Columns Revival Culture

Revival Culture

08/13/16 20:14:54 (8 comments)

by: Eddie Bulliqi

Where do you find the practice of revival in perfumery, nowadays? Revival is not an easy term to negotiate; whilst it might intersect with ideas of reference, appropriation, even plagiarism, the most important facet of revival’s meaning is its activity. Revival cannot be passive – it is always conscious, living, reacting, influencing, and material, as is implicit in its derivation. In perfumery, whilst referencing other perfumes, styles, and notes could be considered a foundational practice to the development and understanding of the medium (with two specific perfumes, Houbigant’s Fougère Royale and Coty’s Chypre, actually going on to title the fragrance families Fougère and Chypre), the desire to consciously revive (be it fragrance effects or brand values) is fairly recent. Revival is a demonstration by its instigator that the quality being revived has preserved, relevant, and current value. Revival must also always take place in a new future context; revival is never revisionist.


Why is revival, generally, a new practice for perfumery? For one, the modern fragrance industry as we understand it is relatively new, coming in at 130 years old at its lengthiest valuation. It is hard for recent history to have vintage artistic appeal. Also, fragrance creation has been for a very long time, and mostly still is, all about newness and novelty; about incessantly releasing new products, and designing them so that they smell new. One might protest, ‘but all contemporary fragrances smell the same?’ Therein lies the paradox. Fragrance formulas can never be fully copied, for both technical and legal reasons; materials must always be subtracted or new materials added. So, every composition is technically ‘new’, and there is inherently evolution in perfume creation, one perfume at a time.

The ambition of most big fragrance brands is to create the next big thing, the scent everyone is talking about, because ‘you just can’t stop smelling it’. Often, however, a scent that could have started out its life as bold and innovative ends up generic and forgettable as the market testing process has its ways with it. Add more calone here; add more dihydromyrcenol there. The distributors are asking for praline, so that’s what they’re getting. Therefore, both the idea of novelty and the idea of revival are consistently lost at the start of the supply chain so that the consumer cannot pick up either. The end effect is of a copy with additions or subtractions, giving rise to a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ mechanism that sees slow and slight changes to dominant perfumery styles. One cannot really speak of revival if the composition is simply lifting the heart and base notes from another, and adding grapefruit instead of bergamot to the top.


Something is happening in the industry right now that can be considered an act of revival. Whether you are looking at the revival of a classic brand itself (like Houbigant), a classic accord (such as amber), or a classic material (musk), they are each aligned under the more compelling command of a desire to revive classic fragrance brand principles, now mostly taking place in the niche sphere. This is often misconceived as luxury, but I don’t think that’s quite it, as the most respected and successful niche brands today aren’t necessarily luxury and the first weren’t high luxury either. Niche was first and foremost a revival of golden age perfumery principles (1920s) that relished the ‘feeling’ of classic perfumery with good quality materials allowed to shine within a complex structure, coinciding with a revolt against what many saw as bland, cynical, vapid, cheap, mainstream consumer perfumery.

The pioneers of this ever-growing, ever-more threatening fragrance class were companies like Annick Goutal, L’Artisan Parfumeur, and Serge Lutens. How did they revive (and recontextualise) golden age perfumery? Through the transparency of development processes; clear and honest communication of materials; emphasising technical legitimacy over superficial marketing; using rarer and higher quality oils that both perform better and have a more complex scent; more natural oils; and higher concentrations for greater longevity and projection.  A kind of back-to-roots model.


Revival strategies such as the above, exemplified in niche, serve to gain brand authenticity through perceived specialisation. Niche consumers want niche brands to be specialists – to know everything about how the products were made, what’s in then, where they came from, and what other perfumes (and perfume history) they relate to. Instead of just saying ‘this reminds me of my grandmother’, you have customers saying ‘this reminds me of my grandmother’s scent Shalimar by Guerlain which was made in 1925 and it’s clever how this new scent has freshened its amber base. What else can you suggest that modernises powder?’ Sales assistants would attest to this. The drive towards specialist fragrance knowledge and a specialist fragrance experience can be seen manifest broadly in two camps: the championing of key historical natural materials through clear simple structures, and the creation of richly layered, complex, long formulas that communicate a mysterious nebulous impression.

By aggrandising touchstone naturals and mythical accords such as néroli, bergamot, lavender, rose, jasmine, vanilla, amber, musk etc., and bringing them to the fore with supporting effects, it allows consumer-facing touchpoints to explore the development process, a platform to discuss provenance and methods of extraction, nuanced olfactory description akin to the connoisseur, as well as categorisation. Revival in perfumery right now is a lot about categorising into families and historical references that underscore authority. The other side of the niche coin reveals an increasing list of releases that reflect on perfumery’s ability to create neologisms through combining of a plethora of complex materials, complex in themselves, but even more complex when mixed together. A symptom of niche’s drive to golden age perfumery principles can be identified in the will for a shortening supply chain (emphasising the provenance of raw materials and the role of the Perfumers themselves) as the antithesis of a muddled and muddied understanding of the commercial process void of accountability, reviving the way things were in the ‘good old days’ of the classic brands (some owned and run by Perfumers themselves) where the consumer knows who made the scents and why and the guarantee that this vetiver absolute came from Haiti.


