Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Persolaise Review: Dior - The Perfumes by Chandler Burr (Rizzoli; 2014)

This article originally appeared in issue 3 of ODOU magazine
under the title Meeting In The Garden

Christian Dior is one of a tiny number of brands capable of striking a balance between the exclusive and the accessible. Several houses aspire to a similar status, but few pull it off: they either overplay the common touch or they build their ivory towers too high. But Dior - together with two, perhaps three, others - is at home both in the most run-down branches of suburban chemists and in its own, impeccably decorated boutiques with their poker-faced doormen-cum-bouncers. Its name is familiar to the vast majority of high street shoppers, yet it has also been deemed worthy of inclusion at Harrods' new Salon De Parfums, a fitting testament to the extraordinary breadth of its impact.

Analysts would no doubt be able to offer several theories as to how the company has consistently maintained this precarious feat of equilibrium. Chief amongst these would probably be the fact that the people steering its creativity don't try to match all their products to all their markets. They don't adopt a one-size-fits-everyone policy. Some of the brand's output is designed for a wider clientele, whereas the rest is reserved for the world's most prestigious - and therefore, less approachable - retail destinations.

One of the latest offerings from Dior - not a fragrance or a lipstick, but a book - falls firmly into the latter category. For one thing, it's a pricey, gorgeously photographed coffee table affair. For another, it deals with its subject - the brand's perfumery output - in an unashamedly esoteric manner, a fact which will come as no surprise to those who know anything about the man responsible for the prose in the weighty tome: Chandler Burr.

In his recent role as the founder of the Olfactory Art Department of New York's Museum Of Arts And Design, Burr promoted and raised the profile of a framework for perfume appreciation whereby the creations of the world's scent makers are viewed purely in Art History terms. For instance, in the Department's debut exhibition, Aime Guerlain's Jicky was presented as an example of Romanticism and Ernest Beaux's Chanel No. 5 was included as a representation of Modernism. It's an approach that has both critics and supporters. The former argue that it does a disservice to perfumery by expecting it to conform to terminology and conventions which have been borrowed from other art forms and are not entirely appropriate. The latter assert that it finally legitimises the status of olfactory creation and demands that it be taken seriously by critics.

Amongst perfume writers and commentators, the debate is likely to continue for some time. But within the pages of Dior: The Perfumes - consisting mainly of erudite, essay-style examinations of many of the brand's scents - it is non-existent. After all, the book is Burr's domain, and he uses it as an opportunity to espouse his own ideas about how perfume should be perceived and analysed. According to his declarations, Poison is a work of Conceptual Realism, Fahrenheit displays traits of both Modernism and Realism, and Dior Addict is "a combination of literalism and Abstract Expressionism".

He does, of course, qualify these categorisations; it would be unfair to suggest that he merely rattles off long lists of 'isms' without some attempt at explanation and justification. But the approach gives the book a very particular slant, which some may consider to be at odds with the illustrations: many of these focus on the iconic advertising images which have tried, over the years, to persuade the public to part with their pennies in return for a piece of Dior's art.

This potential clash with the company's commercial pursuits raises the question of who decided which of Dior's fragrances would be featured in the book. Not all of the brand's scented wares have been subjected to Burr's critical microscope - Dior Dior, Higher and Dune Pour Homme are telling omissions - so it's worth considering who made the decision as to which fragrances were allowed to remain on the final list and which ones had to be struck off.

During an interview at London's Claridges Hotel, Burr insists the selection reflects not Dior's views, but his own. "There's nothing on there that I didn't want," he says. "It really is a list that worked for me. There were a certain number of perfumes - without naming any specifically - that I just said I didn't find interesting, or significant from either an aesthetic or design point of view. And that was okay. I think there's one thing that's not in there that Dior would've liked, but we just decided that it wouldn't go in."

