I recently took part in a BBC documentary or two about my “extraordinary” sense of smell (I'm a recovering anosmic), and some of that may have involved me smelling “sweaty feet*” on camera and being remarkably unbothered by the experience. My actual current olfactory condition is a somewhat surreal one, making ordinary things that have no business (coffee, chocolate, bacon, etc) smelling like poo smell (and taste) like sewage, and making actual bodily emissions either completely non-existent as an odour, or just barely smellable as a kind of yeasty, toasty kind of thing.
Enter Basenotes, and some Actual Science** for a change. Ironically, whilst not being able to smell bad odours can be seen as a blessing by many (many people who can smell normally, that is), there are actual dangers involved in not being able to perceive danger signals via your nose – not being able to tell if milk is off, for example. Or if there is a gas leak. Or if your kitchen is on fire (and my husband does have a nasty habit of occasionally grilling random kitchen implements, it turns out). Or even if you need to blame the dog if you had, say, a particularly onion-heavy dish for dinner. But maybe that's just me.
Anyway, my not being able to smell the natural indoles that I'm (apparently) surrounded by every single day means that, even though I've recovered quite a bit of my sense of smell over the last few years, there is an entire category of fragrance which remains a closed book to me, and that is, of course, skank. My latest Basenotes mission (and I chose to accept it, fool that I am) was to wear a selection of those “Oh my, that's smells … unusual. Did you shower today?” fragrances for a couple of weeks, and figure out if I can smell bad things “better” afterwards for having done so.
After consulting my Facebook perfume posse, 11 fragrances were chosen and worn over a two week period, and I enlisted my unwilling “auxiliary nose” (aka MrLippie) to wear and comment on the fragrances too. Either because I find some smells too tricky, too unbearable, or just plain want to wind him up by making him smell like a litter-tray for a day or two, having a secondary nose comes in handy sometimes. Because MrLippie is a skank novice, I tried to order the fragrances from “skank-lite” in the first week, into full-on “hazard warning” in the second.
Frankly, after the Poundshop challenge I put him through a couple of years ago, and now this, it's a wonder we're still speaking. But hey! On to the fragrances:
* No sweaty feet were harmed in the making of “Incredible Medicine: Dr Weston's Casebook”. There was one rather green-looking director though.
** Not “Actual Science”.
[chapter]Day one: Mouchoir de Monsieur by Guerlain[/chapter]
Opening up with a freshly bright and zingy bergamot, Mouchoir de Monsieur has a classic cologne-style opening. It's zesty and light, and wonderfully refreshing. So much so that at first you wonder what, if any, place this bracingly lemony fragrance has in a story about skank, and bodily odours. Then you notice that the handkerchief (“Mouchoir”) referenced in the fragrance name may well have been recently used to wipe someone's bottom. Or possibly it has delicately dabbed at a rather unwelcomely moist armpit.
After the breezy opening, the warm and toasty feeling in the drydown can come as a complete surprise. It's rather earthy, but earthy in a way that suggests a wolf-pack recently ran through a barnyard, but not offensively or overwhelmingly so. It's a subtle dirt, one you have to be near to, a cologne with hidden depths, if you will. Hot sex after a cool shower, maybe.
Oddly, I keep reading that MdM is a fraternal twin to Jicky, but I can't read the lavender in this one at all, though I find have no real problem picking up on the warm and animialic civet. I find Jicky much more “tarry” and sticky than MdM, and MdM is brighter, lighter and less “lush” than Jicky, to my nose.
MrL found that it faded quickly after a rather “intense” start, but noticed that it bore a faint strain of lemon until well into the afternoon. He commented on the “faint smell of armpits”, but there's more about Guerlain armpits later in this article.
Skank Rating: Morning breath. Or, as a friend of mine puts it: “David Bowie's crotch”.
[chapter]Day Two: L'Air de Rien by Miller Harris[/chapter]
Expecting intellectual and bookish smut, I was surprised at the emotional reaction I experienced on initially smelling L'Air de Rien. Described as (essentially) an “anti-perfume” L'Air de Rien doesn't smell of fruit or flowers or spices as with many more traditional women's fragrances, but rather has echoes of old books, dust and pipe tobacco, and seemingly especially for me; unwashed hair.
L'Air de Rien has bottled the smell of a scalp that started the day clean and freshly washed, then got layered in styling products, and spent a warm day out and about. Maybe it got a bit sweaty after doing some hard thinking in the office, but is now relaxing gently in front of the TV just prior to hitting the sack after the end of a long day. There is costus in here, lots of costus, and it is both sexy and (for me) hugely nostalgic.
I realise, smelling L'Air de Rien, that my anosmia has cost me the scent of my husband. For several years, in the atmosphere by my side where my husband's smell should have been, there is now simply a huge void. That something so elemental, and fundamentally him is no longer here hits me hard, and I'm reeling, literally reeling at first sniff. Smelling him here, even in an artificial format, for the first time in what has been an exceptionally long, surreal and stressful three years makes me cry.
