Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Contradictory/Contrarian Thoughts

1. I've discovered that I really like fragrances I'm discouraged from even sniffing by reputable sources. Michael by Michael Kors smells like roasted gardenia and tuberose to me, spiced a little, and that's a good thing. It dries down in a wonderful way, lasting just about all day and then some. Boucheron Trouble doesn't smell too sweet or pedestrian to me. It smells rich and slightly woody. Kelly Caleche isn't a bore or even a letdown. It makes a pretty definite statement to me, with its vegetal iris and peppered disposition. Jean Paul Gaultier is supposed to be headache in a bottle, whereas for me, it has restorative properties.

2. What is a dandy fragrance? I used to think it was a rose a guy could get away with wearing. Now I realize that the fragrances which get called dandy-worthy are typically anything the guy in question likes but which is popularly regarded as feminine and therefore requires some justification or mental adjustment to wear. In this respect, every perfume I own which is meant for women (and I have a lot) is a dandy fragrance. I don't think wearing a so-called feminine requires justification. It's an act of social sabotage, which is justification enough. You make it your own, and if you stop worrying over it, and wear it with confidence, people stop judging it separately from you as being either appropriate or inappropriate. You own it. What could be more appropriate? The other day a homeboy came in to smell the Bond No. 9 fragrances while I was standing there. He had on Louis Vuitton sneakers, chunky gold jewelry, and was more put together than most of the women I know, and he was worried that the No. 9's he favored were considered feminine. He looked to the women behind the counter, who all liked different No. 9's, to tell him whether or not he should be caught dead in his favorites. Enough said?

3. I'm not sure what I think about the alleged masterpiece Beyond Paradise. There, I said it. Sometimes I think I love it. Is that a figgy sort of green in there, or just a gardenia and jasmine sucker punch? Wearing it today, I'm drunk on it. Smelling it a month ago I thought the naff lollipop bottle suited it perfectly.

4. I love Givenchy Insense. It seems harder and harder to find the older bottles. Online they're always "out of stock". I found some at a local discount store and purchased, even though I had a small bottle at home already. Before I ever smelled it I was told that Insense is a male floral. I disregarded the fact that it smelled anything but floral to me. Maybe if I focus I can smell the magnolia and the muguet, but I would never call this girly or even anything less than robustly masculine. More bewildering still, Michael Edwards classifies this as woody - floral musk. What am I missing? Top to bottom, I get that mentholated green note, part galbanum, part eucalyptus. It's almost as butch as Estee Lauder Alliage. I'm told this is the lentisk (aka mastic tree), a small evergreen shrub of the mediterranean region. And yes, the part waxy, part oily qualities of muguet and magnolia suit it well. But, really--musk?

5. What's going on at Sephora? Granted, their stock was always pathetic, but at one time, just under a year ago, they carried Cartier, Hermes, and any number of items I haven't seen on their shelves for months now. We're getting new stuff in, they told me, when I asked why they were rearranging their shelves and things started to go missing. They were just making room, they said. Now the masculines and feminines, once on opposite sides of the room, are on the same wall, and both have been laughably condensed. No more Jardins de This or That. No more Baiser du Dragon or So Pretty. But if you're in the market for Fresh Sake or Burberry Bland, this is the place to go. I used to dislike Sephora. Now I know I hate them.

6. When I first smelled Santa Maria Novella Nostalgia I thought, yes, it does smell a little like Bulgari Black. Then I got home with the bottle and actually conducted a side by side comparison. Nostalgia is nothing like Black. And it blows it out of the water, as far as I'm concerned. I've also since come to realize that Nostalgia lasts with impressive tenacity. In less than two weeks I went from liking and admiring this fragrance to loving it all out of reason. On sale: One slightly used bottle of Bulgari Black. Make an offer.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Four Things I've Been Wearing Lately

Hermes Caleche

Yes, it has that weird, Godzilla synthetic vetiver all the older perfumes have been "updated" with, and it smells a little cleaner than it once did, but I liked it enough to buy a small bottle of soie de parfum. An at first sharper, then mellower floral aldehyde than another favorite, Lancome Arpege (which also has the vetiver in question). Caleche dries down to a warm, subtle but persistent skin scent. Once contained oakmoss, which isn't listed on the box I own. An interesting example of a masculine aldehyde: soapy and robust, then golden-hued and langorous.

Estee Lauder Youth Dew Amber Nude

Like a ghost twin of the original, this Tom Ford-directed flanker to the flagship Lauder fragrance is a sheerer version, spectral by comparison, yet without feeling watered down or otherwise diluted. I was excited to find it in the Duty Free at the Milano airport, in the Lauder section, though Lauder doesn't sell it or stock it anymore elsewhere. The bottle updates its ancestor as well. Amber Nude is boozier than Youth Dew, subtracting some of the balsamic heft which can make YD smell so baroquely excessive on the skin. I prefer the original, as it projects the impression its wearer harbors interesting secrets. But Amber Nude is a nice, refreshingly uncomplicated alternative.