Some concluding thoughts on why the theme of revival is important today for fragrance. It’s significant simply because we’re talking about it as significant, reflective of the increasing status and value of perfume, rather than an article on the top ten sexiest summer scents for teens this year. Incorporating accents of this trend through niche in emerging markets could prove difficult long-term; appreciation of revival scents rests on an understanding of western perfumery history, not matter how vague, of where it came from and where it’s going. Perhaps this is easier in cultures rich in fragrancing traditions like in the Middle East, but China does not have a familiarity with western models of scent education. Revival (of historical perfumes, of quality naturals, of classic fragrance accords) is also sacred in the IFRA context which increasingly takes up the headlines of fragrance news.

Revival is a theme to watch.


Eddie Bulliqi

Eddie Bulliqi is a perfume writer based in London working on perfume theory and  developing the artistic experience of perfumery. He read History of Art at the Courtauld  Institute, and is an associate of the Scent Culture Institute in Zurich and the Institute for Art  and Olfaction in Los Angeles. In 2016, Eddie’s work was nominated for two Fragrance  Foundation UK Jasmine Awards.

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Well argued Sir I just don't agree.

4711 is made by the same company for over 200 years and (Queen of) Hungary Water is continually produced, loosely following the same formula, for over 600 years.

While some old formulas get recycled, I do not see any revival happening. A lot of brands that used to be top shelf are still entering the cost reduction and discount circle, slipping towards the drugstore or even the supermarket. New brands with better quality offering fill in the void left at the top.

What I notice happening is more and more synthetics replacing natural ingredients and western societies that are increasingly restricting fragrance use.


This was an excellent article! It is nice to read a thought provoking article (and the comments!) about fragrances in culture instead of the typical "Hottest Scents for the Summer!" filled with obnoxious, loud, generic, messy "mall" fragrances- which just happen to be whichever ones are the most highly/heavily/widely advertised. There's a lot to think about when it comes to revival and you really touched on each aspect beautifully. I love the comparison to an original vs cover- spot on!

Personally, I appreciate the revival of perfume as an art- a story, a feeling, mood, thought etc which is trying to be conveyed. I fully appreciate transparency of process/materials, and thr thought process. The best perfumes in my mind are ones that are/were made as an art form- sparing no expense, using high quality ingredients, to convey whatever the nose's story/mood/feeling etc may be. Not just making something in mass production simply with whatever trendy notes are in right now. I care very much about the story, the history, and intent just as much as i do the actual heart, because to me, it changes the way i feel wearing it, smelling it, spraying it - the entire experience. For example, if there were a current "mall" fragrance by EL or Lancome that smelled exactly like an artistic 'vintage' I really wouldn't want much to do with it. I would want the original. But if a house reinvented or veined from an original with something new, I would be interested.


I love your writing style. Hope to read more pieces from you soon.


In this clickbait-obsessed media landscape, it is rare to come across such considered, scholarly but still thoroughly readable content.

Thanks for the great essay, Eddie. Theddie.


Z+E, thank you for the warm welcome! Thrilled to be part of the team. And your idea about the parallel between flankers and cover songs is amazing!


Eddie Bulliqi welcome to Fragrantica! We had a chance to meet in Milan this spring at Esxence and finally we are at the point when your talent and mind provoking writing can find broader audience.

Revival culture is present almost in any human activity, fashion, music even now in digital age new forms of expression like web pages, applications, videos are reviving and bringing with itself old things repackaged and reworked. From time to time we are stroke with something new. Same new form maybe not so distinct but it is there like now we look back in genesis of Rock&Roll. Another great angle is instead of looking at a trend to look at the person. For example Claude François reinvented himself in several music forms during his career. The more I think about music the more I see similarity and parallels. In perfumery we do not have term for 'cover perfume' like we have cover songs except within brand we see flankers and reformulations that are also part of evolution of perfumery.

I have to admit you have spot on in your theory 'back to roots model' with increased transparency of development process, honest communication on materials over superficial marketing. I believe Internet and information age play big role. Now for example on Fragrantica perfume pages we feature pyramids of ingredients that invoke mental images that give person better understanding of a fragrance. Marketing messaging that usually would in cliché lure toward mysterious, sexual, irresistible... now is companioned with easily accessible information what's in it... that could end marketing hypnosis by realization oh it's tuberose and I can't stand tuberose. Now person learn about themselves much more and this 360 view of what's going on around the world really force brands to immerse themselves into creation process because push marketing is less and less effective.


This is wonderful reading! Thank you Eddie, and welcome! I am looking forward to see more of this thoughtful reading! ;o)

Angela Agiannidou
Angela Agiannidou

This is a wonderful and thought provoking article. To me, revival, yes, but not one to suit a generic, fruity floral "safe" , teeny pleasing concoction, but one that keeps the spirit, idea and tenacity of the original. Thank you for raising important issues!


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