3/1/16

Following the Herd, Part One



"“It is optimal for an individual, having observed the actions of others ahead of him, to follow the behavior of the preceding individual without regard to his own information.” - Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer, and Ivo Welch (UCLA)


Sometimes it's better to ignore popular opinion, to eschew the running narrative in favor of one that walks instead. Consider the recent uproar over the Monsieur Guerlain blog's temporary suspension; dozens cried foul over circumstances known only through hearsay, while logic about the nature of corporate practices and publicized conflicts of interest were sidelined. Was the crowd willing to acknowledge that an author headlining Guerlain's name would be wise to omit unsubstantiated corporate rumors about the re-bottling of old fragrances under new titles? No, it was far more romantic to defend Monsieur's honor by declaring LVMH to be violators of free speech and free press, despite the obvious: his content was problematic enough to edit, not completely erase.

When he reappeared a few days later, almost nobody acknowledged it. The romance was not only over, but one-sided; for Monsieur G to actually return relatively unscathed would expose the truth (Monsieur G was never in danger of being destroyed) and contradict the narrative (corporations assassinate blogs), making many wrong in their reactionary assertions about corporate power, and ironically unresponsive to the very thing they claimed to want. Such revelations leave certain people clutching their balls with delusional "updates" to the false narrative, not the real one. When it came to light that a temporary suspension occurred, one blameable on hosting services working on behalf of LVMH, the romantics had nothing left to say.

The whole thing reminded me of something that happened to me a year ago. I received an email from Blogger informing me that:

"In the coming weeks, we'll no longer allow blogs that contain sexually explicit or graphic nude images or video. We'll still allow nudity presented in artistic, educational, documentary, or scientific contexts, or where there are other substantial benefits to the public from not taking action on the content . . . Our records indicate that your account may be affected by this policy change. Please refrain from creating new content that would violate this policy. Also, we ask that you make any necessary changes to your existing blog to comply as soon as possible, so that you won't experience any interruptions in service."

You didn't see me hurling myself off a cliff in protest, mainly because Blogger clearly reserves the right to edit any content it hosts, regardless of authors' wishes. I simply hopped on my dashboard and deleted nudity from my blog. Shortly afterward, Blogger updated the notice, informing everyone that because of a sensitivity to people who use nudity to "express their identities," they had reversed their position. So I am free to post nudity again. Reason to get in a huff? Clearly, no.

Any hosting service reserves this right, even to the extent that content on URLS purchased by their authors may be subject to termination by their hosting platform for any serious business-related reason. This is reality. Obviously a secure platform like Blogger isn't in danger of going out of business, but how do we know Monsieur Guerlain's hosting service wasn't compelled to act in its own best interest and heed LVMH? I would guess it did heed them, and I'd say they were smart to do so.

In my opinion, this event was the perfect illustration of why it's intellectually dangerous to assume a "herd mentality" in the blogosphere. Think for yourself. Don't cowtail to the confused reactions of others. It'll wind up making you frustrated with empty arguments, and can often be expensive emotionally and financially. Just look at the oud trend, which has been going on for the last twelve years, and shows little sign of letting up. Years ago oud was new, and its novelty understandably reigned. Years later, it makes less sense to subscribe to the the "all things oud" mentality. First, oud was never intended to be "mainstream." No designer brands were headlining oud in 2004. The only perfume to have done that was YSL's M7 from 2002, which was a commercial flop and quickly discontinued. Yet somehow the Middle Eastern market extended into European sensibilities, and the niche market took to oud.

The result was one oud scent after another. Nothing wrong with that of course, as long as you don't mind oud. I don't, but I also have little desire to wear it in any form. It doesn't smell bad, per say, but I never thought it smelled good, either. At their best, oud isolates resemble patchouli, adding a spicy/herbal earthiness with licks of burnt sweetness to whatever composition they are in. Great, but why bother with oud when patchouli has been doing it to more wearable effect for decades? If I want something earthy and pungent and a little ambery, I'll reach for a patchouli scent like Giorgio for Men, Sex Appeal, or Rive Gauche, none of which cost more than most niche ouds. Why should I spend significantly more for a similar effect elsewhere?