Indeed, Burr says journalistic independence was of crucial importance to him when he agreed to undertake the project. "Dior approached my agents and said that they wanted to write this book. They described basically what it was about, and I said, 'I'm absolutely not doing it. No way.' The reason was very specific. I had no interest whatsoever in writing marketing copy. None. Even though they said, 'It's not marketing copy. We really want you to write your own texts about these perfumes,' I didn't believe it. So my agent took it back to them and he made them very happy, because it was what they wanted to hear. They came back and they said, 'No, we're really serious.' And then we started talking, and we eventually wrote up a contract, and I jumped in. I was quite wary, even then. But at the end of the day, it was extraordinary."

For a book focussed so resolutely on perfumery as art, it's curious that alongside its examinations of the scents and of Christian Dior himself, it does not present any significant information about the very people whose talents helped shape the company's olfactory identity: the perfumers. There are a few lines on Edmond Roudnitska - the man whose Diorissimo and Eau Sauvage are still considered to be amongst the most important scent creations of all time - but apart from these, the fragrance makers are absent. Burr states the idea of writing about them, or of interviewing those who are still alive, "didn't occur" to him. "I talked to Francois Demachy, the in-house perfumer," he says. "But frankly, getting to Olivier Polge [creator of Dior Homme] would be a pain in the ass now. I'm not sure if his keepers at Chanel would have allowed him to discuss it. And I don't like negotiating that kind of bulls***. It irritates me. Jean-Louis Sieuzac [Fahrenheit] is certainly alive, but... I don't know. We never thought about the project in that way."

Perhaps even more interesting is the absence in the book of the word which is always guaranteed to cause scentusiasts to break out in a cold sweat: reformulation. Since taking up his post at Dior, the aforementioned Demachy has been entirely candid about the need for the brand's scents to be altered and amended in order to bring them into line with current anti-allergen recommendations. Yet Burr's prose would seem to suggest that, for instance, the Diorissimo created in 1956 is exactly the same as that available in shops today.

The even more complicated issue of Miss Dior is also avoided: many will be aware that the current iteration of the 1947 perfume is now packaged as Miss Dior Original whereas the scent now sold as Miss Dior bears no relation to the 1947 version. Burr states he made a "conscious decision" not to enter this difficult territory. "I didn't want to get into it. It is a huge, very important discussion. It's not going to be something I could treat in a paragraph. I just think you have to take the perfumes as they are."

As one would expect from a writer so resolutely focussed on viewing perfume as a work of art, the prosaic market forces which have influenced Dior's operations over the decades do not feature in his text either. Towards the end of the book, a timeline of the house's perfume releases teases the reader with countless, non-art-related questions. Why was a decision made in 1984 to launch the brand's very first flanker (Eau Sauvage Extreme)? Why was 1998 the first year in which more than one Dior perfume was released (Hypnotic Poison and Eau De Dolce Vita)? Why is the brand currently creating such an astonishing number of fragrances every year? Unsurprisingly, Burr states these subjects were not relevant to the project at hand. "I've had so many conversations with so many people about the numbers of perfumes that are launched. Is this positive? Is this negative? I cannot write about Dior's marketing approach or their creation rate or whatever. I'm very interested in it, but not for this book. That's not my remit."

Reservations aside, Dior: The Perfumes is an enchanting and thoroughly absorbing foray into an important brand's creative oeuvre. Although he claims that writing about perfume becomes harder the more one is required to do it, Burr's style here shows no signs of growing duller. Indeed, several of the descriptions of the perfumes are so vibrant, they will no doubt prompt readers to hunt down creations which they had previously dismissed as unimportant. Of these, Diorama is likely to receive the most attention: Burr considers it to be the brand's most underrated and most praiseworthy composition.

"Diorama is an extraordinary work of abstract expressionism," he says. "It's truly underrated. And Francois agrees with me 100%. We really believe that, between the two of us, we're going to put it back in the Top 10."

