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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The Time Machine

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Leaving a place that I’ve lived for any given period of time, I’m always surprised by what I miss. When I left Austin three years ago I missed the people, and the grocery shopping (Texas really does have the best grocery shopping of any place I’ve lived, California included), but I also missed this odd little video store not far from my house. I didn’t go there terribly often, maybe two or three times a month, but every time I felt a little surge of pure bliss.

The space itself felt massive, but not cavernous like a warehouse. The owners had converted what felt like a home, while you were greeted with the familiar counter at the entrance, once you walked in the space opened up to reveal a second level. It looked more like a used book store or a library than a video store, complete with wooden shelves and a little spiral staircase. Granted, the place was shabby and scuffed. The signs were handwritten, movie posters on the wall were faded and creased, and the staff played movies on a set of crummy old TVs. Everything bore the marks of simultaneous neglect and care.

Casually strolling in the first time I stopped dead in my tracks. My nose was hit with a smell lifted intact from my childhood. It was the smell of wet earth and the sweet decay of something manmade. It was the exact smell of my childhood neighbor’s basement. Gradually, that store became a place of refuge. Not because I had such amazing memories of that basement, but because the experience of wandering those stacks, of discovery, of the opulence of that collection, and of that smell were all perfectly linked. It was a tiny, little holiday.

Yesterday, I smelled that smell again in Peau d’Ailleurs, one of three new releases in the new Starck Parfums collection: intact, dead-on, and perfectly evocative. And this is one of the great mysteries of fragrance. Perhaps, the smell I’m remember is not terribly uncommon. Even Ms. Menardo, or possibly Starck himself, may have stumbled upon it, and then composed the fragrance with that basic idea in mind. But what if those smells are some kind of natural melody? Music, as in mathematics, naturally comes to certain conclusions; some melodies just seem to happen. Composers working independently regularly arrive at similar melodies or arrangements, just in the way that the essential logic of calculus was developed independently by two dudes with no known connection. Smell and fragrance, I truly believe, work in exactly the same way.

Sometimes perfume stumbles upon (or, if we’re being generous, reproduces) what I can only call “smell truths.” The truth itself being some natural combination of individual notes which reveal themselves to be fundamentally connected. It’s like discovering that the smell of banana has so much in common with iris, or, as in Luten’s peerless Sarrasins, that metamorphosis has a scent. These connections can tell us more about how the world works, just in the way that a Brian Wilson arrangement has the precise inevitability of a scientific law.

And this is where things get really weird. Menardo’s Patchouli 24 for Le Labo pulled off a similar trick. Along with the caked-on smokiness of a day-long cookout, she added a zingy dollop of something sweet. Luca Turin rightly describes that smell as the “sweetness of…decaying old books.” Perfumery has long been enamored of the smell of decay. Indeed even our most demure flowers contain indoles, the same molecules found in rotting flesh. Perhaps Menardo is fascinated with more artificial forms of decay, paper glue in Patchouli 24, and whatever happens to old A/V equipment in Peau d’Ailleurs.

Regardless of all this heady (and possibly fruitless) talk, Peau d’Ailleaurs smells fantastic on the skin. I smell a healthy dollop of patchouli, which among other things, create that sublime smell of a freshly overturned rock. But here that smell is featherlight. It also sparkles and radiates ever so subtly, turning that beautiful smell I remember into a great perfume.