Duft Sprechen I

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Daniel  “Ginger Thunder” Kumatz is my brother in scented arms. Nobody else can have a decent conversation about fragrance. Luckily, he works for LA’s Scent Bar, and has access to stuff I’ve never even heard of. He keeps me on my toes and in excellent form. Some of my best ideas come out talking with him, so I decided to start sharing some of our (very informal) conversation. Some bits have been removed because I didn’t feel like typing them. I’ve also cleaned up my grammar. And my filthy mouth. 

SMELL DORADO: Fate Woman is so sexy.

Ginger Thunder: I love it. People don’t go crazy for it, though. I’m kind of baffled.

SD: Baffling.

GT: I love how leathery it gets.

SD: It makes me feel ALIVE.

GT: Yeah, [a coworker] conceded that the drydown on my skin was really good.

SD: I actually wore it two days in a row. Which I almost never do.

GT: What happened??

SD: I dunno. Just got a bug up my butt about it.

GT: I wore Mitsouko last night and that bitch is BIG. Like a beast. I don’t know if it’s gotten stronger, macerating in the bottle. But two sprays is PLENTY.

SD: I think I only wear two sprays. It’s pretty amazing. My only problem is that it feels like it’s got the spirit of a lady. Even though the smells work great on a man. It’s just got the soul of a woman.

GT: I feel that. But it struck me as a lady from another era last night. Did not feel contemporary at all. And way more angular than I remembered. That peachy softness wasn’t happening so much. Its bones were poking through the whole time.

SD: It’s sure bony.

GT: It’s still going pretty good this morning.

SD: The softness of it is in the spot where most chypres are sharp. But you are totally right. There is an angularity to it in other places. It’s so hard to pin down. That’s part of what makes it so great. This conversation should go on my blog!

GT: Wait. What?


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Review: L’Heure Perdue by Cartier

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Spraying L’Heure Perdue on this morning in my pajamas, I was tempted to curl up in a sunny spot and call it a day. Not only was the stuff giving me a serious case of the ol’ swoons, but it played just fine with my tatty jammies. Certainly, you could rock it with a fancy outfit. Perhaps not full ball gown/black tie, but you never know… Unbelievably, it also smells great with jeans and a t-shirt, certainly a luxurious choice, but never costumey or demanding. When was the last time you smelled something that hit all those marks?

Best of all, L’Heure Perdue is both deeply weird and cuddly. Just like the best of Chanel, when I get a good whiff I feel a wave of pure pleasure, right down to my molecules. My mom, a smell novice with great taste, had the same reaction. To top it all off, L’Heure Perdue is beautiful and complex and impressive enough to appease even the most finicky of perfume nerds. The only problem is the price tag.

I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’d actually like to quote the blurb from the website. I’ve never read any copy that was both so apt and so honest.

Voluptuous and intimate like the scent of familiarity, L’Heure Perdue owes all to science so clever in posing as natural when in fact it is a feat of alchemy. The fragrance explores the artificial through a precipitate of large synthetic molecules, particularly vanillin.

They even declare proudly that the stuff is heavily synthetic! Along with its many other lovely contradictions, the fragrance smells like a synthetic but behaves like a natural. It is smooth and soft, and never outstays its welcome.

The name suggests a reference* to Marcel Proust, whose À la recherche du temps perdu (I understand from Wikipedia) deals with smell and recollection. All of that would be obnoxious if it didn’t fit the overall effect of the fragrance so perfectly. Smelling L’Heure Perdue conjures up memories and associations that refuse to find a solid form. Instead they shift and reverberate, casting ever longer shadows. Don’t sleep on this one, my friends.

 


*I also wonder if it’s a reference to Guerlain‘s epochal but now gutted L’Heure Bleue.
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my smellnifesto: or, now I know how the vegans feel

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At a party, or a job interview, or on a dating app, or any random venue for perfunctory small talk, someone will ask me what I do for fun. I mumble something about biking and swimming (both true), about reading and writing (true-ish), but when pressed I’m forced to admit that my real gig is perfume. Who knows exactly what people think when I say that. Maybe they imagine something untoward, like this silly movie (Ben Whishaw’s contributions to hotness and acting, notwithstanding). Or something just plain creepy, like a besotted Mark McGrath having nosegasms in the aisles of Sephora.

