Smelling the Met Gala

This year’s Met Gala honored Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons, a decades-strong leader of the fashion avant-garde. Depressingly, far too few people actually wore Kawakubo’s stuff, which is more often seen on the street than at a formal event. If you are lucky enough to have the money and the invite to a fete celebrating Comme, then by god should you wear Comme. And everyone who tried to limp by on some other kind of “funky/weird” (maaaaaassive eyeroll over here at SMELL DORADO HQ) were even more infuriating than the staid souls who just wore something nice (see Gisele and Tom). No Katy Perry, this is not the time to wear Margiela. Rei Kawakubo GAVE BIRTH to Margiela. Go home.

To sooth my mounting nerd rage, a very dear friend suggested I write a post imagining what perfume some Met Gala notables were wearing. So here we go, Ms. Ashley Shew. If this gets optioned for a book, you’ve got a royalty check coming your way.

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There’s something both admirable and ill-advised about what’s going on here. I have a little crush on Priyanka, so I’d like to imagine her in something decent. I’m thinking classic chypre, like Bandit or Chinatown.

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The Dream Team. On him Cuir de Russie. On her, I’m thinking Sophia Grojsman. Perhaps 100% Love.

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Sheer perfection. I’m going to go with S-Ex by S-Perfumes. Weird but sumptuous, and a little masculine.

 

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Too much, but pleasantly so. Perhaps something zingy and natural from the Masque Milano line: either L’Attesa or Romanza.

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Just L’Eau d’Issey: that’s the meanest/most accurate thing I could think to say.

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Something from Roja Dove, I think. Or Gucci Rush, since I rather like Celine.

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I still don’t know what a Lil Yachty is, but I like his style. My first thought was Amouage Gold Man, but I think this demands something more tacky/cool. I’m gonna make an oddball call and say Cartier’s L’Heure Perdue.

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Iris Silver Mist. Done.

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When the wolf’s at your door

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Now, I’m not a Shalimar guy. Believe me I’ve tried. I don’t even think I’m a Mitsouko guy, which, for any self-respecting smell-nerd is at least heresy adjacent. I avoided Guerlain’s other pillar L’Heure Bleue because when reviewing the first post-IFRA version Tania Sanchez only had this to say:

A pretty stranger has come in claiming to be your best beloved.  It is hard to be angry with her.  She is clearly out of her mind; they look nothing alike.  You sit and wait patiently for your love to turn up.  The windows go dark, night after night while the stranger smiles and dawdles, waiting for you to forget.  Can you?

With no access to the vintage stuff, I wrote LHB off entirely. Who wouldn’t? After a competent opening, that version gets grim pretty quickly. I can’t imagine why they would they let it go to market. If there’s any justice, sales would’ve been miserable.

Not really meaning to, I ended up at the Guerlain counter at Saks in Beverly Hills. Their rep Alejandro is one of my all time favorite people working sales. He’s honest about reformulations. He doesn’t try to sell you anything. And he’s more than happy to wile away hours letting you dig through his magic drawer of back stock. Last visit, he let me smell the newest version of L’Heure Bleue, reformulated by Guerlain’s head nose Thierry Wasser. Y’all, please believe the hype: LHB is back.

Yes, it’s got a bit of a modern sheen, and it probably doesn’t quite have the staying power of the old stuff, but this stuff moves. You can practically hear the strings when you spray it on. It flirts with edibility but never quite resolves itself as either a gourmand or not a gourmand. It is the best kind of coquette.

But hold your horses, folks, because then something miraculous happened. A friend of mine got a bottle of the parfum–wait for it–FROM THE 1930s!!! And that stuff, to quote Bob Odenkirk, makes other perfume smell like fucking horseshit. It makes No. 5 seem like a snooze. It makes Knize Ten seem staid. It packs a blast of romance and drama unlike anything I’ve ever smelled. I’m tempted to say that it will be hard to go back to normal life after this, but the truth is that it could only make normal life better. Until I meet its like again, that one brief shimmer of beauty will keep me warm. It makes this weary world seem a little brighter.

