Summer 1994

Sweet smell of excess

Julia Thrift
Overview/history

Perfume packaging must evoke the indescribable. It has its own designers, conventions and codes.

Can you describe the smell of your favourite perfume? Apart from those who work in the perfume industry, the answer is probably no. Despite the fact that the notion that we have overlooked the power of smell as a way of altering our moods is becoming something of a contemporary cliché, few of us are capable of describing smell meaningfully.

It is because of this that perfume packaging defines the product it contains more powerfully than any other product packaging does. Unable to get a precise verbal fix on the subtleties of smell, we grasp at the packaging as our point of reference. It is the packaging after all, which gives it this indescribable liquid its form, and it is the packaging, among other things that defines its position in a pantheon of products that form a market estimated to be worth billion worldwide.

While all commercial packaging has to sell the product it contains, perfume packaging has a peculiarly complex set of messages to communicate. For manufacturers, the priority is to create a visual symbol of luxury that will entice us into buying a costly inessential product. Many of the most expensive perfumes gain an element of glamour by simply bearing the name of a couture designer, which means that the packaging must also epitomise something of the designer’s style, be it the subdued simplicity of Giorgio Armani or the self-conscious outrageousness of Jean Paul Gaultier. In addition, now that many designer perfume houses sell a range of scents, each has to be given its own image to distinguish it from the others. To succeed, the packaging must communicate all these nuances at a glance, and to do this a visual grammar distinct from that of any other consumer packaging has evolved.

While it is still possible to buy pure perfume in one-off Baccarat bottles and lavish, hand-made boxes, millions more people buy the weaker eau de toilette version, which costs about a tenth of the price. Like the scent it contains, the packaging of eau de toilette tends to be a dilute version of the real thing. Lined up behind the perfume counter, the almost uniformly rectangular boxes give no clue to the shape of the bottles inside. They do, however, indicate whether the perfume is supposed to be seen as exotic, luxurious, youthful, mysterious, classical- or whatever the marketing strategist has decided.

In the language of perfume packaging, gold is synonymous with luxury. From Yves St Laurent’s latest perfume Champagne, to Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds, the dull sheen of the gold cardboard box and the textured gold metal bottle top tells you what you are buying is pure indulgence, conspicuous consumption. We no longer use gold as money, but in perfume packaging, the ancient equation of the two holds good.

Red, inevitably, is used to indicate passion. Minotaur by Paloma Picasso has its name scrawled in rough red letters across a black box, as though it were somehow too passionate for the restraints of formal typography. The use of black and red, typical colours of flamenco costumes, also plays on Picasso’s Spanish heritage.

Sophistication is denoted by the use of subtle patterns and textures, Christian Dior’s Poison comes in a box printed to look as though it is sheathed in dark green moiré silk- a reference to the silk-covered boxes of the Dior perfumes launched in the 1940s. Calvin Klein exploits the natural grainy qualities of thick cardboard for Eternity and Obsession. The simplicity of Klein’s approach appeals to a more minimally minded and perhaps fashion-conscious consumer than those who are drawn to the opulence of Dior’s faux silk.

Floral designs, ubiquitous from the turn of the century, are rare today, reflecting perhaps a change in our perceptions of what perfume is. Unlike our great-grandmothers, we no longer think of perfume as an extract of scented flowers, seeing it as an extract of haute couture glamour. Dior’s silk and Klein’s muted colours are references to the aesthetics of fashion designs, not to the origin of the scent.

There is a surprisingly strict orthodoxy to the positioning of the typographical elements on the boxes. The perfume’s name, often outlined in a gold medal like frame, usually appears one third of the way down the front. Technical details- whether the box contains eau de toilette or the more concentrated eau de parfum, the volume, and so on- are at the bottom. This prosaic jumble of letters and numbers, “E50 ml – 1.7 US FL. OZ” or whatever, often looks typographically neglected compared with the slickness of the box as a whole.

The edges of the box are often picked out in a contrasting colour, to frame it and draw attention to the name. Chanel uses this device to strengthen the simple black and white of all the boxes in the range; for both Miss Dior and Diorella, the frame is used to enclose a patterned background. While Dior’s many products are unified by having their names printed inside medals on the centre of the box, Yves St Laurent’s packaging, from the minimalist black and white of Jazz to the lavish gold of champagne, is distinguished by having the same typeface for everything.

Though the boxes give a clue to the image the perfume manufacturer wants to project, the real emphasis and effort is put into the bottles. Most common is a statuesque minimalism epitomised by Chanel’s square bottle with its bevelled edges and rectangular stopper. (Chanel’s eau de toilette comes in a slightly different bottle, rectangular with a black plastic stopper.) Giorgio Armani’s Gio is in a similarly proportioned square bottle, slightly softened with rounded edges. Calvin Klein’s Eternity, however, is solid and uncompromising, topped by a chunky silver stopper.

