Saturday, 28 January 2017

Semiotic Spritz Part 9: Penhaligon's Portraits: From Pen's to Le Pen

It’s winter 2016/17: Britain is negotiating its exit from the EU; Trump has been elected President of the USA; and Penhaligon’s has just released its ‘Portrait Series’ – a set of six fragrances inspired by the ‘British aristocracy’. Housed in eye-catching bottles each topped with a gold, hunting-trophy head, they carry names such as 'The Tragedy of Lord George' and 'The Coveted Duchess Rose'. 

In another age, it might have been the price that was cause for comment: £178 for 75mL is, as they say, ‘aspirational’. But we’re largely inured now to sticker shock, hardened by the likes of Roja Dove, Xerjoff and Henry Jacques.  

Instead, what’s noteworthy about this line is how far it departs, designwise, from Penhaligon’s standard and how well this resonates with the prevailing ‘populist’ (nationalist-xenophobic, really) mood that is currently sweeping much of Europe and North America.

Just like the Portrait series, which is said to represent the ‘English spirit’, right-wing populism employs a nativist rhetoric, favouring monoculturalism over pluralistic cosmpolitanism. And just as the copywriter for Penhaligon’s campaign freely interchanges British with English, populist narratives aren’t too concerned with the granular. 


They, the authors of populist propaganda, are constantly making appeals to a mythical, ‘pure’ past; a time before mass immigration, a time, in fact, very much like the one represented by the Portraits who are all reassuringly Anglo-Saxon. 

Where Penhaligon’s have previously looked beyond the shores of our tiny islands, finding inspiration in Egypt (Oud de Nil, 2016) and Iraq (Ninevah, 2015), the Anglocentrism of the new range is easily read as reflecting the inward focus of nationalist ideology. And if this seems like a stretch, consider that the next release from Pen’s is ‘Savoy Steam’ – an homage to London’s old Savoy steam baths. 

As a counter-reaction to the creeping liberalism of the past fifty years, this political movement represented by Farage, Le Pen, Wilders et al. argues for a turning away from Post-materialist values and an embracing of ‘traditional’ ones. And who better to represent English/British traditionalism than its nobility whose singular distinction is its vast material capital?

Whether this strategy by Penhaligon’s pays off remains to be seen. Whilst capturing the Zeitgeist, the marketing campaign appears targeted at an affluent, youthful sector whose first encounter with Fitzgerald was likely Baz Luhrmann’s successful adaptation of Gatsby in 2013. It is precisely this demographic who, studies show, are least likely to vote for Trump and Brexit and therefore identify with the line. One thing we can be certain of though, is that Sales will be keeping a very close eye on the figures, praying the effort doesn’t backfire as it did in the case of the gloriously misjudged Tralala (2014), which is now, unsurprisingly, discontinued. 

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Noël au Balcon Review

From an orange blossomy opening that has a pronounced, metallic-green aldehydic facet, Noël au Balcon quickly turns into a near dupe of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Tea for Two (Olivia Giacobetti, 2000) – all transparent honey, cinnamic spices and amber offset by some bitter, black tea-like nuances.

Nose: Antoine Maisondieu
House: Etat Libre d’Orange
Release date: 2007
Notes (per Fragrantica): honey, apricot, mandarin, orange blossom, cinnamon, chilli pepper, patchouli, musk, vanilla, black clover, labdanum, caraway.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Gucci Eau de Parfum Review

A white floriental from the Tom Ford era, Gucci’s eponymous EdP segues imperceptibly from orange blossom to almost tuberose with wintergreen salicylate and tart green apple inflections before settling into a long-lasting powdery, sweet oriental base.
The opening is marked by a cuminic contrast that I find myself wishing would hold out longer against a certain aldehydic soapiness. The dirty/clean dialogue however, is engaging and Daniela Andrier’s composition is a standout in both Gucci’s and her back catalogue.

