Thursday, September 2, 2010

This Week at the Perfume Counter: Boston

I should say Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which is where I spent most of my time on this trip; but Portsmouth had no perfume to speak of, and though I only made it into Boston for a two hour perusal, most of what I saw during my stay was there. Neither my host nor her boyfriend are very much into perfume, so that limited my time considerably. She likes it but would rather have something picked out for her; he can't imagine anyone needing more than half an hour to shop for something so...hygienic. I knew I wasn't going to have long.

I'd intended to head over to Neil Morris, and I'm sad I didn't get to, but Barney's and Saks were close together and covered more ground in a shorter window of time. The selection at Saks was unexpectedly extensive. They had all the Guerlains, it seemed--every last one of them. The bee bottles, the elixirs; Vega and Derby and Liu, even. I'd smelled Vega before, from a decant, and liked it, but smelling it there, in the presence of its fantastic bottle, I appreciated it more. I wasn't crazy, still, about the elixirs. Again, I'd smelled them by decant, but even their bottles failed to sway me. All the sales assistant wanted to talk about was Idylle--and yet she had no idea, when pressed, what the prices, or even the available sizes and concentrations were. I feel almost certain that, had I asked the difference between the EDP and the EDT, I would have been told something along the lines of "none whatsoever", never mind the fact they're marketed as entirely different interpretations. One SA went off to find me a bottle of Vega, after forcing me to repeat the name several times. She'd never heard of it and seemed to believe I was making it up.

I don't know why I didn't grab a bottle of Acqua di Parma's Colonia Intensa. I've been enjoying a tiny decant for months now, and keep telling myself I'll purchase a full bottle the next time I see one, but I'm always looking for things I haven't already seen or been given the chance to smell, and when I arrive at a place like Saks there's a lot of competition for my attention. Or so it seems. It's only later, returning to the relative quiet of my decant, that I realize I like the reliable pleasures of Colonia Intensa more than any of the shiny new bells and whistles the department store has to offer. Colonia Intensa has good sillage and longevity. It smells richer and warmer than anything I ran into at Saks. Note to self: when you see it again, focus.

The new Halston Woman, also at Saks, is a strange thing. I'll give it another chance at some point, but I'm in no hurry. It's a bit of a hot mess, really. I don't know where to start. It rubs me the wrong way and keeps rubbing. I felt downright chafed as the day went on. Musky? Rubbery? Floral, fruity, woody? Halston Man is much better, but it smells so much like z-14 that I see no real reason to bother. Z-14 is as good as it ever was and ubiquitous at the discount outlets. Ten bucks, last time I checked.

I'm thoroughly confused by these releases. Assuming the audience for anything Halston is anything beyond select at this point, why not restore the original fragrance to the shelves? No fancy silver bottle is going to give Halston This or That the kind of boost it would need to waste the time and money coming up with something supposedly new. The original Halston remains one of my favorite Bernard Chant creations. It remains one of my favorite perfumes, period. It's so fantastic that on four separate trips over the course of the last two or three years I've purchased a bottle on vacation, even though I know reformulations have made trying to find a good one something of a grab bag. I bought a half ounce at a CVS pharmacy in Portsmouth and was shocked at how bad it's gotten. Luckily, you can still find older bottles here and there (try older Walgreen's and Rite-Aids) and the manufacturer has made it very easy to tell the difference between newer and newest; the latest, most wretched version of Halston has decided to go against the designer's wishes, printing his name across the bottom of the bottle. Older bottles are without this "signature".

One trend I noticed at Saks, seeing everything laid out for the first time in ages, all the new releases in pretty little rows, is the rage for trios and "exclusive" lines. I wasn't totally unaware of these developments and have even partaken of some, but being faced with them in person was a little depressing, mostly because so many of them suck. The Eau de Fleurs series from Chloe is so half-assed I'm not bothering to report on it.

Everywhere you looked, there was something pretty unremarkable being touted as the best thing since a bottomless cup of coffee. In case you doubted the wondrousness, two more were thrown in--or the price was jacked up so high that you couldn't possibly perceive it as anything short of luxurious. I suppose I felt this way about the Elixirs at Guerlain, though some were nice, and some even great. Part of what gets lost in this strategy, for me, is the charm of something like Vega, a re-release which feels special and unique, clad in its own distinctive fashion, rather than some sleek, almost militaristic line-up like Elixirs, which inadvertently (again, for me) makes fragrance feel like yet another part of a regular drill, something to dab on after making one's bed so fastidiously that a quarter could be bounced on it.

