The background rumble of bus, car, lorry, bus, car.... serves as a reminder of the endeavour which supports the standard of living, for the time being. For most, thoughts of futures are subsumed into the immediate need to continue going forwards so as to avoid going back. Gratification is always better now than later, no matter the depth of the experience. Perfumes are worn thick and strong; vanilla for the women, woods for the men, powerful and highly decorative. They drum the hum from ordinary. Against this background loud perfume makes perfect sense; a shout of defiance, a scrawling of smell graffiti, an aromatic occupation of the free air floating above the rented ground.
Estate agents are having a hard time at the moment (I’m sure they have all of our heartfelt sympathy) but apparently perfume counters are not. At times of recession the little luxuries pick up the small change which we can still spend. The take-away pizza business has never had it so good. This raises the question: what is luxury? Is it a relative term; an absolute? Is it something which we do not need but would like? Is it about spending more money on something than we think it is really worth? Economists sometimes define it as a good which people spend more on as they get richer. This is interesting, if only for its implicit cynicism.
On the one hand, all perfumes could be considered luxury. Everyone buys the luxury which they can afford, be that the latest celebrity offering or the super expensive niche bottle with the hand written label. The trouble is that once too many people can afford the luxury, two things happen. Firstly, it ceases to be exclusive and so luxury needs to be redefined at a higher price point. Secondly, the quality suffers because the best ingredients are not available in sufficient quantity. Economies of scale start to become very tempting for producers. A cost cut of a few pence per bottle makes a huge difference in profit if you are shifting a lot of units. If you keep doing it gradually, hardly anybody notices.....
On the other, there are the luxury brands, or more specifically, the luxury price points. “Niche” has come to mean “expensive” and imply exclusivity bought with pounds others cannot afford to spend. The trouble is that much of it is rubbish, not made of good materials and only sloppily composed. This causes a great problem. If there is not a general correlation between price and quality (allowing for exceptions of taste and human error) then this model of propping up aspiration fails.
Guerlain, the greatest modern era perfume house ever, existed on aspiration (and that is an intentional use of the past tense). The quality was high (for what Luca Turin calls an industrial product) the appeal was huge and the price was affordable. How often it was affordable depended on the extent to which aspirations had been achieved. High and middle earners could buy quite frequently, lower earners less so. The quality was good, so there was no shame in wearing excellent creations acquired on last year’s birthday and anyway, wealthier people may still buy that same bottle now if it still in the range, because they like it.
Guerlain has been bought by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the luxury goods conglomerate. Reading the LVMH website, it is interesting to note that the ideas of quality and value are not emphasised if mentioned at all: “In the eyes of the world, Guerlain symbolises Perfume....
... Since its arrival in the LVMH Group in 1994, Guerlain has undertaken to develop the brand in a larger international perspective always with a will to protect the selectivity of its distribution.”
Acqua di Parma also owned by LVMH: “In search of a new partner to bring the necessary funding and know-how to develop the brand internationally, they found the ideal partner in LVMH. In October 2001, the Group acquired 50% of Acqua di Parma capital and in September 2003 the remaining 50% to own 100% of the company.
Based in Milan, Acqua di Parma relies on a very exclusive distribution network worldwide, including its own boutique in Milan and corners in department stores.”
The website emphasises distribution and exclusivity, not quality (though I should acknowledge that the original Colonia by Acqua di Parma still smells excellent to me). In earlier times, the link between these was stronger. The driving force and the ladder was aspiration. This no longer works. The “luxury” conglomerates are of course, the killers of luxury. It is impossible to do luxury large.
Another case in point: Roger&Gallet have repositioned themselves recently, following the takeover of YSL Beaute owners of the R&G brand by PPR and their incorporation into the Gucci Group. Their excellent and historic line used to have a prominent position upstairs at Selfridges Department Store on Oxford Street. You could go in and buy those high quality soaps in large tablets, the Eau de Cologne Extra Vieille (a wonderful cologne, until recently one of my favourites, in my opinion suffering now due to cost cutting and regulation). Now luxury goods group L’Oreal own luxury goods group Gucci own luxury goods group Yves Saint Laurent Beaute own Roger&Gallet but they keep quiet about it. It doesn’t appear on the corporate websites. It is branded as luxury for those who can’t afford luxury. It has been demoted to small displays towards the back of the store with the “functional” items instead of the “luxury” ones. The irony is, of course, that the contents of those cologne bottles probably costs about the same to make as the current prestige brands (of course R&G once was a prestige brand). The other irony is that in its corporate insignificance, R&G has a chance to revert back to being a genuine luxury brand.
So where do we go? Is there truly any luxury left? To my mind, there is, but it does not lie with “Luxury” corporations and in any case, I prefer the term “quality”. It is no less vague than luxury and to a certain extent at least, takes the status implications away. Some fragrances are still produced with attention and care. These are usually the smaller brands: Andy Tauer, Lorenzo Villoresi, Profumo.it, to a certain extent Creed (particularly some of their older fragrances), Ayala Moriel, and many more are making excellent products. But please don’t buy them, if they get too popular LVMH or L’Oreal may try to get their “luxury” hands on them.
Flower Photo: Ivan Ivanov
Walker Minton is a Jasmine award winning freelance writer and jazz musician with a lifelong interest in scent. He lives in North London with his partner and two sons. [email protected]