FRONT PAGE / POSTS
by Chris Arning| London, UK
Monday, 18 October 2010
tags: consumer culture, contributions from, disciplines, europe, header navigation, lateral navigation, making sense, semiotics
As luxury scrambles to give itself an alibi, either through 'graceful deprivation’ codes, or through patronizing art foundations, the cognac category is fighting a rearguard action. The implacable stoutness of the cognac bottle's base and the haughty imperiousness of its stem seem somewhat anachronistic. Yet whilst malt whiskey in the past few years in the UK has sedulously communicated on connoisseurship and cogitation, cognac has clung stubbornly to the notion of opulence. Marketing to peacock-like young men eager to advertise their successfulness, it has also produced some of the most cringeful advertising of the last few years, including a turkey (below) from brand leader Courvoisier.
A tag line reads “Look but don't touch. Actually don’t even look” which has to be one of the most obnoxious lines in the history of advertising. They use a peacock feather in the background but suffice it to say that the effusive bottle design does not require embellishment. Do not let Judith Williamson loose on this one.
What version of male prowess can we read into cognac bottles?
Originally created in the 1700s, cognac bottles were always slightly more squat than wine but this inverted goblet-like silhouette is of more recent coinage. As the tipple of French nobility, cognac bottle design continues to encoded the sloth, rotundity and opulence of baroque court life even as the industry attempts to lighten the category image to make it more unisex. Promotional drives and cocktail mixology have been thwarted by unmanoeuvrable bottles
Like the heavy doors or the muscular ripples on the fuselage of a Bentley or Maybach, this sculptural display signifies imperiousness and a prowess that sweeps all before it. More ruggedness in design is everywhere (baby buggies etc), but arguably, cognac bottles are better characterized as corpulent – they splurge distended bellies.
The mythology of each brand is inscribed into the bottle shape. This is a case of mythology through glass sculpture. Remy Martin favour the notion of drapery and folds to signify opulence, Courvoisier the splayed fluting of the neo-classical architectural structure that was the style favoured by Napoleon, a most infamous patron. Hennessy prefer to plump for the jowled heaviness of the absolute monarchy. (There was something very apt about Kanye West wearing black, decked out in sun shades and swigging from a bottle of Hennessy in the wings before storming on stage to tell Taylor Swift that he was about “to let her finish” at the MTV music awards last year.) Martell use the triumphal arch as the signifier of glorious wealth. It can be said that there is an edifice complex in miniature at work.
But this seems to change as you go up beyond the XO tier into the super premium category where decanters become delicate artefacts the price tags reach £2,000 and brands segue into the winsomeness of perfume codes. Remy Martin Louis XIII looks to belong in Marie Antoinette’s boudoir not in a man’s drinks cabinet. What’s going on?
There is something incongruous in the slightly effete intricacy in these bottles. On the one hand it is hard to see them working in the context of a mahogany walled room amidst macho cigar smoke. On the other hand, luxury is increasingly hybridizing with art and many of the expensive bottles look more like ice sculptures than glass.
Certainly brands that seems to celebrate gout ridden sovereigns do appear incongruous in the context of luxury which is becoming less cloying, self satisfied ad given to facilitating experiences (Hermés).
The pudgy, soft profile conveyed in these bottles is certainly out of step with the austere times. Marc Jacobs’ designers favoured a flat stomach with rippling abdominals. His new perfume bottle for Bang is the antithesis of the cognac paunch. Does this signify the need for men to be lean mean and roll with recession packed punches?
What does it say about the ferment of cultural codes when perfume packaging is getting a six pack and out muscling heavy liquor? I’d say it is time to uncork your best cognac and toast the semiotician.