9/22/15

VIP For Him (Playboy/Coty)



Looks cheap and kinda fun. Smells the same.


I was watching one of my favorite Youtube channels the other day, "Fragrance Bros," and it got me thinking. In reruns of the channel are reviews by Daver and Jer that denigrate "cheap" fragrances like Royal Copenhagen and Brut, with the prevailing sentiment being that after experiencing a broad range of pricy designer and niche perfumes, your taste "trends up." It's the proverbial "your" being used in this case, because I certainly don't understand their point, but I understand what they're trying to say, at least to a degree: when you've smelled the good stuff, you can't go back to drugstore.

There may or may not be a kernel of truth to this for some folks, but it stymies me. First, why would smelling a three figure fragrance like the new Fougère Royale dent my opinion of five dollar Brut? Taking it a step further, why would it effect how I feel about any fragrance under fifty dollars, if that fragrance objectively smells at least good enough to wear repeatedly without offense? Sure, Fougère Royale smells great, and I'd love to have a bottle that I could use every day, but I don't. And I don't for a reason - it's hard to justify buying it when something as inexpensive as Brut smells just as good to me.

Now I won't argue that Brut's quality is on par with Fougère Royale. It's not. It's just soapy lavender with powdery, semi-animalic musk in the base, and the ingredients are as pedestrian as it gets. But the composition is incredibly deft. Using only a few hundred super-cheap synthetics, the perfumer managed to make lavender and herbal aromatics come alive for ten minutes, truly sparkling and shimmering, before settling with dignity into a warm, burly glow of woodsy wannabe Musk Ambrette. It's fresh, it's intentionally raw, it's clean, it's streamlined, and it works. For five dollars. This is dollar store material that smells great. Furthermore, it lasts a good eight hours with liberal application. Many guys complain about Brut disappearing after fifteen minutes, but I can smell faint whiffs of it all day long.

Do I lump it in with Fougère Royale as being a great fern for the modern man? Yes and no. It's apples and oranges in the quality department - the Houbigant scent is simply divine on every level, the liquid apartheid of doubt and true love, with photorealistic accords that define true olfactory beauty - and certainly it's more presentable at weddings. But if something smells good, then price, guesswork about ingredient pedigree, and adhering to old stigmas regarding "old man" scents should get dusted into the can. Brut smells good. If I want to wear it to a wedding, I will.

So tastes don't "trend up." Because there is no "up." There's only "good," and "not good." And it's almost always subjective. I can't tell you how many times I've wished that Creed would just forget about these postmodern fresh concepts and simply compose a traditional wetshaver fougère. They're the kings of cloning (and improving upon whatever they clone), so why can't they just remake Brut or Canoe in the Creed image and call it a day? This is evidence that I don't believe Daver and Jer's contention. If what they're talking about were true, I wouldn't be wishing for more interpretations of five and ten dollar perfumes. I'd be wishing those super-cheapies would disappear.

There is one word that creeps into perfume dialogues from time to time, and it's "aspirational." When a perfumer tries to make his concoction smell fancier and more expensive than it could ever possibly be, he's falling into the aspirational pitfall of inexpensive fragrances. It's fine to embrace cheapness and make the most of it, as Karl Mann did in 1964. But it's another thing to embrace pretense and attempt the impossible, as countless perfumers have done since Mann's time. Luca Turin famously dubbed Carlos Benaim's 1989 entry into the Calvin Klein catalog "aspirational," and he's right.

Which brings me to one of the recent Playboy colognes, a fragrance formulated and released by Coty. They've done something that is neither slack-jawed, nor aspirational; bucking convention, Coty referred to one of the oldest masculines on the books, and re-tooled it ever so subtly for a much more current generation of unwashed masses. The hilarious thing about VIP is that it's basically the scent of Skin Bracer, that eighty year-old whiskered-codger aftershave that guys under thirty avoid like the plague. But I guess if anyone could sell a classic wetshaver fougère to twenty-first century youngsters, it's Hugh Hefner, the God of Manliness (in the cheesiest, most cliched sense imaginable). What surprises me even more is that Coty actually improved upon the idea by adding a sweet lick of red apple and a dab of smooth white chocolate, both notes accenting lavender and coumarin respectively. It's quite well done!

