"Amor vacui" By Luca Turin
Fashion, Coco Chanel once said, is what goes out of fashion. This raises a question: could it be that the puzzle of fashion’s abrupt scenery changes has more to do with repulsion than with attraction, and that new loves rise in our minds like the mercury in a barometer tube, by way of sudden inner vacuum and steady outer pressure? Evacuation itself is a mysterious thing: who could have predicted what recently happened to smoking and planned economies, both long known to be health hazards? Those poor (but well-paid) people whose job it is to spot trends rather than create them must wish for face time with the angels who, no doubt, make the real decisions. Let me join the seers just this once with a prediction: spicy fragrances will soon come back and take over the world. Their eclipse dates back to the Opium wars. Opium (Saint Laurent, 1977) has become a case study in coherent design: name, smell, look, color (a shade of red borrowed from cinnabar, a mineral found in China). It came out at the same time as a w0nderful Estée Lauder fragrance called… Cinnabar (angels again), which was a textbook flop. Smelling them today, it is easy to understand why. Cinnabar was beautiful but it was not strange. Spice is to perfumery what a tan is to beauty: it improves faces, but it also blurs them. Mixed together, spices are the Baywatch of fragrance, suggesting wholesome profusion at the irreparable expense of individuality. If everything is beautiful, nothing is. The trick then is to do one of the hardest things in Art: deliberate damage. What made, and later undid, Opium was a minty bubblegum note as unexpected as a plastic duck in a bag of brown sugar. Later spicy fragrances also relied on dissonant harmonies to make their tune interesting: Coco (1984) with balsamic notes borrowed from Cabochard, Teatro alla Scala (Krizia 1986) by morphing smoothly from cloves to carnations in the manner of Caron’s Poivre. Dolce Vita (1995) with its floral bouquet borrowed from Féminité du Bois. But all these still suffered to some extent from the tiresome affability of spices. The reason for my new-found optimism lies in the work of Christine Nagel. Her Teorema (Fendi 1998) was already a remarkable thing: a sober hippy fragrance. But her somber masterpiece, Mauboussin’s Histoire d’Eau Topaze (2002), does for spices what Kind of Blue did for jazz: no more smiles, no more warmth, just a menacing, dusky miracle: the tropics in winter.