I would argue that this is a foolish stance if I didn't already know what oud smelled like, or hadn't tried and compared expensive and inexpensive oud scents. But I have tried, and I have compared. Dirty English is a good inexpensive oud scent. Dark Rose by Czech & Speake has a prominent oud note paired with a velvety, rather feminine rose. Very nice, but Tea Rose is better and cheaper, and oud adds nothing to the rose in Dark Rose, so why bother with it? Some Amouage perfumes contain prominent oud notes. Jubilation XXV is a good, modern, fougeriental composition with a prominent oud note, but I'm not drawn to XXV for its oud. I'm drawn to it for its use of more pedestrian aromatics. Without oud, I'd still like like XXV. But since I like it for its commonplace notes, I might as well enjoy those same notes in more inexpensive fragrances like Feeling Man and XS Pour Homme, which lack that pesky oud.

I'm not saying that Feeling Man and XS smell like XXV. But they share notes that get prominent billing in their compositions, and if I want to experience these notes, I enjoy them in the former compositions more than the latter. You can generalize this thinking to whole perfumes, but this only works when there are obvious comparatives to them. Accurate comparisons are usually repeated in forums, enough to make the route of travel clear, but sometimes this doesn't happen, as with Dior's Sauvage, where people cite dozens of different perfumes as comparatives, with no unanimous consensus on what the thing actually resembles. In these cases the only sensible thing to do is to try the perfume for yourself. Only then can you discern whether it's something you will enjoy, or find worthwhile to purchase.

But I'm ahead of myself - what is the downside of subscribing to the oud craze? Well, let's look at the upside first. It's probably not a bad thing to wear good oud perfumes. If you have vintage M7 and it still smells good, why not rock it? Very few people will smell like you, and whoever encounters this scent will likely not encounter it again. You have a uniqueness in both style and taste. You certainly don't need to defend your pick. Anything that puts oud to good use is worth wearing, simply because it's another material that deserves exploitation. If you live in Europe or the Middle East, you're just average, but if you're in a Western country, you're sophisticated. Good for you.

But this comes at a price. First, there's the recognizability factor. Perhaps vintage M7 from an early batch (vintage vintage) is the best example of how to use the material. But who will actually recognize it as oud? If you're only vaguely accustomed to old-school woody aromatic fragrances, you'll probably mistake oud for patchouli, or perhaps even an accord of notes like patchouli, artemisia, sage, and coumarin. Most bystanders will not smell you and think, "Oh, he's wearing that lovely oud scent again."

They'll smell the oud in trace amounts and wonder if you're a closet hippie. No harm there, but the reality is that you're living in a fantasy if you think your oud scent is impressing anyone for being what it is. The truth is probably more mundane. You're impressing people for smelling good and a little strange, maybe memorable, but at your expense alone. That oud scent probably cost more than the dirt cheap patchouli composition that achieves the same effect.

Then there's the collectibility factor. How many oud scents does a man need? If you're a Montale fan, and not constrained by financial considerations, you may own several dozen oud perfumes of considerable strength. After a while, it's sort of like hearing the same note played on different keyboards. Does repetition make sense? Or is your affinity really insanity, the repetition of something, expecting different results?

The worst aspect of the oud craze is the attempt to "mainstream" oud. Ralph Lauren comes out with an oud frag - story at eleven. At this point, you're spending niche prices on designer imitations of already recycled themes from several years ago. These fragrances are guaranteed to be discontinued, not because they're awful, but because they're overpriced and not good enough to make up for it. Thus, their sales quickly flag, it's clear buyers aren't impressed, and the result are hoards of leftovers on eBay at ridiculous mark-ups. Thanks, oud lovers! Your allegiance to one material has spawned a GIT-to-Cool Water equivalent niche implosion.

By the way, the whole eBay mark-up phenomenon will be addressed in depth in part two of this post. Try talking about insane prices on eBay, and you hear about capitalism and more "buyers set the price" garbage. Apparently the Labour Theory of Value eludes people who make that argument. They choose to believe the myths of the Subjective Theory instead. Good for them. They ought not believe they understand what they're talking about if they have to Google "LTV vs. STV" right after reading this.

