Am I crazy?

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Whether you know it or not, you probably already have an opinion of Edouard Flechier‘s godzillian Poison for Dior (1985). I smelled it on plenty of people growing up. I even remember waiting for my mother in the back of a yoga class while at least one attendee radiated Poison’s plummy tuberose right up to the ceiling. Not so long ago, it was so popular and so reviled that it was banned from restaurants. But thirty years later, amid louder, loucher faire, I was almost tempted to dismiss it as quaint.

The opening is furious and huge, like a jolly purple explosion. And yet, no one tells you that Poison is also intensely tart and woody. I once smelled a freshly cut eucalyptus tree, and it was so sharp and insistent that it smelled sad, like a single note in a minor key sustained on a violin. Poison carries some of that woody lament, employed to offset both the tone and the density of the fruity florals. That juxtaposition rang a bell somewhere deep in my associative memory: I had smelled something very like it before.

The connection struck me from the most unlikely of places: Serge Lutens. While not known for his quiet perfumes, Lutens seems demure and taciturn next to Poison’s day-glo Fran Drescher swagger. Still, there’s no denying the parallels between Poison and the candied woody florals that put the Lutens line on the map. Start by featuring a prominent tangy cedar, sometimes dry, sometimes syrupy sweet and add in a dose of rich florals, amber, fruit, or vanilla as the case may be. That fabulous cycle of fragrances that began with Femininité du Bois (Shiseido, 1992) and included Bois de Violette, Un Bois Vanille, Bois et Musc, Bois Oriental, and Bois et Fruit all spring from that same theme.

In particular, I’m thinking of our old friend Sarrasins, Queen of Moonlight. I’d even wager that Poison directly inspired Sarrasins, with its potent clash of sweet florals (especially the osmanthus core) and balsamic woodiness. It’s as if Sheldrake and Lutens transcribed that unforgettable melody of Poison into a new key and time signature, thereby rendering it practically unrecognizable. Of course, Sarrasins rounds off the composition with that impeccably swoony leather base. It’s also refined, elegant, and mysterious, where Poison has all the subtlety of a Gallagher act. Imagine if Björk admitted Cyndi Lauper taught her everything she knows. Or if Hillary Clinton took public speaking cues from W. Bush.

In the end, the association comes to benefit both Lutens and Flechier. Lutens because he sussed out a brilliantly portable idea in such a distinctive composition, and Flechier because that distinctive (and great) composition has proven to be more influential than we thought. Not just because it paved the way for so many other lovely loudmouths like Angel (also 1992). Unfortunately, Poison is so laden with memories and associations that it’s harder to pull of these days, especially on a man. Still, what’s the point of playing the game if you can’t break a few rules? I wear the Poison eau de toilette from time to time, until I can find an affordable bottle of the pure parfum. If you’re ever in San Francisco, visit Tigerlily in the Mission. They have a wall of vintage formulas, including Poison parfum. For a smell nerd like me, it’s practically worth the whole trip.

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How to (not) smell like a dude

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The first perfume I wore was my dad’s bay rum. Like every other boy, I put on way too much. People near me must have perceived a brownish aromatic cloud with a tall mop-haired boy at the center, gleefully unaware of the smell-carnage in his wake. Some years later, at a department store perfume counter, I picked out my very first fragrance: Versace Dreamer (1996). By then, I already knew how I wanted to smell, and it was nothing like those droning, barbershop perfumes with a horn section that I can only describe as Wagnerian.

If the idea of a Wagnerian perfume conjures up the image of a florid, puffy-chested man with small eyes and a big, fancy watch, you’re not alone. These were not the men I wanted to emulate. When I bought my first perfume, I wasn’t looking for something for the boardroom or the bedroom. I was looking for something that felt luxurious and sophisticated. Something just for me.

Revisiting Dreamer (or at least a version of Dreamer; it may or may not have been reformulated), it doesn’t exactly hold up. But it does take me right back to college, when a little puff from that bottle with the frosted medusa head was all it took to make me feel like the proverbial million bucks. While it doesn’t smell especially classy or romantic to me now, it is miles away from the sporty dreck you might smell in a locker room. Dreamer is a smell to curl up to, its sweet muskiness neither bracing or boastful. It is a perfume for pleasure.

I still look first for that physical pleasure in perfume. Doubtful though I was at first, I regularly put on No. 5 when I need a little extra comfort. Nothing was ever that lovely and just plain gobsmackingly beautiful. I’m not advocating a splash of that famous lady for everyone out there, least of all the men, but it does make me wonder what other men want from their perfume. It’s fine to want to smell nice. I’d even acknowledge the value of smelling nice to impress someone. But doesn’t it sound much nicer to wear perfume for that moment of eye-rolling, posture-melting pleasure that only the best of them provide? It’s out there, gentleman, and it’s not too late to look for it.

In America, at least, how you smell seems to be an embarrassing topic. No matter what I wear (and I’ve worn Secretions Magnifiques to the office, my friends) no one ever comments on it. It seems most people would rather forget that you smell like anything than face the fact that you may be wearing something strange, interesting or–perish the though–beautiful. Perhaps that’s why so many men opt for the blustery male enhancers, which proclaim virility and no sense of humor. If smell, let alone perfume, is to be an uncomfortably intimate subject, then a man’s perfume must speak loud and succinct enough to end the conversation.

These days, I wear mostly feminine perfumes. I’m not willing to give up their inventiveness and romance just to play it safe. I won’t be shutting up about Sarrasins any time soon. Joy (the pre-2010 version) is probably the most generally satisfying perfume I know. Sofia Grojsman’s 100% Love is a mysteriously wonderful combination of the alien and the familiar. Jasmin et Cigarette (just like the name says) is a brilliant idea executed beautifully. All of them pack a hefty wallop of what I’ll call the swoon factor. But what about masculines? Isn’t there something out there to make all you straight-laced dudes weak in the knees? Of course. The few below are a great place to start.

Patricia de Nicolaï’s New York is probably the warmest and friendliest masculine perfume ever. Even in its current reformulated state it still makes me sigh with pleasure. Like all of de Nicolaï’s finest, New York exudes and generosity and approachability that would be plenty satisfying if it weren’t far surpassed by the inventiveness of her compositions and the richness of her materials. She’s one of the original niche perfumers, and she still does the majority of the composition and production under one roof. If you want class and old world style, look no further.

Chanel was late to the game in releasing a “boutique” range of fragrances in 2007. But no one minded when they trotted out the six original bottles in the Exclusifs range. The first Exclusifs masculine Sycomore contains a serious dose of vetiver, but like nearly everything in the Chanel range, that most distinctive of ingredients is transformed into exquisite abstraction. It smells exceptionally natural, with vetiver and sandalwood running the show, but there are far more pleasures under the hood. Then again, you’ll probably just want to kick back and let it wash over you. Let no one say that pleasure is hard work.

Amouage aren’t known for their masculines but Lyric Man is among the best out there. Composer Daniel Visentin cooked up a curious mix of opposites and contradictions. Lyric Man is at once bracing and quiet, spacious and intimate, fresh and humid; and that wondrous central accord of rose, sandalwood, and frankincense is both comforting and odd. Like its sister Lyric Woman, Lyric Man turns the unsettling into the radiant. You may not fall in love with it as quickly as Sycomore or New York–creative director Christopher Chong famously said that his perfumes don’t reveal themselves on the first wearing–but once it gets under your skin it’s there for good.

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