Am I crazy?

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Whether you know it or not, you probably already have an opinion of Edouard Flechier‘s godzillian Poison for Dior (1985). I smelled it on plenty of people growing up. I even remember waiting for my mother in the back of a yoga class while at least one attendee radiated Poison’s plummy tuberose right up to the ceiling. Not so long ago, it was so popular and so reviled that it was banned from restaurants. But thirty years later, amid louder, loucher faire, I was almost tempted to dismiss it as quaint.

The opening is furious and huge, like a jolly purple explosion. And yet, no one tells you that Poison is also intensely tart and woody. I once smelled a freshly cut eucalyptus tree, and it was so sharp and insistent that it smelled sad, like a single note in a minor key sustained on a violin. Poison carries some of that woody lament, employed to offset both the tone and the density of the fruity florals. That juxtaposition rang a bell somewhere deep in my associative memory: I had smelled something very like it before.

The connection struck me from the most unlikely of places: Serge Lutens. While not known for his quiet perfumes, Lutens seems demure and taciturn next to Poison’s day-glo Fran Drescher swagger. Still, there’s no denying the parallels between Poison and the candied woody florals that put the Lutens line on the map. Start by featuring a prominent tangy cedar, sometimes dry, sometimes syrupy sweet and add in a dose of rich florals, amber, fruit, or vanilla as the case may be. That fabulous cycle of fragrances that began with Femininité du Bois (Shiseido, 1992) and included Bois de Violette, Un Bois Vanille, Bois et Musc, Bois Oriental, and Bois et Fruit all spring from that same theme.

In particular, I’m thinking of our old friend Sarrasins, Queen of Moonlight. I’d even wager that Poison directly inspired Sarrasins, with its potent clash of sweet florals (especially the osmanthus core) and balsamic woodiness. It’s as if Sheldrake and Lutens transcribed that unforgettable melody of Poison into a new key and time signature, thereby rendering it practically unrecognizable. Of course, Sarrasins rounds off the composition with that impeccably swoony leather base. It’s also refined, elegant, and mysterious, where Poison has all the subtlety of a Gallagher act. Imagine if Björk admitted Cyndi Lauper taught her everything she knows. Or if Hillary Clinton took public speaking cues from W. Bush.

In the end, the association comes to benefit both Lutens and Flechier. Lutens because he sussed out a brilliantly portable idea in such a distinctive composition, and Flechier because that distinctive (and great) composition has proven to be more influential than we thought. Not just because it paved the way for so many other lovely loudmouths like Angel (also 1992). Unfortunately, Poison is so laden with memories and associations that it’s harder to pull of these days, especially on a man. Still, what’s the point of playing the game if you can’t break a few rules? I wear the Poison eau de toilette from time to time, until I can find an affordable bottle of the pure parfum. If you’re ever in San Francisco, visit Tigerlily in the Mission. They have a wall of vintage formulas, including Poison parfum. For a smell nerd like me, it’s practically worth the whole trip.

Photo credit

Leather in Moonlight

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Sadly, Serge Lutens’s dark beauty Sarrasins is hard to come by. A scant three or four stores in the US carry it, and while it may be easily scooped online, actually smelling it is out of reach for most people. Even among the Lutens collection it’s a bit of an outlier. Its wearability and abstraction recall Chanel, which uncoincidentally is where its composer Christopher Sheldrake spent the mid 00s hard at work launching the Exclusifs collection. Incidentally, that initial launch of 31 Rue Cambon, Coromandel, 28 La Pausa, Eau de Cologne, Bel Respiro, and No. 18 occurred in the same year as Sarrasins, a slew of work which could respectably comprise an entire CV.

Based on the internet consensus, diminished distribution isn’t needed to ensure the scarcity of Sarrasins: very few people actually admit to liking the stuff. Generally, even the aficion seem to prefer Lutens’s A La Nuit, which Luca Turin rightly dubs “death by jasmine.” Far be it from me to tell you that the juice you love is crap, but far be it from you to tell me that Sarrasins, one of the most gobsmackingly beautiful, inventive, and thought-provoking perfumes I’ve ever smelled is anything short of genius. (And if you are one of those unfortunate people who laments the overuse of the word genius, I apologize. I think you people should use it more.)

Sarrasins opens with an explosive jasmine, certainly lifelike, but also powerfully evocative. I even imagine a fresh dusting of sparks as the opening settles. The scent eventually morphs into a slightly sweet leather with tangy balsamic facets. Indeed, even the woody notes in Sarrasins are powerfully suggestive, aching and keening like the smell of a freshly cut tree. It is important to note that while some (even Luca Turin) describe it as a “floral leather,” that descriptor is misleading. Sarrasins is decidedly not the obvious floral with a leather base. Instead, it progresses from floral to leather, suggesting some kind of transformation. The effect is like watching jasmine undergo a metamorphosis, from flower into a leathery skin.

Here the simple idea of jasmine into skin begins to take on a poetic resonance. Metamorphosis is a provocative theme, and Lutens uses it to show a surprising connection between two materials which on the surface could not be more different. This kind of didactic trick was accomplished at least once before by Lutens and Sheldrake. Their La Myrrhe moves seamlessly from choking aldehyde fireworks to crisp, sweet myrrh: a perfect marriage of the chemical and the mystical.

However, in Sarrasins Lutens’s poetic message is even sharper, more coherent, and more insistent. The composition feels streamlined and incredibly refined, with all arrows leading in one clear direction. In the words of Stephanie Zacharek (speaking about Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth), Lutens “pulled off the difficult feat of using pure sensation to make us think.” Consider me converted.