Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Behind the Perfume: Cinnabar

Of all the perfumes in this set, Cinnabar to me is the most mysterious. Not a standout classic, not a mass-market hit, Cinnabar still manages to survive. I wondered, what is it like for a perfume, surrounded by successes, competing with rival fragrances (Opium was launched in 1977, the year before Lauder launched Cinnabar), facing an ever-expanding market and changing times?

To find my answers, I decided to go right to the source. One problem: my source wasn't readily available. As many in the industry know, Cinnabar seemed to disappear from the public eye decades ago, no longer appearing at media events, refusing to appear in advertisements, turning up now and again for the occasional Christmas special, but with little fanfare. A case of forgotten, but not gone.

Cinnabar isn't exactly listed in the phone book, and the Lauder folks were understandably reluctant to hand out her number. With a little effort, though, I was able to get hold of an agent from the William Morris agency that handles both Estée (surprisingly, she's still represented) and Private Collection, as well as Pleasures and Private Collection's granddaughter, PC Tuberose Gardenia.

This is the story of my search.

On a crisp December afternoon, I meet Estée and Private Collection at the Nordstrom Café at Phipps. They're in Atlanta for a private event, but they're kind enough to spend a little time talking to me about their time at Lauder and some of their shelf companions. Estée, her hair in a sleek silver pageboy, sporting a soft coral cashmere tunic over slim pale grey slacks, has the air of a spirited, willful débutante. Private Collection, her long hair pulled into a low ponytail, wears a tailored, off-white trench with matching pants, a Burberry scarf tossed casually over one shoulder. In my jeans and sweater, I feel under-dressed and slightly overwhelmed.

The first thing that strikes me is how much Private Collection resembles Candace Bergen, and because I'm rather nervous, I blurt this out first thing. Much to my relief, she just laughs.

“I used to hear that all the time! Carnal Knowledge had just been released a few years before I launched, and Candy was even still doing some modeling I think, and we used to run into each other around town. We thought it was funny. One time we even pretended to be sisters. That was a few years later, some poor drunk man at Regine's.”

We talk for a while about perfume, what it's like getting older, about the market today. “These young fruity florals, they'll pass,” Estée says sagely. “And of course, they'll be replaced by new trends. One cannot fight change, but I think so many of us have pulled through because we haven't changed. I hear all the time about reformulations—reformulations are to perfume what plastic surgery is to actresses, my dear. You can change your notes to appeal to a younger crowd and think they won't know the difference, but there are plenty of women out there, even young women, who know better.”

“What about some of the perfumes that haven't changed, but maybe didn't quite hit the classic category?” I ask. “Like Cinnabar, for example.”

Private Collection reaches down and arranges the shopping bags propped against her chair. Estée signals a passing attendant for coffee. I notice they exchange a brief glance, and then Private Collection says, “Cinny. My goodness. I haven't thought about her in years.”

“In years,” echoes Estée.

“I'm not sure what really happened to her. I mean, I know people still...I mean, she's around. But. I guess with all the media coverage and things our family has had in the last few months, well, you know...” Private Collection says.

“We felt sorry for her. You know. Opium.” Estée says this last word in a whisper.

“She always thought we didn't like her. It wasn't that. She was very exotic, you know. Her mother was Asian, her father from Cuba or something. We were wrapped up in our country clubs and kids and other things by then—and it wasn't dislike. Not at all.” Private Collection is visibly flushed at this point. I've disrupted the ease and affability we all felt earlier, but I have one more question.

“Do you know where I might be able to find her? I'd love to talk to her.”

They exchange another glance. I pick up my Diet Coke and slurp at the watery remains.

“Her agent,” says Estée. “Her old agent handles a few of us. Aliage, I think, and Beyond Paradise. I went to her opening. I have her number.”

Los Angeles. I've agreed to meet Beyond Paradise at a café on Melrose. It seems all of Los Angeles is lightly tanned and blonde, and Beyond Paradise is no exception. She could pass for just about any generically pretty girl sitting on the patio of this place, except she's the only one screaming into a cell phone. Loud.

“A f**king full page ad. FULL PAGE. Are you joking me, Sid? ARE. YOU. JOKING. ME.” Seeing me standing nearby, she motions to the chair across from her. On the table a magazine sits open to a full page ad of PC Tuberose Gardenia.

“Then how come I'm f**king staring at this g*d damned piece of s**t? Where the hell is my g*d damned f**king full page ad? WHERE?”

I motion like I'm going to the bathroom. She nods. I leave. I leave Los Angeles.

