Monday, December 29, 2008

Some Thoughts on the Year: All the World's a Bathroom

I'm a latecomer to perfume, and 2008 was my awakening, starting with Vetiver Extraordinaire. A friend wrote about Vetiver Extraordinaire in a French magazine, making it sound like the best thing in the world. The only thing in the world. I'd visited him in Atlanta several months before and was shocked and a little uneasy when, watching a play in a dark theater, he pulled out a bottle of Comme des Garçons 2, uncapped it with much drama, then sprayed himself, and everyone around us, profusely.

It seemed hostile and generous at the same time, part assault, part act of mercy. When I asked him about 2 he mentioned he'd been writing about perfume a lot. I was fascinated. Write about perfume? Here was a serious, well known writer, respected for his novels about the lower east side and the denizens of old Times Square. Was he doing it in secret? Later, he emailed me the copy of his article on Vetiver, showing his real name, right at the top. I asked for a bottle last Valentine's Day. It seemed appropriately extravagant for the occasion: it came from far away (I ordered from France, if you can believe it, which shows what I knew), was costly (or so it seemed, compared to the mall), and surely, I figured, it would be a special perfume for special occasions.

At the time, I had maybe four or five fragrances: an old bottle of Coriandre, a Fragonard, something by Aveda, the original Comme des Garçons. It wasn't that I hadn't bought scents in the past. I just didn't know where to look. I didn't even know anything like Vetiver Extraordinaire existed, the world of niche perfumery being subterranean territory to me. My bottle of Coriandre reminded me of high school. I used to sneak into my stepmother's bathroom to smell it.

I did a lot of sneaking into bathrooms back then. When my sister or stepmother emerged from their rooms, they smelled fantastic. Their scents had gravitational force, and everything around them collapsed into that central point of interest for me. I envied that power. More importantly, I envied them that pleasure; that drama and intrigue. There was even solace in that dynamic somehow. Scent was emotional armor and hypnotic allure. Buying Coriandre later was a bit of a defiance for me, but I treated it the way I always had: I kept it in the bathroom, smelling it every once in a while or even obsessively. I never wore it, unless getting into bed, where no one would catch me.

I still remember the day Vetiver Extraordinaire arrived in the mail. It was packaged beautifully, and the glass bottle and chunky cap had a heft to it which seemed important, even momentous. It smelled like nothing I'd ever experienced. Dry and wet simultaneously, grassy, sheer. What was this vetiver stuff? A plant--a grass, you say? I sprayed some on at work and the whole office shifted. It was so combustible. It engaged the people around me, altering their behavior, altering my mood, my attitude, my imagination. It truly was momentous, and in the weirdest possible way.

I started researching perfume. Here was my stepmother's bathroom, spread out all over the world. A little bathroom called Frederic Malle, in Paris, France; stark and sleek, black and red and dull green glass. Little bathrooms called The Different Company, Le Labo--and hey, what about that Comme des Garçons perfume the writer had employed to change the course of the play we were watching? What of number "2"?

The first part of this awakening for me was a systematic run through of all the perfumes which had ever secretly captured my imagination. First up was Angel. Years ago, when it came out, I'd smelled it as quickly as possible on the shelves. What would I do if a saleperson came over and started asking me questions? I wanted that smell for my own more than anything. This year, I bought it at the mall, where the saleswomen indeed hovered around me, sizing me up. What kind of husband or boyfriend was I, their eyes were asking? How big a dupe? They talked me into the most expensive bottle they had, deluding me somehow into believing my girlfriend (essentially myself in this scenario) deserved the very best. Hadn't she waited long enough?

A month or so later I visited Portland, wondering, "Do they have any interesting bathrooms?" They did! The Perfume House, my host said, but she didn't think it was much. It was closed the first few days of my trip and I passed the time in Nordstrom and Saks, where I got Declaration Essence and smelled Gucci pour Homme for the first time. When I was looking at Declaration Essence, I sprayed it ever so slightly on my wrist. No no, the saleswoman said, taking the bottle from me. "How will you enjoy THAT?" Before I could answer she'd sprayed more perfume than I'd ever dared, covering my wrist in a wet pool of smell. It was so strong that when I walked into the nail salon to let my host smell, it registered over the toxic stench of nail products. I walked around inside the dream of that aroma all day.

The Perfume House really did it for me. Located in an old home on the middle of a busy street, its curious effect on my outlook was incalculably transforming. For someone who associated perfume with private, clandestine areas of the house, being in a house stocked full of bottles, everywhere you looked, was revolutionary. I can't explain how life changing this was for me. It took perfume out of the bathroom: brought it right out into the open, into the living room, the bedroom, the foyer, the bedroom. And everyone came out with it, setting bottles and cotton swabs of scent all over the counters and shelves. It was a four day conversation about perfume and for once the subject didn't feel like a dirty secret. The whole history of the world was tucked inside the topic. How strange to emerge from the building. Out on the street, no one else seemed to be having the conversation.

