25 August 2012

"Did I Love a Dream?": The Afternoon of a Faun by Etat Libre d'Orange

Of all the overwrought inspirational narratives thrown about these days to accompany every new perfume launch, those of Etat Libre d’Orange are at least entertaining: toreadors and virgins, a Rumi poem and (my favorite) the memories of a washed up Jersey gigolo, etc. And even while the house’s press material sometimes bears little relation to what actually comes out of the bottle, the quality of the perfume itself usually satisfies long after the novelty of the story has faded. The Afternoon of a Faun, composed by Ralf Schweiger of Mane, falls squarely in this category.

The press release about the scent glosses on the bestial movements in Nijinsky’s scandalous ballet of the same name (he evidently humped a nymph’s scarf at the end), and the sensuality of the Stéphane Mallarmé poem that inspired the ballet. This is not unexpected for a house that makes fragrances named Excretions Magnifiques and Putain des Palaces. But in this case, the verbal nod to eroticism merely distracts from a quite pleasant experience centered around myrrh and immortelle, or as it’s referred to in the press release, “immortal flower” (essentially a black sheep of the sunflower family, if you’re wondering).

After a disappointingly generic opening shot of bergamot, Faun turns pleasantly dusty with spice (listed notes include pepper, cinnamon and incense). There is a vague notion of iris and leather in the heart, and then the myrrh and immortelle are there, appearing quite suddenly and bringing much-needed depth and color to the whole arrangement.

It may be the peculiarities of my skin, but I’m always hyper-attuned to the maple-like, “curried” facet of immortelle, and it plays quite nicely with the more mildly sweet nuttiness of myrrh. That said, the fragrance is also so smoothly blended that no one note ever truly dominates -- a quality that Denyse Beaulieu ascribed to another recent Mane release, Blanc de Courreges, and explains thusly: “…enough action and evolution … to keep the nose engaged, but not to the point that the scent is using you as an exhibition space. This ease of wear, with the notes smoothed out into a fluffy haze, is what I’m coming to see as the in-house Mane style.”

Fluffy haze, indeed. I’ve become so used to searching for graceful phrasings to describe the meticulous composition and structure of a perfume, but I can’t even try unless I feel I’ve got a good grasp of those things to begin with. The Afternoon of a Faun goes about its business in a far less literal manner than many perfumes: it makes no outright statements, only suggestive intimations. It’s downright illusory, quite like the faun’s waking recollection of his romp with the nymphs.

 The Afternoon of a Faun will be available in a 100ml edp, launching in October.

08 June 2012

Summer Splurge, or What I’m Wearing to the Homeland

Next week, I'm embarking on a long-awaited trip to Vietnam, my parents’ native country and the number one destination on my international travel wish list for several years now (I was born here in the States, and I’ve never been “back” to the homeland).

Amid a frenzy of more practical acquisitions (malaria pills, a rain jacket…) I took some time to puzzle over how I should be scenting myself while I’m there. Given that A) I always pack as lightly as possible and B) my family and I are going to be spending most of our time in humid cities blanketed in the aromas of Vietnamese street food (which I’m looking forward to as much as, if not more than, any other part of the trip), it probably makes most sense to go unscented, save perhaps a daily swipe of deodorant. But I’m also keen on the idea of bringing along a small decant of something for those moments I’m anticipating when I'll need to step back from everything and everyone, and take a minute or two to myself.

Vietnam’s equatorial climate pointed me towards a few fairly obvious choices: a bracing citrus cologne to cut the heat and humidity, or perhaps a sharp, ‘clean’ wood-and-incense affair like Monocle x Comme des Garçons Hinoki. But, remembering that this fragrance isn’t intended to adorn or announce so much as to soothe inevitable travel stress, I decided the trip called for something close-wearing and exceedingly comfortable.

With those attributes in mind, I thought initially of Pierre Guillaume’s underhyped No. 25 Indochine, which I found to be one of 2011’s best releases. Honey, slow-burning pepper and mildly sweet thanaka wood combine in a much more delicate whole than those components would suggest, with very moderate sillage, so it fits the close and comfortable bill nicely. And that’s leaving out the fact that it’s named for and inspired by (albeit in a mildly unsettling colonial-lite fashion) the very country to which I’m traveling.

It was that titular homage to Vietnam, however, that actually discouraged me from buying a bottle of Indochine, because I suspect wearing something so explicitly referential would start to feel like a costume before long. So I searched for more oblique ways to match my scent to the geography, and settled on two of my favorite ingredients that have been cultivated for centuries in Southeast Asia: vetiver and benzoin (Indochine, matter of fact, is built around benzoin). 

If I had to choose a vetiver from my collection, it would be down to Etat Libre d’Orange Fat Electrician or the Different Company’s Sel de Vetiver. The former, however, felt a bit too precious; the latter, too elegantly complex. And most of the perfumes I own that contain benzoin utilize it more for its natural fixative quality -- slowing the dispersion of the other, less stable aromatics -- rather than featuring it for its own olfactory beauty.