Several weeks later, I catch up with Aliage on her horse farm in Virginia. The air smells of hay and manure. She wears a navy L.L. Bean barn jacket and Wellies with Scotty dogs on them. With her no-nonsense gray pixie and her sparkling eyes, she reminds me of one of those plucky mistress-of-the-manor, British heroine detectives who, frequently if reluctantly, gets called away from her treasured estate to solve some impenetrable mystery.

“Cinny and I, we were from two completely different worlds. She grew up out in the Bronx, and I hail from Connecticut. We always got along easy, though, I suppose because we never felt any need to compete. Some of the other girls, they weren't so nice to her. I think they were sort of threatened by her, and I think they were relieved when she finally left town.”

“Do you know what happened to her?” I ask.

“Last word I had from her was about two years ago. She sent me a birthday card, just out of the blue one year. She could be like that, surprising. She was living down in Florida. Just married a nice man, owned a car dealership I think. I don't recall what make of car.”

I eventually find Cinnabar living in an area north of Miami (she asked that I not disclose the exact location), and she agrees to meet me nearby, at a rather famous hotel near the beach. In a bar just off the lobby, I meet her. She's unmistakable. Her hennaed hair, styled in a fashionably short shag, is set off by a long, rusty silk tunic over raw silk pants of the same color. She wears numerous gold chains of different lengths, and several large rings, one a smoky topaz near the size of a small bird's egg. Her lips are naturally thin—no collagen—but underneath her makeup her skin, pulled taut, reveals the tender pink of recent cosmetic efforts to stave off aging. Large, gold-rimmed aviator shades block her eyes. And, of course, there's the unmistakable scent of jasmine, clove, and sandalwood.

As we talk, I learn she moved to this area in the early Eighties, preferring the anonymity of life in Florida to the constant media circus of Manhattan. Not long after arriving, she began dating and eventually married her present husband (she prefers not to share his identity), who owns several Cadillac dealerships in the South Florida area. Over the last twenty-five years, she's divided her time between helping him oversee the business, playing hostess to their many friends and business associates, and volunteering for the local library's senior reading program.

Our conversation is light and friendly, until I bring up what clearly is not a happy subject for her: other perfumes.

“I never felt comfortable with them. I never felt like I fit in. No—more than that. I felt like they wouldn't let me in.”

It doesn't take much pressure from me for her to name names. “Aliage and I maintained a friendship of sorts, over the years. I admired her. She was very independent, a trait we share. And Azurée was always kind to me, but she spent a lot of time out of the country, traveling around the Mediterranean. Her husband had a yacht, and they had a lot of friends. I was a little jealous of that. I always wanted to travel, see India, China, the pyramids. But I have a view of the ocean,” she laughs, gesturing to one of the windows nearby.

“But the others—Private Collection, Estée, Youth Dew—they were cliquish. Youth Dew especially didn't like me. I don't know why. I suppose I ended her reign as queen of the Orientals in our little family, but it's not like there weren't others out there who really stole the attention away from her.” I wonder if this is a veiled reference to Opium, Cinnabar's long-time rival. I'm trying to decide whether I should say anything, when she brings it up first.

“I suppose, though, you know, I was this young thing, and Youth Dew felt old. And maybe it was easier to focus on me. At the time I was dating Kris Kristofferson, and I was getting a lot of media attention. But it wasn't like it felt terrific, because he'd been seeing Opium the year before, and I knew a lot of people thought I was sort of a cheap copy. I think even Opi did, on some level, although she was too refined to ever say it to my face.”

“Did it bother you at all, that she continued to get so much attention through the Eighties? Does it bother you now that she's considered the classic Oriental of that era?”

She takes a sip of the Sidecar the waiter has brought to our table (without her asking for it). We sit in silence for a time, and then she says, “For years, I wondered about that, about the fact that Opi is considered a classic. And it used to bother me. It did. But then I realized, the truth of it was—is—that she was there first. She was always first. And I felt like sloppy seconds for a long time. But I still get letters, from fans, admirers, so I know the people who loved me, they're out there. And people still love me, they're still discovering me, even with times being what they are now.”

We talk on through the afternoon, as the light begins to fade. I find her lively and sweet, warm and gracious. While she's not sloppy seconds, she speaks the truth: she lacks something Opium has. Not refinement, as she thinks, because truly, she has that in spades, but she does lack a more sensual edge, that heady, sexy feeling that Opium offers. In a way, Opium is a perfume for an audience, while Cinnabar, same as that other Lauder Oriental that came before her, Youth Dew, is a scent for oneself, a warm glow of confidence rather than a fire of sensual energy. I feel like Nancy Drew. Mystery solved.

*Opium, Youth Dew, and Azurée all declined to be interviewed.

**image from