Rusak's portrait of the Southern California desert starts at ground-level and moves upward. The frankincense, which Rusak tinctured himself, permeates the perfume from start to finish. Combined with labdanum and other resinous materials the frankincense smells dusty rather than woody or sappy. It's rooted in an earthy accord that smells more of sand and stone than moist garden soil. The sense of scorched desert is palpable to the nose. Rusak says that the dry-soil effect is in large part due to a tincture of smoked, dried peppers that he created in his studio. The result is a sun-baked coziness that's much more personal than the geosmin overdose sometimes used to give fragrances an earthy but often brittle vibe.
To a large extent the smell of the SoCal desert is the scent of fire. The remnants of past brush fires seem to linger for years in the charred stumps of juniper and scrub oak. Papery sagebrush and dried piñon pine needles provide fragrant kindling for the loose fields of waxy, smoky creosote bushes that make the desert smell as if it could burst into flames at any moment. Io balances smokiness and dryness to reproduce the moody tension of desert air on a hot day, where the combination of bone-dry plants and burnt remnants are the before and after of a seemingly inevitable fire.
The challenge of an incense perfume is the momentum of the frankincense itself. Placing it at the center of a perfume can make the perfume simply follow the dynamics of the material, no matter how hard the perfumer might try to steer it in other directions. Rusak bends frankincense to his own purposes just as he twists the expected geography of the material. Frankincense's origins are in Eastern Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula where the boswellia sacra tree grows. Perfumer Chris Rusak transplants his tree to the desert of Southern California where it reinvents itself in classic Californian fashion
Fazzolari calls his new perfume, a celebration of the ancient and the contemporary and names it Fontevraud, after a serially repurposed abbey in France. It is produced in a very limited run (50 bottles) in celebration of Los Angeles's famed perfume retailer LuckyScent/ScentBar's 15th anniversay. Combining a chypre with a fruity floral is a logical old/new combination, but as with Fontevraud Abbey's cortège from monestery to prison to UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fazzolari's Fontevraud is neither expected nor obvious. I'll admit I had reservations when I saw the list of notes, which includes guava, rose and pear. Visions of Sophia Grosjman's Calyx for Prescriptives came to mind. A gorgeous perfume, but perhaps the most hyperbolic fruity chypre ever made.
A chypre is not a new undertaking for Fazzolari, who previously nailed the genre with the voluptous Au Delà/Narcisse and the gleaming Seyrig, but true to his claim Fazzolari devises something new. Most attempts to resuscitate the genre try to fill in the hole left after oakmoss and all the other noxious materials were dug out. They shovel in patchouli, laundry musks and PR bullshit about how authentic the perfume is. But they're counterfeit and they smell forged. The effort of wearing them without feeling like a fraud is too much for me.
Fazzolari punks us all by creating one of the mossiest perfume in recent history that doesn't actually smell like a traditional chypre. Fontevraud uses the chypre's compositional configuration as a starting place to build a perfume with a texture different than either the time-honored or spurious versions. It focuses on the material's resinous facets more than its inky and smokey qualities and lends itself to darker hues like dry fruit and spicy balsams.
Rose chypres were known for their brassiness. The outspokenness of the flower often gave the perfumes hulking presences. Rose is seeded throughout Fontevraud, from top to base and from resinousness to fruitiness, but I feel as if I see it through a mirror. Visible, apparent but just out of reach no matter how close. Rose lines the whole perfume and carries a big stick but doesn't push its way to the front. It's a great way to tame a big note without actually declawing it.
Fruit is another common chypre component but guava and pear are unorthodox picks. Fazzolari plays both fruits against type. He avoids the predictable tropical clichés of guava by giving it a dark edge. It's as if he compresses the fruit's distinctive redolence into a compact shape and, while it smells like guava, it smells dark, almost bitter. On the tree or in the kitchen pear's distinctive sweet scent really only comes forward when the fruit is ripe. Before that it smells more woody than fruity. Fontevraud plays on the woody facet of pear by emphasizing the sharp, almost vinegary taste of the skin of the fruit. Fontevraud's pear appears within the first minute that the perfume is applied but the reveal is somewhat startling. A mineralic opening segues into a mushroom note (Fazzolari says it's a function of opoponax) which in turn becomes a grainy pear note. It's a surprising transition that took me a few wearings to wrap my head around but now I give myself a minute or so after applying Fontevraud just to get taken for the ride. It's a blast.
The fruit tones that Fazzolari comes up with are unexpected but appealing and he has played fruit against type before. Monserrat uses a peach/grapefruit/osmanthus accord to create one of the more sophisticated fruity-florals you'll find. Unsettleds smoky, buttery pineapple manages to be sultry without relying on the simple olfactory language of pineapple=tropical=exotic. Fazzolari calls Fontevraud bright but I disagree. By turning such uninhibited fruits into introverts and creating a reticent rose he designs a stylishly dark perfume that works for the same reason a little black dress or a tuxedo works. It's impeccable and has a sexy silhouette.
From the first sniff of Cri, you're drawn directly to the center of the perfume. Perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato even factors in the volitility of the alcohol burning off and uses it to segue into a lustrous accord with the olfactory dynamic of an eau de vie. The topnote is like the scent of Poire Williams brandy or Slivovitz, where the fruit is pressed so far into the alcohol that it is reduced to essentials. It's neither juicy nor sweet and has an incisive slant. My note from first sampling Cri de la Limière reads, Super fruity but dry as fuck. Not the loftiest of insights, but apt. The Poire Williams note is the perfect backdrop for a sleek iris note. Woody, rooty, cool to the touch. Matching iris to the desiccated fruit brings out the vegetal nature of ambrette.
Cri de la Lumière is a closely tailored perfume that holds to a tight dynamic range. Rather than broaden the composition the musk accord focuses it, though the perfume sidesteps the strictness that a minimalist approach can impart. The rosy, fruity facets of ambrette are balanced by a plastic quality that gives a deliberate synthiness to the perfume. The fruit appears embedded in clear lucite and the slightly peony-like berry/rose gives a transparent pink sheen to the perfume. The effect is perfectly calibrated and though subtle, is durable. The fruit gives Cri de la Lumière a stained-glass effect and despite the specificity of the fruit notes, the perfume reads as fairly abstract.
The perfume's woodier side reveals itself periodically like a bit of slip showing. Once I spotted it, I couldn't stop looking for it to reappear. This sort of diversion is a good example of how Corticchiato's perfumes engage the wearer. Whether in a forceful perfume like Tabac Tabou or a more watercolor one like Osmanthus Interdite his perfumes reward your attention with engaging olfactory shapes and transitions. The perfume plays subtly with the animalism found in musk ambrette. (Musk ambrette smells like a sweaty, imaginary fruit.) Of the various dimensions of the material, the animalic feature is among the most durable. Corticchiato doesn't hide the material's skin' side but he does nest it fairly deep into the perfume, where is is a quiet foil to the plastic, acrylic details.
Dyptique's Fleur de Pear was released about a year after Le Cri de la Lumière and is also based on an ambrette accord. If I had to characterize the difference between the two, Le Cri stems from the overlapping of its notes and accords and Fleur de Pear is build from a sequence of consecutive musk accords that appear one after the other. Convergence. Divergence. Two different approaches to ostensibly similar accords.
