Friday, April 10, 2009

The Smell of Claude: Parfum de Peau, Parfum d'Homme, Parfum d'Elle, Just Me

A few months ago, I found a bottle of Montana perfume at the local discount drugstore. Half off the original price ($44), it seemed like a steal to me. Never mind the beat up blue box, the lid of which was barely hanging in there. Never mind the fact that the bottle was a dreaded splash. I wasn't that impressed with the scent when I smelled it, but at twenty two dollars it seemed like something I should have, and I bought it.

The box said, simply, Montana, in a script anyone who went to high school in the eighties would instantly recognize. I couldn't find anything about it online--on basenotes, on makeupalley, on the blogs in general. The consensus seemed to be that Parfum de Peau was the best of the designer's fragrances, but I'd never seen it. I had seen Parfum d'Elle, smelled it, and been turned off by it; specifically, a strange, off-note of piss-honey which reminded me of a syrup-drizzled variation of Miel de Bois. I'd also smelled Montana Blu, a later fragrance created by Annick Menardo (Bulgari Black, Lolita Lempicka, Le Labo Patchouli 24), a floral aquatic which bored me before I even brought the bottle up to my nose. I found nothing on plain old, blue box Montana, so I set it aside and forget about it for a while.
Imagine my surprise when, weeks later, I discovered that Parfum de Peau has also gone by the name Montana, and that the nose behind it was none other than Jean Guichard (Eden, Lou Lou, Obsession, Asja), whose work I've been appreciating more and more lately. It was later reformulated by another great, Eduoard Flechier (Poison, Une Rose, Vendetta Uomo) with synthetic castoreum. It blew my mind to think that this wonderful thing was sitting right on my own cluttered table, that I'd had it all along, that I'd been so disinterested when I first gave it a go. I smelled it again and wondered where my head had been the first time. Montana de Montana/Parfum de Peau is wonderfully bizarre in its way.

Michael Edwards classifies it as "chypre - floral", but initially it smells like your average eighties fruity floral, some of which might be due to its having inspired so many fragrances since its introduction in '86, however tamed its imitators. Deeper in, the scent is a revelation of finely calibrated opposites; peach and blackcurrant against pepper and cardamom, powerhouse tuberose against equally pungent ginger and carnation, with animalic leather tones lurking underneath it all. Even when compared to the fragrances of its day (between 1980 and 1985: Fendi, Jardins de Bagatelle, Jean-Marc Sinan, Obsession, Paloma Picasso, Vanderbilt, Giorgio, Paris, Poison, Calyx, Beautiful, Coco, Ysatis) Parfum de Peau comes out looking like a powerhouse. It has more in common with masculines of the time, sharing the off-kilter, urinous bombast of Kouros, and the animal growl of Lauder for Men, Dior Jules, and Givenchy Xeryus. Among its female counterparts, Paco Rabanne La Nuit comes closest in terms of the sheer, beastly nerve of Peau's base notes (castoreum, patchouli, civet), but even La Nuit, which will win you no favor amongst canine population, pales in terms of audacity. La Nuit was also created by Jean Guichard. Peau was a tribute to Montana's muse and future wife, Wallis Franken, whose style was decisively androgynous, her hair bluntly cut to match the right angles of Montana's geometrical garments.In retrospect, it's easy to dismiss Montana as a joke. The exaggerated curves and angles, pinched waists and power shoulders, primary colored, head to toe leather and wool ensembles seem cartoonish now, something Cruella Deville might design for Olive Oyl. It hasn't helped that Montana himself, like Karl Lagerfeld, seems intent on freezing his own 1980's look in time, gravity and decay be damned. In contemporary photos, Montana comes off looking like a caricature, more mustached Barbara Cartland than master tailor. And while many of his peers have aged no more gracefully, their clothes withstand the test of time looking a little more dignified. Thierry Mugler might have turned himself into a stuffed, pinched sausage of a fantasy action hero, but his fashions look as forward thinking now as they did back on the runway.

