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.