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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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?

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.

“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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Where there’s smoke…

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Smoky, woody fragrances have been a part of the masculine* fragrance landscape for ages. Knize Ten (1925), perhaps the first fragrance marketed to men, is above all else smoky. Guerlain’s Derby has a green smoky, woodiness, punched up with tremendous richness and complexity. Caron’s Yatagan takes a slightly different tack, exposing the animality in this fragrance palette. More recently Chanel’s Sycomore and Frederic Malle’s French Lover (sold as Bois d’Orage stateside) offer modern takes on the theme, the former resolutely sunny and the latter humid and overtly vegetal.

Mark Buxton‘s blockbuster 2 Man (2004) for Comme des Garçons continued a string of excellent avant garde compositions which ultimately changed the landscape of perfume. It may recall other members of its smoky-woody brethren, and these days you can’t swing a cat without hitting an incensey perfume with plenty of woody amber aromachemicals.  But even a casual sniff reveals a fragrance that is odd, illuminating, and deceptively abstract.

It might be tempting to consider 2 Man the arty inverse of Chanel No. 5. Both make crucial use of aldehydes to create a warm, waxy effect. Both are considerably abstract, No. 5 more obviously so. But while No. 5 is bright and dense, 2 Man is airy, transparent, and chiaroscuro dark.

2 Man contains a number of materials that all suggest ceremonial smoke. Frankincense is the most obvious association, with its sharp citric bite. But something about the composition draws attention to the way the individual parts are put together. The trick is difficult to describe but the effect is delightful. It’s as if Buxton found a way to make all the ingredients hang suspended in the air together, with plenty of space in between, before gradually coalescing into a shiny whole. It’s like looking at an exploded view of a moving car engine, where the parts slowly interlock and move into an assembled machine.

Other perfumes have handled the woody-smoky theme better. And if you want a straight-no-chaser frankincense perfume you’ll want to look elsewhere. Still, there is a mystery and a simple pleasure to this fragrance that is all but gone from mass market perfume these days, especially masculines. It may no longer be on the cutting edge, but it’s still a magnificent creation, and one that smells great on the skin.

*I did a post on “masculine” perfumery, and it may have been a little misleading. There are certainly acknowledged masculine forms or genres of perfumery. The fougere is the only genre intended first for men, of which Cool Water, Kouros, and Rive Gauche Pour Homme are some of the purest and best examples. The fougere is marked by lavender and other aromatic smells, sweetened on the top by vanillic, nutty smells and rounded out on the bottom by an inky, mossy base.