The Story of Charlie by Revlon, Liberation via Perfume

This week saw the end of two television series. One was The Late Show with David Letterman and the other was Mad Men. David Letterman had been the man who took the late-night talk show and changed it up. Mad Men was this perfect time capsule of America as it grew up during the 1960’s as seen through an advertising executive. When both started out they were the new cool thing. Then they both lived long enough to become perennials without the buzz. When I think of perfume I usually don’t think of it in those terms. There are great perfumes and they have continued to last attaining their own kind of persistent classicism.

charlie bottle

This past weekend at Sniffapalooza Spring Fling Michael Edwards, who I consider to be the perfume equivalent of the Navajo wisdom keeper, reminded me of a perfume which changed everything back in 1973. That perfume was Charlie by Revlon.

As Mr. Edwards recounted prior to 1973 the great majority of perfume was purchased by men for the women in their life. As women entered the workplace and began to find their economic footing Revlon wanted to make a perfume to appeal to that demographic. In 1973 Charlie was released, it was composed by perfumer Francis Camail. M. Camail composed a floral-aldehyde perfume but one not nearly as heavy, or “old lady”, as other prominent floral–aldehydes. Revlon was aggressively hoping to attract the 20-something liberated woman. They were also hoping to create an entire lifestyle brand to cater to that demographic. The approach to this produced one of the classic television commercials of all time.

The television commercial showed this blond statuesque woman getting out of a Rolls Royce in a gold silk pantsuit. As she walks into the bar it is clear she is known by all of the men she encounters. The catchy jingle was sung by lounge singer extraordinaire Bobby Short. If there was an ideal for a liberated woman to try and emulate here it was. A woman exalting her freedom with a laugh.

This worked spectacularly well as within three years Charlie was the best-selling perfume in the world. Revlon had done exactly what they wanted. They had created a new demographic of consumer pointed towards buying their products. The men were no longer going to be the ones who made the fragrance purchases anymore.

charlie advertisement

Every time Mr. Edwards reminds me of the influence Charlie had it makes me all the more surprised it hasn’t really lasted as other perfumes from that era have. Now it is found on the back shelf of your local drug store. Forgotten, probably collecting dust. It is like the women who made Charlie so successful; once opened up to the world of buying their own perfume found something they liked better. It reminds me of that last shot of Don Draper from Mad Men embracing the societal changes but finding a way to leverage them into an advertising angle. Charlie is the story of how Revlon changed the entire sociology of perfume and like Mad Men and David Letterman has now retired to be fondly remembered but not contemporaneously used.

Mark Behnke

Subscription Cancelled

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To truly innovate you can’t be afraid of failure. One of the challenges for independent and niche perfumery is having people try your perfumes in places where there are no stores to carry them. One new idea was to create a perfume subscription service. Throughout 2013 I seemingly received an e-mail monthly describing a new one of these services. The bare essentials were similar in that you would buy a year’s subscription and monthly you would receive a box containing samples of carefully curated samples.

This sounds like a good idea but it seemed like there was going to be a crowded marketplace vying for what should be a pretty small base of potential subscribers. If there were five or six of these all competing for the same perfumes and the same customer this might fail because nobody could have enough market share to survive.

Another big problem was the curation of these boxes. If I am going to trust you to pick out a few perfumes for me to try every month then you should be someone I believe has the experience for that. Almost all of these efforts were business first; making sure there were perfumes in the box and not necessarily perfumes that had any common theme or note to allow for someone to expand their perfume knowledge experientially. Most of the time the boxes just seemed like self-promotion without any desire to communicate anything about the perfumes inside. That was an opportunity missed.

charlie brown looking in his mailbox

Charlie Brown from "Peanuts" by Charles M. Schulz

The other part of this was, who these subscription’s target audience were anyway. If they were exclusively new releases they could have gone for the hardcore perfumista always looking for the next new thing. If they were from a store promoting their inventory it seemed more like advertising not education. If it was about older releases then you needed a way to find new perfumistas starting their acquisition phase of perfume discovery. None of the boxes did any of this well and as a result the murky execution led to even murkier success.

