10/19/14

The Dust Collectors: Why No Sales?




In the previous post, I wrote at length about the odd nature of Patou Pour Homme's "legacy" among collectors and would-be collectors. My thesis here is simple: if people didn't buy it then, there's no reason to believe they'll buy it now. Defenders of those astronomical Ebay prices like to roll out the usual arguments about the normalcy of capitalism in these matters, and how "fans" of discontinued fragrances are the ones contributing to their posthumus commercial success. But as I pointed out, those arguments, while semantically feasible, are purely examples of stupidity in action. These arguments, when transposed upon the filaments of 2014's fragrance economics, simply don't align. The "Capitalism Explains The Price" argument is a "one size fits all" contention that is entirely impossible to generalize into all markets.

To recap what I mean by this, just look at the car market. Remember the Yugo, also known as the Zastava Koral? When it was first released in 1978, it was handmade by the classier brand Fiat as the Fiat 127, and was intended to be a bold new low-cost, low-maintenance town car (with sport potential). The joke was on Fiat; Americans created their own catchphrase for it: "Yugo Nowhere." This was followed by, "It's a good hand-warmer." Yugos broke down a lot and had to be pushed, but hey, at least the rear windows were heated! Despite its many commercial issues, the Fiat namesake had a following, the car sold just well enough to survive in the American market until 1991 or 1992, and it even has an actual fan club. Like perfume, cars are a technologically designed commodity, a product of commercial innovation, with most of their working parts invisible, yet their benefits serving a specific social function.

Although foreign production is still in progress, Yugo ceased being imported into the United States over twenty years ago, and Western models are no longer manufactured. The car we knew back then is essentially extinct. If we apply some of the false tenets of perfume economics to the Yugo, we immediately see problems. First, and like Patou PH, the car came from an esteemed lineage, a very competent background of means. It had commercial viability. It was released. It was briefly embraced by Westerners as something that might be worthy of use, but they tried it, disliked it, and rejected it. It was discontinued. It now has a fanclub. There's even talk by its manufacturers of bringing it back someday.

Yet old Yugos do not command even a 100% price increase, not even by dollar inflation standards (1987 - 2010). This article is a beautiful example of how people react to a lame attempt at tripling the inflationary value of a 1987 Yugo. The writer posits that "America's cult love-affair with the cheapest car in the market quickly dried out after customers realized that they got what they paid for with sales plundering to just under 4,000 units in 1991, the last year the Yugo was imported to the States." He also points out that this model could be purchased new back in '87 for $3,990, but now the asking price is $14,500!

As you can see in the comments, there are some reluctant defenders of this sort of price inflation, but they don't even bother to come right out and state their position clearly. They simply try to cut through the backlash, and the backlash is pretty succinct in its overall tone. One person writes:
"The dude is asking $14500! That awful garbage is worth $800 at most. Not the price of a brand new Chrysler."
That's an interesting point, because here the quality of the car can be clearly seen in the pictures, and yet this person is seeing past them, recalling that the vehicle's quality was far below average. Another person writes:
"Owned an 85 Yugo GV. First car right out of college. Had it 4 years, took care of it, and did the maintenance when it was due. Had 56000 miles on it and it never broke down. Other than tires and brakes I had no issues. Would love to find one I can work on with my son. But not for $14,000!"
This is an even better perspective, because it's clear this person owned and really liked the vehicle, and would actually purchase it again if he had the chance. Yet he feels the asking price is not reasonable in this instance. This is sanity talking. And then there's this comment:
"I want to buy this car, but it's nowhere near worth $14,500, my older brother had one brand new and only payed $1000 for it. So now I wouldn't even pay that, I would only pay like $300 for it, maybe $500.
This comment gets to the core of the issue. When a designed article is appropriated by society, and then recycled through its shelf-life, its value should remain relative to its usefulness. There is sizable depreciation. That is, of course, based on usability, being that these are DESIGNED products.

