Helsinki on my mind

The last ten days in Helsinki shook me up. If my experience is any indication, the Finns are not satisfied with the merely pretty. Showmanship or flashy flourishes have little currency. Instead, you’ll find clear-eyed design imbued with exceptional empathy and civility. One particularly famous architect even designed his hospital wash basins to minimize noise, so that patients might have a more peaceful space to recover. That generosity of spirit was on display everywhere I looked.

In the fragrance department at Stockmann (a kind of Finnish Macy’s, with an excellent “food court”) the only non-mass-market line was the minimalist and mostly dull Armani Privē. The Finnish furniture icon Artek have a perfume in a similar style made by Comme des Garçons, a crisp frankincense with emphasis on the citric qualities. Superficially at least, it’s a natural pairing with Artek’s blonde wood and spare calm. Elsewhere in Helsinki perfume was hard to come by. Boutiques carried the Comme des Garçons line, if they carried anything at all.  Whenever I smelled perfume in a crowd it was either something clean and mainstream or an ambery, woody snoozer. Finland, it seems, is not perfume country.

Thankfully, Finland also has little patience for scented cleaning products. Not once did I smell my personal kryptonite of musky soaps and shampoos. Nobody smelled like a freshly-body-sprayed teenager. Most things just smelled…quiet. All this olfactory white space made the little things shine brighter: fresh berries in an outdoor market, wood polish, good wool. Everything I smelled with connected to something else. Nothing was scented in vain.

With three days left in Helsinki a vicious head cold killed my sense of smell. Not only was it a crushing bummer to not smell or taste properly, but it really started messing with my equilibrium. Not being able to smell myself was bad enough, but I realized how much I rely on my nose to get my bearings. I felt half-blindfolded walking into a new space. I kept searching around for other input, trying to make sense of where I was, but no dice. I might as well have been wearing an eye-patch.

In the customs line in Philadelphia International the culture shock was subtle but apparent. Americans are at their most American while waiting in line, and surrounded by my haggard fussy countrypersons, I felt both a little sad and glad to be back. Although certainly comforted by the familiar, I already missed the gentle pace of Finland. Helsinki welcomed me without a second thought, was never less than patient with my loud American West style. There may be a place for me there. Now I just have to earn it.

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Top Ten: Perfumes for a First Date

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There are a couple of ways to think about this: either you’re trying to make a good first impression (and not rock the boat too much, lest you scare off your date), or you’re laying all your cards on the table. I’m more of a believer in the second strategy. Better someone know that I dig skanky florals sooner rather than later. Still, the following list will satisfy both camps. And many of them can be worn safely to dinner (numbers 7 and 8, excepted).

10. Dior Homme, Dior (vintage)

Great on a man or woman. Both casual and dress-up-able. A great thing to wear if you don’t want to seem like you care too much. (Not that I’d ever recommend that.) Dior Homme is somehow both youthful and substantive; rakish enough for a kid, but potent enough for someone with backbone. And if it’s good enough for Bertrand Duchaufour, it’s good enough for you.

9. Après l’Ondée, Guerlain

A perfume for tender souls. It’s got classical glamour in spades, but it’s light and streamlined enough for drinks somewhere chic and upscale. Less overtly sexy than it is beautiful and romantic. If you really love perfume, Après l’Ondée is a must.

8. Like This, Etat Libre d’Orange

For a label known for making us squirm (Secretions Magnifiques, anyone?) this juice is some of the cuddliest and most instantly winning around. Like This spans a wide spectrum from sweet pleasures to charming oddball. Unassuming but fascinating.

7. Fate Woman, Amouage

They should have called this one Jubilation XXX. Nobody goes big like Amouage. Fate Woman is so bright and rich that you almost expect to find lesser perfumes orbiting it. It practically levitates. It’s also a particularly adult kind of sexy. A great way to show ’em you mean business.

6. Parfum de Therese, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

Many tears have been shed over the current state of Edmond Roudnitska’s masterpieces. These days, Parfum de Therese is probably the closest you can get to a great fruity chypre from the guy who owns fruity chypres. (He owns them.)

5. Cuir de Russie, Chanel

If dating for you is more of a power struggle, then Cuir de Russie may be your bag. Never has anything smelled so purely of excess disposable income. And be sure to get the parfum; the eau de toilette is nice, too, but with nowhere near the sock-in-the-jaw pop of its big sister.

4. Lyric Man, Amouage

One of the weirdest “masculines” on the market. It’s like smelling someone hard at work in a very “eclectic” greenhouse. Sweaty yet crisp. Floral yet hairy-chested. If you want sultry and mysterious with a dash of the exotic, look no further.

