Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Brian's Best

Often this year, I found myself wishing that the fragrance industry would focus on quality over quantity. That might not have bothered me so much, had smaller companies not been thinking too big for their britches as well. Increasingly, it feels like niche lines are falling prey to the All New, All The Time syndrome--pepper spraying the market indiscriminately with fragrances which seem like sixty others before them. I'm sure your oud is perfectly lovely, as lovely as your iris. Can you tell me what distinguishes them, using something other than fanciful ad copy?

There's a desperation there, an urgency which might produce more frisson, if only more time were taken. Logic would seem to dictate that more at stake might result in more admirable efforts. What's the rush? I felt like I was being treated to dinner but presented with the check, sped through the meal lest I notice the change of plans.

Still, there were pleasures to be had in 2009. Some were even nice surprises. While Michael Kors Very Hollywood and Marc Jacobs Lola continued the trend toward inoffensive mediocrity at the mall, there were items of interest as well. La Prairie has never, to my knowledge, been on the cutting edge of fragrance, and to many a blogger the company's latest trio of scents, Life Threads, was little more than retread. I wouldn't disagree, but it all comes down to what's being revisited. Life Threads Gold was similar to many a recognizable floriental; particularly, the original Dolce and Gabbana for women, which is a fraction of the cost. Silver is a tuberose dressing up in big sister Fracas' shoes. Meanwhile, Life Threads Platinum is essentially Gres Cabochard. Cabochard can be had for next to nothing, you say, but it's a shadow of its former self--drained of everything but the general idea, whereas Platinum is rich and wonderful, as if La Prairie saw how a classic was being maligned and took matters into its own hands.

Issey Miyake's A Scent was wonderful to run into at the the counter. I prefer it to the very similar Estee Lauder Private Collection Jasmine White Moss, which feels sharper and somehow more synthetic to me. Again, a throwback: A Scent speaks the language of the vintage green chypre, albeit scrubbed clean. Less successful a remake was Narciso Rodriquez Essence, a fresh scrubbed rose as metallic and molten as its wonderful bottle. Hands down, Essence was the bottle of the year for me. The fragrance was well done, if not particularly interesting. I liked it a lot better than its peers.

The most hideous bottle award would go to Lolita Lempicka Si Lempicka. What planet are these people on--and exactly what kind of psychedelic unicorn populates it? Excuses to those who find it dreamy but the line's first bottle was awful enough, tripped out like My Little Pony's ceremonial saddle, gilded gewgaws and all. Far from an improvement, this one reminds me of something a child distracted by a conflicted psyche might make in art class out of clay, paint, and glittered drool.

I think the best the mall had to offer me was Alien Liqueur. A fan of the original, I often defended it. No Carnal Flower, maybe--no "head space technology"--but a fantastic improvement on Dominique Ropion's original, a spray of which never ceases to make me happy somewhere in my own conflicted psyche. I secretly hoped the Liqueur version would not disappoint, and the unicorns were listening, because it's a wondrous thing, a true desert island keeper. I could go on and on about this stuff. The Angel version, though pretty damn decent itself, felt a bit muddled toward the drydown, like somebody got bored before really thinking it through. Also very good: A*Men Pure Malt.

Don't get me started on masculines again. I can't keep going on about it. I get depressed. The new DKNY was appallingly pedestrian, and who could distinguish it (the packaging, the juice, the color scheme, the model) from Versace's latest (also wretched) and a dozen others. These lines are also guilty of needlessly confusing the consumer by using the same name, over and over, across ten different fragrances. Versace Homme or Versace Pour Homme? Versace Pour Homme or Versace L'Homme? DKNY WHAT--at this point? Someone please send these people a link to basenotes.

You know things are bad when a new release aims for, not the forgotten, original spirit of a classic fragrance, but its utterly forgettable reformulation. Case in point, Usher V.I.P. Hey Usher: Your smile is infectious. Your cologne is a cancer. Next time you copy Fahrenheit, dig a little deeper (into the past, into your pockets, into your imagination). You might have been sucking a pacifier at the time, but the eighties are hardly ancient history. Play Intense was hardly much of an improvement on the original Play (a.k.a. Not So Intense). It had the nice smoked tar and anise qualities of Black and Lolita au Masculin, but applied it so subtly you might rightly assume Givenchy has become scared of its own shadow.

Carolina Herrera's CH Men was a happy medium, though in these odds medium becomes a rather mercurial compass point. The down side was a rather robust synthetic amber. The up side was an interesting interplay of notes (somewhere between Lutens and lothario) and the sense an imagination was at play in the battlefield of commerce.

