Monday, June 30, 2008

vintage perfume ad of the day: Giorgio Beverly Hills

What can you say about this perfume, application of which was practically mandated by law at one time? You see the packaging and a boat of memories comes floating back. In one of these memories, it's high school, between classes, and you're approaching the cool girls in the hallway, wishing you could evaporate, because you really don't feel like dealing with their shit, they're such a clique, really they just want to spread shit about people, which you could never really understand, because if you're so fantastic, if you're so great, why do you need to waste so much time talking trash? What are you trying to prove? That you're not the one who's ugly? That you're not as average, as generally unexceptional, as you worry you might be? As you get closer to their crowd, they contract in toward some unseen nucleus of exclusion, their backs to you, and your stomach sinks, then tightens, then you're like, Oh get over it, grow up, this is only High School, and you remember what your mother always says, "They're just jealous, that's all, green with envy." Then you remember how ridiculously out of touch your mother sounds when she says that, so ridiculously out of touch that you can't possibly be reassured by it. So they're jealous. So what. You still have to deal with them everyday. And of course as you pass there are tremors of laughter, that heartless cackle indigenous to the shallow. They're probably commenting on your hair, or your shirt, the way you're holding your books: they take pains to make sure you can't tell exactly what they're ostracizing you for, so you can't actually change something to win their acceptance, and instead will feel an overall nagging sense of inferiority. You look ahead to get through it, beyond them to a time when these girls will be bitter and disappointed, waiting at home for The Guy, who is out making money but will come home smelling like stale office coffee and upholstery that sees a high quotient of fat asses per day. You can see how their bitterness will have shaped them; their figures, their faces, their outlooks. How boring they'll be. And where will they go, what will they do, with no one, with nothing to contract into? Like you, they wear Giorgio, but the similarities end there. For them it's badge, for you it's armor. It keeps their laughter at bay, drowning it out with the white noise of near-stink. You can't put it on or smell it without seeing those yellow and white stripes, a sunny prison consigning you to life among your "peers". Even the bottle is brutal, shaped like a club, like something you'd hit someone over the head with. It hides who you really are, protecting that, so you can preserve it for a time safe enough to bring it out, if a time like that ever comes. It doesn't matter what Giorgio smells like, or whether you actually like it. It's part of your school uniform. What matters is, they can't get through it to you.

Dandy of the Day: Isabella Blow (1958-2007)

Isabella Blow was an English magazine editor and international style icon. The muse of hat designer Phillip Treacy, she is credited with discovering the models Stella Tennant and Sophie Dahl as well as the fashion designer Alexander McQueen (she bought his entire graduate thesis collection). Blow often said her fondest memory was trying on her mother's pink hat, a recollection that she explained led to her career in fashion. She worked with Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley at various points. As with Talley, half her work seemed to be expressing and asserting her personal aesthetic. In a 2002 interview with Tamsin Blanchard, Blow declared that she wore extravagant hats for a practical reason:
" keep everyone away from me. They say, Oh, can I kiss you? I say, No, thank you very much. That's why I've worn the hat. Goodbye. I don't want to be kissed by all and sundry. I want to be kissed by the people I love."
Toward the end of her life, Blow had become seriously depressed and was reportedly anguished over her inability to "find a home in a world she influenced". Other pressures included money problems (Blow was disinherited by her father in 1994). On May 6, 2007, during a weekend house party at Hilles, where the guests included Treacy and his life partner, Stefan Bartlett, Blow announced that she was going shopping. Instead, she was later discovered collapsed on a bathroom floor by her sister Lavinia and was taken to the hopsital, where Blow told the doctor she had drunk the weedkiller Paraquat. She died at the hospital the following day.

Images of Blow, in which her inimitable spirit is abundantly apparent, remain iconic illustrations of committed individualism. We at I Smell Therefore I Am believe that Blow might have worn any of the following:

Robert Piguet's Fracas - tuberose softened in butter.

Frederic Malle's Carnal Flower - the exact moment of

orgasm, bottled.

Ava Luxe Midnight Violet - a bed of violet glowing under the moon, the smell wafting upwards with each step taken through the woods.

Annick Goutal's Sables - a bonfire in the field, its smoke surrounding you, leaving with you on your clothes.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

This Week at the Perfume Counter: In which your roving I Smell Therefore I Am reporter makes the marketplace rounds, nostrils flared

Earlier this week, I dropped in at Sephora, which has become something of a pit stop for me, though it’s well out of my way and nothing in the store or about the sales staff bothers to encourage these return visits. I enter eagerly, as ever, defiantly naïve. Logic tells me there won’t be anything new on the shelves. Reason tells me the staff will again ask me to repeat the word Guerlain. Even so: I persist in the hope that something I haven’t heard of yet or have forgotten to await impatiently will be featured among the brightly lit banks of veritable has-beens.

I’d never thought about it before, but with their black outfits and their headsets and the miniature microphones the personnel at Sephora do resemble the shadowy CIA figures in conspiracy movies. You approach the perfume wall alone, with that furtive anticipation unique to the perfume-obsessed, and when you turn around, there they are, forced smiles on their faces, taking glib pleasure in having startled you. If like me you’re at Sephora frequently, the CIA agents regard you knowingly, creating the impression, along with their deportment and dress, that all the available dirt on you is filed away in a secret manila folder behind the scenes. Bought two bottles of Black Orchid three weeks ago, someone pipes into her headset from the central control room. One at this location. One across town. Returned one. Returns often. Looks suspicious. Watch him carefully.

Welcome to Sephora, they sing; can they help you? Before you can answer, they’re whispering into their microphones. Whatever they hear by way of response causes them to snicker, or causes you to suspect they’re trying not to.

Invariably, they cannot help you, and here’s why:

The odds are, they have no abiding passion for perfume. They work for minimum wage: do you expect them to chat about the difference between the various vetivers indefinitely? For most, this is a temporary job. Perhaps they’re putting themselves through school. The average employee at Kinko’s has no passion for Xerox paper, to be sure, but he is trained to operate the machinery, if not to care. Sephora probably trains to some degree. You don’t just throw a headset at someone and expect them to figure it out. You must at least show them how to untangle the chord, the existence of which, on a so-called wireless, might surprise and confuse them. Some facility with communication by headset is an asset in such an environment for several reasons:

When a customer asks whether the new Guerlain Aqua Allegoria has come in, and he seems to be speaking French, and you assume he’s a foreigner, you can simply address another CIA agent by microphone, asking her if she’s ever heard of—what was it again? When someone points out that you have no more Black Orchid left, only the Voile de Fleur, which is packaged similarly but is totally different, and yet you only have a tester for Black Orchid displayed, so that people buying Voile de Fleur will think they’re buying Black Orchid, you can call discreetly for security to have this Frenchman removed from the store. When the same man stands at the counter, spraying Fresh Index Cannabis Rose on his arm, though you’ve informed him this scent is for women, and he continues to enjoy the scent, and even sprays more, and you can’t make him stop, and it frightens you, you can whisper into your microphone, and someone from central headquarters will appear to give the guy a mean, creepy, shaming look.

This week, I was pleasantly surprised, if only slightly. The location I visited had the new Kenzo Peace, and the CIA agent I spoke to knew at least enough about the product to recognize it wasn't there the last time she looked. Surely this is progress.

I continue to be fascinated by the approach saleswomen take when selling perfume to men. Invariably, they assume I’m buying for a girlfriend or a wife, or a mistress, or my mother, or my aunt, or my grandmother, or my best friend’s dying first grade teacher, still a spinster. Anyone but myself. They converge on me like hawks because, being a guy, I must be an easy target. Like other guys, I will have zero idea what a woman wants to smell like, and will be ambivalent myself about what she should or might smell like, and will want to get this over with as soon as possible, and will buy a bottle of liquid soap if they tell me “she” would want nothing more.

