Friday, May 20, 2011

Old School Hermes: 24, Faubourg

It's ironic, I guess, that the current fragrance profile at Hermes is regarded as sophisticated, elegant, and refined, while the fragrances themselves are largely so wan and vegetal.  I won't say the things in house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena does for the brand aren't elegant, but they define elegance in a pretty different way than I would - in or outside of Hermes.  This speaks to changing times, and what is generally considered chic these days, probably:  clean, effervescent, sparkling, and austere.  Yet no fragrance spells out what I think of as "Hermes" to me more adroitly than 24, Faubourg, a fragrance which has to be the quintessential antithesis of something like the cold-hearted, icy thing which is Kelly Caleche.

24, Faubourg is creamy and ornate, without feeling particularly heavy to me.  In fact, the top notes are practically sunny.  It resembles another ornate fragrance, Ysatis, in certain respects, characterized by a rich floral accord with deep amber tones, but lacks the dusty incense quality of Ysatis, feeling somehow quieter, though neither could be said to whisper, exactly.  Ysatis dates back to 1984, preceding 24, Faubourg by nearly a decade, and it's interesting to see how little the cultural idea of opulence they represent changed in the intervening years, especially when you look at how drastically these fragrances differ from Ellena's fairly recent work for Hermes.  Faubourg is not a particularly large leap from 1984's Parfum d'Hermes (now Hermes Rouge), speaking much the same language, if using different verbs.

Like Rouge, 24, Faubourg is a chypre.  The listed notes are bergamot, orange, peach, hyacinth, tiare flower, orange flower, jasmine, orris, sandalwood, patchouli, amber, and vanilla, according to

I have two versions, one of which is the original edt, the other of which is a more recent eau de parfum.  There is very little difference between the two, except in respects to longevity and projection.  For me, the edp stays a little closer to the skin but is richer and creamier.  The edt isn't exactly lighter, and I can smell more of the vanilla and patchouli.  It doesn't last quite as well as the edp, but it's hard to say exactly, as neither concentration is anything close to a lightweight and the edt projects a little more, giving it the illusion of more mileage.

24, Faubourg is the very best of Roucel's work, and seems to have a clarity and a resolve that some of his more contemporary fragrances sometimes lack.  It's a statement, a declarative thing, compared to something like Dans tes Bras, a fragrance Roucel created for the Frederic Malle line.  Dans tes Bras is no less forceful, but it feels muddled and morose by comparison to Faubourg, as if Roucel were struggling a bit to adapt his style to changing times.  Dans tes Bras makes a valiant effort to hold onto the old school opulence of Ysatis and Faubourg but ultimately mumbles a little incoherently, insecure in its point of view.

Faubourg is a lot more confident in outlook and execution, I think.  It sits very comfortably within the range of chypres from the eighties and nineties.  It knows it belongs there, and that "there" is a perfectly good, even enviable place to be.  It's rich and intense and feels like a coat you've worn for years and wouldn't dream of giving away, knowing they don't make it anymore and nothing new will ever feel so wonderfully lived in.  I suppose the biggest difference between Faubourg's kind of thing and Hermes by way of Ellena these days is the sense I get from the Ellena fragrances that they are a little like trying to keep warm in a still-wet watercolor.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Valentine to Perfume: Woman's Picture and Tableau de Parfums

Woman's Picture Trailer from brian pera on Vimeo.

Here's the trailer to a film about three women called Woman's Picture.  The film premieres in Los Angeles this July (details to follow).  The film, and the website I've created for it, Evelyn Avenue, has a lot to do with perfume.  Each of the women's stories in Woman's Picture revolves around the influence of a fragrance, in a way that gives perfume something approaching magical properties.  Ismellthereforeiam tends to cut videos in half, and can make loading the site a long term endeavor, so feel free to watch the trailer full screen through vimeo for the full effect, or watch it on Evelyn Avenue.