Over the next four or five days I spent roughly ten hours there. It was an intensive crash course on just some of the variety available in fragrance. Lutens, L'Artisan, Amouage, Piguet, Carthusia, Lalique, Patou, Crown, Goutal. The owner and his staff were wonderful. They made no assumptions, no value judgments, knew something about everything they stocked. What they couldn't remember they immediately looked up, without my having to ask. I bought five or six perfumes that trip: Dzing!, Sables, Bois 1920 Classic, Comme des Garçons 2, Chypre Rouge. My last day, I had a cold and was quietly devastated that I couldn't smell the things I'd bought. Regardless, I didn't want to leave.

The interesting if perhaps predictable thing is that since that time I have purchased everything I smelled and liked in that store over the course of those four days. And then some, naturally. Am I trying to make up for lost time? Maybe. Last night, thinking about it all, I suddenly considered again how brief everything is. I'd been out to dinner with my friends to celebrate one of their birthdays. Time telegraphed back and forth in my head and I got sad thinking how ephemeral life can be. Your relationships and the things which mean so much to you are blips on the screen, brief and fleeting. It tortures me. Someone's face eventually becomes a photograph, frozen in time, telling only a fraction of the story. The dog you loved and woke to for fifteen years is long gone, along with her smell and the sensation of her fur against your cheek.

Perfume, for me, I realized, extends those blips into lifelong memories, which live on indefinitely in the mind. I only went to LA several months ago, but this weekend I smelled Chanel Cuir De Russie, which I bought there, and already it smells like that whole trip to me: the insecurities I felt showing my film for the first time, coupled with the wonder of being in that weird, magical and merciless place. Perfume brought every complicated emotion back to me with visceral economy. Nothing else has the ability to do that with such facility. Maybe it has to do with the fact that perfume itself is so complicated and hard to pin down. Perfume itself is tangled emotion and wonder, sadness and beauty and beatitude all mixed together. The smell of violets isn't simply floral but ancestral for me. Violets are my grandmother, conjuring every last detail of her memory. Fragrance has the power to bring the dead back to life. It changes things, alters the course of time, penetrates the mind and the mood.

Meeting Abigail in The Perfume Critic chat room was important for me. Starting this blog extended the conversation I began at the Perfume House in Portland, bringing it into the outside world. We talk almost every day, several times a day. We meet on the blog to share our impressions and all those complicated feelings. We share perfume and the stories behind them with each other. And all those conversations are peppered with everything else going on in our individual day to day lives. When I talked to Abigail on the phone the first time, after we'd known each other a couple of months and been blogging that time, it was like walking into the Perfume House again. I didn't want to hang up. We talked so easily, more easily than most people I've known ten times as long. The things I'd worked so hard to hide or downplay in conversation with others were matter of fact between us, and I talked like someone's hand had been muffling me all this time.

I can't imagine talking about perfume without Abigail being by my side in the discussion. Together, we've left the Perfume House and taken it out onto the street, continuing the conversation in public. Funny thing, that. Once you start talking on the street you draw others who are having their own conversations. Ours eventually started getting responses from the people reading us, and we continue (avidly) reading other people. Perfume: The Guide was indispensable. IS indispensable. Turin and Sanchez are real advocates, deepening the exchange of perfume between self and the larger world, chief proponents of the right to opinion and passion when talking about it and sharing it, defending it or dismissing it. All the reference lists on various perfume blogs were key, too. I printed them all out and carried the phone book-sized lot around with me, studying as if cramming for an exam. I wanted to know perfume inside and out. I still do. All the perfumers, all the companies, all the ingredients, accords, terms, all the history. I have the feeling there's no going back for me now, and despite all the wonderful things that have happened for me this year with my work and in my personal life, my initiation into perfume and the open embrace of that long-forbidden pleasure stands alone as a singular achievement.

Below are flashbacks from the year for me, some of the moments which come most readily to mind:

-Walking into Chanel in Beverly Hills, where the first thing I saw was a row of Les Exclusifs. I came for Cuir de Russie but they were out. I was the only one in the crowded store looking at perfume, and the sales force seemed perplexed by my insistence and questions. Wasn't there someone in my life who might like a nice quilted purse?

-Traveling across the country for work allowed me to visit perfume shops and department stores I don't have access to at home, and often I was much more preoccupied with tracking down bottles of juice than the real reason for being in town. I visited Nordstrom and Parfumerie Nasreen in Seattle, Barneys and Etro and LuckyScent in LA, Barneys in Chicago, Fena Fresh in Greece. My favorite is still the Perfume House, though it doesn't have many of the lines I look for.

