You don’t know iris (pt. 2)


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)


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…