I hate citrus

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Growing up I had a treehouse built into my grandfather’s old orange tree. It smelled of everything orange: the fruit certainly, but also orange blossoms, and a diffuse sappy greenness, which nonetheless carried the spirit of the oranges well beyond fruit-bearing season. If it sounds magical, that’s because it was. Best of all, those orange smells mingled with darker, woodier, more resinous smells: the lumber of the treehouse and the dirt from the ground below.

My father also loves the smell of citrus, particularly neroli. He loves a classic eau de cologne in a way that always makes me think I’m missing something. The eau de cologne is one of the oldest styles or genres of perfume based on a recipe of citrus, herbs, and musks. The French school leans on lemon in the opening, while the Italian school favors orange notes, including neroli. The Russian version tends to be drier and more abstract. It is a classic and generally a must-have for anyone who likes fragrance.

Still, I don’t care for it. In my ever-expanding perfume horde, there remains a noticeable gap where an eau de cologne ought to be. Even Chanel‘s exceptional Eau de Cologne makes me want to scrub it off well before the drydown. Although, admittedly, that opening is sheer, back-straightening perfection.

So what gives? Why don’t I care for citrus for citrus’s sake? Maybe it’s the built-in preciousness in most eaux de cologne, that fresh-scrubbed baby angel thing, with nothing even remotely dirty to balance it out. I like citrus best when it is shorn of its squeaky clean pretensions. Perhaps that’s why I like Etat Libre d’Orange‘s Cologne, which combines a typical citrusy opening with a leathery base. In a perfect world someone would cook up a cross between Institut Très Bien‘s Cologne á l’Italienne and YSL‘s Kouros (both, incidentally, by the great Pierre Bourdon), a snappy mix of bright freshness and dirty bathroom.

My general ambivalence toward musks also makes eau de cologne a hard sell. Citrus notes are some of the most volatile in perfumery, meaning they evaporate quickly, and thus can only be properly smelled for a bit. To make them stick around longer, nearly all colognes use heavy doses of musk, which act as a fixative to prolong the citrus smells. By the end of the day, that’s most of what you’re smelling. A notable exception is Mugler‘s Cologne, which smells musky/industrial and is all the better for it.

So, here’s an easy fix: let an eau de cologne disappear naturally. It doesn’t need to stick around for hours like a normal perfume. It’s supposed to disappear right away. Once someone kicks out a great one that doesn’t overstay its welcome, I might just reconsider my position.

Mint for men

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At my favorite breakfast place with my best friend, I was drinking mint tea. Actually, he was drinking the tea and I was pinching sips. When I brought the stuff to my nose, I noticed a bleachy quality, the same thing I notice in lavender essential oil. When I brought it up, he mentioned that all those plants are from the same family. The lamiaceae family, which, as it turns out, includes the full spectrum of aromatics so vital to “masculine” perfumery: lavender, sage, and, less often, mint.

I picked up a bottle of Guerlain’s Derby this weekend. I walked in expecting to buy something else entirely and then found myself, led by the nose (pun definitely intended) by this dry and teeming man-chypre. I generally agree with Luca Turin’s edict that “there is nothing so good as a good chypre,” and few things, I found, are as good as Derby. It is as dry and dignified as its brother in quality and comportment Chanel Pour Monsieur, but not quite so buttoned up. Even, perhaps, a bit of a rogue.

In typical Guerlain fashion, the composition is dizzyingly complex, but not so crowded that a bright mint note doesn’t stand out. In Derby’s spicy surround, it is rendered creamy and rich, far from the stridency found in toothpaste, etc. Here, mint was used as one would use lavender, a gentle nod to fougère structure that further expands the emotional reach of Derby.

Mint crops up in a few other masculines: Frederic Malle’s Geranium Pour Monsieur, Comme des Garçons’s 2 Man, Heeley’s Menthe Fraiche, and perhaps most inventively in Dirty by Gorilla Perfumes. Each one is very good, and makes the case for using mint in novel ways, not just in masculine fragrance. However, there’s something about how it crops up in the heart of Derby, radiating out from among the bed of spices and leather. The stuff positively sings. Perhaps thats because, more than any other perfume I’ve listed, Derby employs mint for emotional impact. More than a cooling element, or a stand-in for other more common aromatics, Derby’s mint flirts with near edibility. It is inviting, comforting, and substantial.