One effort that was different was that of Fragrance Republ!c. They sent out an entirely new perfume done by a professional perfumer every month. This was the one I joined and for the most part I enjoyed it but I could tell it was in a slow death spiral. There were many attempts to get more subscribers and all of them fell flat. What triggered this editorial was the notice last week that Fragrance Republ!c was closing down.

That’s the story for most of the subscription services that touted themselves to me in 2013 almost all of them are finished. I’m not sure how the ones remaining are doing. At least they have the advantage of having the audience to themselves which should help one or two to survive a while longer.

Should this be viewed as a failure? I don’t think so. All experiments don’t work at first. I suspect a smart group will look at what went wrong and what went right and combine all of this into a business model which also represents the best fragrance can offer. Then I can look forward to a monthly perfume arrival with pleasure.

Mark Behnke

Get Off My Lawn!

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Change; for such a small word it has such a large effect. For most, we dislike change we want the things we like to stay the same. Our view of perfume brands is no different. There are times when I wonder if I am falling into the trap of resisting all change just because I don’t want to give it a chance. Am I the old man wearing vintage perfume standing on the porch telling these modern compositions to get off my lawn? Of course, I’d like to envision myself as the antithesis of that always looking for new experiences the past be damned. It has been an interesting week to consider whether that is true or not.

Earlier this week in his regular column for Style.com Arabia called “Message in a Bottle” perfume writer and reviewer Luca Turin wrote of Guerlain in his review of the new Aqua Allegoria Teazzura, “These days, Guerlain fragrances are more like seventeenth century concertos of average caliber, commissioned by the dozen for delivery a month hence. Much like baroque concertos, they are intended to perpetuate a house style, to serve as background music to frivolous conversation as opposed to devoted silence, to develop foot-tapping tunes in an unambitious way, and generally to be pleasantly unobtrusive.” I don’t on the whole disagree with that statement but are we wanting something that no longer exists? The “house style” is still recognizable we just liked the previous version. Do I want the grand perfume houses to stay true to the past? Or do I want innovation? Which by necessity means hewing to modern trends and customers?

keep-calm-and-get-off-my-lawn

The second event this week was my review of the new Serge Lutens Le Religieuse. I am on record for not appreciating the new aesthetic Serge Lutens has imposed on the newest releases. I have publicly wished for a return to the past. I woke up this morning to a passionately worded e-mail from a reader who actively disliked the past releases I adore and conversely owns all of the new ones. She thinks Le Religieuse is as good as it gets when it comes to Serge Lutens. After an exchange of a few e-mails I started to wonder if I am so reluctant to let go of the past I can’t embrace this new direction. There were many who told me if I gave L’Orpheline more of a chance I would come to see its charms. I did wear it some more but I found nothing to enjoy. I said in that review that I just think that for this current phase of Serge Lutens perfumes I am not their audience.

I admire both perfumers a lot. I think Thierry Wasser has done a creditable job steering Guerlain through the last few years. I think Christopher Sheldrake is the perfect facilitator of M. Lutens’ visions. I don’t think it is lack of skill or desire. I don’t think these are perfumes without an audience. I think I am not that audience and that brings me back to my metaphorical porch waving my cane. All artistic endeavors should not seek to please everyone they should try to please a specific audience. There are plenty of other perfumes out there which do thrill me and they come from venerable brands as well as precocious independents. I still believe there is a future Guerlain and Serge Lutens which will challenge me and thrill me. At that point I’ll put down my cane and go join the kids on my lawn.

Mark Behnke

Thank You to The Original Five

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I started my own blog less than a year ago and these few months have been an incredible experience for me. Over the course of this year I realize how much I owed to those who started doing this perfume blogging long before I ever thought about doing it. I am always quick to embrace the new but it often leaves me less time to wax eloquent on that which lasts. Back in 2006 when I discovered the perfume groups on the internet I found there were five distinctly different websites which were run by five distinctly different perfume lovers with their own personalities. They were early adopters of this new thing called blogging. For me they were the planted seed of an idea that a personal view of perfume, or any subject, could be expressed on the internet. It would take me a lot longer to finally take my own step of doing it. These Original Five blogs were the forerunners of everything that has come since. As many of them turn 10 years old this year I wanted to take a minute to express my thanks to what each has taught me through their efforts.

blogging

Now Smell This has always been referred to as “the perfume blog of record” by myself and others. If Robin publishes it, it must be true. Robin has set a standard which I try to live up to. Get it right first and foremost. Then never forget its just perfume. There is never a day which passes where I don’t stop by Now Smell This and I know I am not alone in this.

