• How I became the New York Times' perfume critic

    Editor's note: This is the first of our exclusive 'deleted scenes' from Chandler Burr's forthcoming book, The Perfect Scent. Chandler has written a brief paragraph explaining the context of the piece at the start, and the extract is rounded off with a brief Q&A.

    Details of how you can obtain the book, as well as the chance to discuss this extract can be found at the end.

     

    I wrote this section for the first draft of the book for obvious reasons: given that this would be my first book written as The New York Times perfume critic, I logically assumed I would want to explain how I became that critic. I liked it; my editor, George Hodgman, didn’t. He felt it distracted from the two central narratives, Hermès and Sarah Jessica Parker, and that this degree of detail wasn’t necessary in The Perfect Scent. With some reluctance I agreed to take it out—I think ultimately George is correct—and if I ever write a book about my adventures as the Times critic, it’ll go in there.

    * * *

    A few weeks before the Hermès piece came out in The New Yorker in March 2005, Francesca Leoni introduced me at a party to Stefano Tonchi, head of fashion at both The New York Times Magazine and T, which is The Times' fashion magazine. Francesca had already mentioned me to him—both she and Stefano are from Florence—he was very welcoming, said, "Oh, yes! You! Come see me Friday in my office." That Friday I went to see him at The Times' run-down old building at 229 West 43rd Street Friday at 10am, took the elevator up to the 8th floor. "So!" he said, "you are a specialist in perfume!"

    I said, Yes. What else was I going to say—I'm trained in Asian political economy?

    "So I'm interested. What would you want to do for us?"

    I had thought about this. The New York Times has a critic of architecture and of books, I said. You have critics for food, movies, culture, painting. Perfume is an art, but almost no one realizes it. A very commercial art—I think I said to him that movies are the best rough equivalent; both are created primarily by large international conglomerates launching multi-million-dollar would-be blockbusters, small independents produce art-house product for niche consumers, a hit perfume does approximately the same box office as a hit movie, and the processes are similar mixtures of suits, visionaries, and technicians—but it's an art nonetheless. (In other ways, the best analog is cuisine, and in others, music. It's said that music is the purest art form because the least material. It has virtually no physical aspect; I don't mean the page with treble clef, quarter notes, and so on. The music itself has a physical presence only as soundwaves that travel invisibly through air. While the bow is on the string, you hear it; the bow stops moving, the music vanishes, no remains. Perfume—not the bottle, which has ultimately no more relevance than the alto's dress—is transmitted via invisible molecules in the air. It blossoms on your skin, you smell it, it evaporates, and disappears.) I'd like to be your perfume critic.

    Stefano looked at me. I sat there. He thought about it for a second. "I love it!" he said. And then immediately, he added evenly, "We'll do a year from now." And that was that.

     

    I would first become the New York Times' perfume reporter. Why? Two reasons. First because he wanted me to establish myself with The Times' readership and with the industry both. I'd need to demonstrate that I knew something about the subject. Second because when I became the critic, "You will," he said directly, "have to tear things apart. Otherwise there's no point and you won't be a Times critic." Andy Port became my editor at T, Alix Browne at The Magazine. I started reporting.

    As we were preparing the first column I had a conversation with Kara Jasella, one of my T editors—they chose the name Scent Strip, we decided we'd do a four star system, then switched it to five—who noted that for some bizarre reason, perfume had never been criticized. Kara was into it if for this reason alone. Cathy Horyn could take apart a Chanel collection with a few choice words, and Guy Trebay could massacre Armani's fall offering, but Christ Himself forbid that even a complete piece of crap from Calvin Klein or Davidoff have a single negative word written about it. I figured, and said, that there was a simple syllogism: perfume, if you're going to take it seriously, is art, art has a critical apparatus applied to it, ergo. And we were taking scent seriously.

    The Times press release announcing that I would be the first Times perfume critic went out in August 2006, and I was asked constantly by the media (I realized during the column's launch process that I'm a big hypocrite; I want complete openness from people I'm interviewing, but I get pretty rigid about being interviewed, and in The Times' communications dept Pat Eisemann and Diane McNulty were doing an excellent job, which meant we had quite a bit of media interest) if this was not just a gambit by The Times to attract ad pages. I always found this question amazingly weird until Kara made this observation to me and underlined, again, the degree to which what we're doing has, I think literally, never been done before in any mainstream publication in the United States. And, given the millions of dollars in perfume ad pages in The Times, is a risk; in the third column I said—I don't think this is much disputed—that Comme des Garçons' Odeur 53 was "basically unwearable" and—and this is very much disputed, given that it's one of the best-selling perfumes of all time—that Azzaro's Chrome "is the smell of the empty electric soul of an assembly line robot."

