|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.