Forward & Backward
Raphael Réplique, Guerlain Chant d’Arômes, and Lanvin My Sin
Sometimes a written declaration is as—if not more—powerful than an image. Raphael’s stark advertisement for Réplique is nothing short of a manifesto on behalf of women tired of being portrayed as chastely waiting for their date, husband, or dream prince. When shown in the flesh at all, women had the dubious function of passive accessory: if the perfume was theirs, they in turn were just an accessory for a man. In advertising, perfume symbolised what you needed to get attention or convey a message, whether that was to be attractive, alluring, forceful (but never too much), demure, or sophisticated. Perfume was a changeable persona you maintained for the benefit of others, and worse, it was seen as mostly up to men to choose and gift it to you[i]. Fragrance advertising for women clearly stated that it was better to be seen and smelled than heard, and to be the olfactory version of a Stepford Wife was the ideal feminine state. The image of the desirable scented woman represented one formed at the hands—or noses—of others.
The idea of outright seduction in imagery by a woman was still too risqué on the whole, and so any suggestion was tastefully softened; it was the scent that was took the credit … or guilt. For years, the star of Lanvin’s My Sin (‘a most provocative perfume’) campaign was a black cat. Mostly on its own but sometimes pictured with a brood, it sent mixed messages that varied from benignly seductive to somewhat alarming as to what might happen regarding the results of application. In the 1970s the brand ditched the long-standing cats and mild innuendo in favour of celebrities such as Veruschka, the six-foot model and star of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, in unmistakably suggestive poses (she is photographed on hands and knees, spraying an exposed midriff), with taglines like ‘Veruschka is a Sinner’.
Guerlain’s campaign for Chant d’Arômes, around the same time as Réplique, seems to be from another period altogether, despite appearances. A group of three sophisticates sit smoking by the Seine at dusk, the women chic and modern. Are they in the midst of a conversation about politics or philosophy? If so, Guerlain suggests it would only be the man doing the talking: ‘… a perfume must express something for a woman that she would like to express herself; and it must say it in a way that can be understood by men.’ Though this could be interpreted as repressive no matter the era, Chant d’Arômes proudly recognises it is not only the French woman it speaks for. Other advertisements in the series were repeated with the same message and culturally ‘appropriate’ imagery directed at English (after a park football match with boyfriends) and Italian (surrounded by husband and three children) women—beautiful, impeccably dressed and groomed, but mute by social expectation and, as the brand would have us believe, by choice.
For a long time in the history of perfume advertising, a scent was not just a scent. It was the only voice a woman was allowed. Such extremes of advertising could not go on at a time when women were declaring independence for their bodies, desires, and lives. Change was already making itself known, and if perfume advertising had not fully recognised women before, it now had no choice but to acknowledge that a woman whose hand applied the perfume was also going to wield her own voice.
With Réplique’s revolutionary declaration, it put all its advertising cards on the table. It said women have fully developed, individual personalities. They didn’t need their perfumes to attempt to categorise who they were, could or should be, and they certainly didn’t want their perfumes to speak for them. It was the groundbreaking precursor to Chanel’s 1990s Jean-Paul Goude-directed television advertisement for the men’s scent Égoïste, which featured dozens of evening-gowned women screaming on balconies at an unseen ex-lover in a collectively furious Network-like moment. This isn’t to say that the industry hasn’t at times tried to go back to defining women—and gender expectations of any kind—by scented imagery, but the narrative which evolves shows overwhelmingly that the scent of change is the longest lasting one of all.
Any perfume image which followed Réplique in portraying women as in control of their sexuality, lives, and destinies, while speaking directly to the female consumer buying and wearing a perfume on their terms owes a debt to this simple, powerful statement.
Women, announced Réplique, weren’t going to take it anymore.
