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Avon Mad Men - A Masculine Fragrance History Pt 4: Excess in Success

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Avon by 1980 had become an institution in American homes across the country, but it had long been since it was just about quality affordable fragrances. All throughout the 60's, 70's, and into the 80's, while Avon was expanding both it's advertising efforts and it's product ranges, a slow shift began to occur. This shift was really starting to be felt by the end of the 1970's were efforts in new and inventive fragrances began being replaced with "towing the line" by copying the successes of higher-end houses; this was particularly evident in the men's lines, which had only existed in earnest since the 1960's. 20 years might seem like a long time to some, but to a company fast approaching it's 100-year mark as a primarily women's endeavor, it was still a new area. Suffice it to say that after the trust had been earned, laziness set in. Why is this? The answer is simple: makeup.

Avon had begun to realize the huge profit margins possible with makeup compared to the more-expensive-to-produce perfumes. Ingredient sourcing and retaining skilled perfumers wasn't needed with makeup, as any number of manufacturers could be sub-contracted to make eye shadow or blush. Eventually the perfumes would take this route too by 1980, with Avon using the same global firms other major houses were using, just on a tighter budget to hit their target price point. This outsourcing, combined with the overall emphasis shifting to Avon as a beauty company and not a perfumer, had drastic effects on the quality and originality of the product, but competition had gotten too stiff in the now-crowded perfume market.

The 80's also saw Americans having more access than ever before to luxury goods thanks to big box retailers like K-Mart, Walmart, and indoor shopping malls with their assorted specialty boutiques on the rise across the nation, often anchored by these big boxes, or more-traditional department chains like Macy's and Sears. The need for Average Joe American or even his spouse to rely on Avon for the good life was diminishing, so emphasis on skin care, makeup, and toiletries over the perfume, knickknacks, and jewelry that once littered Avon catalogs increased. Avon was divided, as they needed to both fend off lower-end imposter fragrances appearing in drug stores and slightly "middle-high" designers like Bogart, Pierre Cardin, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Lacoste from gaining traction, as all these brands were releasing fragrances for men now that were two to three times the cost of Avon's stuff but still within reach for Suburban Dad.

The answer to the dillema was to spread into both areas, and utilize the growing interest in outside brand-endorsed and celebrity-endorsed scents to boot. Avon had a huge footprint just like Coty or Revlon, so why endorse a pre-existing fragrance when a celebrity, outside brand, or even another design house without infrastructure for fragrance can just get Avon to make them one and distribute it? Granted, Avon wasn't the only company doing this, but they were the most shameless by far with how they did it. For starters, they had a cologne themed after the Jeep CJ, and later released a cologne with actor Billy Dee Williams attached, but as it was later revealed, he had zero input and just signed some licensing paper his agent handed him without even reading what it was about!

Avon began their first designer collaboration with Louis Féraud around this time, which for men, resulted in the only "true" 80's powerhouse cologne for guys the brand ever made in the form of Louis Féraud Pour Homme in 1986, and sold at a designer price point, but like with all Avon products, wad sold via catalog only, which confused the market since Avon customers accustomed to value pricing wouldn't buy it and guys with the money for Louis Féraud clothing wouldn't shop for Avon via a sales person. Avon also used their capital to acquire the Giorgio Beverly Hills line from Fred Hayman, who in turn, continued his store and line of perfumes under his own name anyway, and since Avon never advertised that they were behind Giorgio, future fragrances were never associated with them, so the theoretical clout boost they were seeking from these two ventures never manifested.

As for Avon's own house-branded men's colognes, the story is even sadder, since all these branded and designer ventures combined with outsourcing of their own product resulted in very lazy marketing gimmicks and designs for their own Avon-branded men's fragrance. Women's perfume seemed wholly unaffected because again, the years were invested in that market, so they -knew- what was happening in women's circles, but outside of 1980's Black Suede, there really wasn't too much for guys to desire from Avon in the decade. 1981 saw a glut of drugstore-themed scents like the triplets Light Musk, Cool Sage, and Fresh Lime, which were all likely competing with flavors of Skin Bracer or Aqua Velva. Likewise, a hybrid cologne/aftershave labelled "Cologne Plus" was released, called Rugger, this same year. It was a decent and bracing oriental fougère hybrid but like the triplets, was running up against the likes of Williams and Mennen in vain. 1982 saw release of Cordovan, which was a very 70's aromatic that could have been competition for something like Halston Z-14 (1976), and seemed like a rosier and floral take on the idea. Oddly enough, it was of eau de toilette strength but was listed instead as "long lasting cologne" in gimmicky fashion, possibly because Avon didn't think American guys could handle French nomenclature.

Then there were just completely out-of-touch products like Lover Boy (1980), Rookie (1980), Brisk Spice (1984), Aures (1985), and Cavalier (1989). Lover Boy was a male interpretation of Love's Baby Soft (1973), while Rookie was a cologne for boys (yes, boys), that had zero market. Aures seemed like a leftover from Avon's 1960's formula vault, being a barbershop fougère much like Wild Country (1967) and Tai Winds (1972), but in futuristic packaging released at a time when nostalgia for such things wasn't yet marketable. I guess Gramps wanted to feel he belonged too so they bottled something more his speed in a package that looked good alongside bottles of Oscar de la Renta Pour Lui (1982) or Kouros (1981). Brisk Spice was an Old Spice (1937) clone at a time when nobody asked for it. Cavallier was even more laughable, as it was quite literally a heavy bay leaf and clove-powered 19th-century barbershop bomb. In hindsight, this would have sat well alongside retro stuff like Rive Gauche Pour Homme (2003) or Tom Ford for Men (2007), but not in the late 80's.

Once we peel away all this failure, we're left with the me-too stuff like American Classic (1984), Legacy (1986), Signet (1987), and Trailblazer (1988), which were fine and dandy, but took their ideas from the competition and went downmarket with them, which is ultimately what guys thought Avon did by the 1990's, making anything new a hard sell due to the resultant trust issues. At least Avon was still doing regular re-issues of their 60's and 70's classics, and put out arguably the best men's large-scale commercial musk fragrance of all time (Avon Musk for Men 1983), so there was a bit of hope left. The Louis Féraud stuff was quite good too, but Féraud would snatch the rights away and release the stuff in Europe only after tiring of Avon's shenanigans. Since very little of what Avon made for men in the 80's seems relevant to the 80's, collectors can mostly skip the decade, and things only get weirder in the 90's. To be continued.

Updated 4th May 2018 at 03:31 AM by Zealot Crusader

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Door to Door Drugstore: Avon Products

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