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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Cheap and Cheerful

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Depending on where you buy perfume you may or may not have noticed the mind boggling jump in prices. If you buy a bottle of your old standby from Nordstrom or Neimans every year or so, you probably haven’t noticed much difference. However, if you dip your toe in the waters of niche perfumers (e.g. anything that has relatively small distribution and doesn’t have a designer or celebrity name on the label) you’ve seen prices go from spendy to very high to obscene.

While mainstream perfumes may not have increased as dramatically in price, their formulas have compensated by becoming appallingly cheap. According to Chandler Burr, the big labels now typically spend roughly 70% less on the actual perfume than they did in the 90s. If you’ve smelled Dior’s Sauvage, you know what I mean. I personally don’t know how in ten years that house went from Dior Homme (2005), which is chock full of the good stuff, to something that smells like someone misplaced half the formula.

Certainly, we need Amouage and Frederic Malle and Serge Lutens, all of whom require that you pay through the nose (pun definitely intended). But they do usually deliver the goods, albeit, at around $300 a bottle. Still, if great perfume is to be relevent for the average person it can’t cost your monthly food budget. Duh. Duhsville.

There are some reasons to hope. A few major perfume houses still use good raw materials to make a reasonably-priced product. Estee Lauder is one. You can buy a masterpiece from Calice Becker (Beyond Paradise) or Sofia Grojsman (White Linen) for less than $50. In the niche market Gorilla Perfumes does proper fragrance for a song. And Patricia de Nicolaï‘s Parfums de Nicolaï has turned out affordable bottles of the highest quality juice since the 80s.

Despite what all the legends and lore would have us believe, a high price tag and a good wallop of “natural oils” (which could very well mean precisely nothing) doesn’t mean that the stuff in the bottle is good or even expensive to make. The house of Creed is an excellent example, with their criminally inaccurate claims of using only the best naturally-derived ingredients. All companies lie, even Chanel and Frederic Malle. Unfortunately, the only way to keep from getting swindled is a critical nose and plenty of homework.

“…Cuz I’ll replace you!…with THE NIGHT!”

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Dominique Ropion‘s oud monster The Night is not available for sale on the Frederic Malle website. I had to ask to smell it at the Barneys in Beverly Hills. The excellent sales associate (Malle reps are always the best) was more than happy to retrieve a shiny gold box from one of a dozen identical white drawers and spray a bit on a testing strip. She was even kind enough to send me home with a tiny sample. So far, I’ve eked out a few cautious wearings.

For some time now, niche and mainstream outfits alike have pumped out bottles with “oud” on the label (or aoud, or oudh, as the case may be), attempting to court both those with a fetish for exoticism and the people who came up with oud perfume in the first place. In almost all cases, it isn’t real oud, but no one seems to mind. Despite the heavy saturation of “ouds,” there is still room in the ultra-high-end of the market. With a purportedly unprecedented dose of 60% Cambodian oud, and a spit-take-inducing $800 price tag, The Night was clearly intended to be the final word in Western oud perfumery.

If you’ve spent any time with Ropion’s Portrait of a Lady, you’ll find the melody at the core of The Night familiar. However, instead of patchouli you get oud as no Western perfumer has previously dared. Montale’s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie, my previous landmark for supremely animalic oud, came to mind when I first put the smelling strip to my nose. But on skin, the story changes. While Aoud Cuir certainly smells animalic, The Night smells like an actual animal. Every terrible thing to which you’ve heard oud compared (bad cheese, dirty band-aids, good cheese) are all beautifully apt, but instead of recoiling I leaned in. The initial blast is still unlike anything I’ve ever smelled, producing a physical sensation of glee. Nothing was ever this dangerous. Have you ever been to a My Bloody Valentine concert? It was kind of like that.

For Ropion and Malle it must have been a thrilling exercise, and the grand result is stunning and virtuosic. The combined perfectionism of Malle and Ropion has produced an exquisitely executed take on the classical oud and rose combo, a seamless cloak of oud and deep resins with sparkling red jewels. The music of the composition as it moves from the teeming salvo of the opening to the quiet, but still dangerous dry down is superbly accomplished. But at the end of the day, do we really care about how “good” something is? Don’t we really just want something to move us? On that score, I may still prefer Montale’s Black Aoud, certainly not cheap, but vastly more affordable than The Night. Black Aoud strikes a perfect balance between synthetic and natural, between good taste and bad. While The Night is a perfume of unquestionable sophistication and sensuality, Black Aoud is a perfume for adventure.

If you’ve just bought your bottle of The Night, I applaud you. If you balk at both the price and the uncompromising oudiness, fear not. There are many other fantastic options out there. My two favorites are Montale’s Black Aoud and Elie Saab Essence No. 4 Oud, the first being relatively easy to find and the latter devilishly tricky. And if you like the smell of The Night but can’t or won’t go full oud, opt instead for Malle’s Portrait of a Lady, which is apparently just as popular with men as with women.