Yves Saint Laurent Eau Libre and Pour Homme
Yves Saint’s Laurent’s Eau Libre (no relation to the Libre currently sold) tells the story of an idea that ultimately the world was not yet ready for. It would take Calvin Klein’s CK One to achieve that, and perhaps then not even in quite the radical manner Saint Laurent had envisioned. In the 1970s the fashion designer was one of a few championing Black and other models of colour. While it is impossible to avoid a degree of Orientalism and exoticism in these choices, it is undeniable that much of the brand’s runway and advertising space was given to these models at a time when few white designers did. He took this not one, but several steps further with the release of Eau Libre (which could be translated as ‘open water’ or ‘water of freedom’), marketed as a scent for both men and women.[ii] With the wonderful taglines ‘Tout ce qui est à toi est à moi’ (all that is yours is mine) and ‘… l’èchange rituel’ (the exchange ritual), the distinction between feminine and masculine, his and hers beauty and grooming rituals were erased. Eau Libre was for the couple who saw the world—both its people and its objects—as something not to be divided and categorised, but to be shared and loved openly without prejudice.
Most importantly, the imagery places non-white models front and centre, by a white designer whose haute couture was mostly purchased by white clientele. To contextualize just how radical this advertising concept was, note that in 1976, a Jovan Musk Oil advertisement (which was created with white models in other publications) ‘scheduled to run in Jet contained Black models in a similarly posed shot.’[iii] While this can be seen as centering Black models for a Black audience, it can also be seen as a brand’s unfortunate perspective that advertising audiences are best segregated than integrated. Simply, Saint Laurent decided to create a perfume campaign that celebrated its refusal to conform to any standard gender or racial advertising narrative.
One of the campaign’s models, Japanese-American Marie Helvin, recalled the experience years later: ‘Many people do not realise that he also created the idea of unisex perfume … Jeanloup Sieff – who also took the famous nude of picture of Yves – shot it. I was standing next to a gorgeous black model called Marian, on whom we all had crushes in 1975. The fragrance was called Eau Libre. It failed to catch on, but only because it was ahead of its time.’[iv] In retrospect, alongside the equally groundbreaking campaign for Pour Homme a few years earlier featuring the photo mentioned, what Saint Laurent was attempting was to have the world acknowledge the brand was sexually and racially diverse in every way, simply because this was the world he saw. The old narratives were in the past and to live openly as you were and wanted to be was the present and future.
That this stems from a personal wish makes it all the more poignant: Saint Laurent could be shy and withdrawn, despite coming across as unafraid to shake up his industry, prone to anxiety and depression. To use himself as not just the face, but the naked body of an international men’s fragrance campaign as a gay man at the time was an outrageous move perhaps not in the context of the changing era, but certainly in that of the advertising status quo. Sexuality aside, full male nudity to sell a luxury product would have been seen as scandalous and even career-destroying. Regardless of intent, it proved to be a courageous one, despite the fact his penis is shadowed and out of direct sight (this was not to be the case years later, when an early 2000s ad for the brand’s M7 scent under the creative direction of Tom Ford paid homage to Yves with a fully on display naked male model)[v]. The image was indeed a scandal, but also the start of things to come[vi].
We see nudity in advertising as mostly banal now, but while there was plenty of suggestion to be had with female nudity up until that point, it was yet another gender norm playing out in advertising. If anyone was expected to shed their clothes, it was the women, not the men. For the first time, the designer was creator, subject, and object (of desire) in one. If Saint Laurent’s original desire was to shock[vii], then it was also to declare and invite, and the invitation was no longer being sent out solely to the heterosexual male gaze, something later repeated in the 90s when openly gay actor Rupert Everett would become the face (and body) of the brand’s Opium for Men, and later with Tom Ford’s eponymous line. The tagline for Pour Homme says ‘For three years this cologne has been mine. Today it can be yours.’[viii]
While in some ways the celebrity designer perfume, if one considers Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Paul Poiret as celebrities in their own time, had previously existed, this was the first time it came together as the complete package in such an electrifying manner. The designer—a star not just in France but internationally—was offering a scent created for his own use, starring in a campaign in which he showed an aspect of himself that was definitely not the image anyone outside of his private life had known. It was media manipulation as transgressive act. Yves, previously the clean-cut boy wonder savior of couture, was now shown as overtly sexy, even bohemian; now you could buy his personal fragrance, an exquisite extension of his carnality. How widespread the knowledge of his sexuality was outside of the Paris gay community or his inner circle at that point is unclear, but at least to the people who knew or may have speculated that were gay themselves, there must have been not a little excitement at the idea of a gay man, fully on glorious display, essentially inviting the straight public to both look at and smell him.