This is why chairs, plates, silverware, some articles of furniture and houseware, all appreciate in value over the years. Few moving parts. Often very little wear and tear. Sometimes repairs on things like broken plates are so adequate that the damage is invisible. So time is, literally, on their side. But things like cars, which have two hundred thousand moving parts, and perfumes, with millions of volatile molecules in perpetual motion, suffer with age, and rightly their value should depreciate. If the value does increase, it should be at pace with inflation alone - the '87 Yugo in 2010 dollars would have been $7,658 new, half of what the Vegas dealer in the article was asking. Search for Yugos on Craigslist, and you'll see that the average asking price is around $1,000. Those prices are well explained by everything we know about Yugos. The Vegas dealer's $14,500 price? Inexplicable.

I find that the notion that vintage perfumes should be privy to price inflations by hundreds of percentage points contradicts two aspects of classic capitalism, the first being supply and demand, and the second being product value. In the first instance, discontinued perfumes went largely unsold, as their audience failed to warm to them, hence the supply should be inordinately large compared to the demand, which would be relatively small. In the second instance, with perfume being a volatile example of product design, the quality should dictate diminishing returns with every passing year, in any commercial setting, be it internet or brick and mortar sales. Obviously a citrus fragrance that is forty-three years old is not going to have the same quality and performance as a citrus fragrance that is three years old. So why pay three times as much for the forty-three year-old scent? Its usability is highly questionable, and its collectibility only extends to the cosmetic preservation of the bottle the fragrance is housed in (a skunked bottle can be refilled with colored water).

My questions here are, why were people not buying certain perfumes to begin with? What was the reason that people rejected them? What drove them to discontinuation? What made them rare in the first place? And why are people assigning absurd values to them now?

Examining possible answers to these questions is not an exact science by any means, and probably isn't a science at all. This just comes down to being brutally frank with what we're smelling, and not romanticizing things and blowing them out of proportion. I've comprised a short list of discontinued fragrances that have become very expensive on Ebay and elsewhere, yet have never been brought back by their manufacturer, and remain extinct. Here's my take on them.

1. Relax, Davidoff (1990) This is my favorite discontinued posher, a fragrance which today only the well-funded are allowed to enjoy, it seems. Released 24 years ago, it was an almost instant commercial failure, and in some ways that actually pulls its current high prices closer to the breast of reason. One can argue that Relax never had a chance for people to embrace its beauty, as it was pulled too soon. Sometimes brands do that, pull a product because they didn't do adequate market research on it, and can no longer justify the distribution costs. Unfortunately though I think Relax was out long enough to catch on, simply because there's such a preponderance of bottles out there still, which tells me that the world's stock was extensive enough for at least one or two large countries to shine to it. That simply did not happen. It was not moving units. But why? The answer is in the scent itself. Davidoff, like Joop! and many other designer brands, has a signature synthetic accord that is reminiscent of rosewood and pipe tobacco, a very burly little number that is quite nice. Zino has it, even Cool Water has a hint of it. Relax had it too, but that was all Relax had, the basic two-chord aroma wafting gently from under a sweet mint top. What does that amount to? A good perfume, certainly, but rather like an overdone Skin Bracer. Was it worth $20 an ounce back then? Not to consumers. So should it be worth $125 an ounce now? Regrettably not. Pretty bottle, though.

