Thursday, February 24, 2011

Frederic Malle: Portrait of a Lady

Have we all had our hissy over this one?  Is it possible to discuss it with any objectivity now, or do we need more time?  Remember just a few months back, how desperate so many of us were to smell this?  The review Abigail wrote on Portrait was one of our most trafficked posts that month.  Some people reacted orgasmically to the fragrance, once they finally laid hands on it.  Many seemed slightly peeved with it----first confused, then openly hostile or dismissive.

image: David Kozlowski

On the one hand it's lovely.  Me, I get no fruit in Portrait.  It's rose and oud all the way.  So I'm confused when I read so many people saying it smells like a typical fruit-inflected floral patchouli thing.  Were I to smell this in a store, without any name or brand attached to it, I'd consider dropping coin for it.  It is most definitely an oriental.  And even for an oriental, it hardly seems pedestrian to me, costly or no.  It represents the apogee of a type of scent I don't have and want but can't find.  The closest relation for me is Montale's Black Aoud.  I've come this close a few times to purchasing Black Aoud: it's the perfect combination of rose and oud and priced at about 100 bucks for 50 ml, which seems pretty reasonable by indie fragrance standards.  The problem is, it doesn't last long on my skin.  Portrait solves that problem, lasting all day and then some.  It feels as if made with the highest quality ingredients.

On the other hand--and I think this is really the root of the conflict over Portrait--it's been a long time since I've seen a fragrance so ineptly handled by its makers.  A new kind of oriental?  Really, Malle?  We've set ourselves the task of reinventing the wheel now?  The first things I heard about Portrait were the chemicals in its mix.  It was like talking to a mathematician about poetry.  It was a mistake to spend so much time and focus on breaking down the "mystery" of Portrait.  It had the adverse effect of fostering an impression that this was some sort of conceptual exercise, like Byredo's M/Mink, rather than a wonderful perfume.  I'm the first to agree that the pyramids and ad copy for contemporary fragrances are almost without exception uselessly fanciful, but I'm not sure an about face in the opposite direction is any more desirable.  Many of us are interested in the art of perfumery and what happens to make this magic happen.  But I think the biggest part of that curiosity is geared toward inspiration: what inspires a perfumer to arrange this alchemy?  What in his or her personal life has wrought it?  What does he or she engage with?  When it came to Portrait, we got a statistical breakdown.

I still don't know how Portrait of a Lady relates to its sources or even what those sources are--aside from Geranium Pour Monsieur, an earlier Malle fragrance, also created by Dominique Ropion, Portrait's nose.  There is no useful fantasy built around this perfume, nor does the name itself, adrift of useful or truly evocative context, help in any way to indicate that this is a wonderfully unisex fragrance, like Black Aoud.  Portrait doesn't smell particularly feminine to me.  You have the word lady and the word rose: those words alone build up very specific expectations.  We know from the perfumer and from Malle that Portrait is a sort of feminine counterpart to Geranium Pour Monsieur, reinforcing the misapprehension that this is the ultimate feminine fragrance--the mademoiselle to its mister.  And yet Portrait is the farthest thing from a quintessentially feminine fragrance, and could only possibly alienate the nose approaching it with that expectation.  Add to this the association with the novel of the same name by Henry James, a story centrally concerned with conflicts between old world and new, and the perils of emancipation and self-determination, and you get a right messy brew.

Leaving the buyer's mind with nowhere much to go but the price, Portrait has really done itself a disservice, particularly as it happens to be so expensive.  I think the conversation would often be about the cost of Portrait even were Malle to have better articulated the vocabulary; let's face it, 300 is a high price.  Price is always a part of the dialogue about an Amouage perfume, certainly--and it could be argued, however beautiful, that many Amouage perfumes resemble others.  Ubar is running closely along the lines of Loulou, for instance, if you ask me.  Amouage isn't reinventing the wheel, but they don't pretend to.  Nor are  they demystifying what it is they do in the name of celebrating or appreciating its artistry and quality.  I own three Amouage fragrances.  Why were they more persuasive in getting me to part with my money?  I think Amouage respects and understands the carefully calibrated mystique that draws people to fragrances with hands on wallet.  They understand creating that desire and head space.  There is just as much expectation and pressure built up around the approach of a new Amouage release.  There is just as much potential for disappointment or disillusion.  But the fragrances, more often than not, get off on the right foot, and are forcefully clear on what they are.