When I reject the scent cards they shove my way, and tell them, just to make them stop talking, that I know what I’m looking for, I’m looking for Guerlain, and they stare at me with a bewildered look on their faces, as if I’ve just addressed them in Greek, and I explain, as if I’ve worked there myself, that Guerlain is a cosmetics line which sells fragrances as well and will typically be located somewhere not too far away, and their faces light up with recognition as if to say, Why didn’t you say that in the first place, they will insist on “escorting” me to the counter in question, and once there will not allow me to simply peruse on my own.

Once there, my escort will advise, Shalimar is very nice, as if she’s woken from a dream and suddenly knows precisely what language I’m speaking, and the woman behind the counter, resentful of the escort’s intrusion upon her sales territory, will interject, Shalimar is nice—for middle-aged women, at which point the escort, a middle-aged woman, will make her mouth very tight, and from this thin, straight line another word will not be issued.

When I visit the Estee Lauder counter, hoping to see Sensuous there but expecting not to, because I’ve called three days before and was told it won’t be in stores until the middle of July, and (behold!) there it is, I ask the henna-haired saleslady when it arrived, and she immediately launches into her sales pitch. If I make a purchase today, she says (and her tone indicates that I should, if I know what’s good for me) I will get a gift worth sixty-five dollars, and she points to a bag at the end of the counter, some tote thing, and tells me I get everything in it, reminding me again that I get everything for free, essentially, this sixty-five dollar value.

What exactly do I have to buy, I ask, suspicious. You have to buy 30 dollars worth from me, she coos. And I get a bag full of crap? I reiterate, just to make sure I’m hearing right. And just to make sure she’s hearing right, she says, “Did I just hear C-R-A-P?” I could have said shit, I point out, and she makes a tight little line out of her mouth, because, I assume, it’s hard to sell fragrance when someone brings fecal into the equation, though as my friend Bard often points out, many fragrances have the slightest whiff of tinkle. Why so surprised? If you're going to treat a man as if he just emerged from the cave, without bothering to wash his loincloth, shouldn't you expect him to talk like one?

The safest place for me is the Korean-owned shop (two locations) and the kiosk run by Russians at the mall. The Russians are blunt, and laugh when I approach, and, while we're speaking of tinkle, will pee on my leg and tell me it's raining, but I appreciate the fact that they at least pretend to know what they’re talking about. Like the Korean owner of the fragrance stores, who inherited the shop from his parents and has run it for years, the Russians have rent to pay. They want to make a sale and know the difference between a sale and a commission, the difference between finesse and a foghorn. When the Korean doesn't understand a word I'm saying, at least it's because he truly doesn't speak my language.

Dry Spell: Dreaming Dune

Last night, I dreamed I had a flight to catch—back to America, I think, from England or France or Peoria, Illinois. I was late to the airport, and it looked like I’d gone to the wrong gate, then, when I got to the right gate, the plane was pulling out, and though I managed to get on, I realized, once I’d reached my seat, that I didn’t have my ticket. The sky outside the windows was fearsome. Lightning kept perforating the black, rolling clouds, zigzagging in front of, then behind them. You could see a blinking siren whirring in circles way off in the distance. The pavement was slick with rain and various airport personnel were racing every which way across it: by foot, in little motorized carts, dragging luggage, plastic traffic cones, and last-minute warnings. Take-off was misery. The plane shook. Babies were crying. The drink cart emerged, then seemed to think better of it and retreated. The stewardesses scurried up and down the aisle trying not to make eye contact. A blonde with dark circles under her eyes glowered at me from over her romance novel, which was clearly just a barricade to hide behind. When finally the pilot came over the intercom, his voice was garbled, like the teachers and parents in Peanuts.

Nobody really knows where dreams come from. Most agree: to some extent, they represent the brain’s attempts to process information. But where does the information come from—and what does it mean, if anything? In ­­­­The Mind at Night: The New Science of How and Why We Dream, a book I’ve been reading, Andrea Rock explores various theories. The most compelling revolves around the notion that the various parts of your brain which get a real work-out during conscious hours go on standby when you sleep, regenerating, while others go into overdrive: you lose, for instance, your ability to establish logic-driven, causal relationships (B follows A, C follows B) and yet your imagination is more active than ever, churning out fantastic images.

Say you saw a striped cat sunning on the neighbor’s porch earlier in the day. Your dream removes the porch, makes your neighbor an astronaut, and puts the cat on roller-skates. In addition to all the data it draws from your daily life, your brain digs into its archives, rooting around for memories. This means, maybe, that your mother has baked you a cake for your seventh birthday, and walking down the street with it she trips over the cat, who is either totally inconsiderate or still adjusting to the sport. When you sleep, you experience a heightened emotional reaction to things. How sad: a cat on roller-skates has injured your mother. The cake is ruined. You cry. The cat cries. You and the cat notice each other crying, etc.

A lot of people don’t like this theory, preferring the idea that dreams work out crucial psychological phenomena from our waking lives and hold deep, transformative lessons, if only we can decode them. To these people, the cake represents childhood, the cat on roller-skates represents the passing of time, and the presence of the astronaut indicates a chronic inability to feel pain and happiness. I probably subscribe to the theory that dreams mean something, if only in a fairly random, obtuse way. But the events of the day have entered my dreams frequently enough that I believe what happens to you while you’re awake has the potential to happen to you while you’re asleep. So the fact I haven’t had a dream about perfume—not one, not ever—baffles me. My entire day is spent thinking about perfume to some extent and yet sleeping is a dry period.

Some perfumes try to replicate the sublimely associative phenomenon of dreaming (see Dreaming, Tommy Hilfiger, et al.). Images of shut-eyed women are rampant in fragrance advertising, depicting something between ecstasy and slumber. Yet the only perfume I've smelled which nails the unlikely imaginative space of dreaming is Dune, by Christian Dior. The contrast of aldehydes and benzoin is a startling one, odd and intriguing. The fragrance is dry but it feels as if the wind is blowing. Dust and sand swirl around, creating friction.

Dune is considered an oriental floral and yet it's like no oriental floral you've ever smelled. "The unusual fragrance carries a brisk briny scent, coupled with sea wind and the sandy warmth of beaches," the ad copy says. You're encouraged to picture yourself on the shore, hugging your knees as you look out over the water. But Dune is more like a desert, and the only water visible is a mirage. It's a slightly spooky fragrance somehow, something familiar and uncanny, like the visitation of someone from waking life in a dream. They appear in your bedroom and sit across from you on the edge of the bed, staring. They have something to tell you but you can't make out what it is. When you wake up, you carry the memory around with you all day, wandering around in a fog, as if it might have actually happened. It colors your entire afternoon.

The heart of Dune (jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang) is the only traditional thing about it. Above and below it, things are indefinitely shifting and settling. It has the persuasive power of dream and if the airport had a smell last night it would have smelled of Dune, the fragrance of missed flights and forgotten tickets from the unknown to nowhere.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

80s Perfume Ad of the Day

I vividly remember this Chantilly ad from when I was a kid in the 80's. This ad makes me recall coming home from school to find my new Seventeen magazine in the mailbox, which I'd devour cover-to-cover that afternoon. I tore out this ad and put Kim Alexis up on my wall. I wanted her hair. Back then, she was so beautiful and sexy. Heck, I still want her hair and that pout! Chantilly, on the other hand, I don't remember. I know I bought it, but it didn't leave an impression.

Teo Cabanel Alahine, A Review

A quick background on Teo Cabanel:

Teo Cabanel is a small perfumery originally established in Algiers around 1893. The perfume house moved to Paris in 1908, where it became the preferred perfumery of the Dutchess of Windsor. Today you'll find that Teo Cabanel has reasserted itself as a creator of luxurious perfumes using the finest natural elements. The master perfumer is Jean-Fracois Latty, who is the "nose" behind all three fragrances. In 2005, Teo Cabanel launched two perfumes; Oha and Julia. In 2007, they launched Alahine. I’m told there’s a new perfume launch that’s either just happened or about to this summer.

