Monday, April 26, 2010

Retail: A Rant

 The other day, I realized that I was out of a particular product, and only know one place in my beloved city to buy it. This establishment is right near our most fashionable mall. It’s the same mall to which I used to make an August pilgrimage, to buy my school clothes. It was customary then to dress up a little  when going to town, and a few places still make me feel like I ought to do that. They connect me to the past. I take extra care. It’s a little salute to an old way of being.
I stepped into the perfume department of a very upscale department store. You know the one. With the infamous catalog and the secret chocolate chip cookie recipe. It’s the Valhalla of commerce. Let’s just call it the Temple of Conspicuous Consumption, or TCC, for now.
The second my not-all-that-well-shod foot hit that storied marble floor, I was accosted. Detained. Shanghai’ed by an SA like never before. Here she was, and was and was and was and was, trying to sell me (oh God no) skin care products!
The SA launched into her spiel. Was I truly happy with my skin care routine? Have I decided what my neck cream should be?  How about my eye cream? What about my upper lip cream? 
I, uh, don’t really think about my neck that much, truth be told, except when it has a kink in it...and what’s wrong with my neck anyway that I need a special cream for it, hunh? The SA, a well-made up woman of about fifty, I’d guess, who knows, began to follow me, pestering me like a puppy. Do I use a foundation primer? she asked. (Uh, no, because I don’t even use foundation, well maybe New Year’s Eve.) Before I knew it she was dropping teeny little samples my handbag and giving me her card. I took it, just to get away from her, and headed over to the Guerlain counter.

Two seconds later, there she was again. Did I like Guerlain? Had I tried X? How about Y?  I asked if she sold perfume too. She told me -- horror of horrors -- that she was empowered to represent every product in the perfume department and, obviously, other departments too. 
I looked around. No one was alone here. There were no solo customers. Every one of them was being followed by one of these roving all-access SA’s. 
I fled the store as fast as my not-so-well-shod feet would go. 
Later, as always, I thought about it. 
What in the world makes a retailer think that this is a smart sales strategy? My first reaction was that perhaps they had marked me as a potential shoplifter. Over the past days I’ve begun to wonder, though: did I look like I needed that much cosmetic help? Or was it my perfect (not) clothing that did it? Was it the jacket I was wearing? Was it my shoes, hair, face, what? TCC has always made me feel like a peasant, but, in my city, it’s the store where the niche perfumes are -- some of them. 
So, you might ask: Why didn’t you just tell her to get lost?
Here’s why. Because I’ve worked in floor sales too. Because I bet she’s on straight commission or close to it. Because she may hate doing this as much as I hate being subjected to it. Because, for all I know, she might be supporting two kids in college.  Because life is hard. And because I can’t be like that. I just can’t.
My only solution is the passive one. I won’t darken that door again. 
What I wouldn’t give for a free-standing perfume store, where I could browse and sniff and test. Like the one I used to go to in L.A., on my way home from classes. I discovered so many beautiful fragrances there, long before the IFRA or LVMH or any of those other initials came along. I’d pay retail for that privilege. I’d even become a regular. 
We all read about how the fragrance industry is hurting, but here’s my take on it: this is desperate, and it reeks of desperation. It isn’t going to work, fellas. Not now not ever. It shows the same kind of disregard for the customer that bottling reformulated crap and selling it under a classic name does. It diminishes the product, the customer, the store and, most of all, the industry.
And maybe I’m just a retail innocent, but I didn’t expect it here, or, for that matter,  anywhere.
Photo from IMDB.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Scents That Sing Spring - A Group Blog