Speaking of amber, where has it been all my life? I was not a fan until this year. The difference was made by a process of gradual elimination. Straight up amber? Not so much. Smoky, rich, tarry, leathery? I'm clearing a space on my plate. Teo Cabanel's Alahine was a revelation for me (Thank you, Abigail). Parfum D'Empire's Ambre Russe had already pointed me in the right direction. Annick Goutal's Ambre Fetiche, after some initial confusion, has been the nail in the coffin. For months, almost a year, I'd mistaken my sample of Ambre Fetiche for Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier's Or des Indes. It's complicated, as they say on Facebook. Why was everyone saying Or Des Indes smells so much like Shalimar? I wasn't seeing the connection. Why was everyone raving about Ambre Fetiche? I wasn't seeing the appeal. Where was the amber? Much later, after deciding I couldn't go on without a bottle of what I took to be Or Des Indes, I received it in the mail and discovered.....hmmmm.....Shalimar. One bottle of Ambre Fetiche was soon on the way from Rei Rien. Ambre Fetiche is said to have an overload of synthetic amber. If this is how good synthetic amber smells, I fail to see the problem there. In the course of a year I went from amber apathy to double holy grail. Under great if not groundbreaking: Dior's Ambre Nuit, a wonderful rose amber which lasts with unusual tenacity and feels as rich as the bottle is smooth.

The trend for exclusive lines continued to articulate itself in 2009. An adjunct to this trend was the inauguration of several lines under the names of their perfumers. I haven't smelled Francis Kurkdjian's line yet, nor Mark Buxton's, but oh how I want to. Reports indicate that the latter is uneven, while the former is...not. Van Cleef released its "Collection Extraordinaire". Based on reactions to the price, I'm not sure the conclusion was extraordinary, but the iris was said by Robin at NowSmellThis to be quite good. I fell in love with Chanel's Coromandel this year, and Sycomore has been raved about by many. It seems that Chanel is at the forefront of these exclusive lines. The verdict is still out on Cartier's Les Heures du Parfum.

Biggest letdown at the department store--and the most depressing indicator of the mainstream mindset: YSL Parisienne. It was something like Sharon Stone replacing Gena Rowlands in the totally gratuitous and mercilessly unentertaining remake of "Gloria", all surface embellishment. It smelled better in the bottle than anywhere near the skin. Gloria too esoteric a reference for you? How about Fran Drescher replacing the voice of Bambi's mother in the original Disney cartoon?

A list of the most spectacular niche fragrances I found this year would have to includeHistoires des Parfums 1740, which is so good it feels like contraband I should hide and find a way to smoke in a very ornate pipe. I've decided I can't do it justice. It's too sensory an experience. It doesn't lend itself to words. Thanks to Abigail, I smelled most if not all of the Parfums MDCI line. A standout for me was Vepres Siciliennes. Classified as a fruity chypre, it was so much richer than anything I've experienced in that category. Invasion Barbare was astonishing; Peche Cardinal, great fun, a joy ride in a convertible Porsche, full speed ahead. Curiously, the MDCI offerings from masters Pierre Bourdon and Patricia de Nicolai were the least interesting to me.

Under great but disappointing, file Ulrich Lang's Nightscape, which has its moments but too often sits on the skin sulking, a pout taking over its features. At times it seems to be scowling. I liked Acqua di Parma's Profumo, but the price tag made ME scowl. Then I walked away. Having walked away, I promptly forgot about it. Note to Acqua di Parma: Aramis at 50 bucks intrigues me. At 400, I need memorable, or you do, if your intention is my intention to buy. High points to Robert Piguet. The care with which this line is being re-asserted is admirable and should set an example to all large companies seeking to reinvigorate their bought out inventory. The Futur reformulation (by Aurelien Guichard) is fantastic--for about ten minutes. Oh what a ten minute fantasy it is. Metallically green in the fashion of Paco Rabbane Metal, gusty in the manner of Vent Vert--yet while Vent Vert blows back and forth, Futur plows straight ahead, no looking back, until but a memory. No matter. Seeing all the Piguet bottles lined up, knowing each fragrance has been handled well, makes me immensely happy.

I've tried but two of the Boadicea the Victorious fragrances. I'd heard such bad things. I now know to be prepared to disregard such accepted misgivings when it comes to something about which I maintain more than a healthy curiosity. I kept thinking about Complex. Violet and hard core leather. What's not to love? Reviewers call it everything short of the most insidiously vile excuse for a fragrance ever inflicted upon an unsuspecting society. Finally, I ordered a sample. There was no expected drumroll. Flat out, instant reaction: I love the stuff--as passionately as others despise it. The idea it might offend seems so laughable to me that I can't help imagining the scathing commentary about it online was dreamed up by its marketers.

