One of Karl Lagerfeld’s funniest aphorisms is his “With a handbag, we’re all model-sized”. Presumably this explains why fashion companies make scads of money with these often extremely expensive, “aspirational” items, as they do with most accessories: unlike clothes, whatever your age or size you can pull them off.
The same could be said for perfume, of course. Most people buying it are buying into the myth: a few millilitres of Chanel, Prada or Yves Saint Laurent when all you can afford from those brands apart from that are sunglasses or cosmetics.
But perfume is radically different from makeup, a point that was driven home as I was reading one of the many columns prompted by the ban in the UK of two ads for wrongful advertising: one by L’Oréal featuring Julia Roberts, the other by Maybelline featuring Christy Turlington, both women so thoroughly Photoshopped their arresting features are barely recognizable.
When I was editing a woman’s magazine, I gave a lot of thought to the fact that by definition, those magazines thrive on fuelling our insecurities. Their articles offer us ways of becoming better lovers, better mothers, better professionals, better cooks; of achieving the perfect skin, the perfect decorating scheme, the perfect look for the season. Of course, living in the real world, we don’t have the time or money to carry out all the instructions. Women’s magazines are like consultants, really: if their advice pans out, it’s our fault for not following it adequately. But we forge on consulting, in the hope we’ll get it right some day. Except, that is, for the size zero (unless we’ve got the genes for it) and the Photoshop. So that however healthy our self-esteem, there’s always a moment when we’ll compare that office-party snapshot with practically any picture put out by a glossy, and decide from now on we’ll wear a full burka.
Not so perfume. It is not meant to smooth out our flaws, whittle down our waistlines, ape celebrity styles. It is the ultimate one-size-fits-all: a thing of beauty we can carry on our bodies all day, every day. Unlike handbags, it doesn’t say “look at me, I can afford a Prada”. Even if you do buy it to buy into the Prada myth, who’ll be able to tell? And even if you do wear it to promote an image of yourself, it acts differently than lipstick, sunglasses or a handbag: not only outwardly, as a projected aura, but inside you, through the air you breathe. Perfume needs no mirror to produce beauty, and thus subverts the beauty myth.
Of course, big brands still advertise perfumes through the images of impossibly beautiful women or men: wear me, says the product, and one spritz will give you an orgasm/make you find true love/turn you into a babe magnet. Advertising thrives on the visual, and most brands haven’t found a way out of the trite fairy-tale scenarios that make all the ads, ultimately, look the same, just as most mainstream perfumes ultimately all smell the same.
We are in the era of Photoshopped fragrances, and because the people who buy them don’t derive aesthetic and emotional satisfaction from them, just the initial thrill of grabbing a few drops of an image, they never become attached to them. This is why the niche sector, which doesn’t rely on advertising and therefore, doesn’t draw on our insecurities, is the only one in the industry that’s posting a healthy growth. For all the derivative, me-too niche brands currently glutting the market, and the escalation in prices designed to titillate snobs and oligarch arm-candy, it remains, by dint of its business model, essentially more honest because its subject remains perfume.
There is, in a way, something selfless about fragrance, because it is a beauty that allows us to forget about our beauty, or perceived lack of it: spreading outward but also inward, invisibly. True aesthetic enjoyment: walking with beauty. Try to get that out of a handbag. I can’t even find my wallet in mine half the time.