2005 Fragrance Campaigns: A Quest for Innocence

The text below was written in May 2005, and was the first article I wrote in English, so in essense this was the first non-academic text in English that I ever composed. And it is striking even to me that it should have been on the subject of fashion advertising: it couldn’t be any further from Tudor history, yet it was something that intrigued and attracted me. Around that time I suddenly noticed a change of focus in fragrance advertising. The trend must have reached the climax with the 2003 Gucci ad, after which the industry (apart from Dolce&Gabbana, perhaps) appeared to have withdrawn to the subtler advertising (at least as far as sexual innuendos were concerned). I was inspired to reflect on this change of focus by the 2005 BBC programme about The Kiss painting by Gustav Klimt. Somehow Klimt’s work provided a perspective to our contemplation of fragrance, fashion and the desire for Beauty which both fragrance and fashion epitomise. I took the opportunity of the blog to reproduce the text here with pictures.

The Scent of Abyss: Thoughts on Fragrance Campaigns Inspired by Klimt’s Kiss.

It must be a tantalising effort to design a fragrance advert. Since a scent accompanies – or accomplishes – the look, it necessarily carries the message of a designer, who is responsible for a fragrance line. It is also a means of seduction, like fashion itself, and whether aggressive or subtle, it involves everyone, from a couturier to a voyeur. As it happens, passion evaporates as soon as its flow and outcome become predictable. And so the designer’s team twist their brain ruthlessly to create a seductive image of an elusive odour. Looking at some of these images of 2004/2005, how are these supposed to seduce us?
Forget indiscreet invitations and indecent proposals – today fashion advertising returns to Nature and innocence. There are no sexually aggressive posters a-la Gucci in 2003. If anything else, it was an outstanding contribution to our knowledge of a female: it identified a Gucci-spot, a female lust-for-fashion trigger. But in terms of fashion photography and advertising it was probably a cul-de-sac. In many ways it was a logical conclusion to a scandalous CK Jeans advert of the 1980s: ‘Nothing stands between me and my Calvins’ – only a Gucci. How could you go further after this, without being called a pervert?
There seems to be have been too many naked bodies and inviting lips, too much passionate whisper… We still want to be seduced, but this time we have to be approached gently. The 20th c. left us startled with various experiences, so now we’re aspiring for the impossible. We want love to be a miracle of Gustav Klimt’s Kiss: a tense union on the edge of a cliff, in which man fulfils his passion, and woman retains her freedom. In the end, we’re looking for a mystery, an unpronounced secret, the unseen. Style, The Sunday Times’ supplement, has recently printed an article about a dramatic change in a female bra habit. It revealed that women now love full bras, not those pieces of fabric and lace patched together only to provide support. Instead of “two breasts” there is now a “bosom”, and you, gentlemen, are not supposed to be gazing at it.
Fragrance adverts promptly reacted to this demand for mystery and subtlety. By far the most seductive campaign of the season, Valentino V, is still very prudent. A woman is naked, but she doesn’t flash her body, and, as if to intensify your aroused curiosity, she’s wearing a red feather mask… She’s inviting, and yet doesn’t promise anything, which is accentuated by her body language. Would she be just as cold as that woman on Klimt’s painting, and why is she wearing a mask? What’s her secret? The curiosity throws you into a sweet turmoil of unawareness, unpredictability and fantasy, which chains are too precious to break.
One of Chanel campaigns for Chance features legendary golden rain. According to a myth, Zeus turned into golden rain to unite with Danae. This advert (that only features a bottle), bearing in mind the story of a fragrance, may rather be a take on Rembrandt’s painting, than a reaction to the Greek myth. In Rembrandt’s Danae there’s a feeling of surprise, of astonishment, of anticipation as well as eagerness, and this is what Chance‘s advert evokes. A 21st century Danae is locked in her apartments by the consumerist culture, and haute-couture has to devise new methods to reach out to her. It turns into a fertile golden rain, to penetrate Danae, to make her sense the beauty of fashion.
Calvin Klein’s campaign for Eternity Moment is also strikingly demure. In the video for this campaign every frame is but a hint, a black-and-white caption of a bigger picture that you’re invited to paint yourself, in your own colours. A sudden look, a first kiss, and a fateful encounter that is sealed for eternity – these are only guidelines, but never a full story. Notwithstanding quite a few sensual scenes, the only strong link with sex is Scarlett Johansson, who’s often hailed “a new Monroe”. Even Britney Spears, although being very Curious in her dreams, left it all to our imagination. Yes, she fantasises of that gorgeous guy in a neighbouring room, but we all know how enormous that abyss between our fantasies and the real life is.
Generally, there are two trends in fragrance campaigns. One sets off to seduce a customer by offering sex on the spot or at least an unambiguous promise of it. Another is more accommodating to the needs of a modern individual, who’s got to rule his/her company, hold business-meetings, travel, look through books and magazines (to appear, if not to be, intelligent), have family and kids, and with all this he/she also needs to have some simple intimate pleasures. This second trend therefore starts by “winding down” this extremely successful business man/woman, and this is why in this trend seduction is identified with the innocence of Nature, not the innocence of behaviour.
It was perhaps predictable that in the age of the green house effect and air pollution perfumers try and bring to us freshness of mountain springs and the tranquillity of secret Japanese gardens. Air features in Ghost and Lacoste (above, left), while Davidoff (above, right) and Chanel have chosen water as a motive for their adverts. And some brands attempted to combine serenity of nature with a promise for intimate fulfilment. DKNY for women features green apples, while a new man’s fragrance from Hugo Boss came out in a green round bottle, which again reminds us of a fruit of seduction.
In the fashion world, this is not the first ever demand either for the feel of Nature or the untold. However, these attempts to evoke the long-lost magic are overall quite nostalgic. There is no chance to return to the early 20th century, when those takes on mystery and demurral were appropriate, having been accompanied by stifling high-neck corset dresses and a grotesque male mannerism. Catwalk reports take us further and further from those black-and-white photos. Klimt’s Kiss is probably an emblem of this irreversible advent of time. At the beginning of the 20th century a man had placed the last kiss on his nymph. The abyss of Time has engulfed her, and all he’s got left is the Golden Rain…

Some picture credits:

1900’s Fads and Fashions

Monthly Herald

Valentino Fragrances


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