Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monstre: Chanel No.5 as Celebrity Bio

There are many things to like in The Secret of Chanel No.5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume. Biographer Tilar J. Mazzeo treats the perfume as a significant piece of cultural history, focusing not just on the iconic design of its bottle and packaging or the astonishing longevity of its status as a bestselling fragrance but on some of its more ephemeral attributes and properties, many of which are more difficult to articulate, let alone determine. It's the first book of its kind, illustrating the power a fragrance has to contextualize its moment in time. Imagine the possibilities: perfume as social history, as personal memoir, as political thriller. An entire bookcase of such books, transforming the library into a perfume cabinet. No.5 is a good place to start, as its moment in time seems to be occurring in stop motion.

The book begins with a brief sketch of Chanel's childhood as an orphan. It moves from there to her involvement in the demimonde, experiences which mirrored the showgirl background of another, ultimately less fortunate turn of the century figure I admire, equally difficult but brilliant Jean Rhys. Like Rhys, whose most recent biography was named after her favorite perfume, Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue, Coco Chanel became a kept woman. She understood the rub--the ways in which affairs with married men were meant to work--but she was, again, like Rhys, as stubborn as she was passionate. She broke the rules by falling in love, causing heartbreak, loss, humiliation, and in some ways, self-sabotage. As with Rhys, the pattern of dependency and defiance repeated throughout her life, with less than glamorous results, whatever the fashions dressing it all up.

I found Mazzeo's account to be more engrossing once it moved onto Coco Chanel's development as a businesswoman. She was a far shrewder figure than Rhys, but in several ways equally foolish, signing away the majority of No.5's profits to business partners whose reach extended her own. The agreement assured the widespread success of her flagship fragrance but it was a decision she came to regret, and in fighting it, she betrayed her own best interests. This too reminded me of Rhys, whose lover, writer Ford Maddox Ford, helped get her published. Rhys came to resent his hold over her, though she depended on his largesse and influence--as did his wife. Coco's reputation and initial success seem to have been built through the same kind of extra-marital support Rhys alternately enjoyed and alienated. Chanel built herself from the ground up, judging by these accounts, a transformation as radical in opposites and contradictory impulses as the perfume she created in her image.

During the second world war, Chanel fought bitterly against the contract with her partners. The story of her anti-semitic behavior toward them is unflattering and fascinating. She was devious and hypocritical and seems to have refused any attempt at diplomacy. There was a childishness to much of Chanel's conduct during this time, an escalating desperation to maintain control of her image amid the extenuating circumstances of middle age and war. The inflexibility of her position was perfectly in keeping with the extremism of dictatorial Germany. Her own possible, if not probable, collaboration as what some characterize as a war criminal during this time, her affair with a Nazi, is detailed in the biography as well.

After the war, the No.5 contract was renegotiated. Coco willed it to be, by creating her own competing line of perfumes. She badmouthed the name and reputation of No.5, accusing it of inferior quality. Though manufacturing and distributing these newer, unaffiliated perfumes put her in breach of the original contract, her partners were left with no other choice but to meet her terms, much the way a married man must ultimately bend to the will of his mistress, lest he unleash the powers of anarchy she could exercise over his ordered little existence. In this way, the story of No.5 can be seen as an illustration of the collusion and conflicts between ego and id, creator and creation overlapping and co-existing with separate lives of their own, the one influencing the other, rearing its head to expose the mask of public respectability worn by its double. Coco's creation took on a life of its own, and she couldn't always, couldn't often, exert control over it with her own will. Throughout Mazzeo's book it's tempting to imagine Coco's figure dancing beyond the distorted glass of No.5's bottle, by turns trapped in and locked out of or behind her own creation and trying to get back in.

The book details the possible precursors to the fragrance within the industry. It discusses the career of Ernest Beaux, No.5's perfumer. These are fascinating details as well. The more technical story of the fragrance, dealing with its ingredients, its formulation, the influence of aldehydes, the cultivation of jasmine crops, particularly the espionage of smuggling jasmine absolute abroad during Nazi occupation: all are lucid and informative, and clearly related to the larger context of Coco's personality and life. The story is at its best when it has room to breathe. It feels a lot shorter than it wants to be, and in some respects resembles the respectful reformulation of a classic perfume: all the right things are there, in the right combination, but there's a certain lack of oomph in some way, a problem of proportion. At times, a feeling of depth is missing. That might be inevitable in such a short format. This history is a scant 200 pages--which isn't much space for the longest bestselling fragrance ever, let alone the woman who created it, living a number of lives herself in the process. It feels most rushed in the beginning, which is to say: this book-as-perfume's top notes seem a little thin. The middle sections, during the war and after, are more expansive, more substantive. You feel the pulse of various dynamic tensions, the Dickensian interplay of competing narratives which makes a story feel convincingly three dimensional.

It's difficult to determine what inspires the creative impulse. I don't know that Mazzeo's assertions are inaccurate. They're vividly imagined but lack the kind of detail needed for connective tissue. She makes an attempt to link No.5 in some mystical or Jungian way with Coco's orphanhood and formative affairs, to endow motifs of her childhood with talismanic properties. Without sufficient detail, these things seem like something viewed form a speeding car window. They don't resonate as they probably should or leave a proper impression. It's hard to conceive of them sticking with Coco, when they barely stick with you. I understand the urge to define what makes No.5 what it is. But I think that story is best left to the mind of the wearer and the reader. In long stretches of Mazzeo's book, one feels the panoply of weird, dissonant energies coursing through the perfume--that inexplicable alchemy. That's a remarkable achievement, operating as smell does in some strange way. It' an exciting read.

