Dead Letter Office: Marc Jacobs Bang- Would You Like Some Pepper?

It is a funny thing that I enjoy not being part of the crowd. Yet I want the general public to admire what I admire. It makes no sense but I know it is how I feel. When it comes to fragrance I feel it most often when a mass-market perfume tries to bring a niche sensibility to a perfume being sold at the mall. The Dead Letter Office is full of these attempts because consumers usually don’t know what to make of these very different perfumes next to the safe fragrances they know right next to them in the department store. One great example of this is 2010's Marc Jacobs Bang.

Marc Jacobs advertising Bang

In 2010 consumers were given two very different choices when they showed up at the Men’s Fragrance counter. In the summer of that year Bang and Bleu de Chanel were released within weeks of each other. For the second half of 2010 there was a referendum on what comprised success in the masculine mainstream fragrance world. If you were going to play it safe Bleu de Chanel was a “greatest hits” collection of every popular masculine accord of the previous twenty years. Bang was going to see if you were willing to leave the well-trod road for something more adventurous.

Ann Gottlieb

Marc Jacobs had been producing perfume since 2001. As a brand it had been primarily focused on perfumes marketed to women. Only 2002’s Marc Jacobs Men was aimed at men. By 2010 Marc Jacobs has produced two huge mainstream women’s successes in Daisy and Lola. As Mr. Jacobs and co-creative director Ann Gottlieb considered a new masculine perfume they decided to go with one of the perfumers who worked on Lola, Yann Vasnier.

Yann Vasnier

M. Vasnier has been one of those perfumers who, when given the opportunity, will happily add in niche aesthetics to the mainstream. As we headed past Y2K in the niche world black pepper was having a moment. Black pepper had been used as a supporting ingredient especially with the spicy varieties of rose. Italian perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi released Piper Nigrum which was a shot of pure black pepper. Just as the internet perfume forums were forming Piper Nigrum was one of the most talked about fragrances in those early days. Black pepper would start regularly appearing as a focal point in fragrances like L’Artisan Parfumeur Poivre Piquant, Penhaligon’s Opus 1870, or Viktor & Rolf Antidote. For Bang M. Vasnier was going to see if a more general consumer was ready for some black pepper.

The opening of Bang is not simply black pepper as M. Vasnier uses pink peppercorns and white pepper as leavening notes to keep the black pepper from hitting like a sledgehammer. Even so that top accord carried a great deal of presence pretty much making a consumer confront their feelings on wearing black pepper from the first moment. Even the woods in the heart were led by the rougher edged birch which enhanced the piquancy of the pepper instead of toning it down. Only in the base was the transparently resinous accord where any measure of safety could be found.

Bang has 8-10 hour longevity and above average sillage.

I have loved Bang from the first moment I tried it. Which is why that might be why it is in the Dead Letter Office. Bang was not a tiny step toward niche sensibilities it was more like being shoved through a door and having it locked behind you. Whenever I was out shopping during the 2010 Holiday season I recommended Bang time after time only to have those shopping with me pick up the Bleu de Chanel gift set.

Bleu de Marc Jacobs?

Bang was gone from the department stores by 2015 while Bleu de Chanel has become one of the best-selling men’s fragrances in the world. Marc Jacobs would even ask M. Vasnier to make another perfume a year later called Bang Bang, which was more Bleu de Chanel like. Even down to the color of the bottle. That had no more success than Bang. In 2010 when given a choice the public went with safe while Bang, and Bang Bang, was on its way to the Dead Letter Office.

Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Calvin Klein Eternity- Bridal Lilies

When I make my monthly run through the local discount store fragrance bins I have mixed feelings when I see what I consider to be a great perfume in there. On one hand, it gives that fragrance the chance to be re-discovered by a consumer for whom $20-25 is what they can spend to add a new bottle to their dresser. The flip side is the look how far this once lauded perfume has fallen. From the bright lights of the department store beauty counter to a giant “Bin O’ Perfume”. I must admit that I was surprised to see Calvin Klein Eternity there in the last couple of months.