I was still looking for something that celebrated one of those two ingredients in a simpler way this past Saturday, which found me stalking around Soho picking up this and that for my new apartment (which is the primary reason you haven’t heard from me since April…). On a whim, I stepped into the Broadway Prada flagship in an attempt to sniff their boutique exclusive line – you know, the ones so exclusive that supposedly most of the employees haven’t even heard of them. Luckily they’re on full display in the Soho store now, and a charming representative named Kelly guided me through the collection, which now comprises eleven scents at pure perfume concentration, each focused on one note.

The first, No. 1 Iris, is a peerless showcase for the noble rhizome, one I would have been deeply tempted to buy if I didn’t already have a bottle of Iris Silver Mist. I was also taken by No. 3 Cuir Ambre, No. 4 Fleur d’Oranger, and No. 8 Oppoponax. They struck me not only in their quality of composition individually, but in their remarkable stylistic resemblance to one another: laser-focused on the star ingredient, but transparently reliant on other notes that make the focal ingredient shine. Assuming Daniela Andrier is the nose behind these in addition to Prada’s mainstream portfolio, I’m far more impressed with her work on the exclusive line – especially the one that ultimately, and unsurprisingly, came home with me: No. 9 Benjoin (the French spelling, in case you thought that was a typo).

One of my sisters, a surgeon, once expressed surprise at benzoin being a favorite note of mine because she knows it primarily as a topical ointment to soothe skin irritation and other ailments. As I took in my first deep whiffs of the perfume I remembered that, in fact, I adore benzoin’s medicinal quality – and how perfect, since I wanted a scent that would function as a mental ‘balm’ of sorts. The medicinal aspect is enhanced in No. 9 Benjoin by a cool, faintly metallic neroli, and that opening bitterness provides a perfect counter-balance to benzoin’s sweeter and smokier sides, which are rounded out in the heart by non-gourmand vanilla and musk (and I have to remark here on the wonders Ms. Andrier can work with Givaudan captive musks – she makes art of laundry detergent). Dabbed lightly onto my forearms, it’s far less oppressive than, say, Le Labo’s Patchouli 24, another benzoin monster, and occasionally bears a hint of benzoin’s cherry syrup dark side, which I’m also fond of. As an aside, this is what Candy could have smelled like, but I suppose it’s difficult to achieve this level of quality when a chunk of the overall budget is allocated to a video of Léa Seydoux seducing her piano teacher…

So that’s that, really. Buying a bottle wasn’t so much a decision as it was an inevitability. I left the store many dollars poorer, but comforted by the knowledge that my vacation will be smelling very fine, indeed.

05 April 2012

Arquiste L'Etrog

As I mentioned in my last post, I missed meeting Carlos Huber, the mind behind Arquiste, at the Elements Showcase in January. Thankfully I had a second chance this week at Aedes de Venustas, which held a reception for Carlos to celebrate Arquiste’s launch at the store. Upon introducing myself, I immediately dragged Carlos into a conversation about L’Etrog, which, while far from the most outspoken of the Arquiste range, is hands-down the most interesting to me, both as a variation of the geo-historical Arquiste concept and also as a fragrance unto itself.

For the majority of the Arquiste perfumes, Carlos started with a very specific point in time and place: a 17th century convent in Mexico City (Anima Dulcis); the January morning of Pushkin’s final duel in St. Petersburg, 1837 (Aleksandr); the first meeting of Louis XIV and the Spanish Infanta in the Basque region, 1660 (Infanta en Flor and Fleur de Louis). With L’Etrog, however, it began with the exploration of the prized citrus for which the scent is named (Etrog is the Hebrew word for the citron fruit, or cedrat in French). Citron was first brought to Carlos’s attention by two friends who are landscape architects with vast botanical knowledge. From there his research led him to the Italian region of Calabria, the site of the earliest Jewish settlements in Italy, which are credited with introducing citron cultivation to the region.

Serendipitously, Carlos didn’t have to look far to find the complementary structure for his citron-focused fragrance. He simply drew from the fruit’s religious significance as a component of the mitzvah of the “Four Species,” performed daily during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The ritual involves holding the etrog together with the lulav (a closed date palm frond), the hadass (a bough of myrtle leaves) and the aravah (a willow branch) and waving the four species in the air during a blessing.

For Carlos, the four species also amounted to a sophisticated aromatic profile, and in the skilled hands of Yann Vasnier and Rodrigo Flores-Roux, L’Etrog essentially became an olfactory painting of an ancient religious ritual. The bright, clear citron and minty, herbaceous myrtle notes combine in perhaps the best citrus opening I’ve experienced in the past year. For the date palm component, the perfumers used the fruit of the tree, which appears as a mild and velvety sweetness as the fragrance develops, extended by a touch of jasmine. The date is among the notes that save L’Etrog from falling into the increasingly static and formulaic Eau de Cologne genre (in which Chanel takes the blue ribbon, end-of-story), steering the scent instead towards something like the “cologne absolue” concept that Atelier Cologne has made quite successful. In fact, in its contrasting sharp green and soft, mossy-woody aspects, L’Etrog reminds me a bit of Trefle Pur, without the patchouli.

