Where there’s smoke…

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Smoky, woody fragrances have been a part of the masculine* fragrance landscape for ages. Knize Ten (1925), perhaps the first fragrance marketed to men, is above all else smoky. Guerlain’s Derby has a green smoky, woodiness, punched up with tremendous richness and complexity. Caron’s Yatagan takes a slightly different tack, exposing the animality in this fragrance palette. More recently Chanel’s Sycomore and Frederic Malle’s French Lover (sold as Bois d’Orage stateside) offer modern takes on the theme, the former resolutely sunny and the latter humid and overtly vegetal.

Mark Buxton‘s blockbuster 2 Man (2004) for Comme des Garçons continued a string of excellent avant garde compositions which ultimately changed the landscape of perfume. It may recall other members of its smoky-woody brethren, and these days you can’t swing a cat without hitting an incensey perfume with plenty of woody amber aromachemicals.  But even a casual sniff reveals a fragrance that is odd, illuminating, and deceptively abstract.

It might be tempting to consider 2 Man the arty inverse of Chanel No. 5. Both make crucial use of aldehydes to create a warm, waxy effect. Both are considerably abstract, No. 5 more obviously so. But while No. 5 is bright and dense, 2 Man is airy, transparent, and chiaroscuro dark.

2 Man contains a number of materials that all suggest ceremonial smoke. Frankincense is the most obvious association, with its sharp citric bite. But something about the composition draws attention to the way the individual parts are put together. The trick is difficult to describe but the effect is delightful. It’s as if Buxton found a way to make all the ingredients hang suspended in the air together, with plenty of space in between, before gradually coalescing into a shiny whole. It’s like looking at an exploded view of a moving car engine, where the parts slowly interlock and move into an assembled machine.

Other perfumes have handled the woody-smoky theme better. And if you want a straight-no-chaser frankincense perfume you’ll want to look elsewhere. Still, there is a mystery and a simple pleasure to this fragrance that is all but gone from mass market perfume these days, especially masculines. It may no longer be on the cutting edge, but it’s still a magnificent creation, and one that smells great on the skin.

*I did a post on “masculine” perfumery, and it may have been a little misleading. There are certainly acknowledged masculine forms or genres of perfumery. The fougere is the only genre intended first for men, of which Cool Water, Kouros, and Rive Gauche Pour Homme are some of the purest and best examples. The fougere is marked by lavender and other aromatic smells, sweetened on the top by vanillic, nutty smells and rounded out on the bottom by an inky, mossy base.

 

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Cheap and Cheerful

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Depending on where you buy perfume you may or may not have noticed the mind boggling jump in prices. If you buy a bottle of your old standby from Nordstrom or Neimans every year or so, you probably haven’t noticed much difference. However, if you dip your toe in the waters of niche perfumers (e.g. anything that has relatively small distribution and doesn’t have a designer or celebrity name on the label) you’ve seen prices go from spendy to very high to obscene.

While mainstream perfumes may not have increased as dramatically in price, their formulas have compensated by becoming appallingly cheap. According to Chandler Burr, the big labels now typically spend roughly 70% less on the actual perfume than they did in the 90s. If you’ve smelled Dior’s Sauvage, you know what I mean. I personally don’t know how in ten years that house went from Dior Homme (2005), which is chock full of the good stuff, to something that smells like someone misplaced half the formula.

Certainly, we need Amouage and Frederic Malle and Serge Lutens, all of whom require that you pay through the nose (pun definitely intended). But they do usually deliver the goods, albeit, at around $300 a bottle. Still, if great perfume is to be relevent for the average person it can’t cost your monthly food budget. Duh. Duhsville.

There are some reasons to hope. A few major perfume houses still use good raw materials to make a reasonably-priced product. Estee Lauder is one. You can buy a masterpiece from Calice Becker (Beyond Paradise) or Sofia Grojsman (White Linen) for less than $50. In the niche market Gorilla Perfumes does proper fragrance for a song. And Patricia de Nicolaï‘s Parfums de Nicolaï has turned out affordable bottles of the highest quality juice since the 80s.

Despite what all the legends and lore would have us believe, a high price tag and a good wallop of “natural oils” (which could very well mean precisely nothing) doesn’t mean that the stuff in the bottle is good or even expensive to make. The house of Creed is an excellent example, with their criminally inaccurate claims of using only the best naturally-derived ingredients. All companies lie, even Chanel and Frederic Malle. Unfortunately, the only way to keep from getting swindled is a critical nose and plenty of homework.

Masculin Féminin

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For a good time, find someone who’s really into perfume and say something about “men’s cologne” or “women’s perfume.” If your mark looks particularly unlikely to offend, say something like “rose is for old ladies” or “men should never wear florals.” With any luck their blood pressure will spike and you’ll be treated to a mini rant, complete with detailed examples and historical information. They might even force you to smell something!

Classifying perfume as “for men” or “for women” is like saying Joni Mitchell is just for women or The Stones are just for men. One perfume sales rep told me that more than 60% of his female clientele buy “masculine” perfume. Women, it seems, are more confident in their ability to make White Steel Sport Extreme their own. If more men bought perfume without looking at the bottle, I’m sure you’d smell more syrupy florals in the locker room.

Many companies have wised up. These days, only the most staid labels put “for men” or “for women” on the bottle. Most niche companies never did. Serge Lutens is famous for saying that his whole line is unisex. Bona fide smell genius Mark Buxton, who essentially created the blueprint for the entire Comme des Garçons line, puts it this way, “Why can’t a man wear muguet (lily of the valley)? Is a woody note more masculine?  Why the separation? I don’t get it. You wear what you like.”

