Christian Dior Eau Sauvage: Percy Savage and the unbearable lightness of publicity

Eau Sauvage Vintage Johnny DeppLately I have noticed a steady increase in the circulation my post on Eau Sauvage Parfum is getting. And I couldn’t help but think this is just because people are searching on the internet for news of the new release, Dior Sauvage. So I started to wonder how Dior manages to navigate potential buyers of the new eau de toilette pour homme, right around the hurdles of original Eau Sauvage, Eau Sauvage Extrême, Eau Sauvage Parfum and the recently released (and probably redundant) Eau Sauvage Cologne. How much money do they need to pay on-line to keep the newly released Sauvage afloat and why on earth would they choose such a name, overlapping with at least four other releases of the label and yet having nothing in common with them. Enter Johny Depp! This is how you do it! You take a shiny little ribbon and tie your product on the effervescent bubble of a movie star! Then you set it free and watch it rise above the murks of oblivion, carried by the unbearable lightness of the star’s publicity.

I am somewhat partial when it comes to Johnny Depp. The younger he was, the more interesting his choices. As he rose to stardom, the unbearable lightness of publicity swept him to the abominable “Pirates of the Caribbean” serial ordeal and his public persona adopted the agonising Peter-Pan-turned-middle-aged-tattoo-aficionado look that causes me to feel a deep embarrassment every time I see a photo of him from a public appearance. The Dior Sauvage promotion video didn’t help increase my interest on the perfume itself. Guitar riffing, tattoos, eye-liner, escaping to a desert…, the works! Just a realisation that no matter how much one admires Keith Richards, imitation does not always compliment the imitator. Of course I tried the scent itself. My opinion coincides with the vast majority of reviewers: it is a decent, likeable, eager to please composition. Which is basically the brief every young perfumer is given when at the start of their career, they are asked to compose the smell of a new deodorant, or fabric softener, or room spray. It falls a little short however of what a -supposedly- high-end perfume should smell like. And there you have it, The Controversy of Bleu de Chanel all over again: if it smells “nice” and sells by the millions who are we, perfume aficionados, to say that we don’t like it? There have been perfume bloggers who have expressed this exact idea, taking the advocacy of “functional perfumery” to a whole new level. A level that says that if a product doesn’t stink and at the same time manages to sell at huge rates, we don’t really have the right to not like it. Style and creativity are nothing but a popularity contest. Products are not judged on their unique merits -or lack thereof- but on how they are received by “the market”. “The market” being an amalgamation of social media, paid press and unpaid controversy and name-calling in blog commentaries and perfume forums. In a nutshell, this is the Kim Kardashian paradigm transferred to perfume and cosmetics. No one really remembers why Kim Kardashian is famous, no one really knows if she has any redeeming qualities to justify stardom. And no one really cares! She is famous because she was well accepted by social media and she rose quickly to a status where calling her names and pointing out how not-good she is at everything she doesn’t do, stirs up enough publicity to keep her afloat. Like Bleu de Chanel, Dior Sauvage is already famous for not being bad, and this is its redeeming quality. I am also convinced that this sort of controversy, “is not being bad, good enough to grant you a career?”, was incorporated in Dior Sauvage’s brief. It had to be a composition so blunt and popular that people would have to start discussing whether mediocre is good enough. If this got Kim Kardashian a cover on Vogue, why shouldn’t it work for a perfume?

Agonising over the unmemorable new releases I remembered my stashed away treasure, a half-empty bottle of vintage Christian Dior Eau Sauvage that my uncle discovered in the bottom of his closet and gave to me a couple of years ago. It is so old that the bottle looks nothing like the well known permutations of Eau Sauvage bottles. The smell is exquisitely preserved, none of the usual soapy or plasticky top notes which usually appear in vintage perfumes is there. The juice is fresh and subversive, as it was meant to be. A ruthless laugh at the face of the cologne genre, with a composition that straddles comfortably and cockily the distance between a gentleman’s vetiver and Diorella’s curves. Much like the young Johnny Depp did in his double portrayal of a transvestite prostitute and a torturer army officer in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night FallsIn this film Johnny Depp delivers one, or rather two, of his best performances as irreverent, fearless pariah Bon Bon and fragile alpha-male Lieutenant Victor, who both become entangled in the life of Cuban poet, novelist and gay rights advocate Reinaldo Arenas. The original Eau Sauvage takes the theme of classic vetiver-citrus cologne and drowses it in clouds of abstract floral hedione, creating the calmest, quieter revolution in perfume history. While one feels initially enveloped in familiar brisk freshness, they find themselves soon challenged by the ambiguity of what could be a touch of rotten flowers or the remains of a pumpkin decomposing in the background. This simple idea put into form by Edmond Roudnitska, was the premise of the first Christian Dior masculine fragrance. But Christian Dior was having trouble finding a name for it so he asked the opinion of his friend and fashion publicist, Percy Savage. When Savage arrived late at the meeting he was announced as “Monsieur Sauvage!” by the French battler and the rest is history: Eau Sauvage was christened.

