I’m still surprised that I managed to test all of the Top 20 Bestselling Fragrances for Women in the US in 2011. I’m usually doing a hit-or-miss sort of testing, just the scents that appeal to me, or whatever I can scrape acquaintance with. (To read previous posts on the subject, click these links: description of original review project, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.) To wrap up, I have some comments on the State of the Mall and fragrances you can find there, specifically relating to the Top 20 US.
The only fragrances on the bestseller list that I’d wear for myself would be Chanel No. 5 and Prada Candy, or possibly Chance Eau Fraiche or Light Blue in hot weather. The Lauder fragrances (except Youth Dew) tend to smell wonderful to me for about two hours, after which they work my Last. Freakin’. Nerve, and I must scrub them or vomit. It’s not them, it’s me. Knowing and Beautiful would probably be on my personal list if they didn’t do that Lauder Evil Basenote Thing. Sure, I’ve now found that I can wear the Lauders on fabric, but with all the perfume I have, I just don’t feel the need to do that.
I do notice that for all the perfumista hatred directed at way too many insipid fruity floral fragrances, there aren’t that many fruity florals on the list. J’Adore, Chance Eau Tendre, and Romance would be the only ones I’d put in that category, and they’re not awful. There are some fruit-bomb sort of things, like the Taylor and Justin fragrances, and the berry-candy-patchouli freakiness of Angel, and a certain number of clean-smelling fragrances like Light Blue, Happy, and Cashmere Mist (and possibly Sensuous Nude, though I would argue that SN is more discreet than “clean”).
Do any of these fragrances have strong and distinctive personalities? Yep. Chanel No. 5 is instantly recognizable. So is Angel. So are Aromatics Elixir, Beautiful, and Knowing. And although I don’t really like Light Blue, it too is instantly recognizable, and it does actually smell much nicer on skin than it does on a test strip, unless over-sprayed.
So how many of these do I actually own? Only one. I own vintage Chanel No. 5 in parfum. And to be honest, I doubt I would purchase the current. Oh, fine, if somebody bought me Prada Candy I’d use it from time to time, and I loved Beautiful on my scarf. I probably would have enjoyed J’Adore when it was first released, though it’s gone anorexic lately. I love Coco Mlle on my sister, but definitely not on me, and definitely not on most of the people I notice wearing it in public. I suspect that I simply do not wear many of these bestselling fragrances well: few of them fall into the categories I love best – white floral, lush floral blend, floral oriental.
I also notice that many, perhaps most, of these fragrances are strongly weighted toward the synthetic. They smell high-pitched and manufactured, in some cases more like cleaning liquid than flowers or warm skin, and I can certainly understand why there have been public backlashes against perfume. If your coworker insists on bombing herself with, for example, Clinique Happy (one of the less egregious choices, in my opinion), your workplace likely smells like a dry-cleaning facility rather than a bouquet of fresh flowers.
Denyse Beaulieu, in The Perfume Lover, has a clear and common-sense explanation on why everything at the mall smells the same:
Perfumers learn to do compositions that test well [in consumer panels] in order to win the brief… What tests well is what consumers are familiar with. What consumers are familiar with are either best-selling fragrances or everyday products like shower gels, fabric softeners and shampoos. Recipes that sell well get around from one perfumer to another and from one company to another; they are recycled endlessly, so that you find the same accords in every fragrance… [this] has led to a practice called the ‘remix': take current best-sellers, cut and paste, and you’ll have the next designer-brand juice. Another practice is called the ‘twist': take a best-seller, change a couple of things in it and presto! Pour it into a bottle. If you ever wondered why everything smells the same in department stores, now you know.
And that makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? The average new fragrance is made as a variation on a formula – just like those Harlequin romance novels my grandmother used to collect, or the movie Westerns Hollywood churned out by the hundreds in the 1950s. And why? Because formula sells, baby, that’s why. One fresh composition can hit the market every once in a while, and then everybody else rips it off (does Angel ring a bell?). I suspect that I would find this marketing strategy much less irritating if the basic formula were for, say, rich aldehydic florals, but since the average formula seems to be for ghostly, anemic bathroom-cleaner citrus florals, it burns my shorts.
My verdict on the specific 20 Bestselling Fragrances in the US in 2011? When I started with these reviews, I compared mainstream mall perfumery to fast food burgers. In some cases, the burger was dreadful: overseasoned, overprocessed, overexposed to heat lamps, overdone. In most cases, the burger was simply something to get me through the day, in the sense that unexciting fragrance is better than no fragrance, and any food is better than none. In some cases, the burger was fine, but that I found myself wishing desperately for something more to my taste (say, a nice grilled chicken Caesar salad). And in a few cases, the burger was very satisfying indeed.
I won’t be giving up on the mall just yet. And I’d point out that after getting compliments on Amouage Memoir Woman at the Wal-Mart a few months ago, I will never again make overly generalized comments on the pedestrian taste of the average perfume consumer. I do wonder if more people would choose high-end mainstream or niche fragrances, if these things were available locally, or advertised with market-saturation technique. Would any of my favorite niche fragrances, if given a bazillion-dollar advertising budget and made available at several different department stores, become the next Angel, or Poison, or (ugh) Opium?
I notice that I smell fragrance on women out and about from time to time, especially at social events, and it’s usually something quite identifiable. I smell a lot of Youth Dew, sometimes No. 5, frequently Light Blue. Some part of me wishes that I could smell, say, Iris Poudre at the next university orchestra concert, or a hint of Nuit de Tubereuse at the doctor’s office, but as it is, the Top 20 Bestsellers aren’t all that bad. After all, I’d take Cashmere Mist over B.O.