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.