Nose: Daniela Andrier
House: Gucci
Release date: 2002  (discontinued)
Notes (per Fragrantica): orange blossom, heliotrope, caraway, iris, thyme, incense, leather, sandalwood, musk, vanilla, cedar.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Semiotic Spritz Part 8: Kenzo World: Just Another Man(t)ic Monday

One of the most talked about fragrance campaigns of 2016 was by the Framework agency for Kenzo’s World. Directed by Spike Jonze and featuring an all acting, all dancing Margaret Qualley, the highly engaging spot drew praise and quizzical looks in seemingly equal measures.
As noted by Richard Vine in his piece for The Guardian (21/08/2016 link), Jonze’s film is but the latest example of a collaboration between an indie director and a fine fragrance house: David Lynch and Sofia Coppola having previously shot for Dior; Wes Anderson for Prada. At just shy of four minutes in length, the advert moves apace thanks to the frenetic, dancehall-inspired track by Ape Drums and Sam Spiegel (who just so happens to be Jonze’s brother) which accompanies it.
For all its vaunted rejection of the clichés associated with perfume adverts, Kenzo World’s narrative draws on one of the most enduring and widespread messages targeted at women: liberation. From junk food to high fashion, females are over and again sold a fantasy of freedom and escape which assumes the form of a moral imperative. 
The short film opens with a scene from a black tie gala event. Seated at a table adorned with bright pink flowers representing a stereotyped image of femininity is Qualley, her youth and emerald green dress conspicuous in the stiff, formal surrounds. From the unseen stage drones, Peanuts-style, a man’s incomprehensible speech.
With a feigned smile, Qualley excuses herself and walks dejected and pensive from the hall through the wide, empty spaces of the Los Angeles Music Centre’s Dorothy Chandler pavilion. Rubbing her neck in a classic self-touch gesture that’s long been a staple of perfume advertising, Qualley’s eyes suddenly focus and come alive. Then, like someone possessed of an outside force, her pupils begin to dart rhythmically, her face contorts and her limbs flail uncontrollably.

(Qualley vs. Walken)

Reprising the role of Christopher Walken in Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice video (also directed by Jonze), Qualley proceeds to dance her way energetically up the mirrored staircases, through the mezzanine levels and onto the stage in an empty auditorium. Her movements, choreographed by Ryan Heffington, reference everything from pre-war Vaudeville steps through Star Wars, Fifth Element and Black Swan. With each lunge and arcing high kick, Qualley’s power increases till it assumes a supernatural dimension. A lone, unsuspecting man on his telephone is thus felled Matrix-style while the walls are pock-marked by laser shots fired from her fingers.

 (like a boy ft. Qualley, Ciara)

Bursting forth from the building, Qualley grand jetés across a deserted courtyard, clearing invisible hurdles till at last she arrives before a giant, floating eye composed of flowers. With arms raised in reverence, she experiences a final throw of ecstasy before launching herself head-first through the ocular icon, landing in a starter’s block position amid a shower of blossoms that are most definitely not pink. Spent, Qualley yet rises again, beating her chest to the thump of a snare.
The all-seeing eye motif, captured too by the perfume’s flacon, was a major imprint of Kenzo’s 2013 fall-winter collection and, according to the brand’s art directors Humberto Leon and Carol Lim “alludes to the force of the third eye and to spiritual protection from above”. Before this supernatural symbol, Qualley figures as a modern day πύϑια – those high priestesses in the temple of Apollo at Delphi consulted as oracles. Like her, the Pythia too 'raved' in apparent trance (at least according to some accounts), the exertion leaving them ‘like a runner after a race or a dancer after an ecstatic dance’. And like the priests who were charged with translating the Oracles’ enigmatic prophesies, we the audience must struggle to decode Qualley’s message.  

As arguably the most powerful female figures in the classical Greek world, the Pythia provide a compelling model of strength and sagacity. This image of femininity targeted at a culturally literate group is far removed from the typical presentations found in perfume advertising (cf. Paco Rabanne’s Olympéa) while also avoiding the #GirlBoss banality to which pop-feminism has been reduced.
On the face of it then, Kenzo World launched with a successful campaign. 2016 Q4 sales reports however, will ultimately tell if the big advertising budget was worth it for a so-so smelling fragrance (Francis Kurkdjian) that has comparably limited distribution.