“…Cuz I’ll replace you!…with THE NIGHT!”

stayingalive

Dominique Ropion‘s oud monster The Night is not available for sale on the Frederic Malle website. I had to ask to smell it at the Barneys in Beverly Hills. The excellent sales associate (Malle reps are always the best) was more than happy to retrieve a shiny gold box from one of a dozen identical white drawers and spray a bit on a testing strip. She was even kind enough to send me home with a tiny sample. So far, I’ve eked out a few cautious wearings.

For some time now, niche and mainstream outfits alike have pumped out bottles with “oud” on the label (or aoud, or oudh, as the case may be), attempting to court both those with a fetish for exoticism and the people who came up with oud perfume in the first place. In almost all cases, it isn’t real oud, but no one seems to mind. Despite the heavy saturation of “ouds,” there is still room in the ultra-high-end of the market. With a purportedly unprecedented dose of 60% Cambodian oud, and a spit-take-inducing $800 price tag, The Night was clearly intended to be the final word in Western oud perfumery.

If you’ve spent any time with Ropion’s Portrait of a Lady, you’ll find the melody at the core of The Night familiar. However, instead of patchouli you get oud as no Western perfumer has previously dared. Montale’s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie, my previous landmark for supremely animalic oud, came to mind when I first put the smelling strip to my nose. But on skin, the story changes. While Aoud Cuir certainly smells animalic, The Night smells like an actual animal. Every terrible thing to which you’ve heard oud compared (bad cheese, dirty band-aids, good cheese) are all beautifully apt, but instead of recoiling I leaned in. The initial blast is still unlike anything I’ve ever smelled, producing a physical sensation of glee. Nothing was ever this dangerous. Have you ever been to a My Bloody Valentine concert? It was kind of like that.

For Ropion and Malle it must have been a thrilling exercise, and the grand result is stunning and virtuosic. The combined perfectionism of Malle and Ropion has produced an exquisitely executed take on the classical oud and rose combo, a seamless cloak of oud and deep resins with sparkling red jewels. The music of the composition as it moves from the teeming salvo of the opening to the quiet, but still dangerous dry down is superbly accomplished. But at the end of the day, do we really care about how “good” something is? Don’t we really just want something to move us? On that score, I may still prefer Montale’s Black Aoud, certainly not cheap, but vastly more affordable than The Night. Black Aoud strikes a perfect balance between synthetic and natural, between good taste and bad. While The Night is a perfume of unquestionable sophistication and sensuality, Black Aoud is a perfume for adventure.

If you’ve just bought your bottle of The Night, I applaud you. If you balk at both the price and the uncompromising oudiness, fear not. There are many other fantastic options out there. My two favorites are Montale’s Black Aoud and Elie Saab Essence No. 4 Oud, the first being relatively easy to find and the latter devilishly tricky. And if you like the smell of The Night but can’t or won’t go full oud, opt instead for Malle’s Portrait of a Lady, which is apparently just as popular with men as with women.

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Leather in Moonlight

Naomi-Campbell-in-Evalyne-for-Agent-Provocateur

Sadly, Serge Lutens’s dark beauty Sarrasins is hard to come by. A scant three or four stores in the US carry it, and while it may be easily scooped online, actually smelling it is out of reach for most people. Even among the Lutens collection it’s a bit of an outlier. Its wearability and abstraction recall Chanel, which uncoincidentally is where its composer Christopher Sheldrake spent the mid 00s hard at work launching the Exclusifs collection. Incidentally, that initial launch of 31 Rue Cambon, Coromandel, 28 La Pausa, Eau de Cologne, Bel Respiro, and No. 18 occurred in the same year as Sarrasins, a slew of work which could respectably comprise an entire CV.

Based on the internet consensus, diminished distribution isn’t needed to ensure the scarcity of Sarrasins: very few people actually admit to liking the stuff. Generally, even the aficion seem to prefer Lutens’s A La Nuit, which Luca Turin rightly dubs “death by jasmine.” Far be it from me to tell you that the juice you love is crap, but far be it from you to tell me that Sarrasins, one of the most gobsmackingly beautiful, inventive, and thought-provoking perfumes I’ve ever smelled is anything short of genius. (And if you are one of those unfortunate people who laments the overuse of the word genius, I apologize. I think you people should use it more.)