Anyway, I see this as a major issue with "note trends" of the past few years. Oud is one trend. Vetiver is another. Amber is yet another. Two or three ambers in a collection are sensible. Fifteen or twenty ambers are excessive. After a few iterations of the theme, it becomes pointless to pursue it further. Either you like what you're wearing, or you don't. If you like it, why seek an improvement where there isn't one? MPG's Ambre Precieux is likely one of the best ambers money can buy. Jovan Sex Appeal is likely one of the best cheap ambers money can buy. And take your pick of any soft oriental from the eighties, perhaps two or three will do.

If you like these, or any other ambers, what else could possibly make a different, worthwhile impression? Sure, you can explore other things once you've used what you've already invested in, but if you think you have to "keep up" with others by continually expanding your collection faster than you can enjoy what you already have, you're following the herd.

Now, I own almost a hundred perfumes, and I'll freely admit that this is excessive, but I own many of them for the sake of writing about them here - call it "blogger's privilege." Many out there who own a hundred or more perfumes do not write about any of them, and just own them because they want to. This may be fine for some, but when you get caught up in this "more is better" collector's addiction, you may wind up missing the forest for the trees. You also can't discern the endangered redwoods from the overabundant oaks. Have you noticed the recent excitement over Pure Tonka by Thierry Mugler? People are so excited to try it. They must, must try it. It's going to be great. It's going to be Mugler's magnificent A*Men spin on tonka. The redwood of redwoods, majestic, a new height in perfumery, and it must be had.

Or it could just be another modern pedestrian fougère disguised as something "cool." Strong lavender, followed by a burst of tonka (which is just coumarin) . . . well now. I guess the fact that the word "fougère" is excluded from the Mugler press releases means this is something "new," and not downright ancient. Like the fougère. If Pure Tonka is anything other than a fougère with exaggerated proportions, it'll be the first lavender and coumarin pairing to elude this classification. I'm very interested in trying Pure Tonka, but that's because I love A*Men, AND I love fougères. To just be interested in Pure Tonka because it's part of the Pure line is to be a zombie collector who doesn't even give a shit about what he's buying, as long as he can have it.

And what about the niche craze? This isn't an interest in certain olfactory niches. It usually isn't the search for which niche you fit into. "Niche" by definition is something that caters to an exclusively small group of people who desire a very specific smell from very few materials. Yet few niche hounds actually cling to one niche. They collect anywhere from tens to hundreds of niche fragrances. And many of them do this, enough to keep these niche companies in business year after year.

So the niche craze isn't really about hundreds of little cliques of people who are exclusively interested in a few hundred specific scents. It's about climbing another rung in the commercial ladder of perfume connoisseurship. Niche tends to be much more expensive than designer. Therefore, the love of niche reflects an interest in price point, not in perfume. What niche perfume can outmatch an excellent classic designer scent? I've worn all the recent "new classic" niches - French Lover, Invasion Barbare, L'Air du Desert Marocain, etc. All were nice, but none were better than things like Z-14, Yatagan, Kouros. I'll always try expensive fragrances whenever I have the chance, but in these cases I found no reason to trade "up." With money being a mere number in this game, I'll never let it stop me from trying things, but I'll also never be seduced by a big price tag if the fragrance it's attached to is underwhelming.

Then there's another insidious factor: "brand hype." Recently basenotes hosted a thread about L'Artisan Parfumeur, which asked whether L'Artisan is now passé. Apparently these once pricey perfumes have fallen out of favor in the face of newer trends, and can be had on Amazon for the price of inexpensive designer (some bottles are going for less than sixty dollars). If you're someone who bought into the L'Artisan hype of eight years ago, and purchased twenty or thirty of their frags, you might be a little pissed right now. Your collection cost hundreds of dollars. I could get a similar number of L'Artisans today for at least half of whatever you paid.