I suspect this is Guerlain's and Chloe's way of absorbing the lessons of niche lines like Lutens, whose uniform bottles and overall corporate sensibility have made a dent in the way fragrance companies approach marketing and manufacturing the fantasy of desire and luxury. I don't love the Lutens silhouette but I do think they got it right. The delicacy of the bottles, the precarious way they sit, like fragile dominoes, the care you must take with them, knowing they might fall over and shatter: all of these things create an interesting contrast to the utilitarian aspects of the packaging, giving those sharp corners and flat lines conceptual curves. I see none of that intelligence at play in the trickle down product at Saks.

Not that Lutens is getting everything right. Smelling the line at Barney's, I noticed nothing different. It was only later, when I took a generous selection of samples home, that I smelled a rat. Many people have commented in the recent past on Fleurs d'Oranger: something's different, not quite the same, not as good, abysmal by comparison. I only smelled it within the last year, so I have no idea what it once was, or whether it has in fact been altered, but I do know what Arabie used to smell like, and the sample I was given is, frankly, what new dimestore Halston is to old designer label Halston. It feels hollowed out. That's about the best way I can describe it. The Arabie I knew was rich, deep, and emanated from the skin in waves of spicy warmth. That warmth is altogether gone. I can still smell the basic outline of Arabie, and what's left is a very attractive fragrance, but it would be generous to call it a ghost of its former self. Ghosts have more presence.

I couldn't help thinking back to a recent feature on Lutens' Moroccan home in W magazine, photos of which give new meaning to the words opulence, embellishment, lavish, and affectation. The home is lovely, if you can call something which seems to span five city blocks a home. The article revealed that, aside from chief houseman Rachid, Casa de Lutens once employed 500 people (I'm guessing most were male). The place is a cornucopia of detail and filagree. Plush textiles, textures, and tapestries seem to adorn every available surface which can't be determined to have a pulse.

The decoration, like the creation of a perfume, took years. The density on display is something I inevitably contrasted to the practically anorexic specter of Arabie 2010, begging some interesting questions. The article would like me to believe that, at heart, Lutens is a simple man. Now that the renovations on Casa Lutens are reaching their conclusion (in an age of ever present coverage, what better end point than a definitive photo spread?) Lutens might just abandon it altogether, opting instead for a "small, spartan maid's room somewhere."

One has to wonder where the maid will be shipped off to, or what makes Lutens so sure that a maid's room can generally be classified, outside of those in his own home, as spartan, as if poor people have fewer belongings because they've reached some purer state of being where, even could they afford them, belongings would feel like a spiritual nuisance. Friend Anjelica Huston says she wouldn't be surprised to see Lutens move into a yurt. Judging by these photos, I wouldn't be surprised, either, as long as we're talking about one of those yurts with air conditioning and an indoor pool. You know the kind. I hope you'll oblige me a sense of humor about Lutens' meticulous extravagance. One would hope to find as eccentric a figure as Serge behind such a visionary line of fragrances. I only wish he hadn't moved Arabie into the spartan maid's room, and I wonder what else he's going to cram in there before he's done rearranging. Not all of his customers look to perfume as an expression of asceticism.

What distresses me most about the Arabie discovery is the seed of doubt it places in my mind about consistency in Lutens fragrances. How do I know that the bottle of Cedre or Rousse I buy will be the one I smelled a the counter? Testers are invariably older. At least the newer species, like the fantastic Fille en Aiguilles, can be counted on to smell the same, if only because no one's had time to tinker with them yet. I find this same frustration store-wide when I shop for perfume these days. The bottle for Shalimar has been redesigned by Jade Jagger, as has the perfume itself, though no SA that I've come across will admit to this. Because they see no difference, and the older bottles are still in stock, who knows what I might be handed, or how surprised I might be upon smelling it at home.

My host was rushing me, which made it very difficult to reach a conclusion about what I wanted to purchase, if anything. Too late to go back to Saks for a bottle of Colonia Intensa. I decided to play it safe. I picked up a small bottle of another Bernard Chant fragrance, Antonia's Flowers. I think it must be pretty old, as the ingredients list only aqua, parfum, and alcohol. I also got Malle's Lys Mediterranee. When I do get anything Malle, I tend to go for the travel size. Three little 10 ml atomizers are more than enough for me, and make Malle a much more affordable purchase. I've had my eye on Lys for over a year but always talk myself out of it at the counter. Too much like Donna Karan Gold, I tell myself. Getting Lys home, I realized there are more differences between the two than I'd realized. Of course, what do I know? When I first bought Gold I swore it was a dead ringer for Black Orchid. Have no doubt, though: Arabie is not itself lately.


Elisa said...

The SA's at that Sak's are so annoying. Yesterday I was in there and asked if they had Womanity yet. The woman who is constantly pushing Nicole Miller said no, not yet, but it's very interesting, savory, a caviar scent. I said I was interested to try it because I like fig, and she said, "It's not fig. It's caviar." ??? She supposedly works for the company and doesn't know it's primarily a fig scent? Isn't the caviar angle supposed to be basically undetectable? And I was in there recently with a friend who was looking for a gardenia scent and the same woman kept handing her tuberose fragrances. I hate talking to these people, the only option is to pretend you're an idiot and hope they give you samples.