In the images for Eau Libre, models are not passive props to the scent, they are actively living and loving; a fantasy of the real and possible. Scent is poured straight from the bottle from one hand to another, the generosity of openness. One’s perfume bottle, rather than cup, runneth over with love—and also foreshadows one of Benetton’s 1980s ‘perfume of the world’ ads for Colors (and the overall campaign, which was intended to be culturally diverse and attentive to urgent social issues of the time, such as AIDS), where the perfume bottle is held cradled between Black and white hands. Yet another image has the couple sitting back to back, leaning into each other with closed eyes and clasped hands in a moment of intimacy, and outside of the usual face to face or even head on shoulder poses, representative of a kind of trust which comes with being alone, but never lonely with someone. A final image in black and white shows the couple outside, dressed as if their clothes were taken from a shared closet. Both are clad in dazzling white matching trenchcoats, trousers, and shoes, announcing themselves to the world not by their sartorial difference, but their unity—and perfume the final, obvious completion. The Eau Libre couple was a vision of a new way of life; sharing the silent rituals of love in a very public manner, free of the old expectations.
Chanel No. 19 and Fabergé Babe
Roland Barthes, in an essay on wrestling, declared it ‘… to be a spectacle of excess.’[x], a quality bestowed upon women from literature to real life only as negative. Women, that is to say, ladies, are not excessive. To indulge in excess is to mean lack of control, in manner, appetite, and thought. It is a small step from excess to greed, hysteria, and any number of other stereotypical phrases, including making a spectacle of oneself. But it is also small steps that bring us progress: In terms of the perfumed image, we have moved from passive to active one advertisement at a time.
Previously, Estée Lauder’s Alliage (now sold as Aliage) campaign portrayed women in scenes that were traditionally the domain of men; out in nature or engaging with the world in a way which did not involve the beauty process. Suddenly, women were sportif. Lauder, a trailblazer when it came to recognising the power of specifically targeting the woman as consumer, gave them a scent to match with an ‘active’ perfume. Sartorially, Coco Chanel had done something similar when she began designing. Starting with herself, she put women in jersey and other clothes one could move and live in. But it would take this No. 19 campaign to show that even the Chanel woman wasn’t above putting herself firmly in the ring with her partners in a glorious spectacle.
No. 19 has long been considered Chanel’s own perfume[xi]—so it was the perfect choice for the images to reflect the independence of what a Chanel woman always had been in clothes. The three images play on this perfectly: in the first two, the models are formally dressed in conservative suits with jewelry, all the better to highlight the juxtaposition of pulling her clearly willing partner towards her in a playful but still dominant almost-headlock. What are fairly neutral surroundings of an indoor shoot recall certain promotional wrestling photos; passive, yet full of action. The third is more casual—now the spectacle is fully on display for all. A young Christie Brinkley, the epitome of the active American woman, is dressed in separates. In a nod to Coco and luxury activity, she wears a striped shirt (the marinière, reconsidered) and a loose white skirt. There is a blurry yacht in the background, and from her long hair flying back and the navy blazer on her willing partner, it’s not a stretch to imagine she has just knocked off his captain’s hat with her vigorous headlock, much more energetic than the posed formality of the first images.
Either way, the message is clear: The No. 19 woman knows what she wants, and she’ll play rough to get it. The days of sitting back and waiting for the man to make the move were over. In wrestling-speak, do what you have to in love: pin down your opponent, put him in a headlock, use your body to reflect your desires. You can be feminine and excessive; after all, what is more of a spectacle than the process of falling in love or lust? Each partner looks at the other, anticipating the next move, considering theirs. There is an element of display, an erotic competition where the woman makes the dominant moves. She is the tomboy grown up—now a woman of appetites, unafraid to be earnest in her play and seeing no need to compromise between what she wants and how she should act. She is the embodiment of ‘Full of elan’, ‘The Outspoken Chanel’ and ‘Witty. Confident. Devastatingly feminine’, and rekindles the old childhood urges of chasing down our crushes, whatever the gender, and kissing in sight of everyone; a direct gesture which could not be interpreted as anything but what it was. If it comes across as somewhat innocent, it is also without the terrible artifice of faux-virginity and modesty which plagued certain musk advertisements of the 1980s. If anything, it speaks of the direct and honest path between desire and action that gender expectations desperately tried to have us avoid lest we become excessive, that most undesirable of spectacles.