These are tears of joy for the sudden and unexpected gift of just being able to recognise it as “his” scent, that it is not forgotten, even though I haven't experienced it “in the flesh” for years. Joy that it is “back”. But, alongside those simply happy tears there are unexpected, tears of hot frustration and anger that something as simple as catching a cold could remove entire unexpected layers of meaning from my relationship. Worse, I feel shame that I hadn't really paid attention to what I was missing. All scent is meaning, and the surprising reminder of something you had not even noticed was gone is painful.
Knowing, intellectually, that you have a physical inability to do a specific thing is nothing, literally nothing to the sucker-punch of being unexpectedly reminded that your relationship actually really has been affected by my lack of smell ability. Even now, as I type this, several weeks after the wearing of it, I'm weeping once again. Smell is fundamental to life, and even though I'm used to my ”new normal” of un-smell, I'm occasionally taken by surprise at just how deeply I really feel about my disability.
Whilst L'Air de Rien was an unexpected reminder of oh so many things, I must admit that it wasn't an entirely unwelcome one. L'Air de Rien is beautiful, and, though I might have to occasionally bathe MrLippie in it so I can smell that he's there, it is definitely going to be a constant re-wear for both of us in the Lippie household.
Incidentally, MrLippie thought it initially smelled a bit like wee, but then said it was “beautiful” when that wore off. A word I don't think I've ever heard him use before. Well, not about a perfume, anyway.
Skank Rating: Sweaty hair.
Him: Musk Gold Essenze by Ermenegildo Zegna
Her: Putain de Palaces by Etat Libre d'Orange
It calms down quite beautifully after a hectic first couple of hours of smelling like testosterone on acid (which is in itself quite a wonderful thing, if you like that kind of thing), and eventually ends up smelling classy and expensive, both of which it actually is. By bedtime, in fact, it's a wonderful snuggly skin-musk, but it does take a phenomenally long time to get there. Simply amazing.
MrLippie's comments on the matter of both his appraisal and the fragrance are unrepeatable in a family publication, however. A winner!
Skank Rating: Chest wig.
Skank rating: fresh talcum
[chapter]Day Four: Pamplelune Aqua Allegoria by Guerlain[/chapter]
I discovered in the writing of this that I've been spelling Pamplelune wrong since the day it was released, I'd never even noticed that first L on the label. Regardless, I've been a PampLeLune wearer since it was initially released. However, I wore it for years just first thinking it was simply a gorgeously photo-realistic grapefruit fragrance, but then someone pointed out that if you smell it carefully it actually smelled of sweaty armpits and I gave the several bottles of it that I had hoarded at that point away. I came around to re-appreciating it via a friend who wore it and smelled wonderful in it, so have been back in it for a good five years or so now. In fact, it was the only fragrance I wore on my honeymoon several years back, and what's more appropriate on your honeymoon than sweaty grapefruits? Answers on a postcard, please...
Pamplelune is an oddity in the world of the Aqua Allegorias. Whilst the others are fresh and lovely (but I'm saddened that the releases of the last three years have all just been lemon-based, it seems lazy), Pamplelune's whiff of ‘pits just can't be ignored. Actual grapefruits often have a hint of sulphur in their scent. And it is this “sulphuric” quality that caused me to have problems with them for years when my parosmia was at its absolute worst, even when other citrus fruits were relatively unproblematic. It's not offensively sweaty, however, just that under that fresh and really rather beautiful rainbow-bright pink grapefruit, with its almost sour effluvia, there's a tiny hint of someone just having undergone some really rather intense physical activity in a slightly overheated room nearby. It's one of the few Aqua Allegorias from the original release to still exist (alongside Herba Fresca, another favourite, but I'll possibly examine mint fragrances in another piece), so people must really, really, love it. I know I certainly do.
MrLippie was more equivocal. Loving the grapefruit, and liking the warmth at the end, but not really having an opinion other than that.
Skank Rating: unwashed pits.
Him: 1996 by Byredo
Her: Nuit Noire by Mona di Orio
1996 was a new one to both of us. Several people mentioned that there was something “incredibly funky” about the drydown, so it was added to the list with improper haste, and what a scent it was! Sadly, we were only sent a tiny sample of this, which is a huge shame, as we have been fighting over it ever since. An incredibly sexy and beautiful blend of iris and leather, it is grown-up, sophisticated and beautiful, and an unexpected delight after the body-odour-fruits of the previous day, but of the “funky” drydown there was none. If anything in this article is full-bottle-worthy though, it is this one, whether you're in it for the skank or not. It's so sexy it's practically edible.
Skank rating: Sex on legs.
Nuit Noire, on the other hand is all fur-coat and no knickers, and is utterly bloody wonderful for it. With just a whiff of a hot chinchilla jacket on initial application, this dries down into an amber-vanilla accord that is as silky as a pannacotta and just as delicious. I spent the day wanting to lick myself.
Skank rating: Sexy lingerie.
[chapter]Day six: Scent by Theo Fennell[/chapter]
After hitting the halfway point of the trial, we start to pick up the big-guns of the skank genre and it was a shock to me to discover just how filthy Scent actually is. Long on my list of “must-smells” of after reading about it in “Perfumes – The Guide” (where else), but also long-discontinued, I managed to pick up a bottle for an exceptionally reasonable price at a location I shall not disclose, and straight onto this list it went. Expecting something both fresh and creamy from Luca Turin's description, the wild-animal cumin-funk of this one comes as a huge, and wonderful, surprise.
