29 December 2010

Winter Wardrobe, Part 1: What I’m Wearing Now

I started this post before the East Coast blizzard that smothered 50 million people. Unable to get a flight from Georgia back to New York, I was a bit sad not to take part in that scary but thrilling moment when all New Yorkers' delusions of a "mild winter" start to buckle. Now those delusions have been blown cleanly away, and all I get to enjoy is the aftermath, peeking cautiously around hills of plowed snow before I slosh across the street.

The silver lining, as you might suspect, is that I love scents that suit the cold -- the smoky woods and soft, heavy ambers and resins; the oddity of sillage blooming intensely when you walk inside instead of out. My taste in the frigid months leans toward the contemplative and the cozy and my tolerance for the gourmand expands. Here are a few scents where those inclinations have led me so far:

Le Labo Pathchouli 24
May I take a brief moment to share my boundless admiration for Annick Ménardo, my all-time perfumer crush? Her style, to my nose, manages to be both familiar and startling -- familiar because of the uncanny olfactory impressions she paints (the root beer of Hypnotic Poison or the rubber of Bvlgari Black) and startling in the depth and immediacy of one’s emotional reaction to those impressions. Okay fine, that’s waxing way too poetic, but frankly I challenge you to give yourself a spray of Bois d’Argent and not think immediately of milk and honey (or, in my memory, milk and Cap’n Crunch).

She’s been called the “David Lynch of perfumery”, and accordingly, when she goes niche she doesn’t just go. She sprints. Which brings us nicely ‘round to Patchouli 24 for Le Labo. Administering a blatant overdose of birch tar and styrax with such precision and balance clearly takes technical expertise. But underneath that up-front toughness, the aching, lonesome beauty of campfire smoke, glove leather and a faint VapoRub effect remains one of the most convincing arguments ever made that perfumers are fine artists. Much has been said about the dry vanillic ‘smell of old books’ aspect that underpins the heart of Patchouli 24, but my favorite effect is the lingering sensation that something nearby is smoldering, in a good way.

Frederic Malle Bois d’Orage / French Lover
There are exceptions to the tastes I described above. On some cold days -- bright ones in particular -- I like to wear something as sharp and invigorating as the weather, rather than a figurative blanket to comfort against it. Those days I’ve been choosing Pierre Bourdin’s brilliant interpretation of angelica for Frederic Malle: Bois d’Orage (“thunder wood”), or as it’s known in non-American markets, French Lover. The opening is indeed bright with ultra-green galbanum and pimento; the heart and later phases are marked by a medium-warm cedar, discreetly extended by vetiver and iris. Those two branches support the star ingredient, amplifying both the spicy and musky aspects of the angelica while keeping them securely linked. Dry without being thin, masculine without being animalic, every-day wearable but dressy enough for a winter wedding; it’s like a waxed cotton utility jacket that magically reverses into a tuxedo.

Penhaligon’s Opus 1870
This was my second perfume love affair (after Comme des Garçons 2 Man). This is a classic chypre pulled carefully and thoughtfully into the 21st century. This is an old sweater that only gets better with age.

I can’t for the life of me find who actually authored the perfume, but whoever it was struck gold. The whole composition, from the citrus-black pepper opening through the mossy rose-and-incense heart to the cinnamon-dusted base woods, glows like a dimmed Edison bulb hanging over a white marble bar. A fair amount of people (myself included) consider this one of Penhaligon’s best, but it also seems to fly under the radar, especially relative to the house’s splashier new Duchaufours (Amaranthine and Sartorial), and truth be told I’m glad for that. In addition to having one of the best cedar drydowns I’ve ever encountered, Opus is one of the best secrets I’ve ever kept.