Derby is the rare “for men” fragrance that fits me just fine. In its current incarnation at least, it is neither a chest thumper nor a club shouter. It is relaxed and refined, more dashing than anything else in its league. If Cary Grant had smelled this, I wonder, would he have thrown out his Green Irish Tweed?

The Old Year


This will not be a typical end of year list*. Not only did I smell so few of the 2000 perfumes (yikers, right?) released this year, but after the corker of a year we’ve all had, getting personal seems to be the only appropriate way to go. Read on for an unabashedly sentimental accounting of those perfumes that buoyed my spirits when the year was darkest.

Amouage

Barely a day goes by that I don’t thank the Lord for Christopher Chong and Amouage. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, can touch their particular brand of towering mega-scents. I may not have rushed out to buy Myths Woman (let alone Myths Man, Bracken Man, or Lilac Love), but Nathalie Lorson‘s green fairy is nothing if not a proper meal. And what a pleasure it was to join her for the twists and turns.

Ultimately Opus X got me to shell out that Amouage-money. (Not the steepest price tag in the game anymore, but a decent yardstick for costliness.) I love weird and I love rose and when the two come together with Annick Menardo on the bill and an Amouage budget, well, can you really blame me? It’s loud, raucous and unmannered. But it’s also warm and open-hearted. The beautifully modulated rosy lament is rousing, never overwhelming. An epic with a light touch.

Galop d’Hermes

Christine Nagel‘s opening salvo for Hermes may have made all the year-end lists I read. And to think, some people were worried about how she’d handle the pressure. I confess that most of Jean-Claude Ellena‘s work for Hermes didn’t land for me. (The obvious exception being Osmanthe Yunnan: as close to perfect as one could hope for.) Galop d’Hermes made me think, “Jean-Claude, who?”

Nagel’s leather and rose accord in Galop d’Hermes is remarkable enough to make you root for the big houses again. Complex though it is, it will always remind me of the smell of grooming a horse after a ride. Nagel’s composition is built from some of the loveliest stuff around, but the shape and structure are undeniable. Y’all, this is some exquisitely sweaty horse butt.

Starck Paris

No great fan of Phillipe Starck and his steely brand of bombast, I eyed the Starck Parfums display at my local Neimans with understandable skepticism. And then, in a second, my grumpiness evaporated. All three of those absurdly named perfumes are worthy of serious attention.

Sure, Dominique Ropion flexes his muscles with the genteel musk of Peau de Soie. And Daphné Bugey puts a very clever spin on a crowd-pleasing woody amber. But it’s Annick Menardo who really shines with her gently futuristic meditation on growth and decay. Peau d’Ailleurs is classic Menardo, as succinct and insistent as Patchouli 24, but tender and dreamy. Let her take you by the hand.

Mathilde Laurent

Full disclosure, I have a crush on Mathilde Laurent: a perfectly impossibly schoolboy crush. It’s not just her perfumes, or that fantastic smile, it’s that she seems genuinely warm, silly, and unpretentious. She showed up to an interview in metallic cowboy boots.

Manning the helm at Cartier, she has her name on no fewer than eight releases this year alone. I remember smelling L’Envol for the first time, trying to reign in my optimism. “I’ll be damned,” I thought, my eyes widening, “that bastard did it.” Yes, it smells great. And Laurent managed to pull off an instantly winsome masculine without any of the grating, chest-thumping tropes. But this stuff does something barely any masculines ever have done: offer shimmering, radiant fun. Unlike even some of the best perfumes for men, L’Envol doesn’t convey gravitas or a life well-lived. It’s not merely trying to impress. 

But strap yourself in. Because that lovely little gem isn’t even the best thing she did this year. This is the year that Mathilde Laurent also gave us L’Heure Perdue, a work of supreme accomplishment, intelligence, and beauty. But as much fun as it is to dissect, L’Heure Perdue is simply exceptional perfumery, as miraculous as this stuff gets.


*On a side but important note, it heartens me greatly to find so many woman leading mainstream perfume houses. In an industry where even Frederic Malle cosigns the exclusion of women, the glass ceiling is a low as ever. Wonderful then, to see these women deservedly appointed to notable positions as they effortlessly kick out the best stuff of the year. We’ve got a long way to go, but lots to be grateful for. Cheers, ladies.

