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.