But conversely, there's little wisdom is ascribing value to anything without experiencing it first. I would never tell anyone who is sincerely fascinated by L'Artisan to not try L'Artisan perfumes. If that brand interests you, and you're serious about giving it a chance, then you should try as many L'Artisans as you want. Rendering your own judgments on the perfumes is all that matters. The narrative in that basenotes thread is that their scents are nice, but often too weak. That may be true for some people, but it might not apply to you. Never write off what you haven't tried. That's a self-limiting exercise, which shrinks your world and your experiences down to a feeble size.

I've mentioned some ways in which following the herd mentality can be a fool's errand, but I think it's important to note one way by which attempting to be "individualistic" in the face of certain issues is equally foolish, and actually just as herd-like. There are many ways to stand apart and be your own man, but there are also rare instances in which joining the crowd in the simple act of smelling a questionable perfume is wise, and possibly beneficial to your understanding of our times.

There's a lazy philosophy that one of my contemporaries has ascribed to himself (not necessarily to others): that it's pointless in the face of negative reviews to try recent designer phenomenons (emphasis on phenomenons, not common scents) like Sauvage and Bleu de Chanel EDP. These fragrances defy useful comparison by everyone, despite spawning imitations, "clones," and even disparaging comparisons to cheaper things that use similar (and sometimes the same) aroma chemicals.

Fragrances like Sauvage, BdC EDP, and even Eau Sauvage Parfum from a few years ago aren't just using common aroma chemicals. They're using them differently. They're finding that "Goldilocks Zone" where materials we've all smelled a few hundred times are blended in ways that create entirely new smells that are very difficult to compare. That's what makes them controversial. We all smell the same ingredients, but people don't know what to make of how they're composed.

I often wonder if this "newness" is what makes these scents so polarizing. Since it hasn't been established that these "types" of smells are accepted as "good," people attempt to make that call for the rest of us by either praising (and perhaps hyping) them, or downright slamming them.

Therefore it is false to say that something completely unrelated at a cheaper price point, like any Playboy or celebuscent, could really substitute for something like Sauvage. You could switch a Playboy scent with any piecemeal composition without raising many eyebrows, and by that I mean frags like Invictus, or Luna Rossa, or Gucci Guilty, as those aren't controversial, or even interesting. They're commonplace, much like the Playboy scents.

And it's also highly questionable to imply that price is a barrier to appreciating or even owning department store fragrances, as it costs little to just sample them, and but a few dollars to buy decants and minis from sites like The Perfumed Court, which is sometimes the best way to go if you think you'll only want a fragrance for reference, rather than regular wear.

While it may seem that I'm contradicting the very philosophy espoused earlier in this post, please note the difference: in many circumstances, broadening your horizons before following in step with certain opinions is the way to go. I have clearly said that in any case of popular comparison, one should think for themselves in order to draw their own conclusions, and act in a way that enables them to do so with accuracy. For example, when consensus comparisons are made between vaguely similar scents (like Kouros, Orange Spice, and Lapidus Pour Homme, for example), one should try at least two of them to judge the truth. It's the only way to place yourself inside or outside of the consensus (you may agree with nobody, only a few, or with everybody).

I've also clearly stated that if certain notes, like oud, are in question, then one should familiarize himself with a few scents using this note at different price points, and explore comparable notes in other scents before rendering a verdict. Don't just blindly subscribe to a note "trend" because others are crazy about that note.

But if there are no clear comparatives for certain perfumes, this makes trying (and only trying) such articles alone necessary to render any judgment. Without trying perfumes with no firm comparatives, you can't judge them against anything, because there are no reliable parallels outside of your own experience to go by.

To be disinterested in smelling isolated scents because of a perceived pointlessness in such efforts is simply laziness. If this feeling is predicated on negative opinions formed by others, you're not thinking for yourself. You're still following the herd. Arguing that price is a deciding factor makes it intellectual laziness, given that it costs little or nothing to sample. You won't know if qualms about price are justified until you try. To overemphasize feelings of satisfaction with cheaper but totally unrelated fragrances is your prerogative, but it's a bad choice if you want to stay informed about the ever-changing fragrance world.

Stay tuned for part two.




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