Fleur de Peau moves very differently than Le Cri. Wearing it is like strolling from room to room in a large house. Each musk is joined to the next in a chain. The top note is a papery iris. Then a starchy musk à la Mugler Cologne. Then a grainy pear, then shoe polish, then waxy skin. No accord goes away entirely, but they don't merge. They just reappear periodically. This olfactory junket is captivating in that it's so meticulous and methodical. It's not just the aromas that oscillate, it's the tones. The iris is cry and crinkly, the rose is sheer, the pear is grainy, the skin note is fatty and waxy. The accords maintain their edges and don't bleed into each other. They simply rotate.
Diptyque's ambrette is more animalic than Perfume d'Empire's and it's very human. The Diptyque ventures much further into the sweaty-skin facet of ambrette, which can make the perfume seem a bit odd as it moves from sweat to laundry soap to floral bouquet. If you tune in closely to the perfumes fluctuations, though, it's compelling.
The specificity of the composition creates an interesting opportunity for perfume critics. The fluctuation of the perfume, its progression through distinct olfactory territories creates the opportunity to consider composition without referring to formula per se. It can be described in terms of its qualities and can be analyzed based on its dynamics. Any perfume can be viewed this way, but Fleur de Peau lends itself particularly well to this approach.
Back in the day, counter-culturalism had style. The movement's cri de coeur that the personal was political gave fashion new political significance. Style became a function of free speech and Hippies and Yippies groomed and dressed both to identify themselves to fellow travelers and to scare the stiffs. But costume wasn't the only prop. The culture war of the '60s and '70s took place on an olfactory level.
As much as hair and costume, scent drew the line between us and them. To the straights, head shop scents like musk, patchouli and amber oils meant poor hygiene and the imagined miasma of a Haight Ashbury commune. To counter-culturalists traditional perfumes and colognes would have been the stink of The Man. A problem with this sort of transactional style is that it's easy to co-opt symbols and drain them of their meaning and intent. In 1967, bellbottoms and peasant blouses were far out. By 1972 the patterns for them could probably be found in the back of issues of Family Circle Magazine. In the early '70s amber was the scent of rebellion. By 1978, the hippie-amber gave way to fancy French perfume. If niche was an alternative to the mainstream perfume, the scents embraced within the counter-culture were a logical place for the early indies to plant their flag and l'Artisan Parfumeur had already made its reputation on amber. The brand's famous amber balls were its first product when the line launched in 1976. Perfumes didn't enter the line-up until 1978 when l'Eau d'Ambre launched the perfume line, along with Mure et Musc, Santal, Vanilia, Tuberose.
The perfume is simple in that it derives from its principal materialsat no moment during its evolution would you ever imagine that you're not smelling a potent amber-patch accord. Yet even as early as 1978, Jean-Claude Ellena's ability to make resins sheer was apparent. A mercifully unsweetened dose of vanilla keeps the perfume from ever falling into goopy head shop syrup. The perfume has been attributed to both Ellena and Jean-François Laporte. Perhaps Ellena was perfumer and Laporte was artistic director, as was the case with some of the other l'Artisan perfumes. The two might have looked to the head shop for inspiration, but l'Eau d'Ambre was no sloppy copy. As an artist trained in compositional rigor and the dynamics of his materials Ellena managed to create something that, as hippies would appreciate, smells really fucking good, but stands up to the interrogation of olfactory art.
Ellena navigated the risks of his chosen materials smartly, avoiding both the lotus-eating laziness of head shop oils and the orientalist theatricality of the Shalimar set. He focussed on labdanum's mineralic side, giving the perfume a whiff of paint or putty that reminds me of the scent of an artist's studio. The top and heartnotes are boosted by geranium. In the setting of an overtly resinous accord geranium acts like a breeze that blows out the cobwebs that can gather around patchouli and labdanum. It counteracts the density of the central amber accord, a trick performed by bergamot in oriental perfumes from Emeraude to Youth Dew to Opium. l'Eau d'Ambre's aromatic geranium creates a tension that distinguishes the perfume from its head-bobbing hippie predecessors. Rather than complicate the composition, geranium streamlines it, reminding the nose that despite the perfume's simplicity it has deliberate point of view.
L'Eau d'Ambre's success lies in its simplicity, perhaps one reason that it has weathered materials restrictions and any possible reformulation so gracefully. The materials are allowed to state their own case without adornment or needless complexity. L'Eau d'Ambre wasn't the first indie perfume but it was a frontrunner and demonstrated how well the niche movement bridged the desire for new, clear, materials-based fragrances and the long history of oriental perfumes.
Fleur de Citronnier is transparent. Not radiant or sheer but straightforward. The arc of the perfume is an easy but entertaining wear. There are no curveballs–spend one minute in this perfume and you pretty much know where your day is headed. Boozy citrus and a raspy, juicy floral accord take you into the heart of the perfume. A honeyed waxy foundation outlasts all the other notes. It's the framework of the entire perfume, lasting through the lightly animalic floral drydown. Fleur de Citronnier isn't the most complex wear, but the ride is so smooth and the moments are so lush that I find myself reaching for the bottle the minute I lay eyes on it. Waxy lipstick and a mouthwatering floral-citrus note combine to make Fleur de Citronnier a big tongue-kiss of a perfume.
Fleur de Citronnier has a musk accord that's shaped a bit like the one in Muscs Koublai Khan. The two have a waxy sweetness that runs on the boozy side and a big, sculptural floral accord. Muscs Koublai Khan's sweaty rose makes it a more down-and-dirty wear than FdC's upstanding petitgrain-inflected citrus flower but not by a lot. They're both seductivethey just move differently. Muscs Koublai Khan is an irresistible force, albeit a slow one. Fight it and it will likely take you down. But give in? There's some serious pleasure there. Fleur de Citronnier has a much more buoyant quality than Muscs Koublai Khan. It's built for gentleman-drag, the Vienna Waltz and garden parties.
Clair de Musc's musk accord isn't as much like Muscs Koublai Khan's as Fleur de Citronnier's is. It's cleaner' and higher pitched and has the hallmarks of the white' musks: soap, sweetness and soft-cuddliness. But here's also where you'll find Clair de Musc's resemblance to Muscs Koublai Khan. Muscs Koublai Khan has just enough cleanliness to it to make you realize how dirty it is. The honeyed rose creates a feeling of purity that gets completely run over by the bawdiness of the the musk. If there is a narrative of innocence lost embedded in the perfume, the story is told in about as long as it takes to say, Wow. Innocence lost.
Clair de Musc tips the balance way in the other direction. The clean musk accord aims to cover any errant animalism but every now and again something unclean pops through. The scent of scalp, a whiff of armpit. It makes you realize this perfume isn't about cleanliness. It's about hygiene not quite holding its own against the scent of the human body. Remember the story of the first use of historical eaux like Eau de Cologne and Florida Water? They were for covering up the funk of unwashed bodies. Clair de Musc gives you that experience without you ever having to have a funky body yourself.
Some of the best musk perfumes are a variation on the idea, though perfumes like Kiehl's Musk No 1, Amouage Gold Man and Les Nereides Fleur Poudrée de Musc all land much further in the funk than Clair de Musc. The perpetual resurfacing of bodily scents emphasizes the degree of restraint needed to keep from falling into the indulgence of the flesh. There's a sexiness to the perfume that's easy to miss if it's not your bag.
From the angle of 2018 Clair de Musc is an interesting alternative to the trend in women's perfumery toward dull white musky drydowns. The perfume's musk notes are more detailed than the default pillowy basenotes built into so many mainstream florals.