The listed notes are as follows:
Top notes: bergamot, ylang ylang
Middle notes: bulgarian rose, moroccan orange tree, jasmine, pepper plant
Base notes: iris concrete, cistus, patchouli, benzoin, vanilla, musk

The listed notes don’t smell anything like the fragrance to me. Overall, I find Alahine to be a smooth, perfectly done, ambery oriental. This is one of the rare times when I read other reviews of Alahine and wonder if there’s something wrong with my nose. For me, Alahine opens with a burst of ever-so-slight citrus & floral notes, that are truly unrecognizable, I really can’t pick out the bergamot or ylang ylang or rose or jasmine, it’s all very well blended into a scent that, for me, is unique to Alahine. Very quickly it turns into a velvety amber, that is the most sophisticated and deluxe amber I have ever smelled. Alahine is oriental amber extreme with the most wondrous complexity that seems to include hints of pepper, musk, benzoin, sandalwood and patchouli. Alahine dries down fast; I would estimate it takes only 10 minutes for it to settle into the final fragrance that will last on your skin for hours.

Alahine is particularly well-mannered. It never screams, appears overdone or is even too soft or subtle. It has perfect lasting power and sillage; on my skin I’d say it lasts easily 4-6 hours and the sillage is just enough for those close to you to smell it. I imagine Alahine wafting around me all day in circles - swirling and swirling like an accomplished and practiced ballerina. I’m choosing these words very specifically; Alahine, if she were a person, would be accomplished and practiced. Alahine, if she were a person would be sophisticated, polite and charming. Ms. Alahine would be wearing the most beautifully crafted, high-quality dress, perhaps custom made for her, however, it wouldn’t shout out to you in a crowd, it would be tastefully classic. Ms. Alahine is the sort of woman at a party that effortlessly works the room, most everyone comes by to speak with her anyway, she doesn’t request the attention, others just magnetically flock to her. She’s a born charmer, with naturally pretty features, she’s the epitome of class and distinction, yet humble and kind.

I’ve never sought out ambery oriental perfumes before. I still don’t typically rush to purchase fragrances described as such even now. Alahine is perhaps my first ambery oriental love. Maybe I don’t know of the others that smell like this so I don’t have anything to compare it with; nevertheless, I think it is exceptionally beautiful. Alahine is one of the few “uncommon” perfumes that I wear which always receives compliments. And, not that I’m supposed to care very much about the packaging, but the bottle is so lovely and elegant. Everything about Teo Cabanel, and especially Alahine, is just beautiful.

Juliette Has a Gun: A Review

Juliette Has a Gun: Lady Vengeance

I love the name.

The marketing is brilliant.

The box and bottle are tres chic.

But the juice is “meh.”

Juliette Has a Gun: Miss Charming

Same as above review for Lady Vengeance.

Their new fragrance launches this fall, I hope it’s good, otherwise I think Juliette Has a Gun is one of those niche lines that might not make it.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Angela nailed it: We're Sensualist Geeks

Yesterday I read the post by Angela at Now Smell This, shaking my head in agreement and laughing out loud. Almost all the comments that followed her post vibrated like bees in a hive working for the same purpose, having similar motivations and all pursuing their ultimate pleasure…pleasure itself.
If you’re reading this, you definitely have an above average adoration of perfume, but it might also signify that you have a keen interest in literature, music, theater, tea, chocolate, five star restaurants, wine, gardening (think David Austen roses) and yoga. My favorite chocolate, mmm, that’s easy ~ Vosges. My favorite coffee, Peaberry from Trader Joe’s. Can I just eat any old sandwich for lunch? Nope. Can I buy any old set of sheets from Target. Nope. Can I just buy candles at Walmart? (are you kidding, that store smells gross?!). What I’m getting at here is not that I’m some sort of snob, but that I take enormous pleasure in pleasure itself. I live to enjoy every moment; I live to experience life at its most beautiful and sensual. Beauty and pleasure (and not narrow-minded, popular culture’s version of beauty of course), and the attainment of it is a spiritual pursuit for me. The sandwich I choose to eat for lunch might be an egg and ‘cress on very thin white bread from Pepperidge Farm and the egg salad needs to be made with 2/3 egg whites. I need to sleep on sheets of the highest thread count, considering how many hours of my life I spend sleeping, the sheets ought to be sumptuous, don’t you think? Vosges chocolate, I’m betting you’ve heard of it. If not, you ought to find out; it’s a-m-a-z-i-n-g. Candles from Walmart, that’s not possible, I need candles made from soy wax that are naturally scented and last forever.

It might sound as if I actually am a snob, and I prefer only the best brands and exclusive lines, to prove something to the outside world, but think about this: if you're a Sensualist Geek, you live for the pursuit of choosing items that cause an orgasmic sensory experience. For the most part, all these sensory items, disappear after you enjoy them. I'm making this point because it's not as if anyone else knows what perfume you're wearing and it's cost, perfume is, invisible to everyone except you. Also, for the other senses, taste, touch, sound; most of these items are also invisible, such as food, wine, chocolate and music which all disappear after you've eaten/listened to them. The sheets you sleep on, not many will ever know the brand or cost of these. I'm pointing this out because these items we consume/experience for ourselves. Nobody else will ever know what brand of perfume, type of tea, coffee or hand soap you prefer. This is completely different from the person who purchases products solely for the purpose of flashing their labels around (think of that Prada/Kate Spade bag, that BMW, a Zegna tie, those Gucci loafers, etc.)

Many of our sensory delights are expensive but if you are a Sensualist Geek you figure out how to purchase all of your special items at a discount. Everything can be had for less if you know where to look. And that’s where the first aspect of “Geek” comes in. You love researching the odd, unusual, special, beautiful and vintage in every category. You take pleasure in finding these things online, or at some oddball shop or wherever it might be. You don’t think of it as a chore to find that out-of-print book by your favorite author, you live for the pursuit of these things.

The second aspect of Sensualist Geekery is the need to research and understand all of our favorite sensual pleasures to the Nth degree. How many of you reading this know far more than the average person about perfume, the notes/accords, the various esteemed noses, the history of the perfume houses? How many of you can recite the most obscure varieties of tea, can recite David Lynch films in scary detail, understand the difference between egygptian cotton and the "rest" and know all about thread count, know the exact differences between dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate (and know that white chocolate isn't really chocolate at all, and milk chocolate verges on being candy rather than chocolate due to it's low ratio of pure cacao)...? You see what I mean, yes?

Getting back to perfume, as one of the sensory pleasures of a Sensualist Geek….I’ve noticed that I have a more acute sense of smell than most people. I can smell something burning in the oven way before anyone else in my house. I can smell when the weather is about to change many hours in advance. Of course I can smell when it’s going to snow. I could tell that my neighbor put caraway seeds in his apple pie crust before even biting into it. So, aside from a personality trait, perhaps Sensualist Geeks are also wired to notice, experience, sensory cues more intensely and quickly than others. It might make sense for survival. Darwin’s theory, might have been: Survival of the Sensualist?
Just in case, Vosges website:
Peace, Love and Chocolate….

