The Problem with Contemporary Perfumery Is . . .

Behold, Curve Crush for men, Liz Claiborne's disgustingly trivial 2004 addition to the cynical Curve line. As I was driving into work the other day, I found myself imagining what life would be like if I worked as a fragrance manager for Claiborne. Life would be very trying, not because the company lacks exposure or capitol, but because I would be a neglected cog, someone relegated to menial duties that are in no way related to production, and all for one reason: I'm creative.

Imagine arriving at the office one morning and having a robotic executive corral you into briefs for the next Curve fragrance. Everyone in the department is there, all sitting around a big boardroom table, peering intently at sales statistics and focus group charts. The brief has been issued, and the chemists (i.e. perfumers) are in attendance, sitting nearest to the Big Dog, their impeccable demeanor reflective of an acumen for number-crunching, not notes. As you sit down, someone hands you a booklet containing information about the latest entry in this esteemed collection. On the cover is a neon-green Curve bottle, with the familiar balloon lettering on it. It's called Curve Bliss, and under the title is a description - a floral green aromatic scent for women.

Intrigued (for the first time in your life), you register the possibilities in your head. It's a green theme, your favorite color! Instead of the usual trite aquatics, this could finally break some new ground. Still, in knee-jerk fashion, you understand the limitations before anyone has to mention them. You're working at Claiborne, after all, and if you think galbanum, petitgrain, and vetiver will come into play, you're delusional. But even after that sad gut-check, your hopes abound. Perhaps ionones can be integrated to simulate violet leaf, and may I ask the chemists how much cis-3 Hexenal they intend on using? What about some lily of the valley notes, and a nice brisk baltic amber note, something coniferous to darken things a little? Let's grab the bull by both horns and make this a unisex release, one that both men and women gravitate towards. And hey, while we're at it, why not spruce up the presentation a little? So the bottle is the same, okay, but how about changing the tin to dark green, with the letters in monochrome relief? You know, something minimalist, instead of childish. Just a thought.

As you open your mouth to speak, the Top Dog cuts you off. "Okay, folks. This morning we're going to discuss the pre-determined budget parameters for the product in hand, and I'm hoping everyone is aware that we've got eight million dollars, two of which are being paid to our partners in the lab, three for marketing, and three for distribution. That's less than we're used to. Sales are down, as you can see. We've got a brief that deals in dihydromyrcenol as a central element, with some nice linalool in the opening, a melon nonenoate construct for sweetness, and our standard white musk in the base. This is going to be a very simple formula, it'll have a longevity of no less than four hours, and it'll sell under the same distribution umbrella as the rest of the line. Any questions?"

The room is silent. You open your mouth, you want to speak, but you're trying to process what you've just heard without audibly sobbing, and nothing comes out. It's a bottom-shelf budget, another chemical melon aquatic masquerading as a green scent, and the creative part of the meeting just began and ended in all of thirty seconds. Stupefied, you drool as the topic is steered toward another tedious breakdown of demographic charts and packaging contracts. This isn't going to be a fun in-house image shakeup. This isn't going to be a product experiment. This isn't going to be an exercise in creativity. It's your standard-issue Curve nightmare, and it was developed long before you got the memo. Game over.

Some poor sap went through this dark fantasy during the production of Curve Crush for men. There's no doubt about it. Smelling it is like smelling every sweet teeny-bopper fruity detergent disaster to hit store shelves since 1990. There's your standard sweet citrus opening, a scratchy calone note that tears through your nostril lining like cheap liquor scalds the throat. Then, enter the fake violet leaf (one white musk paired with a dirt-cheap inone compound), and before long you're sniffing a jasmine-like floral edge that has attached itself to the dullest white musk imaginable. Then, after forty-five minutes, I smell nothing at all.

And that's the problem with contemporary perfumery. It's geared toward people who want to smell like nothing at all. The manufacturers are explicitly asked to develop something that offends no one, and in fact, is altogether undetectable. Just let the wearer experience it for five minutes, before letting the sheer elements create an olfactory fatigue that translates to little more than I Smell Clean. Big whoop.

Perhaps if perfume companies stopped nickle and diming themselves and their customers, our culture would begin to exhibit the panache of yesteryear, that confidence and attitude that brought great men and women their big success in the eras of Polo, Kouros, and Angel. Until then, we're doomed to smell clean, and slip into obscurity amongst the unwashed masses of the earth.


  1. that’s a very interesting topic!
    and do you think it’s about a natural cosmetics boom/contemprary tendency instead of a business strategy/political worldview… ? ALL at once?

    All I can say is that it's a disaster... But I think they ALL are winning: they ALL make me feel like a skanky granny, or like a dinosaur in a bad way.
    We must unite!

  2. I think it's about money. Business is about money, first and foremost, and the perfume industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. The wealthiest companies are constantly finding ways to trim the fat, cost-cut, boost overhead. The only real way to be cost-efficient is to buy cheaper things. When perfume companies buy cheaper things, they're usually buying cheaper materials, aroma chemicals that have less range and smell rather crude. What we end up with is something that should have cost them $2 million to develop, actually costing them $300K instead. Instead of Green Irish Tweed, we get Curve Crush for Men. Equal parts baby's tears and calone. We must, indeed, unite.