In their roles as artistic director and perfumer, Lutens and Sheldrake have explored their central woody accord many times, taking it in a syrupy-spiced direction with Arabie, Miel de Bois and Daim Blond and in a more overtly gourmand direction with Un Bois Vanille and Five O'Clock au Gingembre. Overall, there's been a tendency to hold close their to their signature wood/fruit compositional style but with their soli-floral perfumes Sheldrake and Lutens range much further afield. The perfumes run from pretty and tame (Sa Majesté la Rose & Un Lys) to ferocious (Tubereuse Criminelle & Iris Silver Mist*). La Vierge de Fer falls in line with two other perfumes the brand, A La Nuit (2000) and Datura Noir (2001). Let's call them the Crass Florals.
All three of the Crass Florals share an over-the-topness that defuses any solemnity the Lutens line might have accrued over the years. Lutens himself has seen enough fashion over the years that he seems to know to pepper serious' design with camp. La Vierge de Fer's depiction of lily is less olfacto-realistic than A La Nuit's jasmine but only slightly so. The unexpected lily-pear pairing takes a moment to come into focus clearly but once it does, it makes perfect sense. The two aromas, the flower and the fruit, share a musky connection that might not be obvious but is smartly manipulated by Sheldrake, who makes the unexpected pairing fit together perfectly. The prickly mouth feel of a bite of pear is recreated with a shellac-like musky tone that cuts sweetness and allows flavor to shine through just as it does in a pear on the cusp of ripeness. La Vierge de Fer's lily is green and expansive, quite different than the wafting vanillic lily Sheldrake composed for Lutens Un Lys. The pairing of flower and fruit is angular but not jarring and has less sting than the lost pearflorals Jean-Michel Duriez created for Jean Patou.
La Vierge de Fer lacks Datura Noir syrup but shares the luminosity and billowing projection suggestive of tropical climes. Also like Datura Noir, La Vierge maintains super-sized proportions into the hearnotes but finds a more tenable scale by dry-down. The lily remains coherent throughout and the perfume neither loses its shape nor collapses into a skin scent' and demonstrates Sheldrake's particular talent for coherent, satisfying drydowns.
La Vierge de Fer provided a welcome break in the grey drift of Lutens's recent Oedipal florals. 2013's La Vierge de Fer was preceded by the receding-carnation of 2011's Vitriol d'Oeillet and followed by the bleak white-out of 2014's l'Orpheline and grey skies of 2015's La Religieuse. The muffled, blanketing tones of these woody florals seem at odds with the specificity of many of the line's earlier florals. They were framed by cryptic allusions by Lutens to revisited childhood memories and distant female authority figures. I believe they were intended to convey a sort of meditative sense of distance and isolation but as a collection they don't build on each other to express anything but an uncomfortable listlessness.
Vierge de Fer started in the Palais Royal Exclusive line (the bell jars) and eventually found its way to the export line (the rectangular spray bottles.) I came to The Iron Maiden out of sequence, well after The Caustic Carnation, The Orphan and The Nun. The name and the general trend in the Lutens line led me to expect a dirge of a perfume but La Vierge de Fer is neither torturous, as the name implies, nor grim like the other latter-day Lutens florals.
* Yeah, iris is a root but is described qualitatively as a floral scent.
When Amazone launched in 1974 the woody floral was a sensible and well-populated genre. Ranging from heavily aldehydic numbers like l'Air du Temps and Fleurs de Rocailles to glowing classics like le Dix and le De, woody florals had always been above reproach. But the times they were a-changin' and the perfumes that weren't keeping pace were starting to seem perfunctory and stale. Floral aldehydes had been dominant for so long that they had developed coded meanings to those in the know. Chanel 5 was sophisticated, l'Air de Temps was naive, Estée was tight-assed. But to the great majority of people who smelled them they were just soapy and antiquated. Woody florals struggled to strike the attitude that would appeal to the young woman of the 1970s. New green perfumes like Chanel 19 and Diorella spoke to a more provocative femininity and found an eager audience. Amazone seems designed to find a middle ground between old and new styles. Whether it was successful is difficult to answer.
Amazone would likely have seemed too blatantly fruity to the woman who wore Calèche, Guy Robert's aldehydic woody floral that was the only other female fragrance Hermès offered in 1974. Traditional woody florals carried the citrus topnotes needed to create a pyramid but Amazone put fruit front and center. It was a starchy green floral built from taut spring flowers and apparently a whopping dose of blackcurrant. It was crisp rather than lush and while it was a new style for Hermès, it had the conservative sensibility of the house.
To the modern nose shaped by florals like Escada Chiffon Sorbet and Alain Delon Samourai Pinkberry (an actual perfume, apparently) Amazone comes off like most other woody florals from previous generations. Pick your favorite word of disdainthey've all been used. Mumsy, frumpish, dowdy, démodé. Amazone was Hermès's first attempt to find a young female market and the brand wasn't known for nurturing a socially progressive buyer. Amazone didn't try–or didn't try hard enough–to target the boho bougie style that Dior and Chanel nailed with Diorella and Cristalle. The perfume's warrior name implied an audacious femininity that the perfume didn't deliver. Hermès seem to have gotten a foot in the door to the rising feminism of the decade but never quite opened it and marched through. The image of femininity it conjured was conflicted and contradictory, a bit like another oddity of the era, the folk-singing nun.
With Amazone, Hermès mediated the youth movement of the era by effectively ignoring it, a pattern the marque would repeat when it launched the jaunty Eau de Cologne Hermès/Eau d'Orange Vert into the heart of the punk era in 1979. Denial or cultural tone-deafness. Pick your choice.
But time heals all blah, blah and vintage Amazone is an excellent wear today for anyone who chooses to reclaim it. (There are plenty of vintage bottles still available.) The florals are dynamic and the woods are rich but understated. The perfume has an acidulated snap that flouts today's ongoing trend for sweetened fruits and florals. It's a wonderful bit of irony that defying trendwhich made Amazone seem out of place in 1974makes it seem novel today.
Maybe it's a result of my Catholic schooling by nuns. Maybe it's my contemplation of the the self-restraint involved in wearing a full religious habit. Either way, the singing nun routine strikes me as just the right kind of kink and I happily wear Amazone while the refrain of Dominique echoes through my head.
Noun starts with the scratchiness, the hint of dissonance that I love in Antonio Gardoni's perfumes. His perfumes are built for the long haul, unfolding slowly over the course of the day. Like traditional extraits they aren't meant to be judged at the first sniff where they can appear so potent as to be aggressive.
Fruit marks the transition to the perfumes heart. The citrus transforms into an almost grape-like note that creates a flinty whiff of white wine. Noun turns jammy but never actually grows sweet. Noun's fruit--what I perceive as jamminess and the mineral hint of white wine (you might characterize it differently)--hovers beside the perfume's central woody-floral core, as though sensed through the olfactory equivalent of peripheral vision. The hint of grape highlights the perfume's floral quality similarly to the way Dior Poison and Caron Narcisse Noir famously amped their white floral bouquets with methyl anthranilate, a material that can give a concord grape, bubble-gummy flavor to tuberose and orange blossom. In Noun, the effect is much more subtle and the hint of grape gives the woody-floral heart a smooth glow.
It doesn't take long to recognize the importance of patchouli in Noun. Over the course of hours, the balance of flowers-to-woods tips in favor of the woods that ultimately define the perfume. Gardoni's perfumes tend to shine in dry down, where precise layering of resinous materials give the perfumes impressive coherence and Noun is no exception. The emphasis on patchouli's camphorous side gives Noun's drydown a cool vibe that differentiates it from the warm basenotes of Maai.
