I'm fascinated by some of the reverse snobbery involved in the active appreciation of perfume. On the one hand, critics (and by this I mean makeupalley reviewers, bloggers, and print media practitioners alike) are apt to dismiss the relatively inexpensive, as if equating quality with cost. On the other hand, we often fault companies which seem to have become or to have started out too big for their britches. We fault the attempt to try new things as pretentiously artsy and obscure, then deride the latest posse of ubiquitous fruity florals for cashing in on a dead horse.
Case in point, Byredo, a small, relatively pricey line I've never heard many good things about. Byredo has been around for a while now, long enough for me to grow accustomed to the general apathy and casual skepticism they seem to engender among perfume lovers. But it surprised me, recently, when I looked into Baudelaire, one of the line's latest, and discovered that what started as mild disdain has gradually evolved, with what seems like very little active encouragement, into venomous ire.
I might not find this so perplexing, were the fragrance in question, say, Gypsy Water or Rose Noir, both rather inauspicious entries into niche perfumery. At 200 bucks, a rose needs to pop in some way for me. Rose Noir is nice but hardly as dark or dense as the name indicates. Neither Rose Noir nor Gypsy Water have much going for them in terms of persistence or projection. And I would never argue that Byredo is as consistently interesting or pertinent as lines like Serge Lutens or L'Artisan. Byredo's ratio of hits to misses is skewed in favor of misses. But this Swedish outfit does have winners, for me at least, and I appreciate the line in general for a number of reasons, many of which have to do with the care put into the presentation of their product and the overall understatement of the brand.
I liked Baudelaire better than anything else I smelled at Barneys. I sprayed some on my hand and walked around with it all day, enjoying it more and more. I'd intended to disregard it. I needed the real estate on my hands and arms for more coveted items: I hadn't smelled any of the Maison Francis line, perfumer Francis Kurkdjian's breakout bid for marketplace independence. There were a few new Tom Ford items to smell. A few new Serge Lutens.
I liked the Lutens, and the Fords were somewhere along the continuum of quality I'd come to expect, but Maison Kurkdjian was a massive disappointment. The fragrance I'd been most interested in trying, Lumiere Noire, is in fact very pretty, but it's a rather weak entry into a population of much more interesting, forceful and diffusive spice rose scents. APOM, Kurkdjian's orange flower-centered fragrance, was persistent enough, but rather flat and incongruously synthetic for a high quality line. Knowing that Kurkdjian has been creating perfume for years under the direction of other people, I expected something much more adventurous, even audacious. Instead, I found that the Maison Francis line pales alongside efforts he's executed for other people. I went down the street to Dior to buy a bottle of Eau Noire, done several years earlier by Kurkdjian, something I've lusted after for several years now without buying. And I realized that Fleur du Male, which Kurkdjian did for Gaultier, is the best orange flower I've ever smelled and a hard act to top.
How is it that Kurkdjian, who has marketed his new line like gangbusters, is taken at face value, where Byredo, who remains relatively obscure, is regarded with open, uncensored suspicion bordering on hostility? Reviews of Baudelaire criticize Byrdeo for very shrewdly putting out a masculine which stoops to smell like other masculines. Reviews of Kurkdjian celebrate the perfumer's innovation. Perfumed bubbles? How quaint! Nevermind that the bubbles are a novelty at best and so overpriced (eighteen bucks per ounce and a half) that it's hard to see them as anything but calculated. No one seems to question the integrity of Kurkdjian's stated desire to make luxury fragrance affordable to everyone in the form of 45 dollar liquid detergent. I'm not saying anyone should, but I find it curious someone doesn't.
Baudelaire's apparent disadvantage is that it is just a fragrance, that rare dinosaur, something to be worn on the skin. Another disadvantage is its resemblance to other fragrances. This seems like faulting a fantastic little black dress for being black and a dress. Every woman has that black dress, and it resembles every other black dress in at least two ways. But the importance of it resembling others enough can't be underestimated. There is a place for a little black dress, and there's a place for a good, traditional, well made masculine. It seems more than irrelevant to me that Baudelaire resembles masculines of the eighties. The question is whether it stands alone as a good fragrance and holds its ground among the others. I would say it does both, whereas Lumiere Noire, also derivative, is a whisper you would scarcely hear next to the magnificence of Montana's Parfum de Peau.
Another criticism of Baudelaire and by extension Byredo is that it capitalizes on a trend for incense fragrances, as if Byredo, unlike Maison Francis Kurkdjian, should not be in the business of trying to sell perfume. Personally, I find Kilian far more questionable in this area than little old Byredo. Even L'Artisan has jumped on the oud gravy train. That said, Baudelaire, like the recent signature scent from another widely maligned line, Bond No. 9, is one of my favorite recent incense fragrances. Baudelaire wears smoothly but with presence. It has chocolaty undertones. It smells of leather, like well known masculines of the eighties, and looks forward, carrying that quality into the present tense with a remarkable levity. My first impression, upon smelling Baudelaire, was that it smelled like something else, only much, much better. Juniper and floral undertones give it interesting contrasts. It lasts all day. The frankincense in Baudelaire is to die for. So smooth you don't even realize how fearsome it is.
Does it smell like its namesake? I never smelled the man, so I can't say. I'm not sure his work has a smell either, or that its associations could be agreed upon. The general consensus seems to be that a fragrance named after Baudelaire should be a shade skankier. I'm not sure I agree with that. Baudelaire's evocation or even exaltation of the ugly and perverse involved seeing beauty in them. I'm not convinced that a cumin note, for instance, which might lend a suggestion of body odor, is the only means to inject the pretty with some ugly. It doesn't do the trick for me in Lumiere Noire. And I'm not so sure something has to be ugly to be beautiful in the way Baudelaire means. I'm not so sure seeing or appreciating the perverse requires viewing it as repulsive. There are opposites in Byredo's Baudelaire, and Baudelaire is a rich, pleasing fragrance. We all know how marketable a fragrance like Secretions Magnifiques is, and how reviled. How many wear it? Would we only have accepted Baudelaire in the form of something widely regarded as unwearable, and if so, who is operating with narrow vision? Interestingly, Kurkdjian's lovely, lush Fleur du Male is a Baudelaire reference few seem to accuse of mismatched or opportunistic profiteering. Funny world we live in.