2. Zino, Davidoff (1986) Davidoff discontinued most of their older scents, and Zino may have been a victim of overproduction. I would guess that what happened in the middle of the 1980s, here in the States and in Europe, was symptomatic of most problems with these oldies. Zino was an excellent fragrance in its own right, a very brisk lavender/rosewood extravaganza that smelled dark, mysterious, sexy, a little dirty. All good things, but look out! Here it comes: it's dated. I wore Zino on a weekend in Prague with a woman very dear to my heart, and she hated it. She didn't have the heart to tell me. She wasn't one of these "I Love Pink" bubbleheads, either. She loved the darker things in life, and she was extremely intelligent, and a very modest dresser. But this fragrance made her wrinkle her nose and walk out of the room every time I put it on. One has to wonder what she would have said if she hadn't been more polite, but I think it would have gone something like this: "Bryan, your cologne is not good. I mean, okay, it smells like maybe good for an older cologne, but today? No. Just wanted to tell you that, dear." Ouch. I've included Zino in this list not as an example of a perfume that now commands ridiculous prices, but to show that even a decent, inexpensive oldie had a reason for being axed, and that reason applies to many of the old ones that are now gone.

Updated thoughts, 2/15/15: I may have been a bit harsh on Zino here, as I personally think it's lovely, but I still believe it is dated - people around me tend to react negatively to it. When I read that it's discontinued, it doesn't surprise me at all. However, when I say it's dated, I'm beginning to wonder about the date in question. Is Zino still being manufactured and distributed by Coty? Are they operating under the pretense of "Lancaster," a long-defunct brand association from the nineties? Is this another "By Mennen" situation, as with Skin Bracer? In any case, pending further evidence, I'll have to keep this filed as a discontinued classic, but if availability continues to be as good as it's been for another year or two, I may have to remove this from the list. Right now the confusing aspect to Zino is that it's been, by all appearances, cut loose by Coty. Yet it continues to swamp Amazon search results at ridiculously reasonable prices. Very strange.

3. Derby, Guerlain (1985) Maybe it's my opinion of Derby. Maybe it's the fact that I don't cow to other people's bullshit when it comes to how "great" certain perfumes supposedly are. Maybe it's just that Derby really doesn't smell all that good. To this day, I'm mystified by how anyone could think this perfume is worth hundreds of today's dollars. There's one on Ebay right now, a 3.4 ounce square-bottle, for $800. This is an okay perfume. It smells fine, in a very safe, conventional, no-frills guy sort of way. The nutmeg was done before by Cacharel. The woody citrus thing? Done by many others, and most of them better. Guerlain's own Vetiver, in the older formulation, is but one example. But it's Guerlain, so shouldn't it be worth a gazillion dollars? Guerlain is notorious for having been mismanaged over the decades, as many of these older French concerns seem to be. Perhaps the discontinuation of Derby was one of those bad managerial decisions, but I think people really didn't like it. I'm amenable to this sort of breezy, Warren Beatty-esque old-school masculine, but I don't like Derby. Why don't I like it? I don't think it's very good. If I had to guess - and with its discontinuation in my corner - I'd say I wasn't alone in my assessment. Even the reissued version smells better. If not enough people were buying it in the eighties, and old stock doesn't smell very good now, why in the living fuck would I shell out $800 for it? You tell me.

4. Jules, Dior (1980) Reading the reviews of this one tells me all I need to know (I've never smelled it). People can't mention Jules without mentioning Kouros by YSL. A common meme in the world of vintage perfume fantasy is that the extinct species closely resembles a living specimen. In this case, the survivor was clearly the better perfume. Why does the world need a proto-Kouros? Every pre-war wetshaver masculine had already filled those shoes, but Jules tried and failed to win hearts with nostalgia. The Kouros family resemblance continues to bear out in the survivors with the lowest price tags, things like Lapidus PH and even smaller bottles of Balenciaga PH. Jules was always pricy, originally just under Kouros' price-point, before Ebayers ratcheted the costs up to $270, $350, and $500, as can be seen on there today. You'd be better off buying vintage Kouros for the same amount. At least you're getting the genes that nature perfected in that one, all of which are traceable to Creed's Orange Spice, if Bourdon is the author of that scent as well.