Impressively, most of the essences selected for L’Etrog are produced in the southern Mediterranean region that inspired it. The citron essence itself comes from a Calabrian producer who still cultivates some of his crop according to kosher standards, for use as etrogs by rabbis. It’s bolstered by Calabrian bergamot and Sicilian lemon; the date is Turkish; Mediterranean pistachio tree and Lebanese cedar stand in for the willow (which does not offer up a natural essence) and also evoke the sukkah, the rudimentary wooden structure around which the Sukkot holiday revolves. The only exception is vetiver, which adds a welcome earthiness in the fragrance’s later stages.

While all of the Arquiste scents achieve an enviable level of quality, refinement and thoughtfulness of composition, something about L’Etrog sets it apart to my nose. It certainly lacks the spectacle of Flor y Canto’s Aztec festival, the regal stature of Fleur de Louis and Infanta en Flor, and the utter romance of Aleksandr. But it makes up for a lack of flair with a simplicity that escapes the others; it’s the humble beauty that doesn’t know quite how beautiful it is.

Many thanks to Sr. Huber and the good people at Aedes de Venustas for the opportunity to learn more about this work of art (and for the prosecco).

L’Etrog is available at Aedes, $165 for 50 ml.

03 February 2012

Elements Showcase III

In the spirit of this coming weekend’s juggernaut sporting event, the title of this post is in fact a half-serious suggestion to the Elements co-founders Frederick Bouchardy, Ulrich Lang and Jeffrey Lawson: start numbering the showcases, like Super Bowls! The third Elements Showcase (the second I have attended) took place earlier this week and marked the first anniversary of what’s clearly becoming a pretty major event, what with the sprawling number of brands exhibiting there and, for the first time, the Fragrance Foundation being involved. In that regard, my warm congratulations to Odin on winning the first Indie FiFi Award for 06 Amanu. I’ll be writing at greater length about some specific products from the show that I’m still sampling, but here’s a quick rundown of what struck my fancy.

I’m declaring a tie for best-in-show between Neela Vermeire’s brilliant trio of eaux de parfum and Carlos Huber’s captivating, romantic Arquiste collection. Given how much breathy praise has already been lavished on these two practically-newborn brands, I approached them with less anticipation than skepticism: each the brainchild of an obsessive individual, benefiting from the expertise of highly skilled perfumers and equally generous budgets, dressed in slick packaging and draped with poetic descriptions… Haven’t we seen this before, and with less-than-great results

Color me humbled. Given that both of these brands are already commercially available (Arquiste is surely doing gangbusters sales at Barney’s), it says a lot about their respective entrepreneurial pride that both of the creators were there, and not just their PR people. And while I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to speak to Carlos, who’s understandably everbody’s sudden darling, I completely fell under the spell of his historically-inspired fragrances. Working from his concepts, Rodrigo Flores-Roux and Jann Vasnier have really outdone themselves in producing six scents that span a range of tastes and are pretty uniformly exquisite. My picks among them: Infanta en Flor, a portrait of Louis XIV’s betrothed Spanish princess in orange blossom and glove suede; Aleksandr, which recreates the morning of Pushkin’s last duel; and my favorite, L’Etrog, with its namesake citron, head-clearing myrtle, and a drydown like a blanket yanked from a cedarwood closet.

Speaking of myrtle -- Alexandra Balahoutis has it! The nose behind Strange Invisible Perfumes was on hand with her full line of scents, including the excellent gourmand Dimanche, and the limited edition Tribute, chock full of naturally aldehyde-laden florals as an homage to the experimental fervor of early 20th century perfumery. Sadly, her display lacked what I wished I could have smelled most -- an evidently transformative hydro-distilled myrtle grown on her family’s 500-acre property in California’s Ojai valley. She grows and distills a number of her own essences there, oranges and their flowers among them, in keeping with her commitment to using pure organic botanical essences and nothing else. I’m beyond eager to see where -- or rather, in what -- that myrtle essence ends up.

A few booths away, I was patient enough to wait my turn to meet the gracious Neela Vermeire, who slogged all the way from Paris to chat with the likes of me. Her collaboration with Bertrand Duchaufour has yielded three utterly unique scents that were inspired by history as well, but all geographically linked to India. 