Woman's Picture is a tribute to the women I grew up with and the perfumes they loved.  As some of you who read the blog know, I spent a lot of time as a kid sneaking into my sister's/mother's/grandmother's perfume collections, sniffing myself into my own private fantasy world.  Woman's Picture puts some of those fantasies on film.  These three women's stories are the first in an ongoing series dedicated to cinematic first-person portraiture.  Each portrait is thirty minutes, and the gallery of portraits will broadcast on Evelyn Avenue starting in October.  Until then, you can catch the first three, in feature film form, at a film festival near you.  We'll keep you posted on dates.  I created Woman's Picture not just as a tribute to the women who've influenced me directly but as an homage to the old women's films from the 30s, 40s and 50s, many of which I love.  The biggest ambition behind the series, though, was to make movies that involve perfume directly and integrally, rather than as something that appears in the background, out of focus, on a character's dresser.

Andy Tauer is collaborating with this ten year project by creating a line of perfumes called Tableau de Parfums.  Visit Evelyn Avenue for more information on that, as well.  These perfumes are inspired by the characters of Woman's Picture.  The first three perfumes are "Miriam", "Ingrid", and "Loretta".  The launch date for the line is October of this year.

The film is on facebook under, if you "like".

Saturday, May 14, 2011

This Week at the Perfume Counter: Good Enough for Kim

I'm always a little cranky when I show up at my favorite perfume kiosk here at the mall and the Russian women who own it aren't there.  Recently, they hired two new employees, neither of which knows next to anything about perfume and augur a much more belabored conversation.  The owners know their inventory well, no matter how far hidden behind boxes of Mariah Carey, Queen Latifah, or Polo Double Black.  They know me pretty well, too - what I have and what I tend to look for.  When I visit, they tell me what's come in since they last saw me.  They understand that I'm a nut, that I'm the rare guy shopping for himself, more often than not on the woman's side of the counter.  The young girls they've hired are convinced I must have an addiction to buying buckets of perfume for the ladies in my life, and they spend a lot of time trying to interest me on the 20 dollar cheapos on display front and center for impulse buys.

Yesterday, I brought a friend with me.  He and I were looking at their stock of Guerlain, and I wanted him to try out Moschino Moschino.  I pointed to the box and the girl had no idea what I was talking about.  It was a needle in a haystack to her and I couldn't seem to point precisely enough through the glass.  I felt like I was in an Marx Brothers routine.  The Russian women and I have a fairly easy running dialogue.  The new girls are like that lady at the clothing store, who feels compelled to comment persuasively on each and every thing you set your eyes on, pushing for that sale.  Every perfume, they assure me, is very hard to find.  Aromatics Elixir, for instance, isn't made anymore, they say, as if it manages to be a bestseller only in some parallel universe.  Bond No.9 Wall Street is a lovely woman's perfume.  Mitsouko is an after shave.

As we were standing there, smelling how awful the latest iteration of Egoiste is - a cinnamon bomb, suddenly, missing all the sweet sandalwood I remember - a customer approached asking for Kim Kardashian.  The girl sprayed some on her and the woman seemed to love it, but she was totally torn.  How could she look anyone in the eye, if asked what she's wearing, and tell them with a straight face, without seeming like she was in a rush to get to Claire's for a beaded friendship bracelet and a double finger ring with her name set in rhinestones?

Listen, I told the lady.  "Lie."  If you must.  If you like it, and you want it, get it.  But she couldn't get over the stigma, no matter how many times she returned to the smell on her wrist.  It's nice, I agreed.  But it's a pretty standard smell and if the name is something you can't get past there are several others you might like instead.  I asked the sales associate to spray Carolina Herrera (she pulled out Carolina, convinced it was the same fragrance) and Michael Kors on tester strips, but the lady saw no similarities - not even remotely.  It made me realize Kim Kardashian's specific appeal. Kardashian removes all the rubbery camphor from tuberose, augmenting the sweetness with buttery cream.  The peach in Carolina Hererra doesn't seem to replace that (apparently) much desired effect.  The spicy incense kick of Michael Kors takes things in another direction entirely, the extreme opposite end of a spectrum.  Unfortunately, the kiosk has no Fracas, and though I'd mentioned how standard a smell Kardashian is, I couldn't seem to think of another fragrance which approximates it.

We're all standing there, troubling over this, and the sales associate, all of 19, says, "It's really great, Kardashian, because any woman can wear it.  Old women can wear it."