Clinique Wrappings

Oh how I love this stuff. An old reliable for Clinique, sold only during the holidays in the United States. In Europe, it's sold year round. Bracingly green, it comes on like a morning in the woods, cold enough that your breath fogs. Technically a floral aldehyde, it smells very little like one, submerging rose, hyacinth and orris under a carpet of artemisia, lavender, mace, and cedar. The pyramid lists leather, patchouli, and a marine note. I get none of these, which isn't to say they aren't there, just that they're very well integrated. I'd like to know who created it.

Mona di Orio Nuit de Niore

Smelling this, I feel protective, like the drama queen who famously ranted and wailed against Britney's detractors on youtube. Leave Mona ALONE. This reminds me of Bal a Versailles, old and new, but mostly old, thanks to the civet. Nuit lasts, is by turns alarmingly strange and wondrously addictive, is weirdly maligned, and yet people do love Mona's fragrances. Once, in Portland's Perfume House, a woman came in off the street and after smelling Arabie for the first time said she hadn't experienced anything that wonderful since Oiro. The guys at Aedes in NYC sold her on a bottle, and describing it to me her eyes rolled back into her head. I didn't understand this when I first smelled Oiro, months later. But I sprayed some on and went to a movie, and halfway through, I fell in love with the little spot on my hand where I'd sprayed it. Mona's fragrances develop like no other I know. They actually have stages. They're moody little things, deepening on the skin in complicated Escher-like patterns. It's hard to see where they're taking you when you first set out with them. The trend in contemporary fragrance, oft-noted, is geared toward the first ten minutes, a hard sell in the top notes, and chaotic banality in the dry down, such that there is one. Nuit works in direct opposition to this. It doesn't bullshit you. It doesn't pander. It takes its time, and patience pays off in dividends. Supposedly, Aedes has stopped carrying the line, making it even harder to come by in the states. Perhaps the guys behind the counter got tired of batting their heads against a brick wall.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Notes on Jacques Cavallier

After smelling all manner of wonderful, exotic things in Italy, I returned home to find my bottle of Calvin Klein Man. It was sitting there on my desk, where I'd left it. The smell transported me back, twenty days ago, to the frantic state of mind I was in as I struggled to tie up last minute loose ends in preparation for such a lengthy time away. I bought CK Man several days before my departure. It's only now, coming back to it, that I realize how far it went toward calming me, however crazed I felt at the time. What is it about the work of Jacques Cavallier, the nose behind CK Man and so many other fragrances I love, that appeals to me?

Chandler Burr on Cavallier: "...a prolific perfumer so successful these days that he often seems to generate a quarter of each year’s worldwide fragrance product." Interestingly, in a recent review of Cavallier's latest Stella flanker, Sheer Stella, Burr accused its creative team of crass commercialism and lowest common denominator aromachemicals. Cavallier responded in print, correcting Burr's facts if not his opinion. The ingredients of Sheer are the same as those in the original; simply modified into different proportions. This bit of careless inaccuracy must have irked Cavallier to no end, given how often his perfumes have been judged more emotionally (i.e. irrationally) than factually.

Cavallier, self admittedly strong-willed, has built a reputation, in part, on a small body of cult favorites, fragrances difficult to classify, sometimes impossible to market. Some have been discontinued. All are interesting, whether success or failure by commercial standards. That isn't to say Cavallier doesn't create marketable fragrances. Some of his creations, like Issey Miyake L’Eau d’Issey, have been genre-defining hits. But for every hit there are one or two "misses". The interesting thing about those so-called misses is how influential they are in their own way. Far from missing their targeted audiences, these ricochet off into different precincts of the industry, creating new trends, planting the seeds for new audiences through alternate combinations, forging innovative paths which other perfumers then follow. It's a different kind of success.

M7, for Yves Saint Laurent, is no longer available in the U.S., but it presages the craze for all things aoud in masculines and feminines alike. M7 probably helped make the Montale line possible. It certainly influenced the recent reinterpretation of Habit Rouge, the edp concentration of which replaced powdery carnation and amber with agarwood. The inclusion of rosemary in the M7 mix typically goes unremarked, yet it adds a trademark touch of the herbal dissonance to the composition in a way which relates M7 to everything from Ultraviolet for Paco Rabanne to the above mentioned CK Man in Cavallier's oeuvre.