At the time, Montana was as radical as Parfum de Peau, and his overall sensibility was well suited to the fragrances he released. Montana's formative years were full of unlikely contrasts and emphatic, satirical overstatement. Born in Paris to a German mother and a Catalan father, he began his fashion career in 1971 making jewelry out of papier mache and rhinestones. In 1972, he designed biker outfits for the MacDouglas Leather company; in 1973, a ready to wear leather collection. He formed his own company in 1979, presenting his first collection, Hommes Montana, two years later. He opened his first boutique in 1983, following this, in 1986, with a second. Between 1990 and 1992, he designed haute couture for the House of Lanvin, work for which he was received two consecutive Golden Thimble awards. Despite the acclaim, he was replaced, his approach having been deemed by the money men at Lanvin as a bit too extreme for the consumer's taste. The Montana Fragrances Company launched in 1984.The fragrances were as consistent with the designer's vision as Armani's sleek, shades-of-grey fashion banalities have been with Armani Code, Armani Diamonds, Armani Sensi, and Attitude. Montana was one of the chief emissaries of the big shouldered, the oversized, and the asymmetrical, and his work, a confluence of the feminine with the masculine, was in keeping with cultural signposts of the time, like the razor angled exaggerations of Patrick Nagel's artwork and the outwardly artless slouch and flop of New Wave music and its stars, whose MTV videos served as a runway into the mainstream. Though Montana was said to have been inspired by the carefully pleated drapery of Mme. Gres, his own work, aside from a few obvious tributes to that style (see the above photo), was more aggressively basic, deceptively simple. Montana's achievement has primarily been in silhouette, whereas Gres' had to do with the detail within the form. What Montana took from her was a studied sense of effortlessness. Like Montana's clothing, the Gres gown seems to have simply fallen that way on the body. Both were precision tailors dealing in concentrically arranged swirling lines.

Like Parfum de Peau, Montana Parfum d'Homme (the original, also by Flechier) was a bold olfactory proposition, equally complex. The first impression is a citrus and aldehyde counterpoint off-set by the herbal influence of lavender, pepper, and tarragon and the spicy-sweet addition of cinnamon. The herbs persist into the heart, transitioning smoothly into more aromatic accords. Flechier contrasts these to notes of rose, jasmine and carnation, and the mixture of pine, sage, geranium, and florals is a unique one. The base is a more traditional masculine infrastructure of sandalwood, patchouli, leather, amber, cedar, oakmoss, and labdanum. The fragrance was reformulated in 2001 and rechristened Montana Pour Homme, a name which, removing the word parfum, perhaps sought to give the Montana man his balls back. Even balls couldn't help the scent itself, which became a watery nonentity of citrus and indeterminate accords.

After coming around to Parfum de Peau, I revisted Parfum d'Elle and found that it, too, deserved more than a cursory dismissal. Released in 1990, d'Elle is a toned down study in opposites, as intriguing as de Peau in theory, but more languid, more mellow in practice. Fragrantica classifies it as a fruity chypre, listing its top notes as lime, ginger, melon, mandarin orange, bergamot and lemon; its middle notes as tuberose, hyacinth, ylang-ylang, lily-of-the-valley and Brazilian rosewood; and its base notes as tonka bean, amber, vanilla, oakmoss, cedar and tobacco. It must be the collision of tuberose, tonka bean, and tobacco which gives the original parfum d'Elle its almost freakish beauty. It comes off like Ziggy Stardust, scary and pretty, turning the recognizable signposts of feminine beauty and glamor in on themselves in a way which forces you to re-evaluate your relationship to them. Parfum d'Elle, too, was reformulated. In 2002 it became an entirely different proposition, milder still, more listless for it.

My other Montana favorite is the late 199os release, Just Me (predating Paris Hilton's theme-park fragrance by nearly twenty years). Just Me was marketed by Vera Strubi, who, as president of Thierry Mugler Parfums Worldwide, had helped ensure Angel's success in the suburban mall, circa 1992. In 1995, Clarins had acquired, along with Azzaro fragrances, Montana's line. Parfum de Peau and Parfum d'Homme had been successful, and Montana was still a going concern in the worldwide market. But if Angel could make it, the possibilities seemed endless. Not so much when it came to Just Me, however strange a brew. Just Me's perfumer, Francoise Caron, had created Ca Sent Beau, for Kenzo, a decade earlier. With its part woody, part fruity florals, Ca Sent Beau was a clear precursor. Just Me is just unusual enough, on the surface of things, more careful in its contrasts than Angel. Compared to Angel, it's a dainty everyday scent. On its own, it's an odd thing, fruity in an almost antiseptic way up top, with spectrally weird polar points of acidic pineapple, sickly sweet melon (a la Parfum deTherese), indolic jasmine, and chocolate.