Occasionally, I’ll get a pitying look that says, “oh bless your heart, but couldn’t you have picked a more impressive hobby?” More often, people just get plain confused, and behave like my mother would if you mentioned that you just got really into BDSM. (For the record she’d be really polite, and stiffly but sweetly say things like, “Wow, you make it sound so fulfilling!” and “It sounds like a very supportive community!”)

It can get a little lonely. Not only do so few people care one jot about perfume, fewer still want to talk about it. Among that handful probably two or three really can jam. To be fair, I’m super picky. I don’t get too far into the weeds picking out notes*. I don’t care about silly gimmicks or stories that some overeager PR intern shoehorned into the press release. I don’t care where the ingredients were sourced. I don’t necessarily care who composed it. I’m a tough crowd. A tough crowd of one.

What I do care about is the ideas. Luca Turin (who should really be considered more a cultural theorist than a perfume critic, at this point) refers to it as a “message in a bottle”: the full piece and what it ultimately means. Every smell has a meaning. When you smell a blooming flower or a rotting apple that smell is a message, encoded into what we perceive as smell, telling us to come closer or stay away**. When you add up a bunch of smells you either get incomprehensible mud or something that means more than its parts. Only decent perfumers, working with evaluators and artistic directors, can create a cogent story. Far fewer can create something important, let alone something that moves you.

That’s why I get so excited when I smell something great. Not only is it rare, but it’ll set me alight like nothing else can. Unlike music or books or even traditional art, perfume rides the highway straight past my brain and into my heart***. The best stuff illuminates and awakens. (Take Sarrasins, which, with no intended overstatement, is like an ancient poem transcribed by modern means.)

It can get awkward. You’re not going to make any friends bugging out in the aisles of Neiman Marcus. (Or I haven’t yet at least. I don’t know who hires their sales associates, but I never quite feel welcome there.) Not long ago, a friend and I breezed into a Cartier store, and inquired after L’Heure Perdue. The sales associate looked shocked. As we holed up in the cramped back corner where they chucked some of Mathilde Laurent’s finest, we were watched over by a bewildered security guard, who I caught casting us glances as we geeked and proclaimed.

But looking back, I don’t think I’d change a thing. Those of us who get it are like astronauts. And so few people have been to space. A few lonely hours on earth are certainly worth it to touch the veil. And that’s what this life is like.


*Most perfume geeks love digging around for individual notes the way that turtlenecked oenophiles do with wine. It’s not the same. Perfume is designed to be perceived as a single voice, in the way that a painting or a really good burger is a single entity, containing–in the best cases–multitudes.
**Yes, I’m the guy walking around working my nose like a dog. Every smell has something to say.
*** Contrary to what Tania Sanchez would have us believe, connecting our nose to our brain is not the problem. Who ever wanted to “think” more about art? Blech.
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F for Fake

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I was tempted to call this post The War on Nature, since all these Stalin-esque IFRA restrictions seem bent on wiping affordable and complex naturals from the face of the perfumery world. If things get any crazier, we might see a return to the all-synthetic stadium fillers of the 1980s. Sure, the Synthetic 80s gave us Poison and Boucheron, but egads…just start burning books again, why doncha! Restricting citrus and lavender and jasmine and oakmoss smells suspiciously like a ploy to dilute or decimate on those legacy perfumes that people still (understandably) buy in droves.

Of course, natural materials are tricky and expensive. There can be variability in crops and batches. And since naturals include a mix of hundreds or thousands of molecules, it can be harder to know exactly what’s in them. It takes an expert hand (i.e. an expensive, experienced hand) to handle them properly on a big scale. Synthetics are only a few molecules, sometimes just one. You can control costs and predict behavior much more easily.