Review: Amouage Opus X

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First, this stuff is great. It may even be as good as one of my all time favorite roses Lyric Woman. It may even be better. Opus X is a rose turned inside out, with the soft skin touching you and the raw flesh exposed. It is brutal, lovely, and uncompromising.

Annick Menardo is listed as co-composer, along with Pierre Negrin. Negrin, incidentally, seems to be a favorite of Amouage’s Creative Director Christopher Chong. He has worked on a number of Amouage scents, and appears as co-composer on at least four in the Library Collection alone (of which Opus X is the tenth release). Perhaps his hand gives the extra experimental Library Collection its continuity, despite occasional unevenness. But while Opus X is undoubtedly an Amouage joint, the central rose accord has Menardo’s hands all over it.

Like Lyric Woman, Opus X harbors a nearly rotten fruit effect, which at first feels uncomfortable but then shines like the ray of light coming out of He-Man’s sword. So, while Lyric woman is intimate, Opus X is a war cry. Like so many of Menardo’s other great perfumes (including the freshly-reviewed Peau d’Ailleurs for Starck Parfums), Opus X is at once familiar and alien. It is deceptively familiar.

Most rose perfumes are soft and luxurious. Many are brazen. Some are wicked. Unlike any other rose I know, Opus X is at once searing and rich, sometimes disconcertingly so. The tension between the exceedingly complex rose core and the dense bed of–among other things–oud, never quite resolves itself. It certainly belongs among Christopher Chong’s “couture” Library Collection, but unlike most of those releases, it feels every inch the proper perfume. Hard to pull off, certainly, but egad, why wouldn’t you try?

With each passing year, Amouage seems more special and more unique. I may not like all their releases, but they are never a waste of time. If even the best of mass market perfumery is the fragrance equivalent of a Kristen Stewart performance, Amouage never fail to turn in a fully-fleshed Bette Davis. And at their best, an immortal Divine.


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The Time Machine

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Leaving a place that I’ve lived for any given period of time, I’m always surprised by what I miss. When I left Austin three years ago I missed the people, and the grocery shopping (Texas really does have the best grocery shopping of any place I’ve lived, California included), but I also missed this odd little video store not far from my house. I didn’t go there terribly often, maybe two or three times a month, but every time I felt a little surge of pure bliss.

The space itself felt massive, but not cavernous like a warehouse. The owners had converted what felt like a home, while you were greeted with the familiar counter at the entrance, once you walked in the space opened up to reveal a second level. It looked more like a used book store or a library than a video store, complete with wooden shelves and a little spiral staircase. Granted, the place was shabby and scuffed. The signs were handwritten, movie posters on the wall were faded and creased, and the staff played movies on a set of crummy old TVs. Everything bore the marks of simultaneous neglect and care.

Casually strolling in the first time I stopped dead in my tracks. My nose was hit with a smell lifted intact from my childhood. It was the smell of wet earth and the sweet decay of something manmade. It was the exact smell of my childhood neighbor’s basement. Gradually, that store became a place of refuge. Not because I had such amazing memories of that basement, but because the experience of wandering those stacks, of discovery, of the opulence of that collection, and of that smell were all perfectly linked. It was a tiny, little holiday.

Yesterday, I smelled that smell again in Peau d’Ailleurs, one of three new releases in the new Starck Parfums collection: intact, dead-on, and perfectly evocative. And this is one of the great mysteries of fragrance. Perhaps, the smell I’m remember is not terribly uncommon. Even Ms. Menardo, or possibly Starck himself, may have stumbled upon it, and then composed the fragrance with that basic idea in mind. But what if those smells are some kind of natural melody? Music, as in mathematics, naturally comes to certain conclusions; some melodies just seem to happen. Composers working independently regularly arrive at similar melodies or arrangements, just in the way that the essential logic of calculus was developed independently by two dudes with no known connection. Smell and fragrance, I truly believe, work in exactly the same way.

