30 September 2010

Feed Your Inner Fanboy:
Etat Libre d’Orange Homage Series

I’m desperately trying to squeeze another post in before September ends, in part because I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like the archive list to suggest I’m more prolific a blogger than I am, and also because one of these fragrances launched this month. Since I’ve very little time left, I’ll try to make it quick.

I know it might seem a little heavy on the Etat Libre d’Orange here, to the point that one could call me a ELd’O fanboy, but I tell you, Etienne de Swardt helms one of the few perfume brands that take real risks and make hefty statements. Additionally, I get a feeling that it’s the kind of brand that wouldn’t mind its admirers being referred to as ‘fanboys.’ (Come to think of it, Fanboy would be a great name for an ELd’O fragrance.) That’s probably because they do it themselves, having slowly but steadily produced a series of special editions that pay tribute to various artists, most recently including Tilda Swinton’s Like This.

The series started, though, with Tom of Finland, dedicated to the erotic artist -- a cool and bright lemon splashed over a muddle of iris, vanilla, tonka, suede notes and resins, spiked with sharp and/or green notes, like pine, saffron, pepper and galbanum. A dose of aldehydes makes it smell clean and raunchy at the same time.

The second in the series is named for Rossy de Palma, the Spanish actress best known for her roles in Almodóvar films. The scent, I think, is the best in the series, including the two new ones I’m discussing below. Givaudan whizzes Antoine Lie and Antoine Maisondieu, both credited for this one, took a classically beautiful Bulgarian rose and made up its face into almost a drag version of itself, using smooth, milky spices (ginger and cardamom), a slightly slutty jasmine, clean patchouli and cocoa. 

I had an opportunity earlier in the summer to smell the fourth and fifth in the series, which are both being launched this season. The ‘holiday’ timeframe will see the release of Josephine Baker,  a sweet-citrusy, cheekily ‘tropical’ confection that smells like a coconut foam. But the 10th of this month saw the release of Sex Pistols, and while I bet any actual Sex Pistols fanboy would engage in a good bit of teeth-gnashing if s/he came across the twee plaid-capped bottle, it’s the better of these two by a mile. Up front it’s lemon and some very strong black pepper, which lingers admirably through an odd-but-it-works dried fruit note (“prune” as you’ll see if you scrutinize the graphic up close), some faint leather and patchouli, a nicely funky ambrette, and the heliotrope that wraps it all together. Like in Tom of Finland, some aldehydes of the fatty variety soap things up a bit and keep the jammy prune note and sweet heliotrope from feeling too dense. 

Hey, I got through it all with a half-hour left before October starts!

Etat Libre d’Orange Sex Pistols is available at Henri Bendel in New York. Most of their other fragrances are available online at Lucky Scent.

25 September 2010

Telling Stories: Gorilla Perfume Pop-Up Shop and Gallery

(Updated with further thoughts on The Smell of Weather Turning)

My trudging work week ended yesterday with an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. The earth-loving artisans at Lush turned three floors of a building on Crosby street into a makeshift gallery to launch a number of new scents in their Gorilla Perfume fragrance line. Groovy!

The exhibit comprised a series of rooms dedicated to particular fragrances, each one furnished with an illustration of what inspired the scent (live dancers in one room, audio recordings of thunder in another, a bubble machine, dirty bathroom sinks, etc.) and a VERY friendly storyteller ready to translate smell into narrative.

In my typically nerdy fashion, I prodded these ladies and gentlemen for as much nerdy detail about the perfumes as I could, but they seemed far better-versed in the stories than the hard facts. After a while I didn’t even mind, because the stories (all drawn from the global adventures of Lush co-founder Mark Constantine and his son Simon, who author the perfumes themselves) were at the very least entertaining, and more importantly, in most cases they really did seem to relate to the final product, rather than feeling like a cut-throat marketing move. Kudos to these Willy Wonkas, then, for giving their scents more of a soul than one is apt to find in most perfume these days.

A fine example is The Smell of Freedom, which combines three olfactory portraits of people who have suffered extreme hardship into a ‘triptych’ of sorts. The scents were based on a Tibetan monk (clove, black pepper, ginger-honey tea), an Australian Aboriginal (fire tree, lemon myrtle, lemongrass) and a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner (oudh, jasmine, orris and sustainable Australian sandalwood). Each of the three portraits is available as a perfume oil in addition to the combined scent sold in an atomizer bottle.

Other highlights were the new Imogen Rose, a blushing Damascus rose swathed in vetiver, bergamot and soft ambrette; Dirty, a slyly marine-tilting alternative to Axe aimed at unshowered dudes; and three custom scents blended for an actress, an heiress and a dutchess (all of whose hair Mark Constantine had tended to in the 70s), each made available to the public for the first time and exclusively at this gallery for a properly luxurious $2,400 a pop.

My clear favorite, though, and the one that coaxed my credit card from the safety of my wallet, is The Smell of Weather Turning. The perfumers were encouraged to create this ‘thunderstorm in reverse’ by an employee of theirs who is also a white witch. They drew further inspiration from the musician Simon Emmerson, who is a member of an order of druids, as well as a dream Mark Constantine had at an Iron Age inn in Finland where they were fed nettles and dark rye bread.

All of these experiences led Mark to insist on only using materials that would have been available 5,000 years ago in the fragrance, and they pulled it off with aplomb.  Weather Turning turns up an herbal bouquet of English peppermint, chamomile and nettle that anchors quickly to a heart of stately oakwood mixed with what I smell as mossy notes, which provide just the slightest hint of marine saltiness. These first phases bring it initially close to Dirty, an older scent from Lush’s now-closed Be Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful line that Luca Turin dubbed “marine mint.” Where the newer scent differs is in the sweet hay and beeswax absolutes underneath, as warm and dry as anyone could want. The combination imparts both a vague smokiness and creaminess to the last (and longest-lasting) phase, and the beeswax seems to fix the entire composition in place. Those herbs that kick everything off don’t so much collapse into this last phase as they do sink slowly into it, such that one can still apprehend their dull silhouette many hours after their opening act. Minty scents rarely work well on my skin, but Weather Turning marks a bewitching (see what I did there?) halfway point between fresh and cozy. Wearing it out of the exhibit, it actually made me feel at home in the otherwise oppressively humid, pre-storm Manhattan night.

Some of the Gorilla perfumes will be available in Lush stores, but all of them, aside from the “three ladies”, can be purchased from the Gorilla Perfume website in 30 ml bottles or as solids. Many of the former Be Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful perfumes (Dirty and Ladyboy among them) are also available on the site.