When the wolf’s at your door

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Now, I’m not a Shalimar guy. Believe me I’ve tried. I don’t even think I’m a Mitsouko guy, which, for any self-respecting smell-nerd is at least heresy adjacent. I avoided Guerlain’s other pillar L’Heure Bleue because when reviewing the first post-IFRA version Tania Sanchez only had this to say:

A pretty stranger has come in claiming to be your best beloved.  It is hard to be angry with her.  She is clearly out of her mind; they look nothing alike.  You sit and wait patiently for your love to turn up.  The windows go dark, night after night while the stranger smiles and dawdles, waiting for you to forget.  Can you?

With no access to the vintage stuff, I wrote LHB off entirely. Who wouldn’t? After a competent opening, that version gets grim pretty quickly. I can’t imagine why they would they let it go to market. If there’s any justice, sales would’ve been miserable.

Not really meaning to, I ended up at the Guerlain counter at Saks in Beverly Hills. Their rep Alejandro is one of my all time favorite people working sales. He’s honest about reformulations. He doesn’t try to sell you anything. And he’s more than happy to wile away hours letting you dig through his magic drawer of back stock. Last visit, he let me smell the newest version of L’Heure Bleue, reformulated by Guerlain’s head nose Thierry Wasser. Y’all, please believe the hype: LHB is back.

Yes, it’s got a bit of a modern sheen, and it probably doesn’t quite have the staying power of the old stuff, but this stuff moves. You can practically hear the strings when you spray it on. It flirts with edibility but never quite resolves itself as either a gourmand or not a gourmand. It is the best kind of coquette.

But hold your horses, folks, because then something miraculous happened. A friend of mine got a bottle of the parfum–wait for it–FROM THE 1930s!!! And that stuff, to quote Bob Odenkirk, makes other perfume smell like fucking horseshit. It makes No. 5 seem like a snooze. It makes Knize Ten seem staid. It packs a blast of romance and drama unlike anything I’ve ever smelled. I’m tempted to say that it will be hard to go back to normal life after this, but the truth is that it could only make normal life better. Until I meet its like again, that one brief shimmer of beauty will keep me warm. It makes this weary world seem a little brighter.

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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?

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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Duft Sprechen I

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Daniel  “Ginger Thunder” Kumatz is my brother in scented arms. Nobody else can have a decent conversation about fragrance. Luckily, he works for LA’s Scent Bar, and has access to stuff I’ve never even heard of. He keeps me on my toes and in excellent form. Some of my best ideas come out talking with him, so I decided to start sharing some of our (very informal) conversation. Some bits have been removed because I didn’t feel like typing them. I’ve also cleaned up my grammar. And my filthy mouth. 

SMELL DORADO: Fate Woman is so sexy.

Ginger Thunder: I love it. People don’t go crazy for it, though. I’m kind of baffled.

SD: Baffling.

GT: I love how leathery it gets.

SD: It makes me feel ALIVE.

GT: Yeah, [a coworker] conceded that the drydown on my skin was really good.

SD: I actually wore it two days in a row. Which I almost never do.

GT: What happened??

SD: I dunno. Just got a bug up my butt about it.

GT: I wore Mitsouko last night and that bitch is BIG. Like a beast. I don’t know if it’s gotten stronger, macerating in the bottle. But two sprays is PLENTY.

SD: I think I only wear two sprays. It’s pretty amazing. My only problem is that it feels like it’s got the spirit of a lady. Even though the smells work great on a man. It’s just got the soul of a woman.

GT: I feel that. But it struck me as a lady from another era last night. Did not feel contemporary at all. And way more angular than I remembered. That peachy softness wasn’t happening so much. Its bones were poking through the whole time.

SD: It’s sure bony.

GT: It’s still going pretty good this morning.

SD: The softness of it is in the spot where most chypres are sharp. But you are totally right. There is an angularity to it in other places. It’s so hard to pin down. That’s part of what makes it so great. This conversation should go on my blog!

GT: Wait. What?


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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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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.

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.