Thursday, June 26, 2008

An Open Letter to Annick Menardo

Dear Ms. Menardo,

If you only knew how much time I spend walking around in your head-space—and I don’t even know how to pronounce your last name! What’s the etymology? I haven’t been able to find much out about you online. In the only photos I’ve seen, your face is covered by a handkerchief. I’m guessing the handkerchief is soaked in perfume, and you couldn’t stop working long enough to take a picture. You’re a busy woman. It isn’t just that you’ve worked on many perfumes—though I know you have—but the level of quality you strive to maintain. Body Kouros, Hypnotic Poison, Xeryus Rouge, Roma Uomo, Bulgari Black, Lolita Lempicka (man and woman), Boss Hugo Boss, Hypnose. Stop me anytime here. Aside from Roma, I can’t think of a Menardo scent which lacks in persistence and diffusion. I picture you in your lab with hands so busily mixing and shaking and sniffing and decanting that you appear, like Kali, to have many arms, all moving simultaneously, with superhuman agility and precision.
You were born in Cannes and wanted to be a psychiatrist. I don’t know what Cannes says about you but your interest in psychology makes perfect sense to me. Emotional propositions, your fragrances elicit potent feelings. Impossible to stand in front of a Van Gogh without being moved back or forth in time along some visceral emotional spectrum—and so it is with a Menardo. When I first smelled Bulgari Black, I didn’t know what to think. I’d smelled everything I thought I could possibly be interested in. I was such an authority, couldn’t be bothered with the idea of surprise. I knew what I liked, I had my list, I’d tried everything. I was on my way out of the store, but I’m greedy: one more fragrance, one last whiff before I go. Imagine my surprise. Black stopped me dead in my tracks—because, quite frankly, rubber? I mean, really; you must be joking. “Black is New York, Berlin, Hong Kong or Tokyo and its smoking sidewalks, its concrete buildings and its steel bridges.” Well, okay. If they say so. To me it came out of nowhere—not black tea, not leather but a great big miasmal accord of the uncanny, something out of Ambrose Bierce, the word for which might have been in The Devil’s Dictionary had it not taken up too many pages to get across. What is Black, if not a head trip?
After this I tracked down the others. Lempicka au Masculine is comfort food, recalling the sweet, doughy dishes a mother who loved you might have served. Xeryus Rouge: a spicy something or other from the proverbial Orient, hot to the touch. In the osmoz of my mind, Body Kouros is classified as Camphoraceous-Gourmand. The day I bought Hypnotic Poison, I wore it to a friend’s house. Here is my report: not two steps through the door I was asked what that wonderful smell was. Another convert; another comrade. Were your ears buzzing? If so, they must frequently. And yet very few of your juices, with the exception of Lolita Women, seems to have struck a popular chord. No small surprise, perhaps, given the kind of copy written to sell them. “The mauve color is symbolic of faeries,” someone wrote of the Lolita Lempicka au Masculine bottle. Is it any wonder men didn’t flock to the shelves in great prancing droves, their toes all a-twinkle? Only Black seems to have been packaged and marketed with the right tone of top-down design—and that, I suspect, by happy accident.
For this and other reasons you’re a cult figure, the David Lynch of perfumery. Black is your Blue Velvet, Hypnotic Poison your Mullholland Drive. Like Lynch you are an enigma. Now that I think of it, perhaps your face is covered with the handkerchief by decree. Ludicrously, we’re meant to believe Lolita herself waved her magic wand and—poof! Those little glass apple bottles sprouted from trees. The public, somewhat unconsciously, imagines Yves Saint Laurent in your place, mixing Body Kouros up by trial and error in his velvet-upholstered lab. Dior had a bright idea one day; in a trance, he saw red, then Hypnotic Poison. And so on. Perfumers are kept in the shadows, remaining spectral figures to most, so that very few would ever make the connection between Xeryus Rouge and Roma Uomo, unless it turned out that Laura Biagotti and Givenchy had engaged in a torrid, uber-secret affair. It’s as if The Met had scattered its Van Goghs all throughout the gallery, removing anything indicating who’d painted them. Would someone who'd never been exposed to his art before realize that the sunflower in the vase had been cut from those in the field? Cult figures are great—for those who love them—but it’s nice to be recognized at large. It’s nice to know where the sunflower came from, so you can keep going back for more.
I’m writing to tell you about my plans to start the Annick Menardo fan club, membership of which will include monthly newsletters and bi-weekly sniff-a-thons. Every January, we’ll coalesce en masse at a Holiday Inn somewhere in Iowa or Georgia or Maine, attending panel discussions with names like “Whence came that dreamy, signature vanillic dry down?” “Is Black to Goth as Robert Smith of the Cure is to liquid eyeliner?” “What to do with yourself, should Body Kouros go the way of Havana.” I’ll be the moderator, switchboard operator, and benevolent head of the membership drive. I’ll be your tireless advocate. Barack Obama will thank you for your contribution to world peace in his inaugural address. I'm on it. Like you I’ll keep my arms moving. I’m thoroughly committed to the idea, Ms. Menardo—but we’ll need a clearer picture.
As ever,
Your devoted fan.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

vintage perfume ad of the day: YSL Cologne

Before Tom Ford--before Mark Jacobs--there was Yves Saint Laurent. Ford might have raised eyebrows posing nude in Out magazine, and Jacobs, post recovery, seems to have taken every available opportunity to show off his newly sculpted figure (Look, Ma, no love handles!), but Yves trumps them both. One imagines him looking for the quintessential embodiment of the Saint Laurent man. The head shots are spread before him on the drafting table. Whom to pick, whom to pick, decisions, decisions. Eenie, Meenie, Meyenee...Moi! Who better than Yves himself to represent the company in this early, perhaps crucial bid at masculine fragrance? One imagines Yves taking care of business. Perhaps he'd chosen someone else, after all, and the model balked at appearing in the buff. Mr. Laurent was in the house, to show him how the big boys roll. Mr. Laurent WAS the house, and he would have kindly shown that timid model the door.

Rooms With a View: Jasmine et Cigarette and Rien

Set two Etat Libre D’Orange boxes back to back, with their red and blue, semi-circle logos, and you get a bulls-eye in the middle, an interesting sight gag for a niche line whose compositions tend toward the oblique. The names, too, sidle up to you coquettishly: Delicious Closet Queen; Encens & Bubblegum; Don’t Get Me Wrong Baby, I Don’t Swallow; Secretions Magnifiques. Quirky, however well done, is often taken to indicate overcompensation, distracting from a chronic lack of substance. But, pace Luca Turin: “Never underestimate the French gift for refinement.” Turning a phrase, you might say that Etat, who have the intelligence and imagination to back up most of their various thematic conceits, are tongue in chic.

It’s slightly misleading to say they specialize in conceptual perfumery, as all perfume is conceptual, yet Etat do spin the concept of conceptual on its head. Your average perfume begins with a brief—a proposal, let’s say. This document presupposes an aura, at the center of which is a mysterious, as yet ill-defined woman. What does this woman feel? What does she look like? The clothes she wears, the places she’s been and the experiences she’s had, the way she cocks her head when you catch her attention, the glint in her eye when she thinks back to the last time she felt the searing gaze of an admirer: all contribute to the refinement of this hypothetical what if. A perfume represents the distillation of such a woman. And when another woman, likely dissimilar in every imaginable way—chiefly, by virtue of being flesh and blood—sees an advertisement for this elixir, it appears to her, its manufacturers hope, like a specialized emotional mirror. Looking into it, she sees a fantasy image of herself.

Etat too sets out with a proposal, and the perfumes just as arguably aspire to a state of mind. The difference is that woman. It isn’t that she’s not there. Someone, man or woman, most certainly could be. It isn’t even that great pains have been taken to keep whoever this person is unspecified. It’s just that the people at Etat, like those at Comme des Garçons, are more interested in place and thing than person, per se. Where is this place? What does it feel like? What does the air smell like? What are the objects in the room, or building, or landscape? What just happened here—or might if you stick around? The mood is not that of a woman in her element, whatever that might be, but of the elements themselves.
Let’s say one of the above boxes contains Jasmine et Cigarette. The other, let’s say, contains Rien. The two are very representative Etat fragrances. The packaging is strictly minimal. What you have to go on is the fragrance and the enclosed copy. It’s worth quoting the latter. The folded note contained in Jasmine et Cigarette mentions “smoky black and white ambiance” and “hazy atmosphere”. The fragrance is the “reminder of a fantasy” in the form of a smell which has been left on one’s clothes or in the mind of another. The movie star fragrance recalls the refined ennui of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, seen through wisps of smoke. To be sure, the prose is overblown—isn’t most ad copy?—and specific mention is made of a woman, but her features are left to your imagination, and the emphasis remains decidedly on setting. Jasmine et Cigarette puts you inside an old movie, making you both director and star.