Interestingly, VIP is not the first fragrance to further stretch Skin Bracer's archaic formula. Several years ago, a small French concern called Jeanne Arthes issued a lovely woody fougère called Cotton Club, which has a very simple and clean lavender, coumarin, vanilla, and sandalwood structure. The sandalwood, though very synthetic, is more prominent in CC than it is in VIP, but the latter boasts a richer coumarin note, well-rounded with gourmandish flourishes not found in its progenitors. Fragrantica claims there's rhubarb and rum in there, but I honestly smell only a vanillic hint of something akin to powdered white chocolate. It smells very good, very clean, not quite gourmand, but close enough to be affable and comfortable. This sort of scent smells cheap, but it's supposed to. Skin Bracer never smelled expensive; men wear this kind of fougère to broadcast that they're solid, sturdy, no-frills guys that women can depend on, and VIP accomplishes this well enough.

A friend of mine has been eschewing designer fare, usually going for at least twenty dollars an ounce, for cheapies like VIP. He's been saying that he can't imagine why anyone would want to spend on pricier fare, when it's unlikely to accomplish anything more than something like VIP, the 1.7 oz bottle of which currently costs sixteen dollars at Walmart. I honestly don't see the comparison between VIP and something like Bleu de Chanel, for example, which I think is also related to old-school aftershave smells. The same size of Bleu costs about seventy dollars, but it just smells better. Its ingredients aren't top notch, but they're of a higher grade, with much better dynamism. Also, it retains clarity and performance for eight solid hours.

VIP, despite smelling good, eventually muddles out after an hour, becoming a very two-dimensional semi-sweet "fresh" scent, essentially all you can ask for from this type of fougère. (Skin Bracer is the "proto-Brut," much less assertive, quite a bit simpler, and significantly flatter performance-wise; anything as closely related to it as Cotton Club and VIP are bound to feel just as simple and underwhelming in the performance department.) I find it interesting that Skin Bracer costs six dollars, and is the simplest of this type, basically super cheap mint, lavender, and a quasi-leathery vanillic analog of coumarin and musk.

For five dollars more, you get Cotton Club, an even smoother blend of caramelized lavender and synthetic woods, but still super cheap. And for five dollars more than that, you get VIP, which elevates similar super-cheap notes to a level where you can discern fruity, gourmand, and floral nuances, but only just barely. So each scent is cheap, but incrementally more expensive, with their quality commensurately improving.

To me, it goes too far to suggest that any competent department store fragrance like Bleu de Chanel or Dior Sauvage would have nothing to offer in the face of VIP, Cotton Club, or Skin Bracer. The latter three certainly can't eclipse the intrigue that more complicated compositions in the fifty to eighty dollar range offer. However, I would point out that a fragrance like VIP is not eclipsed by more expensive fragrances, either. If you expect a shorter experience, and are okay with that, then it's likely that VIP will be just as satisfying as a good department store fragrance, at least in terms of the smell. But I would never consider a fragrance like VIP a replacement, or apt substitute for a good department store scent. The prices for department store fragrances are not so high that they don't warrant fair judgment on quality and value against cheaper fare. With Fougère Royale, I avoid buying because I can't really justify the splurge. With Bleu de Chanel, the value at seventy dollars for a small bottle is much better, and much easier to reckon with, especially for what you get.

If you're into the proto-Brut fougère, and just want to have more fun with it, then I recommend VIP. I suggest using it as an aftershave, diluted with water. Or using Skin Bracer, and pairing VIP as your SOTD. Or even using Cotton Club as your aftershave and pairing with VIP. Don't expect designer quality material here, but enjoy the cheapness! Hey, it smells good, and something that smells "good" doesn't really smell "cheap" as a negative. Smelling good doesn't have to be expensive!