I admire Duchaufour’s work as much as any perfume devotee, but at first sniff these struck me as unlike most (if anything) he’s done before. Neela agreed, opining that Trayee, meant to evoke India’s Vedic era and spiritual history, is the most atypically-Duchaufour scent he’s ever done, and Bombay Bling, reflecting the vibrancy of contemporary India, is one of the most complex. Initially I was most partial to Trayee, but having spent a little time with samples of each, I’ve fallen for Mohur, inspired by the Moghul-British Raj era. Its powerful rose-oud core would risk being unwearable were it not cloaked by layers of sweet spice, soft white florals, an almost confectionary iris and a subtle leather accord. I tried giving myself over to the spirituality of Trayee, but if you’re one of my handful of regular readers it shouldn’t surprise you that regal luxury won the day.

Other things of note: Bulletproof, one of the Tokyo Milk Dark collection by Margot Elena -- a fairly predictable smoky tea-sandalwood concoction right up until the bizarrely wonderful coconut kicks in. And finally, the privelege of being among the first in the U.S. to smell the Di Ser perfume line, exclusive to Japan since its founding 12 years ago. There is a range of ‘elements’ -- Tsuki (moon), Mizu (water), Taiyo (sun) and Kaze (wind) -- and a range of opulent floral ‘goddesses’. I honestly can’t remember what various note combinations populated these remarkable fragrances (yuzu, rose, jasmine and sandalwood all made frequent appearances) but they felt so meticulously constructed, with certain notes frequently illuminating unexpected facets of other notes, like the pivot words in medieval Japanese court poetry.

*UPDATE, February 6, 2012:  I've received a nice e-mail from Neela Vermeire clarifying that her budget was not, in fact, all that extravagant, and the woman I mistook for her "PR" person was actually a close friend from her university years. Clearly this has been a very personal project from the beginning.

31 January 2012

Christophe Laudamiel’s Phantosmia at Dillon Gallery

In the coming week I'll be posting on the latest Elements Showcase and a few other things, but before any of that I wanted to get some thoughts down on a rather quietly-staged scent installation by the legendary Christophe Laudamiel at the Dillon Gallery in Chelsea. Titled Phantosmia, the installation comprises seven “scent sculptures,” six of them presented in enclosed tents and the seventh – an homage to Marlene Dietrich called “Remembrance of Things Lost” – diffused throughout the whole gallery space.

Christophe Laudamiel
(image via dillongallery.com)
“Remembrance”, with its fruity top notes, woody heart and a much-pointed-out linden (lime blossom) note, certainly was a distinctive ambient scent. But it also seemed the least reflective of what I took to be the exhibit’s overall intention: a commentary on the blandness and caution that restrain commercial perfumery, and a passionate argument for perfumery’s oft-ignored but well-deserved place among other fine arts.

Two of the scents addressed the infamous IFRA restrictions that force perfumers toward a continually shrinking palette of materials, and of course to re-formulate classics into watered-down or, as Laudamiel calls them, “diet” fragrances. One of these, called “At Your Own Risk”, showcased pure rose oil, sandalwood oil, moss extracts and mandarin oil – all materials restricted in some way by IFRA rules – with a brilliantly pleasant effect: how could anything that smells this good be dangerous?

The other, “Fragile”, recreated the smell of fresh lemon zest. The exhibition label stated that perfumers are not allowed to use materials that can’t withstand high temperatures for a sustained period of time (120 degrees Fahrenheit for 1-2 months!) and thus no lemon note this saturated and hyper-real would ever find its way into a mainstream perfume. The label also emphasized, however, that pure lemon oil alone wasn’t sufficient to create the whole experience, and that it needed to be “retouched” with other materials to achieve the desired realism.

Designing a scent could therefore be described, in the simplest terms, as producing the scent of some thing using materials that are not that thing. That magic – of a brain tricked into thinking it smells something that is actually a fabrication – came to life most vividly in “The Banana and the Monkey”, which lived up to its title perfectly. The label for this scent cheekily declared that no “actual bananas or any monkey extracts” were used.

(image via dillongallery.com)
“The Banana and the Monkey” was also a quasi-celebration of smells that are commonly deemed not pleasant enough to use in perfume, or outright unpleasant (i.e. certain aspects of the smell of banana). Laudamiel took that idea further with “Fear”, which sought to evoke that particular emotion through the mineral smell of stones (alluding to a cemetery) and ferric and metallic notes (rust, blood). It immediately called to mind Patti Smith singing the line “Aluminum smells like fear” on R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. These two scents were the furthest of the seven from what one thinks of as “perfume,” and serve as a terrific illustration of what an olfactory artist like Laudamiel can do when not bound by an abstract imperative for beauty (or a corporate creative brief, for that matter – in his money-making life, Laudamiel authored Abercrombie & Fitch’s Fierce).

The last scent in the series, “The Whip and the Orchid”, was conceived as an olfactory amalgam of Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait with a whip and his photographs of orchids. This scent, with its elegant floral and sensual leather facets, was arguably the closest to something that could be sold as a personal fragrance, but no less a pure work of art than any of the others because of it. Complex and incredibly memorable, “The Whip and the Orchid” revealed the full extent of the vision, expertise and craftsmanship that scent, as a medium, can accommodate.