  3. Yes, you're right on that point of money, concerning companies. As you've said it's geared toward people who want to smell like nothing at all.

    But I mean why people want to smell like nothing at all? I mean specifily concerning that. What happens with ordinary people? Why they are all so scared about 'perfumey' scents for some time now? Is it some genetic mutation, or a fashion poser? Last saturday a friend of mine told me 'Frankly, I don't understand why people wear so much perfume' while entering a perfumery department store. I asked her 'Are you in trouble with perfume or just with perfumey scents?' and she answer the first: with Perfume -because it's artificial-! And I don't think she's under any specific pressure... "she's influenced by stereotypes imposed by society" of course, but I think we can still make decisions about who we want to be, or at least about own personal tastes. So when it comes to perfume: One is not born, but rather... becomes? I don't think so, that's not my case. I think I clearly WAS BORN with an olfactory sense that makes me interested and sniff out everything, and the society has not induced me to have preferences for soft watery fresh CLEAN scents. OK that Society sell me that soft watery fresh clean scents... but, it really imposes that, or it's just adapting the whole thing to actual tastes?

    According my personal tastes... it's just me, I'm just towards the strong olfactory side. So I believe it's the same for most people: they just prefer not to smell, they just prefer not to anoint themselves with oils and perfumes OR anything 'chemical' My question is WHY. Are they born without the nose sense, perhaps with too much, or what...?

  4. To answer your first (and foremost) question: I think people are afraid to bother with, or even just explore perfume because they don't view it as art, and thus not an expression of anything but smell. To a lot of folks, fragrance isn't fragrance, it's a "smell." And as such, they erroneously believe that applying it to themselves is an obvious act of artifice, an attitude of "why bother when they know it's not my natural smell?" prevails.

    This ties in neatly with the politically correct environment generated by the cultural values of the 1990s. Since Acqua di Gio, people have viewed their personal odor as a reflection of cleanliness, not inner thinking. So a fragrance is applied to not "offend" or "overpower" others. Unfortunately, this leaves a massive swath of fragrances - indeed most of the serious ones - out of the equation. What we end up with are millions of adults who apply things that are better left on the bums of babies, inoffensive flower waters and chemical citrus nothings. Some of it is an easy respite from heavier, more articulated works, like LouLou and Opium. But it's all generally a reflection of inner timidity.

    People are tapped into their desire to be politically correct, hygienic, and inoffensive, but not tapped into their own inner state of mind, their imaginations, their moods, their musings, and hence the broader palette of colors with which to illustrate this inner self are left untouched. If fragrance is not considered art by the majority, then the majority will fail to realize that it is a mode of expression, and mistakenly consider scent to be little more than a mask for underarm odor. Sad, isn't it?

  5. You've nailed it!

    But the more I'm thinking about it, the more I see I'm gonna be stand out, there's no miracle cure.
    And as a mode of expression (of course), then a reflection of inner timidity is just to wear LouLou and Opium (Ha!). Can we expect anything more 'masking'? The real timid is just who wears that kind of perfumes.

    ... and Ok that a very important thing is the way you apply it (overpowering or not). Apart from that, 'Why bother?'. I never thought of perfume like that. Even the one which I hate with all my heart, doesn't 'bother' me at all. 'Perfume' word itself evokes that smell good, or at least, way better than most other things. Etimologically means exactly «through the fumes», according to the two basic functions they've been used in Ancient Times: the ritual and the deodorant.
    So, that being said... if they consider it as a mask for underarm odor they're not so far after all, and well yes!: bad human/animal/organic odor bothers me, instead of perfume. So what? Facing the truth is that easy!

    I think people have serious problems of insecurity, inferiority complex... why we have to be so complicated egomaniacs, making contradictions with every single f... thing...?!

    1st take

    Imagine a gorgeous elf from Rivendell coming to you with a dreamy bottle of perfume:
    -Hey try this! You'll smell wonderful! :)
    --- Oh no, thanks! That's not me! I'm not wonderful at all!
    (and then the elf starts to cry)

    but WHAT are the elf REALLY dying to say after that?
    - Please just take the fucking perfume, You dumb asshole! YOU SMELL LIKE NOTHING AT ALL AND YOU'RE STARTING TO FRIGHTEEEEEEEN MEEEEEEE... (Tears of Fear!)

    2n take

    -Hey try this! You'll smell wonderful! :)
    --- Oh no, thanks! That's not me .....
    (and then the elf start to ask why not)
    ---..... you know, I think there's too much of everything!

    What the elf thinks after that answer? "Just take the fucking perfume, You dumb asshole!" of course. And that something stinks there and it ain't just perfume. The elf can hear interlocutor's inner thinking [--- I don't need to smell just wonderful, I'm much more than anything in the air!].

    Pffffffffffff ROFLMAO!


Thank you for your comment. It will be visible after approval by the moderator.