5. KL Homme, Karl Lagerfeld (1986) Prices for this one have been steadily rising over the last twelve months, which tells me that people are beginning to weed through their perfume collections to find things they can "bank" on, and make room for the shit they'll actually wear on a regular basis. I paid less than $40 for my 2 oz bottle a little while ago at a store here in CT, but the same size is going for around $75 now on that awful Bay, and larger bottles are over $100. This is a clear case of a perfume existing for no reason, other than to make money. KL Homme is a very well made, very likable powdery oriental, with a robust amber accord and very competent citrus elements on top. Yet it does nothing new, truly adds nothing to conversations about orientals, and isn't very memorable. It's just a nice fragrance to wear. But $75 - $100 nice? No. There's no doubt in my mind that KL Homme lost market share to Calvin Klein's Obsession for Men, which used to be a very rich citrus/incense fragrance, made with materials that I find to be of equal, if not better quality. I still have my vintage bottle of Obsession, and though its notes are no longer separable (time has ravaged it), the basic premise serves memory well: exciting, sexy, worth owning. KL Homme? Smells nice, but not as complex, and more than a little dull. Did guys agree back in the day? Without a doubt. Does it smell more complex and interesting in 2014? Only barely. Hey, if you want to spend three or four times more than the perfume is worth because you think it's "aged well," I can't stop you. Personally I'd wait until I spot it at a real market price ($25 - $35) in a brick and mortar, but that's just me.

6. Joint Pour Homme, Roccobarocco (1993) I almost forgot to mention Joint! Funny story: once upon a time, as in a year ago, Joint was on Ebay for astronomical prices. You couldn't get an ounce without spending at least $100, and 3.4 ounces were priced at $200, easy. At least, that's what they were asking. Then a funny thing happened - nobody bought it. Why? Because nobody's ever fucking heard of Joint, that's why. So in round six of dumbass perfume economics, let's break it down. A perfume is made. A perfume is barely marketed, if at all, and then nobody buys it because nobody knows it exists, and the few who do only buy it once because once they wear it, they realize it's just another eighties clone holdover, this time mimicking Zino, but with civet and heavy, vanillic castoreum. It has an impressive dusky, burly, animalic/woody structure for about three hours, and then the cash runs out and it fuzzes into nothing, a surprising and disappointing end, even for a clone. Come full circle twenty years later, and for whatever reason a few guys on Ebay decide to try to put the chicken before the egg, and jack the prices on Joint. They hope that people will happen upon it, find it to be very expensive, research it, and think, "Okay, this one is for 'aficionados,' and I am an aficionado, because I will spend two hundred dollars on a three ounce bottle." But no, it doesn't happen. Why doesn't it happen? Because people in 1993 didn't know Joint existed, so why the hell would they know it exists in 2013? A year later, all those greedy buggers on the Bay realized that it's better to make a little money than no money at all, and the prices were corrected down to $38 an ounce, something that only happens with discontinued perfumes that LITERALLY NOBODY HAS EVER HEARD OF BEFORE, EXCEPT MAYBE SEVEN OR EIGHT GUYS ON BASENOTES. One or two of those guys might argue, "But Bryan, don't you think that what really happened is that a 'secret stash' of Joint was discovered and disseminated to the Ebay merchants somehow, and that's the reason for the price reductions?" My very wordy, drawn-out, Woody Allen-esquely intellectually stimulating answer? No. See the above.

