The Old Year


This will not be a typical end of year list*. Not only did I smell so few of the 2000 perfumes (yikers, right?) released this year, but after the corker of a year we’ve all had, getting personal seems to be the only appropriate way to go. Read on for an unabashedly sentimental accounting of those perfumes that buoyed my spirits when the year was darkest.

Amouage

Barely a day goes by that I don’t thank the Lord for Christopher Chong and Amouage. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, can touch their particular brand of towering mega-scents. I may not have rushed out to buy Myths Woman (let alone Myths Man, Bracken Man, or Lilac Love), but Nathalie Lorson‘s green fairy is nothing if not a proper meal. And what a pleasure it was to join her for the twists and turns.

Ultimately Opus X got me to shell out that Amouage-money. (Not the steepest price tag in the game anymore, but a decent yardstick for costliness.) I love weird and I love rose and when the two come together with Annick Menardo on the bill and an Amouage budget, well, can you really blame me? It’s loud, raucous and unmannered. But it’s also warm and open-hearted. The beautifully modulated rosy lament is rousing, never overwhelming. An epic with a light touch.

Galop d’Hermes

Christine Nagel‘s opening salvo for Hermes may have made all the year-end lists I read. And to think, some people were worried about how she’d handle the pressure. I confess that most of Jean-Claude Ellena‘s work for Hermes didn’t land for me. (The obvious exception being Osmanthe Yunnan: as close to perfect as one could hope for.) Galop d’Hermes made me think, “Jean-Claude, who?”

Nagel’s leather and rose accord in Galop d’Hermes is remarkable enough to make you root for the big houses again. Complex though it is, it will always remind me of the smell of grooming a horse after a ride. Nagel’s composition is built from some of the loveliest stuff around, but the shape and structure are undeniable. Y’all, this is some exquisitely sweaty horse butt.

Starck Paris

No great fan of Phillipe Starck and his steely brand of bombast, I eyed the Starck Parfums display at my local Neimans with understandable skepticism. And then, in a second, my grumpiness evaporated. All three of those absurdly named perfumes are worthy of serious attention.

Sure, Dominique Ropion flexes his muscles with the genteel musk of Peau de Soie. And Daphné Bugey puts a very clever spin on a crowd-pleasing woody amber. But it’s Annick Menardo who really shines with her gently futuristic meditation on growth and decay. Peau d’Ailleurs is classic Menardo, as succinct and insistent as Patchouli 24, but tender and dreamy. Let her take you by the hand.

Mathilde Laurent

Full disclosure, I have a crush on Mathilde Laurent: a perfectly impossibly schoolboy crush. It’s not just her perfumes, or that fantastic smile, it’s that she seems genuinely warm, silly, and unpretentious. She showed up to an interview in metallic cowboy boots.

Manning the helm at Cartier, she has her name on no fewer than eight releases this year alone. I remember smelling L’Envol for the first time, trying to reign in my optimism. “I’ll be damned,” I thought, my eyes widening, “that bastard did it.” Yes, it smells great. And Laurent managed to pull off an instantly winsome masculine without any of the grating, chest-thumping tropes. But this stuff does something barely any masculines ever have done: offer shimmering, radiant fun. Unlike even some of the best perfumes for men, L’Envol doesn’t convey gravitas or a life well-lived. It’s not merely trying to impress. 

But strap yourself in. Because that lovely little gem isn’t even the best thing she did this year. This is the year that Mathilde Laurent also gave us L’Heure Perdue, a work of supreme accomplishment, intelligence, and beauty. But as much fun as it is to dissect, L’Heure Perdue is simply exceptional perfumery, as miraculous as this stuff gets.


*On a side but important note, it heartens me greatly to find so many woman leading mainstream perfume houses. In an industry where even Frederic Malle cosigns the exclusion of women, the glass ceiling is a low as ever. Wonderful then, to see these women deservedly appointed to notable positions as they effortlessly kick out the best stuff of the year. We’ve got a long way to go, but lots to be grateful for. Cheers, ladies.
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Cleanliness and Fraudliness

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Recently, a friend sheepishly asked if I would give her a fragrance consultation. (She had no idea how thrilled I was to do it, or how many unsolicited rantings and musings she was about to get.) Although she ended up settling on a bottle of Le Labo’s Oud 27 (which Luca Turin rightly describes as “properly pornographic”), she initially described her ideal scent as “clean and fresh.” I had to check myself before diving into a nerd/snob eyeroll. In most cases, clean and fresh simply means safe and dull.

One of my greatest pleasures is crawling into clean sheets after a shower. But this fetishism of a very specific kind of clean smell seems almost moralistic, like it’s posed in opposition to funkier, more bodily “foreign” smells. The idea of “clean” is unsurprisingly culturally constructed. And it changes not only between cultures but across time, too. The smell of carbolic soap, which you can smell today in Neutrogena’s T-Gel shampoo, used to be the olfactory gold standard of clean before it was supplanted by crisp citrus smells in the 1960s. These days, all our soaps, laundry detergents, and fabric softeners are infused with potent dose of buzzy white musks. Why? Probably, depressingly, simply because it’s cheap.

I once read a snippet of something arguing that leathery fragrances gained popularity in the 1920s when more and more women started smoking. The smell of rectified birch tar, then widely used to mimic the smell of tanning chemicals in leather perfumes, blends nicely with cigarette smoke. Moreover, there was a time when perfume was meant to blend with bodily smells. So many of those pre-50s classics (Bandit, Joy, and Shalimar, to name just three) have a strong dose of funk. They don’t beg to be worn on unwashed flesh, but they do mingle nicely with the actual smell of a human body.

Not all “clean” perfumes are a cheap joke. Sophia Grojsman‘s classic White Linen (1978) makes clean feel properly salubrious and invigorating. Frederic Malle’s Outrageous (also by the inimitable Grojsman) takes the smell of laundry musk and turns it into a proper fragranceThe great Jean Claude Ellena has composed some top-notched well-scrubbed fragrances, including Osmanthe Yunnan and L’eau d’Iver. And it’s hard to go wrong with Chanel No. 18. More daring readers can try Mark Buxton’s Comme des Garcons 3 or Odeur 71, both of which play cleverly with the idea of cleanliness.

Those looking for good sweaty fun are in luck. Recent years have seen the niche market flooded with extreme animalics, inspired possibly by Serge Lutens’s loved and feared Muscs Koublai Khan. For a while there it seemed like everyone was out to win the funky arms race, piling on the (synthetic) civet, castoreum and oud. These smells certainly evoke old-world glamour (like the tremendous Maai by Bogue and the aforementioned classic bombshells), but they also create a cozy intimacy. And it’s not just a matter of smelling like you’ve just been riding horseback all day: Lutens and so many others have found a way to make stinky smell beautiful. Admittedly, it’s not for everyone. But, tell the truth, aren’t you just a little curious?