In the wrong hands, synthetics are boring, and, worst of all, hold forth at the same forehead-melting frequency and volume for much longer than you’d like. Using plenty of naturals won’t ensure a rich and complex result, but aiming for something rich and complex using only synthetics requires some seriously heavy lifting.  Still, there’s reason for hope. Two high-end brands are currently killing it with heavily synthetic, heavily brilliant perfumes. Both Amouage and Cartier have the best perfumers in their stable and invest enough money and time in a formula to regularly turn out a good product.

Amouage’s Christopher Chong has big ideas and the money/muscle to put them on the shelves. When he puts out something like Opus IX the nerds and the fanboys take notice. Sure, it’s massively synthetic, but it’s also ridiculously complex. It may not be wholly successful, but it got me wondering if Chong isn’t seeing the writing on the wall, and embarking on a new era of manmade marvels. With any luck we’re in store for years of perfumes as big, strange, and beautiful as his previous high-water-mark Ubar

If the idea alone of synthetics turns you off, consider this… They’ve been a part of Western perfumery for more than 100 years. The history of French perfumery is the history of synthetic perfumery. And above all, synthetics allow you to introduce a truly novel idea. I’ve been wearing Christophe Laudamiel‘s S-Ex for S-Perfumes quite a lot lately, and that Rakim-level accord of leather and alien new car smell would be inconceivable without synthetics. Without ’em you’re left with a drastically restricted palette and very little hope for the future.

Still, it’s no excuse to go medieval on our noses with a bunch of silly regulations. Restricting materials in the name of allergy restrictions doesn’t hold water for a couple of reasons. First, the studies that IFRA used to determine offending materials had–to put it delicately–issues with their sampling practices. You can’t decide to wipe out 75% of perfumery’s legends because a few Danes got a bit of a rash. Second, the process was far from methodical. Restricted materials seem to have been chosen at random. Or extremely strategically, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, which I am. None of it would pass muster given any oversight or peer review.

The only reason to roll back IFRA’s restrictions is–you guessed it–money. IFRA is made up of the most powerful names in perfume, the leaders of the Big Five: Symrise, Givaudan, Robertet, IFF, and Takasago; designers and producers of essentially all of the world’s perfume. New restrictions mean brand owners have to come back to the firms for a new formula, and pay handsomely for it. It also means that the firms have another opportunity to sell their clients proprietary or “captive” materials, their major cash cows.

In an industry as secretive and insular as perfume, how are you supposed to fight back? Sometimes the little guys do pull it off. Niche perfumers are turning out their own versions of the classics, just as the originals are reformulated beyond recognition. Stateside, where you can still put practically anything you want in a perfume–may it ever be thus, Amen–perfumers are yet to really capitalize on their freedom. Admittedly, those perfumes could never be sold in the EU. But guess what, who cares? The fastest growing markets are in Asia and the Middle East. If France is willing to set fire to the Louvre (so to speak) then fuck ’em. As Etienne de Swardt said, perfume is dead, long live perfume.

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“Genderbender”

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Unisex perfumes are having a moment. They may never catch on in mainstream fragrance, but over in the niche market (i.e. generally more adventurous perfume with limited distribution) unisex is the de facto marketing strategy. It may have started with Serge Lutens, who, possibly for artistic reasons, doesn’t distinguish between perfume for men or women*. The rest of niche perfumery followed suit. You’ll hardly ever see any reference to gender on a bottle of niche perfume.

Unisex is fine, but I’m more fascinated by the rare beast that alternates between masculine and feminine. I was reading an article about Chanel‘s new release Boy, composed by Olivier Polge. The author stated that Polge had once again turned out a “genderbender,” the others being Florabotanica and Dior Homme. It caught my attention because I’ve always considered Dior Homme feminine, even though it obviously smells like a dude’s perfume. Dior Homme partakes in a fascinating push and pull of opposites and paradoxes. It smells like a barbershop, yet it’s both powdery and luxurious. It is undoubtedly sweet, but never dopey. It smells great on a woman (I gave some to a friend of mine and she loved it) but it perfectly captures that slinky, fashion wraith that Dior Homme’s then creative director Hedi Slimane loved so well.

