Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Persolaise Review: Modern Muse from Estée Lauder (Harry Fremont; 2013)

The people at Lauder are calling Modern Muse their biggest feminine fragrance launch since Beyond Paradise (Calice Becker's otherworldly garden of green jasmine from 2003). The advertising campaign would certainly seem to back this up: the posters are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and department stores are starting to make more room for the displays featuring the thin, navy blue ribbon tied around the fragrance's image. Given such heavy-weight publicity, it's reasonable to predict that the elegant bottle will find itself tucked under several Christmas trees later this year.

I have no problem whatsoever with this. I've always been fond of the Lauder brand (Youth Dew, White Linen and, indeed, Beyond Paradise are personal favourites) and I admire the way it continues to place reasonable price tags on more-than-decent scents. So in some senses, I'm not overly bothered by the fact that Modern Muse is not a great perfume. Don't worry: it's not terrible either. It is a pleasant piece of work with wonderful projection, excellent tenacity and enough grace to put a gentle smile on the faces of the people it passes. But in my view, such issues are almost besides the point, because Modern Muse may well be a creation whose merits are less important than the long-term impact it might have.

The scent is essentially a translucent, dewy jasmine (the patchouli cited in the marketing material amounts to little more than the clean, temperate woodiness which passes for patchouli in mainstream creations) with a DNA closely related to that of J'Adore (and, by extension, Grand Bal, as well as the new Botanical Essence No 100 from Liz Earle). Consign me to the vat of boiling oil labelled 'Pesky Geeks' , but I confess that I find this rather interesting. Here's why.

Firstly, MM's scent profile makes it clear that Lauder consider 2013 to be a time not to rock the boat. They may have felt sufficiently comfortable to push the boundaries of commercial creativity in the past, but they obviously want their most high-profile release for 10 years to play it safe. Secondly, it causes the perfume to appear less 'American' than other releases from the brand. Of course, Beyond Paradise was a jasmine too, but it possessed such clinical, sci-fi edginess, that I'm sure very few people would ever have mistaken it for a French creation. MM seems interested in extending its reach beyond the shores of its homeland, mainly by including softer, fleshier, more skin-friendly notes in its construction.

Then there's the name. Granted, it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue - and I can't imagine it'll transfer well to non-English speaking markets - but it does come across as a statement of intent. So what is it saying? Is it to be taken as Lauder's attempt to grab the attention of - and, in part, redefine - The American Woman of the second decade of the 21st century? Is it a move to suggest that the female who plastered herself with Biblical resins in the 50s, smelt as fresh as a newly mown tennis court in the 70s, instilled fear into an entire board meeting with a hint of her floral bouquet in the 80s, and wanted her smell to transport her into celestial infinity in the Noughties has now moved on? Is she now an American who wishes to achieve a perfect balance of elegance, ostentatiousness and pre-sexual revolution femininity?

Or is it actually a sign that she's less American than ever? Does her insistence on safe - dare I say: bland? - internationalism suggest that her sights are set on a country far removed from the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Consider this: the publicity bumf states that MM is the first perfume to contain an absolute from a jasmine sambac grown in China. Could this be the key to unlocking the perfume's real raison d'etre? Is MM, in fact, Lauder's first attempt to take aim at the insatiable Chinese market? Certainly, Hollywood has already started playing the Sino-seduction game: increasing numbers of big-studio film projects are coming to life thanks to Chinese money. Perhaps the USA's foremost, mainstream scent brand would like to get in on the act too...

I concede that these musings may well amount to little more than conjecture. I'm just playing fast and loose with my thoughts. But if MM turns out to be successful, it may cause a real shift in manufacturer-customer power relations in the perfume industry. We'll just have to wait and see if buyers fall for its innocuous charms. Meanwhile, I look forward to Jacques Cavallier's first perfume for the brand which always seems to excite the salivary glands of Chinese tourists: Louis Vuitton.

[Review based on a sample of eau de parfum provided by Estee Lauder in 2013.]



  1. Well, I'm not sure that I have formed an opinion on EL's internationalism with this release. But it is certainly safe. It's very pretty and well done, with a bottle that's a bit more appealing than EL usually bothers with. But safe. I agree with those who have noticed a resemblance to NR for Her. Even if you find a difference in the notes, the appeal of the fragrances is identical: casual, effortless, elegant, no weird notes or heavy historical baggage. Pleasures was doing the same work for Lauder in the 1990s, and Sensuous too, in the mid-2000s. (It's interesting how Sensuous is being written out of the story.)

    I find all of them devoid of any references to culture or place. Like an iPod. The iPod I gave my daughter for her birthday a few weeks ago would have been identical to the iPod a mother in China would have handed her daughter for her birthday on the same day.

    1. Annemariec, thanks very much for your comment. You may well be right about the internationalism; I was just putting the idea out there, to see how it would fare in the glare of my readers' scrutiny.

      I too find it interesting that Lauder seems to be marginalising some of its own creations. Very Estee came out only last year, and yet it's already slipped under the radar.

  2. speaking as a chinese person, i don't really think this is an attempt to break into the asian fragrance market - any more than most light, "fresh" fragrances released on the market these days are, anyway. publicity briefs are always listing ingredients obtained from "exotic" locales, anyway - japanese osmanthus, indonesian jasmine, moroccan what-have-you. i don't think the statement that the jasmine used is chinese has particular intent, although i could be wrong...

    i'm in agreement with annemarie - EL's fragrances are always well-constructed, elegant, with good longevity (you definitely get bang for your buck), but i don't find them very exciting. this goes for modern muse, too. if anything, modern muse is just an attempt to update EL's rather 'dowdy' image - in hong kong most of the women buying EL's fragrance, beauty and makeup products are of a 'certain age', and it seems that's the case everywhere else too.

    1. Yes, EL has a dilemma. Women of that 'certain age' (I am one myself) tend to have a fair amount of money to spend and they are loyal. One they find a favourite product, they will stick to it. But no cosmetic company wants a dowdy image and they all chase the ever self-renewing youth market.

    2. Anon, thanks for stopping by. Yes, brands are always reaching for 'exotic' labels when they publish lists of notes, but the fact that this one placed a particular emphasis on China got my mind racing.

      I get what you're saying about the 'safeness' of EL's image. Personally, I find Beyond Paradise and Youth Dew and Cinnabar very exciting, but yes, in recent years, the brand has certainly opted to play quieter tunes.

    3. Annemariec, I think you're absolutely right. Look at what Chanel did last year. They tried to make No 5 more contemporary by associating it with Brad Pitt. I'll let you decide if they succeeded...

    4. Maybe the renewed attention translated into extra sales for No 5. I'd love to know. But surely there was longer term damage done to brand by all the spoofs and derisive comments, the hoots of laughter? Even my local small town radio station had a go at the Brad Pitt ads. That can't be good. The ads have disappeared, that's for certain. The Kidman and Tatou ads were were run for a couple of years, but Brad was gone within months.

    5. Annemariec, I expect you're right about the advert. I suppose there's a chance it'll return before Christmas... but I doubt it, somehow. Or maybe we'll get a new version?? :-)

  3. Oh, so much to think about. I do agree that the marketing has been "different" to say the least. It's like they've ignored Sensuous and all of its flankers. I'm still unclear of the intent of Modern Muse.

    Oddly, this is one that I forget if I'm not smelling it. My mind just says "oh clean jasmine" but I can't remember anything about its character.

    1. Victoria, I think you're absolutely right about it's 'forgettable' nature. It seems determined not to stand out in any particular way.


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