What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, and the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products. To counter my inherent grumpy tendencies, I try to write about something I appreciate at least once a week. Once in a while I get up on my soapbox and write about things that aren't at all related to perfumery. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

LUXURY - WHY BOTHER?


I've been so busy with my multiple other lives that it's been near-impossible to post regularly this spring. However, today I'm featuring a guest post by my friend Gail, who blogs throughout the perfume world under the name AZAR. Here's what she has to say:
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Oscar de la Renta's series of fragrances entitled the "Essential Luxuries Collection" is available exclusively at Macy's.  I have sampled the entire line, found them all rather pleasant, and promptly forgotten what they smell like. But the name of the series keeps returning to my mind.  There is something disturbing about the slogan and the faux exclusivity that goes beyond the simple-minded dichotomy of the advertising message, reflecting social values and conjuring up images of starving French peasants and aristocratic parasites stuffing themselves with cake. The idea of "Essential Luxuries" has prompted me to reflect on my own obsession with fragrance, the nature of what society perceives as luxury and with issues of morality, economics and social justice.

Pondering "Essential Luxuries" led me to the new perfumes from "Nomad". Their website "NomadTwoWorlds" proclaims that they have discovered "Meaningful Luxury" and are proud to announce that "We partner with indigenous and marginalized artists and communities around the world to bring you culturally inspired products and art” WOW!  A gold mine! A politically correct and at the same time sustainable form of exploitation!

Nomad Two Worlds is pulling out all the stops for this venture, contracting the nose of world renowned perfumer Harry Fremont, the power of the Clinton Global Initiative, and every bit of market research they can muster "to assist in the commercialization of novel ingredients and to champion and showcase these ingredients to our consumer market…" no doubt with the helping hand and bankroll of Firminich, their proclaimed partner.  Is this the kind of green luxury that has a purpose (other than making money) or luxury that I can feel good about?  Nomad's marketing not only packs the insider/outsider - I am better that you are - punch but also brings in the perceived value of precious obscurity utilizing current trends in green product marketing.  How can I possibly trust Nomad's intentions when all they appear to be doing is resurrecting a business model from the days of empire? [see Ellen's footnote]

Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management has this to say: "Green purchases are often motivated by status…Many green purchases are rooted in the evolutionary idea of competitive altruism, the notion that people compete for status by trying to appear more altruistic." Unfortunately this competitive altruism in the purchase of "Meaningful Luxury" seems no more than a ploy to use our own insecurities against the very people we mean to support.

So why does the advertising slogan "Essential Luxuries" in reference to perfume bother me so much? Is there some residual guilt about owning something as "useless" as a lovely scent?  Is it that I see relatively expensive fragrances giving some consumers the illusion that their noses are more refined than the snouts of the rabble who buy and use celebrity frags? Does over-priced perfume work like an invisible shield keeping inferior noses (now which noses are those?) at an intellectual distance and, like the understated logo on a $3000.00 handbag, help the beautiful people recognize one other?

Ranting usually helps me clarify my thoughts.  I know that I don't buy many of the so-called luxury items simply because I can't afford their embarrassing prices and because I don't need these possessions as a logo, a shield or a validation of my humanity.  Expensive clutter and overpriced experiences are not essential to a beautiful life.  I am old and I see the real essential luxury as simply the time to enjoy my life, comfortably, without excess, free from worry about money, status, power, style, schedules, timelines and manufactured responsibilities.
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[Ellen’s Footnote: Besides the issues mentioned by Azar, I find that a big turn-off with Nomad’s PR approach is their use of a Scandinavian-looking model in various conditions of semi-nudity and being smeared with dirt, apparently suggesting that the people they are helping are naked, dirty savages, but that hiring a blonde, blue-eyed model to play their role somehow helps those with the money relate to them. Nomad is by no means the first company to play the “feel-good and help the noble savage” card, a rationalization that has been used for all manner of purposes throughout the history of colonialism. A few years ago DKNY boasted that their “Pure” perfume contained “one drop of vanilla” sourced from poor farmers in Uganda. The significance of a single drop was hard to figure out, but it probably was truth in advertising masquerading as extreme rarity and exoticism, while at the same time promoting feelings of superiority and altruism and, of course making money for DKNY. At least the Oscar de la Renta campaign is bland and inoffensive, and doesn't make any pretense of being a charity operation.]

[Photos taken from various commercial websites] 

6 comments:

  1. The Nomad ads look freakin' weird to me, not in a good way. I agree that the use of Scandinavians coated in mud is very insulting to true nomadic peoples, and as usual, it's co-opting bits and pieces of cultures to look cool. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm cynical and jaded, but...probably not. I think it's a good bet, though, to support your local artisan perfumers. They are often very scrupulous and careful about sourcing ingredients, and keep prices reasonable for us "rabble"!
    Great essay, Gail!

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    1. Marla, I don't see that there's anything co-opted from the cultures in question, it's all manufactured, contrived advertising hype.

      Co-opting bits and pieces from other cultures is fine as long as it's done in a respectful, non-exploitative way. In fact, the melting pot of aesthetics and ideas is part of what keeps cultures vibrant and evolving.

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  2. Thank you, Marla. I totally agree with Ellen's observation about the photos. I love a good rant from time to time and Nomad was so deserving of this one!

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  3. Hi Mom - There are so many rants in my head right now. Here is the one I have chosen - it seems like you’d have to sell a ridiculous amount of ridiculously expensive perfume to actually help people. I think it’s great that a perfumer would gather inspiration from indigenous communities and I’m sure there are people in those communities that enjoy that experience… but I just don’t see that as really helping people. It really does sound to me like a politically correct form of exploitation (as you described). They say that the artist that work on the photos get royalties and that 10% of the profits go to the Nomad Two Worlds Foundation, but I wonder how many Native Americans, Indigenous Australian and Haitians actually benefit from this or see a dime of the charitable donations. That's my rant... -Lauren

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    1. Lauren, You're absolutely correct that when you do the math, almost nothing goes to the people who are supposed to benefit. It's 10% of profits, not sales. That 10% goes to a "foundation" that probably has considerable overhead, leaving only a single-digit percentage, and probably a small one at that. You have to hand it to them for developing a business model that allows a corporation to operate as a "non-profit" entity.

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    2. Hi Lauren,
      Thank you of dropping by and for your rant. You are absolutely right about the $ (dimes) and I think you and Ellen both know how I feel about a lot of the so called "non-profits" and the "not-for-profits" out there! It's late and I don't want to think about this too much or I will never get any sleep.
      Mommy Azar

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