Evolving to Endure

Turning Drab, or Just Evolving?

In a recent basenotes thread, the question was raised as to whether or not "mainstream" fragrances have finally reached their commercial nadir, presumably in the face of all things "niche." Though the author is unclear in his original post, many respondents believe he was challenging the idea that department store designer frags, have much of a future left. That was the route taken in the pointless discussion that followed.

I say "pointless" because vintage lovers continue to ignore the one thing intrinsic to their passion: time. It never ceases to amaze me how vintage lovers will bemoan contemporary affairs while holding up idealized examples of yesteryear's masterworks, all while failing to recognize the paradoxical nature of their mindset. In their worldview, perfumes are no longer subject to the effects of time, vintages will become, quite without irony, extinct, and perfumers must solely revive trends of thirty, forty, and fifty years ago.

The fact that trends have changed, fashions have moved on, orientations of what smells good and wearable vs. questionable and dated do not register. They believe things were better yesterday than they are today, simply because today is not yesterday. Things like vintage Derby, Montana Parfum d'Homme, and whatever else men were dabbing when Herbert Walker Bush was President automatically cancel out Bleu de Chanel and Dior Sauvage, because of reasons. But no, these fragrances have been discontinued because people loved them, right? Whatever they're churning out today isn't comparable to the divine beauty of the dinosaurs.

What I find funny about these conversations is that they exist in the very same bubble as the vintage appreciation itself. These basenoters act as though their opinions weigh favorably against the millions of people who buy stuff like Bleu and Sauvage. As if a handful of guys on a perfume forum who feel like taking a few days to shit on designer frags represent the counterculture to the schmucks who shop at Macy's.

They don't. They like generic crap as much as the next guy. What separates them from the mooks is that they like expensive and obscure niche shit a little more. But that only helps them so much, and frankly I think most can see through it. The OP of the thread above gave L'Eau d'Issey Pour Homme Summer 2012 a thumbs-up for Christ's sakes. (He also writes very highly of Bond No 9 fragrances - wtf?) What is telling about this person is that he exhibits the curious behavior of bashing Bleu de Chanel, making the often heard claim that it smells like a myriad of other things, yet declining to mention a single one by name, so as not to "bore you." How considerate!

Whenever I read a review like that, I recognize the reviewer as a "type." This person isn't a reliable source of information on a fragrance because he has a bizarre vendetta against anything that might appeal to millions of other guys. If it only appeals to a few thousand wealthy guys, it's legit. But that generic department store crap that smells like many other things that he won't bother to name (because he's full of shit)? That's for the hoi polloi. The guys who drive Chevys because they deserve to.

Most Bond fragrances are designer rips (and/or Creed rips) that really aren't worth full retail - like most designer fragrances. Yet most of the Bonds he reviews are in the green. What gives? I think we've run afoul of common sense here, that's what. The worldview being held by vintage lovers doesn't hold up to scrutiny, simply because it doesn't comport with reality.

Let's take a quick look at what's happening, and piece it all together from the vantage point of a person who sniffs scents with an open mind, without caring about the size of their pricetags. In the last thirty years, perfume has changed, rather dramatically. Once upon a time, men were into earthy, woody, spicy, resinous, musky compositions that layered rich, heady aromas into borderline orgiastic displays of liquid testosterone. Even "polite" stuff like Davidoff's first were miles from the typical "fresh" scents of today.

What changed? I feel like I'm in the basement slurping brewskies with Principal Vernon and Carl the janitor. You know, that scene in that movie when Vernon complains to Carl that the kids have become more and more arrogant. And then Carl wryly answers with: "The kids haven't changed. You have." Well, imagine the perfumes (and perfumers by proxy) are the kids here. Has their performance in our school of thought really declined, or has our open mindedness and understanding gone out the window? What if the kids are growing up, or better yet, evolving beyond what we expected them to be?

Consider the beauty of the Monarch butterfly, its brightness and natural gaudiness the visual equivalent of something like Balenciaga Pour Homme, or perhaps Bob Mackie for Men. These were what people wanted in the late eighties and early nineties. But these weren't the most socially acceptable fragrances. Thirty years ago, mass market department store fragrances for men were still relatively new. You didn't see this stuff lighting the commercial world on fire in the fifties, sixties, or early seventies. It wasn't until things like Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin PM started to catch on that brands began to reach out to middle class blue collar buyers with XY chromosomes.

By the mid nineties, men were only seriously buying fragrance en masse for about twenty years. That isn't a long time. It isn't enough time for people to atone for, well, overdoing it. We endured a decade and a half of bombastic celebrations: "Yay, we can smell each other from across the subway tracks!" And then, at long last, we started to wish we hadn't gone so apeshit.

Enter the "hygienic" nineties, with its "aquatic" and "citrus" and "herbal" and "sport" stuff that men lapped up like dogs in August. Acqua di Gio and CK Escape. L'Eau d'Issey and Platinum Egoiste. This stuff was just as loud as the eighties brews were, but their loudness was geared toward the ideas of soapy-fresh cleanliness and hesperidic fantasy. On an intellectual level, we needed a shower after all the musky dirtiness of prior years. So we washed with Le Male and Allure Homme.

If you want to cry about "the beginning of the end" for designer, you might as well consider the mid to late nineties the tipping point. Except it wasn't. Instead, the naughts gave us more designer stuff, much of it forgettable, much of it garbage, and much of it both. And now we're in the teens, and the niche revolution has come and gone (even Luca Turin is over it), and we've fallen back on bashing designer because we've nothing better to do with ourselves.

Funny thing, though - designer fragrances persist. Tirelessly. And when I stop to consider what this means, I can't help but see it as the inexorable march on the forward path that nature takes in its journey to building the perfect beast. Which brings me to the humble leaf butterfly, which looks quite drab next to the King Monarch. Heck, if you don't stop to really look, you just don't even see the leaf butterfly, even though it's right there in front of you with its wings out. Why is that? The leaf butterfly has evolved to endure. It's invisible to predators. It doesn't care about being beautiful and flamboyant. It values longevity over bombast. Nature has found a way to genetically transcribe these traits into something that will carry on for a very long time, unlike the flying bulls-eye butterfly. You can't kill the leaf, because it blends in, and it's easy to miss.

Clearly, this is where perfumers are taking us. This is where nature is headed. Yeah, those bottles of Sauvage look pretty dull and nondescript, almost totally blending into their department store surroundings, but guess what? People are responding to this with their pocket money. Sauvage is a little of everything, yet it's unlike anything else. It's truly new. And so far nobody has satisfactorily found a direct comparison for it. The same goes for Bleu. For years now the vintage loving blowhards have railed against Bleu for being derivative and "generic," yet they can't define those terms in relation to the scent.

The OP says that in the future, he doubts people will be seeking vintage bottles of Paco Rabanne's Invictus. Yet how many relatively recent releases were discontinued, only to be sought out for resale? This isn't uncommon. To point to that scent and use it as an example of why today's fragrances are "bad" doesn't compute.

What also doesn't work is the mental gymnastics I have to do to understand the logic of people who think "generic" department store scents aren't worth the time or energy. Take this comment, for instance:

"Designers are basically dreck these days (generally-speaking, of course), and this has led me to buy scents like some of the Playboys, which are great value for the money (I wait for bargains). But there's something else here, which is that these are often 'watered-down' versions of popular designers, meaning I can wear them because they don't become cloying, as so many recent designers do!"

When you're done scratching your head, think about what this person is really saying here: "Designer fragrances smell like crap these days, so I buy much cheaper clones of these crappy designers because they're harder for people to smell, which means they're a great value!"


Look, I'll wrap this up by pointing out the obvious. In the wide-ranging canon of masculine scents across the decades, the classics that have truly endured are the subtle treasures, not the loudmouthed braggarts. Old Spice. Brut. Guerlain Vetiver. Zino. Acqua di Gio. The crazier stuff, like Jules, the original Kouros by Pierre Bourdon, and Balenciaga Pour Homme, have fallen on the noses of niche audiences, and much harder times. These are the fragrances that are no longer "mainstream."

Can you accuse Bleu de Chanel and Sauvage of smelling as bombastic and crude as those old saws were? No. Do they speak with the same civility as Guerlain Vetiver and Zino? Actually, yes. They've evolved to be staid and forgettable to a few thousand people (those who actually stop to argue this stuff), but they're intriguing and beautiful to millions of buyers. I'm pretty sure that twenty years from now, people will still be buying Bleu and Sauvage. They're the perfect examples of postmodern perfumery evolving to endure.