Sometimes perfume stumbles upon (or, if we’re being generous, reproduces) what I can only call “smell truths.” The truth itself being some natural combination of individual notes which reveal themselves to be fundamentally connected. It’s like discovering that the smell of banana has so much in common with iris, or, as in Luten’s peerless Sarrasins, that metamorphosis has a scent. These connections can tell us more about how the world works, just in the way that a Brian Wilson arrangement has the precise inevitability of a scientific law.

And this is where things get really weird. Menardo’s Patchouli 24 for Le Labo pulled off a similar trick. Along with the caked-on smokiness of a day-long cookout, she added a zingy dollop of something sweet. Luca Turin rightly describes that smell as the “sweetness of…decaying old books.” Perfumery has long been enamored of the smell of decay. Indeed even our most demure flowers contain indoles, the same molecules found in rotting flesh. Perhaps Menardo is fascinated with more artificial forms of decay, paper glue in Patchouli 24, and whatever happens to old A/V equipment in Peau d’Ailleurs.

Regardless of all this heady (and possibly fruitless) talk, Peau d’Ailleaurs smells fantastic on the skin. I smell a healthy dollop of patchouli, which among other things, create that sublime smell of a freshly overturned rock. But here that smell is featherlight. It also sparkles and radiates ever so subtly, turning that beautiful smell I remember into a great perfume.

Helsinki on my mind

The last ten days in Helsinki shook me up. If my experience is any indication, the Finns are not satisfied with the merely pretty. Showmanship or flashy flourishes have little currency. Instead, you’ll find clear-eyed design imbued with exceptional empathy and civility. One particularly famous architect even designed his hospital wash basins to minimize noise, so that patients might have a more peaceful space to recover. That generosity of spirit was on display everywhere I looked.

In the fragrance department at Stockmann (a kind of Finnish Macy’s, with an excellent “food court”) the only non-mass-market line was the minimalist and mostly dull Armani Privē. The Finnish furniture icon Artek have a perfume in a similar style made by Comme des Garçons, a crisp frankincense with emphasis on the citric qualities. Superficially at least, it’s a natural pairing with Artek’s blonde wood and spare calm. Elsewhere in Helsinki perfume was hard to come by. Boutiques carried the Comme des Garçons line, if they carried anything at all.  Whenever I smelled perfume in a crowd it was either something clean and mainstream or an ambery, woody snoozer. Finland, it seems, is not perfume country.

Thankfully, Finland also has little patience for scented cleaning products. Not once did I smell my personal kryptonite of musky soaps and shampoos. Nobody smelled like a freshly-body-sprayed teenager. Most things just smelled…quiet. All this olfactory white space made the little things shine brighter: fresh berries in an outdoor market, wood polish, good wool. Everything I smelled with connected to something else. Nothing was scented in vain.

With three days left in Helsinki a vicious head cold killed my sense of smell. Not only was it a crushing bummer to not smell or taste properly, but it really started messing with my equilibrium. Not being able to smell myself was bad enough, but I realized how much I rely on my nose to get my bearings. I felt half-blindfolded walking into a new space. I kept searching around for other input, trying to make sense of where I was, but no dice. I might as well have been wearing an eye-patch.

In the customs line in Philadelphia International the culture shock was subtle but apparent. Americans are at their most American while waiting in line, and surrounded by my haggard fussy countrypersons, I felt both a little sad and glad to be back. Although certainly comforted by the familiar, I already missed the gentle pace of Finland. Helsinki welcomed me without a second thought, was never less than patient with my loud American West style. There may be a place for me there. Now I just have to earn it.

Top Ten: Perfumes for a First Date

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There are a couple of ways to think about this: either you’re trying to make a good first impression (and not rock the boat too much, lest you scare off your date), or you’re laying all your cards on the table. I’m more of a believer in the second strategy. Better someone know that I dig skanky florals sooner rather than later. Still, the following list will satisfy both camps. And many of them can be worn safely to dinner (numbers 7 and 8, excepted).

10. Dior Homme, Dior (vintage)

Great on a man or woman. Both casual and dress-up-able. A great thing to wear if you don’t want to seem like you care too much. (Not that I’d ever recommend that.) Dior Homme is somehow both youthful and substantive; rakish enough for a kid, but potent enough for someone with backbone. And if it’s good enough for Bertrand Duchaufour, it’s good enough for you.

