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Fragrances to Wear During the Apocalypse III: The Smell of Hubris (and Hope)

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It’s unfortunately not too soon – nor too much of a stretch – to blame a portion of our government for the country’s lack of masks and ventilators and testing kits. China, after initially playing down the severity of the coronavirus, nevertheless offered our so-called leaders a couple months of horrific anecdotes and images and statistics before the disease hit our shores. 

What the hell was Frumpy McFakeTan doing during that frittered-away period in which we should’ve prepared?

This is not to rile you, Dear Reader – there are infinite reports elsewhere online – plus TV news, common sense, the musings of family members with whom you are now hunkered down – guaranteed to effect such angry disbelief, whether by design or mere factual reportage.

I cite our improper response, the stupid manner in which some officials acted, as if science were a hoax (I’m looking at you, Gas Mask Gaetz, you smallminded, unfunny, body count-culpable ignoramus) merely to explain my fragrance choice today:

Arrogance Pour Homme, by Schiaparelli-Benessere-Pikenz.

Released in 1982, Arrogance is an old school, Eighties powerhouse perfume – and olfactorily similar to the big Yves Saint-Laurent release of the previous year – Kouros – and Chanel’s similarly loud bad boy, Antaeus.

That means that some sniffers detect in the scent a whiff of urine and/or fecal matter – a result of the animal-sourced ingredients used to transmit its wearer’s undeniable virility, his status as a Hirsute He-Man whose mere touch effects pregnancy (with twins, at least, and perhaps octuplets).

All joking aside, though, it’s actually a gorgeous scent – a mossy, honeyed, oleoresin-smeared patchouli with facets of civetone and castoreum. It’s really nowhere near as bombastic as that description would leave you to believe. This a graceful, slightly more subtle machismo – I promise.

And sure, it’s possible that my time using the trough urinals at since-imploded sports stadia has altered my senses, compromised my olfactory ability to distinguish between bad and good. Perhaps too much time in transit on the New Jersey Turnpike has done it. But if that turns out to the be case dear reader, should you try Arrogance and feel fiercely wronged nasally, I’ll urge you to consider the upside.

You can now attend Knicks games – whenever they resume – without proboscis protection. N-95 mask not required. No matter how fetid those MSG ballers, you won’t smell a thing. Not incidentally, this is partly what I believe has happened to Jim Dolan’s nostrils (also Isiah Thomas’) and the entirety of every Jets’ front office since the signing of Bubby Brister. 

And that’s honestly the second, perhaps more important, reason I’m now spritzed in Arrogance Pour Homme – its unlikely emergence provides a counterbalance to tales of noble groups by their own officers later betrayed (#America).  

One hundred years ago, a woman named Elsa who lived in Greenwich Village gave birth to a girl she nicknamed Gogo. Her partner in this procreation, her husband, a self-proclaimed count and soothsayer who was actually an unfaithful, Britain-deported con-man named Willie, left his woman and baby weeks after the birth. He took with him the mink bedspread he’d shared with his wife (and that had been purchased with her parents’ money) – and had it sewn into his overcoat as a lining.

From this ostensibly tragic episode, as immoral an absconding as they come, things somehow seemed to right themselves. Willie’s trajectory was rather downward in nature – eight years later, in Tampico, Mexico, perhaps after a drunken argument in which he gravely insulted a bartender or attempted to assault the same, he was shot in the skull. A local hospital refused him care initially (is it cruel of me to feel relieved by that fact?) and he ultimately died of the head wound. No criminal trial was ever held.

On the other hand, Elsa Schiaparelli, her girl Gogo in tow, moved to Paris and fell in with the Surrealist art clique of Man Ray, Francis Picabia and Salvador Dalí – the result of which was the launch of her own creative enterprise – a haute couture company that soon was outfitting the most notable socialites of the day – some of whom then served as muses to Schiaparelli as she worked on further collections – most notably Daisy Fellowes, who’d suffered her own loss of a husband not many years earlier – hers had died in 1918, as a result of the pandemic flu.

Between the two world wars, there was no designer held in greater esteem than Schiap (pronounced Skap), as she was called by friends, patrons and the press – hell, she named one of her company’s fragrances “Schiap.”

That Schiap may have had collaborationist tendencies during the Nazi occupation of France is no small thing. But I still view her as a kind of artsy heroine, unlike Coco Chanel, who was a proactive Nazi spy and inveterate anti-Semite – and in the view of couture historians, the lesser creative mind of the two before war began.

Of course, as is so often the case, that lesser creativity led to greater commercial success after the war, which saw Coco rise and Schiap’s empire at 21 Place Vendome fall, her clients having moved on to new, trendier styles, the couturier having stuck to her artistic notions. By 1954, Schiap was reportedly poised to lay off 150 workers in France – which account she denied to the newspapers (but sooner or later, they were all gone). A year later, the extent of her continental failing became clear: She’d licensed her brand name – which is to say, her actual name – to 20 different American clothing and accessory merchants – this was her company’s only source of real income.