Calvin Klein Eternity was released in 1988 as the follow-up to their extremely successful launch of Obsession three years earlier. At this time in the 1980’s Calvin Klein was a brand which had attained the highest levels of exposure a designer brand could aspire to. Much of that had come on being provocative in a sexual way, Calvin Klein was the latest examples of the old adage “sex sells”. Which was why when the press release for Eternity came out it used as its inspiration Mr. Klein’s 1986 marriage to Kelly Rector. This was a pivot to the purity of love which by itself was interesting. Ann Gottlieb was responsible for the creative direction and she chose perfumer Sophia Grojsman to work with on Eternity.   

Sophia Grojsman

Mme Grojsman was in the middle of a twelve-year run at the beginning of her career from 1978’s White Linen through to her masterpiece Lancome Tresor in 1990. Eternity falls in the middle of that run temporally as well as aesthetically. There is a cleanliness reminiscent of White Linen and the fully rounded rose of Tresor was just beginning to take shape as she worked the same with muguet for Eternity.

Ann Gottlieb

Eternity opens with a fresh top accord of mandarin and freesia. This is some of the fresher aspects that was so prevalent during this time in fragrance. The lily of the valley comes forth and it rumbles forward with power. This kind of floral intensity will become a hallmark of many of Mme Grojsman’s constructs; Eternity is one of the earliest examples. How she builds the intensity is by also adding in smart supporting ingredients. In this case marigold to amplify the green parts with narcissus doing the same for the white flower aspect of the lily of the valley. It is supported by a sturdy sandalwood foundation as the final piece of Eternity.

Eternity has 10-12 hour longevity and above average sillage.

One of the reasons Eternity has probably fallen into the discount bins is that intensity it exudes. At the moment, it doesn’t seem to be congruent with current fragrance trends. In its heyday, Eternity was inspired by marriage which made it a popular wedding day perfume for many brides in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It is a great perfume from a great creative team and for the price it is hard to beat that marriage.

Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Calvin Klein Crave- Growing Pains

Because I’ve been so interested in the trend of perfume brands reaching out to Millennials this year I’ve been looking back to find other times fragrance was designed to specifically capture a young market. It will not surprise anyone that a good example would come from Calvin Klein. For almost 40 years now this has been a brand all about finding appeal for the young consumer. In 1994, with ckOne, they were perfectly positioned to ride the swelling wave of cleanliness in fragrance long before it turned in to a tsunami. By 2002 they were ready to do it again with Calvin Klein Crave. Except this time, it was one of the rare fragrances for this brand to end up in the Dead Letter Office.

As the brand was looking out at their target audience they were seeing the beginning of the wireless age. Nearly every young person had a pager hanging from their belt while the early cell phones were just starting to penetrate society at large. Creative director Ann Gottlieb wanted to oversee the creation of a perfume which would capture this connected generation on the bleeding edge in 2002.

calvin-klein-crave-the-new-scent-for-men-get-it-on

Ms. Gottlieb assembled a group of four perfumers in Jean-Mark Chaillan, Olivier Polge, Pascal Gaurin, and Yves Cassar. The perfumers were given the brief I think all Calvin Klein perfumers are given, “make it young, fresh, sexy, and clean”. Except with the concurrent electronics modernity in mind it drove them to think a little more outside of the box than they might normally have done. What resulted was something that seems Calvin Klein but at other moments seems like the name on the label must be incorrect.

Crave opens with some of that unusual quality right away. The perfumers use a Calone-laden “fluorescent fresh accord”. There is so much Calone here that the melon-like quality of that aromachemical is also evident. To that the perfumers add a different fruity partner; carambola, or starfruit, which has a tart smell to it but not nearly as much as a citrus note would have. That actually turns the fruitiness of the melon and the carambola into its own sort of fluorescent fruit accord. To all of this there is a strong green counterpoint. The longer this lingers on my skin the sugarier the fruit gets and just as it is about to become Kool-Aid the perfumers unleash a spate of herbs as basil, coriander, and allspice come forward. For a little while this is a like a chaotic house party as the fresh of the Calone, the fruits, and the herbs whirl madly. Again just as it threatens to become annoying the base notes try and calm things down. Crave goes all woody as sandalwood and vetiver provide the calming effect needed while the typical mixture of white musks finish this off.

Crave has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.