What this means is that the experience of Jasmine et Cigarette isn’t mediated in quite the same way as, say, Dior Addict, whose model persists in your mind as you wear it the way the figure on a book jacket stands in for your image of the character as you read, and perhaps forever after. Even the pyramids of Etat fragrances are kept vague. A ‘smoky’ jasmine with tobacco, hay, turmeric, apricot, cedar, amber and musk is about all you’ll get on Jasmine et Cigarette, and shouldn’t it be? What does a pyramid really tell you? Ultimately, when rose means gerianol and various other aromachemicals, the notes proffered for most perfumes are yet another kind of fantasy, a filter through which to enforce someone else’s intended image.

As for Rien: the word translates into nothing, so don't expect much help there, either. If Jasmine et Cigarette presents you with the black and white room of a 1940s Hollywood movie, Rien shuts you in the leather suitcase near the bedside table, inviting you to find your way out. Be sure: there’s a wad of stolen cash in there, and a story to be told. While Rien is no Bandit, and its nose, Antoine Lie, is no Germaine Cellier, the perfumes share a certain sensibility, and Rien could be viewed as rebuilding a room from memory. It has some of Bandit’s lonely aloofness, that smoky, animalic veil which smells deliciously of bittersweet melancholy. Antoine Maisondieu’s Jasmine et Cigarette brings a bit of cheer with its flowers, but they’re feint enough to remind you of someone’s absence, creating a mood of longing and expectation. That is to say, if someone gave this bouquet to you, it was intended as a good-bye.

In a world where almost anything is accessible, the Etat line remains, as of now, difficult to obtain. Apparently, Henri Bendel stocks them. Harvey Nichols carries them but don’t expect a return call when you can’t figure out the US equivalent of postal code. Little information exists on the perfumes. Are they of good quality? Yes, and worth the time it takes to track them down and the money they’ll cost. They’re EDP, and true to Turin’s word, exquisitely refined. Part of what makes the two in question so evocative is their lucidity. They are exceptionally smooth. There’s a gravity to these fragrances which the sense of humor belies. Go to the company’s website and see for yourself. Etat wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Connection between Serge Lutens & Jason Mraz

The original song, Summer Breeze, was written and performed in 1972 by Seals & Croft.

Jason Mraz did a cover of Summer Breeze that rocks my world.

I was driving home from the office this evening when Summer Breeze came on the radio. It made me think of… I mean… it actually made me smell Serge Lutens A La Nuit.

To me, this is a musical rendition of Lutens A La Nuit. Is it possible that listening to music can cause an olfactory hallucination? Well, I would have to say, yes, it’s possible, because it happens to me.

Please have a listen…and enjoy some Jason Mraz….

Why Luca Turin Matters

Because perfume is art, though people will tell you otherwise. These are the people who once said--perhaps still say--that photography isn’t art, either. Perfume is sculpture; composition on an often imaginary canvas. It depicts and portrays, interprets, can be figurative, representational, abstract, surreal. Perfume paints a picture which is seen differently according to who's looking and where it’s put on display.

Because perfume is science, and memory, emotional and inarticulate, and someone who can speak eloquently, with intelligence, technical precision, and imagination about it is practically a godsend in a world which can barely remember what it was doing thirty years ago, let alone yesterday. Someone who does remember, and can elucidate how perfume and memory interplay, applying science without killing the delicate sense of mystery intrinsic to this exchange, is more than a Godsend. In a world without God, he's an expression of faith.

Because he treats perfume as if it is worthy of excitement, and passion, and the money we spend on it, and the fantasies we build around it. Because he doesn’t regard time or money spent on perfume to be time or money wasted. He treats the great perfumes as if they were wonders of creation, which they are, and describes them in ways which value and encourage our engagement with them. Because he treats our disappointment in those which pander to our dollar at the cost of our intellect with respect and empathy, recognizing that art is serious and trust sacred.

Because he has a sense of humor—about himself, about obsession, about ego, failures and successes, the absurd and the sublime. Question: How many people at Caron does it take to fuck up the classics? Answer: the more the messier. Because he has a bullshit detector. He works at his writing. It's informative and entertaining. Angry and blissed out, with exquisite cadences and finely-measured, poetic description. Because he isn't afraid to hold an opinion, or get it off his hands by putting it out in the open. Because many people are afraid of having an opinion at this point and literally have nothing to say which hasn't been fed to them, subliminally or otherwise. Because he's an incredible stylist with a sharp pen, and his talent qualifies him as the Dorothy Parker of perfume criticism.

Because he wouldn’t wince at this comparison. Because his bullshit detector specializes in the realm of gender codes and prehistoric sex role stereotypes. Why shouldn’t a man wear Magie Noire? Shouldn’t he, simply because you say he shouldn’t? Because by expressing unqualified enthusiasm for feminines and masculines alike he collapses those categories as we understand them, and liberates the mind to think about art freely, without the imposed restrictions of shame and conditioned perception.

Because he takes manufacturers to task for butchering perfume “formulas”, recognizing that the word formula belies a weird alchemical ecosystem where, with one change, an entire world of associations changes, perhaps forever, destroying memories, robbing people of their pasts, defacing art and devaluing history. Because he knows that continuing to treat perfume as photography rather than art allows such criminal behavior to pass off as business, when really it isn’t even good business, as anyone desperate to throw down cash for the real Emeraude would attest.

Because for people who care about perfume Luca Turin is a dream come true.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dandy of the Day

At the ribald age of three he was, already, inordinately preoccupied with twill and velvet and satin and brocade. By Six, he was reciting poetry--first Dr. Seuss, then Yeats. He wrote to Dear Abby at sixteen: "Why does the world at large seem not to care about the color red?"

"Specifically, Brick Red," he added.

Dear Abby did not respond.

He believes great, even obsessive care should be taken in one's dress and the dressing of one's friends. Enemies can fend for themselves, but he gives them enough rope. His appearance outside people's bedrooms at the break of dawn is not altogether unheard of. From the window, he makes discreet, attentive suggestions. Do not please inflict yourself upon the nylon green blouse, his eyes sigh. Even nylon deserves a better hue.

He wears Guerlain--specifically, L'Heure Bleue. It reminds him of a dense, textured sky. Over which: a field. Wind eddies through the grass, creating elaborate patterns. Birds fly overhead with the common sense to recognize that they are purely decorative. The rodents stay clear of the picture, out of common decency. There is a torte in the field which has not yet been discovered by the ants. He decides to eat the torte, the freshly-baked scent of which wafts in filigreed vapors up to his nostrils and straight back to his childhood, where a bed bedecked in twill and velvet and satin and brocade awaits his arrival.

Generation Sap: Fath de Fath

Fath de Fath is the kind of perfume you give to your mother on Mother’s Day, then worry a little, wondering whether she likes it as much as you do. When she assures you she does, you can’t quite believe her. As you remind her not to store the bottle in her bathroom, out on the counter where the steam and the sunlight will hasten its destruction, urging her instead to store it in the bottom drawer of her bureau, in its box, wrapped in a sock which should then be wrapped in a towel, you listen for cues in her tone of voice. Smelling it now on your arm, you can’t imagine what possessed you. Fath de Fath seems at first perfectly lovely—fruit at the top, orange blossom and tuberose in the middle. Originally released in 1954, it was reformulated forty years later, but still recalls old school floral chypres like Jolie Madame and Patou 1000, prolonging a formality in perfumery which for the most part no longer exists. Pretty and prim, you thought. So why does it suddenly seem more unusual than all that? Perhaps its initial nostalgic aroma muddled your thinking.