The scent division, Parfums Schiaparelli, which was once located in Rockefeller Center, was taken over by another firm in 1958. In 1973, the year Elsa died, the perfume company renamed itself “Schiaparelli-Pikenz.”

There have been several slight corporate name changes since then and the 1989 acquisition of R.P. Denis, the original maker of Arrogance Pour Homme and its lighter sibling, Arrogance Uomo (my own bottle of the former dates to just after the name change, 1990 probably). 

In that time, Elsa’s granddaughter Marisa Berenson became an it-girl model and actress. A perfumer who has treated me with incredible kindness since I first began interviewing pro noses – the charming Nathalie Feisthauer, currently locked down in Paris – has created a modern version of Schiap’s scent Zut – whose literal translation, as demonstrated time and again by France’s top Def Jam comic, Jean K. Jean, is “daaamn”:

 

And splendidly, the woman spurned by a fortune-teller, the designer who pioneered sartorial artistry (Google her shoe-shaped hat), has become mother to the most fun scent franchise on offer – and I do mean that last part literally.

At the turn of the Millennium, Schiap’s company had Arrogance reformulated to smell more in line with scents of the era. If that seems inauthentic, understand they had little choice: regulations issued by nations and the industry’s watchdog have banned some of Arrogance’s original ingredients.

That said, the newer juice is supposed to be decently gruff, and the older stuff remains on-offer at legitimately reasonable prices (just make sure it has been stowed somewhere away from the sun in the interval since its release). Moreover, the line has expanded to include flankers, including female fragrances whose quality I can’t comment on but whose commercials I thoroughly enjoy. 

What a tremendous Schiap bequest – especially at a time when we’re confined to small spaces with big screens. Okay, let’s roll an Italian ad for the original Arrogance Pour Homme:

Fantastico, eh? But we can do better, I think. Take the commercial for the 2014 women’s release Arrogance Passion, featuring an admittedly beautiful model whose long, ruffled, tutu-esque dress train raises questions – okay, one question – whatcha concealing? – the answer to which is either a mermaid fin or a the tuchus of a groundhog:

Are we the victims of a less fanciful and far more terrifying zoonotic ordeal at present? Obviously. These are strange days. Obscene, cruel, seemingly incomparable to anything that has come before.

Schiap and Dalí.

And to a degree, that feeling – of unprecedented surrealism – is a legitimate one (and if it helps you reduce your anxiety, please indulge in it – make a point of saying aloud how nothing compares to this worldwide fight against an invisible, malign microbe; I’ve certainly done my share of such harping).

But what Dalí’s above mustache, Schiap’s husband’s absconding 100 years back, the death by flu of socialite-muse Daisy Fellowes’ man is intended to communicate is some level of precedent – in the interest of a small bit of reassurance.

The New York Times, Oct. 13, 1918: 

“Boxing in the East is now at a standstill, because of the epidemic of Spanish influenza. Promoters in Philadelphia, Boston, and New Jersey, in compliance with requests issued by their different Health Departments, have agreed to close up shop. How long the sport will be idle remains to be seen, but it is positive that no matches of any importance will be undertaken while the epidemic continues.”

Obviously, nobody wants relive the 1918 pandemic. Not in any shape or form, certainly not in its its lethality and scope. For some families, the sequel has already taken its toll. I get all that – and as I am a crier by nature, I will no doubt shed a good many tears when all of this is assessed.

 For now, so far as I can, my sole interest is in reaching out to the people I love and simply communicating that affection and soliciting their conditions. And telling my mother that she should use grocery delivery services instead of visiting the stores herself.

And finally, to put something into words that maybe has some positive value – writing being a personal compulsion of mine anyway.

Which brings me to my current residence, an apartment I’ve lived in for eight years just south of the Fashion Institute of Technology. On the one hand, a tenant of my building has indeed tested positive. And it’s scary, but the owner has supposedly disinfected common areas of the building.

And on the other, a handsome bearded guy named Daniel Roseberry graduated from FIT, just blocks away, not long ago – he’s a year my senior, though we’ve never met. We may yet, though. See, Roseberry was recently announced as the creative head of the re-launched, reinvigorated haute couture house of Schiaparelli, located in her original atelier at 21 Place Vendome, Paris.

Is this the harnessing of a dead person’s surname to sell frocks – a simple marketing maneuver in a material world? To some degree, yes. But did I mentioned that Elsa’s girl, Gogo, whom she raised alone, had polio and Schiap wasn’t always the best mom but at other moments really tried? Or that at one point, prior to running her own label, Schiap got by selling drawings to fashion houses?

We are flawed and we are fucked, but we are trying. There is the form of Arrogance that got us into this mess – and hopefully, we’ll deal with that swiftly when the time comes to shift our resources from healthcare to retrospective analysis, to a thorough accounting, consequential penalties included, imposed. 

But a resilient spirit in our saddest times – is that not also a form of Arrogance? 

Be gloomy if you need to be, be vigilant no matter your mood. And if you want to smile, perhaps, as in my case, this video of the renewed Schiap headquarters will do the trick.

There is Paris, same as it ever was.

About Gabe Oppenheim

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