I didn’t know who Percy Savage was until I stumbled upon this amusing story about naming the scent. What I discovered about him though was something like a film noir with a twist of an ancient Greek drama at the end. Percy Savage was not the first person who saw the potential of collaboration between fame and beauty, film-stars and haute-couture. But he was the first to make a living out of this. He worked for the house of Lanvin after the death of Jeanne Lanvin, and was the person who changed the ethos of Haute Couture. Up until the mid 50’s the Chambre Syndicale had imposed a six-week moratorium on haute couture house publicity. This means that one had to wait six weeks after the launch of the collection, before they could show their creations in magazines. You would think that this is absurd since we now have live feeds from the catwalks, right? Well, that’s right if you think like a drooling, middle class Carrie Bradshaw. But back then, haute-couture houses had actual bourgeoisie clients and they were living off of the dresses they were selling to them. Rich women would go to the private shows, see what they liked and  bought it. Fashion shows were strategically timed less than six weeks ahead of important social events, so that clients could appear with gowns never seen before, not even in fashion magazine editorials. Fashion magazines were merely cataloguing fashion, not creating it. Percy Savage saw the limitations of this. You can sell 2, 3 maybe ten haute-couture gowns costing one million each. But why not sell cheap shots at a glamour dream to millions around the world? After all he started in the world of fashion designing accessories. All he needed was a vehicle for the dreams he wanted to sell and he found it in the face of Liz Taylor who was visiting Paris for a premier. Her publicist ask Lanvin for a gown and Percy Savage rushed over to her hotel with the new Lanvin collection. The dresses had a very interesting price tag: when journalists asked Liz Taylor what she wore, she answered: ” Lanvin! Isn’t it divine???? “. Thus the sacred six week moratorium in press coverage of fashion shows was broken, never to be missed again. The rules of the Chambre Syndicale changed, fashion changed. Percy Savage discovered that he could play with the rules of publicity, push the throttle and the break accordingly so as to tease but not to bore. Where Percy pointed, the fashion crowd became transfixed. He was incremental for the rise of British fashion in the 60’s. He was the man who discovered Mary Quant and supported Vivienne Westwood and Galliano. And, let’s face it, he was the man who planted the seed for Carrie Bradshaw’s magnificent obsession. And not just hers of course. He was the man who turned a forbidden privilege of the bourgeoisie into an everyday dream for middle class girls. And boys of course. If you can’t afford a Lanvin gown, you can certainly afford a Lanvin scarfe, a bottle of Lanvin perfume or even Lanvin sneakers….. And they will all be equally divine!!!!!!!!!

I didn’t know all this. I suppose that this is of interest only to specialised audience.  I find it interesting however that Percy Savage’s name lives on on the bottle of every version of Eau Sauvage. The original Eau Sauvage turns 50 next year. It has survived its godfather. Not because copious amounts of money are being spent on keeping it alive, I don’t think so. It stayed alive because it was born alive: there was an idea in its spine and this idea is keeping it alive. Percy Savage used publicity to promote creations that had a soul. Even today some people think that the original Eau Sauvage is a bit too much. They say it smells of unwashed men. But still, controversial as it is, it survives and it even lends its name to the new Sauvage. Which incidentally is not a Christian Dior! It is just a Dior…. The same way the couture house of Yves Saint Laurent shed the first name and became Saint Laurent Paris. The original Yves Saint Laurent name belongs now to L’Oréal which releases perfumes like Opium Noir, leading Heddi Slimane, artistic director of Saint Leurent Paris to public statements disowning Opium Noir and any involvement in its production. But I guess the joke’s on Heddi, because everybody knows YSL, who the hell knows what Saint Laurent Paris is? Could be a restaurant.

