THE ATMOSPHERE around department store perfume counters is heady with '80s fragrances like Obsession, Poison and Passion. Magazine advertisements tantalize the senses with the contemporary essences Giorgio, Krizia and Tiffany. But, retailers say, there's a sudden resurgence of interest in classic scents such as Chanel No. 5, Joy and Shalimar.
In the same manner that hemlines go up when the stock market goes down, trends in fragrance purchases are said to be a reflection of the economy. "When times get stressful, people tend to go back to the classics," says Annette Green, executive director of the Fragrance Foundation in New York.
Of the more than 800 fragrances marketed in the United States, only a handful are considered classics among perfumers and retailers.
These include the French perfumes Chanel No. 5, Joy by Patou, Shalimar by Guerlain and Arpege by Lanvin. All of them were introduced in the 1920s and early '30s.
In the late '40s, L'Air du Temps by Nina Ricci and Miss Dior by Christian Dior joined the list. America made its first contribution to the classics in 1935 with Elizabeth Arden's Blue Grass. In 1945, White Shoulders by Evyan became part of the elite. And Youth Dew by Estee Lauder was created in 1953.
It is difficult to describe a classic. Even Estee Lauder, head of one of America's most important fragrance and cosmetics company, becomes lyrical as she tries: "A fragrance that has qualities that transcend time and place is the one that becomes a classic," she says.
A classic fragrance "appeals to a broad cross section of people, and that appeal never stops," the Fragrance Foundation's Green says. Although most of the essences are floral blends, some--notably Shalimar and Youth Dew--are powerful, sensual fragrances that would seem, upon first sniff anyway, to be of limited appeal.
Yet, Shalimar has proven to be a favorite since its introduction in 1925, and its 1987 sales are double those of '86, according to Lois Mander, Guerlain representative.
Although most fragrances have been around for more than 30 years, age is not always the deciding factor involved in classic status.
"I consider Opium a classic," says Margo Scavarda, divisional vice president in cosmetics at the Broadway. She points out that although the Yves Saint Laurent fragrance has only been available for 10 years, Opium has established itself as a consistent seller. Bullock's Patty Payne adds another relatively new scent--Bal a Versailles by Jean Desprez, introduced in 1962--to the list of classics.
Chanel No. 5 is perhaps the most important classic this year, according to retailers. Merchandise managers at Bullock's, JW Robinson and the Broadway all list the legendary Chanel fragrance as their best-selling time-honored scent.
What accounts for the renewed interest in No. 5? Karl Lagerfeld's attention-getting fashion designs for Chanel and the appearance of French film star Carole Bouquet as the company's new "face" have helped update the 66-year-old fragrance's image.
Chanel President Kitty D'Alessio describes the new Chanel No. 5 customer as being "two generations away from saying, 'I won't wear Chanel No. 5 because my mother wore it.' "
Michael Ziegler, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Robinson's, explains the continuing success of classic fragrances in practical terms: "The quality of these products has never changed. A woman who buys one of the classic scents knows that she's not getting synthetic essences. It's a fragrance that will be long-lasting and worth the investment."
Revitalized interest in the classics has led to new directions in the industry. Guerlain, one of the world's oldest perfumers, recently opened two boutiques--in Los Angeles and Palm Desert--that are selling scents introduced as early as 1812. And Calvin Klein, whose name is synonymous with sexy, futuristic fragrances, is perhaps attempting to develop a timeless classic of his own: His new scent, due in the spring, will be called Eternity.
Photographed by Neal Brown.