One of the most talked about fragrance campaigns of 2016 was by the Framework agency for Kenzo’s World. Directed by Spike Jonze and featuring an all acting, all dancing Margaret Qualley, the highly engaging spot drew praise and quizzical looks in seemingly equal measures.
As noted by Richard Vine in his piece for The Guardian (21/08/2016 link), Jonze’s film is but the latest example of a collaboration between an indie director and a fine fragrance house: David Lynch and Sofia Coppola having previously shot for Dior; Wes Anderson for Prada. At just shy of four minutes in length, the advert moves apace thanks to the frenetic, dancehall-inspired track by Ape Drums and Sam Spiegel (who just so happens to be Jonze’s brother) which accompanies it.
For all its vaunted rejection of the clichés associated with perfume adverts, Kenzo World’s narrative draws on one of the most enduring and widespread messages targeted at women: liberation. From junk food to high fashion, females are over and again sold a fantasy of freedom and escape which assumes the form of a moral imperative.
The short film opens with a scene from a black tie gala event. Seated at a table adorned with bright pink flowers representing a stereotyped image of femininity is Qualley, her youth and emerald green dress conspicuous in the stiff, formal surrounds. From the unseen stage drones, Peanuts-style, a man’s incomprehensible speech.
With a feigned smile, Qualley excuses herself and walks dejected and pensive from the hall through the wide, empty spaces of the Los Angeles Music Centre’s Dorothy Chandler pavilion. Rubbing her neck in a classic self-touch gesture that’s long been a staple of perfume advertising, Qualley’s eyes suddenly focus and come alive. Then, like someone possessed of an outside force, her pupils begin to dart rhythmically, her face contorts and her limbs flail uncontrollably.
(Qualley vs. Walken)
Reprising the role of Christopher Walken in Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice video (also directed by Jonze), Qualley proceeds to dance her way energetically up the mirrored staircases, through the mezzanine levels and onto the stage in an empty auditorium. Her movements, choreographed by Ryan Heffington, reference everything from pre-war Vaudeville steps through Star Wars, Fifth Element and Black Swan. With each lunge and arcing high kick, Qualley’s power increases till it assumes a supernatural dimension. A lone, unsuspecting man on his telephone is thus felled Matrix-style while the walls are pock-marked by laser shots fired from her fingers.
(like a boy ft. Qualley, Ciara)
Bursting forth from the building, Qualley grand jetés across a deserted courtyard, clearing invisible hurdles till at last she arrives before a giant, floating eye composed of flowers. With arms raised in reverence, she experiences a final throw of ecstasy before launching herself head-first through the ocular icon, landing in a starter’s block position amid a shower of blossoms that are most definitely not pink. Spent, Qualley yet rises again, beating her chest to the thump of a snare.
The all-seeing eye motif, captured too by the perfume’s flacon, was a major imprint of Kenzo’s 2013 fall-winter collection and, according to the brand’s art directors Humberto Leon and Carol Lim “alludes to the force of the third eye and to spiritual protection from above”. Before this supernatural symbol, Qualley figures as a modern day πύϑια – those high priestesses in the temple of Apollo at Delphi consulted as oracles. Like her, the Pythia too 'raved' in apparent trance (at least according to some accounts), the exertion leaving them ‘like a runner after a race or a dancer after an ecstatic dance’. And like the priests who were charged with translating the Oracles’ enigmatic prophesies, we the audience must struggle to decode Qualley’s message.
As arguably the most powerful female figures in the classical Greek world, the Pythia provide a compelling model of strength and sagacity. This image of femininity targeted at a culturally literate group is far removed from the typical presentations found in perfume advertising (cf. Paco Rabanne’s Olympéa) while also avoiding the #GirlBoss banality to which pop-feminism has been reduced.
On the face of it then, Kenzo World launched with a successful campaign. 2016 Q4 sales reports however, will ultimately tell if the big advertising budget was worth it for a so-so smelling fragrance (Francis Kurkdjian) that has comparably limited distribution.