Saturday, 28 January 2017

Semiotic Spritz Part 9: Penhaligon's Portraits: From Pen's to Le Pen

It’s winter 2016/17: Britain is negotiating its exit from the EU; Trump has been elected President of the USA; and Penhaligon’s has just released its ‘Portrait Series’ – a set of six fragrances inspired by the ‘British aristocracy’. Housed in eye-catching bottles each topped with a gold, hunting-trophy head, they carry names such as 'The Tragedy of Lord George' and 'The Coveted Duchess Rose'. 

In another age, it might have been the price that was cause for comment: £178 for 75mL is, as they say, ‘aspirational’. But we’re largely inured now to sticker shock, hardened by the likes of Roja Dove, Xerjoff and Henry Jacques.  

Instead, what’s noteworthy about this line is how far it departs, designwise, from Penhaligon’s standard and how well this resonates with the prevailing ‘populist’ (nationalist-xenophobic, really) mood that is currently sweeping much of Europe and North America.

Just like the Portrait series, which is said to represent the ‘English spirit’, right-wing populism employs a nativist rhetoric, favouring monoculturalism over pluralistic cosmpolitanism. And just as the copywriter for Penhaligon’s campaign freely interchanges British with English, populist narratives aren’t too concerned with the granular. 


They, the authors of populist propaganda, are constantly making appeals to a mythical, ‘pure’ past; a time before mass immigration, a time, in fact, very much like the one represented by the Portraits who are all reassuringly Anglo-Saxon. 

Where Penhaligon’s have previously looked beyond the shores of our tiny islands, finding inspiration in Egypt (Oud de Nil, 2016) and Iraq (Ninevah, 2015), the Anglocentrism of the new range is easily read as reflecting the inward focus of nationalist ideology. And if this seems like a stretch, consider that the next release from Pen’s is ‘Savoy Steam’ – an homage to London’s old Savoy steam baths. 

As a counter-reaction to the creeping liberalism of the past fifty years, this political movement represented by Farage, Le Pen, Wilders et al. argues for a turning away from Post-materialist values and an embracing of ‘traditional’ ones. And who better to represent English/British traditionalism than its nobility whose singular distinction is its vast material capital?

Whether this strategy by Penhaligon’s pays off remains to be seen. Whilst capturing the Zeitgeist, the marketing campaign appears targeted at an affluent, youthful sector whose first encounter with Fitzgerald was likely Baz Luhrmann’s successful adaptation of Gatsby in 2013. It is precisely this demographic who, studies show, are least likely to vote for Trump and Brexit and therefore identify with the line. One thing we can be certain of though, is that Sales will be keeping a very close eye on the figures, praying the effort doesn’t backfire as it did in the case of the gloriously misjudged Tralala (2014), which is now, unsurprisingly, discontinued. 

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