This is a perfume which lives life on the edge of irritating. If it stays on the right side of the line, as it does with me, it is a fun fragrance. If it falls on the other side of that line this is going to be an irritant. It seems the consumers were in the latter category as three years after launch it was pulled. It is still the quickest discontinuation for the brand.

There is a bit of cautionary tale in Crave for all of those brands trying to figure out what the Millennials want. Even an all-star team can miss the mark by trying too hard to cater to a perceived taste.

Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Calvin Klein CK2- Eau de Millennials?

Calvin Klein has always been a designer brand which has targeted itself for the current generation of twentysomethings to thirtysomethings. When that description fit me, in the 1980’s, a disproportionate amount of my wardrobe was from Calvin Klein and my fragrance was Obsession for Men. As the 1990’s approached the brand shifted again and the fragrance made for Generation X was called CK one, released in 1994. Creative director Ann Gottlieb collaborated with perfumers Alberto Morillas and Harry Fremont on one of the earliest most successful fresh and clean fragrances. CK one would be the flagship perfume of Calvin Klein for a couple of generations. Now Calvin Klein is angling for the latest generation, dubbed Millennials, with the new CK2.

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Ms. Gottlieb has tapped a new perfumer for this task Pascal Gaurin. CK2 is described as a “gender-free fragrance that celebrates the endless possibilities of modern connections between two people”. The ad campaign by photographer Ryan McGinley shows that those two people are also not restrained by traditional gender roles. This actually sets a fairly difficult moving target for the creative team to hit. To truly be a fragrance which appeals broadly it would seem you would need to shoot for a middle ground set up for mediocrity. What I found surprising was Ms. Gottlieb and M. Gaurin are willing to challenge some of the newest generation of fragrance wearers to see beyond the commonplace.

pascal_gaurin

Pascal Gaurin

CK2 opens with one of those challenging choices as a piquant wasabi accord is folded into a traditional opening of mandarin and violet. There is much I like about these choices if you’re attempting to be a “gender-free” fragrance. The fruit and the floral are kept very attenuated. Because you can’t really be too much of either. That is why the wasabi accord is so important here. It adds an odd grace note throwing the traditional slightly off kilter. I stress slightly because the wasabi is used as a modulator here meant to alter but not have a prominence to it. The same theory works in the heart as iris and rose give a very traditional floral bouquet. Just as in the top it is tweaked by the presence of another odd accord of wet cobblestones. The slightly aquatic and mineralic accord literally grounds the florals; keeping them from being too florid. The base is a very nicely balanced trio of sandalwood, vetiver, and incense. It is more of those clean woods which are so popular in mass-marketed fragrance these days and is the most familiar part of CK2.

CK2 has 14-16 hour longevity and average sillage.

It is going to be very interesting to see if Calvin Klein has made an Eau de Millennials with CK2. I think there is enough different here, especially compared to some other high profile designer releases, that CK2 does stand out among its peers. When it starts showing up on fragrance counters in February I am going to be fascinated observing, on my next trip to the mall, to see how this target audience reacts. I think Ms. Gottlieb and M. Gaurin have given CK2 the best chance to succeed.

Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Marc Jacobs Decadence- Once More Unto the Breach

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There was a moment in time where I thought the Marc Jacobs fragrance collection was trying to do something different in the mainstream sector of perfume. 2007’s Daisy, 2009’s Lola, and 2010’s Bang were each an attempt to lure in a different perfume buyer with tiny nods to a niche aesthetic. I admired the ingenuity to see if there was a consumer out there for this style of mass-market perfume. Somewhere along the line this kind of thinking evaporated as the brand became a flanker factory with numerous Daisy, Lola, and Splash entries cluttering things up. All of these were so painfully pedestrian that even when they made the odd foray into something different like 2012’s Dot it just felt half-hearted. Over the last couple of months it looks like Marc Jacobs has decided to give it another try.

I generally liked the summer release Mod Noir although the name is a bit of false advertising. Bottom line was it wasn’t another flanker and it was definitely in the upper percentiles in the department store category. About a week after I wrote that review I received a sample of the new fall release Decadence. Because I had liked Mod Noir and the timing was right I tried Decadence right away. My first impression was this was very different than any of the other tent pole fragrances for the brand. Mr. Jacobs along with Ann Gottlieb were the creative team working with perfumer Annie Buzantian on Decadence. What they have created is the strongest floral in the line as they move away from the fruity floral and run headlong into floriental territory.

