What makes a classic perfume?

What makes a classic perfume?

As fall fragrances begin to land at beauty counters, we wonder what new spritzes will stand the test of time. What will be the next classic?

Engulfed in an all-consuming cloud of Opium, Oscar and Obsession, the 1980s seemed like the heyday of fragrance. But that era of excess was a mere drop in the bucket compared to today’s tidal wave of launches. Less than 100 spritzes debuted in the global fine fragrance market back in ’85, according to the U.K.-based Fragrance Foundation. By 2005, the number of annual launches had swelled to more than 700. Yet despite all the new arrivals vying for a coveted spot on our increasingly crowded vanity tables, an exclusive clique of decades-old favourites remains stubbornly fixed on bestseller lists, unfazed by trends. What’s the secret to their classic status?

The iconic scents that stand the test of time possess a magic combination of art and alchemy, marketing savvy and chutzpah.

They wink at perfume’s pedigreed past, nod to the here and now, and benefit from impeccably good timing. Our rekindled love affair with them isn’t surprising, given the roller-coaster ride—war, recession, political anxiety—we’ve all been on in recent years: Our emotional selves crave comfort. “When times are tough and complicated, like the last few years, we long for simplicity,” says Toronto-based senior retail consultant Andrea Elliott, who has worked with such classic brands as Gap, J.Crew and Pottery Barn. “The classics are simple and come with under-stated quality. They provide calmness from the excess and exhaustion of society today.” And what could be easier than donning a classic perfume? It’s a style no-brainer, the olfactory equivalent of the little black dress.

But while they seem so simple today, the classics were anything but when they first hit the scene. They were fragrances that rocked the perfume establishment; scents of change. Take Chanel N°5, which remains—some 90 years after its introduction—the top seller in Canada. With its bold personality and abundance of aldehydes (synthetic notes that impart a novel, sparkling fresh-ness), it stood in stark contrast to the common scents of the day when Coco, the iconoclast, launched it to the Paris in-crowd. At the onset of the Roaring Twenties, most were still clinging to the Victorian notion that women should smell of delicate garden blooms. N°5 was not a simple one-note floral, typical of the time period, but rather an abstract concoction mixing rose, jasmine and ylang-ylang—unusual, androgynous, controversial.

Four years after Chanel N°5 made a splash, Guerlain introduced Shalimar in homage to opulent India. History has it that it was born of the union of Jicky—a sophisticated fragrance with undercurrents of sultry musk, ambergris and animalistic civet—and a wallop of a newly created synthetic vanilla. “Shalimar was very audacious at its time,” says Thierry Wasser, Guerlain’s in-house perfumer. “French women were a bit afraid when we launched it. Its construction with the surdose of vanilla was unknown, [although] very trendy now. It is the genius of Jacques Guerlain to create a perfume which destabilized.” For Wasser, it is the details that make a fragrance destabilizing and interesting, “especially when these details are expressed in an overdose.” Shalimar also embodies the characteristic common to all classic scents, says Wasser: “a simple idea, expressed in a strong way.

Issey Miyake had a singular vision too. He broke the mould in 1992 with L’Eau d’Issey, an almost anti-fragrance fragrance inspired by water on skin. After the pungent decade of excess, defined by such scents as the floral-in-overdrive Giorgio Beverly Hills and Dior’s high-octane floriental Poison, L’Eau was profound. Its aquatic-floral nature—with transpar-ent notes of lotus, melon, peony and lily—was crisp, clear and young, a bellwether for the coming minimalist-leaning times.

Many classics originated during a time when fragrance houses took more risks.

So says New York nose Anne Gottlieb, who helped craft many hits: Calvin Klein Obsession, Eternity and CK One; Marc Jacobs Daisy; and Dior J’adore, among them. CK One was nothing short of a game changer, she says. Not only did it spark controversy with its androgynous grunge marketing, but the juice also defied convention. “Up until then, fragrances were extroverted and extraordinarily long-lasting. Then came this sheer, transparent, easy-to-wear fragrance.” Gottlieb points to another classic that broke the mould: Thierry Mugler’s Angel, a radical departure from what existed back in 1992, with its genre-making gourmand sweetness. It smelled of caramel, vanilla and praline, its near-cloying originality cut with a sexy and resinous woody-patchouli base.

The biggest challenge in the business is to create a perfume with both a great signature—a unique character, essential to achieving classic status—and broad commercial appeal, says Gottlieb. “The more polarizing a fragrance is, the longer it takes to be accepted by the public.” And, we deduce, the greater its market potential.

Céline Launay, fine fragrance expert at L’Oréal, agrees that the fragrance world’s great classics are the risky, opinionated ones. Currently, white musks are the go-to ingredients for fragrances because “they completely satisfy current perfume market demands for reassurance, softness and comfort in reaction to crisis and war,” she says. “They make fragrances rounder, smooth and tenacious, and add a powdery and enveloping cocooning note.”

But what of the new and unusual? Launay’s eyes light up when she speaks of an upcoming launch for the Maison Martin Margiela brand. It will be different, she insists, a distinctive perfume with a signature note of galbanum—a green, coniferous essence that lends a herbaceous, even bitter, character. Promisingly, Launay predicts, it will not appeal to everyone. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Looking back, that perfume which Launay speaks of, is of course, Margiela’s Untitled.]

