someone who is savvy of the artistic difficulties of being original (and how that can be defined).
    Indeed it is good to know there are perfumers whose aesthetic and vision you can follow, despite their path or not to originality.
    And there's certainly something to be said about keeping a distance from every new release ;-)

  11. ScentSelf,

    thank you for your compliment!
    You bring a good point: don't we like to see re-interpretations of things we have enjoyed in theatre/music etc? We do. So there must be some new "outlok" that a different artist/performance/whatever brings to it which accounts for our new interest.
    Also the "new to me" point is also very succinct. There are certainly different sensibilities among folks and what's old to you, might be new to me. Thanks for bring it up!

  12. Jen,

    when the first niches came out they rocked our world. Now it seems everyone is trying to pose as such and I am not sure everyone deserves to. Plus, you're right: some of the mainstream brands are trying to get their act together, good point!
    I prefer to go for a mix of niche, mainstream and classic myself: whatever speaks to me. ;-)

  13. C,

    I have to point out that indeed some indipendent artisanal perfumers do rebel against the restrictions, simply because these do not have the implications of a formal law (not yet, at least!). That's a healthy sign.
    As to couture-scent, I recall some which dabble in that sort of uber-eclectic service, but my sources and statistics say that it is on the wane for various reasons: perfume is aspirational after all and although that would be the perfect luxury it seems that many people, affluent ones too, want to buy into the mythos and glamour of something "manufactured".

    I have to agree that novel constructions on a tight budget for the functional industry might/should indeed bear the greatest originality.

    That infamous urinal was something I had at the back of my mind all the time when writing this, thanks for mentioning it! ;-)

  14. Albert,

    thank you for your interesting comment and your compliment.

    It's lamentable that so much is derivative for the sake of sales and market shares :-(
    On the other hand something that takes a discarded experiment and raises it into something that can stand on its own two legs is commentable, no argument there.

    I believe Mousson was rather innovative myself. Just not something that I want to wear much.
    Intellectual vs. aesthetic, if you know what I mean. :-)

  15. Dear helg-- thank you for another fascinating article. In enjoyed reading your thoughts and the thoughts of Denyse on Grain de Musc.

    As a relative newcomer to the world of perfume, I am still enjoying the thrill of new discoveries (although, with so many scents both classic and new, this has been exhausting, and I seem to be slowing down a bit). But strikes me that there are many ways to think of "newness" or "originality" in perfume. The most obvious is the novelty of a completely new smell, for example a new aromachemical which no one has smelled before. Then there is the novelty of new, striking juxtapositions (incense and bubblegum? rubber and vanilla?). Or the use of new technologies, like headspace sampling, to render smells in a photorealistic way.

    I suppose another kind of (postmodern) novelty manifests as a kind of dialogue between old and new perfumers, in which the new perfumer appropriates a classic, and re-interprets it, or quotes from it wholesale (like hip-hop artists sprinkling samples of classic works in their compositions). This is different, of course, from reformulation. For example, Elléna's L'Eau D'Hiver seems to be in dialogue with Après L'Ondée, and his Déclaration and Cologne Bigarade have always seemed to me to be having a conversation with Roudnitzka's Eau D'Hermès.

    The danger of novelty for novelty's sake is that sometimes what is produced speaks only to the head, and not to the heart. The smell produced with a new aromachemical, a new juxtaposition, or a new technique might be fascinating intellectually, but the heart is triggered by the emotional language of memory and association. I imagine this must be the most elusive part for a perfumer to get, as the associations and memories we attach to scent surely vary from person to person. But because it involves memory and association, presumably it must mean working with what is already familiar to the person smelling. The novel scents that speak most strongly to me work that productive tension between what is familiar and what is new, but it is tricky. Too much familiarity, and we will say that it is derivative; too little familiarity, and it is too alien to speak effectively to the heart....


  16. Jarvis,
    The discussion that Helg's and my posts triggered is opening so many other perspectives on the subject...
    When you speak of the post-modern dialogue between contemporary perfumers and the classics, I can't help but think of what struck me when reviewing MDCI L'enlèvement au sérail, and again when wearing it this week-end: it is a definite tribute by Kurkdjian to classic Guerlain and Roudnitska perfumery. Its construction is purely classical yet it doesn't smell trite or old-fashioned. It's got the freshness of a new Guerlain...

  17. J,

    your examples are excellent! Indeed I agree about the similarity of all of those; but it is intentional and discoursive, which makes a difference I guess.
    I don't think headspace has new things to offer any more, although new molecules do get made still and perhaps they might bring a mini revolution.
    The most important thing to my mind is a new, completely new direction and I fail to see where that should be. It seems everything has been covered...

    And it's very tricky as you say: people do go for the familiar most of the time, but they appreciate the twist ;-)

  18. D,

    that is the hallmark of an exciting composition, I should think. I should definitely locate this and test!

  19. We think that originality means that some creative force springs forth from our subconscious to give us a new idea.

    However I think that since we are being bombarded by the same types of ads and messages everyday and they are being given at a subtle subconscious level, even the source of where originality is supposed to be coming from is no longer original.

    We don't have the luxury to be original anymore. We cant even take time off to just think for ourselves since everyone else is trying to impose their own views on us.

  20. Inyoung,

    you can say that again about being brainwashed with messages, often working at an underground level, working stealthily...
    I suppose arriving independently at something is the only moral satisfaction left us. Or perhaps I'm starving of new ideas, that could be too.


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