Annie-Buzantian

Annie Buzantian

Mme Buzantian adds the niche like-flourishes in the top and the base. The top notes are iris, plum, and saffron. The saffron exerts enough of a presence to keep the opening from being a boring fruity floral accord. There is enough familiarity there for someone who is a fan of previous Marc Jacobs to find a safe place to start their Decadence experience. The triple whammy of orris, rose, and jasmine in the heart is meant to sweep them off their feet in a swoosh of heavy hitter florals. So often this kind of power is carried by a bunch of white florals. I like the change by Mme Buzantian as the orris bumps up against a spicy rose and slightly indolic jasmine. It doesn’t go as far as a typical niche release but it goes a lot further than most of the other bottles on the perfume counter. This is the tricky part to give a consumer something different without alienating them. From my perspective I think it is a brave choice which could go either way. The base is a very green mixture of papyrus and vetiver matched with amber. It forms a verdant Oriental accord for the florals to rest upon.

Decadence has 10-12 hour longevity and way above average sillage. A lighter application than other perfumes is probably necessary for best results.

It looks like Mr. Jacobs has not given up on his desire to try something different as with Decadence he is really taking a bold step outside of the previous oeuvre of the brand. He is doing a smart thing and putting this in a spectacular looking bottle which looks like a clutch purse complete with tassel. The bottle will drive some sales all on its own. I think many of those and others who give Decadence a chance will be surprised at the new direction for Marc Jacobs. I hope they like it because I would like to see more of this from the brand. I know they have my attention, again.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Coty.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds Sarah Jessica Parker Covet- The Red-Headed Stepchild

When it comes to celebrity fragrances there are few that make the grade. One of the most obvious reasons is the name on the bottle has little or nothing to do with it. Depending on the situation that can free a creative team to take chances but more often it leaves them to just knock off an imitation of something already on the market. The celebuscents which I admire have almost always had the celebrity intimately involved in the creative process. The first perfume to prove this principle to me was Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely. This was the debut perfume for Ms. Parker when she was at the heights of her Sex and the City fame. The whole process was covered in Chandler Burr’s book The Perfect Scent. What came across was a woman who wanted the perfume which carried her name to be something better than mediocre. It was and still is a successful perfume on the market. I think Lovely is a great perfume but I like the second perfume Ms. Parker collaborated on better; called Covet.

sarah-jessica-parker-covet

Covet came out two years after Lovely. The same creative director Ann Gottlieb was helping Ms. Parker and perfumer Frank Voelkl was picked to compose the perfume. Because of the success of Lovely I think the creative team felt they had a bit of leeway in trying something different with Covet. They would take that latitude and make something quite atypical for the state of the department store market circa 2007. Covet is like a mob of unruly kids all vying for the wearer’s attention. That amount of manic overly nuanced exposition wore most people out. I found it exhilarating. At the time it was the only thing in the mall that didn’t smell like everything else.

Time, and the consumer, has not been kind to Covet and it was discontinued about two years ago. Even though it has been discontinued it has been viewed as such a disappointment that you can find full bottles for less than $20 at almost any place that sells discount perfume. Which is why it is a Discount Diamond.

frank voelkl

Frank Voelkl

Covet opens on one of those unruly moments I mentioned. M. Voelkl takes lemon, lavender, geranium, a watery green leafy accord, and chocolate and turns them loose. It sounds like so many conflicting ideas it should just collapse. I’ll admit it comes close but I find this highly saturated opening fabulous. It never quite completely veers off course although I will admit it does drive on the wrong side of the road from time to time. This chaotic opening is what put many off because it is so weird, even eight years later it is still pretty weird. For the rest of the development Covet is relatively more straightforward as the heart is muguet and magnolia. The base is vetiver, woody notes and amber.

Covet has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

Covet has been consigned to being the red-headed stepchild of Ms. Parker’s brand meant to be forgotten and unloved. If you are willing to take a chance on something great and for the price why wouldn’t you? Give Covet a try you might find something that is a real diamond in the rough.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke