The Art of Perfume Advertising: Bal à Versailles (ca. 1983-85)

A few months ago I was searching for images of old advertisements for Jean Desprez Bal à Versailles perfume and thinking that they’re often hard to date, because they tend to look alike and because Bal à Versailles seems (to me) like an older perfume than its 1962 release date might indicate. It’s heavy, spicy, a little “dirty” in its animalic notes.

But I did come across one ad that surprised me because it’s so unlike any of the others.

For Bal à Versailles, Desprez usually aimed/aims for historically tinged French luxury—chandeliers, mirrors (the Galerie des Glaces!), the Rococo painting that comprises the perfume’s label image. But this is a starkly chic black-and-white photo of a model whose makeup, coiffure, and earrings are all identifiably early- to mid-1980s.

The segmentation and elongation of the model’s already long and slender neck through the use of photo-collage is a little unnerving, when you consider the fates of the last royal inhabitants of Versailles.

At the same time, this photo’s style is weirdly specific to the visual culture of the mid-1980s.

1985

Realizing where I’d seen this trick before, I pulled up an image of the iconic cover for Grace Jones‘s 1985 album Slave to the Rhythm. It’s no coincidence: the album cover and the Bal à Versailles ad were both created by photographer, director, and graphic designer Jean-Paul Goude. Here, Goude’s cut-and-paste-and-paste-again collage extends Grace’s flattop to even more daring proportions and her mouth to an almost alien shriek.

Goude also designed a mid-80s ad for Jean Desprez’s Scheherezade, applying the same technique to a full-length photo of a female model. And if you’ve ever admired Goude’s commercials for Chanel Egoiste (1990) or Chanel Coco (the one with Vanessa Paradis in the birdcage, 1991), you’re already familiar with his perfume-related work!

1984

As it turns out, Grace Jones was not the first subject of Goude’s photo-manipulation portraiture. A year earlier, Goude had designed this cover for singer-performer Cristina‘s album Sleep It Off.

Who? — I’m embarrassed to admit that was my initial reaction.

Matthew Perpetua recently summed up Cristina Monet-Palaci’s career on NPR this way: “She released two albums as Cristina in the early 1980s, was a pioneer in blending the artsiness and attitude of punk with the joyful energy of disco and pop. Upon their release, her records were largely unheard beyond the circles of extraordinarily cool downtown types.”

She and her then-boyfriend Michael Zilkha, co-founder of ZE records, were so plugged into the overlapping worlds of music, fashion, nightlife, and art in early-80s Manhattan that they tapped Goude to shoot and design the cover for her second album.

via Dark Entries Records on Facebook

Here’s another shot from Cristina’s session with Goude, for a better view of her face and another look at Goude’s technique of cutting up several images of the same subject, then assembling them into a portrait that initially seems exaggerated yet, on closer inspection, turns out to be a skillfully manipulated impossibility.

1985

Throughout the 1980s, Goude used this Ektachrome-and-Scotch-tape technique in various portraits of strikingly beautiful women, including Mounia in Saint Laurent (above, 1985), and he has more recently reprised it for subjects from Rihanna to Tavi Gevinson. But Cristina seems to have been his first subject for this particular approach…not the most famous one, although the re-release of her catalogue in 2004 helped to reestablish her as a New Wave pioneer of the downtown Manhattan scene.

1980

Unfortunately, this post has a sad and timely footnote. Cristina died at the age of 61, of Covid-19, on March 31, 2020. May she rest in punk-princess peace.

You can read her obituary here; The New York Times quotes her as saying, “The one thing that pop music has lost lately is its sense of irony. People either write dumb-funny novelty songs or dead-earnest serious songs. There’s nothing around that combines elements of both.”

The same could be said of most perfume ads, I think, but Goude and Desprez hit both notes with their visual for Bal à Versailles.

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