Opening with a fresh, oily-seeming, almost metallic accord of saffron and rose, and drying down to a wonderful oriental-style amber with just a hint of creaminess from vanilla, this is at turns beautiful, disconcerting, gorgeous and confusing.
Also confusing is that this is something that MrLippie chose to wear more than once during the trial (screwing up my timetable in the process, these articles DO have rules*, people), and for that alone it is a complete winner in anyone's book. He might not know all the perfume lingo like what we do, but he knows what he likes, and he's incredibly picky to boot.
Skank rating: Rugby player's thighs.
* And occasionally spreadsheets.
[chapter]Day Seven: Musc Ravageur by Frederic Malle.[/chapter]
Now, I happen to know that at least one extremely well-known beauty editor's husband won't let her out of the house if she's wearing this, but whether that's because he can't resist her in it, or is simply worried that other people won't be able to, I'm not entirely sure …
This is a spice-bomb of a musk. There's cumin and cinnamon and clove (oh my!) and my first thought was about pain d'epices, that spiced tea bread that the French make so well. Then the cumin completely takes over, and all bets are off. This is dirt all the way down under the gentle gingerbread exterior, and its rather wonderful. Warm and dirty and sexy and spicy and filth, filth, filth.
There is, on a second wear, a huge resemblance between Musc Ravageur and Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan, which I completely missed on my initial wear. For me, Ambre Sultan is my ultimate comfort fragrance. Warm and cuddly, it's a hug from your favourite uncle rather than your soulmate. Musc Ravaguer is a quite different form of relations altogether.
Skank Rating: Marital Discord. MrLippie actually refused to wear this one initially, choosing to re-wear Scent by Theo Fennell instead. It's okay, he's dead now. That'll teach him to mess up a schedule …
[chapter]Day Eight: Absolue Pour le Soir by Maison Francis Kurkdjian[/chapter]
No seriously, who wouldn't want to smell like “baklava being smuggled in a dirty thong”? MrLippie, that's who. He hated this. HATED it. Which is a shame, as I love it, and it was the first Kurkdjian fragrance I ever bought, immediately after reading just a single review. Balsams, cough drops, honey and just the merest hint of a household litter tray, Absolue Pour le Soir is amazing, astonishing, and a true testament to the perfumer's art. It is also, after Marmite, one of the most divisive things on the planet. Could I smell the skank? Oh yes, yes I could. As I suspect could 90% of the population of North London. It's that good.
I've spoken to Francis on a number of occasions regarding Absolue Pour le Soir, and he's firmly convinced that it's one of those fragrances that bloggers rave about, and “normal people” hate. Turns out he's not wrong. It's high-sillage, high octane, and just about high-everything, in almost every sense. It's simply too much for one bottle of fragrance, and that's the way I like it, baby.
MrLippie had a very bad day in the office wearing this. I'm not saying it was the fragrance's fault, exactly, but … bwah ahahahahaha … I didn't.
Skank rating: Unwashed litter tray.
[chapter]Day nine (the finale) Salome by Papillon Perfumes[/chapter]
Salome was released during the height of my smell-problems, and Liz Moores, the adorable perfumer behind the brand, was kind enough to check with me if it would be okay before sending a sample over. On balance, we both decided that then was not the right time for me to be deliberately smelling challenging fragrances. I am very glad she did this, it was (typically) very thoughtful of her, and I have to say that I'm not really entirely sure what I would have made of it when I was struggling so hard with my olfactory problems. It's much less of an issue now though, and boy am I glad I waited!
Salome is, in the nicest possible way I can say this: the very essence of finding a bouquet of gorgeous flowers near a dung heap. I first smell gorgeous flowers, and then funky, funky animals all at the same time, and it's one hell of an olfactory trick. Much like the famous optical illusion that's both a beautiful be-bonnetted lady and a wrinkled old crone at the same time, Salome is packed full of examples of the most beautiful things you can smell alongside some of the most disgusting. They're all wrapped up in the same package, then presented to you without apology or explanation, and it leaves the hard work of deciding what side of the beautiful/ugly divide you're going to fall down on entirely up to yourself. It's a riddle wrapped in an enigma, all enveloped in a mystery and it is so incredibly well done and astonishing that it makes me laugh every time I smell it. Liz Moores is an amazing woman, and so Salome is an amazing fragrance.
MrLippie hated it. I give up
Skank Rating: Farmyard.
Even the dirt smells good when you're coming at it from a place of smelling nothing at all. Can I smell skank “better” after delving so deeply into it, even from a bottle? The simple answer is yes. The longer answer is more complicated – and what I've been doing here is essentially a form of smell training, which I intend to write more about another time – but still, essentially, yes. Would it be better if I learned how to smell “bad smells” in the wild? Probably, but I don't think the world is ready for me to go around smelling stuff in the streets, to be honest. I don't really want to end up on Gogglebox for smelling bins …
Now, if you don't mind, I'm off to cuddle my walking bottle of L'Air de Rien.