February 6, 2012
Perfume, and modern Indiependent perfumers
The last time (in the West) before this one that I know of that was so much enamoured of perfume was the mid to end of the last century. As I see it, the height of this form of sensual awareness in Western culture was the time of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Huysmans, the Symbolists in France and the British Aesthetic movement, with Oscar Wilde reveling in his appreciation of sensual beauty in the Portrait of Dorian Grey.*
Theophile Gautier and Colette wrote about scents as an integral part of the world, and demonstrated how to appreciate life and understand your environment and reality by paying attention to and interpreting the olfactory qualities of all around you.
We now have ever more expansive tastes and are more individualistic in building a self image. There is far more variation and interest in different types of beauty, ethnically, physically, environmentally. There is no central theme, and women especially have stepped away from the strictures of the past and so beauty no longer has to be shy and pretty but can be athletic, dramatic and strong.
There are so many new perfumes each year, and the number is growing exponentially. This creates an immense and freeing sense of choice, that both looks back at the history of perfume and also the demonstrates new ways of using the traditional beautiful perfume materials to interpret the classic concepts.
So perfume is back, and growing bigger and stronger every day as more beautiful things are made. For the wider public the flame was kept alive by many influences such as aromatherapy, and the resfurgent interest in protecting the environment and precious natural substances.
And now the interest in perfume as an art form is reignited by the rise of the independent perfumer who works from their own ideas rather than from direction of another designer. The internet gives us all the ability to share and communicate impressions so that the otaku have found each other and become an audience base for the new creations and ideas of perfumers.
It is interesting also to see that the independent perfumers have a completely different aesthetic and business model than the perfume produced commercially for a more mainstream or mass market. Those who sell independently have to please their customers but they do this by making something very individual to themselves, that is not like anything else, rather than express what may be most commercially viable based on comparison to what has sold a lot already.
There is not the heavy marketing and public relations or millions spent on advertising. Most of it is word of mouth and experience and personal and social networking. There does not need to be tens of millions made on one perfume to make it worthwhile because the operations are so much smaller.
As with the other arts, as there is literary fiction or poetry or independent musicians and artists and also mass market fiction, blockbuster movies and pop music, entertainment, celebrity culture, so it is in perfumes these days. The perfume culture has a grown quickly and it has become evident that there are different categories of perfumers.
At this time, I see three main types, Mainstream, Niche and Indie/Artisan Perfumers, and within each there are variations. All of them are rich and complex and have much to offer, depending on the context. It's very much like apples oranges and grapes and they can’t really be directly compared or made to compete with each other on a level playing ground. They are all very different animals, even though they all are centered in the sense of smell. People with wide tastes will like them all, many will fall into one or the other camp or have leanings more to one than the other. Many just don’t know much about the independent or artisan perfumers but if they knew they would be very interested in and supportive of them.
The independent and artisan perfumers are my main area of interest, hence the name of this site - Indieperfumes. I have found indieperfumers, as you can see from my archives, that make perfumes that send me physically and mentally into a space of beauty, so that I may even travel through memory or to exotic places I have not experienced in real life. I am thinking of the likes of Mandy Aftel, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Neil Morris, Aroma M, Ava Luxe, Ayala Sender, Liz Zorn, Roxana Villa, and many many many others (I can't name them all in this post but do and will throughout my posts on this site). They work with highly refined sensibilities, in both fully natural and mixed media perfume materials. Further I would say they are all busy creating a perfume culture that is uniquely American.
These Indieperfumers are building our own version of something that Europe and the Mideast and the ancient cultures have had since the beginning of recorded history, which as with all things that become part of American culture, partake of the rest of the world's traditions in a modern, cosmopolitan and sophisticated way.
I will post again from time to time about my thoughts on this emerging perfume culture, and the variations within the Indieperfumers, such as artisanal, natural, and those who go the next step to make their own perfume materials; those who are inspired by classic vintage perfumes, or other cultures, and so many other highly individual permutations that add to the richness and beauty of modern indieperfumes.
I hope to foment more discussion on indieperfumes, on what they are, as they emerge to be a type and category that stand on their own.
Above, the hands of Georgia O'Keefe (wearing a thimble) by Alfred Steiglitz, 1919 SFMOMA
*Oscar Wilde may warn against dangers of narcissism in this story but his descriptions of the cultivation of personal beauty are so seductive they show the worship of beauty for its own sake as a joy to be pursued nonetheless.