When the wolf’s at your door

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Now, I’m not a Shalimar guy. Believe me I’ve tried. I don’t even think I’m a Mitsouko guy, which, for any self-respecting smell-nerd is at least heresy adjacent. I avoided Guerlain’s other pillar L’Heure Bleue because when reviewing the first post-IFRA version Tania Sanchez only had this to say:

A pretty stranger has come in claiming to be your best beloved.  It is hard to be angry with her.  She is clearly out of her mind; they look nothing alike.  You sit and wait patiently for your love to turn up.  The windows go dark, night after night while the stranger smiles and dawdles, waiting for you to forget.  Can you?

With no access to the vintage stuff, I wrote LHB off entirely. Who wouldn’t? After a competent opening, that version gets grim pretty quickly. I can’t imagine why they would they let it go to market. If there’s any justice, sales would’ve been miserable.

Not really meaning to, I ended up at the Guerlain counter at Saks in Beverly Hills. Their rep Alejandro is one of my all time favorite people working sales. He’s honest about reformulations. He doesn’t try to sell you anything. And he’s more than happy to wile away hours letting you dig through his magic drawer of back stock. Last visit, he let me smell the newest version of L’Heure Bleue, reformulated by Guerlain’s head nose Thierry Wasser. Y’all, please believe the hype: LHB is back.

Yes, it’s got a bit of a modern sheen, and it probably doesn’t quite have the staying power of the old stuff, but this stuff moves. You can practically hear the strings when you spray it on. It flirts with edibility but never quite resolves itself as either a gourmand or not a gourmand. It is the best kind of coquette.

But hold your horses, folks, because then something miraculous happened. A friend of mine got a bottle of the parfum–wait for it–FROM THE 1930s!!! And that stuff, to quote Bob Odenkirk, makes other perfume smell like fucking horseshit. It makes No. 5 seem like a snooze. It makes Knize Ten seem staid. It packs a blast of romance and drama unlike anything I’ve ever smelled. I’m tempted to say that it will be hard to go back to normal life after this, but the truth is that it could only make normal life better. Until I meet its like again, that one brief shimmer of beauty will keep me warm. It makes this weary world seem a little brighter.

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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?