Notes From the Regionally Marginalized: On Satire

From good old Wikipedia, some thoughts on the misunderstandings wrought by the centuries-old practice of satire:

"Because satire often combines anger and humor it can be profoundly disturbing - because it is essentially ironic or sarcastic, it is often misunderstood. In an interview with Wikinews, Sean Mills, President of The Onion, said angry letters about their news parody always carried the same message. "It’s whatever affects that person," said Mills. "So it’s like, 'I love it when you make a joke about murder or rape, but if you talk about cancer, well my brother has cancer and that’s not funny to me.' Or someone else can say, 'Cancer’s hilarious, but don’t talk about rape because my cousin got raped.' Those are rather extreme examples, but if it affects somebody personally, they tend to be more sensitive about it.'
Common uncomprehending responses to satire include revulsion (accusations of poor taste, or that "it's just not funny" for instance), to the idea that the satirist actually does support the ideas, policies, or people he is attacking. For instance, at the time of its publication, many people misunderstood Swift’s purpose in "A Modest Proposal", assuming it to be a serious recommendation of economically motivated cannibalism. Again, some critics of Mark Twain see Huckleberry Finn as racist and offensive, missing the point that its author clearly intended it to be satire (racism being in fact only one of a number of Mark Twain's known concerns attacked in Huckleberry Finn). This same misconception was suffered by the main character of the 1960s British television comedy satire Till Death Us Do Part. The character of Alf Garnett (played by Warren Mitchell) was created to poke fun at the kind of narrow-minded, racist, little-Englander that Garnett represented. Instead, his character became a sort of anti-hero to people who actually agreed with his views.
The Australian satirical television comedy show The Chaser's War on Everything has suffered repeated attacks based on misconceived interpretations of the "target" of its attacks. The "Make a Realistic Wish Foundation" sketch (June 2009), which attacked in classical satiric fashion the heartlessness of people who are reluctant to donate to charities, was widely interpreted as an attack on the Make A Wish Foundation. Prime Minister of the time Kevin Rudd stated that The Chaser team "should hang their heads in shame". He went on to say that "I didn't see that but it's been described to me....But having a go at kids with a terminal illness is really beyond the pale, absolutely beyond the pale." Television station management suspended the show for two weeks and reduced the third season to eight episodes."
For further reading:

Dorothy Parker (for example: "She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B". See also: "If all the young ladies who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, no one would be the least surprised." Can you imagine the letters Parker got for THAT from the letters of Yale alumni and...their wives?)

Gore Vidal (for example: "Andy Warhol is the only genius I've ever known with an IQ of 60." See also: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." And: "Write something, even if it's just a suicide note.")

Stephen Colbert (for example: "Now we all know that Fidel Castro dressed up like Marilyn Monroe and gave JFK a case of syphilis so bad it eventually blew out the back of his head." See also his address to President Bush: "Look, folks, my point is that I don't believe this is a low point in this presidency. I believe it is just a lull before a comeback. I mean, it's like the movie Rocky. Alright?")

Trey Parker (for example: "We're the guys who, if someone says you really shouldn't do an episode making fun of Scientologists, we say, 'Whatever.' Someone says, 'They might come to try to burn your house down,' and we say, 'We'll just get another one.'" See also: "We find just as many things to rip on the left as the right. People on the far-right and the far-left are the exact same person to us.")

Lenny Bruce (for example: "Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers, will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous when you think about it." See also: "Every day, people are straying away from the church and going back to God.")

Evelyn Waugh (for example: "He was gifted with the sly, sharp instinct for self-preservation that passes for wisdom among the rich." See also: "Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic.")

Fran Lebowitz (for example: "Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine." See also: "Humility is no substitute for a good personality." And: "If you are of the opinion that the contemplation of suicide is sufficient evidence of a poetic nature, do not forget that actions speak louder than words.")

George Orwell (for example: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." See also: "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." And: "Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers.")

Oscar Wilde (for example: "Genius is born, not paid." See also: "The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everybody else, and this is a feeling I have always cultivated.")

Jonathan Swift (for example: "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own." See also: "Where I am not understood, it shall be concluded that something very useful and profound is crouched underneath.")

And who could forget Randy Newman (for example: "Short people have no reason to live." See also: "I love L.A.")

The above is an illustration of Dorothy Parker.

Monday, November 29, 2010

This Week at the Perfume Counter

Here's a tip. While I totally understand wanting to avoid the mall altogether, I encourage you to check out the free floating kiosks some of them host. In the past, I've found very good things at a number of these places. They don't have Lutens, L'Artisan or anything remotely niche, let alone indie. But they often have things you can only get online otherwise, and frequently they have the older formulas in stock. It's true, you can get Tresor at the Lancome counter. And the sales associate there will tell you the formula hasn't been changed. You might even like the newer formula; sometimes, I prefer them. Regardless, the kiosks can increase your options.

Here in town, there are two, at two separate malls. I haven't been so lucky at the one. I did find Lalique eau de parfum and Lalique Encre Noire, which are otherwise hard to come by in these parts. I've come across a few other things, as well. The other kiosk has been a lot more fruitful. There I've seen everything from Paloma Picasso Tentations to the original Lagerfeld, and many things in between. Fendi, Tocade, Givenchy III, Creed Bois du Portugal, and many new releases which don't make it to the local department store shelf.

This week I took a trip for Thanksgiving, two hours outside of town. Another kiosk. Pre-reformulation Organza Indecence, the original Perry Ellis for women, Tendre Poison, Tiffany for Men, and more. The problem I ran into with the proprietor there is one I've experienced with all of them. A few problems, actually. I'll call them challenges.

Typically, the owner only puts out front what most people will recognize, and he or she tends to be very aggressive. One has to be, with the kind of thru-traffic they get. If you don't grab them quick and forcibly, you've lost the sale, maybe. These kiosks are small, with limited shelf space, so everything is stacked precariously. The owner knows what he or she has but not necessarily much about perfume, nor does he or she want to do a lot of digging around for nothing. That would mean a lot of rearranging. And for what?

Their attitude--rushing you, bombarding you with questions (what are you looking for, what do you like, who is this for)--can make browsing a challenge, especially if you're trying to get close enough to view through the glass to see the stacks beyond their featured items. I've learned to make my questions as specific as possible. I ask for specific perfumes, though this is kind of a catch 22. Most of the goodies will come as surprises. What they have isn't necessarily anything you can think off the top of your head to look for. They've stocked it because they know sooner or later an elderly lady will wander by asking for it. It isn't something which will fly off the shelves, so they don't display it. The rarer it is, the more deeply buried in their inventory. How are they to know you're the elderly lady in question?