In keeping with the anti-establishment attitude of the whole show, Laudamiel intends to publish the formula for “The Whip and the Orchid” in the public domain at some point in the future. An affable gallery representative couldn’t say where or when, but offered that the publication of the formula is less an actual invitation to duplicate the scent than it is a “symbolic” gesture on Laudamiel’s part to shed light on the nitty-gritty of an art form historically shrouded in secrecy (and still today, largely controlled by commercial interests).

Phantosmia is only up through tomorrow, February 1, so hurry. Dillon Gallery, 555 West 25th Street, New York.

10 November 2011

Incense Three Ways

Come the cooler days of the year, there are certain fragrance families and styles I gravitate toward -- dark, masculine woods; sweet amber; warm spices; and balsams and resins. It's the last group that I've been particularly focused on this fall, and in my search for a new incense-prominent perfume I sought out three perfumes (one a few years old, the others pretty much brand new) that I thought might fit the bill.

Byredo Encens Chembur:
Meant to evoke a sunny afternoon in the Mumbai neighborhood it’s named for, Encens Chembur (formerly sold as just Chembur) brings me instead back to my parents’ upstairs den in Texas where, at a small makeshift altar, my mother lit pungent yellow incense sticks between plates of fruit in offering to the Buddha and our ancestors.

But that unexpected olfactory flashback only occurred a few hours after application, and thankfully, Jerome Epinette (author of almost all the Byredo scents, including the excellent Sunday Cologne, née Fantastic Man, as well as three of the Atelier Colognes) crafted some exquisite layers through which the incense emerges: golden lemon and bergamot, sharpened even more by piney elemi resin, and a warm, vibrant pairing of nutmeg and ginger. The ambery drydown is warmer still, with a quietly comforting labdanum note and very soft musk. There’s not much sillage on my skin, but it’s beautiful enough as a close-wearing scent and has very decent longevity.

Olivier Durbano Citrine
Paris-based perfumer/jeweler Olivier Durbano has named all of the perfumes in his collection after gemstones, with each fragrance designed to match the symbolic identities of the stones. His seventh, Citrine, is named for the gold-to-amber-colored quartz variety that is traditionally thought to absorb and dissipate negative energies.  The press materials that accompanied Citrine’s release this fall included words and phrases like “pure joy,” “inner fire” and “glowing celestial energy.”

Okay, sure. Citrine, at least for the first hour or so, certainly has some ‘glow’ to its sweet citrus opening and warm woody heart. But the note list (which has a number of commonalities with Encens Chembur, interestingly enough) makes a lot of promises that, on me at least, the juice doesn’t keep. The ‘ginger’ has no zing; the elemi has had all its teeth removed; and the spiciness of carrot seed is frankly nowhere to be found. Beeswax, amber and musk make the drydown quite comfortable, even luxurious, but not much more than that.

This is the first of Durbano’s fragrances I’ve tried and I had high hopes for it, given the relentlessly positive things I’ve read about Black Tourmaline and about the quality of his perfumes in general. If you can’t tell, I’m unconvinced -- especially at $190 for 100 ml.

Huitième Art Parfums Myrrhiad
Far more than just a clever portmanteau, Pierre Guillaume’s take on myrrh is easily the most accomplished of these three and one of my favorite fall releases. The Huitième Art perfumes (a separate line from his signature Parfumerie Generale line) aren’t constructed as traditional perfume ‘pyramids,’ which are designed around the different evaporation rates of the various raw materials. Instead, they are explicitly linear, exceptionally well-blended compositions with very few components.

In the case of Myrrhiad, the starring note is accompanied by just three others: black tea absolute, licorice and vanilla. The black tea contributes a beautiful smokiness that alludes to the practice of burning myrrh, like incense, as a spiritual offering (for an excellent discussion of this perfume’s symbolic intention, see this piece on Grain de Musc); the licorice adds just the right amount of anisic sweetness to the bitter myrrh, and also turns a bit leathery; and the understated vanilla gives depth to the entire composition.

The aspect I find most refreshing and enjoyable, however, is what Guillaume left out. I love that I don’t have to endure 15 minutes of boring citrus top notes to get to the interesting part, and I love how interesting this scent can be with just four notes.

Encens Chembur is $220 for 100 ml at Barneys, or $145 for 50 ml directly from Byredo. Citrine is $190 for 100 ml, available at Luckyscent. Myrrhiad is $135 for 50 ml, also at Luckyscent.

26 October 2011

Autumn Drag

Like most perfume lovers (and enlightened perfume brands), I avoid assigning scents to a single gender. But that attitude differs in principle and in practice: the “wear-what-I-like” outlook doesn’t mean there aren’t clearly masculine or feminine aspects to most perfumes, whether it’s a nuance or an outright intention, and my collection, not unsurprisingly, leans heavily masculine. The few ‘feminines’ I do own fall in a distinctly androgynous zone. So, perhaps as a test of my claim to being a true ‘perfumista’ (the internet has failed horribly at generating a dignified word for us…), I recently set out to see if I could legitimately wear something that’s explicitly intended for women.

