At a meeting a few weeks ago, I sat down the table from the General Manager of a successful sportswear brand. He raised his voice to emphasize the importance of stories to raising money for a nonprofit organization. “I don’t care if it’s wristwatches or Porsches,” he said, “Emotion makes sales.”
This is certainly true for perfume. Stories create emotion, and emotion creates an attachment that logic can’t touch. His statement, though, brought up a larger question: how much of a person’s connection to a fragrance is its bottle, advertising, and stories, and how much is the perfume itself?
Cosmetics companies wouldn’t spend millions on advertising and public relations if it didn’t work. Witness Frederic Malle’s undeniably beautiful Carnal Flower. Carnal Flower has blitzed the media, winning glowing articles in the New York Times and fashion magazines. Combine this buzz with Carnal Flower’s high price and exclusivity, and it’s suddenly an upper East Side favorite. I suspect, though, you could swap Carnal Flower’s juice for Coty Sand & Sable and few people would be the wiser.
A perfume’s bottle is a big part of its attraction, too. I can’t afford to buy a bottle of every scent I want — and couldn’t use them up if I did. So sometimes I swap for decants. But spraying perfume from a nondescript decant just isn’t as satisfying as lifting a nicely-designed bottle that fills my hand, and I adore the silk-lined boxes holding crystal bottles of extrait. Perfume is partly about luxury, ritual, and fantasy. Spraying from the black globe holding Lanvin Arpège contributes to my pleasure in wearing the scent. Knowing that the small, gold line drawing on the bottle is Jeanne Lanvin and her daughter deepens it.
Also, a good story about a perfume or a positive review has led me to buy bottles of fragrance I haven’t even smelled. For instance, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche doesn’t suit me at all and I don’t wear it, but I bought it and think it’s great. Why? Because Luca Turin likes it. (I hope my pickup’s clutch holds out, because when his and Tania Sanchez’s book comes out I won’t be able to afford a new one.) I’m also a sucker for any perfume I know Catherine Deneuve likes or that I see on the vanity in an old movie. I owe my bottle of Caron Narcisse Noir extrait to Sunset Boulevard.
I could add more reasons you might be attracted to a particular scent that have little to do with how it smells. Its name, for instance (leading to my choice of Annick Goutal Grand Amour over Passion in a Paris boutique) or that your sophisticated aunt wore it or even that you really like the sales person in the perfume shop where it’s sold.
In the end, does it really matter why you love a bottle of perfume, or what draws you to it, as long as you do love it? Are you a chump if it’s not strictly the merits of a fragrance that matter to you? I don’t think so. To me, wine does taste best in a beautiful glass, and an Irish linen handkerchief means more when I know my grandmother carried it on her wedding day. Perfume is about more than pure scent. It’s about the rich and sometimes complicated narrative that surrounds it. I’m o.k. with that.
Note: image via Parfum de Pub.