Bois de Jasmin has been the blog of Victoria Frolova for ten years now. It has always been a pleasure to read along with her as she has developed over that time. As she says in her “About Me” section on the site, “One cannot be an expert in this fascinating subject until one spends a lifetime practicing it, so I have a long way to go.” That attitude is one which has always informed my view of being a perfume blogger. I think it is too easy to get caught up in the attention and I need to remind myself that, like Victoria, I have a long way to go.

Perfume Posse is as the name portends is the rowdiest of the early blogs. It is a group effort but the den mother has been Patty White throughout its tenure. Perfume has always been categorized as a feminine pursuit but the gang from the Posse, March, Musette, Tom, and Portia, have always made it seem like a raucous party for all. There is no blog which leaves me with a smile more often and it reminds me that those who love perfume are defined by their passion and not by who they are.

Grain de Musc is the blog of Denyse Beaulieu and has been the blog I look most forward to reading a new post on. Denyse has spent years examining the world of perfume. She has gone from writing about it to teaching to writing a book about being a creative director on a perfume. In short she is the example that all possibilities are open to someone who is genuine in their passion. She reminds me to stay true to myself and to be open for whatever comes next.

The Non-Blonde is Gaia Fishler’s blog not only on perfume but also make-up. Gaia has been everything I aspire to be. She is accurate. She is passionate She is a great support to other bloggers as they start out. She says more in 400 words than most say in 4000. She is a constant presence in my daily reading.  When I grow up as a blogger I want to be The Non-Blonde.

These five women did this blogging thing when it was a crazy idea and they still continue to lead the way every day. They deserve our thanks and appreciation as the foundation upon which all of us who write perfume blogs stand. I want to thank Robin, Victoria, the gang at the Posse, Denyse, and Gaia for blazing the way, you continue to inspire this writer.

Mark Behnke

Acquisition Mania

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There has been a lot of words written about the latest big business acquisitions in the niche perfume space. I’m going to add a few more.

During the first week of November 2014 Estee Lauder purchased three niche companies: Le Labo, Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums, and Rodin Olio Lusso. This news was met generally with the reaction that Estee Lauder will ruin these brands. Examples used were the previous acquisition of Jo Malone by Estee Lauder ten years ago. Guerlain’s acquisition by conglomerate LVMH is also always mentioned.

Detractors tend to point towards these examples and say they aren’t the same since they were bought. The implication is the business has overtaken the artistry. Except that isn’t true. In Jo Malone’s case the availability expanded dramatically. I would also argue that under the stewardship of perfumer Christine Nagel some of the very best perfumes in that label’s history were produced. The ability to give the creative reins to someone like Mme Nagel only comes when there is a bit of big money behind a brand. If the future holds more opportunity for people to discover great perfumes like Le Labo Rose 31 or Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums L’Eau d’Hiver, how can that be bad? I have always wanted a wider distribution for niche perfume which has embraced the principles of niche perfumery to make something for the true aficionado without worrying about the bottom line. The big money sale of these brands show they have been successful at that and I am hopeful that more people can see there is more to perfume than the latest mass-produced fruity floral.

frederic-malle

Frederic Malle

I have also seen a number of comments around the idea that these two lines which have come to be prime examples of niche perfumery “selling out” is bad for the other brands out there. My short answer to this is, “Good!” One of the things that has distressed me is the proliferation of business people behind new niche brands who believe there is money to be made in this sector, quickly. If nothing else these sales show that it takes time to build a brand identity and allow that identity to find an audience. All of these moneychangers in the perfumed temple looking for a quick buck might realize there is a little more to it than fancy bottles, aspirational pricing, and high-concept marketing. If they want a quick score what the spate of brands bought by the big companies has shown is you better have a good track record over many years.

