‘HOW many girls, playing HOW many pianos?’ Oh! those wonderful lost perfume launches of thirty years ago, when money was free and easy and the great department stores doubled as theatre, pantomime, Busby Berkeley fantasy and fashion parade. Gilded youth picked for their personal beauty, tigerish selling skills and effervescent personalities (“kids, you gotta be bubbly”). Tacky but flashy costumes rushed from store to store as the launch swept on, all plastic-wrapped-fresh with the reek of the dry cleaners, for the sales team to be stuffed into approximate sizes. I remember a circus theme which, after the first day management decided was potentially risque: those sequinned bustiers, suits of lights and ringmaster’s breeches seemed to cling just a little too provocatively. As it was far too late to change the entire look, decencies were preserved by simply swapping sizes so that everyone flopped around in an Evans Outsize body-concealing tent of spangles. Then there was a Gibson Girl promotion with 20 girls in huge black picture hats: one poor soul being sent home on day one for forgetting her hat: “It’s the hat that sells the fragrance” By day two it had been decided that the hats frightened the punters, and discreet low chignons replaced the headgear. And so forth, hats on and off for the duration, as always during these pragmatically staged pageants. Like stage costumes, little of this finery could be washed : participants soldiered on for two weeks, sponging, pressing and steaming. Their hair and clothes rapidly acquired a fine scented lacquering, frowstily fragrant like Restoration courtesans, scent oozing from their skins like sweat.
American perfume houses laid on promotions with the greatest elan, extravagance and exuberance. And efficiency: Estee Lauder advised her girls not to chatter with their colleagues -“You need all your energy for your customers.” Nothing lingers in the mind like those wonderful Coney Island/ Popcorn Venus Giorgio Beverley Hills counters of the 1980’s. Squadrons of gorgeous six foot blondes picked for their height and golden wholesome sunniness, like bosomy buttercups in yellow and white striped blazers, all radiating cheerful humorous sex and a haze of warm heady sweet scent: as American as Mae West, Madonna and Betty Grable. Their hair was streaked and gilded and piled up in glossy waves, whorls and victory rolls like creamy knickerbocker glories above glacé cherry lips. Giorgio was something gloriously different in the intense and predatory shoulder-pad perfume world of the ’80’s. It was fun, light hearted, power without responsibility; it was sex with laughs.
Only a confident free-wheeling American house could have pulled this off, ignoring the classic French conventions and heaping inspired exaggeration upon excess as in some 20th Fox garish Technicolor movie. The scent was formulated for maximum strength and immediate between- the- eyes impact. Giorgio worked if you had confidence, a sense of humour and were prepared to go with the flow; it ended up as one of the best-selling star performers of the era. It also made a lot of people very angry. All those tales did the rounds about restaurants banning it, women fainting and men throwing up- no doubt placed by the company’s own PR; these supposed outrages certainly got people talking and it was all excellent advertisement. Everyone wanted to smell Giorgio for themselves: and when they did, most found they actually liked it rather a lot. Intensely floral, slightly fruity (I always think I can detect a little crystallised pineapple in there beneath the jasmine and gardenia); and of course – the Holy Grail of perfume to so many – it lasted forever on the skin. Everyone could smell you and, as Scarlett O’Hara said with relish, be pea green with envy.
The Duke of Edinburgh is supposed to have once emptied an entire jug of cream over his pudding and when his table companion looked askance, said “you’re simply put out that you didn’t have the nerve to do it yourself”. There’s something of that in the sniping criticism of this generous show-off jolly perfume. It aroused the most ancient of Anglo Saxon prejudices and hypocrisies, blatantly disregarding the unspoken rule that one may wear perfume only if no one else can smell it. Unthinkable to call attention to oneself so shamelessly. But that is all part of Giorgio’s artful appeal: there’s no need to think, puzzle, reflect or reason with it. You don’t have to kick your heels, waiting for the party to begin. Giorgio is spontaneous, and most emphatically perfume: smells,looks and feels like it. It is an inversion of the intricate and cerebral niche perfume,standing out in a world of intellectual fragrances, like a fragrant creme caramel amongst steamed rice and sushi. The polar opposite of the melancholic, beautiful but claustrophobic L’Heure Bleue: the old country in decadent decline versus the endless adventure of the Americas.
The USA has always loved avant-garde fragrances which is why the great European perfumers of the 1920’s beat a hasty path over there to proselytise such innovative exaggerations as Joy, Shalimar and Tabac Blond – every bit as disturbing in their day as Giorgio, but now sanctified and tamed somewhat by time. America was a natural second home for Ernest Daltroff’s bizarre Caron fantasies, revelling in the musky carnations of Bellodgia and the farmyard flowers of Fleurs de Rocaille. These exotics were welcomed in as warmly as European immigrants, enriching an indigenous culture which saw wonderful home-grown perfumes blossoming on the prairie and the sidewalks of Los Angeles and New York – Elizabeth Arden’s Old Kentucky Home recreated in the lavender and hay of Blue Grass; the spicy fiery florality of Mrs Lauder’s immortal Youth Dew; and of course the Elizabeth Taylor empire of scent, which netted La Liz more than the accumulated earnings of her movie career. Americans have often used the word ‘cologne’ to denote perfume: a very healthy sign, meaning they throw it on with abandon – as it should be worn, in the French manner. Margo Channing in the shooting script for All About Eve is described by her creator Joseph Mankiewicz as “the kind of woman who treats her mink like a poncho”. Try a little of this All American abandon with your scent.
Image from thenonblonde.blogspot.com