Fabergé’s Babe ads, featuring model and later, actress, Margaux Hemingway, also chose to show the ideal Babe wearer similarly to the Alliage and No. 19 woman: she was sporty, and even in her quiet moments of love, she was still outdoors (another campaign image shows Hemingway and a male model in full evening attire, lounging in an inner tube at dusk on the water). Hemingway, at six feet tall, was an even better representation of a woman physically more than capable of taking on the men. But it is an advertisement that isn’t clear regarding the gender of the other model, which takes the idea of the spectacle of excess into realistic and more interesting territory. She is sparring with a karate partner, whose face is obscured by having their back mostly turned to the camera, body shape unrecognizable due to the gi they wear. One might assume at first glance, conditioned by years of advertising gender narrative, that the partner is male. But a closer look at the hair of the model suggests that it could in fact, be another woman. Such ambiguity allows room for the same amorous fantasy but just for women: intimate camaraderie more than competition. Play-aggression is on mutual terms, rather than that of the male-female dynamic, which to say something strong in the image requires the woman to be the mock-aggressor.
Putting the Babe woman into a solely female scenario that doesn’t rely on passive or ‘nice’ interaction: shopping, gossiping, etc., imbues it with the same kind of agency that is conveyed in the other images. Women are making a spectacle of themselves—excessive here is the excess of energy, strength, will, the qualities that are ideal in images of men in such activities. What is there an excess of masculinity does not translate here to masculine; not even feminine in the traditionally recognised manner. Babe did something much better, which was to show women as individual and comrades at the same time, the kind of spectacle we should see much more of.
Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male and Classique
Jean-Paul Gaultier’s pillar fragrances Le Male and Classique occupy a unique place in perfume advertising: they openly appeal to both heterosexual and queer fantasy. While the image of Classique has changed over the years since its 90s release, moving from standard model-with-bottle shots, artistic homages to Man Ray, and more risqué, if still straight imagery, Le Male started as, and still retains a strong gay declaration. Inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cinematic version of the Jean Genet novel Querelle of Brest, the bisexual title character, a ‘hypersexualized gay symbol … a form of virility that could be ambiguous’[xii], is romanticised and stylised in the advertisements. The Querelle of the Gaultier ads is mainly a lover, although sometimes a fighter (a slight air of sexual danger is the only remaining trace of the thief and murderer of the book and movie).
The cleverness of the campaign lies with the character’s ability in the image to occupy a multiplicity of desires, a sexual chameleon who never need change out of his nautical stripes. Images show Le Male’s protagonist as sometimes solitary, inviting both aloof and direct gazes; in the midst of his fellow sailors, alternating a near-explosive air of sexual tension and playfulness; when paired with his Classique female counterpart, he appeals to fantasies of the fleeting tryst as well as the enduring romantic fantasy of long-distance lovers and happily-ever-afters. He is all things to all appetites, happy to move from one to another, a rare thing when image-led narratives have a tendency to keep a character or characters static. It could be said Le Male—and once the reference is understood, the image cannot be anyone but Querelle, such is the perfect match of sexual archetype to character—feeds off of the variety of fantasy projected upon him. As such, he repays us by letting us be free to explore ours more thoroughly, in his realm. ‘I devour every amorous system with my gaze and in it discern the place which would be mine if I were part of that system.’[xiii], said Barthes. The world of Le Male’s erotics is a completely formed one. The viewer simply enters and exists according to individual desire, welcome but also unnecessary: Le Male and Classique are just as fulfilled in their own desires within their separate and united imagery, and so there is an strong element of titillation in that the viewer may or may not be wanted, according the specific advertisement—and if not, is resigned to the not un-arousing place of voyeur.