On first wearing Noun, I was struck by how prominent the Bogue-identifiers are. The salty/musky balance and the pattern of the white florals in particular are familiar. The question Noun must answer is: Is it just a different flavor of a 'house accord' that Gardoni has shown before? My answer is no, but I suspect that Gardoni has beaten me to the punch and answered the question already. Noun's topnote will be instantly identifiable to wearers of Maai and Aeon 001, but despite the 'signature style' of the opening, the perfume avoids predictability. Gardoni puts his distinctive mark on the perfume's topnote–almost a taunt–then retracts it as the perfume dives deep into the patchouli.
All artists must watch their work closely over time to avoid repeating themselves. Gardoni's perfumes reiterate themes within a specific genre. Still, I wouldn't rebuke a classical composer for not creating a jazz piece and I don't fault Gardoni for making woody-floral perfumes, especially when he continues to find new patterns and ideas in his work. In fact, I would argue that as he continues to explore the resinous woody-floral range, Gardoni's work becomes more personal. Noun and MEM, which preceded it, are particularly strong efforts and demonstrate Gardoni's ability to mine a concept for different configurations that produce novel results.
Perfume marketing tends to induce tsumami-sized eye-rolls in me, so I have a love/meh relationship with Etat Libre d'Orange. Love the perfume, cringe at the 'stories' the brand gives each of its perfumes. The scene-setting melodrama can be interesting as a side-bar, but the 'story' is irrelevant to the experience of the perfume. So when a friend recently turned me on to Une Amourette I started the odd little two-step I find myself doing with most ELDO perfumes: enjoy the perfume and just ignore the story. But the dance takes enough effort that I eventually give in, read the text and have a laugh.
I had just written some quick notes for myself that started with, "It's a lovely, conservatively proportioned floriental. A contemporary take on a traditional genre." when I decided to take a peek at ELDO's take on Une Amourette. There designer Roland Mouret's is quoted: "Une Amourette is a no-holds-barred fragrance. It is not for everybody. It's divisive. It will corrupt the fragrance category with its subversive positioning." Oh, for fuck's sake. Really?
Une Amourette isn't divisive or subversive in the least. But you know what? It's gorgeous. Forget corrupting categories and just dig the feel-goodness of Une Amourette--that's where this perfume hits its stride. A peppery citrus opening is the freshest, though not necessarily the brightest moment of the perfume. Matte, spicy, creamy-powdered florals illuminate the perfume from within and transfer their glow to your skin. A mineralic vanilla-almond accord forms a backdrop for the skanky white florals and reminds me of the way Bellodgia set a spicy carnation against a chewy marzipan stage curtain for maximum effect. Here the result is less powdery, more mineralic and far more modern than comparison to the old Caron perfume might imply.
The heartnotes blend into a listless olfactory image of vintage suntan lotion. The particular combo of solar florals and creamy woods actually suggest a whipped-smooth beige or khaki tone. The almond-vanilla accord reinforces the image with a matte sand or putty tint, but perfumer Andrier takes a page from Coco Chanel's book. What you notice in historical images of Chanel's collections is not the plainness of the color but the uncluttered design, the perfect drape of the fabrics, the impeccable tailoring. The difference between the perfect beige and dinginess is slim and the potentially dull color palette' of Une Amourette could have been its downfall.
Like Chanel, Andrier's manages to make the olfactory color' chic. She reassembles olfactory cues to shift from a beige hue to tanned skin, from flowers to sun tan lotion. The perfume's easy finish and seamless transitions make it an effortless wear but don't disguise the details. The floral accord's heavily indolic breathiness reinforces suntan lotion's implicit suggestion of parading flesh barely contained by swim trunks and bikinis. Andrier gives you skin and sun. Flirtation and exhibitionism. Skip Mouret's story of corruption and subversion. Just dig the potential of Andrier's suggestive scenario and fill in the rest for yourself.
Heliotrope might as well be a fictional plant for all I know. I don't know what it looks like and I've never smelled it but I'm drawn to scents known for prominent heliotrope notes. I may not know the scent of the plant but I know the infamous notes: marzipan, cherry pie, spiced vanilla meringue, coconut-almond custard. The same specific set of descriptors are repeated so consistently that I imagine the plant's scent must be very specific.
I can spot the descriptors. In monster perfumes like Loulou and Datura Noir but also in more delicate compositions like Ellena's l'Eau d'Hiver for Frédéric Malle and Kiss Me Tender. I totally dig Jour de Fete and l'Heure Bleue makes me weep. Also, I'm American, so I suppose both cherry pie and a tendency to self-deception are part of my psyche. All this to say, over the years, in my head I've come to believe that I know what heliotrope smells like when in fact, I don't. It's a false memory.
Actually, it's not heliotrope that I have in my mind's nose so much as heliotropin, the material used to create those gorgeous vintage orientals like Coty l'Origan and Guerlain Vol de Nuit and classic carnations like Caron Bellodgia. The first time I tried Etro Heliotrope it felt familiar, but just out of reach, like a misfiled memory. The recognition was instantaneous but understanding lagged with a drawn out, tip-of-my-tongue dissatisfaction. It was only when I re-spritzed a couple of hours later that I made the association between the perfume under my nose and the fantasy in my head. Is this the Proustian madeleine for this particular point in the 21st century? No transcendent moment, just a simple, satisfying connection? An itch scratched?
I suppose it's a bit small for Proust and it's not so much memory as a recognition of things imagined. Still it was informative to be confronted with the realization of what amounts to an olfactory hallucination. A little glimpse into how I make sense, or fiction, out of scent.
As for the perfume, it's all there---the pie, the meringue, the marzipan. But it has an unexpected confluence of textures and tones. It's expansive and heady at the same time that it seems a little remote, like the scent is coming from further away than my wrist. The spiciness creates a bubbly quality as if the scent were carbonated but at the same time, there is a hint of play-doh and paste that creates a matte finish and an introverted impression.
I don't think of Etro as a line that veers too far into experiments in abstraction but Heliotrope is actually sort of wild. It's built from a bizarre combination of scents. It balances the high-pitched insecticide sting of cyanide almonds and the scent of stones in dried clay soil. Like eating marzipan pastries in a musty basement or root cellar.
Avant garde, vanguard, avant courier? Ground-breaking, rule-bending? Listen up, groovy indie brands. This dandy fashion house has stolen your lunch with simple creativity.
The test of a feel-good perfume is versatility. Wear a light dose or douse yourself. Keep it at wrist distance or huff it like poppers. Warm weather, cold weather. Dress it up or go casual. The better feel-good fragrances hover closer to the center of a set of olfactory dynamics rather than at the extremes. It's what makes them versatile and appealing over time. The question is how to make the middle ground interesting.
Amber perfumes have a pitfall: the resinous materials they're built from smell really good. Labdanum, olibanum, tonka, vanilla and sandalwood are considered stand-alone perfumes. The risk, the trap really, is highlighting materials at the expense of composition. Old-school oriental perfumes avoided the hazard by making complex, larger than life scents. Unfortunately, their lavish style makes them a bit rococo for modern use and their orientalist origins weigh them down even more than their dense base notes do. The costume, play-acting cheesiness of orientalism can seem both mannered and childish to the contemporary sensibility. Modern indie amber perfumes have the opposite challenge. They run the same risk as the stoner amber oils of the hippy era from which they derive: oversimplification.
