An interview with The New York Times' new perfume critic, Chandler Burr
22nd August, 2006
The chances are though - if you read Basenotes or Now Smell This, you have a passing interest in perfume anyway. Joe Public doesn't read perfume blogs on her lunch break - according to her newspaper the latest fragrances all smell "great", "nice and fruity" or "will make your man go weak at the knees".
So, while newspapers and magazines have been happy to critique films, theatre productions, art, books, restaurants, wines, music, laptops, mp3 players and more - the art of perfumery is left uncriticised by the mainstream press. Well, thankfully that's all about to change: The New York Times has just appointed America's first perfume critic...
NEW YORK, Aug. 22, 2006 - The New York Times announced today the appointment of Chandler Burr as its first columnist to review and rate fragrances. Mr. Burr, a longtime magazine writer and the author of "The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession" (Random House, 2003), will have his first column – called Scent Strip – published in the fall issue of T: Women's Fashion on August 27, which will feature actor Catherine Keener on its cover.
Chandler Burr's Scent Strip will appear frequently in issues of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. In the column, Mr. Burr will review and rate new and classic perfumes as well as other scents such as perfumed candles. He will ascribe a four-star rating system to each perfume, similar to those awarded by The Times to restaurants, ranging from no stars for a poor or satisfactory perfume to four stars for an extraordinary scent.
Basenotes had the opportunity to have a brief chat with Chandler about his current views on the industry and his new role as The New York Times perfume critic. Firstly, we wanted to know where his interest in scent came from. Surprisingly, it all starts with Tom Cruise...
"On the morning of January 5, 1998, I was waiting for the Eurostar in the Gare du Nord in Paris – I was on my way to London to do a piece on Tony Blair for the American news magazine U.S. News – and they announced a twenty-minute delay. Slightly disgusted, I dropped my bags on the floor and started chatting with the very nice guy next to me.
I was talking about the finale of Mission: Impossible, where they fly some helicopter into the Eurostar tunnel. "Oh yeah, sure," said [Luca] Turin, "although of course that's physically impossible." Really? "Problem with air mass," he said. How's that?
He explained it, using his hands, rotor rotation, air pressure below sea level, detailed, precise. So, I said, he was a physicist then? "Biophysicist." What was he researching? "Smell. And vibration." As we got on the train, I asked for details. The point at which I thought, "This is it...." arrived just before Waterloo.
I had spent several years selling perfume as a teenager in a French perfumery in Georgetown, a rich residential area of Washington, D.C. the city where I grew up, and had smelled Vivre and Quartz and Rive Gauche and Joy and the others, and I had a vague neural recording of them and my reactions to them, but I had never, ever imagined before meeting Luca this world of perfume, never imagined perfume criticism itself.
I hadn't heard of synthetic scent molecules, knew nothing about human olfaction, so all of this flows from my experience spending four years with Luca writing "The Emperor of Scent," reading his criticism, hearing his ideas. It was simply an amazing experience, and I came out of it feeling – I told an audience this at a reading in Los Angeles, and 90% of the people who bought the book afterwards told me that their curiosity about this comment and their desire to have it happen to them prompted them to make the purchase – that I had been color blind before and now could see the world infinitely more deeply and vividly than I'd ever thought possible. It's the awakening of my sense of smell in an ordered, coherent manner as a full component of my sensory life that has been most startling.
I never intended to become a perfume critic. I studied international relations at l'Institut d'etudes politiques in Paris and Chinese history at Min Zu Xue Yuen (Central Institute of Foreign Nationalities) in Beijing, and I began my journalism career as a stringer at the Christian Science Monitor's Southeast Asia bureau in Manila. Went back to the U.S. and got a Masters in International Economics & Japan studies from the Paul H. Nitze School of Johns Hopkins University. I speak Japanese, I interned at Mitsui Bussan, the huge Tokyo-based trading company, wrote a 24-page report that I researched in Japanese on structural barriers to the import of foreign cars in the Japanese automotive market. I'd written on business, politics and I write fiction as well – my first stage play was produced in 1992 and I'm working on a novel.
So then I did my first book, A Separate Creation, about the gay gene (I'd happened to fall into genetics and neuroanatomy as a subject), which was based on an Atlantic cover story I'd done, so I had a foot in political economy and another in science. I met Luca and I thought: This is a great science story. In fact it wasn't until about two months later, when Luca began talking to me about his perfume collection and his Parfum: le guide, that I started to realize it was, in fact, also a book about scent. A subject that had never occurred to me.
