When they rise above cultural commercial trash and even above great commercial product, perfumes are works of art.
Film is the only other major artistic medium as thoroughly commercialized as scent. Because of this, Paris and New York have marketing armies equal to Hollywood’s, and given the deadly landslides of launches down mountains of PR dollars, one understands the marketer’s impulse to find a toehold — any toehold — that will keep you on the rock face. There is however one marketing cliché I think does much more harm than good: these two paragraphs from Proust about his damn madeleine.
It’s not just that it has reached the level of parody. The Proust gambit reduces perfumes to Prozac, or methamphetamine for that matter.
A perfume is not a psychopharmaceutical acting on the frontal cortex’s memory cells. Of course perfumes are liquid time machines. They are memory triggers, often extraordinarily powerful ones. Nanotechnology mnemonic devices. Where chloroform dissolves consciousness, scent molecules awaken remembering.
But the point is that they only work if, first, they’re great and, second, if they’re given time. You can’t have a remembrance of a thing past until it’s in your past that you smelled that thing. Not incidentally this is what an iconic perfume is, one that stays at the top of the list for decades, or a lifetime, because it’s a great work of art on its own terms. I remember L’interdit from Givenchy because it was the smell of my mother’s kiss before she left for a party, and it plays a role in my life at age 47 because it’s great enough that it’s still here.
How about we not throw Proust’s madeleine at people. How about we make works of art of materials and by talents great enough that our children still buy them. Let these machines of scent lay claim to the depths of the brain. They’re the only things that really can.
Photography by Martine Fougeron