Fazzolari finds a balance point somewhere between the two positions and Ummagumma avoids chinoiserie at one end and oversimplification at the other. While it's clear he looks closely at his materials---his palette---it seems that the materials don't so much drive the composition as provide the medium for Fazzolari to illustrate an idea, in this case how to integrate the classic oriental and the indie amber.
Two examples: First, the way that the creamy, vanillic tones are nested deep in resins is old-school, but by avoiding the rest of the classic oriental's luggage–the aromatic topnotes, the warm floral bouquet, the heavily accessorized style–Ummagumma taps into the richness of vintage orientals while easily side-stepping the melodrama. Second, the perfume's chocolate is unmistakably gourmand and the note is a nod to the contemporary style of gourmand ambers, but there's a twist. Many modern amber perfumes have discovered the easy link between dessert notes and resinous materials but relying on lazy combinations gives the perfumes a passive quality. The accords might be pleasant but they just lay there. Ummagumma builds a chain of associations and makes the chocolate more than a candy treat at the center of the perfume. Chocolate suggests cocoa, which in turn hints at powder. The bitter powder fuses with the sweet resins and an unexpected dry carnation note to give a hint of animalism that that makes it seem neither traditional nor trendy.
Ummagumma is new territory for Fazzolari. (sort of *) It's a gourmand amber and it's unlike anything else in his line. Most of Fazzolari's perfumes play with their genres, often using volatile and aromatic topnotes to situate themselves in their genres and then fucking with your expectations once you start to get settled. Fazzolari is able to hold seeming contradictions in place without easy resolutions. He takes advantage of the vibrancy that come from contrasting dynamics, but leaves the debate open, giving the perfumes a touch of friction that makes them so interesting over time. Ummagumma stands between the classic oriental and the indie amber without conceding to either. It's the sort of nuance that distinguishes Fazzolari's work from many of his indie contemporaries and keeps me coming back to his perfumes.
* Ummagumma has definite ties to Cadavre Exquis, a perfume created by Fazzolari and Antonio Gardoni. They used gourmand and resinous accords to create jarring effects. In tone, Cadavre Exquis is miles from the mellow Ummagumma. Comparing the two brings up a question for another day: What happens when you use a similar set of notes to express completely different ideas?
The design house Comme des Garçons occupies a specific perch in the fashion world. It is known for being off-beat, progressive, trend-setting. Search for "Comme des Garçons" and "avant-garde"--- it'll take days to dig through all the results. The brand has a strong interest in maintaining an unconventional appearance. CdG's perfumes convey the bona fides of their non-conformity by emphasizing three qualities: iconoclasm ('anti-perfumes' such as Odeur 53 and Odeur 71), thingness (recontextualized scents like Dry Clean, Sticky Cake and Concrete) and a signature style of synth-woodiness. The first two speak to the reputation CdG want to preserve, the third identifies the brand and ties it to that reputation. The question is to what extent the brand has the brand reduced avantgardism to a set of signifiers in an attempt to market their artistry?
After the Series collections of 2000-2008 the brand focussed on marketing creative collaboration. Collaborations with Stephen Jones, Monocle, Daphne Guinness, Hussein Chalayan and Gosha Rubchinskiy widen CdG's style profile and replenish the brand's street cred. In 2014 CdG joined forces with Pharrell Williams on the perfume Girl. It was a significant ramp-up from figures known strictly to close followers of the fashion industry to the most prominent superstar of the day. CdG phrased Girl as a collaborative project, but let's call it what it is. Girl is a celebrity perfume.
So what did each of the collaborators stand to gain?
For Pharrell, it's easy. Affiliation with avant-garde ('serious') art gives a high-brow to his pop career. Pharrell has a track record of pop-up style art and design projects and for him, creating a perfume with a groovy fashion brand was no different. It supported the narrative that he is about' creative idiosyncrasy and avant-garde style. Accumulated incidences of cool give him legitimacy and balance out large scale public projects (think The Voice) with smaller artsy ones. The free advertising that the perfume provided for his album Girl didn't hurt. If I sound cynical, I'm not. The integration of Pharrell Williams's musical work and his interest in design and fashion is smart and intriguing. It breaks down the boundaries between marketing and the work being marketed.
CdG's gains were different. Pharrell didn't win a new demographic, nor did he need to. CdG on the other hand did gain exposure to a wider market. By making a celebrity fragrance but couching it as an artistic collaboration, CdG sought to immunize themselves against accusations of ordinariness. It gave them a new foothold on the shelves of Sephora without sacrificing the high ground. It was an opportunity to sell out without selling out.
Girls has been promoted as a mainstream version of CdG's style of spare woods but in truth, the perfume's sweet synthy woods put it more in line with young men's club fragrances like Paco Rabanne 1 Million, Victor and Rolf Spicebomb and Tom Ford Noir Extreme. They all share a similar design concept. Tenacious woods, syrupy/powdery sweetness, spice notes and aromatics all shout for your attention. A lavender/violet topnote gives Girl a passing similarity to an aromatic fougère, but the demanding sweet-woody accord drills to the surface quickly and smothers the lavender in syrup. The perfume vibrates on a frequency that that suggests lopsided doses of industrial strength woody aromachemicals and the topnotes in particular are piercing.
As with all of CdG's joint perfume projects, there is an assumption that the perfume will be a reflection of the artistic collaboration that went into the project. But what if it's not? In this case the perfume and the story have next to nothing in common. If Girl had shown evidence of the high minded artistic collaboration that CdG and Pharrell would have us believe I might feel less like I've been sold a bill of goods. Unfortunately Girl has the expediency of a convenient hook-up and makes Pharrell and Comme des Carçons seem more like friends with benefits rather than serious collaborators.
Tolu is one of perfumer Geza Schoen's early perfumes and one of the perfumes that launched the Ormonde Jayne line in 2002. It's an interesting spin on the oriental genre and provides a glimpse of the techniques and style that would become Schoen's signature. It also demonstrates how a 'contemporary' style ages.
Contemporary independent perfumers have riffed on the oriental perfume since the niche trend started. Just as Christopher Sheldrake did with the Bois series for Serge Lutens, Schoen based Tolu on a close reading of the traditional model. Both perfumers deciphered it, focussing not just on the compositional 'recipe' but the logic behind it---the how and the why. Sheldrake's Bois perfumes were famous/infamous for their optimistic use of woody amber materials, and in this respect there is a lot of common ground in Sheldrake's and Schoen's methodologies. Where they differ is in their relationships to archetypal oriental perfumes.
Sheldrake bent what he found into a distinctly new shape. Shoen also took the genre down to the studs but came up with a different model for innovation: facsimile. Tolu is a clever rebuild of the traditional oriental perfume. In terms of scent Tolu and Guerlain Shalimar run on close parallel paths but they diverge sharply when it comes to texture. Tolu's stained glass luminescence has all of Shalimar's richness but none of the opacity and graininess that makes it seem dated to the modern nose.
Schoen recreates Shalimar's citrus accord with an evergreen/herbal mix. It has a whiff of turpentine, whose citric/lime facet replicates Shalimar's bergamot topnote. The aromatic herbal accord lasts well into drydown, making it an ingenious proxy for Shalimar's famously hefty dose of Guerlinade. As the name implies Tolu's resinous core stems from tolu balsam, which gives the perfume an unwrinkled matte appearance. Tolu's heart is significantly less sweet than Shalimar's but the vanilla is just as pronounced and tolu balsam's hint of cinnamon accents vanilla's woodiness. Leather is as prominent as it is in the Guerlain but without the smoky backdrop of birch tar it is sheerer and decidedly more modern. Shoen gave his perfume a sizable orange blossom note, which differs from the Guerlain's jasmine and rose heart, but adds noticeably to the perfume's suntanned glow.