Prada Candy
I was expecting Daniela Andrier’s latest to be as big a departure from the rest of her Prada portfolio as the bottle is from the rest of Prada’s severe, square-edged collection -- like L’Eau Ambrée’s younger cousin with bigger hair and brighter teeth. Turns out, while Candy is indeed awfully sweet, it’s just as limpid as many of its predecessors. A dry, toasty note (which Dane at Pere de Pierre less charitably likens to a ‘dusty cardboard box’) chaperones the synthetic caramel accord into the world, and for me is the only point of interest. It vanishes all too quickly. From there on, it’s all smooth caramel and very soft musk. The tone that Andrier set years ago with Infusion d’Iris (which, incidentally, I own and wear frequently) doesn’t translate nearly as well here as it did with L’Eau Ambrée, so it’s a good thing the packaging alone will likely be enough to move a few million units.

Balenciaga Paris L’Essence

Wow. How did this even make it out the door? Both of my wrists were otherwise occupied when it came time to sample this one, so my poor sister’s had to stand in -- and I almost immediately apologized for asking her to volunteer her skin for this disaster. I’ve read many positive reviews of this recently-released flanker to Balenciaga Paris (which I thought was nice enough but not remarkable), but I can’t for the life of me see what they’re on about. Octavian Coifan writes, “The floral heart of the perfume surrounded by the green slightly fruity IFF violet molecules and wrapped in cotton musks reveals a extremely delicate may rose paying a compliment to a Parma Violet.” I suppose it is a bit green, and not just ‘slightly fruity’ but alarmingly so. Those IFF violet molecules don’t strike me as delicate at all, but rather screechy. I get a vague sense of an iris in the heart, but the poor thing is drowning in a vat of liquid violet soap. I would describe it as ‘linear’, but the almost overwhelming loudness of it leads me to think ‘monolithic’ would be more accurate. Women and men alike should avoid this at all costs.

Bottega Veneta Eau de Parfum
It seems like everyone who’s written about this smashing debut fragrance races to compare it to giants of the suede-leather genre: Lutens' Daim Blond, et al. Fair enough, but I’m wholly convinced of its faithfulness to the Bottega identity specifically: refined, restrained and utterly luxurious. There is a faintly sweet plum note up front that readies the palate for the ultra-smooth glove leather (no birch tar or styrax for miles). The jasmine-oakmoss-patchouli aspect plays a minimal supporting role, giving the leather accord a bit more roundness as it wears, never jostling for attention. There’s nothing terribly complex about it, which A) is yet again in line with Tomas Maier’s aesthetic vision, and B) is a big part of why it works so well. Michel Almairac has not reinvented the wheel with this leather fragrance; he’s just made an exquisite one that I, as a man, would be happy to wear.

18 August 2011

It’s Fun When I Can Call a Post “Coverage”:
Highlights from the Elements Showcase

I confess to being self-conscious about how legitimately I can call myself a blogger, what with my whopping nine followers (and yes, I know it’s not helping things that I would rather die than join Facebook), so I was only half-serious when I RSVP’d as “press” for the Elements Showcase, a New York trade show focused on niche fragrance and beauty brands. But in the end it didn’t matter that I’ve never garnered more than a few dozen unique views in any 24-hour period; everyone I spoke to seemed intrigued that I was even there. Oh, you’re a perfume blogger? Cool! No questions asked.

One of my first stops was the display for the New York-based Joya perfume and home fragrance line, run by Elements Showcase co-founder Frederick Bouchardy. Joya places a lot of significance on containers – most notably the gorgeous matte ceramics by Sarah Cihat that enclose many of their candles and their perfume duo Composition No .1 and Composition No. 6. One of the coolest examples of this appreciation for containers was a double-candle housed in a WWII-era British military soap tin (a clamshell design, thus accomodating one candle poured into each side of the tin; the scents are “Amber Absolute” and “Bitter Orange Leaf”).

But the most fascinating thing on display at Joya was their new limited-run collaboration with indie perfume darlings D.S. & Durga called “Staghorn Sumac” [1], which complements the sharp and lemony namesake plant with accords of lily and bison grass (heavy on the coumarin). I love the way D.S. & Durga translate arcane Americana into scent (i.e. Mississippi Medicine, based on the rituals of a “proto-Mississippian death cult” from the 1200s), and this bright but earthy and bone-dry homage to the American plains fits right in with their oeuvre. I will definitely be pre-ordering one of the 100 bottles they plan to produce.

I got to shoot the shit a bit with Anne McClain, fellow Brooklynite and founder/perfumer of MCMC Fragrances. I’d never smelled the scents in her ‘stories’ collection (each inspired by a personal experience) and I took a real liking to Maine, with its beautifully oddball pairing of Bulgarian rose and seaweed absolutes, and the super-resinous Hunter [2], loaded with fir balsam and tobacco.