3. Ambre Sultan, Serge Lutens

Before every label turned out an “amber,” Serge Lutens gave us this spicy jewel. On the Swoon Scale it’s at least an 8. Just good, salty fun.

2. Carnal Flower, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle

Carnal Flower may very well be Dominique Ropion’s apology for composing Amarige, the stuff that convinced an entire generation that they hate perfume. I defy anyone to smell this stuff without thinking of sex.

1. Sycomore, Chanel

Sycomore checks so many different boxes it’s hilarious. Bright and sunny? Check. Office appropriate? Check. Sexy as all-get-out? Like, whoa. In typical Chanel fashion, a perennial favorite (in this case, vetiver) has been rendered almost unrecognizable, reformed into the platonic ideal of “golden-green.” Perfect for almost any occasion.


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what to wear when: Live Music

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Classical

You might not want to wear anything. I have plenty of memories of being stuck in a theatre with someone wearing Chernobyl-level amounts of “going-out” perfume. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s like having a cell phone ringing in your ear for hours. Probably the safest bet is something pre-World-War-II. Or pretty much anything from the Chanel range. (Except Chance, Antaeus, or (egads) Blue de Chanel.)

Jazz

Try something sweet and dirty. My first thought was Dior‘s discontinued Jules (I wish I could recommend Jazz, but I just can’t). Knize Ten would be an excellent choice, regardless of gender.

Indie Rock

With so many sweaty young bodies around you, you’ll probably want something light,  weird, and modern. Something like Jasmin et Cigarette or S-Ex. 

Dad Rock

If there ever was a time to wear a big, strapping fougère, it’s to that Steely Dan concert. Hard to do better than Kouros, but Nicolaï’s newish Amber Oud (not really an amber, or an oud) could work great, too.

Funk/Soul

This seems like the time for an oriental. Something loud, proud, and sensual. Muscs Koublaï Khan was my first choice. Although, Fate Woman would be smashing, too. Almost anything from Amouage, and several from Serge Lutens would do.

EDM

The temptation to go for something synthetic is great. However, I think you’d be better off with something fresh but strange, like Thierry Mugler’s Cologne or Frederic Malle’s under-appreciated Outrageous by the unequaled Sofia Grojsman. 

Metal

This is a tricky one. Just by chance I was wearing Yatagan at a Torché show recently, and it was bloody perfect. I’ve always thought that Secretions Magnifiques offers the right kind of rush to pair with furious sheets of noise. Then again, maybe you want to wear something to contrast, like 31 Rue Cambon or Mitsouko. In any case, probably something abstract, with a sense of uplift.  


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Review: Jubilation XXV by Amouage

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How rare it is to find a perfume with an accurate name. Certainly, Amouage are a company that trade in opulence. But unlike their price-tier brethren (e.g. Parfums MDCIFrederic MalleSerge Luten‘s “cloche” series), you won’t find any stuffy elitism here. Just the loudest, most lavish party imaginable. Indeed, Jubilation XXVmakes me think of Chanel No. 5, both in richness and overall effect. Both juices conjure up a bright golden form. But while No. 5 is smooth and sculptural, Jubilation is explosive and, let’s just say it, jubilant. It’s like a lava eruption that you want to hug. Or a mosh pit (remember those??) full of golden muppets.

The opening doesn’t pop like a gunshot. Instead it loosens up and unfurls like a great street band, radiating pure energy before you even know what hit you. And Jubilation’s composer Bertrand Duchaufour (the closest thing the smell world has to a rock star) knows how to unobtrusively fill a room. It’s not a swooner, but it is a shot in the arm.

The stylized smell of what I think is supposed to be ambergris–I’ve never smelled the real stuff–comes in like a sea breeze, albeit a sea breeze carrying some notable funk. Still, it’s light and sexy. I might even say it’s suggestive more than it’s outright animalic. I for one, begin to think naughty thoughts once the dry down hits. But that might just be me.

Jubilation is generally considered an “oriental fougère” (i.e. a fougère first and an oriental second). And while it packs the requisite goods to satisfy fans of both genres, I am most drawn to the fougère components. Those of us who want the heft and expansiveness of fougères without the fuddy-duddy-dad trappings common to things like Rive Gauche Pour Homme will love Jubilation. It’s certainly not made with the young man in mind, but it’s far from reserved and straight-laced. In fact, combining fougère pleasures with the hot lashings of resins and spices begins to seem quite daring.

Still, this is a perfume built for pleasure, not for dissection. Like many of Amouage’s other offerings, it’s built to last. I can even smell it 24 on, well after a hot shower and a solid night’s sleep. Spray it on and party hard.


*I’m working with a older bottle here, which I purchased. Not sure about the actual vintage.
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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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