Perfume and high fashion: an unlikely pair

Dior, Chanel, Givenchy, Tom Ford: these brands simultaneously evoke high fashion and perfume. However, as much as we think these two worlds are closely intertwined is curiously paradoxical...

Published on
October 2nd 2020

Samuel Fillon

Louis Vuitton FW 2021 via Chloé Maurin @ Grazia

What’s more, one could even say that they’re diametrically opposed: they drastically differ in rhythm, what with high-fashion’s frantic cyclical collections versus perfume's hegemonic longevity, wherein scents are recognized 40 years after their original release. With this in mind, let us travel in time in search of the connection between high-fashion and beautiful scents.

The desire for new scents can be as unpredictable as the urge for a new outfit. We choose them based on the circumstances: a little black dress, a polished suit, a sun-drenched weekend, perhaps a bright, floral number. It’s true – some women stay faithful to one bottle their entire life, but they are in the minority, on average women have around 7 different perfumes on their dressers at any given time. Oscillating between the visible and the imperceptible, the tangible and the olfactory, perfume and clothing are the two secret weapons that compose the arsenal of seduction. From the appearance of perfume designers to the niche houses that revolutionize the code of the day, let us dive into the passionate history between perfume and high-fashion.

One man, one beginning

Paul Poiret, 1911. At the time, he was already one of the most distinguished fashion designers of his generation. His idea? Launch a line of perfumes called Rosine’s Perfumes, named after his daughter. Historically, all perfume sales were exclusively through apothecaries up until the Renaissance, when a more “expert” tendency began to appear, especially with the establishment of Maître Gantier-Parfumeur up until the 18th century. Finally, in the 19th and 20th centuries we find the first true perfumers. Looking back, Paul Poiret had excellent style and flair, but he was missing good marketing instincts. His mistake? Not capitalizing on his name and notoriety. Unfortunately, Rosine’s perfumes are experiencing a moment of success that is running out of steam, and leaving behind a faint legacy.

The Great War raged on and with it, people’s preoccupations – there was little time for distraction. A few years after the war’s end, in 1921, Gabrielle Chanel made Ernest Beaux create the emblematic Nº 5 that would go on to become the most famous fragrance of all time. Loaded with expensive flowers (to safeguard against duplicates and copies) and bold aldehydes, that moment of extraordinary originality marked the beginning of an unprecedented obsession with perfumes. Chanel’s collections were already on the cutting edge of fashion, therefore by incorporating fragrances, the brand pioneered what’s now known as the “total look,” the idea that an outfit isn’t complete without perfume. "Il n’y a pas d’élégance possible sans parfum. C’est l’invisible, ultime et inoubliable accessoire".

This revolution gave way to an entire generation of perfume designers: Jeanne Lanvin, Worth, Paquin, Molineux, not to mention the hat and fur designers – among them Elsa Schiaparelli – who pivoted to perfume and adopted it as the center of their craft. The manufacturers in Grasse were delighted with the newfound interest in perfumery, many moved there for the new work opportunities. In March of 1927, the newspaper Excelsior would ask, “Is the great designer qualified to create perfume?” and bluntly answered, “This type of business is unworthy of them, who have no need of increasing their profits by encroaching on the trade of others.”

Post-war Perfume

High-fashion had opened the door for dozens of other trades to enter: jewelers, lapidaries, furriers, watch-makers, all of them join the fray. Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy … All of the great post-war designers follow the footsteps and legacy of Coco Chanel. In 1947, Dior creates Miss Dior and, just as Chanel did, promotes the perfume as a lifestyle and a concept that transcends the brand itself. “Perfume is the finishing touch to a dress. A perfume is an open door to an unknown universe, that is why I became a perfumer, the only thing I have to do is open a bottle in order to see all of my dresses and so that every woman I dress leaves behind a trace of desire.” – Christian Dior

From high-fashion to pret-a-porter, perfume begins to defy the norm

During the 1970s, perfume production became international and democratic. Less high-end pret-a-porter brands like Hugo Boss, Cacharel and Lacoste began launching their own perfume lines. Cosmetic giants, like Estee Lauder and Shiseido do the same. Finally, the massive trend for celebrity fragrances begins in the United States rounds out the total mass-production and popularization of perfume. The cherry on top: Perfume got to Prisunic (now Monoprix) in 1978, Pierre Cardin brought “Choc” to supermarket chain Carrefour that same year.