7. Red for Men, Giorgio Beverly Hills (1991) Last but not least is my favorite old-school frag to criticize, and for good reason, as it's a very mediocre offering. Some have said they think it's a marvel, beautifully complex, relatively natural, and one of a kind. "Better than Niche." Yeah, right. First of all, the same people who say this often follow it by saying something like, "If you want something similar to vintage Red but without the synthetic aspect of the reformulation, try Preferred Stock by Coty." This comparison cracks me up. Actually, it's the statement that "Preferred Stock smells like vintage Red for Men" that cracks me up, to be specific. Why is that funny? Because it's exactly backwards: Red was released AFTER Preferred Stock. If anything, vintage Red smells like Preferred Stock, not the other way around. So why even bother with Red? Okay, I'll be fair enough and say that Red's older formula apparently smelled a bit more complex and textured than Preferred Stock ever did, but then why was it discontinued? This brings me back to the Jules/Kouros problem - fragrances competing with themselves. When two frags smell very similar, the better smell is bound to survive, even if it came second, as Kouros did. Red for Men was never worth any more than its standard retail price, but somewhere along the way people started thinking that its demand was sizable enough to warrant doubling, even tripling the asking price for 3.4 oz bottles. In recent years there was quite a bit of conversation about it on Fragrantica and Basenotes, and indeed I believe that there was a pool of consumers who remembered Red and wanted it back. Nostalgic pinings, one might say. That was enough for manufacturers to reissue the fragrance, but only at the hilariously discounted price of $20, roughly $6 an ounce. This makes it cheaper than its template, the still going, going, going energizer bunny Preferred Stock! The irony. In the end, I think the original Red was probably very nice, because Preferred Stock is very nice, and I'm sure it warrants its reissue, although the new version is not as nice as Preferred Stock ever was. The guy on Ebay right now asking $99 for a 3.4 oz bottle of the original formula can sit and spin, although I applaud him for taking a $50 fragrance and only trying to double his money, unlike the merchant blitz that went on five years ago, with guys trying to jack prices up to $500. Unlike Patou PH, you don't see those insanely-priced bottles of Red on Ebay anymore. Why? People bought the reissued Red, remembered why they stopped buying it in the nineties, and were "Reality-Checked." The fan club learned that it doesn't pay to view the past through Red-rosy colored glasses.

Before I close, I want to add one more thing. A friend of mine likes to point out that I'm unreasonable if I think that everyone values objects the same way, and therefore I should make concessions for those who actually do feel that the frags listed above are worth what they're being priced at. That's fair enough, and I concede that people are within the bounds of reason to spend whatever they want on whatever they want. But there's a name for the type of people who spend two, three, four, even five or six hundred percent more on something that was originally not valued enough to remain on the market. They're called suckers. I wouldn't be surprised if one was out there right now, wearing Patou Pour Homme while driving his $14,500 Yugo.





2 comments:

  1. Let's pause briefly while I completely disagree about Zino. I think Davidoff did a terrible job marketing this product and distributing it. I do not recall ever seeing it anywhere, department stores or drugstores. Dated!? Compared to what? The uninspired, cheap, scented water that masquerades as mainstream Men's fragrance currently? Allow for others, even the ones we respect and love to dislike what we love. My Husband is an Agua Di Gio wearing fool. He associates this fragrance with the wonderful time he spent with fellow sailors from the Italian Navy, one of the fringe benefits of NATO. He never overdosed on it in night clubs and other venues because he simply was not there. He also wears Jacomo Silences and purchased vintage Bal a Versailles for me because he likes it so much. He is a prince among men and has excellent taste. Does he like everything that I like? No, and that is ok......

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    1. Zino's a lovely scent, but yeah, it is like an olfactory Polaroid of the eighties. Very goth eighties, like The Cure in a bottle. Nothing objectively wrong with that of course, but let's talk turkey - wear Zino today and most women will think twice before leaning in for a snog. Bear in mind this is a guy's perspective. Zino on a woman is a whole different animal. There was never a time in my memory when ladies wore it. You did answer your own question, Katy. It's dated compared to Acqua di Gio, and dozens of designer scents that followed it. Tastes vary, true, but in matters of fashion, certain things are destined to remain things of the past, perhaps because they're so evocative of their era. Leisure suits. Bell bottoms. Paisley shirts. Deep heady rosewood fougeres. I hate our time as much as the next guy, but I know when I'm licked. Davidoff did too - I'm just glad Lancaster churned out as many bottles as they did. I study frags like Zino more than I wear them, although I admit I do wear old-school ferns more than most.

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