I used to live in Los Angeles. We had spring, but if you blinked, you missed it.
Now I’m back home in Atlanta, where the spring….aaaah…..excuse me….(reaches for delicately scented hankie, holds to mouth and nose) aaaahhh….(loud sneezing sound) Now, where was I? (Puts hankie away)  Oh. Right. Spring.
Here in our forested city, pollen hangs in the air like yellow haze. People go around, perfectly nice, normal people, wearing little gas masks. In my last post, I wrote about using honey as a homeopathic. Works for me, hence no gas mask, but still.
Spring is usually when I put away all the heavy stuff, the wool shirts and socks, the boots and scarves, and take out the T-shirts and shorts. And it is usually the time when I’ll move the musks and woods and oriental scents to the back of the cabinet, but I’m fascinated with vanilla right now. The comfort scents: Vanille Exquise, Tobacco Vanilla. Organza. Nuits de Indiennes. Because, in this season of rebirth, a good friend has just died, and another is passing, as we say here. Each day, I wait for the news I know is coming. 
As I wait, I notice everything. The beautiful greens, pastel or tinted yellow, to be replaced by blue greens as we move into summer. The pale and dark pink azaleas and the yellow Carolina jessamine vines. I think about the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter, of the mother who made the deal with Hades for her daughter, six months each year, alternately grieving and rejoicing. I think about that myth each Georgia spring, when the daffodils burst out of the ground and the birds sing with joy: they’ve survived another winter.  
We’ve all been writing about the scents of spring: Ninfeo Mio’s green fig, Silences’ bitter galbanum green underlaid with florals. We sing praises of orange blossom perfumes -- some decadent, some delicate, representations of the flower that has no concept of the decent interval, blooming madly with last year’s fruit still hanging on the branches. We sing about the tuberoses, especially the one that’s coming from L’Artisan, Duchafour’s take on that most seductive of all flowers. I’ve been wearing ELPC’s Tuberose Gardenia, a lot, and it’s occurring to me as I write that perhaps this, too, is a comfort scent for me. Gardenia is something I know so well. There’s no fragrance more beautiful than that of a blooming gardenia, but its time is not here yet.
For me, though, the most beautiful spring perfume at the moment is Annick Goutal’s Eau de Ciel. It’s the pale green of spring without the bitterness, without the traces of exhaust from rusty lawn mowers each Saturday. Our springs smell of that, and slightly acrid new-mown grass, and the reality of floral profusion: lots of flowers that don’t smell good to the human nose (but are irresistible to bees. That’s the business of plant reproduction). Scents like burning plastic or rubber, or flat and metallic. And then there are our ornamental pear trees, whose gorgeous blooms smell just like fish.
Because, it would seem, the more flowers and blooming trees and vines you have, the more likely it is that you’ll need to hold your breath as you walk by. For me, this is a reminder: nature does not exist for our entertainment. 
So a scent like Eau de Ciel is what we really love: the idealized Spring. The spring of grasses that smell sweet, and wild violets that one looks at with reverence, not rips out of the ground as a noxious weed. It’s a spring full of irises that actually have a scent when, in reality, most don’t. Another “note” is rosewood; does rosewood even have a scent? I guess it must. 
The imagined Spring is the season of resurrection, of immortality. That underlies all our mythologies surrounding it. So we sing, and nature does its work with or without us. We sing, like the birds, because we have to. 
Other participating blogs are:
Thanks to Alaya Moriel for getting this project together, Elena for providing the image, and Katie and Elena for coming up with the title.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Saw the trailers for the upcoming season of “True Blood” last night: “Waiting Sucks.” Brilliant. Here’s the thing though: Hollywood bodies in South Louisiana? Lemmee tell ya: there is no way that those people snarfing pork chops at Merlotte's are gonna look like the extras on “True Blood.”
Those extras spend 4 hours a day at the gym. Trust me. In BonTon, Louisiana, Merlotte's is the gym.
Finally got around to trying L’Artisan’s Al Oudh. Late to the party as usual. This one deserves a whole post. The title? “Perfumes I’m embarrassed to go grocery shopping in.”  I mean, I love it. But, ahem...this one makes “Boudoir” feel like some little-girl violets-at-Easter cologne.
If there is anything more beautiful than a Lady Banks rose vine in bloom and cascading over a fence, I don’t know what it is. I’m looking at one right now.
It’s spring here in the South. The time of year that you actually want to go outside, assuming that you can tolerate the pollen that is coating everything, like sticky yellow talc.
Here’s a tip from an old-timer: put a tablespoonful of locally produced honey in your tea or coffee once a day, starting around January. Honey is made from pollen. This is a homeopathic, and it works. 
ELPC’s Tuberose Gardenia smells just right, right now.
What is going on with those little bottles of vintage Shalimar? They’re going for $50 to the-sky’s-the-limit on fleabay. I mean, I want, but $50 is my absolute limit -- which I’ve never paid -- for used perfume that might or might not be “off”; what’s yours?
Grain de Musc’s recent writeup  on the forthcoming L’Artisan tuberose by Duchafour was really intriguing. Also made me resolve to order a sample first. 
Two great recent samples: L’Artisan’s Havana Vanille (more vanilla than tobacco, imho) and Annick Goutal’s Vanille Exquise (nice and boozy). Both last, a long time, even on my skin. Will save these for October.
Q: What always smells better than it tastes? A: Barbecue.
From the TV shows I’ve never watched list: “American Idol.” Yes, it’s true! Does this make me an elitist? 
So be it.
If it weren’t for the HBO shows and “Mad Men,” I’d get rid of the damned thing entirely. We have about 400 channels. There’s never anything on any of them.