Crucially, it’s hard to have much fun if you only shop in the men’s section. The palette of materials in “perfume for men” cuts out almost all of the good stuff: nothing radiant, nothing too sweet, nothing too challenging, and certainly nothing overtly floral. Moreover, since the vast majority of men’s fragrances work so hard not to offend, you’ll need to branch out if need wit, mystery, or actual romance. Generally these days, the men’s department is pretty grim.

The distinction between masculine and feminine fragrance is not completely without basis. Men and women smell differently, especially as the day goes on: the former with a diffusive, buzzy ripeness, and the latter more piquant. Therefore, masculines tend to expand with time, while feminines–the good ones at least–simply soften and glow. It’s the reason some florals disagree with me by the end of the day. The sweet rose in Une Rose or 100% Love crops up like a high-frequency peak amid my low-frequency funk. But really, so much depends on climate and culture. Middle Eastern men are famous for wearing whatever they please, while many Asian cultures avoid personal fragrance altogether.

Beyond the realm of merely unisex perfume–which, historically speaking, has existed far longer than “gendered” perfume–lies a small patch of fragrances that seem to be both masculine and feminine at once. Amouage’s Lyric Man, one of my all-time favorites, is by turns robust and gentle, vegetal and sweet. Just when you think you’ve got it pinned down it changes. All this with a deceptively simple composition, albeit one with the very best raw materials.

You don’t know iris (pt. 2)

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Check out Part One here.

Chanel’s 28 La Pausa is undeniably lovely. But if fault must be found I’d say it’s a bit too genteel, a bit too fancy. It’s also clearly a perfume in the classic Chanel mold, intended to be effortlessly wearable and unobtrusive. Serge Luten’s Iris Silver Mist is another beast altogether. In so many ways it is the polar opposite of 28 La Pausa: brutal, unabashedly vegetal, and tricky as hell to wear.

Most of the Lutens line is concerned with celebrating the less polite facets of a given natural raw material. Very few–Sarrasins is one exception–smell like conventional perfume compositions. Papa Serge, undisputed king of the kooky perfume mystics, would go even further. He would say that his perfumes unearth the true metaphysical nature of their components. For once, it’s not marketing dreck. Though Lutens has turned out his fair share of crap, the good stuff is truly otherworldly. As one sales associate put it to me, “he lives somewhere between the 13th and 14th century.” Oh, and he hates vaporiser bottles.

None of which really prepares you for Iris Silver Mist. If 28 La Pausa is fancy-aunt-on-the-weekend Iris Silver Mist is villain-in-drag-at-a-funeral. You can practically hear the pipe organ. At least some of its harrowing timbre comes from synthetics, which here act like a sustain pedal, drawing out the chorus until it reaches the rafters. The synthetics in the composition are vital to the overall effect, making out louder, grander, and more poetic than even the best iris could do on its own.

If Lutens wanted an iris to scare the kids by God he got it. He demanded that iris be reckoned with on its own terms, neither succumbing to dreariness nor bent and reformed into luxury. Instead he offers a powdery, shimmering force, beautiful but utterly unsettling. Wearability was therefore not his first concern, and those looking for comfort will want to look elsewhere.

Like any good work of art it does get under your skin. I find myself drawn to it again and again. Not for the pure pleasure of wearing it, although it is pleasurable, but to solve the mystery at its core. In other words, I wear it to learn its secrets. Was there ever a better reason to wear perfume?

 

You don’t know Iris (pt. 1)

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Until fairly recently iris was one of the most expensive raw materials in a perfumer’s palette. As soon as someone made a decent synthetic iris, however, the note began cropping up everywhere, from Olivier Polge‘s fantastic Dior Homme to Prada’s rather dull Infusion d’Iris. Still, most of us have never smelled the real thing, partly because it’s so expensive and partly because good iris always smells so melancholy. Teary eyes don’t sell perfume.

Many perfumers take that melancholy quality as a challenge. The immortal Iris Gris, which is considered one of the very best perfumes of all time, included a peach note, supposedly–I have not smelled it–making it warm and cheery. Violet, too, pairs well with iris, adding a carefree bouyance that nonetheless obscures some of the iris’s natural gifts. The braver perfume houses have put out irises paired with materials like patchouli (Le Labo’s Iris 39), which emphasize rooty, earthy notes. The bravest of all have dared to pair it with banana, an odd but utterly winning combination.

Enter Chanel’s 28 La Pausa (apparently named for one of Coco Chanel’s homes, blah blah blah…), which packs a hefty dollop of top quality iris. 28 La Pausa blows straight past melancholy and arrives instead in pure bliss. Harnessing that peculiar magic that seems readily on hand at Chanel, the dreariness and isolation are transformed into a secret little holiday. In typical Chanel fashion, 28 La Pausa is more abstract than it is representational. It’s as if the prodigously gifted Chanel braintrust managed to make that most finicky of flowers do their bidding. I actually felt my eyes roll back in my head with pleasure as I smelled it for the first time. You’ll never wear anything like it.

Of course, pure luxury isn’t everyone’s thing. And that kind of demure beauty easily falls into preciousness in the wrong hands. So many niche firms have churned out faithful, expensive irises, that nonetheless fail to break any new ground. Like vetiver, in all but the most skilled hands, iris is just iris.

But if you hanker for a wholly different breed of iris, you’re in luck. Part Two digs into Serge Luten’s Iris Silver Mist, which turns every tricky facet of the iris root (the breadiness, the carrotiness, the metalicness) up to an ear-splitting 11, with miraculous results. Stay tuned…