What gives you pause is that first dry down, during which you detect something ever so slightly off-putting. That smell is Benzoin. An ingredient in many fragrances, typically oriental variants, Benzoin is a resin derived from a tree or shrub of the same name (more formally, Styrax Tonkiniensis) which is native to Indochina. Incisions are made in the bark, through which the tree excretes a honey-colored sap. During the process of cultivation, this viscous material hardens. The food industry uses Benzoin as a flavor additive in gum, pudding, soft drinks, and candy, a cheaper substitute for vanilla. Its aroma is sweetly balsamic, vaguely woody—a glass of soda left out overnight, tart and flat. Benzoin works excellently as a fixative and shows up in the basenotes of many fragrance pyramids. In some scents its presence is more easily discernable. The well-orchestrated symphony of Opium renders it all but invisible, and yet it affords that overall composition a certain resinous heft. Body Kouros aerates it with the addition of eucalyptus. Dune qualifies as one of the strangest, most imaginative uses of benzoin, pairing it with Aldehydes; the bright, shimmering form you first ascertain turns out to be a mirage, and you're left with a vast expanse of hollow, spectral diffusion. In contrast, L’Instant, Obsession for Men, and Shalimar employ benzoin with considerable subtlety. Fendi Theorema uses it more transparently, augmenting its waxen character with dewy fruit. Par Amour features it perhaps even more pronouncedly than Fath de Fath, resulting in a rose by way of Madame Tussaud’s. Tuscany per Donna livens things up with carnation.

The top notes of Fath de Fath reportedly include cassis, mandarin, lemon, and pear. Lily of the valley, Heliotrope, and Orange blossom manage somehow to tame the beast of tuberose in the heart of the fragrance. If no one told you, you might not even sense it there. The patchouli in the basenotes likely contributes to keeping the low profile. Tonka, which smells of hay, is often included alongside benzoin, as it is here. Fath de Fath resembles Bal a Versailles in some respects, substituting the uncanny, destabilizing influence of benzoin for civet. The fragrance bridges trends from vastly different eras, lightening up a classic sensibility, transcending time and place in the process. Ultimately, there’s something slightly askew in its elegant diffusion, modernizing and dating it simultaneously. It would be as out of place in the fifties as it was in the nineties, and maybe everywhere in between. That dissonance can be quite attractive in a perfume, and in Fath de Fath it creates a subtle dichotomous frisson, like the heavy bass of Beck rattling the windows on a restored Bentley. In the final analysis, Fath de Fath might just drag your mother into the 21st Century, if she’s agreeable to the idea—or perhaps it will encourage you to meet her halfway.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Frederic Malle, Le Parfum de Thérèse: A Review

I imagine most perfume connoisseurs already know that Edmond Roudnitska created Le Parfum de Thérèse in the early 1950s for his wife Thérèse, and it was hers exclusively.

I’ve read that Le Parfum de Thérèse is Edmond Roudnitska’s concept of olfactory beauty, incandescent, ever-changing composition that is both soulful and awe-inspiring.

It took me awhile to try Le Parfum de Thérèse (henceforth LPdT) because I rushed off to try Carnal Flower and Lipstick Rose first. When I finally did try LPdT I felt I’d wasted valuable time, valuable sniffing and swooning time, because it’s just so heartbreakingly beautiful. I wish I’d come to know it sooner.

Others smell all sorts of melon, plum, oranges and leather. I think they smell this because it’s in the list of notes; it’s the power of suggestion working on them. I suppose if I smell it closely, too closely in my book, I could pick out these fruits, definitely the orange and some rose and jasmine, but I try not to dissect. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, I prefer to evaluate the perfume, the work as a whole, the way it smells as it wafts up to my nose from the keyboard as I type this, or as a lover might smell it on me in an embrace.

Thérèse, Mr. Roudnitska’s wife, was one lucky lady. Le Parfum de Thérèse is a stunning masterpiece. There’s a definite wildness to it, a very natural, fresh, joyous wildness, the way one might smell if you were to go for a picnic, stretch out on a blanket in a meadow on the loveliest day in June. LPdT smells to me as if you fell asleep during your afternoon picnic, took a little nap on your blanket, and awoke to find yourself smelling of everything around you; clovers, grass, herbs, all the ripe fruits and wine you brought in your basket and the leather of the horses saddle. (Yes, you rode a horse to this perfect little picnic, this IS a fantasy, mind you.) The top notes do burst with a very fruity sweetness, but this is temporary. I find LPdT to be a kaleidescope of aroma - not layered one on top of the other - but rather, each note tumbles around and around and lingers in the middle/heart notes for eternity.

Le Parfum de Thérèse is a complex scent in that is simultaneously fresh, warm, sweet, tangy, tame, wild and salty. LPdT is traditionally feminine with a little edge, a slight subversive quality due to the hint of leather and vetiver in the base. LPdT dances playfully in a joyous and spirited way, completely oblivious to everything around it, dreamily doing its own thing, in its own time. LPdT doesn’t pay heed to market research, it doesn’t care about which types of perfumes are selling well or whether it’s on the cutting edge or it’s a classic. In this regard, we at I Smell Therefore I Am, would call this a Dandy of a Perfume.

UPDATE (2 hours later): One important thing I forgot to mention in this glowing review is that LPdT doesn't have enough lasting power. You'd never think so after the initial burst - it's so strong in the beginning - but it only lasts on my skin for about 90 minutes - 2 hours maximum. For a perfume this expensive this is a problem. If it were less expensive I'd happily re-apply. So, due to it's fleeting nature, I tend to treat LPdT as a special occasion perfume. The bottle feels like liquid gold in my hand (gold is the color of the juice itself and gold as a reminder of the wasted coins spritzing out into the air and disappearing...sadly...too soon).

Dandy of the Day, Defined

The poet Charles Baudelaire described a dandy as one whose interest in aesthetics approaches religious devotion, if not fanaticism. However, dandy means all sorts of things. The connotation is that of someone whose passion for art and beauty (and fragrance) is unrealistically devout. The dandy's adherence to beauty beyond the strictures of date, place, and time is out of step with modern standards, which are considered mere nuisances. Here at I Smell Therefore I Am, we view as a dandy anyone whose style and/or taste/and or overall outlook and presentation is decidedly bold and individually extravagant. We applaud, by singling out, people whose outlook is visionary. Fancy dressers, arch intellectuals, perfume connoisseurs. The woman at the corner deli who wears her hair high and her perfume loud. They like what they like, and whether or not you like it too is of no significance to them. They wear it or say it or pursue it regardless. In an era of conformity and marketed identity, we seek out those who persist as individuals, against the grain, until the grain finally, if ever, catches up with them.

Don't think only men can be dandy. Women are dandy too. They even had their own term for it. Several terms, in fact. Quaintrelle, dandyess, dandizette. Famous courtesan Cora Pearl was an early quaintrelle. We use the word dandy to mean both genders. We use it to mean beyond gender; rather, a state of mind and a state of being. We use it on this blog to celebrate the unusual and to speculate what kind of perfumes would best befit these particular forms of maverick individualism.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Fun game: What do these TV personalities wear?

The ground rules are this: we assume all of these characters definitely wear perfume/cologne and cost is not an option.

The Office

Angela: White Linen by Estee Lauder. Rather than run the risk of Angela’s scorn, I’ll guess the only perfume she could possibly wear. Or maybe Vera Wang, The Fragrance, yes that’s it, she’s more current than White Linen. I felt her scorn and Vera Wang popped hastily into mind.

Pam: Beasley, she’s a tough one. She’s traditional and feminine yet she has an artistic side and an irreverent sense of humor. I’m going with Dolce & Gabbana The One, because she thinks she’s found the one with Jim Halpert (lucky dog!).