If Le Male is Querelle, then Classique’s character iteration is a high-class courtesan or simply a prostitute; whatever her class, she is capable as presenting as in control of her situation. In one image, she dominates the frame, the seducer of Le Male, who sits, almost missed, in the lower foreground, facing her. Desire might be power, but here it is shared. While she appears solitary, the seemingly traditional object of desire, there for fantasies to be projected onto her, we have seen enough of Gaultier’s universe to know better. The Classique woman has more in common with Emile Zola’s eponymous Nana, the courtesan that literally devours both high and low Paris. She drains the men of their fluids, money, and senses, but gets her real pleasure from her female obsessions in the depths of her satin and silk boudoir, and is every bit as ravenous as Le Male.
The campaign’s imagery functions as a kind of litmus test of sexuality and openness: what you see vs. what you want, who you are vs. who you might be. Do you immediately think of romance, lust, or self-pleasure; Disney-sweet endings or harder-edged desires? By taking what can be seen as sexual fantasy stereotypes and turning them into serious archetypes, Gaultier’s characters probe our innermost selves as much as we project onto them. The narratives of Le Male and Classique remind us that just because we’re used to a story starting a certain way doesn’t mean it needs to end in the expected manner—your desires change as much as your tastes, so reimagine your fantasies and take control.
A Certain Kind of Woman
Carine Roitfeld Parfums
The editor and stylist Carine Roitfeld’s foray into perfume marks the first truly original campaign in the style of Yves Saint Laurent’s full-exposure advertisement for Pour Homme in the 70s. On the surface, it appears to be just another luxury scent launch at a time where the niche and high-end perfumes have exploded, multiple new brands or releases seemingly being announced every day. Her career route has been the not-unusual one of model, stylist, editor and collaborator with such names as Karl Lagerfeld and Tom Ford, but she has an instantly, globally recognizable style. On the surface, the image above doesn’t appear to be anything we’ve not seen many times before in a campaign: sparse, monochrome shot with naked model. It is only when you realise that the woman pictured is Roitfeld, exposing herself from a window to the world—photographed by her daughter Julia, a former face of Tom Ford’s Black Orchid campaign—that things start to reveal themselves to be more complex.
Despite the move forward we’ve seen in regard to the narrative and representation, one of the demographics still given little recognition is that of the older woman. Despite there being nods with collaborations between Jane Birkin and perfume Miller Harris, which featured one of Birkin’s other talents, drawing, and the occasional prominent featuring of older models (that is to say, not 20) such as Jerry Hall for Thierry Mugler Angel or Patti Hansen alongside her daughters for Guerlain Shalimar and Shalimar Light, representation for women of a certain age remains conspicuously absent. Perhaps this is because society, despite its progression, still has yet to conceive of us as fully individual within or without gender expectations.
It is a testament to the wider power we have in terms of work and life that what we see here is a new perfume brand whose scents are inspired by imaginary lovers (the ‘Coming Soon’ of the teaser photo now reads as a wink and nod to her desires), launched by a 60-something woman at the top of her career, proudly announcing on the site: ‘She is a mother, grandmother, partner and muse. She infuses her work with the depth of her life experience and the strength of her unbridled fantasies.’ This may be the most fully fleshed-out concept of ‘having it all’ since the phrase found its beginnings—not just a non-specific amalgation of work and life, but a stiletto heel pinning down exactly what is wanted, romance, a varied and celebrated career, lust, family (and without the traditional constraints; Roitfeld has a long-term partner, but never married). Pleasures of the flesh, mind, and soul.
Roitfeld has the confidence to sell herself—both her experience and fantasies—as the face and body of her own brand. Her body and mind are both CV and advertisement. Gone is the invisible threshold of the whatever-something age woman, relegated to then disappearing into the shapeless, sexless background of what society deems appropriate for a wife or partner, and/or mother, having fulfilled what was expected, but not necessarily what was desired. Roitfeld features prominently on her own website, but neither can she simply be reduced to ‘sexy’ as her own spokesmodel. She has the gravitas of true eroticism, something immediately recognisable when seen, imbedded in thought and gesture. This is the earned reward of experience, a life well and fully lived—with more to come, all on her terms; welcome to the age and the scent of the older woman.
