Mint for men

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At my favorite breakfast place with my best friend, I was drinking mint tea. Actually, he was drinking the tea and I was pinching sips. When I brought the stuff to my nose, I noticed a bleachy quality, the same thing I notice in lavender essential oil. When I brought it up, he mentioned that all those plants are from the same family. The lamiaceae family, which, as it turns out, includes the full spectrum of aromatics so vital to “masculine” perfumery: lavender, sage, and, less often, mint.

I picked up a bottle of Guerlain’s Derby this weekend. I walked in expecting to buy something else entirely and then found myself, led by the nose (pun definitely intended) by this dry and teeming man-chypre. I generally agree with Luca Turin’s edict that “there is nothing so good as a good chypre,” and few things, I found, are as good as Derby. It is as dry and dignified as its brother in quality and comportment Chanel Pour Monsieur, but not quite so buttoned up. Even, perhaps, a bit of a rogue.

In typical Guerlain fashion, the composition is dizzyingly complex, but not so crowded that a bright mint note doesn’t stand out. In Derby’s spicy surround, it is rendered creamy and rich, far from the stridency found in toothpaste, etc. Here, mint was used as one would use lavender, a gentle nod to fougère structure that further expands the emotional reach of Derby.

Mint crops up in a few other masculines: Frederic Malle’s Geranium Pour Monsieur, Comme des Garçons’s 2 Man, Heeley’s Menthe Fraiche, and perhaps most inventively in Dirty by Gorilla Perfumes. Each one is very good, and makes the case for using mint in novel ways, not just in masculine fragrance. However, there’s something about how it crops up in the heart of Derby, radiating out from among the bed of spices and leather. The stuff positively sings. Perhaps thats because, more than any other perfume I’ve listed, Derby employs mint for emotional impact. More than a cooling element, or a stand-in for other more common aromatics, Derby’s mint flirts with near edibility. It is inviting, comforting, and substantial.

Derby is the rare “for men” fragrance that fits me just fine. In its current incarnation at least, it is neither a chest thumper nor a club shouter. It is relaxed and refined, more dashing than anything else in its league. If Cary Grant had smelled this, I wonder, would he have thrown out his Green Irish Tweed?

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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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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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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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How to (not) smell like a dude

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The first perfume I wore was my dad’s bay rum. Like every other boy, I put on way too much. People near me must have perceived a brownish aromatic cloud with a tall mop-haired boy at the center, gleefully unaware of the smell-carnage in his wake. Some years later, at a department store perfume counter, I picked out my very first fragrance: Versace Dreamer (1996). By then, I already knew how I wanted to smell, and it was nothing like those droning, barbershop perfumes with a horn section that I can only describe as Wagnerian.

If the idea of a Wagnerian perfume conjures up the image of a florid, puffy-chested man with small eyes and a big, fancy watch, you’re not alone. These were not the men I wanted to emulate. When I bought my first perfume, I wasn’t looking for something for the boardroom or the bedroom. I was looking for something that felt luxurious and sophisticated. Something just for me.

Revisiting Dreamer (or at least a version of Dreamer; it may or may not have been reformulated), it doesn’t exactly hold up. But it does take me right back to college, when a little puff from that bottle with the frosted medusa head was all it took to make me feel like the proverbial million bucks. While it doesn’t smell especially classy or romantic to me now, it is miles away from the sporty dreck you might smell in a locker room. Dreamer is a smell to curl up to, its sweet muskiness neither bracing or boastful. It is a perfume for pleasure.

I still look first for that physical pleasure in perfume. Doubtful though I was at first, I regularly put on No. 5 when I need a little extra comfort. Nothing was ever that lovely and just plain gobsmackingly beautiful. I’m not advocating a splash of that famous lady for everyone out there, least of all the men, but it does make me wonder what other men want from their perfume. It’s fine to want to smell nice. I’d even acknowledge the value of smelling nice to impress someone. But doesn’t it sound much nicer to wear perfume for that moment of eye-rolling, posture-melting pleasure that only the best of them provide? It’s out there, gentleman, and it’s not too late to look for it.

In America, at least, how you smell seems to be an embarrassing topic. No matter what I wear (and I’ve worn Secretions Magnifiques to the office, my friends) no one ever comments on it. It seems most people would rather forget that you smell like anything than face the fact that you may be wearing something strange, interesting or–perish the though–beautiful. Perhaps that’s why so many men opt for the blustery male enhancers, which proclaim virility and no sense of humor. If smell, let alone perfume, is to be an uncomfortably intimate subject, then a man’s perfume must speak loud and succinct enough to end the conversation.