    It was even weirder in a sense that The Times was and has always been not supportive but adamant that I call things the way I perceive them. That I be serious and not slam anything lightly or gratuitously, obviously, and that I keep my nose completely clean—I got a call from John Hyland at The Times gently reading me the riot act on The Times' Standards & Practices and was taken to lunch at one of the Theater District standbys by Jim Schachter so that he could, in the friendliest but clearest of manners, reinforce and elaborate the message. (Gotchya.) No free lunches—they gave me a generous budget—no gifts, no press trips for The Times, etc., etc. But this big concern people on the outside had was less than a non-issue on the inside. What was interesting to me, actually, was that despite a few warnings from other journalists, there was no pressure—none—from the industry at all.

    Nerves, yes. I had some rather tense meetings at Estée Lauder, Coty, Firmenich, IFF, and so on where people were trying to figure out what this creature was going to be. To get information. Which was entirely logical, and I was trying to help them get it, although I myself wasn't sure about everything. It's The Times' newspaper, and they determined a lot of it. "Well—so, you're going to say perfumes are bad?" (I'd look at them for a moment, a bit baffled, and then say as gently as I could, Uh—yeah. I'm going to be the critic, you know, as in critical…. They blinked and sort of thought about that for a moment.) I'd add, And good, obviously. Look, you read The Times. (They nodded, still dubious.) The Times restaurant critic praises one place, gives a mediocre rating to another, the Times movie critic pans a musical, the art critic loves a modernist show. It's treating perfume like an art. OK, they got that, sort of, but still one time after I'd said this a marketing person leaned in and, obviously trying to comprehend this weird project, frowned and said, "So, wait—you're going to be saying bad things about our perfumes?" One executive, at lunch in midtown, said very calmly to me, "You know, of course, that if you give a new perfume of ours a bad review in The Times you could destroy a $5,000,000 launch and the work of a hundred people over a year." Although actually I don't have that kind of power.

    My column has actually a greater percentage of objective content than any except perhaps the automotive critics—it's a relatively straightforward call on whether the car fishtails when you hard-brake at 80mph, and perfume has several important, technical, empirical aspects of performance: 1. Does it diffuse or just cling deadly to the skin? (sillage) 2. Does it last for hours or rather vanish in a few minutes? (persistence) 3. Does it do what the perfumer intends, unfold in scenes that each compliments the others, or alternately give you one consistent story like a singer holding a single exquisite note (performance)? The art critic generally isn't going to write about whether de Kooning used oil or acrylic, especially if there is no distinction registered on the retina, and The Times' movie critics couldn't, in artistic terms, care less if Warner Brothers puts Scorsese's latest on digital projection, but Christine Nagel's choice of citrus molecule is going to have a direct, substantive impact on your experience of the piece of art.

    I felt responsible. Jim Schachter, Deputy Managing Editor of the New York Times magazine, told me, a bit pointedly, there are two kinds of critics at The Times, those who completely isolate themselves from the industry they cover and those who plunge into its center and live there. I'm the latter. Not only do I have no interest in splendid isolation, A, it's not possible for me for the simple reason that I also report on that industry and so axiomatically am in the middle of it (Michiko Kakutani doesn't report on publishing or do profiles of editors; she just reviews the books), and, B, even if I didn't report on the industry, I'd be spending time with the perfumers. Why did you mate X with Y? How did you get that raw angle?

    I found some of them so spooked it was impossible to talk with them about it. Others were warily cool, still others cautiously warm. One who took personally even the possibility of a negative critique said to me, "If you attack something of mine, I'll have to see how I feel," and I made it clear that he could indeed see how he felt, but whatever the feeling, it wouldn't change the outcome. He changed the subject. Some—to their great credit—bypassed any emotional reaction to the column whatsoever and, detached, saw it from a purely professional point of view. I was simply one more variable in their equation. Pamela Baxter, LVMH's CEO for North America, and Alain Lorenzo, President of Parfums Givenchy (one of LVMH's brands), showed a particularly shrewd approach. It was Pam who, when I wrote something favorable about, I believe, Givenchy, sent me an email saying, "Both articles—" she meant the reported piece and the column—"were fantastic," and adding how wonderful I was. "Yeah," I wrote back, "until I say something bad about an LVMH perfume." Pam is the popular girl in high school, the sardonic corporate hipster, and she coolly replied, "I'm not soooo clueless as to think there won't be a time when you won't love one of our treasures." Naturally Pam would prefer that I not giver her perfumes zero and
    one stars. Obviously. But she hasn't drunk the Kool Aid. The Great Revolution-style marketing is for the consumers; they know when they're putting out garbage. And at breakfast at The Four Seasons, one of the marketing women, after interrogating me on was I really going to be criticizing, shrugged her shoulders and said, "You know, in the end all publicity is publicity." Which I think is sort of true.

    In the press release they put a nice quote from Stefano. “'I am extremely excited about the launch of Chandler’s column in T,' said Stefano Tonchi, style editor of The New York Times Sunday Magazine and T. 'The Times will be the first to cover the fragrance industry and perfume in the way it does movies, books, and theater.'" It's always interesting to hear your boss talk about you in the third person. I wrote a quote for them to use ("Every other true art has a serious criticism; I believe perfume should as well") and we were careful to put in a caveat that I knew would make the industry people more comfortable ("My opinion is, of course, just my opinion") and the appropriate context ("given The Times’s weight I take this responsibility quite seriously"). Our first column appeared on August 27, 2006.