Communicating with the kiosk owner can be a pain, too, because they're in the business of hard sell. They could easily walk down to the department store, mere yards away, to see that it still stocks Organza Indecence, albeit a new formula, but they don't really need to be informed. They'll simply tell you it's very rare. Likewise, when you make the general comment that you like older, discontinued fragrances, they will start presenting you with items you can find upstairs at Perfumania, or things you know very well can be had from an e-tailer at a fraction of the price they're charging. All of this aside, once you get to know them, if you have that kind of time to invest, they start to understand what you're looking for, and even loo out for it themselves.

Another tip. Look at the local drugstore. I've found the following on these shelves: Fendi EDP and EDT, Samsara EDP, Poison, Fahrenheit. All pre-reformulation. The other day, I found an older bottle of Amarige and a one ounce bottle of Poison Eau de Cologne, at drugstore prices. I've also seen early Oscar bottles, Dune, Poeme, and many others. Don't assume that a newer drugstore won't have older bottles. I suspect that the newer stores are stocked with some other closing location's inventory at times. Additionally, that new Rite Aid you pass might be a renovated local pharmacy. You never know.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Are You a Perfume Blogging Snob? Take This Simple Test to Find Out!

Lately, I've noticed a certain level of stuffiness creeping into the sensibilities of several blogs I once thoroughly enjoyed reading.

Let's call them the Old Guard. They've been around a little longer than your average blog. They've been around, some of them, longer than this blog has been. And maybe it's me; maybe, when I first started reading them, I missed out on a current of negativity which was always there. Then again, maybe it's not me, and they've just succumbed to problems many people face in middle- to old age: paranoia, a feeling the world is passing you by, the sense that a younger generation doesn't pay sufficient respect to your wisdom and experience, crankiness, exhaustion, constipation.

Blogging can be lonely. Lord knows, if blogging were all I had going on in my life, I might very well be in a sad, sorry place. No one says blogging has to be a laugh riot or simply a ruse. Committing yourself in general, let alone to a blog, is serious business. But taking yourself seriously, too seriously, can be deadly. Your reader feels it. Other bloggers do, too.

You don't care about other bloggers, you say? Oh but you should. Every halfway committed blogger knows that readers are only part of the process. Minus relationships with other bloggers, you're in for an even lonelier row to hoe. Other bloggers can be an invaluable source of support and inspiration. To be sure, not all of them will be your cup of tea. Maybe you don't need support; only the right connections. Fine. But to assume you've made friends with the right bloggers and can shun the rest is a mistake only a truly silly, feeble strategist makes. Remember that blogger in whose basket you so delicately placed all your painfully laid eggs--the one with what you deemed such an "important following"? That blogger is now temp-ing at an auto parts plant in Iowa. She had mouths to feed. The one you wrote off, that uneducated, upstart blogger--the one who didn't know what she was talking about and was only clogging the arteries of internet discourse with needless fatty garbage? She has 15 thousand hits a day, and counting.

Where's the joy? For these bloggers, blogging seems to have become such a dark, unfriendly, unproductive place. The writing feels stale: its only reason for being is to serve the blogger's ever bloated ego. Remember that Monty Python sketch in The Meaning of Life? Over fed man walks into restaurant to feed ever more? Hilarity explodes. It's not always so funny, and if there's time to save these bloggers, perhaps we should try. Maybe it isn't too late. Maybe their egos haven't ossified and are still merely somewhat fragile. Maybe they can be broken and restored. Better yet, maybe these bloggers can help themselves. First we must recognize the signs of trouble. Here, then, are some of the more common symptoms of distress.

1. Do you lay awake at night, worried that the world will not receive your next missive soon enough?

Remember that one piece you wrote--the one about the relevance of the house of Lutens to world peace? Oh, let's not call them "posts" anymore. Posts make it sound as if anyone with a computer could do this. Reviews, dissertations, essays--anything but "posts". Make a note to yourself: tomorrow, on blog, stop referring to your life's work as "posts." Train yourself to vomit a little at the mere mention of the word. Does "posts" sound like the talk of a writer with a book contract? Tomorrow you must also write something which reaches the poetic grandeur, the historical sweep of that Lutens review. You must write something which advances your sense of alarm at a world gone haywire with the over-estimation of utter dreck. One blog reviewed Jontue the other day! Can you imagine? Why not review the contents of your junk closet? Why not review in loving detail the toilet cleaner in your bathroom cupboard? Oh, but what if tomorrow is too late? Who needs sleep, anyway? Someone in the provinces is checking her computer every ten minutes, hoping for a new post from you. There's that pernicious word again. Someone in the provinces is contemplating a life of prostitution and degradation. Without your regular guidance, what could possibly be the point of aiming higher? Must get out of bed. Must reach out immediately. Your public awaits you. It could mean the difference between life and death.

2. Do you have a book deal?

There are many things you could write. Where to start? You did get an agent, which is the first step. Books are important. That's the thing. Yes, you write a blog. Oh, let's not call it a blog. Really, isn't that like calling a Chanel handbag a fanny pack? The thing is, yes, it's true, you write this Chanel handbag. Yes, it's true, the success of a thing like your handbag--you have the numbers to prove it!--would seem to indicate that nobody much reads books anymore. Who needs a book when you've got a handbag? The thing is, just as those classic perfumes you admire have hit the dust, just as they are devalued if not discontinued altogether under the wheels of ceaseless forward motion, books have become practically extinct, a rarefied pleasure. The publishing industry indicates that only memoirs and self help books really fly off the shelves these days. It's one thing to have a book. You need one, of course, in order to command respect. It's quite another thing to have it read. In order to be respected a book must be noticed. Granted, you shall shout it from the mountaintops yourself, but how far can your own solitary voice be expected to throw, even with echoing factored in? The book must be read, or else it ends up in the bargain bin. What could be more horrible than a classic perfume in the bargain bin? It's like picking up a bottle of Sarrasins at Walgreens, between Snuggies and HuggieWipes. Eureka! In essence, your book must be Proust in the form of a Snuggie. Why, yes: a Chanel Bag with arm holes! A tome with the soft, supple ease of use required of a Huggie Wipe.

