The Time Machine

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Leaving a place that I’ve lived for any given period of time, I’m always surprised by what I miss. When I left Austin three years ago I missed the people, and the grocery shopping (Texas really does have the best grocery shopping of any place I’ve lived, California included), but I also missed this odd little video store not far from my house. I didn’t go there terribly often, maybe two or three times a month, but every time I felt a little surge of pure bliss.

The space itself felt massive, but not cavernous like a warehouse. The owners had converted what felt like a home, while you were greeted with the familiar counter at the entrance, once you walked in the space opened up to reveal a second level. It looked more like a used book store or a library than a video store, complete with wooden shelves and a little spiral staircase. Granted, the place was shabby and scuffed. The signs were handwritten, movie posters on the wall were faded and creased, and the staff played movies on a set of crummy old TVs. Everything bore the marks of simultaneous neglect and care.

Casually strolling in the first time I stopped dead in my tracks. My nose was hit with a smell lifted intact from my childhood. It was the smell of wet earth and the sweet decay of something manmade. It was the exact smell of my childhood neighbor’s basement. Gradually, that store became a place of refuge. Not because I had such amazing memories of that basement, but because the experience of wandering those stacks, of discovery, of the opulence of that collection, and of that smell were all perfectly linked. It was a tiny, little holiday.

Yesterday, I smelled that smell again in Peau d’Ailleurs, one of three new releases in the new Starck Parfums collection: intact, dead-on, and perfectly evocative. And this is one of the great mysteries of fragrance. Perhaps, the smell I’m remember is not terribly uncommon. Even Ms. Menardo, or possibly Starck himself, may have stumbled upon it, and then composed the fragrance with that basic idea in mind. But what if those smells are some kind of natural melody? Music, as in mathematics, naturally comes to certain conclusions; some melodies just seem to happen. Composers working independently regularly arrive at similar melodies or arrangements, just in the way that the essential logic of calculus was developed independently by two dudes with no known connection. Smell and fragrance, I truly believe, work in exactly the same way.

Sometimes perfume stumbles upon (or, if we’re being generous, reproduces) what I can only call “smell truths.” The truth itself being some natural combination of individual notes which reveal themselves to be fundamentally connected. It’s like discovering that the smell of banana has so much in common with iris, or, as in Luten’s peerless Sarrasins, that metamorphosis has a scent. These connections can tell us more about how the world works, just in the way that a Brian Wilson arrangement has the precise inevitability of a scientific law.

And this is where things get really weird. Menardo’s Patchouli 24 for Le Labo pulled off a similar trick. Along with the caked-on smokiness of a day-long cookout, she added a zingy dollop of something sweet. Luca Turin rightly describes that smell as the “sweetness of…decaying old books.” Perfumery has long been enamored of the smell of decay. Indeed even our most demure flowers contain indoles, the same molecules found in rotting flesh. Perhaps Menardo is fascinated with more artificial forms of decay, paper glue in Patchouli 24, and whatever happens to old A/V equipment in Peau d’Ailleurs.

Regardless of all this heady (and possibly fruitless) talk, Peau d’Ailleaurs smells fantastic on the skin. I smell a healthy dollop of patchouli, which among other things, create that sublime smell of a freshly overturned rock. But here that smell is featherlight. It also sparkles and radiates ever so subtly, turning that beautiful smell I remember into a great perfume.

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