Tolu's innovative reimagining of an historical genre with contemporary materials made it novel when it was released in 2002 but the particular style of luminosity does date it. It scores exceedingly high on 'radiance' which pegs it as a Millennial Perfume, a cohort of fragrances composed with famously high percentages of insistent woody-amber materials. To Schoen's great credit, Tolu has aged more gracefully than most perfumes of the early '00s. It reads as era-specific rather than outdated. Trend might have followed Shoen, but he lead through innovation.
Part of the charm and appeal of oriental perfumes has always been their over-the-topness. To the modern nose, though, they might be a little much for daily wear, like opera or high drag. For those who do favor the Emeraudes, Tabus and Youth Dews of the world Tolu's light version of a dense style might seem inauthentic, like a spray tan or a faked orgasm. But for those who find traditional perfumes a bit too heavily brocaded Tolu offers an oriental without melodrama.
I had an ah-ha moment when I tried vintage Tabu for the first time. Suddenly Youth Dew, Opium and Coco made perfect sense---they were descendants of Tabu. Perfumer Jean Carles approach seems based on the premise that if the oriental genre is built from forceful materials and ferocious tones, why disguise it with tassels and trim? Why try to tame it?
Tabu backs up its vaguely threatening name with a strapping, seductive fragrance. It's an intimidating perfumes. The combination of aggressive, spiced florals and powdered leather is just one example of the hard/soft conflict seeded throughout Tabu. (Spoiler alert: the hard edge always wins.) Tabu investigates olfactory extremes without dicking around with the comfortable center. Vanillic amber oriental perfumes often dive straight for the soft middle ground and wind up a bit eye-glazey. The trap for the perfumer is emphasizing coziness at the expense of spine and coming up with olfactory comfort food.
Tabu's dense powdery opening is in fact sweet but it's a red herring. As the sweetness of the topnote settles, the acerbic edge of the spiced resin accord comes forward to create a fascinating counterbalance. The powder lasts well into the long-arc heartnotes and the way that it's cantilevered off the bitter base of resins focusses attention more on texture than aroma. The cinnamon-clove spices have a similarly tricky balancing act. They alternate between hot and cold without ever dwindling to lukewarm. Carles seems willing to concede the aesthetic middle ground, finding more value at the ends of the spectrum. Tabu is technically an oriental but had as much in common with the big tobacco and leather perfumes of the 20s and 30s as it did with the recumbent Shalimar. No fear of lack of spine here.
Jacques Guerlain's Shalimar is considered the superlative oriental perfume, and for valid reasons. It has superior form and elaborate, sophisticated style. It also has a larger-than-life Auntie Mame quality. Next to Shalimar's layered, accessorized style, Tabu cames off as starched and corseted. Carles' style was less opulent than Guerlain's but not a bit less complex. Carles differed from Guerlain in that he found that the richness of the oriental was not in the drape but in the tailoring.
Chanel says Gabrielle is composed around four classic white flowers: tuberose, orange blossom, ylang ylang and jasmine. They call it, "the perfect white flower." Olivier Polge has called Gabrielle "abstract", an apparent allusion to Chanel's monumental abstract floral, no 5. Abstraction implies veering away from duplicating a given scent and instead reimagining it. Gabrielle is abstract in that it doesn't smell like any of these four flowers per se. In fact it doesn't smell appreciably botanical. Despite the press release talking points describing the perfume's flower as "imaginary" and "perfect", Gabrielle is less an ideal flower than the mean average of a set of 'floral' notes.
Gabrielle is linear for the most part but it has an identifiable drydown. The perfume grows less specific as time passes, though not inadvertently. The drydown seems intentionally indistinct, recreating the risk-averse, bleary musky/woody finish found in many mainstream perfumes geared toward the young female perfume buyer. To its credit, though Gabrielle is a fruity floral it's neither gourmand nor particularly sweet. A mildly acerbic twist runs through the perfume's duration, cropping any nascent sweetness.
Gabrielle hits its marks and doesn't flub its lines but it doesn't inspire. A noncommittal floral mix leading to a fairly anonymous drydown gives Gabrielle a shapelessness that undercuts Polge's efforts to create an ideal white flower. The composition seems specifically calibrated to create soft-focus haze and a dull shine. It's a ho-hum vision of femininity from the house that produced challenging and powerful feminine perfumes like 19, Cristalle and Coco. I don't doubt the expertise and technical proficiency involved in creating a perfume like Gabrielle. It performs precisely as intended and accomplishes its design goals but it reads as a collection of non-negatives. It's attractive in that it's not ugly. It's appealing in that it's not offensive. Again, this strategy seems deliberate. The most flankable perfumes tend to be those that don't commit too strongly to any olfactory characteristics and I imagine it won't be too long until Gabrielle Eau Fraiche, Gabrielle Eau Tendre and Gabrielle Edition Blanche hit the shelves.
Fahrenheit hit in 1988 and was an instantaneous commercial success. It was a bold scent, innovative in concept and execution and was immediately recognizable as something new. It might have been developed using the framework of the fougère, but unlike the other massive launch of the year, Cool Water, it bore little resemblance to the genre. Fahrenheit's infamous gasoline note gave it an edginess that separated it from other masculine fragrances. 1988 was effectively pre-niche and unorthodox perfumes were rare. Dior bet that there was an unmet demand for a fragrance that didn't play by the normal' rules of scent. The combination of gasoline and dehydrated sweetness gave Fahrenheit a deliberately synthetic appearance and distanced it from the fougères and woody chypres that were still the norm for masculine fragrances. The olfactory image of gasoline is convincing. The dryness of woods and the coolness of the violet leaf suggest volatility, like drops of gasoline evaporating from your skin.
To Dior's credit, they didn't simply take a traditional perfume and dress it out with avant-garde' images and a trendy ad campaign. They created a straight-up oddball that didn't fit easily into existing categories. What's interesting, though, is that while Fahrenheit was groundbreaking, it wasn't without precedent. Dior seem to have learned from a few great masculine fragrances of the prior dozen years. The pressurized hiss of violet leaf is a nod to Grey Flannel and the aggressively dry woods are reminiscent of Antaeus. The last piece in the puzzle comes from perfumer Jean-louis Sieuzac himself. Two years before he co-authored Fahrenheit for Dior, Sieuzac composed Hermès Bel Ami, a sumptuous leather chypre with a noticeable whiff of gasoline. He isolated the gasoline note and amplified it to form the basis of Fahrenheit.
Fahrenheit juggled offbeat style and mainstream PR and production streams with remarkable success. Take a look at a network sit-com or an action movie from 1988. Or a fashion magazine. Listen to some 1988 pop music. Most of it doesn't hold up very well. (see above.) Fahrenheit on the other hand might come off as era-specific, but not dated. It has survived reformulation, the vagaries of trend and an increasingly competitive market yet remains distinctive.
Felanilla is an iris-heavy oriental perfume from 2008. It came on the heels of two other irises in the Parfumerie Generale Line: Iris Oriental (née Iris Taizo) in 2006 and Cuir d'Iris in 2007. The three were part of the new iris' trend of the mid-'00s that blurred the line between mainstream and niche. The Parfumerie Generale perfumes and other independent perfumes like Frederic Malle Iris Poudre, Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile and Ormonde Jayne Orris Noir were matched head-to-head by Dior Homme, Prada Infusion d'Iris and Gianfranco Ferre Ferre EDP.
