It might seem to regular readers of this blog (all 23 of you) that, for a fragrance writer, I write very infrequently about perfume. In fact, I write about perfume every day. But since it’s either copy for big fragrance retailers or work on a book that I’m not sure will ever see the light of day, most people will just never come across it.
Let me tell you right now that fragrance copywriting is fantastic work. People in retail tend to have a wry, often sarcastic take on things that helps me decode corporate speak, prices, and strategy behind a perfume launch. As a writer, that kind of perspective is invaluable because it helps me decide where a perfume fits in the overall scheme of things.
But best of all, copywriting allows you to get in there and triangulate a perfume. I read the official brand copy (what the brands send to the retailers), I smell the perfume itself, and finally, I write a description of the perfume that gives buyers a fair sense of what it smells like. Sometimes, there is very little common ground between the concept and the execution. Those are the most interesting descriptions to write, because you need the text to sell the concept the brand is shooting for, but you also need the customer to know what they’re actually buying. In between those two poles, there’s the potential for cognitive dissonance, the bane of every retailer’s life. It sounds tricky, but navigating those kinds of potholes is precisely what I love doing.
So, today, I’m going to be writing (briefly) about three fragrances I smelled lately that illustrate the challenges of juggling concept and execution, and how a copywriter deals with the dissonance that sometimes arises between the two.
The first fragrance I want to talk about is I Am Trash (Les Fleurs du Déchet) by Etat Libre d’Orange. Even before I received a sample of this, I loved the concept of the perfume, which is an entreaty to our better selves to find the beauty in the stuff we usually throw away or regard as waste. The scent ‘upcycles’ waste materials left over from the process of making a perfume; wood pulp, orange peel, and so on. It made sense to me that Givaudan, the Swiss flavor and aroma giant, would be involved, since the company has all the waste materials required. Ogilvy, one of the world’s biggest advertizing brands, was also on board, producing (I presume) the visually stunning video that accompanied the PR launch of the perfume (see here).
Really, nothing in the marketing campaign for I Am Trash can be faulted: the video is compulsively watchable, with its rotting fruits and imploding vegetables, and the brand copy is peppered with gems such as this plea from Etienne de Swardt “So before it’s too late, let us (s)pray to the god of waste, our dear lord of leftovers”. Ha! He sounds like he might have kids.
It’s just that, how can I put this delicately, well, the perfume itself is nowhere near as interesting as its premise. The edgy reputation of Etat Libre d’Orange, the video, the brand copy – they all set you up for an experience that just ain’t delivered. I Am Trash smells exactly like those strawberry and apple-scented animal soaps The Body Shop used to sell in the 1980’s and 1990’s, stretched over a soapy Iso E Super base. And that’s all, folks. Nothing more to see here. The perfect fruity floral, perhaps, for the Tinder generation, entirely used to not getting exactly what’s been advertized.
In a way, I Am Trash is an easy perfume to write up, because half your job there anyway is convincing nervous would-be buyers that it doesn’t literally smell like rotting piles of rubbish. The fact that it not only smells not dirty but in fact really, really clean is just a boon, really. 90% of the population don’t want to smell like filthy rubbish anyway; Etat Libre is just going to disappoint the 10% that kinda, sorta do. Concept-wise, there’s no denying, though, that the brand over-promised and under-delivered. The marketing pitch did its job; it whipped up interest in the perfume. But given that most of that interest was ghoulish and rubber-necking to begin with (trash! rotting parsnips!), I’m wondering who exactly stands to gain by the yawning gulf between concept and execution here.
But Not Today by UNUM is, as you’d expect from Filippo Sorcinelli, pretty much all high concept. The man can’t launch a perfume without immersing his audience in a full body experience involving dimmed lights, a concert, an art installation, and a little light whipping/bondage (I’m joking about the last part. I think). Usually, in copywriting, my experience has been the higher-fallutin’ the concept, the emptier the perfume experience, but I’ll give UNUM this: they follow through.
The inspiration for But Not Today is surprisingly pop culture in origin: The Silence of the Lambs movie. I am a huge Hannibal Lecter fan, and especially of the newer Hannibal series on NBC featuring my secret husband, Mads Mikkelsen, so to say I was hooked on the premise well in advance of smelling it is an understatement. Anything Hannibal-related is rich in olfactory and culinary references, an untrammeled joy for fragrance aficionados. There are numerous references to perfume in Hannibal (Jar, for example), but the direct inspiration for But Not Today comes from a pivotal scene in The Silence of the Lambs, when Hannibal is demonstrating his preternatural powers of observation to Clarice Starling in their first meeting. He smells the air around her and tells her, in that sibilant, sinister softness of voice, “You use Evian skin cream, and sometimes you wear L’Air du Temps, but not today”.