3. Do you grumble about all the little people, all those new bloggers sprouting up beneath the sprawling wisdom and authority of your big strong Oak of a blog?

Back in your day, a blogger had credentials. A blogger was someone who really knew what she was talking about. Yes, she loved perfume. She had a passion for it. But also an obsession, and to the point of near psychosis. Look at all these little seedlings. Where are their chops? They're sitting out there in, what, Peoria? In their little houses. At their little desks. It's not like you. Where, pray tell, is their psychosis? Where is the overflowing ashtray, that longstanding symbol of your wheezing dedication? Where are their book deals? Have they lunched with Lutens? Would Lutens, looking at his cell phone, vaguely recognize their incoming number before ignoring the call? I think not, and so do you. What do they have to say, these seedlings? Who gave them the authority to say it? What precisely inspires them to think that the world must hear their thoughts on every little perfume that flits past their consciousness? On top of this, they merely imitate you. They see how wonderful your dissertations are, and they try to emulate your magnificence. They cannot, of course. Can the little cat with a missing leg grow up to dance the polka? Can the trashy pop singer belt out Wagner at ear-splitting, glass-shattering decibels? They can no more emulate the Chanel handbag than the local butcher can, so why are they trying? You're a kind, patient person. You would let all this pass. But your commitment to excellence forces you to speak out. Don't all these little seedlings know that they're taking up the majestic Oak's water supply? Don't they realize how crushing the dessicated Oak's fall would be? You tell them for their own good. The world needs the Oak's health. Do they know how many people rely on the bloated oak's shade?

4. Do you count several perfumers and/or fragrance industry types as your closest intimates?

Just the other day, as you stretched out for just a moment to consider your book deal, the phone rang. It was some journalist--some woman--you can't remember who at this point. A lot of important people call. They're calling every day. They look to you for your unbiased insight, relying on your expertise. You know more than they do, and this they recognize. This particular journalist wanted to know your impartial assessment of what your favorite perfumer has been up to. That glowing review you wrote about his latest perfume. It made the stuff sound like manna from heaven. Why yes, you answered, it is, and I say that as someone who doesn't call just anything manna from heaven. When will it be available? asked the journalist. With a funny little snort you worked hard to make sound voluntary, you announced again the release date, adding that surely this journalist wouldn't have to call quite so often if only she read your reviews more carefully. The journalist answered, why yes, I try to read your reviews as carefully as possible, but they are so packed, so overflowing with insider information that it can be hard to retain all the data with any kind of permanent recall. I will accept that answer, you said, as long as we can agree that, while as women we are equals, your answer endorses the idea of my superiority over you as a fellow generic human being. Tell me, continued the journalist. What was the perfumer in question thinking when he created this lovely fragrance? What was running through his head? What are his private thoughts and dreams? If only we knew what he is thinking now, from an impartial, totally unaffiliated source like you. At which point, you placed your hand over the receiver and rolled over in bed to ask.

5. Is it important for you to be the first to report on some breaking development, even if it means making it up?

You would like everyone to know that you were the first to reveal the discontinuation of several highly esteemed fragrances. You make sure they know by reminding them they heard it here. It's sad--tragic, really--but the good thing is that your readers must acknowledge that the best place to hear bad news first is from you. Then again, not all news is bad news. You are often also the first to review the latest fragrance. The latest very important fragrance. Though, by reviewing it, you have virtually created its relevance, really. You were the first to ever wear perfume. Then you were the first to smell it. Just joking. You're not that elitist. You were merely the first to wear it and smell it the right way. Before you, people scarcely knew how to spray the stuff. Do you know how many people practically blinded themselves by trial and error? Of course you do. You know everything! You were the first to report on various rumors which never crossed over into fact. But your attention elevated them in a way which made silly issues of accuracy secondary. Your gaze upon these issues is itself a form of truth. If all else fails to impress, you were the first to report your own significance. Surely that counts for something in certain quarters.

6. Are you paranoid about challenges to your imagined throne?

People are out to get you. This post is a case in point. All these coded references. Here's what it is, you tell yourself. People are jealous. Remember when you were young? Younger. Remember when you were younger, and people in school made fun of your lisp? Oh how they mocked you. People can be cruel. What it was is, they were jealous, because you were different in an interesting way. Sure, it wasn't interesting to them, but only because they were so blinded by jealousy that they couldn't recognize how fascinated they should be. Alas, the good thing about a blog is also a bad thing. On one hand, you can hide your lisp. And you can puff yourself up in various ways no one can contradict. No one sees the books to dispute the numbers you quote. You can tell people you descend from royalty and they'll never know the difference. Were they ever to meet you, they might imagine that your lisp is merely an accent, the way royal people speak in your homeland of Selfimportia. You can tell them you get inside information the same way everyone else does, from the outside. You can hide behind any number of ruses which distort your imagined weaknesses into formidable strengths. The problem is, your readers can hide too. How do you know to trust they are who they say they are; how can you be sure they mean what they say? You know they can trust you, but how can you trust them? Soon enough, everyone is out to get you. What they want is what you have. A book deal. A Chanel handbag. Who wants a fanny pack? Who wouldn't want a Chanel? When you were younger, and the others bullied you about a lisp, you couldn't wait to grow up, not to get away from them, but to join their ranks undetected, so you too could be important. Now you're important and everybody's still calling you names. Soon you will be more important, which should put an end to that.

