Smelling the Met Gala

This year’s Met Gala honored Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons, a decades-strong leader of the fashion avant-garde. Depressingly, far too few people actually wore Kawakubo’s stuff, which is more often seen on the street than at a formal event. If you are lucky enough to have the money and the invite to a fete celebrating Comme, then by god should you wear Comme. And everyone who tried to limp by on some other kind of “funky/weird” (maaaaaassive eyeroll over here at SMELL DORADO HQ) were even more infuriating than the staid souls who just wore something nice (see Gisele and Tom). No Katy Perry, this is not the time to wear Margiela. Rei Kawakubo GAVE BIRTH to Margiela. Go home.

To sooth my mounting nerd rage, a very dear friend suggested I write a post imagining what perfume some Met Gala notables were wearing. So here we go, Ms. Ashley Shew. If this gets optioned for a book, you’ve got a royalty check coming your way.

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There’s something both admirable and ill-advised about what’s going on here. I have a little crush on Priyanka, so I’d like to imagine her in something decent. I’m thinking classic chypre, like Bandit or Chinatown.

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The Dream Team. On him Cuir de Russie. On her, I’m thinking Sophia Grojsman. Perhaps 100% Love.

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Sheer perfection. I’m going to go with S-Ex by S-Perfumes. Weird but sumptuous, and a little masculine.

 

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Too much, but pleasantly so. Perhaps something zingy and natural from the Masque Milano line: either L’Attesa or Romanza.

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Just L’Eau d’Issey: that’s the meanest/most accurate thing I could think to say.

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Something from Roja Dove, I think. Or Gucci Rush, since I rather like Celine.

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I still don’t know what a Lil Yachty is, but I like his style. My first thought was Amouage Gold Man, but I think this demands something more tacky/cool. I’m gonna make an oddball call and say Cartier’s L’Heure Perdue.

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Iris Silver Mist. Done.

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The Old Year


This will not be a typical end of year list*. Not only did I smell so few of the 2000 perfumes (yikers, right?) released this year, but after the corker of a year we’ve all had, getting personal seems to be the only appropriate way to go. Read on for an unabashedly sentimental accounting of those perfumes that buoyed my spirits when the year was darkest.

Amouage

Barely a day goes by that I don’t thank the Lord for Christopher Chong and Amouage. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, can touch their particular brand of towering mega-scents. I may not have rushed out to buy Myths Woman (let alone Myths Man, Bracken Man, or Lilac Love), but Nathalie Lorson‘s green fairy is nothing if not a proper meal. And what a pleasure it was to join her for the twists and turns.

Ultimately Opus X got me to shell out that Amouage-money. (Not the steepest price tag in the game anymore, but a decent yardstick for costliness.) I love weird and I love rose and when the two come together with Annick Menardo on the bill and an Amouage budget, well, can you really blame me? It’s loud, raucous and unmannered. But it’s also warm and open-hearted. The beautifully modulated rosy lament is rousing, never overwhelming. An epic with a light touch.

Galop d’Hermes

Christine Nagel‘s opening salvo for Hermes may have made all the year-end lists I read. And to think, some people were worried about how she’d handle the pressure. I confess that most of Jean-Claude Ellena‘s work for Hermes didn’t land for me. (The obvious exception being Osmanthe Yunnan: as close to perfect as one could hope for.) Galop d’Hermes made me think, “Jean-Claude, who?”

Nagel’s leather and rose accord in Galop d’Hermes is remarkable enough to make you root for the big houses again. Complex though it is, it will always remind me of the smell of grooming a horse after a ride. Nagel’s composition is built from some of the loveliest stuff around, but the shape and structure are undeniable. Y’all, this is some exquisitely sweaty horse butt.

Starck Paris

No great fan of Phillipe Starck and his steely brand of bombast, I eyed the Starck Parfums display at my local Neimans with understandable skepticism. And then, in a second, my grumpiness evaporated. All three of those absurdly named perfumes are worthy of serious attention.

Sure, Dominique Ropion flexes his muscles with the genteel musk of Peau de Soie. And Daphné Bugey puts a very clever spin on a crowd-pleasing woody amber. But it’s Annick Menardo who really shines with her gently futuristic meditation on growth and decay. Peau d’Ailleurs is classic Menardo, as succinct and insistent as Patchouli 24, but tender and dreamy. Let her take you by the hand.