Felanilla hit the scene at a very particular moment for iris. Niche perfumery was exploding and designer brands were keen to steal niche's fire (and revenue). Guerlain, Cartier, Hermès, Dior, Chanel and the like were investing heavily in new exclusive' luxury sub-lines to lure niche customers out of LuckyScent, Osswald and Les Senteurs and into their own boutiques. Niche brands had always viewed themselves outside the mainstream. They were better than ordinary' perfumes because more inventive and more daring. The new high-end designer lines reversed the logic of the indies focusing on exclusivity rather than inventiveness. These new premier lines didn't phrase themselves as outrageous or even as much different than their department store counterparts. They were simply more select and therefore more desirable. They were just better.
Iris was the perfect note to bridge the divide. (This was a heartbeat before oud.) Historically, orris denoted luxury and prestige. On a practical level, iris had an affinity with berry and chocolate notes on one side, sheer woody notes on another and powdery floral notes on still another. The versatility of the note created an effortless range from the sweet tooth of Guerlain Iris Ganache to the restraint of Chanel 28 La Pausa. The flexibility allowed for new sophisticated styles of gourmand perfumes at a time when a large cohort of young women were outgrowing the syrupy fruity-florals and cupcake gourmands they had worn for the past 5-10 years.
Felanilla veered away from the sweet end of the spectrum, but with a focus on vanilla it did comment on gourmandism, if obliquely. From a certain angle it smells like a dessert recipe that forgot the sugar. Like cough-syrup flavored buttercream icing. But the lack of sweetness had a point. It seems to say, if you're looking for sexy, the curves are in the vanilla, not in the sugar.' From start to finish vanilla sits unadorned at the center of the perfume. It is fairly austere at the outset but gradually loosens its posture and settles into a more relaxed stance. A potent saffron note marks Felanilla as of its era' as much as the iris does, but the slight metallic touch it creates suits the overall firmness of the composition.
The iris and vanilla pairing might be a nod to Shalimar, but Felanilla skips the citrus lead-in and the sweet, smoky, powdery circus of the Guerlain classic. It freeze-dries the bulky classic oriental structure and shakes off the ornamentation, pairing down to essentials without a hint of nostalgia. Seen as an oriental, Felanilla doesn't seem to fit any particular trends of the time. It does, though, compare interestingly to the new irises' that independent perfumers were devising at the time: Histoires de Parfums 1889, Serge Lutens Bas de Soie, le Labo Iris 39, l'Artisan Parfumeur Dzongkha, Parfum d'Empire Equistris. Guillaume had previously placed iris in a woody, savory-gourmand setting in Iris Oriental and against a sweet-leather backdrop in Cuir d'Iris. Felanilla continued the investigation of iris, focusing on the woody-balsamic range that Guillaume and the Parfumerie Generale line would become well-known for.
The state of the perfume market in the mid-late '00s left me on the fence. I disliked the cynical trend of price-jacking that the exclusive lines fostered, but I loved the innovation that lead to exciting new approaches and styles. The trend of new-irises' might have been co-opted by the luxury houses, but it also gave us a broad range of imaginative and gorgeous perfumes. Guillaume's irises capture the up-side of the time and have survived the test of time extremely well. 10 years later they compare favorably to any iris perfumes that have come along since.
The spice cabinet has been neglected in perfumery. I imagine this has to do with perfume producers not wanting to be pinned down by the literal, the prosaic, the kitchen. From the consumer perspective, I don't know if there is much of a market for culinary spice perfumery, but the need is probably met by aromatherapeutic products. I know that there are others spicy/bakery/culinary perfumes: Tauer's Eau d'Epices, Lutens Five O'Clock au Gingembre, l'Artisan's Tea for Two, but I've never tried them.
I do see a train of thought that goes from Estée Lauder Cinnabar/Dior Opium to Serge Lutens Arabie to Un Crime Exotique, though. For each of these, the spice is in the syrup. A syrupy quality in perfume usually implies an overt sweetness. Generally, in terms of nose feel, syrup = sweetness + viscosity + flavor. The flavor might be vanilla, maple, cinnamon, cardammom. The flavor' is the spice. Crime Exotique skips the implied syrup (Cinnabar) and the overt syrup (Arabie) and takes the spice in a different direction. The touch of syrup that Crime Exotique gives you is firmly grounded in clove, one of the few cold spices. The chilly blast of clove in the topnotes of the perfume surround you at first but subside by about 80% fairly quickly. The syrup goes the way of the clove hurricane, and Crime is soon revealed as a woody perfume. When not drowned in sweetness, spices like clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, even ginger are shown to be characteristically woody in scent.
Un Crime Exotique takes the wood and runs with it. What appeared to be syrup is actually more of a resinous quality that the perfume builds on to make a rich woody floral. The perfume settles into a cool vanillic range that maintains the drying, antiseptic character of the clove, but links it to a floral quality. Parfumerie Generale list osmanthus among the notes.
Un Crime Exotique flirts with the gift-shop candle vibe, but is just nuanced enough to escape. The opening notes of the perfume are a refrigerated blast where clove overpowers virtually all the other notes. The heart is evenly balanced, and the spicy, woody and floral notes move around one another respectfully. The drydown gets a bit grey, non-descript. It smells like a muffled version of Lutens Un Bois Vanille's cool, woody vanilla. A little blurred, but not bad at all.
En Passant is a consummate spring scent. It balances a cool, aquatic heart with soil-like accents to recreate the tension at the center of lilac–the crispness that doesn't quite disguise an oily nature. I've seen En Passant described as muted and pastel, euphemisms for vague, washed-out fragrances, but there's too much shadow and undertow in En Passant for it to be considered bloodless. Giacobetti might play with simplicity but she doesn't settle for it and she doesn't spare the cream in the recipe. The perfume is padded precisely where it needs to be. En Passant's semblance of simplicity is a red herring, though. It might come off as spare but it conceals a sophisticated approach and becomes more detailed the closer you look.
A lot has been made of the perfume's cucumber and wheat notes, how they modulate the central floral accord and keep it from becoming too sweet, too simple. It's true that the accord is unexpected. And it's remarkably effective in creating the detail that lets the perfume simultaneously portray a single flower and an entire season. But embedded in the accord like drop of ink in paper is a waxy/nutty, almost tactile facet. It widens the central floral sketch and gives the perfume's trail weight and momentum.
Depending on whom you talk with En Passant is either an essay on rain, a sort of modern descendant of Après l'Ondée, or a lilac soliflor. Impressionism or representation. Visual art terms only have ballpark accuracy when applied to perfume.
Representation is tricky and the assumption that recreating nature' is perfume's highest modality is still widespread. Giacobetti, like Roudnitska before her, challenged the premise. His answer to the question of how perfume relates to nature was to compose a detailed muguet soliflor still life. From her fig perfumes for Diptyque and l'Artisan Parfumeur to her carrots, irises and roses Giacobetti offers a succession of solutions to Roudnitska's question, as if to imply that there are at least as many explanations as there are subjects. With En Passant, she creates a faithful lilac soliflor at the same time that she offers a more upbeat vision of a rainy day than Jacques Guerlain's. It's a fantastic accomplishment for a seemingly simple lilac soliflor.