The herbal bent of Cavallier's compositions often has, as with CK Man, a lactonic quality, giving it a richness and an opacity unique to perfumery. Le Feu D'Issey (discontinued and difficult to find) and L'eau Bleu D'Issey both explore this territory, resembling the milky viscosity you get when you break open certain twigs and plants. Feu is less openly herbal, applying the effect to citrus notes. Bleu is unabashedly green and aromatic, and in addition to the herbal tones it features another Cavallier trademark, an odd little bread note. That bread note reappears in different combinations throughout his output, creating alternate takes on what is already a unique accord.

The apotheosis of this bread note appears in YSL Elle, which Cavallier recently co-created with frequent collaborator Olivier Cresp. The two have also worked together on Midnight Poison, Cacharel Amor Pour Homme Tentation, Diesel Fuel for Life Unlimited, Lancome Magnifique, Nina Ricci "Nina", and Paco Rabanne Pour Elle. Aside from Cresp, Cavallier's most frequent collaborator has been Alberto Morillas. His creations with Cresp have been less overtly odd. His work with Morillas, his "brother in creation", seems to have trickled off around 2003. A more recent collaboration with Annick Menardo proved one of the more interesting fusions of technique in contemporary perfumery. Who knew that the sensibilities of the two would compliment each other so well? For Diesel Fuel for Life Women, he matched her creamy vanillic-floral contribution with herbs and that signature bread note, creating a unique take on the trend for fruity florals. Fuel for Life Men presented a modern fougere, part fruity, part fern.

His most iconic fragrances, aside from L'eau d'Issey, have been Acqu di Gio for men, Jean Paul Gaultier Classique, Bulgari Eau Parfumee au The Blanc, Essenza di Zegna, Armani Mania, Stella McCartney, and Lancome Poeme. My own personal favorites have typically been YSL fragrances created under partnership with Tom Ford: Cinema, M7, the fantastic Nu (again, slightly ahead of the craze for incense fragrances), and Rive Gauche Pour Homme. His work with Ford continued after Ford's tenure at YSL ended. Since then he has done two Private Blends under the Tom Ford brand name: Tuscan Leather and the sublime Noir de Noir, both with Harry Fremont, who was also his collaborator on CK Man. I appreciate Calvin Klein Truth and Boucheron Initial (a wonderful use of immortelle) without feeling too passionately about either.

Weirdly, my favorites aren't necessarily those I wear most often. I can't remember the last time I sprayed on Nu, let alone M7. So it's no surprise that the first Cavallier fragrance I bought and loved is the one I wear the least frequently. Kingdom is unusual even for Cavallier, in that I find it difficult to relate to the rest of his work, apart from its general audacity. No other Cavallier fragrance divides as neatly down the line between love and hate. Some smell body odor. I smell jasmine, rose, and cumin. The first proposal for Alexander McQueen's first fragrance was what eventually became Secretions Magnifiques for Etat Libre D'Orange. Comparing Secretions to Kingdom shows how tame Kingdom really is. Whereas Secretions is assaultive and difficult to impossible (I like it, mind you), Kingdom integrates its oddness in a way which makes that dividing line not only possible but emphatic. Secretions is alarming and off-putting, no matter how much you appreciate it. Kingdom carries the big stick but walks softly with it.

Cavallier was born in 1962. His birthplace, big surprise, was Grasse. His family has been there since the 15th Century. Both his father and grandfather were perfumers. As a child, he studied raw materials with his father from 5 to 7 a.m. He joined several companies before Firmenich, with whom he's now employed.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lorenzo Villoresi: Teint de Neige

Abigail and I agree on a lot of things, and are often right on the same page on any given number of subjects, but every once in a while we part ways when it comes to a particular fragrance. A while back, after buying a bottle of Teint de Neige, she observed that it smelled of baby powder; nothing more, nothing less. Hearing that, I might have passed on Teint de Neige altogether. Who wants to smell like baby powder? And in fact, when I ran across some of Villoresi's fragrances in Milan, I smelled everything but Teint de Neige the first few times I visited the shop in question.

I'd never read the Chandler Burr review, which awarded the fragrance five out of five stars, but I'd heard a lot about Villoresi on the perfume blogs. I liked what I smelled, but not enough to buy anything. A few days before leaving Italy, I finally asked to test Teint de Neige, figuring I should at least be familiar with it, and I was surprised how much I liked it. I liked it so much that, after spending a day with the sample I'd been given, I returned to buy my own full bottle. Teint de Neige (color of snow) does smell like baby powder, which is why I initially dismissed it. Gradually, I realized it smelled like a lot of other things to me too: almonds, rose, jasmine, musk, orange blossom, vanilla.

