Too good for this world

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Apple’s Jony Ive once said that people are very good at sensing how much care went into making something. The trouble is, care isn’t nearly enough. Even very carefully made products so often arise from an exploitative spirit, from the shabby way contributors are treated to the cynicism and parsimony demonstrated to the audience. There do exist in this weary world those brave souls who will give the customer a fair shake, people who charge less than they might and deliver more than they could. In the world of perfume, these companies are rare. As niche perfumers drive prices sky high, the big brands have followed suit, charging more for cruder, shoddier compositions. Never has it been possible to spend so much on so little.

Which is why smelling Nicolaï’s New York Intense last week actually brought me to tears. Patricia de Nicolaï didn’t have to put such lovely materials in the formula. She didn’t have to polish the stuff until it positively brimmed over with warmth and generosity. But, she did. And that generosity, that sensation of not just care but of being cared for, is what makes her one of the most valuable artistic voices at work today. I imagine Mme de Nicolaï making perfumes, not for an abstract customer or market, but for a friend, and for someone to whom she holds herself accountable.

Of course, it smells great, too. I’ve always thought of New York–in any formulation–as the most comforting fragrance I know. No showy flashes. No modern cleverness. Just a fantastic melody played on keen instruments, its sumptuousness derived from de Nicolaï’s diligent tuning and counterbalancing. Unlike other master technicians–Dominique Ropion comes to mind–every choice, every careful turn adds up to delight. As I smell it I can feel my whole body relax.

The curmudgeons among us might say that she just happens to be really, really good at her job. That exemplary creations naturally create the effect of sentience, and thereby intention. But I’m an optimist. Her work is not just great but personable, making easy terms for those who would seek it. Her work is not challenging, but it is, in every sense of the word, satisfying.

Perhaps people like Patricia de Nicolaï were always meant to come scarce, but I think not. For those who listen, she can remind us to demand more and deliver better. I for one am paying attention.

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what to wear when: Live Music

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Classical

You might not want to wear anything. I have plenty of memories of being stuck in a theatre with someone wearing Chernobyl-level amounts of “going-out” perfume. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s like having a cell phone ringing in your ear for hours. Probably the safest bet is something pre-World-War-II. Or pretty much anything from the Chanel range. (Except Chance, Antaeus, or (egads) Blue de Chanel.)

Jazz

Try something sweet and dirty. My first thought was Dior‘s discontinued Jules (I wish I could recommend Jazz, but I just can’t). Knize Ten would be an excellent choice, regardless of gender.

Indie Rock

With so many sweaty young bodies around you, you’ll probably want something light,  weird, and modern. Something like Jasmin et Cigarette or S-Ex. 

Dad Rock

If there ever was a time to wear a big, strapping fougère, it’s to that Steely Dan concert. Hard to do better than Kouros, but Nicolaï’s newish Amber Oud (not really an amber, or an oud) could work great, too.

Funk/Soul

This seems like the time for an oriental. Something loud, proud, and sensual. Muscs Koublaï Khan was my first choice. Although, Fate Woman would be smashing, too. Almost anything from Amouage, and several from Serge Lutens would do.

EDM

The temptation to go for something synthetic is great. However, I think you’d be better off with something fresh but strange, like Thierry Mugler’s Cologne or Frederic Malle’s under-appreciated Outrageous by the unequaled Sofia Grojsman. 

Metal

This is a tricky one. Just by chance I was wearing Yatagan at a Torché show recently, and it was bloody perfect. I’ve always thought that Secretions Magnifiques offers the right kind of rush to pair with furious sheets of noise. Then again, maybe you want to wear something to contrast, like 31 Rue Cambon or Mitsouko. In any case, probably something abstract, with a sense of uplift.  


Photo credit 

Don’t Forget to Save the World

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Without realizing it, I got stuck in the deep end of “serious art.” In a rush to fill in the gaps in my perfume knowledge–and collection–I focused on the essentials, the masterpieces, and the great works. It led me to the door of some amazing places. I recently rediscovered Ubar, and the bigness and strangeness of that rare beast reminded me in seconds why perfume is so great.

But sometimes, you need to lighten up. Amouage and Lutens may make you swoon, but you might feel silly wearing them to a comedy show. Or to a cookout. Then I remembered Etat Libre d’Orange, that defiantly idiosyncratic, occasionally bawdy, usually provocative french line with over 30 bottles in their range. They lay claim to probably the most reviled fragrance on the market with Secretions Magnifiques, but also put out one of the most comforting (Like This). On the surface they may seem irreverent and campy, but below the ludicrous ad copy and the goofy drawings of ejaculating penises, you’ll find brilliant artists and top-drawer perfumes.

The best stuff in the line can be thrown on as easily as a t-shirt. Plus, it’s got the complexity and quality (owner and mastermind Etienne de Swardt swears that they spend more than $300 a kilo on their juice, more than 10x what the stuff at Sephora usually costs) to last you through the day. Somehow they’ve managed to include all the fun of the low brow with all the satisfying richness of lofty, haute parfumerie. Certainly, they have their high-concept works (e.g. the aforementioned Secretions Magnifiques), but generally they manage to be both strange and wonderful. That balancing act alone is no small feat. Their great successes–Jasmin et Cigarette, for example–make it seem natural and effortless.

Most of all, the whole line exudes a spirit of discovery and delight, as if they can’t quite believe they are getting away with it. Which makes sense, since Etienne de Swardt seems to be simultaneously daring, reckless, and rigorous. I include Etat Libre d’Orange in a short list of perfume companies (see also Knize and Parfums de Nicolai) which ask so little and work so hard to please. Add to that fresh lashings of gleeful adventure and you’ve got one of the most charming, satisfying, and accessible niche lines out there.

Etienne de Swardt is fond of saying “frivolity will save the world.” Ironic or not, tongue in cheek or not, the poetry of that statement hits home. De Swardt is the odd bird with a host of big ideas and a light touch. Sure, he can talk like a philosophy major, but clearly he’d rather let his hair down at the concert. For those about to rock, I salute you.

 

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.