7. Do you make a lot of "distinctions"?

There is a difference between good and bad, and many distinctions in between. A Chanel handbag is preferable. A fanny pack is unfortunate. A book deal is success. A blog without one is a waste of time. Readers mean nothing unless among their numbers are important people. People are more important if other important people say they are. You are important but you could be more important, and you will be, eventually. Some fragrances are worth one's attention. Others are by perfumers you don't yet know or haven't been made to feel by important people you should want to know. Not every nose is worth knowing. Sometimes, you can make a real ass out of yourself cozying up to just any nose. Some things are worth saying. Generally, these things are being said by you. Other things are a little less worthwhile. If a writer has a book contract, he or she is a good writer. If he or she has an agent, he or she is almost there. A writer without either is like an artist who cuts off his own ear. How will he hear success calling with such a disadvantage? Here's the thing: the cream rises to the top. We live in a meritocracy. We all know that. Artists who haven't "made" it know that what they have to say isn't important or valuable because it isn't being said so often on TV that its genius is immediately recognized. In a culture where the best dancer on Dancing With The Stars can be relied on to win, only the truly great and worthy have a book deal. The truly profound have made the book into a Snuggie.

8. Do you condescend to your dear reader?

In order for you to truly be smart, your reader must be a little more stupid. While you like comments--thrive on them, even--you can't help pointing out in some subtle way how unlikely it is that you would make any such remark. You take the time to respond to each comment, if only to point out how unenlightened it is. This isn't a conversation, folks, you'd like to say. One has conversations with people of the same socio-economic status. It's only natural that, being above your readers, you will talk down to them. There's no malice in it. Is God malicious?

9. Do you review only the most expensive fragrances, believing that to do anything less would make you less like royalty?

Why of course. Only an inferior blogger would review anything anyone else could just as easily review. Who would read a book he could write himself? Does the Queen of England go to Chuck E. Cheese to whack the bobbing groundhogs over the head with those mallets? Does the President pass out eating potato chips in just anybody's TV room? Does a Kardashian get waxed just anywhere--and by that I don't mean any old place on her body? Does a patty melt stand up on the grill and say, Hey, you, can you keep it down, I'm burning my ass off over here? Did Marilyn Monroe marry just any Joe Blow goat-herder from Montana? Did Susan Boyle say, I think I'm good with this uni-brow, let's go public now? Did the little dog on whom you blamed your flatulence write a retort on an index card which read "Those who smelt it dealt it?" Royalty must be cultivated and enforced. There must be a sizable moat between the castle and the crap-dwellers.

10. Are you tiresome?

Increasingly, yes. Lighten up. It's only a blog.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hermessence Iris Ukiyoe

There are huge Jean Claude Ellena (JCE) fans out there; it’s a cult-following. Me, I respect his talent and will always sniff anything new he creates. But mostly I feel indebted to JCE because he forged ahead with his “tea accord” back in the early 90’s which I consider a personal favor the man did for me. However, I must admit that JCE’s sheer, linear style isn’t typically my thing; I’m a girl who loves orientals, florientals and chypres. Occasionally I am blown away by the sheer beauty of something in the simple soliflore category, and this happens constantly with almost everything from Annick Goutal, but I don’t typically seek out these sorts of fragrances. I have about a dozen favorites in this category, which I whip out during the summer months, and I wasn’t really looking for more.

Well, this year I’ve had a few of these sheer, linear, soliflore-type beauties sneak up on me and become part of my permanent collection. First there was Byredo La Tulipe, then il Profumo Blanche Jacinthe, then Annick Goutal Rose Splendide (but on me this one is pretty potent) and now there is Hermessence Iris Ukiyoe.I have always wanted to find a fragrance that smells like iris FLOWERS. Not the roots, rhizome, bulb, cold wet earth stuff, but the scent of iris flowers. Oh, don’t tell me the iris flower doesn’t have scent, it surely does, and in my garden back in New Jersey, I had several beautiful varieties of scented iris. I adore Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile in both edt and edp (very different scents) and so far I’ve found these to be the best abstract interpretations of the scent of iris flowers. The AdP iris scents are quite voluptuous and full bodied, these aren’t sheer little soliflores but both fall into the floriental category. DSH L’eau d’Iris is another iris floral worth checking out and this one falls more in line with the new Hermessence Iris Ukiyoe; so don’t miss out on that one.

Anyway, let me get to the point: Hermessence Iris Ukiyoe is beautiful, especially if you are looking for a linear, sheer scent that smells like iris flowers. Iris Ukiyoe is realistic, like a photograph, not a painting; it smells of irises, but also contains a soft vegetal quality, like freshly cut stems, that oozy cellular plant-like scent you get on your hands when trimming irises for a vase (Byredo La Tulipe is like this, so obviously I have a thing for stem juice). Once dried down, IU becomes a softly peppery aquatic scent, one that I wasn’t sure I’d like, but oh, how I do. I’m pleasantly surprised by IU’s longevity. Don’t get me wrong, this is a JCE creation, so it’s far from a sillage monster, but it wears nicely on me for about 3 hours and I don’t mind re-applying. It strikes me that this is a perfect scent for gardeners or for a person specifically looking for an iris floral scent. It’s a quirky smell, so if someone were not to recognize the scent of an iris flower, I imagine s/he might think it’s a little odd. I love it. Had Iris Ukiyoe appeared on shelves back in May I would have worn it lots and lots this past summer.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Underrated: 3 More by Etat Libre D'Orange

It really intrigued me, the past six months to a year, watching what people had to say about the last several releases from Etat Libre D'Orange. It intrigued me, when I didn't let it get to me. Like This and Fat Electrician were pleasant enough, to me, but nothing particularly special. Like This (after Tilda Swinton) was a creamy ginger thing; Electrician a now-standard issue grungy vetiver. What was all the fuss? With Sex Pistols and Josephine Baker, both done in partnership with the Sephora Chain, it's beginning to look as if Like This and Fat Electrician weren't merely a temporary downward trend, as I'd earlier hoped, but the shape of things to come at Etat.

I liked what everyone seemed to hate about the brand: how silly they were; how irreverent. They were restless in a pretty refreshing way. What many saw as shock value and empty provocation seemed just as arguably a thoroughly thought-out exercise in dada to me. None of this would have mattered, or been anything other than annoying, had the fragrances themselves not been so interesting and, for the most part, durable.

