Editor’s note: This piece used language and sentence structure similar to that of a post on Bois de Jasmin, Victoria Frolova’s blog about perfume, without properly citing or acknowledging it. Slate apologizes to Ms. Frolova.
When did we start wanting to smell like celebrities? Browsing the perfume aisles at Sephora these days is like flipping through an issue of Hello! (Editor’s note: This sentence was unacceptably close to the following sentence from a posting on Bois de Jasmin, Victoria Frolova’s blog about perfume: “Walking through the fragrance aisles of Sephora makes me feel as if I am browsing through a Hello magazine with the names like Britney Spears, J.Lo, Paris Hilton, and Kimora Lee Simmons popping before my eyes.” Slate apologizes to Ms. Frolova.) Tasteful displays devoted to classics like Chanel No. 5 have given way to brazen pink stands touting Britney Spears’ or Paris Hilton’s latest fragrance. From J. Lo to Celine Dion to Maria Sharapova to Kimora Lee Simmons to Alan Cumming, anyone ever boldfaced by Page Six seems to have a signature scent.
The thought of daubing a bit of Mary-Kate and Ashley’s Coast to Coast on the pulse points will most likely result in a case of the vapors for a fan of perfumes from the esteemed house of Guerlain. But fragrance snobs should take note: Quite a few of these celebrity scents are of surprisingly high quality. Cabaret stage star Alan Cumming’s fragrance, Cumming, may at first blush be most remarkable for its name’s dumb double-entendre, but the scent is refined and smartly constructed. Cumming is a witty, rather macho blend of bergamot, black pepper, Scotch pine, whiskey, peat, and white truffle that belies the star’s epicene image. Mega-millionaire rap housewife and underwear impresario Kimora Lee Simmons also reins in some of her excess with her scent Baby Phat Goddess; she stifles her inner vulgarian and offers a surprisingly light gardenia- and rosebud-inflected eau de toilette.
In fact, if the savvy perfume connoisseur is willing to look beyond the cheesy names and chintzy bottles, he or she may discover one of the best-kept secrets of the billion-dollar fragrance industry: Many of the for-the-masses celebrity scents sold by the truckload at Target are in fact created with the same ingredients, in the same laboratories, and by the same highly trained “noses” as the top-drawer designer perfumes. Steve DeMercado, for example, worked on both hip-as-hell Marc Jacobs’ eponymous first fragrance and trashy-sexy Paris Hilton’s similarly self-named perfume. This may be olfactory heresy, but I prefer Hilton’s scent—a spicy, magazine-slick mix of apple, peach nectar, and the tropical flower ylang ylang—to Marc Jacobs de trop gardenia affair.
Another pedigreed fence-jumper is Dominique Ropion. One of the most highly regarded perfume designers in the world, Ropion is the creator of such upscale scents as Givenchy’s Amarige and Frederic Malle’s excellent new Carnal Flower (which costs $230 for a 100-milliliter bottle). But he’s also the genius behind Jennifer Lopez’s fourth successful fragrance, Live (which retails for less than $40). Ropion is known for blending scents that are sensory opposites but that somehow work together in wonderfully unexpected ways. With Live, he melds sandalwood with pineapple, tonka beans with violets, and rests it all on a base of toasted caramel. While all of J. Lo’s perfumes (2002’s Glow, 2003’s Still, 2004’s Miami Glow, and last year’s Live)were commercial successes created by Coty Lancaster—one of the world’s oldest and most esteemed perfume houses—Live is viewed, among perfume cognoscenti, as an indisputable artistic triumph as well.
From a business perspective, attaching a celebrity’s name to a scent is a sound strategy for quickly and relatively cheaply capitalizing on even fleeting renown. Building a brand used to take many years and millions of marketing dollars, but now, with the power of fame—or infamy—it can be achieved almost instantly. The 2002 launch of J. Lo’s first scent, Glow, was the second most successful perfume launch ever, after Calvin Klein’s 1994 C.K. One. Among many cosmetics executives, J. Lo is credited not just with sparking a trend but with revitalizing an entire industry.
The celebrity perfume trend has resulted in some surprising bedfellows. One innovative debut paired Tom Ford, the sexy, urbane former Gucci designer, with Estée Lauder, a longtime favorite of Park Avenue matrons. Last fall’s launch of their collaborative effort, Youth Dew Amber Nude, drew more than 1,000 people to the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship store, making it the most successful launch in the store’s history. And I have high hopes for a dark and complicated potion from slinky goth rocker Marilyn Manson, whose witchy brew is scheduled for release this year.
Paradoxically, we have a royal to blame for the democratization of the once-aristocratic world of personal fragrance. Marie Antoinette married into the Versailles aristocracy and quickly developed an extravagant toilette that included dazzling couture, spectacular jewelry, and exquisite perfumes. The ladies of the court began to emulate their queen’s lavish use of scent, and it was not long before the aristocrats of the kingdom followed suit. The trend diffused like a spritz of eau de toilette on a summer breeze—soon even the bourgeoisie were using floral extracts. This meant that less-expensive distillation methods had to be developed to meet the increasing demand. (Perfume production at that time involved the costly enfleurage method.) In fact, the steam distillation techniques developed during Marie Antoinette’s reign are nearly identical to those used today—whether for a midnight-black bottle of Arpège or the latest elixir from Avon.
If there is one area in which the new star-powered scents fail to measure up, it is the design of the bottle. J. Lo and Britney Spears are as guilty of packaging faux pas as they are of sartorial missteps on the red carpet. Both have a penchant for plastic rhinestone initials and the pastel shades usually reserved for the “discreet” boxes of feminine hygiene products. (I immediately decanted my own bottle of Live into a crystal flacon scored at the Rose Bowl flea market—no medicine-cabinet snoop will ever be the wiser.) Many high-end perfume designers pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to a famous sculptor or industrial designer for a striking, expensive-to-manufacture flacon (though the practice is on the wane due to the time and expense involved). These luxury manufacturers know that there will always be consumers willing to pay handsomely for an unoriginal perfume in a spectacular flacon. Still, given the trend toward high-quality design at all price-points—think Isaac Mizrahi at Target—the vessels that hold the potions may catch up with the contents yet. Until then, the mass-market perfumes peddled by self-made entertainment royals simply provide the delight of finding something wonderful in an unspectacular setting. Which is more than enough: Discovering luxury in unexpected places is the greatest luxury of all.