These days, I wear mostly feminine perfumes. I’m not willing to give up their inventiveness and romance just to play it safe. I won’t be shutting up about Sarrasins any time soon. Joy (the pre-2010 version) is probably the most generally satisfying perfume I know. Sofia Grojsman’s 100% Love is a mysteriously wonderful combination of the alien and the familiar. Jasmin et Cigarette (just like the name says) is a brilliant idea executed beautifully. All of them pack a hefty wallop of what I’ll call the swoon factor. But what about masculines? Isn’t there something out there to make all you straight-laced dudes weak in the knees? Of course. The few below are a great place to start.

Patricia de Nicolaï’s New York is probably the warmest and friendliest masculine perfume ever. Even in its current reformulated state it still makes me sigh with pleasure. Like all of de Nicolaï’s finest, New York exudes and generosity and approachability that would be plenty satisfying if it weren’t far surpassed by the inventiveness of her compositions and the richness of her materials. She’s one of the original niche perfumers, and she still does the majority of the composition and production under one roof. If you want class and old world style, look no further.

Chanel was late to the game in releasing a “boutique” range of fragrances in 2007. But no one minded when they trotted out the six original bottles in the Exclusifs range. The first Exclusifs masculine Sycomore contains a serious dose of vetiver, but like nearly everything in the Chanel range, that most distinctive of ingredients is transformed into exquisite abstraction. It smells exceptionally natural, with vetiver and sandalwood running the show, but there are far more pleasures under the hood. Then again, you’ll probably just want to kick back and let it wash over you. Let no one say that pleasure is hard work.

Amouage aren’t known for their masculines but Lyric Man is among the best out there. Composer Daniel Visentin cooked up a curious mix of opposites and contradictions. Lyric Man is at once bracing and quiet, spacious and intimate, fresh and humid; and that wondrous central accord of rose, sandalwood, and frankincense is both comforting and odd. Like its sister Lyric Woman, Lyric Man turns the unsettling into the radiant. You may not fall in love with it as quickly as Sycomore or New York–creative director Christopher Chong famously said that his perfumes don’t reveal themselves on the first wearing–but once it gets under your skin it’s there for good.

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The Golden Goddess

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I’ve never known anyone who wore Chanel No. 5. My mom wore L’air du Temps. My grandmother wore Opium. Plenty of my mom’s friends wore Poison. I grew up mostly unmarked by probably the most famous fragrance of all time. That’s probably why I have no trouble wearing it. Sure, the smell of aldehydes (those soapy sparkles in the top notes) and jasmine on a 6’2″ bearded dude is a bit of a stretch. But with something this good, it’s definitely worth the gamble.

No. 5 now comes in four different concentrations: eau de toilette, eau de parfum, eau premiere, and parfum; the parfum being the closest to Ernst Beaux‘s original formula. I recently scooped a vintage bottle of Jean Patou’s Joy, which I like to think of as The Rolling Stones to No. 5’s Beatles. Both Joy and No. 5 are quite abstract, although No. 5 probably more so. But while Joy has a notable dose of civet and a crisp tang that promises danger, No. 5 is serene, demure, and utterly pleasurable.

In the past, I’ve had little use in my collection for “comforting” perfumes. Jean Claude Ellena’s Osmanthe Yunnan kicked that door open for me and it wasn’t long until I was completely under its spell.  No. 5 offers a similar sense of uplift, both heartening and optimistic. It’s also devoid of the funk and filth that I usually seek out in florals (see Joy, Sarrasins, you name it). And I wasn’t sure how well that creamy pillar of refined femininity would jive with my Lebanese man funk.

Surprisingly, I found No. 5 completely wearable. Daubing a few drops on my arm from that exquisite glass stopper I fell prey to complete bliss. Never have I smelled anything so heartbreakingly beautiful. Familiarity with the excellent eau de parfum and even the peerless eau de toilette concentrations had failed to prepare me for the dizzying loveliness of the parfum. Luxury never felt this good.

The No. 5 parfum feels more complex than its siblings, the similarly luscious Bois de Iles and the strapping Cuir de Russie, all of which were composed by Ernst Beaux and debuted in the 1920s. The aldehydes in No. 5’s opening are undeniably lovely, but in the parfum they are rendered smoother and more seamless than in either the eau de toilette or eau de parfum, adding sparkle to the rest of the composition’s golden form. No. 5 is a real presence in the room, never overbearing or distracting, but fully real. I recently smelled it in passing and felt that familiar sense of comfort and delight. Some things are so beautiful that they make you feel more alive. No. 5 is one of them.

You don’t know iris (pt. 2)

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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)

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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…