In some ways, Teint reminds me of Hypnotic Poison. The two share a strange, lactonic-floral undertone. It also reminds me of make-up, the aroma of cosmetics, a smell I really like for various reasons, most of them having to do with nostalgia, evoking memories of my childhood fascination at how much time my grandmothers and mother spent putting on their faces. Teint smells vintage somehow, and formal, and something about it brings to mind the powdered wigs, cakes, sets, and fashions from the film Marie Antoinette. Like that film, Teint de Neige is very specific, maybe even exhaustive, in style. It's a very focused fragrance, and this might preclude many people from enjoying its more subtle attractions.

As Burr says, Teint de Neige has great longevity and diffusion. Many of Villoresi's fragrances seem to, and the discussions and reviews about them often point out their strength of character. They are frequently slammed by Luca Turin, who seems to have decided, if not decreed, that their maker has no talent. Aside from Mona di Orio, there are few perfumers to whom Turin and Sanchez are more thoroughly unkind. Villoresi is dimissed as a talentless hack, while Orio is regarded as a sort of impostor, pretending to have studied with the great Michel Roudnitska. Both Burr and Turin are dismissive of various perfumes. It isn't often they dismiss an entire line. Even rarer that they dismiss a perfumer him or herself. Even the worst seem to produce something of interest now and then. I forget how much influence these kinds of reviews can have, and how insidiously they affect the attitude toward a brand or a specific fragrance. I was surprised, too, when I smelled di Orio and realized how much I like her work.

Fortunately, people seem to swear by Villoresi, and, according to Burr, Teint is Villoresi's biggest seller. The shop where I bought my bottle stocked it more than any other, in two sizes, whereas every other Villoresi but Patchouli came in only 3.4 ounce bottles. I bought 1.7 ounces because Teint is strong and requires very little. To me, it works better faintly, as if a hazy but persistent memory.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Santa Maria Novella Nostalgia

Back when I first heard about Santa Maria Novella, the age-old cathedral pharmacy in Florence, I was most intrigued by Fieno (hay), Peau d'Espagne (Spanish leather) and Nostalgia (ibid). I've since smelled the first two, but it wasn't until today, a year later, that I got my hands on the latter.

Says the Now Smell This Perfume House listing for SMN:

"The Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. The store in Florence, Italy opened to the public in 1612, but the fragrances and body products are based on recipes that the Dominican friars of Florence had been developing (using herbs from the monastery gardens) since the 13th century. It was held by the Dominicans until the late 19th century when it became a private business. Today they market a wide range of fragrances, bath and body products, and home fragrances."

You don't have to go all the way to Italy to get Santa Maria Novella. Aedes in NYC carries the brand, and you can probably get it elsewhere, with a little scouting. Many of the scents are nice but fairly unremarkable. Santa Maria Novella's Iris approaches exceptional, with a sugared medicinal disposition which fluctuates intriguingly between off-putting and come hither. Potpourri is a clove-laden floral and incense affair, one of the best of its kind, certainly better than the Comme des Garçons Incense series, which I've always found slightly overrated, like incense air freshener. Fieno is a little sweet for my taste, whereas Peau d'Espagne was quite a surprise, a look at the underside of the Chanel Cuir de Russie saddle, grimy and sweaty, a grungy wallop of indelicate leather, too stiff to be anywhere near well-worn, whatever the age.

It's probably inevitable, with such a lengthy build-up, that my feelings about Nostalgia would be mixed. I remain affectionately undecided. It goes on with a wondrously rubbery flourish, touched with petrol, hot oil, dust, and sunshine, teetering conceptually between bright and dark, piquant and pungent. And this lasts about thirty minutes on my skin (in the heat), the rest, what there is, lingering subliminally. Nostalgia actually recalls Peau d'Espagne, though it has modified the resinous murk of its ancestor with what almost comes across as citrus. Where Espagne is herbal and opaque, Nostagia is radiant, if not quite sheer. Oddly, and probably unintentionally, it interprets its roadway theme by careening in and out of recognizable masculine territory. Though its wheels never exactly stop burning rubber, Nostalgia comes close at times to more traditional he-man fragrances du jour, albeit in a way which improves upon their general template.

Nostalgia has been compared to Bulgari Black, its most visible rubber contemporary, the poster boy for this kind of thing, and while I like Black as a rule (minus a few qualifications) I think I prefer Nostalgia overall. Black is too refined, too timid for my tastes. I appreciate it but never wear it. For something which is said to be so cutting edge, I find Black rather soft. Nostalgia, on the other hand, has an impressive amount of oomph, if not much more staying power than Black (one of said qualifications). Nostalgia is bolder, more reckless, a fun-lover's ride. Whether or not you're willing to pay 100 bucks for the seat is another issue.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Guerlain Cologne du 68

Sophia Labbe created Guerlain Cologne du 68 in 2006. Cologne du 68 was initially exclusive to Guerlain’s flagship shop in Paris but has since made it to the states and other parts of the world.

