Monday, November 12, 2012

"Singapore perfumes" : a subversive fragrance pyramid

A while back, on the perfume forum to which I occasionally post, a lady wanted to know what “Singapore perfumes” were. She came from Singapore and had never heard of the term.
Well, I explained, bluntly put, “Singapore perfumes” is a term, or a euphemism, devised by small retailers in the Philippines for counterfeit designer perfumes.

First, what makes them counterfeit, and different from knock-offs, dupes or imitations?  

It has to do with copyright infringement, and with the claim that these perfumes are authentic, coming from the same source as the designer perfumes you find in Sephora or duty free shops -- just not at full strength, hence their cheapness. The bottles themselves, as well as the packaging, are painstakingly duplicated – the color scheme, the fonts, the ripples in the glass. Any difference between what is authentically designer I attribute to human error or a failure in technology – i.e. misspellings, a color that is off, a difference in the spacing between the letters.

These are the perfumes that you occasionally find sold on Ebay as the real thing, hence the rise of web posts and Youtube videos showing consumers how to tell a counterfeit simply by looking at posted photographs.

The juice is inferior as a whole, though some smell shockingly similar to the products they mimic. On the whole, though, prepare for the 30-minute lasting power and aldehyde headaches already reported in detail on consumer websites. As by the very nature of this merchandise, the origins and ingredients are a closely guarded secret, one can never know what toxins may be incorporated into the formulas. (Of course, one can never know what toxins are in the air you imbibe on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, or on the tarmac at Frankfurt Airport, or for that matter that you invite into your system whenever you spritz on a product at Sephora). 

Why are they called "Singapore perfumes", and only in the Philippines?  I attribute this to a discourse that cuts across class and educational lines, to the effect that what is Singaporean is high-quality and superior to what is Filipino, while remaining Asian, i.e. sticking within the comfort zone of what is close to home, what is familiar and suitable to local habits and tastes.

When you read the on-line spiel of a few Singapore perfume sellers they frequently refer to the mildness of their products, contrasting them to the harshness of the "American" "originals", a strength uncalled for in a country where people shower 2-3 times a day. There are certainly some subversive ideas here about what is pure, or pure strength, as well as an embedded notion about hygienic practices in Asia vs. Europe/ the United States -- or perhaps among Asians vs. Caucasians.

In the Philippines, you find small-time on-line retailers advertising "Singapore" perfumes that are superior to "Hong Kong" perfumes, and nearly as good as "Dubai" perfumes, which are in turn almost as long-lasting as "US" perfumes. This terminology points to a hierarchy of superiority and quality in which Hong Kong/China is at the bottom and the United States at the apex. (Yes, a perfume pyramid, but of an entirely different sort). Offended Singaporeans might take it as a compliment.

I describe a hierarchy in which France, traditionally the center of Western perfumery, is missing.  Typically (as seen from their spiels) sellers seem to perceive the U.S. as the apex of culture, the dreamed-of space. I am not sure where "Filipino" fits in this hierarchy either – it’s tricky to say: the Filipino sense of self-worth is forever on shifting, unstable ground.

Sellers of these counterfeit fragrances (you can buy them on-line or directly from an acquaintance, a la Avon) exploit these notions of authenticity/inauthenticity in order to sell products that look great but are ultimately of poor quality. Again, it must be stressed that it's the use, without permission, of the trademark that puts them in the realm of the counterfeit: "impressions" do not fall into this category.

To the best of my knowledge, these perfumes are produced in countries other than the Philippines and imported into the country in huge crates: one seller even posts photos of her supplier’s warehouse, crammed with boxes floor to ceiling, boasting of the abundance of the supply.

The really interesting thing is that they have been available in hole-in-the-wall shops in some shopping malls for more than a decade, and are sold through the country's largest classified ads and auction websites, apparently without anyone -- I mean law enforcers or the management of these commercial sites -- taking notice.
 The going rate for "Singapore perfumes/counterfeits" is between 4 USD a bottle if bought in bulk, to about 20 USD -- regardless of the prestige of the counterfeited brand. It is marketing that relies heavily on the individual talent of the seller, and takes advantage of ignorance, stubborn denial, naïve aspirations, and perhaps that niggling thought that in any case the European-American perfume industry has been ripping us off, with its promises of distinction and sensual gratification, for years. ***
-- "You like? Five dollars and they're yours."
* This article originally appeared in slightly different form as a message board post, under the username Lakambini, on


Anonymous said...

Great article :) information really is everywhere you just have to search for it ^_^ thanks

Anonymous said...

Hello, very informative article. Have you heard about this new site do you thinkg they are selling SG perfumes ? the price is unbelievably low.

Though per experience when we bought a Lanvin perfume in one of the great department store chains, they sold it half the price because it was to expire in 3 months na.


- D

Mikeila Menk said...

Great article. Helpful. Thank you.