Bond No.9 continues to disenchant its admirers and reinforce the resentment of its detractors. I suggest less rather than more. Less bullying. Less perfume. I smelled the Oud. It's nice. Cats are nice too. I'll pet yours but I don't want any. That said, the Bond I most eagerly anticipated, Success Is A Job In New York, while nice (lovely, even) didn't make my must have list. That place of privelege went to--big surprise--Harrod's for Her. Listen, it's a nuclear strength spiced tuberose. It will win you no friends in any indoor environment. It smells very much like Michael by Michael Kors. There's every reason not to like it, let alone own it, but I've fallen hard for it. There's something very lucid and opulent about it, like a ten-tier wedding cake made in an E-Z Bake oven.

If I must pick an oud, I'm going with Le Labo's. It's the only time I can remember a fragrance stopping me dead in my tracks. I walked past a friend wearing it in a large hall and it slapped me in the face with a tickle and some tongue. No traffic was stalled by L'Artisan's effort. It might just be me and Bertrand Duchaufour. We don't always see eye to eye. That said...I loved Penhaligons' Amaranthine. My problems with Duchaufour have often to do with diffusion. Where does it go? Into what wormhole slips the scent of his fragrances once they hit skin? It's as though someone entered a party smelling wonderfully of some unknown perfume, but left the door open, so the wind carries it all away. Amaranthine was robust and declarative. This guest closes the door behind her.

I'm in love with Sonoma Scent Studio's Tabac Aurea and Liz Zorn's Purple Love Smoke. These two indies really launched me into some fascinating headspace. A friend tells a story about the single most defining moment of her childhood. She'd just returned from a screening of Mary Poppins. Dick Van Dyke had drawn a chalk scene on the pavement and the cast had jumped in, entering a parallel world. When she got home, my friend drew on her own chalk board, placed it on the floor, and took a leap of faith. The flimsy, store-bought chalk board broke, which must have been like learning Santa Claus is a fraud and those cookies get eaten by your mom and dad. Tabac Aurea and Purple Love Smoke are examples of the rare fragrance, which, having drawn a fantasy with chalk, ushers you in and has the substance to sustain what its surface promised. I found them mesmerizing. I long for a Purple Love Smoke EDP, though I know I'm not getting it and I understand and respect why, but oh, to float around in those vapors.

I continue to be surprised exploring the range of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. There are misses--there would have to be, with hundreds of oils to choose from--but the treasures make the hunt worthwhile. Every year, limited editions are released. Some of these are coveted on Ebay and go for big bucks. I'm glad to have two of the year's best: Diable en Boite and Now Winter Night Enlarge. The former pits tangy peach against hemp, tobacco, clove and tonka, resulting in a thing of wonder--somewhere in the half life between the succulent fermentation of Yvresse and the classic, balls-out Oriental Spicy. There's a little devil on the label, but this stuff is a big piece of heaven. Now Winter is even better still: vanilla-infused red musk, champaca, petitgrain, ylang ylang, patchouli, nutmeg, honey, galbanum, and traces of caramel. As weird as that all sounds, it doesn't prepare you--which isn't to say Now Winter is an olfactory assault. The strangest thing is how beautiful it is, how incredible it smells out of the bottle, and how many changes it goes through on the skin. Now that Ava Luxe has stopped producing as much or any of her fragrances, I'm gravitating toward BPAL even more frequently. It satisfies a certain level of curiosity and adventure I bring to perfume in ways no other niche, indie, or mainstream line does, taking off-the-wall risks, some of which pay off in dividends.

One of the best things about the year was my continuing friendship with co-blogger Abigail. It's hard to believe we've been doing this together for over a year and a half and haven't met in person. Our friendship has been a huge boost for me on a daily basis. If you don't have a friend in fragrance, find one. Post comments. Make your profile available (i.e. not anonymous). It's worth it.

Along those lines, I have gotten so much out of reading fellow bloggers this year. Like you, maybe, I visit them every day. I thoroughly enjoy them all for different reasons.

Other participants in this year end best of exercise are listed in Abigail's post.

13 comments:

Tania said...

Brian,
I'm curious - which was the other Boadicea scent you tried?
I've tried Complex and Explorer. Both have this strong burning-rubber note which I'm not mad about. I don't know what it is, but I don't think it's leather.

Boston Red Lox said...

What a great roundup of perfumes. I agree with you how all the trendy new perfumes smell the same. I'm in a fragrance rut right now and am looking to classic scents to fill the void, but after reading your review I've got to try the Bodicea the Victorious! I love your sardonic yet humorous style of writing too! I just discovered your blog today but I'll be back.

Mals86 said...

My first thought upon reading your Year in Review, Brian, was Holy cow, he's smelled a lot of stuff! My second was, I haven't smelled most of those; I have nothing to say about 2009. My following thoughts were, 2009 was my first full year of perfume interest; I'm catching up and smelling good things from the past; I don't NEED to sniff everything new.