I’ve come to think of Cd68 as being so practical, that it’s the perfume equivalent of baking soda. Baking soda is my favorite grocery item because it can do virtually anything. Baking soda cleans teeth, deodorizes the refrigerator, trash can, cat litter box, helps laundry liquid work better, bakes, cleans jewelry, gently scrubs the sink, serves as a facial exfoliator, softens hands and the list goes on.

Cologne du 68 is a fresh and sweet fragrance that works for every occasion, every mood and seems incapable of being overdone, overbearing or disagreeable to anyone. I’m serious, I can imagine wearing Cologne du 68 for a wedding, to a funeral, for a job interview and on a sexy date night. Normally, this is exactly the sort of practical skin scent that I would never have in my collection. As Brian and I agree, we can’t have too few practical fragrances.

Along comes Cologne du 68 and it grabs my attention. It’s practical, like baking soda, yes, but it’s so multifaceted and long lasting that I actually love it. Cologne is not the best perfume term to describe it; it starts off with citrus top notes but that’s about as close to a true cologne as it comes. Cdu68 is very much a full fledged perfume with a sweet gourmand-ish base, similar to the base of many Guerlain fragrances. The aspect I enjoy most is that Cdu68 smells slightly different to me every time I wear it. Some days it seems mostly citrus and refreshing, other days it’s vanillic and comfy, other times it’s got a nice anisic-citrus-spice accord wafting up to my nose and still other times I smell a fruity heliotrope quality. Cdu68 truly has it all – if the list of notes is true (probably not I would guess) then it contains about every note plus the kitchen sink. But it doesn’t smell haphazard – it smells simple, fresh, sensuous, cozy and delightful.

Cologne du 68 stays close to the skin but it lasts all day.

The notes for Cologne du 68 are bergamot, green mandarin, citron, clementine, cedrat, blood orange, limette, grapefruit, basil, fennel, star anise, lavender, bay leaf, cypress, elemi, thyme, myrtle, bigarade, mandarin petitgrain, lemon petitgrain, pear, violet leaves, ivy leaves, gentiana, sap, blackcurrant, freesia, lily of the valley, hazelnut leaf, cyclamen, cardamom, coriander, black pepper, pink pepper, nutmeg, ginger, jasmine, frangipani, magnolia, orange blossom, peony, rose, carnation, ylang ylang, lychee, fig, blackberry, immortelle, lentisque, opoponax, amber, benzoin, vanilla, cistus, heliotrope, iris, tonka bean, sage, musk, patchouli, agarwood, cedar, sandalwood, vetiver, vegetable musk, praline, myrrh and moss.

More on L'Heure Bleue

From the foreword of The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini:

"In the summer of 1912 the French parfumier Jacques Guerlain concocted a scent from musk and rose de Bulgarie with a single note of jasmine. He intended his new scent, which he called L'Heure Bleue, to evoke dusk in the city. The blue hour is the time when heliotropes and irises in Parisian window boxes are bathed in a blue light and the well-groomed Parisienne prepares for the evening.

"For the novelist Jean Rhys, the blue hour was also the hour when the lap-dog she saw herself as being during the day turned into a wolf. Dogs hunt best during twilight. Underneath our surface sophistication lurks a predator. Jean Rhys was always concerned with what lay beneath the top notes. In Quartet, her first novel, set in paris, a young female character, smarter and bolder than her heroine, is wearing L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain. Rhys's heroine absorbs the woman's scent as though in breathing it in she can capture her rival's self-possession..."

Though Jean Rhys published only a handful of books in a brief period of time, I've returned to her work more often than any other writer. I relate that strongly to her characters, always some poetic inversion of their author, always sad, alone but fighting against it, somewhat self-sabotaging, romantic but fatalistic, hopelessly dreamy, grafting onto the peeling, water-stained wallpaper of a Parisian flophouse images of high fashion, glamorous independence, the head over heels dizziness of ill-fated love affairs, all while remaining glued by inertia to the room's filthy mattress, waiting for dusk and perhaps a free meal.

Rhys herself was both fiercely independent and disastrously beholden to a series of not-so-charitable older men, the most notorious of whom was the writer Ford Maddox Ford. It was Ford who helped Rhys get published, which is to say organized. Her childhood in Dominica had ingrained in her a sense of elaborate languor bordering on laziness, at least as far as others were concerned. Getting her shit together was always a challenge for her, and I imagine a scattered heap of intuitively- if not technically connected notes and sentences before Ford came along, mixing encouragement with sexual attention. Naturally, he dumped her. Almost everyone did. People leave. Where's the motivation in that?