Got a bottle of Balmain’s “Ivorie.” I never knew what “soapy” really meant until now, but no matter. It’s green, green, green and megasoapy and will be perfect for July.
I really like the fig scents too. “Ninfeo Mio” and “Premier Figuer,” especially. I don’t know about wearing them outside though. Maybe the Ninfeo Mio; it’s more green than fig. But we have every kind of wasp and hornet you can possibly imagine here. Figs are their favorite thing in the whole world. I'd rather not be.
The other night the DH and I watched an episode of that makeover show where the bitchy woman and snide guy rip into some poor girl’s self-image so they can subject her to their ideas about style. I glanced over at him. He was staring at the screen in horror. He said “I’m looking at this...other world.”  Ya think?
Better advice: Sweetie, return all those ugly clothes and spend the $5000 on a therapist.  If you didn’t need one before, you will now!

photo © Kokimk| used under license

Monday, April 5, 2010

Book Review: "Just Kids" by Patti Smith

Late in 1975, I was in my last year of college, studying for final exams. My roommate came home with a couple of tickets a friend had given her. They were for a poetry reading at the Roxy, on Sunset Strip.
The Roxy was and is a showcase venue, but I didn’t know that then. I thought, “Oh, gawd...some boring feminist poet, no thanks,” and I said I couldn’t go. Too much work to do. She started in with the guilt. Her date had cancelled, she didn’t want to go alone, etc, etc.  I’d had enough standard deviation for one night. I went.
We got to the club, which hadn’t been open long. There weren’t many people, so few, in fact, that we got a table. I remember noticing that there was a drum kit on the tiny stage, guitars, a band setup. Curious. The lights went down and a strange, androgynous figure stepped out, picked up a guitar, stepped up to the mike and intoned: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine…”
The band came in behind her with the slow grinding buildup to “Gloria.” By the end of the song I was on my feet; soon after, standing on my chair. Seeing this show changed everything for me. And I almost hadn’t gone.

Just Kids is an autobiography, and, more than that, the epic love story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Their meeting in the summer of 1967 was as much by chance as my first look at Patti Smith. At 20, she had boarded a bus from her South Jersey home to New York, and found that her acquaintances, who’d promised her a room, had moved without telling her. Mapplethorpe was the new tenant. Seems like fate, doesn’t it?
 Their penniless romance took place in the sleazy New York of the Seventies, in the streets, in fleabag hotels, unheated lofts and back rooms. It’s told in such a matter-of-fact way that it could be almost anyone’s autobiography, except that it isn’t. It’s a chronicle of the hardcore struggles of two half-starved half-children who could never have imagined any other choices than those of artists. Smith recounts Mapplethrope’s turn to other men and S & M while still with her in the same “this happened and then that happened” style, but her words echo the pain and confusion she felt. Still, all she was demanded that she let him go, and she did.
 They remained friends, as close as two people can be, as he went on to do the photographic work he became notorious for and she delved deeper into rock and roll imagery. With a new, self-inflicted Keith Richards haircut and a getup she calls her “Br'er Rabbit look,” she was scribbling in the lobby of a way-off-Broadway theater, and it was there that she was noticed by musician Bob Neuwirth, who she calls a painter/provocateur and “Bob Dylan’s alter-ego.” They talked. He read her poems. He asked her to write him a song. She declined. She was a poet, not a songwriter, she said.
But this chance encounter opened doors. She recounts her rise through the music underground, as Mapplethorpe takes another route to his success, the gay culture and the art world. Still, they stayed together. It was Mapplethorpe who took the iconic photos of her that became the cover of her first album, “Horses.”

“Just Kids” begins with Mapplethorpe’s death. Smith, on long-distance deathwatch, gets the phone call and begins to spin out these memories. They become the book.
I don’t think anyone -- me, most of all -- ever expected that Patti Smith would see 30, much less become the rock and roll godmother she is now. She glosses over her own experimentations here, but I saw her again in the late Seventies, right before she fell off the stage in Tampa, and she was transcendent but barely in control. I thought she’d be like her idols Brian Jones or Jimi Hendrix, a roman candle that goes up fast and then flares out. She surprised me. She recovered, married guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and retired to raise a family.
I saw her again a couple of years ago. As skinny as ever, back on tour, a widow now with long, witchy gray hair, she was like a friendly neighbor, talking to people in the audience, people in their Twenties she now calls “my kids,” as politically fired up as ever, but tempered with the wisdom of age. She’s still one of my idols. She did everything, did it well, and keeps on doing it well. 
But in those few moments in 1975, I knew I was looking at the spirit of all of it -- rock, resurrection, sanity/insanity and ultimately divination, in this persona, this unlikely, stick-thin shaman who turned out to be as wise and multifaceted a woman imaginable.

"Just Kids" was published by HarperCollins in 2010. The ISBN is 978-0-06-621131-2.

Photo of Patti Smith by Daigo Oliva, 2006; Flikr/Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.