I had an equally fun chat with Annie and Therese Gibbons, the sisters behind Alora Ambiance, the first home fragrance company to bring reed diffusers to the U.S. We disagreed on the virtues of vetiver (one of them, like me, adores it; the other not so much) while passing around a scent strip of their interpretation of that note - a pure and wild vetiver, inspired by the woven vetiver mats found just about everywhere in Indonesia.

The display of Williamsburg salon/apothecary Woodley & Bunny featured Andy Tauer’s new Pentachords series (so named because each fragrance is composed of only five components), which I’ve been eager to sniff. After being sold exclusively in Italy for the past few months, the limited-run Pentachords are going global this fall. Verdant [3], as suggested, is green, wet, leafy and earthy. Auburn [4] is warm, dry and woody, with an emphasis on the lovely cinnamon note. While obviously quite different from each other, both were striking and successfully communicated the minimalist intention behind the collection, as opposed to White, a meek, anonymously sweet and utterly non-threatening iris.

I also got to sample two independent European brands that haven’t yet arrived on the U.S. market. The first was Spanish line Carner Barcelona, which launched two perfumes in Europe last year: D600, inspired by Barcelona nightlife; and Tardes [5], a woody floral by Daniela Andrier (I just can’t stay away!) that alludes to wheat fields, almond groves, wild roses and geraniums and the dwindling light of late afternoon. This is a particularly romantic work for Andrier, but – like many of her other works – includes an unexpected element, in this case a fresh, barely salty celery note that keeps the cedar, tonka and Heliotrope in the base from turning too sweet. Fall brings the launch of their third perfume: a great smoky leather simply called Cuirs, surely a nod to the long line of leather artisans from whom founder Sara Carner is descended.

After that I was introduced to Technique Indiscrète, a refined but quirky fragrance line by Belgian-born fashion designer Libertin Louison. Standouts from his collection of eight eaux de parfum include: Paname Paname [6], a chypre re-interpretation that kicks off with an audacious cumin-citrus pairing and sweetens with an “apple cake” note; Safran Nobile, inspired by a wedding in India, a heady swirl of sweet spice, saffron, vanillic benzoin, patchouli and dirty jasmine; and Délivre Moi, a modest but comforting better-than-skin scent focused on honey, accented with almond and heliotrope on a mild woody-musky base. Technique Indiscrète also produce three eaux de cologne and a line of hydrosols.

Last but not least, I marveled at sculptor Niho Kozuru’s gorgeous beeswax candles, which she casts in molds made from reclaimed turned-wood architectural details from traditional New England homes. The molds are so accurate that you can often see the woodgrain on the candles’ surfaces. We bonded over our love of the smell of beeswax (“it won’t overpower your dinner party” being one of the benefits I hadn’t previously considered). You can find her candles, appropriately, at the Noguchi Museum gift shop.

11 August 2011

Coming Up This Fall

Fall is sadly nowhere near, but happily, there’s more to look forward to than just a merciful drop in temperature.

Prada Candy
As I've confessed before, I’m fascinated by Daniela Andrier’s steadily expanding portfolio for Prada. Her latest, the upcoming Candy, is positioned as a signature fragrance (not part of the Infusions series) and appears to be a departure from her typically diaphanous style towards something much bolder and more saturated: the press release uses the phrase “overdose of benzoin.” Musks and a “modern” caramel accord round out the cast. I'm hoping that Candy is as good as it sounds, and not merely an attempt to translate Love, Chloé into Prada-ese.

Bottega Veneta Eau de Parfum
I covet Bottega Veneta's anony-chic clothes, accessories and $40,000 luggage sets like vampires long for sunlight: quite simply never going to happen. But - lo and behold! - the ultra luxe brand has teamed up with no less than Coty, purveyors of the illustrious David and Victoria Beckam air pollution fragrance line, to launch their first perfume this fall. You, reader, lose 10 points if you missed the skepticism and sass in that last sentence. On the other hand, while the “leathery floral chypre” is transparently a brand ambassador to the non-wealthy, there are two reasons why it may also be a good perfume: 1) The perfumer, Michel Almairac, who was behind the original Gucci Pour Homme, several of the better Bond No. 9 perfumes and the adorably delicate Ambrette 9 for Le Labo; 2) Tomas Maier, the brand's creative director, who conceptualized this Eau and whose taste is frankly unassailable. Brand-whore bonus: the bottom of the flacon bears the same debossed intrecciato pattern as BV's fine Murano glassware.

Parfumerie Générale No. 25 Indochine
I'm planning to write soon about Fareb, the only scent from Pierre Guillaume's new Huitième Art line that I've sampled, but I'm also happy to see PG returning to his signature numbered Parfumerie Générale collection. Like Prada Candy, PG's No. 25 Indochine has benzoin at its core, but augments it in typical PG fashion with exotic supporting ingredients: Kampot pepper, Laotian honey and thanaka, a traditional Burmese cosmetic paste that smells something akin to sandalwood. This one I know will be good.