I loved how offended everyone got by the Etat packaging. I kept thinking, Seriously? It was so fun--such a tease. The ideas at play in the fragrances were so quick-witted. And why not? What makes it more acceptable to put a skanky, animalic fragrance behind a facade of pseudo-respectability? More respectable perfumers could sell any amount of crap in a beautiful bottle, fronted by some boring blonde or brunette, her pose and context (usually prone, typically sex-related) a male's deranged idea of a woman's inner fantasy life, and while people seemed to grumble periodically at the bombast of it all, they ate it up. They still do.

Etat poked fun at all of that with a cartoon phallus and for this they were regarded as pandering to the lowest common denominator, the basest of consumer instincts. The casual or hostile disdain people directed towards the fragrances themselves still astonishes me, given the relative lack of discernment with which most fragrance campaigns are received. Why is it that we praise Etat when they become most like other things, while failing to scrutinize the continued smoke and mirrors of reformulation going on over at stately Serge Lutens?

With Like This, Etat put on its church finery. Suddenly, people who'd slammed them for their so-called pretensions and silliness were praising the company for getting serious, for putting out a fragrance which had stopped all the clowning around. Now this--Like THIS, finally, was a scent worthy of critical discussion. Really, all those theatrics: how tedious that all was. Here was something . It was as if Britney Spears was over all the head shaving, limo-infesting antics. She'd gone back to extensions and gotten all that out of her system. Hurray. Back to mediocre pop. The baby girl voice was perfectly acceptable, as long as she wasn't singing from behind the rail of a crib.

Were we all talking about the same scent? Like This was so pedestrian. I could smell Etat in it, but only just. It seemed to me that people were overcompensating. Maybe because Like This was more approachable, and Swinton herself characterized the company in quite a different vein than, say, Rossy De Palma had a year or two earlier, people seemed to feel the need to use Like This as an example of what had been wrong with the line all along, and why they could now bring themselves to endorse it. Swinton was, like her namesake fragrance, weird as in avant garde. De Palma was weird as in self-conscious parody, willfully bizarre. The one was class; the other camp. These are just my own hypotheses, because, to me, Swinton seemed as likely and as consistent a choice as De Palma. It's how people regard and appraise them which differs.

I own most of the earlier Etat fragrances, and I still marvel at how fun and satisfying they are. I've written about some of them. Others I intended to get to, eventually. Then I got distracted, and lost interest in the line. I resented the turn the conversation about the brand had taken. I still hope this is temporary. Like every line, Etat has had misfires. It tries new things. Regardless, today I wanted to revisit, in print, several of the Etat scents I've never talked about.


You would think this stuff were Secretions Magnifiques, the way people go on about it. "Very disturbing, nauseating, even anger-inducing," began one of the customer reviews at Luckyscent.com, as if she'd been forcibly subjected to something without warning. "I haven't smelled anything this vile in a long time," wrote another.

There's oddness aplenty in Charogne--but it stops just short of truly unsettling, and miles away from disgusting. Lily, vanilla, jasmine, incense, and ylang ylang don't often end up in the same pyramid, to be fair, but surely this is a more unusual and possibly a more intelligent use of ginger than Like This.

Charogne goes on with a slightly off smell. It takes the fragrance right to the edge of what you tell yourself a fragrance should be, but this makes it sound much weirder than it is. Ultimately, Charogne is a great floral amber with a touch of vanilla, and it lasts forever. It speaks to classic perfumery, playing around with the macabre in ways which are infinitely wearable.

Delicious Closet Queen

I liked how self-reflexive Closet Queen was when I first smelled it. It plays around not just with what a typical mall masculine should be but with Etat's own body of work. Closet is a fascinating perversion of an earlier Etat fragrance, Putain des Palaces. Both were created by Nathalie Feisthauer; two of only three she's done for Etat (the other, also good, is Nombril Immense).

Closet Queen and Putain are distinctly different, and yet they speak very strongly to each other. Putain is something of a lipstick violet cum leather, no pun intended. It puts a man in the room with the hooker from the fragrance's title. Closet Queen equalizes the same basic arrangement, conflating genders. It's that same man, after he's locked himself in the bathroom with his escort's cosmetics.

Some days, In some ways, Queen smells like half the masculines at Macy's. That's a big part of it's effect. There's a forcible tension at play between traditional ideas about masculines and feminines, an astringent cedar romping around with a creamy, voluptuous violet and rose. Typically, just when I decide I should be bored with it, the fragrance piques my interest again.

Vierges Et Toreros

To me, one of the weirder Etat fragrances; weirder, I think, than Secretions Magnifiques. Let's face it, the weirdest thing about Secretions is that anyone might consider it a fragrance in the first place, a joke for which some refuse to forgive it, let alone the entire line. Vierges has a tuberose note in it and perhaps one day I will smell it. I'm not sure what exactly I smell, which strengthens my attraction to the stuff.

The notes are: bergamot, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, ylang ylang, leather, costus, patchouli, vetiver, and the alleged tuberose. Again, I smell none of these in particular. But oh what a combination. Vierges is one of the longer lasting Etat fragrances on my skin. Sprayed liberally, I get a stronger impression of florals. For me, it's a far more interesting, certainly more durable, leather than Chanel's equally strange but vastly more short-lived Cuir de Russie. It's a strange, space age take on a floral leather, and every time I smell it I get a little frisson of happiness. Monk, by Michael Storer, has a similar quality to it--an animalic vibe with an underlying whiff of musk and incense. I never want to be without either.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mona Di Orio: Cuir

I can't really find an antecedent in Mona di Orio's work for Cuir, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. While several di Orio fragrances have been, like Cuir, pretty bold, they were also a lot skankier, creating a series of expectations and biases around the perfumer's work. Nuit Noire dries down to what Orio retailer Luckyscent refers to on its website as "a barnyard-y animalic dirtiness" which wasn't everyone's roll in the hay. Even Carnation and Oiro have more than a whiff of the underbelly to them. Cuir is no less an affront in ways I find appealing, but in an entirely different direction.