A friend brought up CK One yesterday in a discussion. The Calvin Klein names sound the same to me and it only clicked which CK perfume this was when I remembered the advertising campaign. The teenage faux-grunge advertising. Oy.
I'll tell you how it is that I've never smelled CK One before: target marketing works. In 1994 and I was 30, or twice the age of the target audience. I lived in New York and CK One advertising was public. In 1994, before social media, targeting simply wasn't very precise. Rather than aiming, Calvin Klein flooded. Billboards, television, magazines and newspapers, subway posters. I had to swerve to avoid it. If CK One launched today I'd simply never see it. It just wouldn't show up in any of my feeds.
CK One was intended for a young audience, but the images were in everyone's face, so a sort of self-recusal took place on-by-one. The perfume appealed to you or not, depending largely on whether the story being created included you. Imagery that read as cool/aspirational to the 21 year old who found the ads exciting didn't appeal to me. Thin, world-weary teens playing Peter Pan meets Lord of the Flies? It screamed significance in fashion patois, but the post-grunge styling was years late and a shoddy attempt to cop a style from a subculture. The CK One campaign started a few months after Kurt Cobain killed himself. The notion of Calvin Klein trying to catch some momentum from grunge at this particular time was repugnant.
So I opted out. I was obliged to continue to see the images–I mean, I rode the subways–but that was the end of my participation. The contempt wore off after about a week. Then I just navigated the images until the next thing came along and replaced them–a classic New York experience of my time.
I remember a couple of details about the perfume. It was unisex.' I was surprised that they made a big deal of it–was unisex that novel an idea? Also, the fragrance was supposed to be contemporary and clean. SO contemporary and SO clean that it was somehow beyond scent.
So I tried CK One cold' yesterday for the first time. I've never read about the perfume itself. I have a bottle of CK One and some 25 year old recollections of the launch.
CK One smells like it was intended to convey hygiene yet go unnoticed. It's there, but it claims not to intrude into your consciousness. There's been years of discussion about the contradiction and denial involved in fragrances trying to smell like nothing, so I'm sure applying the notion to CK One is nothing new. But CK One smells like a very specific nothing. It's conceptual: a clean' fragrance + a masking fragrance = an impulse of purity. It allows you to feel invigorated without the invasiveness and effort of having to exhibit a clean scent. From the angle of 2017, hygienic fragrances seem very '90s-specific, but for all I know, CK One invented the approach.
Of course the premise that two opposing olfactory forces will nullify each other doesn't actually work on a practical level. Instead, you're left with the remnants of a scent, like dry-cleaning chemicals that cling to your clothing. The perfume ends up locked in a cycle of constantly trying to invalidate itself. It might have been intended to be uncomplicated and undemanding, but it's no surprise that it smells like effort and tension. (Cute bottle, though.)
It also smells like diet soda and Febreze, which wouldn't exist for another another 4 years. I give CK One enormous credit for its methodically synthetic tone. It comes across as calculated and legible. I had never smelled it before yesterday, and yet it instantly smelled like an era. If CK One's goal was to create a new style of fragrance, my experience points out how successful it was.
Spicy, resinous amber perfumes are a feel-good genre in perfumery. The individual components (vanilla, benzoin, labdanum…) are like prefab bases and can single-handedly provide the blueprint for an Oriental perfume. The risk is the kitchen-sink syndrome.
Cinnabar's topnotes juxtapose a bright, aldehyde/bergamot accord against a boozy amber mix, a trick learned from Youth Dew. The segue from citrus to sweet brings out the matte, rubbery side of amber, but it doesn't jibe well with the vanillic undercurrent and the custard doesn't quite settle. Despite aldehydic jazz hands the topnotes don't have nearly enough torque to dig the spices out of the trenches. Little light escapes the cinnamon/clove event horizon and wearing Cinnabar gives me olfactory claustrophobia. It's a quick journey from the topnotes to the perfume's next and only other phase, drydown, which lasts from the 30 minute mark until about 24 hours later. Cinnabar does grow less dense as the half-lives pass but it never becomes any less opaque.
Cinnabar might have cribbed some tricks from Auntie Youth Dew, but it should have studied history more closely. The pairing of citrus/aromatics and balsams was the compositional coup of the 1920s. Shalimar and Habanita steered the pairing toward leather and Nuit de Noel and Bois des Isles went the cozy fur-coat route but they all share a similar design concept.
The perfumes of the 1970s and the 1920s had a lot in common. Aldeyhydic florals were chic as hell and bitter chypres were all the rage, but the voluptuous orientals were the shit. Cinnabar and its exact contemporaries Yves Saint Laurent Opium and Lancome Magie Noire reinvented animalsim via spice and opened the door to a new style of oriental perfume that Chanel put on the map with Coco, Bois Noir and Egoiste.
The identity of the perfumer of Cinnabar is not 100% certain, but rumor has it that it was Bernard Chant. For the life of me I can't imagine that the perfumer of Cabochard and Aromatics Elixir didn't know how to square the bergamot/amber circle. If he is in fact Cinnabar's author, I have to imagine that the fault lies in reformulation. Chant was just too good to be credited with the murky version of the perfume available today.
The proof will be in the pudding. I've just found an unopened bottle of the original Cinnabar ("Soft Youth Dew") on ebay and it's en route. It'll go head-to-head with a pristine bottle of YSL Opium that I recently found. More to follow.
So, what is the recipe for a big-budget, got-to-be-successful, no-room-for-error, if-you-build-it-they-will-come perfume? To judge by Guerlain's approach: Mix equal parts imitation, predictability and risk aversion in a large bowl. Bake in a lukewarm focus-group until stale. Sprinkle with olfactory least common denominators. Serve in a bottle replete with historical Awethenticity. Buon appetito.
Am I cynical? Clearly, but I can't hold a candle to Guerlain.
With Mon Guerlain Thierry Wasser proves he isn't so much the successor to Jean-Paul Guerlain as he is the heir to Jacques Guerlain. Jacques was known for nicking someone else's ideas (namely, François Coty's) and making them better. Wasser attempts a Jacques Guerlain with two perfumes: Lancome's end-of -the-world-as-we-know-it lollipop, La Vie Est Belle, and Mugler's iconic poison-apple, Angel. The drag is that Mon Guerlain drowns in the syrup of the former but forgets the atonal war-cry of the latter. Angling between these two perfumes Guerlain casts its net as wide as possible, hoping for a hit that would break all box-office records.
The complication is that Guerlain looks to two perfumes that, though they both got a whole lotta ethylmaltol going on, are diametrically opposed. Angel might have launched two decades of straight-faced gourmand perfumes but it did so inadvertently. It was anything but straight. Angel's cotton-candy is counterbalanced by an enormous inedible chemo-floral note and an earthy patchouli. It smells sweet, but it's pure venom. La Vie Est Belle has no nuance, no subtext. It's pure candy. Wasser's Mon Guerlain looks for an easy reconciliation of the two perfumes because they are both overdosed with ethylmaltol. He misses the point that Angel, twenty five years later, is still a motherfucking monster. La Vie Est Belle on the other hand is the most vanillla of Disney fairy princesses.
Wasser uses lavender to twist Mon Guerlain into a taffy fougère. Pouring it into a version of the brand's historical quadrilobe bottle is an attempt to draw a connection to Guerlain's classic, sweet fougère Jicky, but don't believe the hype. Despite the deception a list of notes provides, Mon Guerlain has no relationship to Jicky.