I’m sure you’ve worked out which event I’m referring to: Chanel’s launch of Gabrielle, their first stand-alone, mainstream, feminine scent for over a decade. It arrives roughly at the same time as Twilly D’Hermès and Gucci Bloom, and not long after Dior’s Poison Girl and Mugler’s Aura. Look a little bit further back and you’ll also find Estée Lauder’s Modern Muse (whose flankers just keep coming) as well as Guerlain’s La Petite Robe Noire. All of them - with their marketing, their design and their smells - are clamouring for the attention of females below the age of 30.
The direct reason for this is clear: very few young women are buying perfume (see Zoe Wood's Guardian article for more). Why they’re not buying perfume is a more complex matter, probably best left for another day. But in simple terms, I’d suggest it stems from a new generation’s desire not to follow its predecessors’ habits, and also from financial realities around youngsters having less disposable income and needing to save their earnings for basics like accommodation. However, like I said, let’s put that to one side for today.
At the moment, I’m more interested in what these brands consider to be the smells that will entice twentysomethings to part with their pennies. In other words: what are the olfactory codes that are being chosen to represent the identities of the women currently establishing their independence, entering the workplace and starting their families?
Well, if we’re to draw our conclusions from Gabrielle, the current ‘modern young woman’ is interested in safety, predictability and a very soft-focus rendition of girliness. If those sound like harsh words, I should make it clear that I don’t think Gabrielle is a bad perfume. On the contrary, I think it’s extremely well-composed (it is by Olivier Polge, after all) and it radiates and lasts with the sort of impressiveness we rightly expect from one of the world’s most prestigious brands. But despite all the marketing claims about affinities with Mademoiselle Chanel’s bold sense of rebellion, it displays no novelty.
Bright citruses. Large, department-store-friendly, catch-all florals (mostly ylang ylang). And then the seemingly obligatory base of musks. You’ve smelt it all before. Granted, you haven’t often smelt it in such a seamless, professionally-assembled manner. But you have definitely smelt it before. Far from being a mould-breaker, Gabrielle doesn’t know quite which identity to adopt. She seems to possess no clear vision of her own personality, so she just repeats what all her friends are doing. Consider this in the light of the scent’s advertising material - which makes heavy use of Mlle Chanel’s statement about appropriating a self-selected identity - and you can’t help but chuckle at the irony.
But then, having said all that, I genuinely believe that it is unrealistic of us to expect originality from Chanel’s mainstream range. Gabrielle was never going to be an original. There is far too much riding on it and far too much being spent on its promotion - for instance: an entire, two-storey pop-up shop on Bond Street - for it to be the slightest bit risky. Yes, it’s a state of affairs that leaves a sour smell in our noses, but consider this: maybe we should actually be grateful that Chanel are producing money-spinners which then allow them to inject more creativity into their low-key releases, such as the Exclusifs.
The brand’s publicity material claims that tuberose is present in the composition. If that’s what they’re saying, I’m confident it can’t be an outright fib, but I can’t say I can detect the flower’s dramatic personality in the final product, except perhaps as part of the pearly haze in the background. It’s far more prominent - in fact, it takes centre stage - in Alberto Morillas’ Bloom for Gucci. While there’s no denying that this is the best feminine creation the brand has given us for years (not a difficult feat, mind you) there is also a shoulder-sagging weariness in its white floral heart. It ticks all the boxes as far as the creamy, coconutty, buttery facets are concerned. But it brings nothing new to the field, a fact made even more stark when you compare the fragrance with the likes of Nuit De Bakélite from Naomi Goodsir or Tubéreuse Manifeste from Evody. Bloom is the young woman playing the vintage card, but in an uncommitted, self-conscious way. She cares far too much about what other people think.
This brings us to Mugler’s Aura - put together by Daphne Bugey, Amandine Clerc-Marie, Christophe Raynaud and Marie Salamagne - whose tag line may well have been, ‘We need to care about what people think.’ It’s telling that even a brand whose unique selling point was polarisation has had to suppress that aspect of its identity; clearly, Womanity was one step (or twelve??) too far. Mugler would like us to believe that they’ve retained their edginess - that emerald green is meant to make us think of a jungle on Venus - but don’t be fooled. Aura is essentially a vanillic, gourmand composition, with a few green, vine-like, gunpowdery elements making a brief appearance at the start. I dare say, at some stage of the scent’s development, these more intriguing players may well have been granted key roles. But at the moment, bravery is just as hard to come by at Mugler HQ’s mainstream division as it is anywhere else, so they were relegated to bit parts.
And finally, our most interesting prospect: Christine Nagel’s Twilly for Hermès. Displaying the perfumer’s fascination with tart, vegetal notes, it chops up some water-soaked ginger alongside a few, somewhat demure tuberose petals and a scattering of clean wood shavings. Remarkably, the concoction does display some of the playfulness insisted upon by the advertising material, but the colours are too muted and the spirit is too restrained for the whole to be able to to fizz with a life all its own. So, yet again, we have a sense of timidity, a feeling that this woman would make the world her own if only... if only what? If only she didn’t have bills to pay, I guess.
Somewhere, there is a winning recipe waiting to be discovered, a particular blend that will make young women feel they’ve found an olfactory reflection of their world. I don’t think the big brands have quite come across it yet. Until they do, I suppose we have to wait for the current pot to boil over completely... and then see what's served up next.
[Reviews based on samples provided in 2017 by the respective brands, except Bloom, which was obtained by the author.]