I like Nuit Noire very much, and when I read about Cuir, part of the perfumer's Les Nombres d'Or line, I assumed it would be an elaboration of that somewhat notorious fragrance. Given Orio's treatment of the indolic and the overripe, I expected Cuir would be a sort of apogee for her sensibility, a sublimely ferocious, unwashed leather. Cuir isn't unwashed, and it isn't particularly feral. It doesn't seem in keeping with anything else Orio has done--had it come in packaging other than her trademark champagne bottle muselet, I would never have attributed it to her--but it's a fantastically remorseless fragrance, and it bums me out that her reputation for a special brand of skank and an unfairly malicious and dismissive rap from critic Luca Turin might keep people from giving it the time of day.

Cuir doesn't particularly smell much like a leather to me, either; no more than Parfum D'Empire's Cuir Ottoman does, I guess. Luckyscent calls it carnal, and I can understand why. A few months back, I reviewed Incense by Norma Kamali, another arguably carnal scent, if by carnal you mean in part unapologetically robust. Cuir initially reminded me of Incense--the stuff is unmistakably strong--though for all its assertiveness, there's a weirdly unique delicacy to Cuir. When it first goes on, you smell the cardamom and the cade, something close to smoldering spices. The cade isn't so brutal that you can't make out the cardamom, so there's a balance going on there, but a tricky one, and Cuir very nearly tips the scale into overkill. Incense doesn't have that kind of tension. It has a glorious bombast which Cuir shies away from, if only just. It's full throttle, out the gate, and straight to the grave.

Both fragrances are smoky to the extreme. Incense is much more resinous, whereas Cuir smells more like something you'd walk through than on. Supposedly there is opoponax in the mix. Who can smell it, under all that smoke? More immediately apparent is the castoreum, which gives the affair something approaching wet animal hide, rode hard, put up wet, now roasting on a spit. This is really the whole story to Cuir, but this simple constellation of elements is more than enough, telling a bigger, more complex story than fragrances with twice to three times the ingredients.

I love Cuir, and I know it will last me forever. It's sometimes--okay, frequently--too much for me. A little goes a long way, as they say. But what a road that is to go down, even just dipping my feet in it. I believe there's a much needed place for these fragrances, now more than ever, and far too few of them. They adjust one's barometer, demanding of you a certain kind of attention and commitment. They cleanse the palate by overloading the senses. With so many fragrances pandering to lowest common denominators, endlessly dumbing themselves down, seeking shamelessly to be all things to all people, something like Cuir is a handy reminder of the refreshment a willfully difficult scent can provide.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Perfumes by The Creators of Le Labo

What to call these five fragrances, whose labels simply read "by the creators of Le Labo", as if that were all you need to know? Available exclusively at Anthropologie stores, the scents range from straight up floral musk to woody-spicy. They retail for 62 bucks and come in identical brown 2 ounce bottles. Of the five, I like two a lot. One I like okay. The remaining two leave me cold. They are intended to evoke "a nostalgia for the perfumes of the past," a statement about as vague and multi-purpose as the nondescript packaging itself, more tone than substance.

I appreciate this partnership between Anthropologie and Le Labo, which seems like a smart move for both. People who haven't heard of Le Labo might seek the line out after smelling these. The design and packaging relate interestingly to the Anthologie sensibility, the bottles sitting on the store's shelves as if they materialized from some little pocket of that very specific commercial universe. At the same time, they feel remarkably consistent with Le Labo's own aesthetic. The one central weakness in this vision, for me, is the refusal to give this spin-off brand an evocative name, let alone any name at all. A few distinguishing physical characteristics would be swell, too.

The perfumes themselves, of course, have titles. Poudre D'Orient and Belle Du Soir are my favorites. Both remind me of qualities I like about Le Labo--a weird sort of spiced muskiness which can somehow feel unfinished but here, in light of the packaging and the strange anonymity of the presentation, feels just right, simple and straightforward. All the same, I wish I knew who the perfumers behind these are, and why "the creators of Le Labo" opted not to make them known in the press materials. It matters to me, I realize, because I like making the connections between creative work. Yes, I understand, perfumes are made for commerce, according to briefs which reflect a bottom line. That doesn't exclude them from finding their way to art the way rock bands, filmmakers, and other commercial artists manage to do. I might buy a CD without knowing anything about the band. It's happened before. But I would get pretty frustrated if I liked it and wasn't able to find anything else they'd done.

I could swear Poudre D'Orient is by Daphne Bugey. It reminds me of her Rose 31 for Le Labo, and of Kenzo Amour. It features a musky aspect which is almost tactile somehow. Poudre is like a lipstick musk. It lasts well and is moderately diffusive. It smells a bit of carrot seed oil, too. What's especially nice about the lipstick note is that it isn't particularly floral. It's like a spiced, powdery cosmetic aroma, as if someone's perfume has worn away and you smell only their skin and make-up. I imagine there's some cardamom in there, but who knows, with press materials like those put out into the marketplace by "the creators of Le Labo". I would be surprised to learn that Bugey isn't the nose behind Poudre, though I thought Mondo Guerra was a sure thing this season on Project Runway, so where's my compass and what is it leading me into? I like the stuff, regardless. I would classify it as an oriental-spicy, though on the Anthropologie webs site it's listed as "Fresh". I should reiterate: I thought Mondo Guerra would win.

Belle Du Soir is listed by Anthropologie as "Spice". I wouldn't have said as much, but you might expect that by now. Both Belle and Poudre smell unisex to me in novel ways. Poudre makes lipstick feel like a nice wool business suit with stubble, while Belle does something to gardenia I've never smelled before. I won't pretend like I know what's going on here. Me, I smell some vetiver, but sandalwood, cedar, and patchouli are listed. There's something fresh and spicy about Belle that I really like. It doesn't have the projection of Poudre, and it's lighter in tone than I'm usually inclined toward. It's a nice surprise, and I think it's the kind of fragrance you need to take off by itself, away from the cornucopia of a store like Anthropologie, to fully appreciate.

