Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Smelly Facts: The First Celebrity Scent?

Hello everyone! I've been busy getting into my new program (I've just started my Research Master and it's full on statistics all the way to June!) but I am preparing a review for an AMAZING fragrance I'd never heard of before for Friday (including contest for a sample)! For today though, I present you with another installment of Fragrance Bouquet's Smelly Facts, this time with a story I've been wanting to share with you ever since I came back from my vacation.

Celebrity scents are currently so very ubiquitous that new ones have come to elicit no more than an eye-roll and perhaps a tired, snide comment (deservedly so, might I add). The Celebuscent Phenomenon might truly only have come into its own in the past decade, but at the same time perfume enthusiasts are well aware of the fact that it is, after all, nothing new. One point of contention however is which was the celebrity scent that started it all. Blogs as well as fashion glossies have attributed the honor (?!) to various celebrities over the years: was it Michael Jackson? No, no, it was Cher! Was it Deneuve? No, Sophia Loren came before that, didn't she? Well, I've come across a particular excerpt that indicates that the first celebrity scent might have come much, much earlier that we all imagined after all. The year would be 1932; the celebrity in question, Colette.

Judith Thurman's astoundingly detailed biography of Colette (which made for a fabulous summer companion by the way) devotes only a few pages to Colette's entrepreneurial venture into the beauty world. However short though, the piece allows us to draw powerful comparisons between then and now: was such a celebrity venture regarded differently back then? The answer is no. Would the primary admirers of the brand then, as now, be the hardcore fans? The answer is a definite yes. Colette did not just launch a single scent, she went the whole proverbial hog and created a brand which she installed into an elegant, Art Deco decorated shop on the rue de Miromesnil, all against the worries of her loved ones (such as those of her last husband, Maurice) that it would "tarnish her image" as Thurman eloquently describes (Thurman, 1999, p. 394). The first products to be ready were a perfume and two tonics. Make-up and creams followed. From Thurman's writing, it transpires that Colette's venture in turn was inspired by the duchess Sforza, who owned an "elegant apothecary" from where she sold perfumes using her name and the prestige of her title to attract clientele. Similar tactics were used by Colette: her own profile decorated the labels of her products while her signature was used as the brand's logo. What followed after the launch of her brand was eerily similar to what happens today: the press, eagerly lapping up the story generated "50.000 francs worth of publicity" (idem, p. 395) for the new entrepreneur, while fans flooded the shop for a chance to sit in her beautician's chair and, of course, to have one of their books signed. At the same time, there was an enormous backlash and outrage, both from the press as well as from fans: Had Colette sold out? Yet more parallels between then and now: Other celebrities of the time would endorse her makeovers, which would in turn lead to appreciation from Colette herself who knew her fortune depended highly on the publicity she would get were the pretty young things of Parisian society to be seen entering or emerging from her shop. Whether it was due to the economic depression however, the fact that you should stick to what you know, the fact that the famous author expanded too fast (she opened two more branches in the same year, one in Saint-Tropez and another in Nantes), or perhaps a combination of all of the above, the enterprise failed by the middle of 1933, ending the prolific writer's break from her books.

Thurman, J. (1999). Secrets of the flesh; A life of Colette. London, UK: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc


PinstripedZebra said...

It seems today that tarnishing your brand is no longer any concern for the celebrities involved in creating brands, the opposite seems to be true! Without a brand of clothing, perfume, and other parafernalia you are not a celebrity.

This in contrast to the old days where they were concerned about selling out, today you want to be seen to sell out, to show off your house and accompanying carcollection on Cribs, to be seen to be succesfull by flaunting your purchases, it is all part of being a star.

Thank you for the history lesson again! Love it


Linda said...

So interesting, dear D! I look forward tremendously to your post tomorrow, and good luck with all your work this coming academic year!

tarleisio said...

This was such an intriguing story! I wasn't aware that Colette launched herself as a lifestyle brand, and she was already - so much! One of my all-time favorite writers, for a start, and now, I'll have to hunt down Judith Thurman's biography. Thurman did such an incredible job on Karen Blixen, so this is a book I can't afford to miss!

What's also interesting to note is the difference between Colette's branding, where she was involved in every step of every process along the way, and today's half-hearted version, endorsed by celebrities who are famous for no great contributions in particular except fame itself. Sad, really, that in the space of about 80-90 years, fame is less about making your unique contributions to the world and much more about facade.

I'm reminded of 'The Emperor's New Clothes'. There's no 'there' there! ;-)