: Polo, the green bottle, from the 80s. Kevin thinks he’s a ladies man. Kevin wants to show off his masculine and sexy side, and to him, this = Polo.

Jan Levinson-Gould: Jan’s a Coco Mademoiselle woman. She’s sultry, sexy, uber-feminine with a spicy take-charge personality. She knows men go crazy when she splashes Coco Mademoiselle between her inflated cleavage. She occasionally likes a nice leathery fragrance, like Caron Tabac Blond or Chanel's Cuir de Russie when she's experimenting with bondage.

Phyllis: Anais Anais by Cacherel. Phyllis is traditionally feminine; she knits, she wears girlie clothing, I imagine her to smell floral and powdery. She found Anais Anais when it first came out and it’s been her signature scent ever since.

Creed: Creed wears Creed’s Green Irish Tweed. He has to, it’s his namesake. He knows a guy who steals it off the truck as they transport it to Neiman Marcus. He doesn’t see the problem, HE doesn’t steal it, the other guy does.

The New Adventures of Old Christine

Christine: She wears whatever she can get her hands on that morning. She has about 6-8 bottles of perfume. All sexy, spicy, loud, florals and orientals. Today she realized she ran out of deodorant so she grabbed some Victor & Rolf Flowerbomb and spritzed way too much and gave a few shots towards her underarms.

30 Rock

Liz Lemon: Liz is too busy to buy perfume, she barely has time to buy new bras or undies, and they all have holes in them. So, Liz’ friend, Jenna routinely gives her perfume as gifts for her birthday or Christmas, so she just wears whatever she gets. This past birthday Jenna gave her Guerlain Insolence. Liz sorta hates it, it’s very fruity and floral but she wears it anyway, she figures it’s better than nothing and these headaches will go away eventually.
Jenna: Jenna purchases fragrances that are certified man magnets. She has a list of the exact types of men each fragrance attracts so she knows precisely what to wear given which man she'll meet up with on a given day. Today, she has a doctor’s appointment, so she’s wearing Dior Midnight Poison because doctors are known to become weak in the knees when they come under the spell of Midnight Poison.

Now it’s your turn ~ what do you think?

Your Mother!

Can we all stop talking about perfumes as if they become extinct after a shelf date and should be retired to some olfactory graveyard, where they might be admired but never worn? Fine, you mother wore Lanvin Arpege. My mother drank milk, rode a bicycle, used Crest toothpaste, and shaved. It doesn’t keep me from doing all of those things. Okay, so that was my father. Okay it was my neighbor’s father. The point is, everything reminds you of something. Seeing that running faucet reminds me I have to go to the bathroom. Perhaps I shouldn’t, as someone else once did.

All over the perfume blogs you hear two frequent cautionary prefaces, like warning labels on hazardous chemicals: “This is technically for women but I think it might be good on a man,” and “It smells like my grandmother.” The first one we’ll save for some other time. As for your grandmother, Arpege is a useful reference point.

Arpege was created in 1927 under Jeanne Lanvin for her daughter’s 30th birthday, or so the story goes. Her daughter was a musician; thus the name. Andre Fraysse, then 27, was commissioned to create the fragrance, and was assisted by Paul Vacher. Fraysse went on to do Rumeur, My Sin, and Scandal, also classics. His son, Richard, is an in-house perfumer at Caron, under whose supervision the classics there have not been treated so kindly. Like most perfumes of a certain age, Arpege’s formula has periodically been nipped and tucked, most recently by another Fraysse, Hubert. The fragrance is, as always, strong on aldehydes, one thing which is said to date it (though Chanel No. 5 has more aldehydes, and continues to sell very well, thank you) and it dries down into leather and tobacco accords, also said to be dated, go figure. The fact is, perfumes don’t really go out of style; people are just desperate to seem current, and will follow whatever trend is sold to them in order not to seem “old-fashioned”, a marketing term which conditions them to continue consuming. Ultimately the only relevant barometer should be whatever you think smells good. A flower smells nice. Is that outdated? Think of Arpege as a bundle of flowers left out in the sun, on a leather car seat.

A magical property unique to perfume is its ability to change mercurially according to various environmental factors. Most of us smell rose in compositions which are said to contain it, just as when we say table we all generally know what we’re referring to. If you start describing the table in detail, you enter a more associative realm, and open the issue up to personal interpretation. It was a low wood table with inlaid tile and wrought iron legs. Was it a coffee table? Oh I suppose. But it was taller than that. Taller than what? A coffee table. How tall is a coffee table? I should say a coffee table comes up to your knees when you sit down. Doesn’t that depend on how tall you are? Well, yes , it does, but—oh shut up.

Smell is the same way. Maybe you’ve never liked Lolita Lempicka, then you smell it on someone you’ve just met, only you don’t know it, you only know this person smells fantastic. You don’t believe him when he tells you what he has on. Chanel No. 5 might be awfully formal, slightly powdery, on the woman in a suit dress. Someone in jeans might make it seem cozy and sulfurous. A man might make it seem like some alien life form in the shape of a guy you thought you knew. Arpege is no exception to this phenomenon. No perfume is. While it’s true that various aromachemicals and approaches fall out of use, this matters very little to people who have always worn what they choose, rather than whatever is sold to them. Scent is both specific and malleable: the smell of your house at someone else’s place might remind you of home, but the similarity forces you to see things differently. The smell of apple pie might bring tears to your eyes, while someone else will heave. The same smell is a world apart from person to person.

As a famous sitcom actress was once said to have spit at singer-songwriter Rufus Wainright after he gushed that she’d always reminded him of his mee-maw: “I ain’t your f—king grandmother, kid.” And then there's Arpege: modern and feisty, it’s been around for a while. Nuff said? Fraysse’s intention was to create a truly eternal floral, and as much as one can, he has. The opening of bergamot, neroli, and peach is vivid, thanks to the aldehydes. The floral heart is traditionally composed: Jasmine, Rose, Lily of the Valley, Ylang-Ylang. These extend into the dry down, a smooth medley of vanilla, vetiver, tuberose, and vetiver. Arpege is considered to be the first feminine to use such a large quantity of sandalwood. The aldehydes too persist well into the dry down, itself a thing of wonder. The fragrance lasts several hours with impressive intensity, then softens, lingering with woody phosphorescence. The insignia on the bottle depicts Lanvin and daughter Marie-Blanche. Both of them have passed. Arpege is still around. A perfume like this doesn't date. It's too timeless.

The Joke's on You: Moschino Funny!