Besides, I have Brian to do that for me. :) Thanks for keeping this blog going; it's one of my favorites.

That said, I did find some 2009 releases to love - I purchased decants of MFK Lumiere Noire pour femme and Amaranthine. Also bought a split of Havana Vanille, which I have not laid nostrils on yet, as it hasn't arrived yet. And fell head over heels for SSS Tabac Aurea. New stuff that was terrific but didn't make the budget cuts: Natori, Matin d'Orage, LM Minuit Enchante, Nuit de Cellophane (wow, a Lutens that didn't try to throttle me...).

Other highlights of the year: *Alahine, which I find Winter Joy in a Bottle, and for which I can thank no one more than Abigail.
*Beginning to write again, after a years-long hiatus; I managed NaNoWriMo, and in the fall, started taking my blog seriously.
*Perfume-head friends - most of them "met" at NST. It's lovely not to feel alone in my obsessions.

Best wishes for a wonderful year.

Ines said...

lol - I'm one of those who fell for Si Lolita. :)
One of the things I'm really sorry I haven't tried yet is Angel Liqeur though - I hope I'll remedy that soon.
A great and comprehensive list.
Happy New year!

brian said...

Hi Tania. Happy Holidaze. Now how is it that of all the Bo's, we both tried the same two? Burning rubber, huh? I don't get that. There's definitely a tarry quality to them, and I wonder whether that's something shared across the line. I like it very much so I'm in trouble if the answer is yes.

brian said...

Hey Boston, Welcome. I'm glad we lured another hapless, unsuspecting reader. In several weeks you will notice a pronounced but diffuse sense of bitter regret and localized anomie. We do our best to spread the cheer. Seriously, rut happens. I experienced my first real rut a few months back. Nothing seemed very interesting to me. It passes, unfortunately (says my pocketbook).

brian said...

MALS! You've tried several I'm way too curious about. So I need some answers. Lumiere Noire? What say you? And Natori? The former I think I would love: potent rose and cumin? Something like that. The latter I wonder about. It's been described in ways which make it seem ideal. The plum, the aldehydes, etc. But I've also heard that it's subtle. And subtle is 9 times out of ten a deal breaker. Do tell. Btw, I have several friends who were involved in NaNoWriMo this year. Sounds like fun. I bet we know some of the same people.

brian said...

Be careful, Ines. Beware the draw of Lolita. Soon you will find yourself dressing in medieval ball gowns just for the fun of it!

Mals86 said...

Oh, gosh, Brian, you MUST try the Lumiere Noire - I don't get cuminy sweat out of it, but I'd say Rose and Narcissus do the Naughty Tango, with Patchouli trying to talk them into making it a threesome. Haven't tried the Pour Homme.

I liked Natori very much but decided I didn't need it. Lots of plum, slight aldehydic fizz, white flowers, and Opium-style balsamic resins (which I struggle with anyway). I wouldn't call it subtle, but I have this sillage guideline of not wafting past a three-foot radius. If Opium felt just right to you in terms of presence, Natori might be too subtle for you. Worth trying, though.

Smedley said...

I've been a long-time reader, but I have never left you any comments or messages. I'm sorry about that and decided to rectify my lapse. For those of you who write, I'm sure you wonder if anyone is reading? Well,I'm certain that there are bunches of folks who read the marvelous "I Smell Therefore I Am" blog and who are lurkers like me.
I check this blog daily to find any new entries. Brian and Abigail - you have become favorites of mine. Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to write such articulate, informative, and clever pieces. I am always thrilled to see there has been a new entry posted.

As long as you write, I will read. Thanks!!

Tania said...

Brian,
belated Happy Holidaze to you, too!

Yup, considering how many there are in the line, that's quite a coincidence.
Well, I sniffed a few of them at the Boadi stand in Selfridges (I don't remember which ones exactly), but that note only stood out to me in Explorer and Complex. There were plenty more I didn't get around to, though.
Tarry? Yes, it could be that - I couldn't find the exact word for the note in my scent vocabulary. With Explorer, it's more noticeable nose to wrist than in sillage. But with Complex, it seems stronger.

dea said...

i *loved* this post.

i haven't met any of my online fragrance friends, either. sometimes i have dreams about them- which kind of embarrasses me.
but after reading this post i realized there are not many people i interact with in my day to day life that provoke such a wide range of feelings and thoughts and make me laugh so often.

thank you for making life a little more interesting and meaningful.

brian said...

Thanks so much, Smedley. There are many reasons people blog. I'm not sure why we do. The fact is you never really know who's reading. So it's great to hear every once in a while that people enjoy what you're doing. We'll try not to disappoint.