Beyond the juice itself, a breathtaking perfume bottle has always been part of a classic’s secret to success.

The total package, after all, is integral to the fantasy embraced when one purchases a scent, which is especially true in the fashion realm, where if you can’t afford the couture, you can always hope to channel the high life via an A-list spritz. Consider the cubist perfection of the Chanel N°5 flacon, the organic sculpture of Donna Karan Cashmere Mist, the ethereal kissing doves of Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps and the pristine strength of Fabien Baron’s glass cone for Miyake.

Today’s shoppers miss bottles made with real investment, says London-based bottle designer Ross Lovegrove when asked about women’s appreciation for beautiful packaging. We’re nostalgic for a time “when perfumes were created with true belief in femininity, sensuality and luxury.” A brilliant bottle breaks through the clutter. “I understand there are around 800 new bottle designs launched each year, and because of this, the importance of the quality of the design and production is becoming paramount, especially for respected brands who wish to stand apart in their dignity, elegance and originality,” says Lovegrove, who created the exquisite metallic bottles for the Narciso Rodriguez Essence Eau de Musc collection. The sculptural vessels are sensual and mirrored like molten silver—miniature art for the vanity top. His direction from Rodriguez was to take inspiration from the golden era of perfume design. A bottle “should be delicate and dimensional as an indicator of the importance and value of the scent it contains,” adds Lovegrove, whose creations have been exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “Packaging is a tool for seduction.”

Without question, the last decade has seen companies refocus on the bottle. Vying for new-classic distinction, we have the faceted perfection of the Balenciaga Paris flask with its crackled marble-like cap, the weighty glass and swivelling metal of Voyage d’Hermès, and the charming Marc Jacobs Daisy with its white-rubber blossom cap, which channels designs from the 1950s but with a quirky spin that clearly captures the current zeitgeist. “Designers and manufacturers are stepping out of the box, and they’re interspersing more of a fashion element,” observes Lori Singer, group vice-president of global marketing for Coty prestige fragrances. “They’re taking risks, and it adds to the whimsy.”

But an arresting scent and a beautiful bottle do not a true classic make. Marketing has pushed a few above and beyond. Glossy, provocative imagery and a pitch-perfect message spin a perfume’s tale—transporting us to incense-filled souks, verdant rainforests or private jets and five-star hotels with all-you-can-quaff Cristal—embodying the intangibles of fragrance: beauty, mystique and sex.

Take CK One. It’s nearly impossible to conjure that citrusy ’90s scent without the bold, black-and-white photography asserting itself: a skinny rocker boy in sleek black trousers; the tattooed beauty Shimizu and a waifish Kate Moss in a midriff-baring tee and miniskirt; the throaty voice-over, “CK One: a fragrance for a man or a woman from Calvin Klein.” On the flip side of CK One’s ambiguous sexuality, we have Dior’s ad for J’adore featuring Charlize Theron. Strutting through a palatial set, disrobing as she goes, the actress is the mesmerizing essence of the glamorous fragrance—her blond crop, swirling gown and jewels the material equivalent of the perfume’s heady ylang-ylang, rose and ripe, fruity notes. Ingenious ad campaigns have long employed the hot-topic model or actress to seduce us. Sexy, impeccably styled mini movies, crafted by big-name directors—Martin Scorsese (for Bleu de Chanel), Guy Ritchie (Dior Homme) and Sofia Coppola (Miss Dior Chérie)—routinely romance us on the small screen too.

But when the marketing is at its best, the star does not outshine the brand but merely adds to the aura, says Shelley Rozenwald, chief beauty adventurer at the Bay, citing Chanel and Dior as companies that have played the celebrity card brilliantly. “The brand is always first and foremost, and the actress is the accessory,” she says, “but it’s the accessory that makes the outfit.” Chanel, for example, signed Audrey Tautou in 2009, Carole Bouquet in the ’90s, Catherine Deneuve in the ’70s, and Lauren Hutton and Cheryl Tiegs in the ’60s to add currency to its promotional power. Even Marilyn Monroe, the ultimate bombshell and headline stealer, was a Chanel ambassador but did not eclipse the brand. “It all starts with a great product and a great brand,” Rozenwald says, “but it’s the marketing that keeps it alive and relevant.”

Word has it that a bottle of Chanel N°5 is sold somewhere in the world every 30 seconds—a staggering achievement given today’s standing-room-only fragrance counters. But N°5 is, by most accounts, the most classic of all classic perfumes. At its core, Coco Chanel and her perfumer, Ernest Beaux, pushed the envelope with the olfactory art back in 1921 and, in so doing, proposed a new style of femininity perfectly in sync with the rebellious spirit of the times. The company has also never messed with the original formula, asserting to the world, past and present, that it could not be improved upon. The bottle and the advertising have always been elegant, sexy and one-of-a-kind—worthy even of inclusion in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The wise words of Chanel echo still: “In order to be irreplaceable,” she said, “one must always be different.”

*This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Flare Magazine.

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Deborah Fulsang has spent the last two decades as a journalist covering news and trends in the worlds of style—in fashion and beauty, design and décor, food and entertaining. Her long-held love of fragrance led her to launch The Whale & The Rose, a destination for all things perfume-related. Now, when she indulges in a crazy-expensive bottle of fragrance, she can do so guilt-free. Well almost. It’s all in the name of research after all.