Fashion

The sweet smell of decadence

Barbara Amiel October 22 1979
Fashion

The sweet smell of decadence

Barbara Amiel October 22 1979

The sweet smell of decadence

Fashion

Barbara Amiel

Historians sometimes refer to the dark and middle ages as a thousand years without a bath. They may be tempted to refer to our time as the years when free men and women did nothing but bath-and-spray. “When times get tough,” explains a 30-year veteran of perfume and cosmetic sales, Margaret Sykes, at Eaton’s in Toronto, “women spend on scented bath oils or a name perfume rather than a dress.” The perfume industry in Canada is still a fledgling with reported sales in 1976 of $16.5 million (latest figures available) compared to the $1.3 billion in the U.S. in 1978, but it’s a market that has shown steady growth every year. In a new policy launched this fall, Canada’s largest retail drugstore chain, Shoppers Drug Mart, upgraded its merchandise and now boasts stores with yards of open-shelf perfumes. “It’s a big chunk of our business,” says flagship Toronto store owner Jerry Panet, “and we’ve got everything from Charlie at $4.95 a half-ounce to Bal à Versailles at $175 an ounce—just about every French and American perfume our customers want, we stock.”

This month a Canadian name is jostling for attention as well. CrossingCanada touting his new name perfume is Montreal clothes designer Leo Cheval-

ier. If it’s early October it must be Edmonton and by the end of the month it will be Vancouver: perfume launchings in every major Canadian city with bottles of champagne chilled and poured for the salesgirls and buyers who will be selling the $100-an-ounce Leo Chevalier at your neighborhood store.

Consumers these days may have jaded feelings about yet another new and expensive perfume. Said one husband at Winnipeg’s Bay after buying his wife an anniversary gift of a new $100-an-ounce Ralph Lauren perfume: “I think smelling sweet stinks.” Other name perfumes to surface recently in Canada include: Yves St. Laurent’s Opium ($125 an ounce), Jean Patou’s Mille ($275 an ounce), Van Cleef & Arpéis’ First ($100) and, on the way, Sonia Rykiel’s 7e Sens—price, anybody’s guess. The market is lucrative and, more importantly, growing. Inflation, recession and tight money seem only to help the $100 bottle of perfume, a product that has no investment value and a life-span at the mercy of sweat glands.

“My favorite fragrance,” wrote Lyn Revson enthusiastically in her book World of Style, “is Bal à Versailles and I wear it all the time. Though I don’t put those special little pads soaked with fragrance on my light bulbs as Françoise de la Renta does.” Ms. Revson, wife of the late Charles Revson of the

Revlon empire, could afford to put $175an-ounce perfume on the soles of her tennis shoes if she so desired. But a perfume cannot survive on sales to the wealthy alone. More interesting is the phenomenon of the upper priced perfume market reaching into the traditionally medium-to-lower priced mass market sales. The point, it seems, is to buy something, and something expensive. If, in view of the times, this has a danse macabre quality to it, well, it’s nothing new to history.

Every decade has its mood. It could be argued that societies in their vigorous periods favor sobriety and simplicity in their fashions and fragrance, while opulence and extravagance seem to coincide with decline. The mad, romantic ’30s, filled with silk-stockinged girls taking baths in champagne or perfume, appear more desperate in light of our knowledge of the Depression to follow. The ’50s and ’60s were the post-war periods of rebuilding and rebirth with the emphasis on sleek, clean technology. Now welcome 1979 and another grand last fling. Welcome necklaces of hammered silver flacons ready to hold an ounce of Leo Chevalier parfum. Welcome to decadence, a furious contest to spend, spend, spend, in which the rich buy gold bars, houses, hot tubs and imported ready-to-wear while the rest of the working public may buy, well, perfume, bath oils, eau de cologne and so on.

Today the rush to produce new perfumes with a fresh, “green,” natural note is over. The youth market with its zingy Babe and Charlie scents, with large bottles of cologne selling at less than $10, is a golden success story—but full up. The growing market is for the exotic smells: the heavy musky floral combinations that every woman is warned not to wear into the office or before the sun sets. Perfume names bespeak the new heady delight in corruption and decadence—Opium, marketed with ads that hint at languorous and unspeakable delights for the wearer; perfume packaging that celebrates sophistication—Leo Chevalier’s black, handmade boxes; perfume fragrances heavy with rich floral notes; or the combination of synthetic and natural oils called aldehydic florals which began with the great aldehydic grandma of them all, Chanel No. 5.

Behind this merchandised aura of sin-and-sophistication are the cold realities—and conflicts—of business. Perfume prices are skyrocketing because of the depressed dollar and the increasing price of natural ingredients. It takes 10,000 pounds of rose petals to produce one pound of natural rose oil that costs as much as $7,000. Synthetic rose oil costs $50 a pound and is not subject to the vagaries of labor disputes, weather and crop failures. Synthetics are show-

ing up with increasing regularity in the higher priced perfumes. The smell is indistinguishable from the natural fragrances but experts claim the staying power of synthetics is shorter—which may be why some long-time perfume devotees are complaining that their regular perfume is fading much faster than it used to.

But natural ingredients have their drawbacks, says Madeline Morris, supervisor of marketing development for Norda International Ltd. in Toronto, a large wholesale producer of perfume. “They are more volatile. You don’t necessarily get the same smell from one batch of roses as another. Often you have to throw out entire batches.” Not only the ingredients are unstable: “If you eat a particularly spicy or greasy meal,” explains Morris, “you’ll affect the pheromones your body produces which will, depending on the person and the meal, affect the smell of the fragrance you are wearing.” Says Chevalier associate Sandra Hubar poetically—and somewhat wistfully: “Nature varies from berry to berry but if I ever suggested synthetics to Leo I wouldn’t have his name on the label. It’s got to be all pure ingredients for him.”

Chevalier’s carriage-trade perfume tastes are, in fact, a reflection of the Canadian public’s tastes—or at least the Canadian public-according-to-marketing-surveys. Once he decided to get in on the fragrance market Chevalier followed a standard procedure. Several large laboratories in Europe tendered for the job of “creating” the Leo Chevalier signature fragrance. The Swiss lab Chevalier chose came up with a market and perfume “profile” based on a careful study of Chevalier’s habits, clients, style and, one assumes, birthmarks and any eccentricities. This all went off to perfumers who prepared smells to match the profile. “The trouble was,” says Hubar, “they had a dozen ideas of what Leo was and half of them tended to resemble dental surgeons.” Costs escalated with the packaginghandmade boxes and crystal bottles from France. “The packaging costs are 20 per cent of the price,” says Hubar, “and I haven’t even kept track of the promotion money spent. But all the same, we’re delivering a Rolls-Royce and we’re only charging for a Mercedes.”

Mercedes and Rolls-Royces —the right vocabulary for the image-conscious perfume business. “It’s a lifestyle and a romance,” explains Hubar. That it is, all right, and this winter as the lights—or power supplies—begin to dim all over the world, why shouldn’t beleaguered Canadian consumers take time out from their no-name brands and enjoy a little romance and a brush with the aroma of a Rolls-Royce? lt;£?