I should mention: I'm not an incense fanatic. I rarely seem to back flip for whatever the latest craze seems to be, and I often resent the din of conversation centering around something which seems more about marketing than merit. Wonderful things have been done with Oud--I own a few of these things--but I grow weary seeing someone's mouth start to make the shape of the word, worried I'll have to hear more about it. Fig and iris were like Brittany and Kate Plus Eight to me. Where did these things come from? How long would they be cultural wallpaper? Would everything be brought to their level? The various permutations of these trendy notes fascinated me about as much as a photograph of Brittany emerging unawares from a limo, sans underthings. They were distractions, more than anything. Incense, for me, was just another one of these pointless celebutants. I loved some of the fragrances, the Comme des Garçons series, particularly, but for a while it seemed like learning to love the enemy, someone with whom you'd be forced to share a small cell indefinitely.
What drew me to Norma Kamali's version, I can't exactly say. Probably the idea of its force. I make no secret of my love for the stinky. This makes it into a joke, but really, for me, it's about embracing scents others make silly excuses not to like. My friend Bard says that when people say a fragrance is overpoweringly strong, what they essentially mean is, they don't like it. Which isn't to say some fragrances aren't loud. Poison is an intense scent. Amarige can be. Habanita is. But I'm always shocked, when I discover such pariahs for myself, how tame they actually are compared to these reports, and I've gradually learned to pay attention to the fragrances people dislike intensely.
I finally dropped coin for Incense, and I knew the moment I sniffed from the stoppered bottle that it would enter my top ten. I got the feeling it had always been there, on the list, waiting for me to join it. Incense is just about everything I might ask for in a fragrance, and so much more than a simple, straightforward variation on a them that I'm disinclined to call it by its name. Incense is robust but smooth, balsamic, charismatic, a little smoky, vaguely spiced, woody, diffusive, and persistent. It does smell like incense. It smells like a lot of other things, too. At the same time, I'm again thoroughly baffled, Bard's words aside, by the response to it. I don't consider Incense to be a particularly "fierce" or "potent" smell. I don't find anything in the opening which singes the nose hairs; nothing which resembles paint thinner or lighter fluid fumes. It doesn't tip heavily toward the masculine to me. The reports of its relentless linearity confuse me as well. While I do feel that Incense remains consistent from beginning to end, and while I agree it goes through no radical shifts, I suppose I wonder what fragrance truly does. Incense operates like a natural fragrance, shifting mercurially, full of nuance and depth. You smell it on someone and it speaks of a story. You feel there's something going on there, under the surface. Incense seems to collapse the idea of a surface, forcing you to sense depth. It has the kind of presence most perfumes are developed by creative teams to avoid at all costs. By this, I don't mean it's loud, or even that a little goes a long way; I mean that it has character and is unique.
Those who adore it and assign it top ratings like to point out that a bottle will last you forever, because you only need one drop. More strange praise, which I know now contributed to my resistance; why spend 220 bucks on something you can never have too little of? The truth is, I see myself moving quickly through Incense. I sprayed myself about five times in the summer heat yesterday and by no means or stretch did I scare anyone out of the room. I was working side by side all afternoon with a colleague and had no problem. Trust me, I asked. Incense requires no more or less application than any other scent that comes to mind, but, then again, like many of the fragrances I love, it's often most misleadingly described by its devoted admirers. It's the kind of scent you can't find the proper words for, maybe, even as it compels you to search.
Finding a great fragrance can be a religious experience, and you want to share the pleasure it brings you. It alters your consciousness a bit and leads you to see things in a different way. You want to shout it from the mountaintop. That can come off like proselytizing. It can also come across as superiority--something I often pick up from other perfume bloggers. I think I understand that. I empathize. Ultimately it's a process of trying to put into words, with some kind of definitive elan, why one fragrance has touched you more than another. In order to emphasize its greatness, something else must be less great.
Ultimately, however, the way a fragrances reaches one person will be very different from the way it does or doesn't connect with another, something we all know very well, however much we engage in dissecting the unclassifiable. We collectively pretend that we can reach consensus on fragrance: this, over here, is the good stuff; that, over there, that's the crap. The pile of crap is usually a gold mine, and gives away the lie of all these glorified opinions. Few have called Incense crap, mind you. But many sing its praises in a way which doesn't do it any favors, particularly when you consider that, had I heard it described differently, I might have purchased it months ago.
(The accompanying image is a photograph of a Norma Kamali dress taken by Mark Seliger)