My friend and I were speechless.  The lady, probably in her late thirties, smiled uncomfortably.  It renewed my barely latent contempt for sales associates in general, that special ineptitude they often have, and when I got over my shock I told her that in probably all of ten years she'll realize that getting her foot in her mouth will be a much more arduous enterprise than she's able to realize now, requiring a nimbleness and a lack of perspective she will only vaguely remember as a thing of the far past.

She lost the sale, of course.  But she made up for it with me.  Like Kim, I'm pretty easy.  I got Moschino for my friend, who's just taken to wearing Poison (prodigiously, thank God) and Caleche for myself.  The new Caleche is much maligned by Luca Turin and others as a wan reflection of what it once was.  I don't mind it, though I have the older version and see the point.  The new version is indeed far more masculine, and a lot less pissy, which could be an asset to some. It isn't an asset to me but I like it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Oscar de la Renta Esprit d'Oscar: Surprise Surprise

Reformulations, sometimes (as here) referred to as "updates" or "modern interpretations" are rarely, in my experience, cause for anything but dread.  So Esprit d'Oscar is a nice little surprise. I was, and still am, partial to the original Oscar de la Renta fragrance, known simply as Oscar, which was created in 1977 by Jean-Louis Sieuzac (he of Opium, Bel Ami, Fahrenheit, and Dune--all wonderful). Primarily a spiced tuberose affair, Oscar has seen several alterations since its debut, and while I enjoy the latest version less, I do own and appreciate it.

The original was more subtle, and handled its opening and transitions more gracefully. It's not quite as buoyant or resonant now as it once was, and shares with several butchered florals (Sung and Giorgio come to mind) something pretty shockingly shrill up top, a synthetic bombast which pierces my consciousness like an ice pick to a bunny rabbit. You can feel the original structure in there, but it's more crudely articulated.  It's a lot more brutal, to use a popular expression.  If Fracas is one of the first Brutalist creations, as Chandler Burr declares, Oscar has become, in the last decade or so, a bit of a splatter painting.  It's more than a little all over the place.

Esprit is being positioned as an entirely new fragrance, but de la Renta is very clear about the fragrance being an update, too, which is technically trying to have it both ways. It's hard to blame the company's attempts to simultaneously distance itself from and embrace its lineage. The current Oscar, still available at the mall but a mainstay at drugstores across middle America as well, has quite an Old Lady image to shake. Anything which isn't fruity floral seems to fall into this category by most casual sniffs, but few more so than present day Oscar, which conjures visions of hair nets, blue rinse, eighties ruffled blouses, and the plastic covered sofas one finds in grandmother's house. Remarkably, Esprit does have it both ways. It takes everything which was fresh and gorgeous about the original, and cleans it up like someone removing the grime from a masterwork, allowing a viewer to see it anew.

It might be that de la Renta, with Esprit, is making a bid for contemporary inoffensiveness, because it's true, this is one of those fragrances it's hard to imagine anyone being even the slightest bit offended by. Yet it accomplishes this without any sense of having dumbed itself down. Esprit is a lovely, mellifluous thing, and reminds me more than anything of "Oscar" by way of Chanel. It has something to it that reminds me of good sandalwood, though the pyramid lists none. There's a rich but mellow creaminess at play, featuring jasmine, tuberose, and orange blossom. This combination, once past the bright, even sparkling top notes, reminds me very much of my bottle of 1980s Oscar, and like some of the Chanel fragrances I admire there is a fine soap quality to the composition, making it feel clean without being particularly antiseptic or insipidly citrus. The notes list lemon, bergamot, and citron, but to make another Chanel comparison, the overall effect, despite this opening, doesn't feel presided over by it, as it does, say, in No. 5 Eau Premiere.

De la Renta assures you this is a long lasting floral oriental, and while not exactly short lived, I wouldn't say it's particularly tenacious. It has a nice subtlety to it without feeling underdone. I can smell it hours later but it doesn't project very forcefully, and one of the great things about Esprit is that it's pretty difficult to over-apply.  It makes a great masculine as well, sharing something (don't ask me what, exactly) with Prada Amber Homme.  When you consider how often older fragrances are ruined these days--hello, Opium--Esprit is practically a marvel. I at first thought the price tag was steep. Having spent some time with the fragrance, I've changed my mind. It's a far better use of my money than many niche fragrances I've smelled recently.  Compared to them, it's a bargain.

It was created by Frank Voelkl and Ann Gottlieb.