My bottom line is both Le Labo and Frederic Malle will continue largely unchanged and the only noticeable change will be the opportunity to buy some of their perfumes more widely, a good thing. It might also bring to an end Le Labo’s city exclusives since Estee Lauder would want to have those with a wider availability; also a good thing. Reformulations should be a non-issue as both brands were already IFRA compliant. I think that there are many good years and great perfumes ahead for both brands no matter who reaps the monetary benefits.

Mark Behnke

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

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I have been part of many enthusiast communities on the internet. I have always thought they were special groups of people. Over the past few days the group of perfume lovers who connect digitally all over the world have flown into action and shown that they are ready to help in any way they can.

The unfortunate reason which precipitated this outpouring was the announcement that my former colleague at CaFleureBon Tama Blough has terminal cancer. I have known Tama for years but it was only this past March that we actually met in person at Esxence in Milan. I thought how funny it was we both had to travel to Europe to finally meet. Tama was the same in person as she was electronically. A warm presence always smiling. I got a kick out of watching her meet some of her favorite perfumers and then communicate that in her daily post for CaFleureBon. I remembered my first trip to Esxence and the doors it opened up for me and was thrilled to see Tama opening her own doors. I knew she would create personal relationships that would last. She has done that for years as the organizer of her hometown SF Sniff and has created a local community of perfume lovers who regularly met up to go sniff perfume.

As the word of her illness was revealed late last week one of those local people Nina Zolotow took it upon herself, with Tama’s permission, to rally the perfume community to help by starting a Give Forward donation site called Tama Blough’s Cancer Fundraiser. In just five days it has raised $12,000 of its $20,000 goal. That money is critical to Tama’s ability to face her cancer on her own terms, in her own home, surrounded by the things she loves and her cat Buster. As someone who works within the cancer community I know the importance of keeping a hold of all of the things you love in life and allowing that to raise your spirits. I believe Tama also has to be drawing strength from the level of genuine love that has been displayed. Not only by donations to her website but different efforts to raise money using perfume as the vehicle. There are multiple sale threads on Facebook where people are selling their unwanted bottles and donating what they sell those bottle for. Perfumer Tanja Bochnig of April Aromatics and CaFleureBon Editor-in-Chief Michelyn Camen have made a limited edition perfume called San Francisco Rose which can be purchased here. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is donating 15% of the sales for her The PLP Project perfumes; Peace, Love, and Perfume.

So often when a person is facing a terminal disease there is a reaction by many to pull away to not want to face the inevitable. What makes me proud to be part of the perfume community is from all parts of the world it has come together to give Tama a virtual hug. We can only hope that Tama allows that love and caring to help her through the difficult times ahead.

Mark Behnke

The Price of Passion

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I am spending this fine mid-October weekend among people who share my passions. Half of it will be spent with my fellow comic book fans at New York Comic-Con and half will be spent with my fellow perfumistas at Sniffapalooza Fall Ball. One thing both groups have in common is the willingness to spend for that which they believe to be unique and/or collectible. As I have observed this over the past few years I have begun to wonder if there is an upper limit to the price we can be asked to pay for our passion.

I rarely talk about price in my perfume reviews because I try to judge based on the quality alone. I leave it up to the reader and eventual consumer to judge whether it is “worth it”. I do talk about perfumes I think are a great “bang for the buck” and heck there is a whole category called Discount Diamonds on the sidebar to the right. There have been ultra-luxe lines exemplified by Amouage, Roja Parfums, and Clive Christian. Not to mention extrait versions from established houses like Guerlain. There are bottles of perfume in my collection which required me to pause for a moment before paying the price. I always justify it as the price for owning a piece of olfactory art. No matter how a buyer justifies paying the price the brands can still go too far.

price of passion

What is beginning to concern me is that brands that previously didn’t charge high prices have started to do so. There have been numerous examples of brands in the last year charging significantly more for a new release. Some brands have charged up to four times their previous price. Sometimes I can understand the increase in price because of the choice of ingredients….and sometimes it is not so obvious. That is really where my concern lies if the much higher priced offering doesn’t differ significantly is the brand taking advantage?