Just Me was a failure in a big way, if only because Angel put the stakes so high. Montana's subsequent releases paled by comparison, lacking the nerve, the playful disregard for clear boundaries and common sense. Even the bottles became boring, flattening out into distinction-less excuses for elegance. Gone were the falling leave kinetics of those older, Noguchi on acid containers, which echoed the drape and falling motion fold of the clothes. Though he lost the rights to licensing his name and ultimately sold the line, Montana himself continued to design, but as a public figure, let alone a force in fashion, he produced nothing remotely close to the the angular affronts of his eighties work. Luckily, most of his best fragrances can be still be found online. The House of Montana went bankrupt in 1997. When Wallis Franken fell from the couple's third floor Paris apartment, her mysterious death was ruled a suicide, and Montana lost his muse in the worst possible way. The Montana BLU line, a failed attempt to translate the Montana asthetic to more afforable casual wear, was launched in 1999. A younger generation of designers have expressed their debt to Montana's eighties and nineties ouevre, notably Alexander McQueen, whose stratifying Kingdom could also be seen as an homage to Parfum de Peau.


junaduft said...

It seems like there are so many gems that can be had for around 20 bucks. Rochas Femme comes to mind. Ivoire... Do you have other favorites?

junaduft said...

Notwithstanding your suggestions in "Cheap Thrills"....

Those are great ideas. Must investigate...

Brian said...

Oh boy, do I have others. Like Abigail, I'm often less impressed by niche fragrances and end up falling in love with the unexpected and neglected.

To me, some of the best cheapies are Estee Lauder fragrances. They fill every need and expectation I have: they're affordable, they smell great, other people can smell them too, and they last. My mind lights up every time I take the cap off Cinnabar, wondering at how much greater it is than I remember. Youth Dew is amazing, and the bath oil is even better and even cheaper, basically pure parfum. I recommend a bottle. Tania Sanchez is right about Azuree. It's one of the best fragrances in the world and costs about 30 bucks. Alliage is the best galbanum fragrance out there, in my opinion, also 30 bucks. No one can convince me that Spellbound doesn't smell amazing, though they keep trying.

Other cheapies I love and recommend:

Je Reviens Worth Couture
Grey Flannel
Third Man
AvaLuxe Film Noir & Midnight Violet
Ann Pliska
Te Nero: dead ringer for Black
Norell bath oil
St Dupont (for men and women)
Belle en Rykiel
Versace Crystal Noir
Giorgio Red
Tommy Girl
Paloma Picasso
Patchouli Antique
Iris Noir (Yves Rocher)
Neonatura Coccoon (also Rocher)
Rochas Femme
Azzaro Now (for men and women)
Balmain Jolie Balmain
Miss Balmain
Lady Stetson
Pacifica Tibetan Mt. Temple

And too many more to count. Most of those can be found cheap online or are rather inexpensive for what they are. I actually think the Magie Noire reformulation, at 50 bucks for 2.5 ounces, is a steal. Cocoon is dirt cheap and a dead ringer for Lutens Borneo. The Pacifica is 20 bucks for a little over an ounce. Belle en Rykiel, Grey Flannel, Picasso, and others can be found regularly for next to nothing at TJ Max and Marshalls.

junaduft said...

Wow, Brian. Thanks. I entered fragrance obsession-dum officially in August, when I smelled Flowerbomb, which I now dislike. I read about it on NST, then found out it was gourmand. Heard about Angel. Tried and bought that at ridiculous European prizes. And a few dozen bottles later, here I am.

Glad there are cheap thrills. Tried Carnal Flower at Barneys thanks to your review. It's gorgeous. Funny, how I'd probably buy ten bottles on your list, but can't bring myself to get Carnal Flower.

I'm saving your recs in a Word document and bringing them with me to NYC next weekend.

dea said...

Hey, I had to re-read this review because I bought some Just Me this week and have some Montana on its way. When I first smelled Just Me, I thought, "I know this smell." I looked through my boxes of saved samples and found it: Chinatown.

Does it smell like this to you? at all?

GeM said...

Just coming here after posting in Cacharel's LouLou review by Abigail!
Parfum de Peau = absolutely gorgeous stuff! As with some of the 80's 'gem scents', like LouLou, Yvresse, Paris, et al., nothing compares to them!