She was a woman of sharp observational powers, in possession of what seemed to be an inherently poetic sense of the world. The combination of these two attributes made for writing which is often so sad, so melancholy, so blue, that you think you can't get through it, so that the act of reading it replicates how Rhys must have felt about life and the world in general: too gorgeous and brutal for words. She is best known for her last novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a reinterpretation of Jane Eyre. For me, her earlier novels are the strongest, the most unrelenting in their beautiful remorse. Start with After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie and work your way through to Good Morning, Midnight.

I was excited when The Blue Hour came out, because very few biographies on Rhys exist. After buying the book, I packed it in my bag for a recent trip to Italy. It seemed a good place to engross myself in Rhys' life, though her particular adulthood haunt was France. In any case, Italy is nearer than Memphis, and closer in spirit and tone. I've been obsessed with perfume for over a year now, relentlessly obsessed to some, and yet I had no reason to associate Jean Rhys with anything from that world and made no connection between the title of the book and the beloved Guerlain perfume. Reading the foreword on the plane was a moment of epiphany, because of course Rhys would have loved L'Heure Bleue. It makes perfect sense. It was perhaps the only fragrance for her uniquely lonely world view, but more than telling me something new about Rhys, the connection has opened my eyes about L'Heure Bleue itself.

Often described in a way which makes it seem sad and cool in an almost satirically quaint way, L'Heure Bleue is in fact magnificently, deeply melancholic, an unlikely, tense but simultaneously languid fusion of the medicinal and the floral, both edible and inedible. There is carnation against iris, itself enough contrast for a dozen perfumes, the warmth of tonka and vanilla working alongside a powdery detachment. It is spicy but sweet, powdery dry but dewy, a study in perfectly calibrated contrasts, so well blended that they cease to be contradictions; rather, a persistent sense of vaguely perceived oppositions precariously balanced into some sort of olfactory truce. This delicate balance is a wondrous thing, giving you the sense that to breathe the wrong way might send it all flying back into discord like dandelion fluff.

I went straight out to the nearest profumeria in Milan, where I purchased a bottle in EDP concentration. I need it with me as I read The Blue Hour, I decided, a ticket into Rhys's headspace. L'Heure Bleue reminds me of moments I've since had here in Lugano, Switzerland, where I've been staying for the last several days. A wall of windows in my host's apartment looks out over a parallel wall, higher and wider still, of softly sloping mountains. Buildings dot these, clustered at the bottom. Trees cover their angular reality with an illusion of cozy tenderness.

The city surrounds an enormous lake. I saw it up close as the train came in from Milano. I left Italy reluctantly, feeling somehow, somewhere, someone had gotten it wrong. I'd ended up in America rather than Italy, where I clearly belonged. My family came from Lucca over fifty years ago. What kind of mistake was that--and how had we paid for it? And now my life back "home" is so complicated, I reminded myself, that there's no getting out of it, and of course much of it I don't want to leave, making things more difficult, more confusing, more bittersweet. I thought of all I'd be losing in the imagined immigration back to Italy.

Lugano is impossibly pretty. There's a garden outside with a chaise lawnchair waiting for me as I write this. It's seven o'clock and the mountains have gone foggy, imbued with a faint cast of pale, powdery blue. They seem like an apparition, an embodiment of my conflicted feelings. My sadness has lingered into the visit. It got off the train with me. I stare out the windows into this beautiful landscape, seeing it through that sadness, and twilight, which should be descending any minute now, will erode the boundaries between this beauty and sadness even further, so that they seem one and the same thing, the differences between the two indistinguishable, something you can only live with, or through.

This is L'Heure Bleue for me. And, reading The Blue Hour, I think it was something like this for Jean Rhys, too. It's some kind of consolation, learning we have this in common.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

This Week at the Perfume Counter: Milano

Before I left for Milan, Tuesday before last, I googled perfume shops in the area. I needn't have bothered, as there are perfume shops all over the place--in a week, I probably passed thirty, at least--but google brought me to Profumo on Via Brera, and another shop a few blocks down on the same street, so it wasn't a total waste.

Profumo is run by a man who seems to know what he's talking about, though he speaks only passable English. The place has the usual niche suspects (Malle, Diptyque) as well as the harder to come by: I got to smell some of the Lorenzo Villoresi line, the new Heeley, Parfum d'Empire, Mona di Orio, Keiko Mecheri, and Profumi del Forte, an Italian line, my favorite of which was Roma Imperiale, an addictively light but persistent Shalimar-influenced oriental with Bergamot, mandarin, neroli, rose-wood, coriander seed, cinnamon, tomato leaves, orchid, jasmine absolute, tuberose absolute, ylang-ylang, iris butter, Turkish rose essence, seringa, civet, oak moss, grey amber, vanilla, and sandalwood in the mix.