Many of the brands I am talking about have spent years building a passionate base of perfumistas who await each new release. I don’t know what it must feel like to see myself, or another reviewer, wax rhapsodic about that new release only for the consumer to get sticker shock when choosing to buy it. Business principles say the market will only bear what the consumer is willing to pay. I wonder if that factors passion into that equation.

My final worry with this tactic is if the passionate supporters feel taken advantage of can this do damage to the brand as a whole? Once a consumer feels taken advantage of there is no easy way for a brand to re-capture that one time supporter. This could be a case of short-term gains at the expense of the long-term.

How much something is worth to someone is a very personal decision. Almost as personal as choosing which perfume brand commands your respect and loyalty. I don’t want to see either taken for granted in an attempt to increase the bottom line.

Mark Behnke

A Whisper to A Scream

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For as long as I have been writing reviews of perfume I have included a sentence about how long the perfume lasts on my skin and my estimation of its projection, or sillage. Even when including that bit of information one of the most common questions in my e-mail box is exactly how long does it last and does it really project? There are a group of readers who have also asked me to stop including the information because they don’t care; they are the minority. For most who read about perfume the length of time a perfume lasts on their skin and whether you can smell it a few feet away has become some indication of overall quality, but should it be?

The persistence issue is a particularly perplexing one to me how that has become correlated with quality. I think the hypothesis goes if it lasts overnight on my skin then the amount of perfume oil must be higher and so it is better. There are some lines for whom that thinking is sort of correct. If you are smelling patchouli or natural sandalwood in elevated concentrations which can last for quite a while. Those materials can be expensive to use in a concentration that lasts. When you think about it though some of the most persistent notes in all of perfume are the woody aromachemicals like Ambrox, Iso E Super, or Norlimbanol. These are among some of the cheapest ingredients in perfume but last longer than even the most precious natural oils. Those are what many people are smelling the next day even after a shower.

rose petal enfleurageRose Petal Enfleurage

A perfume which is employing a number of special ingredients that have been produced by labor-intensive procedures like enfleurage or tincturing are worth their weight in gold. When a perfumer uses these kind of ingredients it adds nuance that simple aromachemicals can’t imitate. This is why when a perfume containing large amounts of natural ingredients which might not last as long has much more appeal to me than a perfume that just finishes on a base of woody aromachemicals that last overnight. I would also venture to say that the perfume containing the natural raw materials is more expensive to produce.

When it comes to projection I am just baffled at the concept that it is an indicator of quality in any way. I have a number of extraits which are among my favorite perfumes. They wear so close to my skin you can’t smell those unless you are me, or my wife. They are true skin scents and they are incredibly compelling in their ability to convey beauty without filling the room up with a vapor trail. There are plenty of perfumes I love which fill a room up with their extroverted sillage but I have never seen it as something which means it is better. It really is like a chorus of voices and you need all levels from Bass to Soprano but if it is done well it is done well whether everyone around you can smell it, or not.

Don’t worry I understand longevity and sillage is important to many readers and I will continue to add the information. Just keep in mind a whisper can often be as compelling as a scream.

Mark Behnke

Don’t Forget Your Base

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I am very flattered that a number of fledgling independent perfumers ask me to try their fragrances. It is as close as I will ever get to being a perfume evaluator, which is probably a good thing. I just finished assessing a new line this past week. As I was writing up my e-mail to the perfumer I realized one part of my missive was coming out almost formulaic, as if I had written it many times before. I then realized that maybe this was good advice to be able to find before beginning your independent perfumery. What is most often lacking from early efforts is the proper base.

bottomup

When I use the word base I am not speaking of base notes. A perfume base is a mixture of notes which are meant to form the foundation of a fragrance. The most famous example of a perfume base is one called Mousse de Saxe which was the signature finish to all of the Caron perfumes. By having a consistent place to start perfumer Ernest Daltroff would build many diverse olfactory architectures. That is a key point to also understand; a great perfume starts from the base upward not the top down. It is that thinking which I run into most often when trying a new perfumer’s early efforts as they spend a lot of effort getting the top right but end up just leaving it hanging. It is also the answer to many early perfumes’ longevity issues, as a proper base can also be the last thing left at the end of the drydown.