Chant de Bois was killing me. I knew I'd smelled this before. It might have even been something I own. It's great, a floral woody spice, I would say. Anthropologie says: "Spice". They also say "femme-woodsy", which is fine. I'm not going to get red in the face about this stuff so much anymore. I understand: the Anthropologie clientele is decidedly girly. Gay guys like me will walk in and buy it regardless, whether it has a bow on it or is covered in sequins and pink feathers, as long as it smells good. I suppose it doesn't have to spell MALE across the front in a reassuringly masculine font. Chant doesn't last quite as long as I require of anything more costly than thirty bucks, but it's pretty fantastic. And it finally hit me. Chant smells like the child of Perles de Lalique and Encre Noire, causing me to wonder whether Nathalie Lorson, the nose behind those two, is the nose behind this one. Again, I wish I knew.

I can't remember the last time a fragrance like these was released without making the perfumer's name known. It's become so routine to make the name public that I hadn't much cause to think about it until now. Not knowing who truly "created" these fragrances made me realize it matters to me. I understand, I think, what the "creators of Le Labo" have at stake in this gamble. It's great if these relatively inexpensive fragrances sell, but they're meant to be aspirational and to extend the brand. A perfumer's name, while part of the project at Le Labo, isn't necessarily going to serve the company by competing for bottle space on the shelf at Anthropologie. Still, the last most interesting thing that store did was a series of tea fragrances, each of which featured a different perfumer's interpretation. It seems odd that Anthropologie would pick up the idea of niche perfumery and employ it on a retail chain level, while Le Labo, entering the same space, would basically revert, acting like niche perfumery never existed.

The fragrances come in candles and solid perfumes as well. This article at Vogue Daily, quotes Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi, said "creators", discussing the scents with a little more detail, slightly contradicting the descriptions on Anthropologie's website. The above image is by Marko MacPherson and was featured with the article in Vogue.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Just Because She Can: Lush "Tuca Tuca" and "Orange Blossom"

I was excited to learn a month or so ago that Lush had some new fragrances coming out, especially after the news, last winter, that the B Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful scents, sisters and brothers to the Lush line, were being discontinued. It turns out they weren't being discontinued, just re-conceived and repackaged, though getting all those old "B" fragrances at half off was worth the scare.

The new packaging is good news and bad news: good because it doesn't look as cheap as the old packaging; bad because looks can be deceiving. The new packaging leaks--just a little, which doesn't bother me too much. It doesn't leak as much as seep, and I solve that problem by not trying to carry the bottles around or storing them upside down or sideways. I don't tempt fate if I can avoid it. The problem is that the only identification on the bottles comes in the form of a paper tag around the neck. That might not be much of a problem either, were it not for the seeping, which tends to saturate the tags. At least when the tags deteriorate and fall off, you can smell the stuff a mile away. That makes it easier to tell one bottle from the other. Otherwise, they're identical: basic black.

There are more than five new Lush releases but, at least in the U.S., only five are stocked. You can get others online (including the B Never scents, which are now referred to simply as B Scents). I like all of the brick and mortar releases, though I find Imogen Rose and Smell of Freedom to have longevity issues compared to the remaining three. Lust is an indolic jasmine which is, as some have said, pretty sweet. The sweetness doesn't bother me a bit. I love Lust. It lasts forever, and like the best by this brand's perfumers (Mark and Simon Constantine), feels dense and rich, a strange mix of edible, floral, and woody.

My favorites are Tuca Tuca and Orange Blossom. Tuca Tuca is a violet fragrance, essentially, but a take I haven't seen on the note. Vanilla, yland ylang, jasmine, and vetiver round it out. Its creaminess has a doughy depth to it, filling up space the way the smell of baking bread takes over a house with an almost physical presence. Call me wacky, but I don't consider any of these latest Lush (aka Gorilla) scents entirely feminine, let alone whimsical, save for maybe Imogene Rose, and I've always sensed that Lush is a pretty forward-thinking brand, so it was disappointing to read the company's description of Tuca Tuca:

"It's that fun and flirtatious girl inside us all--she's mischievous with a naughty sense of humour and an infectious giggle. She likes to dance like no-one's watching and run through park sprinklers with abandonment, just because she can. She's whimsical, carefree and when the sun shines just right she can go from being sweet to sensual with the bat of an eyelash. Tuca Tuca is the epitome of how fast your heart races when your eyes meet the boy you've got a crush on!"

I think that drivel speaks for itself. Sadly, I doubt that by "us all" Lush means to say men, though as many guys as women have, I'm sure, a girl inside there somewhere. The worst part, probably, is that I can't imagine any such girl I would want to spend tons of time with. I understand Lush is selling to the Macy's walk-through customer. This is the suburbs. Maybe it's me; I'm out of touch. Maybe this fantasy of twee coquetry appeals to women of all ages. Maybe it's simply a tween thing, and should be disregarded, like all the sparkly glitterdust Lush stamps onto its bath balls (There's a thought: are bath balls a coded reference, meant to bring out the inner boy in the privacy of one's own tub?). Still, it's weird. Without the above copy, I would never have guessed that Tuca Tuca wasn't meant to be taken seriously.

I'm obsessed with orange blossom, especially the last year, and I put a lot of pressure on Lush's interpretation. Thankfully, they do it justice. This is probably my favorite orange blossom to date, the antithesis in approach of Penhaligon's recent take, which lasted all of five minutes on my skin, failing to compete with the distractions of the outside world for my attention or anyone else's. Like Gaultier's Fleur du Male, Lush gives interesting dimension and extension to orange blossom with coumarin, going one further with beeswax, a note which produced similarly interesting results in Penhaligon's recent masculine, Sartorial. I could sit and smell Orange Blossom all day, and Lush makes that possible: As with Tuca Tuca and Lust, this one is tenacious.

When I entered Lush at the mall, a sales associate half my age immediately informed me that of the five new scents (she assumed I hadn't heard of, or come looking for, them) two could be worn by men: Orange Blossom, and Smell of Freedom. As I'd already reached for Imogen Rose instead, I had a moment of panic. What if I grow a vagina!?