In 1947, Christian Dior unveiled his “New Look” in Paris. The full-busted, pinch-waist couture was so startling and unapologetically feminine that Dior immediately reset the course of postwar fashion. To accompany the clothes, the 42-year-old designer also introduced a fragrance. It came in a tiny Baccarat amphora bottle whose provocative shape followed the lines of the dresses. “I have created this perfume to wrap each woman in exquisite femininity,” the couturier said, “as if each of my designs, one by one, were emerging from the bottle.”
The scent’s name was Miss Dior.
Nowadays, very few companies can lay claim to owning a truly classic brand, but the house of Dior—which still makes Miss Dior—is one of them. Yet as the ads here show, the survival of a brand name and the endurance of the brand itself are not the same thing. In fact, today’s Miss Dior neither looks nor smells at all like its progenitor of 67 years ago. As historian and fragrance writer Elena Vosnaki put it, Dior is “creating a legend out of the past when none is reflected in the present.”
When this slender newspaper ad appeared in 1958, Miss Dior was in its 10th year of turning heads. Always positioned as a young woman’s floral, the scent’s underpinning of patchouli was surprisingly sexual. The scent’s lasting hold on the public was why—even the original amphora had already been replaced with a square bottle that was easier to mass produce—Dior produced this limited-edition reissue.
The uniqueness of the bottle reflected the uniqueness of perfume itself. “When that brand launched, women wore a perfume for life,” said Rachel Weingarten, an author and brand strategist who operates Culet Marketing. “If you wore Miss Dior, it became your signature perfume.” A fashion house that kept its popular fragrances stocked in department stores could expect a handsome, steady return over the long haul.
In the case of Miss Dior, however, two developments would toss that formula out the window. First was the 1984 acquisition of Dior by the beauty behemoth Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, which leaned heavily on its conquered brands with a demand for higher profit. The second was the collateral rise of “masstige”—mass-market (and usually celebrity-driven) designer fragrances sporting popular prices.
In short order, an army of chemists and consultants got their hands on Miss Dior. LVMH hired Givaudan to reformulate the scent in 2005, rechristening it as Miss Dior Chérie and turning it into a sweet-smelling soup of strawberries and apples. Dior chemists took another whack at the fragrance in 2011. This time they restored the original name, but to an otherwise unfamiliar scent. Meanwhile, the company flooded the market with variants—Miss Dior L’Eau, Miss Dior Eau Fraiche, Miss Dior Le Parfum and many more—all bearing the Miss Dior name and some mutation of the square bottle. Today, Miss Dior’s marketing may have Natalie Portman’s dark, flirty stare, but all it has in common with Christian Dior’s original scent is the name.
This approach might work in terms of generating revenues from millennial misses, but observers say it’s a textbook example of how not to handle a heritage brand. “It is a testament to the rise of chick lit, enshrinement of celebrity culture and a general disregard of intellectuality,” Vosnaki said. “This insanity is the insecurity that cross-channel marketing breeds,” Weingarten added. “When you look at Miss Dior in terms of a classic brand, it’s a little depressing.”
And, it must be said, profitable. LVMH’s perfumes and cosmetics division reported earnings of €414 million last year. But, as scent expert and Fragrances of the World author Michael Edwards points out, Dior’s continued “tinkering” with the brand has done its irrevocable work. “Realistically,” he said, “it’s brought more confusion than success.”
In the old days, Dior wouldn’t have to rely on the cliché of roses in an ad. “There’s a banal romanticism about it,” said Vosnaki, who noted that longtime fans of the scent don’t need props like this. “But I don’t think Dior is interested in the old fans.”
Miss Dior appeared in a square, houndstooth bottle, tied with a satin bow, in 1950. But the design steadily lost its delicate details to become this garden- variety flacon, whose bow is plastic.
Dior signed Natalie Portman at the time of Miss Dior’s second reformulation in 2011. But Weingarten says that celebrity branding depletes the Miss Dior legend. “It’s irritating,” she said. “I don’t want Miss Dior to be just something I accidentally reach for.”