Ultimately, the book is at its most successful when it uses the perfumes as a prism through which to view the psyche of Christian Dior, the man. Shy but driven, outwardly passive but covertly assertive, aloof but sensitive, the designer used the scents he helped create almost as vehicles to convey expressions of his relationship with the world around him. According to Burr, nowhere is this clearer than in the brand's first fragrance, Miss Dior

"Dior's relationship with his mother was difficult, because of her personality, "Burr states. "It was in the garden that they connected. She happened to be a brilliant, crazily obsessed gardener. It was her passion. It was her love. It was her expression. Dior was one of these paradigmatic aesthetes who must express himself in different ways. What more beautiful way than a garden? That's where they communicated. He memorised the seed catalogues of the species that she planted. He started very gently suggesting this here, suggesting that there. She started listening to him. And then she started responding. And they created a dialogue about what really is, on some level, a work of art: a garden.

"He woke up in the scent of this garden. He went to sleep in the scent of this garden. And when he wanted to make his first perfume, what he said to the perfumer, Paul Vacher - and this is one of the few things we know - was, 'Make for me the smell of love.' He was specific that it was a floral. And it seems to me that this was a presentation to the world, to the people that he cared about, and to himself, of the one real love that I think he'd ever known."

[Dior: The Perfumes, with text by Chandler Burr and original photography by Terri Weifenbach, is published by Rizzoli.]

Please click here for a companion piece to this article, in which Chandler Burr discusses Dune, Dior Homme and the pressures on Demachy.



  1. Brilliant review ! Beautifully written and well balanced. Thank you !

    1. Anon, thanks very much indeed for taking the time to write.

  2. Thanks for this very balanced review. I personally happen to think it's a bullshit "new criticism" type of approach to decontextualize perfumes from their creators, commodity/marketing environment, cultural olfactory context and very nature as scents only to reconnect them to painting (why not music, which is equally immaterial?) and then, of all things, to Dior the man (biographical fallacy, anyone?). It seems entirely arbitrary, while at the same time serving a more indirect form of marketing requirement for the company. I am aware we are dealing with a high-end coffee-table book, not scholarship proper, yet it leaves me with an aftertaste of sorts (not improved by Burr's insistent protestations of authorial autonomy). Anyhow, with Burr the author and Dior the subject, is there at least an attempt (openly or as subtext) at queering the perfumes, I wonder?

    1. Duke Of Pall Mall, thanks very much for your comment. Yes, I've often wondered why people (critics?) don't try to make a stronger case for linking perfume with music, rather than with paintings. I think musical composition and perfume composition have more in common than we currently admit.

      As for queering the perfumes, I'm not sure. It's not something that struck me. Dior's sexuality is mentioned, but not foregrounded.

  3. Thanks for this great article, Sir! I was intrigued by the work Mr Burr is doing at MAD. Speaking as a fragrance lover, I suppose I love the opportunity to explore other avenues such as art or history or what have you via perfume. I think because I am doing so from the basis of an already established interest, it makes the process of learning something new more meaningful to me because I am doing it through something I already love. However, not having had the opportunity to take in these exhibitions first hand, I suppose my only reservation would be just how well the connections were explored and not just presented in a way to attempt to reinforce the concept of perfume as art. I mean I already feel that it is, but I don't necessarily need it to be shoved down my throat either. Great concept though no doubt.

    1. BGirl, thanks for stopping by. I never saw Burr's MAD exhibition, so I can't really comment. But I take your point about getting the feeling that some of these ideas are being shoved down our throats.

  4. Fantastic review! I agree completely with your reservations: far too many -isms which aren't helpful for anyone without an art history background (i.e. most people, myself included), and not enough about the perfumers themselves! Burr's writing style is beautiful and evocative, but unfortunately I do prize function over form - and in this case, it does seem as though its function is as a coffee-table book: pretty to look at, nice to flip through, but ultimately lacking in answers to the serious questions that you have posed.

    1. Vagabond, thanks very much for your comment. Yes, I agree. I enjoyed reading several of the perfume descriptions, but I admit I was frustrated by the fact that the book didn't address a few serious issues.


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