I regret that Malle fumbled on this one.  I think they might have introduced it much more effectively.  I like it very much and would love to have a bottle.  Calling it a straightforward rose/oud fragrance  isn't to imply it is simple, banal, or trifling. Portrait has big presence, producing a major air of drama.  It feels deep and rich--and loamy.  It smells of rich soil or rotting moss, giving the affair a decidedly gothic feel.   It's a pensive thing, pretty moody.  And like 1876 (Mata Hari) by Histoires de Parfums, Portrait has a dandified vibe about it, though I would argue it's less masculinely pretty than 1876, which is somewhat airier.  Portrait is much more propulsive and intense.  And I believe it's one of the best things Ropion has created--fulfilling every desire you bring to a fragrance with his name on it.

It simply needed a better escort.  Portrait is a little blurred, and you wish to be told a bit about what it is exactly you're looking at.

16 comments:

Angela Cox said...

I definately get patchouli not ouhd . At first I wasn't impressed as I could hardly smell it . When I do catch it I love it but I am afraid it does not live up to it's price or Ropion's other fragrances .

brian said...

It's pretty tenacious on me. I guess for me at this point patchouli smells like so many different things that it's not something I immediately pinpoint in a fragrance. There's something medicinal and loamy in Portrait and I can see how that involves patchouli but the way I identify what it seems to be doing is oud.

Michael said...

I must admit that I was one of the detractors. But you have made a very good point about how it has been marketed and presented. All this scientific guff about ambroxen and what not. You're right - a bit of romance and inspiration might have set a different sort of expectation. Good review.

brian said...

Thanks, Michael. I should say that when I first smelled it I immediately dismissed it. For an entire day I was convinced it was silly and inconsequential. When I smell it now, a week to two later, I find it hard to believe I found it anything short of persistent and intense. That indicates to me that the conversation was all over the place and the tone wasn't set very well beforehand. There was no real mystique or fantasy built around the fragrance to anchor it in that discussion. The same could be said of any Malle fragrance. I remember the conversation about Dan tes Bras was similarly confused and anti-climactic. It had nothing to really hinge on. Others develop their reputations steadily and slowly, like Une Rose. The conversation from Malle about Portrait was unusual, I thought, and discouraging. I hope they do it a little differently next time.

Do you feel any differently about Portrait now than when you first smelled it?

rccb72 said...

When I first tried it, it was a big dissapointment, I thought it smell a lot like Gres "Cabaret" and I just moved on, If I wanna reach for a good rose and oud I always go for C&S Dark Rose, yeah go try Cabaret nd is the same rose and patchouli and a bottle is only like 20 bucks...

brian said...

Interesting rccb,

I get from cabaret wan sheer rose soapiness and ash.

From Dark Rose I get light and fleeting. On me it is essentially a rose water. I would argue that Dark Rose, for what it is, is just way too expensive.

Portrait stays and stays, and projects well, and is rich and obviously very high quality. It feels lush in a way that very few perfumes do. Une Rose is also lush but boozier. I like portrait very much, and my argument with the price isn't necessarily that it is too much for what they're selling; but too much in general. I don't have a lot of hundred dollar bills to throw around.

Marko said...

I have adored POAL from the moment I smelled it. And I have been wearing it pretty darn regularly (at least for me). My skin pulls LOTS of resins out of the mix, so I end up smelling like I just spent the last 8 hours tied up in a room with no windows or doors with Rose Incense perpetually burning and permeating into my every pore and hair follicle. I really love it....and I don't mind a pricey, un-focused escort every once in a while....as long as they get the "work" done.

brian said...

I like it too, Marko. I don't think the perfume is unfocused. I think the conversation has been, and the dialogue generated from Malle itself has been somewhat confusing and misleading. So while I like it a lot, I came to it with many distorted impressions and weird expectations. I think a lot of that is inevitable to begin with.

Katie Puckrik said...

Brian, I'm still having a hissy over The Lady. And recently I had the experience of unexpectedly smelling it on someone else, and before I'd paused long enough to I.D. the perfume, I was already going, "Oooooh...you smell gooood!" So that's a good sign.