Brian said...

Elissa! Don't tell me you live in Boston?? I would have tried to contact you. I didn't realize.

Brian said...

I will say that, as usual, I enjoyed the Barney's experience. While the consultant they had on staff didn't cop to certain obvious truths, he was at least informed, and took his time talking rather than selling. It did annoy me a bit when, spraying Gris Clair on me, he remarked, "Women love this stuff on guys," because clearly he was gay and even if he hadn't seen the obvious (i.e. that I am too) he had to have noticed how many florals I was spraying on my arm, and how copiously.

Elisa said...

Next time!

I absolutely know the Lutens rep you're talking about. Rather adorable, right? He LOVES Gris Clair. I like him a lot, he's definitely not overly pushy. Last time I was in there he basically dissuaded me from buying anything because he kept smelling my arm and saying things we're "quite right." I think he thought I was looking for the ONE perfume I'd wear for all time or something. I was like, Dude, I have like 40 bottles at home, it doesn't have to be "perfect." In the end I persuaded my friend to buy Chergui and we did a split. Another friend of mine, a few months earlier, did go home with Gris Clair. I think dudes like it on her, for whatever that's worth ...

Elisa said...

Also he seemed to really want me to get a big girly floral like Datura Noir. He was not buying at all that I could hang with a leather fragrance.

Elisa said...

Ack, typo above: things *weren't* quite right, not we're. Ugh.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Brian - I knew it was you writing before I'd even gotten as far as the second paragraph! Thanks for the post, and for the lovely writing ("ghosts have more presence" will stick with me).

And ISN'T the Vega bottle gorgeous? Beyond gorgeous? I have a decant and cherish it - and really don't want to sink that much into one bottle - but it's so lovely.

Sometime over the summer I wore Lys Med on one arm and Gold on the other, and they are quite different, as you point out. (But Black Orchid & Gold? Huh. Huh. 'K, still not getting that. Of course, I really hated that dirt-and-cucumber thing in BO, though I adore BOVdF.)

I never go and shop for perfume live, such shopping being unavailable to me within four hours' drive - what there IS is even more abysmal than you describe. Gah. Thank God for PP and TPC and swappies!

Am not now and have never really been a huge Lutens fan. (he only one I really love is La Myrrhe, and you can't get that here anyway.) I wonder if most humans have this push-pull reaction with wealth/ decoration/ luxury, as in I want it... now I want the opposite... now I miss it again. Nope, too much.

Vanessa said...

Of the two Serge Lutens I truly love, one is yet another lily scent (Un Lys). I also own Gold and Penhaligon's Lily & Spice and a goodly decant of Lys Med. Loved your analogy with the spartan maid's room. : - ) I noticed that pared down, "shadow of its former selfness" phenomenon with Opium the other day, and it was shocking. For the most part, though, I am too new to perfume to observe such changes.

Normand said...

I've luckily found 2 SAs in Montreal that are good and I give them all my business... so I get samples easily. They both know what they are talking about... or almost. Lately, I asked one SA if he had Métal by Paco Rabanne and he said I was wasting my time trying to look for it. Less than a city block away, I found it at a discount perfumer. Now, I believe absolutely nothing that they say.

I've given several workshops recently to friends and they all love the idea of trying perfume without the pressure to buy anything.

I still have this "if I win the lottery dream" of opening up a perfume store where people can just come in and talk and try things and not necessarily have to buy anything... like an old fashioned bookstore.

That's scary about Arabie, though. We don't expect niche perfumes to change.

monika said...

"The original Halston remains one of my favorite Bernard Chant creations. It remains one of my favorite perfumes, period. "

Me too.

I wish I could find bottles of the old juice; I'm no where near the U.S., and so no Wal-Greens or Rite-Aids...

The best would be if the original could be restored, with the original perfume version in the original Elsa Peretti crystal flacon. That is surely just a pipe dream though, what with all the insane new regulations...

A.M.D. said...

This blog is great, just have to say. Found it trying to find a review of ADP Colonia, which I still have to try. I live in Boston and an old friend got me into perfumes - but then she moved to Prague and now I'm left sniffing at things alone. My grandmother wore Halston and I'm happy to hear I'm not the only one who loves it to death. Sad to hear it's changed.

Anyway, kudos to you and your blog. I'll be returning.

Anonymous said...

I came across your blog looking up perfume in Boston and i read through this entry and had to share that there is this small little shop on Newbury that lets you custom blend our own fragrances. Hopefully one day you get to it, i enjoyed it a lot.

David said...

I am wondering if you know of any Boston local perfumers. I am putting on a show and would like to include their work.