09 August 2011

Late Summer Survival Guide, or
What to Wear When the World's Ending

Maybe it’s insensitive to be writing about perfume when London is burning and our economy back home is imploding – again. But write about perfume I will. Between these doomsday scenes and the hottest, most humid New York summer in years, it’s been quite comforting to come across some lovely warm-weather scents.

Heeley Hippie Rose
Many of James Heeley’s perfume concepts straddle the line between formal and colloquial. The exquisite church incense of Cardinal, the weightless ‘tiger balm’ of Esprit du Tigre, and of course the nursery rhyme namesake of Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clement's – they reference the commonplace through exercises in luxury.

So it goes for Heeley’s latest, the sweetly named Hippie Rose, inspired by Antonioni's dusty, sun-bathed imagining of hippies in the American West in Zabriskie Point. Hippie-chic is nothing new, nor are fragrances centered on rose and patchouli. Yet Heeley somehow makes these ideas new by conforming them to the house’s ultra-smooth style – putting a nice green bergamot up front, sweeping away the patchouli’s dirtier facets, smoothing over the rose’s harsher edges with mellow incense and vetiver, wrapping it all up in a sheer woody-amber accord. The rose in this case is Bulgarian rosa damascena – a wise choice because it’s always struck me as the ‘wildest’ smelling rose; plays well with others, so to speak; and avoids both the unflinching, cold perfection of Turkish rosa damascena and the ultra-femme, honeyed sweetness of the Grasse rosa centifolia.

Hippie Rose is an extremely fine execution of an idea that, frankly, never really got me going. Unfortunately, another feature of the Heeley line is frustratingly short longevity, and like a pretty flower (or pretty hippie) in the California desert, this one’s prone to withering in the heat.

Eau d’Italie Jardin du Poete
I was going to write about Eau d’Italie’s latest perfume via an open letter to Bertrand Duchaufour, its frighteningly prolific perfumer. Duchaufour was behind countless splashy niche debuts from the past two years, and a few in the near future: The Different Company's upcoming Oud Shamash; L'Artisan's Traversée du Bosphore, Nuit de Tubereuse and hyper-exclusive Mon Numéro series; Amaranthine and Sartorial for Penhaligon's, along with that house's Anthology series; 1697, Frapin's ode to cognac; Parfums MDCI's tribute to the French pear dessert, La Belle Helene; the list goes on. And don't even get me started on that bottled female orgasm for Marc Atlan. Really, Bertrand? Essentially, Duchaufour seems to have achieved the positioning of a movie director who can afford to choose only the most compelling jobs offered to him. Good for you, Bertrand!

I ditched the sassy open letter idea because, truthfully, that skyrocketing reputation isn’t undeserved: most of the perfumes I listed above are expertly crafted, if not everyone’s cup of tea. Perfect proportion and complexity of development are what I see as Duchaufour’s signature strengths, and Jardin du Poete is no exception, despite being less overtly ‘daring’ than his other perfumes for Eau d’Italie. Bracing citrus (primarily green orange) and a green bouquet of mint and basil give way to a cold spice mix of cardamom, pink pepper, and angelica, and some ‘wet’-feeling floral notes. The scent quickly moves on to a drier, warmer and sweeter phase, with a remarkably light immortelle note that manages not to wipe out the freshness of the opening, buttressed by moss and hay. 

There is a lot going on in this production ‒ perhaps too much. As impressed as I am by the scent’s rendering of a Mediterranean garden, I don’t know that a scent for the stickiest days of summer needs to be all that complex or cleverly referential.

Atelier Cologne Trèfle Pur
In contrast to Jardin du Poete, this little wonder is perfectly happy being discreet. In fact, it shares a number of notes with Jardin: cool, greenish basil and cardamom, and a mossy drydown. But it’s not as aggressively pristine as Duchaufour’s olfactory landscaping, and feels ‒ true to the Atelier Cologne concept – like a traditional eau de cologne with a bit of extra oomph and longevity, rather than a full-figured eau de parfum.

The basil and cardamom tint and refine the opening bitter orange; the heart pairs clover absolute (fainter than I’d wish, to be completely honest) with violet leaves and beautiful Tunisian neroli. Patchouli, moss and light musk round out the final phase, with glimmers here and there of the bitter green opening. The development is as leisurely and seamless as a Mercedes transmission. Trèfle Pur was composed by Jerome Epinette, best known for authoring almost all of Byredo’s perfumes (which makes me eager to give that whole line a more-than-cursory smelling).

Heeley Hippie Rose - $185 for 100 ml at LuckyScent.
Eau d’Italie Jardin du Poete - $140 for 100 ml at Aedes.
Atelier Cologne Trèfle Pur - $165 for 200 ml / $60 for 30 ml at Bergdorf Goodman