The second common type of bottle is a mysterious, organic shape eptiomised by Giorgio Beverly Hills’ Wings or Christian Dior’s Dune. The idea of mystery is essential to perfume marketing and the public is happy to collude with it – we do not want to know that perfumes are mixtures of chemicals cooked up in large vats in factories to recipes drawn up by marketing experts. As well as embodying mystery, the organic shapes have strong connotations of sexuality. Calvin Klein was unabashed about this when he launched Obsession in 1985. “I wanted to evoke the sensuality and sexual ardour of an impassioned woman. I imagined the mystique of of a woman who allows herself to experience a romantic obsession – and one who invites a man to do the same,” he gushed. The bottles, a smooth oval for the women’s fragrance and an elongated one for the men’s, are, according to one perfume sales assistant, the “embodiment of female and male sexuality’.

The third type of bottle is the gimmick –the bottle which does more than just contain the perfume. The latest of these is Jean Paul Gaultier’s corsetted pink torso, reminiscent of the way Schiaparelli’s Shocking was launched in 1937 in a bottle based on Mae West’s curves. The combination of a bottle shaped like a female torso and a “box” which is in fact a tin has given the perfume an enormously high profile. Like it or hate it, you cannot fail to notice it, and this is precisely what it has in common with Gaultier himself. Other gimmicky bottles include Elizabeth Taylor’s Diamonds range, which has a band of moulded metal jewels around an otherwise simple bottle, and Paco Raba’s xs, which flips open like a zippo lighter.

For designers who work on mainstream consumer packaging, perfume bottles and boxes, with their gold and twinkling glass, can seem niave. There appears to be a contradiction between the sophistication of the materials perfume packagers are able to use – the most expensive cartonboard and printing processes, the meticulous moulding of the bottles – and the designs they create.

Mary Lewis, head of the London based design company Lewis Moberly, is one of the few mainstream graphic designers to have worked in the perfume sector, having designed the packaging for Sempre for the Next chain. When it came to researching the market, Lewis was appalled by much of what she found. Perfume packaging is pure image, so it should be wonderful, but its actually crass,” she says. “It’s almost as if its lead from above, it’s as though someone has said ‘this is what a perfume should look like’. It’s like saying ‘for posh, put gold’.”

The dominant aesthetic is certainly at odds with most of the rest of graphic design, interiors and architecture. We live in an age where for many people a combination of gold, glitter and pseudo cut glass spells anything but sophistication. While it may be enjoyed in a knowing way, as camp tongue-in-cheek fun, it cannot be taken seriously. But when it comes to perfume, it seems that this cynicism evaporates. Eau de parfum is a mass market product; many millions of bottles are sold each year, and while there are some people who wish the packaging was a bit more subtle, its success means it cannot easily be dismissed.

A clue as to why people seem to judge perfume packaging according to a unique set of aesthetic values may be provided by the names, powerful words which refer directly to intense emotions and experiences. As Lewis points out, in marketing terms they are almost laughable – Obsession, Eternity, Joy, Champagne, Opium, and so on. “As designers we would never use names like that,” she says. “if we had clients who suggested such names, we would say to them, ‘your brief is showing’. That might be their strategy, but you’d never use it so blatantly.”

The most outrageous name of recent years has to be Poison, the cloying Christian Dior perfume now associated with late 1989s power dressing. Tellingly, the pure perfume version is sold in what its creators describe as an “apple-shaped” bottle. The image of a poisoned apple as a symbol of the allure of female sexuality is one we have been taught to recognise from an early age, whether in the context of the Garden of Eden or Snow White. Once other perfumes are looked at in the light of such deeply ingrained stories, the allusions seem too numerous to be coincidental. Jumble up such names as Obsession, Poison, Escape, Joy, Champagne, and Eternity and you can create the plots of any number of myths and fairy tales. These powerful stories are our first introduction to romance; perfume packaging, with all its glitter and gold, is the stuff of fairytale happy endings. Perhaps, despite ourselves, we enjoy letting it take us back to the idea of a romance we had when we were young and uncynical , a time before we learned to sublimate our emotions, a time when we believed in fairytales.