Sarrasins opens with an explosive jasmine, certainly lifelike, but also powerfully evocative. I even imagine a fresh dusting of sparks as the opening settles. The scent eventually morphs into a slightly sweet leather with tangy balsamic facets. Indeed, even the woody notes in Sarrasins are powerfully suggestive, aching and keening like the smell of a freshly cut tree. It is important to note that while some (even Luca Turin) describe it as a “floral leather,” that descriptor is misleading. Sarrasins is decidedly not the obvious floral with a leather base. Instead, it progresses from floral to leather, suggesting some kind of transformation. The effect is like watching jasmine undergo a metamorphosis, from flower into a leathery skin.

Here the simple idea of jasmine into skin begins to take on a poetic resonance. Metamorphosis is a provocative theme, and Lutens uses it to show a surprising connection between two materials which on the surface could not be more different. This kind of didactic trick was accomplished at least once before by Lutens and Sheldrake. Their La Myrrhe moves seamlessly from choking aldehyde fireworks to crisp, sweet myrrh: a perfect marriage of the chemical and the mystical.

However, in Sarrasins Lutens’s poetic message is even sharper, more coherent, and more insistent. The composition feels streamlined and incredibly refined, with all arrows leading in one clear direction. In the words of Stephanie Zacharek (speaking about Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth), Lutens “pulled off the difficult feat of using pure sensation to make us think.” Consider me converted.

Old School

Joe Biden as a student starting his journey towards political power

I recently looked at my perfume collection and found it to overwhelmingly contain bottles from niche companies. I’m not some sort of niche snob. The trouble is I can’t think of a truly great mainstream masculine since Dior Homme, and while there have been great feminines, none has felt like the right fit. Admittedly, niche offers its own headaches, with obscenely high prices and a strong whiff of pretension. However, they do still put decent money into the formula, and can be relied upon to take some real risks.

Buying older formulas is tricky. I recently smelled a vintage bottle of Habit Rouge Eau de Cologne, which must have dated from the 80s or earlier. While the new formula is probably the best it can be, given regulations, cost, etc., that old juice blows it straight away. The opening is properly delicate and believably citrusy, and the whole effect is smooth and near edible, with that refined resinous core. There’s also a elegant off-the-cuffy-ness to the old stuff which cannot be found in, say, the current Eau de Parfum formula. At the end of the day I had to admit that it wasn’t a case of old vs. new (the new formula is still streets ahead of almost everything else on the market), I just wasn’t a Habit Rouge guy.

I ran into similar problems test driving a few more masculine classics. Kouros, though stonkingly good, smelled a little dated to me. Eau de Guerlain felt too dandyish for me to pull off. Pour Monsieur just made me hanker for a vintage bottle of Nicolaï’s New York, which is far more welcoming and friendly. I had given up the search when I accidentally happened upon a charming little perfume shop in San Francisco called Tigerlily. Their stock was good and the sales associate was uncharacteristically warm and game for a conversation about perfume. The jewel of the shop is a wall of vintage bottles, including Chanel, Guerlain, and–probably my favorite–Shiseido’s Femininité du Bois, in that funky, asymmetrical bottle. Hidden in the corner was something unexpected, a small selection of bottles from Caron’s illustrious range.

These days Caron is generally overlooked. Not just because their distribution is relatively small, but because apparently (I cannot claim first hand experience) some fairly horrific reformulations have rendered one of the greatest legacies in perfume completely unrecognizable. I had heard that the masculines still contain some of the old magic, and while I cannot comment on the old version, I can unequivocally attest that Yatagan is alive and well.

Yatagan kicks the door open with a cacophony of aromatic, coniferous resins. Soon a properly wicked and beguiling artemisia melody takes over and leads you into a smoky, animalic drydown with plenty of oakmoss. Notably, though it was composed around the same time as Kouros, it feels wholly contemporary. Yatagan is in fact the great granddaddy of currently popular incense and animalic perfumes, paving the way for Muscs Koublaï Khan, Bois de Encens, and so many others.

I cannot tell you how glad I am that this stuff is still around in its present form. Of course it smells fantastic, and like Muscs Koublaï Khan, it is quite polite until you get into close range. Yatagan is also beautifully smooth in the transitions and holds up well into the drydown. I can imagine it might seem underpowered compared to the vintage stuff. But these days, the present state of Yatagan is a welcome surprise and relief. It is still among the very best I have smelled in any catagory, and those looking for dry aromatic woods need look no further.