Percy Savage discovered the power of glamour and publicity and coupled it with fashion forever. He gave his name to an iconic masculine fragrance which was as historically important as his own contribution to the world of fashion. I am sure that when he pulled the stunt with Liz Taylor’s appearance there were many old couturiers and half-blind seamstresses who had spent their entire lives sawing haute-couture gowns, who would have wished him dead for dragging their profession through the gutters of sensationalism. I think all these people whose names are forgotten for ever might be having the last laugh: Percy Savage’s name is now plastered across a lacklustre bottle (the magnetic cap seems to be the only thing people notice about it) that contains a lacklustre perfume. It only remains to be seen whether Dior Sauvage will survive Christian Dior Eau Sauvage. The whole post WWII history of fashion however made me contemplate on the vanity and irony of the public image. In a tragic way and following the trend that Percy Savage started more than 60 years ago, publicity and popularity have become more important than form or function.

At a point in his life Percy Savage was hired by Maria Callas when Aristotle Onassis broke up with her to marry Jackie Kennedy. He advised Callas to go out every night with different men so that people would think that it was her behaviour that caused the breakup. Better be a whore than a lonely woman I guess. I can’t help but wonder, if Percy Savage were alive in a few years further down the road, wouldn’t he be the ideal person to relaunch Kim Kardashian’s career and pave the way to a politics and social issues talk-show hosted by her? Don’t laugh! After all Donald Trump is running for president, don’t you forget! The line between glamour and trash is extremely fine.

Much of the insight on Percy Savage’s life came from Sara Skillen’s “Percy Savage and his role in Paris Couture 1951-1965: Issues of the Creation and Organisation of Public Relations Systems”  which is downloadable at academia.edu

The photo was created for this blog using a photo of my bottle of vintage Eau Sauvage and publicity photo from Before Night Falls which I found on www.deppimpact.com. It should be viewed as a natural evolution of my train of thought and not as a way to exploit the publicity of Johnny Depp and Dior Sauvage.

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About Christos

Scientifically minded but obsessed with the subjective aspect of things. Photos copyright of MemoryOfScent, with special thanks to Pantelis Makkas http://pantelismakkas.blogspot.com/. You are welcome to link to my blog but you are definitely not allowed to copy text or use the photos without my permission. All text and main photos are originals and property of MemoryOfScent All perfumes are from my collection unless stated otherwise.

9 comments

  1. Christos: Beautiful. Indeed, ‘Divine’. I really love this.

  2. Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:
    I haven’t even smelled ‘Dior Savage’, but I know, instinctively, that I don’t need to. This piece is beautiful.

  3. Intriguingly haughting article. Kind of an O. Henry piece. It would be such a treat to read more of your writings about the minds behind the scents!
    Well done!
    WCD

    • I had to look up O.Henry’s writing style and I feel proudly blushed and blushingly proud. I love the bitter sweet side of life. I am resurrecting my blog from its hiatus, brought on by me professional engagement. I hope to see you here again soon. Thank you

  4. Katy

    I have not smelled this either and have no interest in doing so. Substitute “industrial perfume” for “functional perfume” and that turn of phrase would work better for me. I do not approve of the constant dumbing down of everything. Perfume should be beautiful but evocative and challenging as well. Great and timely writing!

  5. johnluna

    Thank you for this piece – I came across your review of Eau Sauvage Parfum when I first became interested in perfume and stumbled upon Eau Sauvage and its new flanker. I thought it was the best piece I had read about that scent, and one of the more interesting things I’d read about scent period. After a year or so of reading regularly into & about scent, it remains among my favourites. Very glad to know you are still writing.

    • Thank you continuing to read even though I don’t post on a tight schedule. I assure you I will continue writing, even if it is at my own pace. You see, life happens….

      And thanks for your supportive comments

  6. Pingback: Christian Dior Eau Sauvage Parfum: scent as memory | Memory Of Scent

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