Of the Villoresi, I liked Piper Nigrum and Spezie, which were similar: peppery and robust. The feminine fragrances I liked less. I almost walked away with a bottle of Piper Nigrum, but, projecting ahead, I couldn't see myself reaching for it all that often.

I'd never smelled Mona di Orio either (the perfumes, not the woman). I might have passed altogether on them at first sniff. Luckily, I sprayed some on--Oiro to one hand, Nuit Noire to the other--and enjoyed the depth of their development on my skin over the next several hours. If, as Luca Turin wrote, Nuit Noire is a loud fart of civet, smother me in farts, please. A spicy oriental, it smells different on me at different times, sometimes powdery, sometimes leathery, first floral, then gingered. I've heard reports that di Orio no longer has a US distributor, which would be a shame. The bottles are as gorgeous as the scents.

I returned to Profumo about four times over the course of the next week, spending time with L'Eau Trois ( a nice, dry frankincense from Diptyque; has this been discontinued?), Fougere Bengale (Holy Immortelle!), Andy Tauer (Incense Rose and Lonestar Memories) and more of the Parfumerie Generale line (Coze, anyone?). Eventually, I purchased a bottle of Nuit Noire. Let's hope I can get it back safely in my suitcase.

Down the street was a shop specializing in Penhaligons fragrance. Abigail sent me a bottle of Violetta before I left the country. It's good stuff. So is Elixir, by Olivia Giacobetti. Company copy says Elixir was inspired by Hammam Bouquet, which I own and like well enough, but I'm not sure I see the connection. Elixir lacks the weird, slightly vexing plastic note of Hammam. It's spicier and has more depth. Osmoz lists the following notes: orange, eucalyptus, mace, cardamom, jasmine, ginger, rose, woods, resin, tonka bean, vanilla, and benzoin. All of this, save the jasmine maybe, is discernable to me. I wish Elixir lasted a bit longer, or persisted with the intensity of its opening, but those first thirty minutes might be worth the price of admission.

Aside from these shops I had the best time at 10 Corso Como. The eponymously titled house blend bored me, but there was a lot besides to enjoy. I'd never really given Byredo much of a chance. Pulp is fantastic, and the staying power is equally remarkable. I got to see the Comme des Garçons/Stephen Jones bottle up close, and bought one to take home. Is there a more unusual violet fragrance? Probably not. 10 Corso Como had all the Tom Ford Private Blends, and the Histoires de Parfums, which Abigail and I have been enjoying lately. It was the only place I found any Serge Lutens in Milano (with any kind of selection to speak of, that is). It had some Caron, though not much. Some By Kilian. Some Malle. Some stuff I forget. Mostly it was great to walk around the store, which sells outrageously priced clothes and jewelry, much of it pretty unusual.

While in Milan I also picked up some old favorites. Hermes Caleche EDP, L'Heure Bleue, and, joy of all joys, Clinique Wappings, which I might have gotten in the states but only after waiting until Christmas. At a remote Profumeria I found bottles of Knize 10, Knize Sec, Knize Two, and Knize Forest. I bought Knize Sec, which is an unusual smell I'll try to describe after spending more time with it.

The abundance of perfume in Milano was thrilling. But I was disappointed by how rarely I smelled any on anyone. Several times I passed women whose perfume left a trail of dreamy goodness behind. Not once did I pass a guy reeking of cologne, and I can't tell you how much I'd been looking forward to this. Mistakenly, I was under the impression that men here bathe in the stuff. I envisioned them standing at the sink, splashing eau de whatever into their open palms, slapping their naked chests. Invariably in these fantasies they were dressed in their underwear and flip flops. Then they made me ricotta pie and pesto pasta. Then we spent some alone time, and I got high, up close, on their cologne of choice. The closest I got to this kind of religious experience was the Duomo.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Balmain La Mome

Edith Piaf, usually regarded as France’s most popular singer, is a legend in France. Her grave site, at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris is perhaps the most visited in the cemetery.

Piaf was born Edith Giovanna Gassion but was given the nickname Edith Piaf or La Mome Piaf which means “Waif Sparrow” or “Kid Sparrow” or “Little Sparrow” because she was a mere 4’8’’ tall (1.42 m).

