Power Shoulder: A Note on Giorgio (RS)

If I wanted to, I could have a fresh bottle of Giorgio Beverly Hills in my hands by 5pm tomorrow afternoon, for only twenty dollars plus overnight shipping. And I could do it in three mouse clicks. Such is the nature of modern shopping; what people once used to put a premium on we now get on Prime. The hunt for objects of desire used to be more active -- there was a jangly film noir detective aspect to the whole affair: locate the thing, investigate where the thing is cheapest, travel to the thing, nab the thing before someone else can. Now there is a neurasthenic passivity to accrual that can make us forget what we bought even before it arrives on our doorstep. Half of my online purchases feel like surprises, cat burglars jimmying their way into my house, clutter without consent. Still, I am the one to blame. I see it, I want it, I like it, I bought it at 2am.

Giorgio Beverly Hills used to be an exclusive perfume. This does not mean that it was ever good -- though we will get to that -- but it was, for a time, highly coveted. This was all by design, of course. The stuff had a brilliant marketing team. Best in the biz. This is why, when you search for it in newspaper archives, you find it in so many Business section pieces from the 1980s, as a case study in how to conjure a cash cow from mid-air. It appears less in Styles, and even when it does appear in fashion reports, it is always cited first as a juggernaut; as that one perfume everyone wants, rather than as a scent that is particularly beautiful to behold. One NYT article from 1988 simply described it as “the overpowering fragrance that, in the last three years, outsold every other scent in its price range.”

The first bottle of Giorgio came out in the 1970s, as a tiny brand extension of the Giorgio Beverly Hills boutique, on Rodeo Drive. Giorgio, which opened in 1961 with its trademark yellow-and-cream striped awning, like a slice of lemon meringue pie, was one of the first shops in Los Angeles to stock several luxury designers at once. Fred Hayman, who founded the store with George Grant but quickly bought his partner out, had a winning formula: a client would no longer have to travel from store to store to purchase French scarves and Italian wallets and silk bousons with pussy bows. Giorgio was one-stop luxury shopping, where every customer was handed a glass of champagne upon entering and was invited to spend an entire afternoon putting together a full head-to-toe look. The store had an oak martini bar and a pool table, a de facto boy’s club inside the girl’s club, a sexist but effective touch meant to placate and distract women’s husbands during sprees (the theory: a lubricated wallet is a loose wallet). The novelist Judith Krantz used Giorgio as the model for the chic atelier Scruples in her best-selling 1978 novel, Scruples, about a girl named Wilhelmina Hunnewell Winthrop (aka “Billy”) who goes from being an emotional eater to a rail-thin striver after a trip to Paris, and who ultimately finds success by running a posh Los Angeles shoppe with her friends Spider and Valentine. As for the real Giorgio: Nancy Reagan shopped there. Princess Diana shopped there. Natalie Wood shopped there. It made Rodeo Drive the cliche it is today.

When Heyman introduced his first fragrance, it felt like a natural extension of his brand -- it was a big white floral, pretty much a copy of Jean Patou’s Joy, a Parisian classic repackaged in the faux-crystal of American excess.  But he did not advertise the scent outside of his stores (a second location popped up in New York) and the scent flopped.

For his second attempt, in 1981 (yes, the bonanza perfume of the eighties was technically a relaunch), Heyman hired the most aggressive advertising team he could afford. He developed a new batch of the fragrance with his ex-wife Gale, who stayed on as his business partner even after a divorce (according to one article, “The two often travel, entertain and have dinner together, but stay in separate hotel rooms” -- a.k.a they made amends to win at capitalism; how romantic). Gale spent over two years lab testing the scent, which contains, according to Giorgio company lore, over 200 ingredients, but is mostly powered by an overdose of gardenia, tuberose, rose and jasmine oil. Giorgio Beverly Hills (aka GBH from here on out) is the very definition of a floral bomb, as in, it has a blast zone. When you put it on, everyone within a ten foot radius knows about it; it not only has a smell, it has a mouthfeel. It fills throats and makes eyes water. According to one story Gale liked to tell, she discovered the winning formula when she accidentally dropped hundreds of sample vials on the floor of a cab and realized that what she really wanted was to bottle the smell of all those broken vials at once. In other words, GBH is what would happen if you took every perfume you own and smashed the bottles in the bathtub and then bathed yourself in the noxious fumes. It was perfect for the eighties, the decade of decadence, of aesthetic exclamation points. Of course everyone wanted to smell like the entire department store.

GBH might have remained a cult hit if not for its marketing push, which included the first-ever use of magazine scratch-n-sniff scent strips on record (this is a recorded FACT). The store decided to own the fragrance itself, rather than selling it to a big firm (at least not until 1987, when Avon bought it for $187 million), and limited the number of stores that sold it to around only 180 in the whole country, lending the perfume an air of clannish exclusivity. Then, they sent it out to celebrities. Jacqueline Bisset, Michael Jackson, Farah Fawcett. Because the smell was so distinctive (read: insanely, nauseously, strong), it felt definitional on the body. It wasn’t just  a whisper or a suggestion, it was an entire personality. It was a power move. This made it unstoppable in the era of the power shoulder; it was part of the standard hot bitch strutting uniform issued to all urban arrivistes, along with neon pumps and lucite clip-ons. By its third year on shelves, GBH was pulling in over $60 million a year, clomping down streets with a vengeance.

But as with all trends that wed themselves perfectly to their moment, the pleasure center couldn’t hold. By 1990, huge, elevator-clearing scents were waning. Calone, a new aromachemical that smells like cold cantaloupe, was suddenly everywhere, forming the watery, aquatic base of Issey Miyake and CK1. Androgynous minimalism was in, honeyed high-femme gloss was out. Avon, a hulking corporation with a slow pivot speed, could not steer GBH, or its sister fragrances, away from the iceberg. In 1994, Avon sold the Giorgio name to Proctor and Gamble at a loss. And now, you can buy the stuff for $20 if you have a Wifi connection and a desire to smell the way a Laura Branigan song sounds.

The summer is the only time I will let myself wear Giorgio, and even then, I’ll only do it once or twice. It’s obscene and grandiose, and mostly hilarious and humiliating. It’s one of those snap summer decisions to swerve into the garish, like putting on a day-glo mesh crop top or glitter jelly sandals in the seconds before you leave your sweaty apartment in pursuit of a cold drink to rest upon the back of your neck. After about fifteen minutes, the thrill wears off, but you still have to live with the consequences for the rest of the day.

GBH, even in its modern, watered-down EDT spray version, does not quit on you. You have to capitulate first, you have to be the one to scrub it off. It’s a game of swimming pool chicken you will never win. You just have to give into it, this surplus, this glut. It’s almost disgusting -- it’s everything Robin Leach said glamour was in the 1980s. It’s yachts, gold toilets, sangria goblets. It’s white feminism and bull markets and cocktails at the Odeon and jewel tones and the false belief that equality starts in the board room. And yes, idolizing that shit is what may have ruined our country and sent us down the road to hell (perfume is politics!), but you don’t wear GBH to feel good or righteous. You wear it to feel punished, to drown yourself in hideous hedonism, to remember that there was a time when people would save up for weeks just to smell like an industrial air freshener covering up something unspeakable. You wear it, and you feel insane, and then you shower off and shove it in a drawer and start again. This may not be worth three clicks to you. But just know that it is out there, like a blinking cursor. You may buy it at 3am without thinking. And then, just like the shopgirls when Julia Roberts swanned into a Rodeo Drive boutique, modeled on the original Giorgio, you’ll realize you owned yourself again. Big mistake, huge.

Loading more posts…