The secretive nature of perfume marketing makes it hard to discover the manufacturers’ motivations. Talk to the companies licensed to sell perfumes on the behalf of designers, and they will insist that the designer created every aspect of the fragrance, from the how it should smell to the form of the bottle and box. In reality it is far more complicated, as an independent London-based perfume marketing consultant Rhona Wells explains. “If a designer wants to launch a perfume, they might have an idea of how they want it to smell, or they might come up with a concept for it,” she says. “They would then go to a company such as Charabot in France or international Fragrances in the United States, one of the 15 or so companies which specialised in perfume marketing. The company would have people who would come up with a range of smells, and then, if that all went well and a fragrance was agreed on, there would be a meeting between packaging designers, marketing people, advertising agencies and so on to decide how everything should be done.”

The designer then usually hands most of the work over to a number of agencies which deal exclusively in perfumes. But the pretence that the designer does it all is religiously adhered to. It is not hard to see why. Couture designers can earn their money from the sale of licensed products such as perfumes- even Yves St Laurent made his fortune from sales of Opium rather than from his couture business. So to admit that such icons have little to do with the fragrances that bear their names, would be like admitting that the emperor was wearing no clothes – it is, after all, the supposed link with haute couture that makes so many perfumes so desirable.

The other reason why perfume houses are loath to talk about their packaging, is the huge trade in forged scents. According to the UKs Institute of Trading Standards Administration, the street value of fake perfumes sold in the UK alone is about £15 million a year. Without the forged packaging, of course, few people would be seduced into buying them.

Given that perfume marketing and packaging is produced by a few companies around the world, it is hardly surprising that there are so many similarities between the different brands – or that one of the most notable designs was by someone who had never worked in perfume before. L’Eau D’Issey, launched in 1992, was designed by Fabien Baron, best known at that point for his work as art director of Interview and Italian Vogue. The bottle, a slender cone with a crystal ball on top, and the trapezoid white box with minimal black typography, are unlike anything else on sale. “Issey Miyake wanted something that was totally the image of himself,” says Baron. “Something simple, not too designed.” Rather than look at other perfume packaging, Baron drew his inspiration from Miyake’s famously minimal clothes. The envelope like box which slips over the bottle, was, he says, directly inspired by them. His clothes are flat, he makes a square and then when you unfold the square it becomes a dress. The packaging was done in the same way. It’s two pieces of flat paper and when you push them, pouf!...it becomes the packaging.”

As an outsider to the perfume industry Baron took a fresh approach to designing the L’Eau D’Issey range. Usually designers concentrate on the packaging for the pure perfume and then adapt it for the eau de toilette. This is because many of the manufacturers work on the theory that as the pure perfume is so much more expensive, customers need to feel they are getting value for money by being presented with lavish package. However, in reality most women never get higher up the hierarchy than owning a bottle of eau de toilette. Consequently, the experience the majority of people have of buying a fragrance is getting a bottle in a standard rectangular box which, the manufacturers admit, is designed to be thrown away.

Baron was determined that in the L’Eau D’Issey range each iem would be designed individually so that none would look second best. For instance, the small spray eau de toilette bottle has a metal cap rather than the transparent glass ball of the perfume bottle, which Baron did not like on a smaller scale. “Usually companies put more money into the perfume, because that’s the more important one,” he says. “But what really sells is the 50ml spray. So for us, that was the most important. We could have put the transparent ball on top but we did the cap in metal. That way it looked like a nice object. We tried to give each item its own strength, we feel they are all important. And that’s why I think this line has been very successful.”

In fact, that packaging for L’Eau D’Issey has been so well received that Baron has been inundated with calls from perfume companies asking for him to work for them. As a result, he has taken on six other perfume packaging projects. Another indication of the L’Eau D’Issey’s success is that it the British chain, Marks and Spencer has launched its own, similarly packaged version.

It seems possible that L’Eau D’Issey could mark the beginning of a new era in perfume packaging .Certainly if marketing companies realise that it is not just perfume experts who can create successful designs and start to commission work from outside the ranks, change is inevitable. There are also signs that lavish packaging, with all its implications of for the environment, is seeming less desirable. As Lorna McKnight, head of the perfumery of Liberties in London explains, new perfumes such as Octee and Aveda have no boxes at all. “Aveda is wrapped up in corrugated paper and Octee comes with a pouch for you to keep it in,” she says. “It’s environmentally friendly – there is less waste – and you can use the pouch again.” McKnight adds that perfume buyers are becoming much more promiscuous in their purchases: “we stock around 300 perfumes, and although we only opened the department a few months ago we have sold bottles from every range.”

Perhaps, then, change is a foot in the conservative world of perfume packaging. Consumers are more willing to try new products; perfume companies are more willing to try new designers. Given time, maybe those who find the Midas approach a bit much will discover that we can find the smell we covet in a bottle which is less of an embarrassment of riches.

First published in Eye no. 13 vol. 4 Summer 1994