There was a time when the humor and irreverence of Moschino (not just its line of perfumes but its fashion and its founder) were not entirely lost on its intended audience. There was a time when Moschino in fact had more of an audience on which to lose something. Who could forget the chocolate drizzled handbag—or the Teddy Bear dress? Plenty of people, it would seem. The Olive Oyl bottle of Moschino’s Cheap and Chic perfume was a statement at the time. Now, people tend to dismiss it as unintentionally tacky. Moschino injected the humorless, self-absorbed fashion scene of the eighties with wit and intelligence. While it’s true you wouldn’t actually often have occasion to wear a stuffed animal-infested dress out in public, couture has never been about reality or practical application. Moschino laid bare the central dichotomy of fashion industry practice; of course it was absurd that a collection never intended to be worn should conduct itself as soberly as a tax audit. It was as if Jerry Lewis, as the Nutty Professor, had started a line of couture dresses and sportswear, issued from a headquarters stationed in his lab. Unfortunately, the Italian fashion establishment felt Moschino was laughing at them, not with them, and denounced the designer as a talentless hack. This only made him more popular, his point more legitimate.
Moschino's aesthetic was exuberantly youthful and decidedly adult simultaneously. He was raised in a small town on the outskirts of Milan, perhaps shaping him from the beginning as an outsider with a close proximity to the heart of things but enough distance to view them objectively. His background was in illustration and (for Versace) publicity, so it was perhaps entirely logical that his approach would merge the surrealist audacity of Dali with the slapstick, crowd-pleasing sight-gags of Tex Avery. Moschino founded his line in 1983. Five years later, his Cheap and Chic range was introduced. In 1994, he launced what he called an Ecouture line, featuring clothes made from environmentally friendly fabrics and dyes. It might just be that the laughing stopped when Moschino died the same year, at the age of 44, the victim of that quintessential buzz-kill, a heart attack. His line has persevered, albeit with less fanfare and less imaginative marketing. His perfume line releases new product frequently. The fragrances are more interesting than they’re given credit for. Cheap and Chic itself is a brisk fruity floral, truly cheap and chic, making it, of course, exceptional and a play on words, a happy contradiction. Eponymously titled Moschino (1988) is a floral oriental which smells like Grasse by way of a headshop, another, more refined play on words. Cheap and Chic has had several flankers, as has Moschino.
The bottle for Funny! mimics the one used for Moschino Couture, extending a joke across two releases separated by three years and seemingly contradictory high/low designations. Moschino Couture is a warm, fruity floral with haughty gold cap, high-class scotch-colored juice, and velvet red ribbon sash. Funny! is literally its polar opposite, cool, fresh, and exhilarating, with silver cap, ice blue juice, and frayed satin ribbon, the cheerful country cousin to its big city counterpart. Funny! was created by Antoine Maisondieu, whose work with Etat Libre D’Orange (Jasmin et Cigarette, Encens & Bubblegum, et al), demonstrate his own refined sense of humorous elegance. He was the nose behind Burberry Brit London, Gucci eau de Parfum II, and Comme des Garcon’s Luxe Patchouli, all interesting, all arguably wonderful. Funny! combines Seville orange, red currant, and green tea, possessing an aptly curious spiciness (something of a punchline, a la pink pepper) and a resinous base which contrasts ingeniously with its effervescent attributes. It shares with Gucci II a rare quality in feminine construction, where buoyancy doesn’t mean vapidity. It is bold and declarative rather than timid and insipid. It has humor and a positive outlook on things. It’s cheerful without being air-headed, dense without being a dumb blonde. Most impressively for a citrus-focused scent, it persists, giggling in the face of summer heat. Funny it hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Dandy of the Day

This young man, in our humble but, you should know, widely esteemed opinion, is wearing a cologne which hasn't been invented yet.

Overrated, Underrated

More than a few people have noted a passing resemblance between Chanel Allure Sensuelle and Tom Ford Black Orchid. Both follow a recent trend in feminine perfumery, mixing a floral up top with a grunge accord at the bottom, albeit to varying degrees of success. Both have a candied decadence to them. Both dropped the same year. However, Black Orchid gets all the love, while Sensuelle, which must carry the weight of Coco Chanel on its shoulders, is treated as the ugly step-child.
Let’s be clear: Allure Sensuelle is no Chanel No. 5—but neither is Black Orchid. And while Allure Sensuelle has mastermind Jacques Polge behind it, Black Orchid…doesn’t. Like the new and old versions of Rive Gauche, the two intersect, smelling more like each other at certain points during their respective developments, then less. Both arguably unisex, Black Orchid has the advantage of Tom Ford’s blurred lines behind it, whereas Chanel sells to the gender segregationist set, and therefore plays to half its potential audience.
Despite the bluster of its campaign, signaled by the phallic, rectangular bottle (a bit like Mildred Pierce in her square-shouldered furs) Black Orchid never quite pulls it off. From the moment you spray it on, you can see it has big plans. It screams get out of the way in a coarse baritone vibrato. For the first five or ten minutes it's running off at the mouth, boasting so assertively that you trust it has something to say. It does and it doesn’t. The construction of Black Orchid is comparable to one of those old Rube Goldberg contraptions. In order for the little silver ball to end up in the bucket, everything must be perfectly conceived and constructed. The metal rails must be pitched the right way, lest the ball lose momentum before it hits its mark. The wooden lever that ball is meant to drop on, which will then hit the stick which holds the rubber fist, which will then slam against the button which releases the trap door, and the ball, so it can roll along its merry way, must be flexible enough. You look at a Rube Goldberg construction and it seems fine, everything looks great, until you try it out, at which point it either operates beautifully or things fall apart. Black Orchid is pitched a little too sharply. Certain chutes and ladders have been angled ever so slightly the wrong way, but you don’t know it until you’re rolling along all those rails. The proportions are wrong. You can see the image you’re meant to watch, under sheets of zigzagging static, or you think you can—but whoever tried to fix the picture slammed the side of the TV, rather than taking the time to adjust the knobs.
The heart of the fragrance lingers in gorgeous, twilit territory, where the flowers are nicely complicated, as if turning the lights down low made it as hard to smell as see, and a vivid, earthen woodiness reminds you the ground is underfoot. There’s even a tangy zest somewhere in there—turning the aromatic pungency of a fougere on its head. Wild Orchid lingers, pretending to relax, but only briefly, and the bluster of the opening notes resumes. This is a busy fragrance—places to go, people to see—off it rushes again. That would be fine, were it rushing somewhere half as interesting as the place it’s evacuating. The next thing you know, it’s stuffing its face with food, so furiously that you’d be hard pressed to say what’s on the menu.
Black Orchid’s intentions are fairly clear, and that’s probably a large part of its problem. From the ads and the hype you know what it’s meant to be: a bold, starkly etched fragrance reminiscent of those the great houses once released with the fanfare of the first walk on the moon. And it is reminiscent—like Jessica Rabbit is reminiscent of Rita Hayworth. In order to understand Black Orchid you must hold it up to the classics, and of course it comes off like a caricature. A shame, really, as it isn’t bad—or even mediocre.

The heart of Allure Sensuelle never quite achieves the magic of Black Orchid’s brief, hallucinatory moment of beauty. Arguably more linear, it is a consistent performer. It has some of Black Orchid’s tang but holds on to it until it figures out how to use it. It has the incense on bottom, along with patchouli and vanilla in place of truffle. It’s remarkably similar, but feels confident it has nothing to prove. Someone please tell this fragrance it’s a Chanel. Clearly it didn’t get that memo, which is where its own troubles began. Like Guerlain, the house of Chanel is on thin ice: will it mess with the perfection of its old reliables? Will it continue to produce the kind of quality women the world over have come to expect? Well, yes and no, in no certain order.
Had Allure Sensuelle been release by one of the niche lines this would be a moot issue. It’s a perfectly respectable, even lovely perfume. It draws from various currents of modern perfumery to show the others how it’s done. People expect innovation from Chanel—perhaps unfairly. So a mother lode of aldehydes were dumped into No. 5. So Cuir de Russie is the most exquisite embodiment of luxury between Planet Earth and Pluto. Why must every Chanel fragrance which doesn’t have the good fortune to be a miracle have to be considered a miserable step in the wrong direction?
Allure Sensuelle has its strengths. Its use of vetiver is accomplished and unusual for a feminine perfume, handled with considerable sensitivity to overall development. It has just the right amount of peppery dissonance, is burnished just so with the solar heat of frankincense. It lasts. It is aptly named, managing to achieve an interesting balance between salty and sweet, floral and oriental. It is arguably more androgynous than Black Orchid, and when a man smells it on a woman, he might just be taken aback by unexpected, unfamiliar urges and impulses.
If anything, Chanel must be faulted for its laziness in building a palpable sense of identity around Allure Sensuelle. A simple comparison between the genius of Ford’s creative direction (Black Orchid: vintage glamor, decadent impulses) and Chanel’s proposed fantasy (Allure Sensuelle: exactly…what…exactly when…exactly where and how?) makes clear Allure Sensuelle's true failure.
All the same, you could do much, much worse—in or outside of Chanel.