    Scent Strip—T Women
    by Chandler Burr

    Darkness, when it is crystalline and somewhat luminous, may be the most difficult quality to capture in a perfume.

    It was recently achieved when Sylvaine Delacourte, the Creative Director of Guerlain, went shopping for a new rose perfume. Some might have argued that there is a surfeit of rose scents, but Francis Kurkdjian, a 37-year-old French perfumer at the top of his game, went to work and created for Guerlain the astonishing "Rose Barbare."

    Kurkdjian produced it by brilliantly reengineering Jacques Guerlain's 1919 "Mitsouko," one of the greatest chypres ever. Where Guerlain put into "Mitsouko" jasmine and a then just-discovered synthetic called aldehyde C-14 (it gives the delicious aroma of ripe peach,) Kurkdjian took this idea and spun it forward, exchanging the jasmine with a $2,608/pound Turkish rose absolute. The result sweeps over you like the silent, massive shadow of an Airbus 340, a tactile component that makes you narrow your eyes as if watching the approach of evening. If it fades slightly faster than one might hope, the aesthetics are pitch-perfect. There are other gorgeous roses—Yves Saint Laurent's "Paris," l'Eau d'Italie's "Paestum Rose"—but "Rose Barbare" is a crepuscular rose-inflected darkness suffused with a luminosity that floats on skin.

    Jo Malone's perfume genius is light. Not light as the antonym of heavy, but light as photon radiation. Think about "Grapefruit Cologne," or "French Lime Blossom"—that radiant glass roof sensation. This is what makes "Pomegranate Noir" such a departure for Malone. This is the scent of the darkness that inhabits a Rubens, a warm, rich, purple blackness; "Pomegranate Noir" is a like a box of truffles with the lid on, sweet bits of darkness, waiting.

    Because of the way Malone composes her scents, each built to accommodate others, no single scent will ever reach the level of artisty of a single scent by Kurkdjian, whose robust, complex compositions are meant to stand alone. By design, "Pomegranate Noir" merits only two stars—but two lovely stars; this scent is like spraying a layer of twilight on your body.

    Frédéric Malle's uniquely strange outfit, Editions de Parfums, has created a perfume collection in the running for the best in the world. Malle's method is simple: he invites brilliant perfumers to create their dream scents for him. The result is outrageous. L'Eau d'Hiver by Jean-Claude Ellena (now Hermès' in-house perfumer) is a small revolution; Dominique Ropion's Carnal Flower is a blossom with the impact of a baseball bat. But it is Ellena's Bigarade that plays brilliantly with darkness.

    Bigarade smells like a person in the summer in a complex weather system, a wonderful scent of a guy's armpit and a woman's humid skin washed in fresh rainwater and ozone (Malle doesn't waste time gendering his scents, and Bigarade is for women and men both). It is a masterful juxtaposition, and smelling Bigarade is like looking down into a well of cool black water. Your retinas expand from the pure, strange pleasure of this scent.

    Rose Barbare | Guerlain ***
    guerlain.com

    Pomegranate Noir | Jo Malone **
    jomalone.com

    Bigarade Concentrée | Editions de Parfum-Frédéric Malle ****
    editionsdeparfums.com

     

     

    Q&A with Chandler

    What's the average Joe's reaction, when you tell people what you do?

    “You’re kidding.”

    How did you decide on the fragrances you reviewed for your first column? Did you spend that year you had to wait working on the
    line-up?


    No, I didn’t spend it working on the line-up at all, and then when it was time to launch the column I thought, “Oh, Christ. What perfumes do I review?” I chose the Frederic Malle (Bigarade Concentrée) because it’s one of the collections I admire the most. I chose the Guerlain (Rose Barbare) because I loved it, and I chose the Jo Malone
    (Pomegranate Noir) for some very specific reason that I don’t remember now. And I thought, “Whoa, these are my first perfumes!”

    And then it was done and we were off and I was a little let down. It’s a pretty big psychological deal starting your own column in The New York Times, and you think the world’s going to stop, but it tends not to. And then there you are with the column to feed.

    Are you surprised by the lack of uptake of perfume critics in other mainstream press?

    Not at all. First, I’m not that well-known yet, although that’s going
    to change very soon, at least within the media world: The New York Times Syndicate is syndicating my column starting in a few weeks, so lots of editors will know about it. But also I simply don’t think most editors think of perfume as art. They think of it as product. And—another important reason—to give credit where I think it truly is
    due, only The Times has the guts to piss off LVMH, Estée Lauder, and Coty by saying, “This one is crap.”

    * * *

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    1. Quarry's Avatar
      Quarry -
      Welcome to the wonderful world of Basenotes posting, Chandler. Do hope your posts will not be limited to links.



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