Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Featured Review: Naomi Campbell (plus commentary on perfume and semiotics of race)

Featured Review: Naomi Campbell (plus commentary on perfume and semiotics of race)

By Sali Oguri

"Skin scent" - the term connotes something different to everyone, from the silky, creamy vanillas to the various musks from the powdery to the animalic and feral. For some, tropical white florals are their idea of "your skin but better", and for still others, the warm, mysterious ambers or deep woods, with their slightly pungent, earthy / boozy dry downs, are the ticket to perfected "skin". The ideal skin scent is an abstract idea, potentially meaning "clean", "dirty", "naughty", "innocent", "sexy", "comfortable" (in my own skin), etc. - any adjective we can assign to a smell is a valid definition. The fun part of perfume appreciation is that the descriptions are ours to freely conjure, making it a truly personalized and creative art form. It's open to anyone who has the capacity to imagine, and boldness to be true to one's own taste. Examples of my favorite skin scents are Cacharel Noa, Penhaligon's Artemisia and today's featured review, Naomi Campbell.

Celebrity perfumes are often ridiculed but some are created by top noses and are great creations. Naomi Campbell's line of fragrances is probably more popular in Germany than here in the US but it's worth checking out. I especially love the first launch named for the eponymous supermodel: a dewy, seemingly simple yet sophisticatedly complex, natural-smelling and subtle skin scent of a Woody Spicy Oriental. I find it beautiful and versatile, easy to wear from the office to weekend outings. Created in 1999, I think it has a timeless elegance to it as well. I even love the sandy pink color of the bottle that says "Venus" to me. I'd described the scent on my blog as sweet, slightly spicy, powdery and creamy, but to be more precise, it's not an overly sweet Gourmand, nor is it too powdery. It's more of a milky, musk-based, transparent scent like Cacharel Noa with a Mediterranean twist of fig leaves and a subtle yet delicious coconut note. It's not a suntan oil scent but rather like a drinkable skin treatment. It's quite green and vegetal. The beginning stage is a bit sharp, like headspace lilies and prickly herbs, but it settles into a lovely skin scent, like sunkissed bare skin against a manly tweed blazer (I'm picking up on the green, fougere-ish (abstract fern) quality). I wonder if it was taken into account that Naomi Campbell is known to love Christian Dior Diorissimo and Creed Green Irish Tweed, both green scents on the olfactory spectrum. One would guess so, just as well as Sarah Jessica Parker's love of Egyptian musk had played a role in the creation of Lovely, and Jennifer Lopez's love of China Rain had inspired Glow.

I love this scent and highly recommend it to a perfumista looking for a more skin scenty version of L'Artisan Parfumeur Premier Figuier or Diptyque Philosykos. Of course since "skin scent" is subjective, you may already have the ideal skin scent in either of these two, also featuring fig and coconut. I wonder about the coconut note in Naomi Campbell, whether the inclusion of a tropical note was something added to give it a particularly "sunny" character to fit the idea of an African skin scent from an industry's point of view. I hope the industry realizes we don't want stereotypes in our perfumes. I appreciate that Naomi Campbell smells terrific, not too tropical and not too sweet and vanillic, vanilla being a note so often stereotyped as a black and Latino favorite (just as regional biases exist towards American perfumes), but I still must address semiotics of race and racism in perfume creation and marketing, especially when people in the industry so often defend this practice as artistic freedom.

Too often, I see similar types of scents marketed to the same groups, like how the American radio industry segregates genres of music as unheard of in other countries. From Mariah Carey's perfume to Calvin Klein Secret Obsession, dark beauties are so often coupled with hotness (spice) or images of the tropics and their correlating smells, like coconut. The new Halle Berry Halle perfume including fig will hopefully smell mimosa-centric rather than coconutty, but with the tropical ad campaign, I'm not holding my breath for something vastly different. We also can't forget there's still inclusion of race in subliminal form in perfume ad copies, such as Britney Spears' "blonde woods", or Serge Lutens Serge Noire and its juxtaposition of "white skin" against black elements, an age-old trick to use dichotomies to accentuate differences and set up to make one appear more appealing than the other. Maybe it's your garden variety ignorance, but as we've seen through history, it can be a very ugly trick, and easily passed off as "in your imagination" so people who do this can get away with it.

But hip New Yorkers won't put up with that crap. Plus, the industry has made headway with Beyoncé modeling for Armani Diamonds and Tommy Hilfiger True Star, neither of which are "ethnic" but rather mainstream, sporty American scents. Naomi Campbell's impressive line of a variety of scents beloved by Europeans is a sign of better things to come. In the 1930s, Jean Patou, designer for Josephine Baker, had dedicated Amour Amour, a lilting springlike floral bouquet, to dark-skinned beauties. Not that we should go back to assigning scents to ethnicities like Color Me Beautiful, but if we're going to continue with the celeb perfume fad, let's at least demand the industry to break, not perpetuate, stereotypes one subversive spritz at a time.

Featured review: Naomi Campbell (1999)

Commentary on perfume and semiotics of race and racism: From Britney Spears' perfume to Serge Lutens Serge Noire, we'll discuss it all: NY Fragrance Examiner: Featured Review: Naomi Campbell (plus commentary on perfume and semiotics of race)