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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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.  


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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.

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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.

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?

 

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.

You don’t know iris (pt. 2)

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Check out Part One here.

Chanel’s 28 La Pausa is undeniably lovely. But if fault must be found I’d say it’s a bit too genteel, a bit too fancy. It’s also clearly a perfume in the classic Chanel mold, intended to be effortlessly wearable and unobtrusive. Serge Luten’s Iris Silver Mist is another beast altogether. In so many ways it is the polar opposite of 28 La Pausa: brutal, unabashedly vegetal, and tricky as hell to wear.

Most of the Lutens line is concerned with celebrating the less polite facets of a given natural raw material. Very few–Sarrasins is one exception–smell like conventional perfume compositions. Papa Serge, undisputed king of the kooky perfume mystics, would go even further. He would say that his perfumes unearth the true metaphysical nature of their components. For once, it’s not marketing dreck. Though Lutens has turned out his fair share of crap, the good stuff is truly otherworldly. As one sales associate put it to me, “he lives somewhere between the 13th and 14th century.” Oh, and he hates vaporiser bottles.

None of which really prepares you for Iris Silver Mist. If 28 La Pausa is fancy-aunt-on-the-weekend Iris Silver Mist is villain-in-drag-at-a-funeral. You can practically hear the pipe organ. At least some of its harrowing timbre comes from synthetics, which here act like a sustain pedal, drawing out the chorus until it reaches the rafters. The synthetics in the composition are vital to the overall effect, making out louder, grander, and more poetic than even the best iris could do on its own.

If Lutens wanted an iris to scare the kids by God he got it. He demanded that iris be reckoned with on its own terms, neither succumbing to dreariness nor bent and reformed into luxury. Instead he offers a powdery, shimmering force, beautiful but utterly unsettling. Wearability was therefore not his first concern, and those looking for comfort will want to look elsewhere.

Like any good work of art it does get under your skin. I find myself drawn to it again and again. Not for the pure pleasure of wearing it, although it is pleasurable, but to solve the mystery at its core. In other words, I wear it to learn its secrets. Was there ever a better reason to wear perfume?

 

You don’t know Iris (pt. 1)

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Until fairly recently iris was one of the most expensive raw materials in a perfumer’s palette. As soon as someone made a decent synthetic iris, however, the note began cropping up everywhere, from Olivier Polge‘s fantastic Dior Homme to Prada’s rather dull Infusion d’Iris. Still, most of us have never smelled the real thing, partly because it’s so expensive and partly because good iris always smells so melancholy. Teary eyes don’t sell perfume.

Many perfumers take that melancholy quality as a challenge. The immortal Iris Gris, which is considered one of the very best perfumes of all time, included a peach note, supposedly–I have not smelled it–making it warm and cheery. Violet, too, pairs well with iris, adding a carefree bouyance that nonetheless obscures some of the iris’s natural gifts. The braver perfume houses have put out irises paired with materials like patchouli (Le Labo’s Iris 39), which emphasize rooty, earthy notes. The bravest of all have dared to pair it with banana, an odd but utterly winning combination.

Enter Chanel’s 28 La Pausa (apparently named for one of Coco Chanel’s homes, blah blah blah…), which packs a hefty dollop of top quality iris. 28 La Pausa blows straight past melancholy and arrives instead in pure bliss. Harnessing that peculiar magic that seems readily on hand at Chanel, the dreariness and isolation are transformed into a secret little holiday. In typical Chanel fashion, 28 La Pausa is more abstract than it is representational. It’s as if the prodigously gifted Chanel braintrust managed to make that most finicky of flowers do their bidding. I actually felt my eyes roll back in my head with pleasure as I smelled it for the first time. You’ll never wear anything like it.

Of course, pure luxury isn’t everyone’s thing. And that kind of demure beauty easily falls into preciousness in the wrong hands. So many niche firms have churned out faithful, expensive irises, that nonetheless fail to break any new ground. Like vetiver, in all but the most skilled hands, iris is just iris.

But if you hanker for a wholly different breed of iris, you’re in luck. Part Two digs into Serge Luten’s Iris Silver Mist, which turns every tricky facet of the iris root (the breadiness, the carrotiness, the metalicness) up to an ear-splitting 11, with miraculous results. Stay tuned…

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.