Piaf’s life was full of tragedy and miraculous success. The story goes that she was born on the street (literally on the pavement, but her birth certificate suggest a hospital), her mother was a café singer with very little care for her newborn daughter, her father a street acrobat. Piaf was raised surrounded by prostitutes at her grandmother’s brothel in Normandy. At the age of 17, Piaf gave birth to a daughter, who died 2 years later of meningitis. Piaf took many lovers, among them a pimp and married twice. The love of Piaf’s life, the married boxer Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash while traveling to visit her. Piaf’s life was full of sorrow, heartache, and enormous success as a singer; she sang through her emotions, causing the audience to feel what she was feeling; she was simply amazing to see and hear.

In 2007 a film directed by Olivier Dahan, titled La Vie en Rose (USA) and La Mome (France) opened in theaters to critical acclaim. La Mome celebrates the extraordinary life of Edith Piaf. The same year, Balmain created a perfume, called La Mome, dedicated to the woman, Edith Piaf.

Given the story of Edith Piaf, one might expect the fragrance created in her honor to be glamorous, aggressive, sultry and attention seeking. Something with leather or tobacco, along the lines of Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, Bandit or Caron’s Tabac Blond. Oddly, this is not so. Piaf lived from 1915-1963, so I would suppose, that a fragrance dedicated to her, ought to evoke this time period. Balmain La Mome is a soft, powdery feminine fragrance.

The notes for Balmain La Mome are rose, freesia, violet, pink pepper, myrrh, amber, opoponax, orris and musk. It is not a modern scent but instead has a vintage feel, it is certainly reminiscent of the time in which Piaf lived. Upon wearing La Mome, I found myself thinking about the scent and Edith Piaf and wondering whether there was any connection between the two. What I concluded is that La Mome depicts Piaf’s inner world, her personal life and what she wished it to be, a place of love, kindness, friendships, family and peace.

La Mome, the fragrance, is cozy, warm, subtle and gentle. It does not sing or shout, it whispers shyly. La Mome is not a theatrical perfume, certainly not for the stage; it’s for an introverted evening at home, next to the fire, with loved ones. To take it a step further, I’d say Balmain La Mome evokes motherhood, it smells of powder, Desitin cream and a clean babies head. Once dried down, La Mome is remiscent of a Guerlain scent, it bears a strong similarly to the sweet Guerlainade base.

All in all, Balmain La Mome does not conjur Edith Piaf for me. If anything, it calls to mind an image of the cozy, loving home Piaf would have wanted behind the scenes, outside of the public eye. The fragrance is nice; it’s pleasant, pretty and seems vintage, just not what I was expecting.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

L'Occitane Bergamot Tea: Good Stuff

“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” - Jean Luc Picard

Bergamot tea reminds me of Jean Luc Picard. Picard is, without a doubt, my favorite Star Fleet captain. Add this to the fact that I’m on a tea fragrance bender and you can imagine what I did the evening the L’Occitane sample of Bergamot Tea arrived. Yep, I ordered it.

L’Occitane Bergamot Tea is delightfully refreshing. If you’re looking for a dry, hesperedic, slightly woody and spicy tea scent, this is good stuff.

Longevity is decent if you apply like a cologne and don’t mind re-applying once or twice throughout the day. The bottle cap is chintzy; mine got stuck on the second use. A pair of tweezers remedied the situation.

I also purchased the little perfume solid. I don’t recommend it, it’s less potent than the EDT.

Bergamot Tea is quite nice. I’m pleased.

3.4 oz bottle of EDT is $46 from L’Occitane

Top Notes: Bergamot from Calabria, Mandarin, Cardamom, and Grapefruit
Heart Notes: Black tea extract, Wild rose
Base Notes: Blond wood, Black wood and Musks

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Guerlain Insolence Eau de Parfum: A Rant

I’ve already reviewed Insolence edp. This week I wore it several days in a row and realized that I really, really love this stuff.

I think the edp is so much better than Insolence edt and My Insolence that I wish Guerlain had the sense to give it an entirely new identity. The name “Insolence” is awful. I don’t like Hilary Swank as the face. The bottle is doesn’t fit the fragrance. In short, I think Guerlain really screwed up.

Most stores carrying Insolence edp don’t even realize they do or the sales associates are confused about the difference between the edt and edp. Didn’t Guerlain realize this would happen? I’ve been told numerous times that the edp is simply a stronger version of the edt. It’s not, it’s a different fragrance. I’ve been told there’s no such thing as Insolence edp when it’s right on the counter.

If Guerlain had properly marketed and launched Insolence edp it would be flying off the shelves. If it had been given a worthy name, all it’s own, something along the lines of L’Heure Bleue or Apres L’Ondee – something romantic and wistful – attached with an evocative marketing story – it would be a modern classic.
Insolence was created by Maurice Roucel for gosh sakes. How did Guerlain not realize how special this juice was?

(((loud sigh)))