But Not Today smells startling. It is wholly original, and therefore difficult to describe for a buying audience in those two short paragraphs or so they allow you. In the description, I ended up mashing together two separate narratives: it smells metallic and bloody (because Hannibal) but also spicy and carnationy (because L’Air du Temps). And while I think that will make sense to a potential buyer, I’m not sure it captures the entire scope of the perfume.
But Not Today doesn’t smell entirely pleasant. Imagine, if you will, Hannibal marinating steaks taken from the inner thigh of one of his victims in pepper, bay leaf, oregano, and a range of exotic, dried esoterica from his spice rack. The kitchen is ripe with the milky-meaty decay of lilies, but there is also the unmistakably metallic, watery scent of blood running off the steak as the spices in the marinade wick moisture to the surface. You can smell the hot metal of the carving knife, the cheesy taint of indolic flowers, raw meat, and blood, but also, strangely, a waft of savory fruit, like kumquats preserved in salt. Someone like Hannibal would have preserved kumquats in his kitchen. It is a strange smell, both intensely perfumey and intensely not – more working kitchen than perfume.
But Not Today evolves into a castoreum leather that mines the same dusty-wet thematic vein as Vierges et Toreros by Etat Libre d’Orange. Vierges et Toreros is one of those rare perfumes that give me a clear vision of a scene every time I smell it. The second I inhale, I am a gladiator in Rome, slain by a sudden jab of the sword to my side, and as I breathe my last breath into the red-brown dust, I am intensely aware of the smells around me: my own blood – warm and metallic – the dust, the cracked leather hide of my scabbard, sweat, and the sickly sweetness of white flowers on the turn. Truly an unpleasant, jolting experience. But imaginative. Original.
Carnation does much to boost the dustiness quotient of any perfume, but joining it to the overblown, green wetness of lily pushes the stomach-churning to the next level. In the drydown of But Not Today, the castoreum additionally throws in a tobacco-ish or chocolate tonality that highlights the soft, dusty matte texture of the leather. I’m not sure what’s creating the very strong scent of aromatic soap, though. Maybe it’s Hannibal himself, his freshly-shaven face suddenly too close for comfort, or the lingering whiff of Will’s Old Spice.
I wouldn’t wear But Not Today any more than I’d wear Vierges et Toreros. But I admit that it is a thoroughly unusual, artistic fragrance that pushes the boat out even further than the lines suggested by the concept itself. This is a good example of a perfume, therefore, that over-delivers on a concept. I’m curious to see how this perfume will be received by the fragrance community. There’s a lot of translating and picking apart to be done with UNUM fragrances as a rule; But Not Today kicks even this up a notch.
Vetiverissimo by Bruno Fazzolari, on the other hand, is a perfume sample that came to me with absolutely no background, no concept, and no notes. Apparently, Fazzolari just wanted to see if he could create a nice vetiver perfume for himself to wear. That’s really cool, and I imagine that Bruno Fazzolari is laid back enough as an artist and perfumer to just let his work speak for itself. However, as a copywriter, that kind of low-to-no concept breaks me out in hives. It comes perilously close to, you know, having to smell the damn thing blind and make some educated guesses as to what’s going on. Writing the copy for Vetiverissimo made me hyper aware of just how reliant perfume writers are in general on published notes and brand concepts.
As it turns out, when I smelled Vetiverissimo, I got some references that helped me to ‘define’ what Vetiverissimo is, at least for the potential buyer. For example, even before the retailer squeezed Fazzolari for some notes, I was able to say that it smelled very Indian to me, full of those yellow, dusty Indian spices like saffron and turmeric that smell more like the earth than of fire. In fact, the perfume smelled very much like the mitti attars (and some ruh khus) that I have collected in the course of writing my Attar Guide (which will be published posthumously, at this rate).
Once I was able to pinpoint those two or three references, I was able to sit down and start writing the description. Now, honestly, I’m not sure if Bruno Fazzolari or anyone else will look at the product description of Vetiverissimo on Luckyscent and agree that it’s accurate. I’ve seen some initial feedback suggesting that people think it’s very simple and straightforward, an impression also given by Fazzolari himself. Other say it smells like Route du Vetiver, a very butch, rooty vetiver that smells like man sweat to me. For what it’s worth, I think it’s got more going on than its laid back, zero-concept brand note would suggest. It’s a subtly-spiced, turmeric-laden vetiver that smells like the red earth of India before the rains begin, given a pale, cloudy woodiness by a superb sandalwood. Simple, yes, but in the nuanced way sandalwood or mitti oils are, with their series of little movements plotted along a line as opposed to the dramatic, balletic leaps of stormy oud oils, or the rutting rudeness of jasmine.