I also love smelling the echo of Portrait of a Lady whenever I open the closet where my coats live.

Abigail said...

Marko,

Your description is exactly the way I experience Portrait. Although I still *like* PoaL, I never turned the corner to true love. Maybe the whole reason is that I'm not a big fan of the Incence Rose genre. I like to sniff these but hardly ever wear them. Except for Amouage Lyric which is so tame and polite it can scarcely be compared with Portrait.

brian said...

Yes, Katie. I found your hissie inspiring ad encouraging, and it's thanks to you I persisted with it. My first note to Abigal about it was entirely dismissive. I kept thinking, But Katie didn't just like it, she didn't just love it, she was gushing about it. You can't always win with perfume lovers. We complain about lack of longevity, then bemoan tenacity. I for one am thrilled to see a perfume for three hundred bucks which ACTUALLY LASTS. That alone makes POAL exceptional. Above and beyond that, I think it's a fantastic Ropion fragrance. Again, my biggest problem, really the only problem with it, is the confusion of the conversation. And again, I don't know that has much to do with Malle, but I sure did find all that Ambroxan talk bewilderingly snooze worthy.

brian said...

btw, I guess I should clarify. By hissie I meant the flurry of expectations and disappointments that seemed to surround the release of Portrait. I saw some similarities between Nuit de Tubereuse and POAL in terms of the way they hit the market. I smelled both at first with a great deal of confusion and through a lot of white noise.

ScentScelf said...

That's an interesting thought, the observation on the framing on the conversation surrounding PoaL's release. Of course, it immediately struck up a nearly painful and rancorous dialogue in my head. On one side, the desire to have something released in a void of expectations, because setting the frame ahead of time might not be the best for the experience *I* am going to the perfume...or rather, COULD have had, had I not been lead down the wrong path. On the other hand, sometimes a map is a good thing, and prevents you from being lost, so sure, give me a set of expectations, and I'll work with them.

Dancing around those two voices is a little imp, looking somewhat like Frederic Malle, who particularly enjoys when "the community" twists around their own selves trying to define his product art. (Art product?) After all, he made clear on his visit here that *luxury* is perhaps the most important "what" of what he is selling. Perhaps the content and conclusions of these sidebars into what a given release "is" do not really matter? Because in the end, you are not buying mushrooms (a common theme in the chatter when Dans tes Bras was released) or skanky rose (that's one of the topics surrounding PoaL, yes?); what you are buying is the latest creation by {fill in perfumer} and offered by Frederic Malle.

Of course it is good, goes the thinking. That is perhaps the only answer to "what is it?" you are supposed to care about. Whether or not you get it.

Anyway, so went the voices in my head...

Undina said...

I'm very new to the community. I had no specific expectations from any Malle's perfumes: last year I ordered from the line seven samples (those that sounded more familiar from all the blogs I had read before), tried them and wasn't impressed at all (I don't know what I expected - maybe too much, an epiphany?). And then I wore PoaL couple more times and fell in love with it. I mean, full bottle love. But then, I am very new...

brian said...

Hey ScentSelf.

Yeah, I'm probably way too preoccupied with this stuff--the marketing, the dialogue around the fragrance, the snobbery ratio, the mystique. I guess I was a little shocked how much I liked POAL compared to how prepared I was to dismiss it at first, so much so that when I first smelled it (I think now) I was smelling something completely different. If it's true we don't understand how smell and the mind work then it's probably also true we're not sure how powerful suggestion is/can be.

And I guess I thought/think, well, why not present it and package it in the most fantastic, legible way? What's stopping you from painting the picture? I think I get disappointed with niche brands sometimes because they have an opportunity to do the marketing so differently. It seems like there are fewer rules for them--and they're already in new territory. Perhaps they don't have to do that. Why is it important for any brand?

EauMG said...

I really like PoaL but I like those "Arab" roses, especially ones that has powder. I got rose/oud/patchouli/cedar in a true Arab tradition. I like Black Oud and contemplate buying it but I now like PoaL better because it is smoother and wears better on me.
It's the price. I want a bottle but will never, ever buy it. If it was offered in a smaller $100-$150...maybe.
For cheap, I like Pirouette Essentials Rose Musk. That little baby has some power.