6 comments:

  1. I do get the allure of the cheap...Part of it is absolutely caught up with the social history and outdated but ongoing models of masculinity they are associated with. Hell, part of it is probably belonging to one of those generations (X, Y...) with absentee father figures that make these social constructions all the more mystified. My only complaint is that - with the exception of the pre-plastic bottle version of Old Spice- I have never been (what's the word? Moved? Transported? Obsessed? by really cheap fragrances, not for lack of trying (Pinaud Clubman and Florida Water might have come close, actually, but only in a road trip context)...This may just be me, but part of it is the illusion of buying into a really convincing accord suggestive of natural materials. I know, I know, 'natural' is a construct, but it's not just mnemonic triggers I think... The smell of diluted bleach in water conjures good times for me (public pools and theme park log rides), but I'm not moved by smelling like it. So what do I want? Some kind of portable, elemental atmosphere? So far, nothing below the price point of Caron Pour Un Homme has done it for me.

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    1. Hi John, thanks for your comment. I've never been obsessed with a cheap fragrance either, if we're talking about five or six dollars cheap, except possibly Brut, which is understandable in my case because I'm obsessed with classic fougeres. Old Spice is another one that has spurred some interest within me, and even more interesting is how much work P&G put into creating the plastic bottle they now house that scent in! It was an incredible deliberation, with a customized plastic formula devised specifically for the scent to eliminate any plastic odor contamination. In the end they made the fragrance stronger and more "clovey, which was an interesting choice, but I prefer it over the evanescent freshness of the vintage (although vintage is very nice also).

      Some super cheap fragrances transcend expectations to the point where I wonder if simple market share is the only thing holding their dollars-per-units down. The reissue of Juicy Couture's Dirty English by EA Fragrances, for example, is a discounted $17 fragrance that smells like a $70 fragrance. But with a big synthetic oud note and a slew of boozy terpenic woods over iso E Super, it may be a bit of a difficult sell in today's "fresh" obsessed market. More proof that oud generally doesn't sell to the masses.

      You may be overthinking the ratio of price-point to overall fragrance effect, but then again, I see your point.

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  2. I may just be inexperienced! I also find that the allure for me just now is exploring the borderland between rendering and composing; that is, I find it really compelling the way a single, beautiful rendered piece of rendering (say, the hesperedic opening of Eau Sauvage) experientially anchors the abstraction that follows. At the moment, I'm a sucker for the slight-of-hand entailed by this transit from naturalism to abstraction... And I'm just not getting as much naturalism from the cheaper things I'm trying. That said, I can appreciate how with more experience, a person might come to appreciate the compositional signatures of some pieces of fragrance culture (such as your fougeres) as a kind of lost paradise in their own right....

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  3. Funny you use the term "opening" to describe top notes. I know someone who believes he invented the term. By "opening" I assume you mean top notes.

    There's no such thing as being more experienced at this game. There are supposedly experienced sniffers like Chandler Burr who consistently misidentify accords (see his review of Dirty English as just one of many examples), and purported "newbies" who simply let their noses do all the thinking and always come out ahead. Simply smell, think, enjoy!

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  4. There are some cheapies which I've been blown away by, like Oscar for Men, Grey Flannel, Quorum, Ungaro III, Tea Rose etc. They're not just good; they're lively, multifaceted, and don't have those airy, nondescript, generic, musky, woody, or ambery accords to stretch out a fragrance's longevity.
    (I won't count the Al Rehab oils since you don't pay for bottles, marketing, names, Saudi Arabia regulates prices, and goods imported from Arabic countries or sold at local Arabic owned stores are almost always significantly less expensive.)

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    1. Grey Flannel and Tea Rose are excellent cheapies. These smell incredibly niche-like and natural. Most of the pre-nineties masculine scents posess a vibrancy not found in newer fare. Another terrific one is Halston Z14, which I would argue is the most natural 70s woody citrus for men.

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