Mathilde Laurent

Full disclosure, I have a crush on Mathilde Laurent: a perfectly impossibly schoolboy crush. It’s not just her perfumes, or that fantastic smile, it’s that she seems genuinely warm, silly, and unpretentious. She showed up to an interview in metallic cowboy boots.

Manning the helm at Cartier, she has her name on no fewer than eight releases this year alone. I remember smelling L’Envol for the first time, trying to reign in my optimism. “I’ll be damned,” I thought, my eyes widening, “that bastard did it.” Yes, it smells great. And Laurent managed to pull off an instantly winsome masculine without any of the grating, chest-thumping tropes. But this stuff does something barely any masculines ever have done: offer shimmering, radiant fun. Unlike even some of the best perfumes for men, L’Envol doesn’t convey gravitas or a life well-lived. It’s not merely trying to impress. 

But strap yourself in. Because that lovely little gem isn’t even the best thing she did this year. This is the year that Mathilde Laurent also gave us L’Heure Perdue, a work of supreme accomplishment, intelligence, and beauty. But as much fun as it is to dissect, L’Heure Perdue is simply exceptional perfumery, as miraculous as this stuff gets.


*On a side but important note, it heartens me greatly to find so many woman leading mainstream perfume houses. In an industry where even Frederic Malle cosigns the exclusion of women, the glass ceiling is a low as ever. Wonderful then, to see these women deservedly appointed to notable positions as they effortlessly kick out the best stuff of the year. We’ve got a long way to go, but lots to be grateful for. Cheers, ladies.

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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Arabia Felix

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Of all the classic perfume genres orientals are probably the most flexible. Most chypres have that instantly recognizable bitter tang. Fougères smell more or less like something your dad would wear. Florals pile on the requisite flowers and woods the requisite woods. But orientals are a dizzyingly diverse crowd, from spicy/sweet earthbound ambers (e.g Ambre Sultan) to boisterous oddballs like Thierry Mugler’s Angel. Many of them are painfully boring: you smell one, you’ve smelled them all. Orientals are the dance music of the perfume world. Among the bubble-headed dreck and perfunctory crowd pleasers you’ll find a growing list of innovative fragrances using the basic oriental blueprint to achieve wonderfully strange results.

Cartier’s L’Heure Perdue by Matilde Laurent may open with sweet, powdery loveliness, but things get weird quickly. The main accord smells like some combination of balloon rubber and gluey, pulpy paper. In other words, like no natural material I know. And yet the fidelity suggests a top-quality natural material. You’ll also find an overripe fruit smell (à la Amouage’s Lyric Woman) adding a spooky dimension to an already odd fragrance. But while Laurent’s brilliant composition strikes out for brave new territory, it is always comforting. The plush sweetness helps the strangeness go down easily and provides a sturdy backbone on which to hang the more peculiar flourishes.

You can’t talk about orientals without mentioning Serge Lutens. There’s the landmark Ambre Sultan, my favorite straight-up “amber.” And Borneo 1834 which does magical, evocative things with patchouli. The real heart of the collection, however, lies in the mystical and semi-mystical compositions, including La Myrhhe and El Attarine, which practically vibrate with mystery and suggestion. (More on El Attarine in a future post.) The melodies may be simple, but they cast a big shadow.

And then there’s Amouage, purveyors of some of the biggest, loudest and most complex perfumes I know. The majority of the collection falls firmly in oriental territory, but the best examples are so big and ambitious that they transcend the genre entirely. Take the inimitable Ubar. Calling it a floral oriental (which is not inaccurate) is like calling Kanye West a rapper. Like Mr. West, Ubar is decadent, complicated, and loud. But precious few perfumes holding forth at this volume have something so enchanting to say. It’s the smell equivalent of  a shimmering golden sandcrawler, blasting Mahler from top-range speakers. It’s also packing a glorious dose of ambergris: salty, musty, and deliciously skanky. If you’re looking for grand splendor look no further. The prices are steep, but rest assured, there’s nothing else like Amouage on earth.