At this point you’re probably sick of hearing me drone on about Lyric Man. It’s a rose for men, but there’s nothing terribly new or daring about that; men in the Arabian peninsula adore rose. Lyric Man takes it a step further: it smells like a feminine but behaves like a masculine. That brain breaking sentence aside, while it may seem a little odd at first, wearing it is effortlessly pleasurable. Where most masculines shout, Lyric Man radiates and shimmers. Even the most “masculine” bits (e.g. the woodiness and humid quality) are rendered tenderly. Every time you reach a conclusion on Lyric Man, it changes.

Ultimately, how a perfume behaves is more important than the notes it contains. I have a hard time imagining Montale’s Black Aoud as anything but a masculine. And yet it contains enough rose to make an Estee Lauder diehard recoil. Amouage’s Gold Man is an abstract floral of the old style with cool sheets of clean incense and the volume turned up to 11. A woman could certainly wear it, but its carriage and tone make it a great choice for the guy with a fat wallet and nothing to prove. How something cozies up (or doesn’t) with your own funk is all you need worry about when picking a fragrance, perfume “gender” be damned.

Imagine a power-suited hedge-funder wearing Apres les Ondee. Or your fancy aunt wearing Azzaro Pour Homme. The surprise is half the fun. Perfume has always been a place where people play with gender and expectations. In the 1980s, the gentleman’s foghorn Drakkar Noir was adopted by lesbian culture. One sales associate confessed to me that he has a sizable male clientele who surreptitiously buy a bottle of Montale’s Roses Elixir every year without fail. Wild juxtapositions done right make the component parts seem more interesting. Splash on some No. 5 under your grandpa flannel. Coco would have approved.

*What constitutes feminine or masculine in a fragrance is a massive, and often problematic discussion. I’ll leave the meaning of those descriptors up to the reader. However, you can read a snippet of my take on the conversation here. 

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Regarding your terrible perfume

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It’s really not your fault. The choice was made for you by cynical marketers and money grubbing brand magnates. You can’t know better because they don’t want you to smell the good stuff. When you pump out that Flowerbomb from its weapon-fetishizing bottle, it feels like a cloud of childlike joy compared to the stuffy juice your mom used to wear. Never mind the fact that tens of millions of other people wear it. Forget that it’s basically Angel without the wit or charm or originality. For you, it does everything a perfume should do. It makes you feel young and fancy. It is pure, decadent pleasure.

The thing is…I kinda like it. Let me be clearer. I don’t like it, the it being the perfume itself, although technically it’s reasonably well-executed. I like that you’re wearing it. That I get to smell this stupid, ludicrous thing. That it makes me think and critique and question my assumptions and my prejudices. Then there’s the pure sensation of it. Because, like it or not, it does work. It’s like being in a club, and it’s late, and you’re loose and sweaty, and some dopey Katy Perry song comes on, and it’s PERFECT. 

Sometimes, just sometimes, any music is better than no music at all. To paraphrase the tremendous Simon Doonan, bad taste is like a dash of paprika. Every needs at least a little. And who knows, maybe some day you’ll graduate to something really great. You might stumble upon a bottle of 100% Love or even a classic something from Chanel. I’m a firm believer in gateway drugs.

Here’s my only piece of advice: buck the dang system. Don’t just shop at Sephora or Nordstrom or Macys. Give my friends a call at Scent Bar at let them send you a few samples of something truly surprising and beautiful. You’re not going to find unless you dig. Patience is key. Wear it a few times. Be critical. Don’t listen to anyone’s advice. Trust your gut. Put the stuff through its paces. Make sure it holds up and smells good right up to the dry down. Make those perfumers and sales associates work for your business. After all, you’re going to live in this stuff. Settle for nothing less than swoony.

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