In the 80s and 90s, the new generation of designers; Jean Paul Gaultier, Issey Miyake, Narciso Rodriguez, even Thierry Mugler all understood that perfume allowed them to prolong the stylistic effects of their fashion creations. Narciso Rodriguez introduced sensual and silky notes to accompany the textures of his satin dresses while Thierry Mugler created a contrast between a near-violent femininity and a fantastical, comic book aesthetic.
Little by little, women began to change up their looks and as a result, their scents. In 1993, Escada launched a limited-time fragrance to be sold alongside their summer collection. Chiffon Sorbet was a massive success and so it was continued: sales increased exponentially with the frequent release of different versions (or “flankers”).

Fashion and perfume: the divide

Even if it’s impossible to untangle the world of perfume from the world of fashion, there are several notable differences.

First, as opposed to seasonal clothing collections, perfume transcends decades and trends. While it is true that fashion inspires modern innovation, brands that develop perfumes hope to capture the distinctive spirit of the brand itself. Essentially, if fashion is fleeting but defined by exact parameters, perfume synthesizes those changing styles into a lasting essence. Therefore, the two are opposite but extraordinarily complementary.

Designers understood from early on that perfume was a luxury that only a fraction of the population could afford to purchase, and still they maintained perfume as a central tenet in the (admittedly inaccessible) “lifestyle” fantasies they had sought to create. In a world in which everything is constantly changing, perfume slows time down by providing atemporal olfactory experiences. Nevertheless, it also allows perfumers and designers to secure new clients, thereby guaranteeing high profit margins. What was once a simple accessory now carries the brand through time and allows it to transcend; while clothing creation remains the star of the show.

Perfume and fashion, evolutionary antagonists

As the fashion expert Marylene Delbourg-Delphis analyzes in her book Le Sillage des Elégantes, the answer to these questions is paradoxical, at the very least.

  • Between the Second Empire and the First World War (before the appearance of the perfume designer), fashion and perfume seemed to evolve simultaneously, as if there were an organic connection between them: “When the Second Empire,” she explains “creates an imposing figure, it places women on a pedestal, decorum requires modesty in the form of scents [...]”
  • After 1870, silhouettes began to grow longer, slowly but surely. At the same time, scents become stronger. [...]
    Between 1850 and 1914, fashion and perfumery vary inversely but jointly: What was lost in meters of fabric was gained in intensity of notes.
  • Finally, though it may come as a surprise, following the 1920s, the perfume business resists the total unity between itself and fashion, a wish heavily supported by the press and the designers themselves at the time. Perfume is established as an autonomous object, independent of high fashion and capable of creating its own styles. This thread of discourse was evidently going against the naturally-converging stylistic tendency between clothing collections and fragrances.

The renaissance of “specialized” perfume brands

The most surprising phenomenon of the last 15 years has been, without a doubt, the boom in what are known as niche perfumeries (Annick Goutal, L'Artisan Parfumeur, Serge Lutens and later Frédéric Malle, The Different Company) Before this, they were top secret and survived in the shadows of the celebrated high-fashion brands, but now these niche fragrance houses are the driving force of trends in the business, according to designers and aficionados alike. Be it the quality of the raw materials, or coveted “clean” and “natural” scents, these “indie” brands tends to be at the forefront of change and cause large, well-established houses to redefine their models so as to not be rendered obsolete. Every high-fashion house now offers premium scents inspired both in price and quality by these niche brands. Perfumers, previously subcontracted by large composition companies (Firmenich, Givaudan, IFF, Mane) are as often reinstated for consistency as they are for prestige. Specifically, we’d like to mention Jean-Claude Ellena and Christine Nagel, the “noses” behind Hermès, Jacques and Olivier Polge from Chanel as well as François Demachy from Dior.

In just a few years, independent perfumery, emancipated (in some sense) from the constraints of high-fashion and other passing trends, has consolidated itself at the forefront of what is chic and trendy. It’s as if we needed perfume to support fashion in order for it to truly become “fashionable” again…

Source: Anne-Sophie Trébuchet-Breitwiller, IFM, Centre de sociologie de l’innovation

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