A perfumer for a commercial firm spends years doing nothing but making bases as they train. By the time they are given their first commercial brief starting from a base is second nature to them. It is precisely the raw talent and unregimented vision that sets the independent perfumer apart from those more corporate perfumers and it is what makes independent perfumery such fun to experience. The principle still remains the same you need a base to start to build your perfumes upon.

guerlinade

Another reason for doing this is to give your perfumes a signature. I smell Mousse de Saxe and it is hard not to think of many of my favorite Caron perfumes. Guerlain has its own base called Guerlinade which is the thread which connects every Guerlain fragrance. They even bottled it and sold it as a perfume, too. Andy Tauer of Tauer Perfumes has had his characteristic woody incense base dubbed Tauerade. As a perfumer it is a way to add your figurative John Hancock to every perfume you make.

Usually after one of these e-mails I get a question on where to start. My advice is something I have learned from two of my favorite people in perfume, Michael Edwards and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Ms. Hurwitz spent the early years of her independent career trying to make the classic perfumes herself. It was a valuable exercise because she came to understand the value of each ingredient and how they impacted each other. That is the best, more laborious, way. Mr. Edwards has the easier way. Just go to the mall and take a few small Ziploc bags and spray a bunch of strips all from one perfume brand and lock each of them away in their own Ziploc bag. After a few hours go back open the Ziploc and sniff. What you should be left with is the base used for those perfumes. From there you will gain an understanding of what this particular perfumer used as their starting point and you will be surprised to find out how different they smell at this point.

If you start from a good base it is much easier to create a memorable perfume, and you’ll save me from writing the same words to another young independent perfumer.

Mark Behnke

Collection Fatigue

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There are many things about the current state of artistic perfumery that irritate me but there is one thing that is top of my list. I genuinely look forward to seeing what has come in the mail every day. I live for the potential of trying that next new great fragrance. There is a dark side to that and it happens when I open the envelope and see it half-filled with multiple vials. I emit a sigh because another “collection” has found its way to me.

My biggest objection to the term, and the practice. is I think it is 99% marketing and 1% inspiration. The majority of these collections have only one thing connecting them, the name on the bottle. What is even more frustrating is it is apparent there was zero effort in trying to have a coherent aesthetic or theme. Heck I would even accept if it was made up of connected pairs. Instead it feels like a box checking exercise where the perfume line covers all of the expected bases. This would be great if the creative direction was focused enough to provide an interesting viewpoint. The other collateral damage to this collection obsession is it feels like the line can’t be bothered to make up their mind what is polished and ready to be released. Which is why within a collection there are many entries where my reaction is, “Why didn’t you take the time to get some feedback and really add a final edit?” Many of these feel like the perfume equivalent of reading the first draft of a novel before an editor gets a hold of it to tighten it up.

Too-many-choices

This leads to the second issue they are asking the consumers, us, to be their evaluators for them; at full price. Over the last three years as this ploy of releasing multiple perfumes in a collection has become more prevalent I’ve noticed a couple years on there are only a couple of them still on the shelf. I believe those are the ones which sold well and the majority were discontinued because they didn’t sell. This means they make us pay for the right to beta test their perfume and that should be their job not ours.

From a store perspective this also puts them under tremendous pressure to decide whether they have enough shelf space for a dozen new perfumes. The lifeblood of the indie and artistic perfume community are the small stores which cultivate customers who return to find out what the store owner has identified as worth trying. These new lines approach the stores and ask them to carry all of them or none of them. There is a bit of fallacious thinking that these lines are just on the cusp of being added to Bergdorfs, Neiman’s, or Saks by the line owners. They fail to see that success in those venues has almost invariably happened from a more conservative approach where you build the line over a number of years. These small stores which the purveyors of these collections hold hostage are the very people who will create the repeat customer and buzz for the brand that will open those magic retail doors they dream of.

I am sure there is a collection heading my way which I will be thrilled to explore fully but I expect to be sighing a lot more before that happens.

Mark Behnke