Are perfumers olfactory artists or chemists? Are cosmetic brands impressionists or do they paint by numbers? The beauty industry is doing its best to show its artistic associations via everything from products with literary references to providing funding for books, magazines and films.
“It adds a dimension beyond the products,” says Rob Calcraft, founder of Ren skincare, which earlier this year posted a short film, Love Clean Skin, on YouTube to celebrate its 11th anniversary.
Niche fragrance brand Parfumerie Générale named one of its blends “Querelle” after the 1947 Jean Genet book Querelle De Brest and the result is a spicy, resinous chypre with tonka, cumin, myrrh and amber (£117.50 for 100ml, www.lessenteurs.com).
The Parisian perfumer Frédéric Malle, who describes himself as an “editeur de parfums”, named one 2011 fragrance, with its rich, complex blend of cinnamon, rose and patchouli, “Portrait of a Lady” after the novel by Henry James.
Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s film of William Thackeray’s novel, the Italian perfumer Maria Candida Gentile came up with the fern-like “Barry Lyndon” in 2010 (€150 for 100ml, www.mariacandidagentile.com). More recently, the Stockholm-based fragrance house Byredo has created “Baudelaire”, which has top notes of juniper berry, black pepper, and caraway, (£130, www.byredo.com) and is named after the 19th-century French poet.
“Beyond perfume, Baudelaire wrote about sex and death quite a bit, and this perfume was very much about that idea,” says Ben Gorham, the brand’s founder. “It was a super-French reference I thought people would get.”
But do they? Or do people feel these associations are a cynical attempt to attract a more cerebral crowd?
“I would definitely be attracted to any product that references a [Jean-Luc] Godard film or some iconic cultural work,” says Anna Morley, a solicitor at a large City law firm.“Anything that sets it apart from the pseudo-celebrity products.”
Several companies have gone further and actually used artists’ work. Nars, for example, has partnered with the Andy Warhol estate on a cosmetics range inspired by the pop artist’s legacy, which launches in October, while Shu Uemura last year created a nine-piece make-up collection with In The Mood For Love film director Wong Kar-wai.
Not everyone is convinced, though. Maria Stanley, a risk analyst at Nomura, says: “I’m not sure about make-up lines by artists. Gustav Klimt might have pulled it off, but not many others.” But James Gager, vice-president and group creative director of the brand MAC, which collaborated with artist Cindy Sherman last year, says that, “Even if you don’t know who these innovators are, you’ll look at the collections and think they’re interesting – an experience you want to be part of”.
Artistic cross-fertilisation was the thinking behind Penning Perfumes, the brainchild of poet Claire Trevien and perfumista Odette Toilette. The project involved a group of poets including Valerie Laws, David Morley and Charlotte Newman, each of whom was given a different perfume to write a poem about. At the same time, perfumers were commissioned to create scents inspired by a variety of poems. The idea was to increase the vocabulary (both olfactive and linguistic) of all involved. The perfumes used to inspire poems include Lalique’s musky and masculine Encre Noir (£43.86, www.amazon.co.uk) and Ruth Mastenbroek’s Signature Eau de Parfum (£80 for 100ml, www.ruthmastenbroek.com).
Australian beauty company Aesop attaches quotations from luminaries such as Salvador Dalí and Gertrude Stein to its products. Its “Three Acts Kit” body hydrators are each named after a Godard film, while it has also staged readings, hosted book groups, curated art exhibitions and commissioned a short film from Australian artist Lucy McRae. “We see ourselves as a thinking person’s brand, so our associations come naturally,” says chief executive Michael O’Keefe.
Dismissing suggestions that the beauty world is attempting to take advantage of the art world, perfumer Malle says: “Art is always for sale, whether it is film, painting, music, or sculpture … art, in my mind, is most often linked to commerce.” And now, apparently, cosmetics too.