A charming young person wrote to me recently to ask for my views on
Poison, that succès de scandale created by Edouard Flechier¤ for Dior in 1985. How unorthodox was Poison really, in its own time? That was my student’s question.
Well, 32 years ago it was highly unusual. Half-crazed. Kind of running wild. Nowadays, however, Poison has no end of competition. Just think – for instance – of Etat Libre d’Orange’s Sécrétions Magnifiques* with all its sour and sick bodily fluids. Even that has mellowed with the years, to the extent of sometimes being described as an aquatic floral, cool and fresh.
We have become hard to outrage. Schiaparelli’s Shocking wouldn’t cut much ice nowadays. And indeed Yves St Laurent’s provocative Opium (1977) had predated Poison by eight years. Now that perfume really did raise Cain, what with the concomitant controversial adverts and the insistent connotations of drugs and degradation. Before then, perfumes were given pretty names – or risque, naughty, sexy names. ‘Poison’ and ‘Opium’ were seen as very strange: as deliberately and offensively egregious. Of course that was the intention and the whole point. The subsequent publicity was immense. Like Giorgio, these were perfumes everyone TALKED about, at the water-cooler and elsewhere: perfumes it became the fashion to loathe.
No doubt the colours of the Poison packaging – the pantomime-evil green and purple – plus the name had a great deal to do with Dior’s runaway success. As I wrote back to my young friend: “You perhaps can’t imagine how shocked and baffled people were back then. We were still very innocent.”
Folk said wonderingly, “O! How could they call a perfume that? Poison, indeed! Perfume should be a beautiful thing…. And Dior, too, of all Houses, so chic and elegant! This scent must SMELL awful to be given a name so wicked.”
And they went on and on like this, whipping themselves up, and daring each other to sniff Poison; to try it, even.
The name was so diabolically clever. It preyed on all sorts of deep but rather dreadful ancient prejudices drawn from legendary horrors, fairy tales and infamous crimes. Poison: always the coward’s weapon, the woman’s weapon. The tool of the foreigner, the outsider, the witch and the jealous rival. Medea, Snow White’s stepmother, Anne Boleyn, Agrippina, Livia, Madeleine Smith, Dr Pritchard, William Palmer, Mme de Brinvilliers, Crippen. Horrible people who instead of calling out their adversaries for an honest fight doomed them to an agonising death: betraying their victims while feigning care and nurture. “A buttered scone? Excuse fingers!” – remember Major Armstrong of Hay-on-Wye?
Yes. It was quite a scenario!
I thought in 1985 that Poison was horrible – too visceral, too dirty, a smell of rot. Now I still don’t like it but I can see that the formula is daring and venturesome and what we used to call “amusing” – that basic blend of tuberose (the eternal ancient florid aphrodisiac that has always had a reputation for boldness and sex) and red chilli pepper (ditto). Flagrant, if you like.
I do go back from time to time and try Poison. I’m much older – I still don’t like Poison but I can admire its nerve somewhat. It’s a small child in all of us who loves to shock. For to shock is to be getting all the attention.
But is Poison sexy? Is it voluptuous? Is it – as the judge said – fragrant? I think it misses, if only by a whisker. It tries too hard. It’s probably changed somewhat too – same as I have. Few perfumes stay exactly the same over 32 years.
Nowadays perfume is taken very seriously by the consumer – this was not so, back then. Allergies had not been invented; ingredients had not been purged by European committee; money went so much further. Scent came in small sizes, too, so you could buy all the time without being left short. If you fancied a fragrance – if it seemed fun – “amusingly vulgar, delightfully common” – you bought it, wore it, and chucked it. Scent was full-blooded, hot-blooded. It was much more heedless, more animal, more instinctive.
And yet….and yet…..Like those tiny mammals creeping around in the undergrowth while dinosaurs ruled the earth: even while Poison and its confreres were at their zenith the early niche/artisan/artistic scents were evolving. Annick Goutal, L’Artisan Parfumeur and Diptyque were tunnelling like moles under the great Power Perfume edifice. Like so many great ancient empires, those magnificently unhinged power perfumes were rotting even at their apogee.
*currently on show at the exhibition Perfume at Somerset House
¤¤ Tuberose is wild, vegetal, animalic and unhinged enough already without mixing it with the sweet hot chilli succulence. Chilli seemed to many to be a spanking new innovative ingredient but in fact had been given a run-around in the early 1950’s by Caron, in the notorious Poivre.