And he liked the ideas, but he said, "There was something in 'Emperor' that really interested us. It's the fact that perfumes are made." I wasn't really sure what to say. I was eating my salad or whatever it was, and I sort of lowered my fork and said, "Uh, well, of course they're made...." and he said, "Yes, yes, to you that's obvious, but to 99.9% of the world, perfume is like--" (he searched for a comparative) "--milk. You go to Gristede's, to the refrigerated dairy aisle, there's a white liquid in a plastic container. You buy it. You never think about the cow, you never think about the udder, the pasteurization, the farm. You just accept it." They'd had, he said, no idea there was actually a profession called "perfumer" or a class of people who created the juices Donna Karan and Giorgio and so on put their names on. So he said they were thinking about a piece...
We set out to do a behind-the-scenes account of the creation of a perfume. We went to several houses, all of whom turned us down: Estée Lauder, Armani, Jo Malone, Burberry, Kenneth Cole, Chanel, Dior. Then Hermès said yes. I spent a full year with them, was on a plane between New York and Paris quite a bit.
The New Yorker published my account of Hermès' creation of its fragrance Un Jardin sur le Nil on May 14, 2005. We sold a book based on the piece, about the creation of perfume, to Henry Holt. I'm finishing it now, it'll be published in early 2008. And just before the New Yorker piece ran, I was at a party, and Francesca Leoni of Hermès introduced me to Stefano Tonchi, head of fashion at The New York Times, and I met him that Friday morning.
We started talking about the column.
Every art has its criticism: plays, film, sculpture, architecture. Perfume is art. It's a highly commercial art, like movies, but it is absolutely art. Stefano agreed immediately. He was instantly supportive of the perfume critic's position. He said, "Two things. First, you'll write for us for a year, to establish your voice for the New York Times readers. Because, second, when you start doing this, you'll have to be critical. Otherwise it's useless. You'll have to tear apart what's bad."
It's just never been done in the industry; not clothing – Cathy Horyn or Guy Trebay can tear apart an Armani collection, but say the least negative thing about Armani Code, and Giorgio goes ballistic; it's irrational – not accessories, only perfume has always enjoyed this weird immunity from criticism. I believe – we believe – it should have a critical apparatus applied to it.
As far as perfume critics go, Luca has been published for some times now as a newspaper perfume critic by NZZ. He's the first. I'm the second in the world as far as I know. LVMH, l'Oreal, Lauder, they're nervous, but I think they're also intrigued. I've made it clear to them that to my mind this is about the beauty of perfume; that I believe the uniform, Maoist/conformist wall-to-wall "everything is beautiful, everyone is lovely" is actually strangling consumer interest and hurting the industry; that we're going to be mostly spending our valuable real estate on things we like, but that giving the client direction and commentary and order will ultimately bring greater interest in perfume across the board.
I'm excited as hell to be doing this. I take it quite seriously. And I think it's going to be a blast.
Do you think that by having their products criticised as well as praised in the NYT will lead perfume houses to do things differently?
I really don't know. If it does, it wouldn't be me; The New York Times is, obviously, a hugely influential paper, and the two capitals of perfume are Paris and New York, so it might have an influence just institutionally, but if it does, I think it won't be a particularly precise influence for the simple reason that my taste is not always commercial. I love Le Feu by BPI [Issey Miyake], and it's a commercial disaster and widely loathed by consumers (the milk note apparently really does set some people off). I like the new Gaultier², and it smells like glue – which is why I like it – and I like the originality of Frederic Malle's things, but will that translate into Sephora? Is it even translatable? Frankly I think it is. The Dreamer is sold in Sephora, and it's marvelously distinctive. I know producers and writers and directors keep the reactions of critics in mind as well as those of audiences and their own tastes. So we'll see.
We also asked Chandler his view on the fragrance industry today.
[On the rise of the celebrity in perfume - and it technically any different to a designer putting his name to a fragrance] Interesting question-- I actually just did a piece in which I argued that the answer is no: it's no different whatsoever. Ralph Lauren and the creative team at Christian Dior have no more of a sense of what will be a bestseller, or a beautiful work of perfume art, than does JLo. And case in point, JLo's scents are quite as solid as anyone else's, good commercial perfumery.
[On summer variations of scents] Maybe I'm nuts, and maybe I haven't smelled enough of them, but to make a pretty categoric statement, every single one I've ever smelled has struck me as [Fill In The Blank] Lite.
[On the meddling of classics - the way things don't smell like they used to...] It's extremely distressing in principle, and in reality to connoisseurs like Turin who actually know what the original smelled like and find them suddenly vanished. The updating of I think it was Hermès' Amazone shows that modernizing a formula can produce something nice, and I can't imagine wearing the 1950s Youth Dew today in its true 1950s state, but the fact is that reformulation does kill something. If they ever screw with the original Diorella, I'll write a review that will chill their bone marrow. Because I want to do a piece re-introducing the classic Dior collection to today's audience; these are excellent scents.
Basenotes would like to thank Chandler Burr for his time in letting us know about his new role.
Chandler's column, Scent Strip will be first published in the fall issue of T: Women's Fashion on Sunday, August 27th.
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