The Whip Hand
Hermès Bel Ami and Kelly Calèche
A face value reading of the 1987 advertisement for Hermès men’s scent Bel Ami ticks all the wrong boxes. The pairing of a Klimt erotic drawing of a naked woman spread out on a bed, combined with the intentionally borrowed title of a Guy de Maupassant novel about a socially ambitious young man who uses women to attain his goal seems at first, loaded with misogyny. The caption of the advertisement, which roughly translates to ‘he perfumes himself, she abandons herself’ fuels this further. But a closer examination reveals a completely different version.
Klimt’s erotic drawings gave the same treatment—and power—to his sitters. All show a disarming directness and vulnerability that comes from being the object of desire, but importantly, desired on their own terms. If his women have a tendency to be fully exposed, they control the exposing. What comes across at first glance as demureness reveals at another, a languid power. His subjects’ poses reflect natural states: lust and contemplation, confrontation and indifference. The naked or barely clothed body, suggestive or withdrawn, is not controlled by its audience, but controls it instead.
In Maupassant’s Bel-Ami, his protagonist Georges conquers Paris, going from Duroy the country boy and soldier to ‘Baron’ Du Roy de Cantel. Much like Balzac’s Lost Illusions, a rise and fall story of journalism and Parisian ambition, it is women who are the markers of where men are positioned at any given time in Parisian society, and where they intend to go. But unlike Balzac’s Lucien, who makes the mistake of falling in love with the actress who should be his stepping-stone, Georges sees early on that women are how he gains power, and one uses and discards when necessary. None of this bodes well for the women involved, and indeed, by its end, he is precisely where he wants to be, the wreckage and survivors of his conquests evident. Despite this, Maupassant makes it clear throughout that there is no Georges at any stage of his ascent without women, whether it is Rachel the streetwalker, his colleague’s wife Madeleine, adventurous mistress Clotilde, his boss’s wife Virginie, or even the one who eventually ‘rejects’ his friendly façade—his mistress’s young daughter Laurine. Ultimately societal and gender norms cause Georges to come out on top, but the underlying message is that everything Georges knows and becomes is the result of women. They are his teachers in everything from seduction to journalism, shaping him into what they themselves cannot publicly become in society. They are the whip hand without whom he would remain nothing but a country innkeepers’ son.
Hermès, which started in 1837 as a harness maker and later on, a saddlery, plays with its origins in its advertising for both Bel Ami and Kelly Calèche. Both are leather scents, and in Bel-Ami, Georges narrowly avoids social self-excommunication by almost taking a job as a riding instructor to the wealthy. In a further nod to the novel, the current bottles of Bel Ami and Bel Ami Vetiver, if looked at from the back, have an illustration on the flipside of the label which shows Georges looking in a mirror. An acknowledgement of a scene in the book where he is captivated by his own image, and a further little nod to the vanity of the sense of power of the Bel Ami man. What he sees and what is seen in the advertisement tell two very different stories.
By 1885, when Bel-Ami was published, Hermès had established its flagship store at 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.[xiv] The use of the Klimt nude in the 80s advertisement is, in this new context, firmly attributes soft power to women, not just in the story, but beyond. Bel Ami may make the wearer think that women are his to conquer, but the truth is that the woman who appreciates the Bel Ami-wearing man has more planned for him. In the 00s advertisement for Kelly Calèche, Hermès completely discard the idea of any subversive message of soft power—now it is openly displayed and used. Not only is the model not facing the camera, she is both clad in and wielding black leather—trousers, boots, and a whip, respectively. Echoing Klimt’s directness of desire on the terms of the subject, she is walking away, whip over her shoulder, bottle of perfume firmly in its grasp. She is not waiting for a man; if there is subtext here, it suggests she rode, and satisfied, goes on her way. ‘The Hermès Way’ has always been the woman’s.
[i] A notable exception to this, per the brand’s website, was Estée Lauder’s 1950s creation Youth Dew bath oil, which was created specifically in that format to encourage women to buy it for themselves.
[ii] Guerlain claims on their website that Jicky is the first unisex scent, but vintage advertisements on the internet would appear it was originally marketed for women despite it finding modern notoriety as a favourite scent of the late actor Sean Connery. A 1990s print ad featuring a short-haired Lucie de la Falaise driving a roadster would, however, suggest more than a degree of hinted androgyny.