9. Après l’Ondée, Guerlain

A perfume for tender souls. It’s got classical glamour in spades, but it’s light and streamlined enough for drinks somewhere chic and upscale. Less overtly sexy than it is beautiful and romantic. If you really love perfume, Après l’Ondée is a must.

8. Like This, Etat Libre d’Orange

For a label known for making us squirm (Secretions Magnifiques, anyone?) this juice is some of the cuddliest and most instantly winning around. Like This spans a wide spectrum from sweet pleasures to charming oddball. Unassuming but fascinating.

7. Fate Woman, Amouage

They should have called this one Jubilation XXX. Nobody goes big like Amouage. Fate Woman is so bright and rich that you almost expect to find lesser perfumes orbiting it. It practically levitates. It’s also a particularly adult kind of sexy. A great way to show ’em you mean business.

6. Parfum de Therese, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

Many tears have been shed over the current state of Edmond Roudnitska’s masterpieces. These days, Parfum de Therese is probably the closest you can get to a great fruity chypre from the guy who owns fruity chypres. (He owns them.)

5. Cuir de Russie, Chanel

If dating for you is more of a power struggle, then Cuir de Russie may be your bag. Never has anything smelled so purely of excess disposable income. And be sure to get the parfum; the eau de toilette is nice, too, but with nowhere near the sock-in-the-jaw pop of its big sister.

4. Lyric Man, Amouage

One of the weirdest “masculines” on the market. It’s like smelling someone hard at work in a very “eclectic” greenhouse. Sweaty yet crisp. Floral yet hairy-chested. If you want sultry and mysterious with a dash of the exotic, look no further.

3. Ambre Sultan, Serge Lutens

Before every label turned out an “amber,” Serge Lutens gave us this spicy jewel. On the Swoon Scale it’s at least an 8. Just good, salty fun.

2. Carnal Flower, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

Carnal Flower may very well be Dominique Ropion’s apology for composing Amarige, the stuff that convinced an entire generation that they hate perfume. I defy anyone to smell this stuff without thinking of sex.

1. Sycomore, Chanel

Sycomore checks so many different boxes it’s hilarious. Bright and sunny? Check. Office appropriate? Check. Sexy as all-get-out? Like, whoa. In typical Chanel fashion, a perennial favorite (in this case, vetiver) has been rendered almost unrecognizable, reformed into the platonic ideal of “golden-green.” Perfect for almost any occasion.


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what to wear when: Live Music

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Classical

You might not want to wear anything. I have plenty of memories of being stuck in a theatre with someone wearing Chernobyl-level amounts of “going-out” perfume. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s like having a cell phone ringing in your ear for hours. Probably the safest bet is something pre-World-War-II. Or pretty much anything from the Chanel range. (Except Chance, Antaeus, or (egads) Blue de Chanel.)

Jazz

Try something sweet and dirty. My first thought was Dior‘s discontinued Jules (I wish I could recommend Jazz, but I just can’t). Knize Ten would be an excellent choice, regardless of gender.

Indie Rock

With so many sweaty young bodies around you, you’ll probably want something light,  weird, and modern. Something like Jasmin et Cigarette or S-Ex. 

Dad Rock

If there ever was a time to wear a big, strapping fougère, it’s to that Steely Dan concert. Hard to do better than Kouros, but Nicolaï’s newish Amber Oud (not really an amber, or an oud) could work great, too.

Funk/Soul

This seems like the time for an oriental. Something loud, proud, and sensual. Muscs Koublaï Khan was my first choice. Although, Fate Woman would be smashing, too. Almost anything from Amouage, and several from Serge Lutens would do.

EDM

The temptation to go for something synthetic is great. However, I think you’d be better off with something fresh but strange, like Thierry Mugler’s Cologne or Frederic Malle’s under-appreciated Outrageous by the unequaled Sofia Grojsman. 

Metal

This is a tricky one. Just by chance I was wearing Yatagan at a Torché show recently, and it was bloody perfect. I’ve always thought that Secretions Magnifiques offers the right kind of rush to pair with furious sheets of noise. Then again, maybe you want to wear something to contrast, like 31 Rue Cambon or Mitsouko. In any case, probably something abstract, with a sense of uplift.  


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