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July 1, 2005

"Vanity" By Luca Turin

"Vanity" By Luca Turin

Vanity is such a pervasive force that if some day cosmologists tell us the Big Bang was just God’s way of showing off, no one will be surprised. A microscopic example: bespoke perfume. Until recently, you had to marry a perfumer in order to get your very own smell. Even then, if it was any good, it would likely end up in shops. Annick Goutal’s Sables was composed for her husband, and Edmond Roudnitska’s Parfum de Thérèse is available at Frédéric Malle. Both were once precious tokens of true love. Failing that, you could go to a market in Cairo and have an “expert” mix you something that will stun flies at ten paces. Now there is another way: some perfumers, and indeed some great perfume houses are doing individual perfumes. Prices range from expensive (8000 €) to jaw-dropping (43.000 €). At the cheaper end of the scale, Quest’s Francis Kurkdjian, creator among other things of Le Mâle and of Dior’s recent (and excellent) Eau Noire works freelance a couple of days a week. At the expensive end, Jean-Michel Duriez, Patou’s in-house perfumer will spend as much as two years putting together your unique fragrance. Judging from his past form (Yohji Homme among others), it may be money well spent, though so far only women can apply. Guerlain and Cartier are rumored to be getting into the act.

I confess to being unmoved by all this. From an aesthetic standpoint, perfume is a shared, industrial product, more like wine, music and books than like a painting or a jewel, and there is something ugly about asking a great artist to do one just for you. From a commercial standpoint, I couldn’t figure out what makes these well-paid professionals (and the houses that employ them) do such a thing. After all, why waste a good idea on some rich bitch when you can have everyone wearing it ? I asked around, and some answers emerged. First, the daily grind of the perfumers’ job, making things that smell good with 100$/kg to spend on the formula, i.e. using ingredients that mostly smell less than great, is getting depressing. All involved in bespoke perfumes relish the opportunity to use great raw materials, ignore all “health” regulations and travel back in time to the golden age of fragrance. Second, the firms need to put some prestige back into their tarnished “exclusive” image, and this may be a cost-effective way of doing so. I wish them luck, but I’ll carry on looking for Lucien Lelong’s Elle,Elle on ebay (maximum bid, 200 €). That one feels like it was made just for me when I was six years old, and I never even met Mr Lelong.

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