-I shopped online a lot. Nothing compares to the excitement of opening a package you've been waiting for. Will it disappoint? Will it exceed expectations? I've experienced both and everything in between, from the let down of Comme des Garcons 2 Man (poor longevity) to the thrill and surprise wallop of Rien and Jasmine et Cigarettes.

-Reading the Guide for the first time made the whole world stop for me. I couldn't hear or see anything else.

-Buying every last perfume I ever smelled in my stepmother's bathroom, including all the Estee Lauders and Coco.

-The constant adjustment my sensibility has gone through regarding gender lines and designations when it comes to perfume. What once seemed unspeakably feminine to me now registers as totally androgynous. What once seemed impossibly butch is now passably femme.

-I spent all year trying to find several perfumes. I ordered Chaos for a friend when it finally came out again and was a little more affordable. In the meantime, during my search, I came across DK Signature, which caught me off guard and turned out to be one of my favorite purchases. I looked everywhere for Lancome Cuir. Even the Lancome reps seemed never to have heard of it. It finally became available on Parfum1, and I love it.

-I ended the year buying five Ava Luxe fragrances and Breath of God from B Never Too Busy to be Beautiful.

Thanks to Perfume Shrine for involving us in this project. See also:

Perfume Shrine
Ars Aromatica
A Rose Beyond the Thames
Bittergrace Notes
Grain de Musc
Notes from the Ledge
Savvy Thinker
The Non Blonde
1000 Fragrances


ScentScelf said...

Beautiful. Thanks so much for capturing your first year so well, and with such good detail.

Bathrooms can be powerfully connected to identity, as you point out. The inner sanctum. In a cosmic zeitgeist, my grandmother's bathroom figured into the opening of my retropective. I am reminded of--Bette Davis? some famous movie STAR--who insisted the secret to a happy marriage was separate bathrooms.

I really, really, really want to visit the Perfume House some day. It will mark a circling in my life; I've been there before, and have indulged another passionate interest/collecting habit at Powell's. Hmmm...a "P" theme... Powell's... Perfume... Portland...

I have a bifurcated opinion of your perfume pal: I am really glad he brought you into perfume, since you love and appreciate it so well. However, that spraying on of fragrance in the movie theater does indeed have a hostile aspect...perhaps he should have taken it to...(you can guess)...the bathroom.

Happy 2008 to you, and to Abigail.

Anonymous said...

What a great post. Thank you for that.

And good for you, that you enjoy it all so! (And that you found Lancome Cuir, it is my current leather fav, I am so glad when I hear others loving it too!)

Scent Hive said...

So thrilled that you had such a transformative experience at the Perfume House. I live in Portland and don't get a chance to go there as often as I would like. Which, I think is a good thing. I like to keep it special, and want it to be new every time I step foot in through their quirky foyer. I did go there a few weeks ago and discovered CdG Hinoki. Fell in love. I find something new every single time I go there. The place is a marvel.

Tania said...

Well written, Brian.
You have a way with words. And as with all good writing, your essay creates echoes of similar emotional experiences in the reader.

Perfume is my 'madeleine', too. I think it's better by far than photographs for recapturing a moment. My photos of my first trip to LA mean little to me - but one sniff of Neiges, which I bought on my first ever visit to a Sephora, brings it all back!

Perfumeshrine said...

I very much enjoyed the unravelling of your "birth though fire" (or through CDG 2 combined to Vetiver Extraordinaire and a good dose of Perfume House of Portland and mum's bathroom!). :-)

I have to say Coriandre was a good point of start and Vetiver Extraordinaire an excellent point of departure, so considering the small time parameter on the diagram, the results curve is truly extraordinary! (much like myself accomplishing a good pun for a change would be!! LOL)

A fragrant 2009 to you!

Brian said...

ScentScelf, Powell's is yet another reason to visit Portland. I can spend hours in there, as well. I would throw pizza in, too; not that Portland has any special flair for it but after all we are making the P list. My perfume pal didn't "literally" spray everyone else in the theater, but he very boldly sprayed himself, and it wafted all over the place. I was horrified but secretly intrigued too. For someone who hid his love of perfume so long, it was thrilling. Fountaingirl, I do love Cuir. I get defensive when people compare it to Chanel Cuir de Russie as if Lancome's aim had been to recreate that masterpiece. I think Cuir is fantastic in its own right. And very wearable. I find it leans towards tangy violet, where Cuir de Russie is cool, cool iris. Pikake, you are very lucky to find some THING new every time you visit Perfume House. I find, unfortunately, twenty things new. Extend the visits over four days and that becomes...well, you can do the math. I can't wait. I'm going the first week of February. I'm saving my money as we speak. Perfume Shrine, thanks for organizing the year-end retrospective. Yesterday I printed everyone's off and carried them around, reading them all day. I'm amazed at the variety of writing on perfume produced by these amazing blogs. It's very hard when I get to work in the morning, because there are so many great sites to distract myself. I get excited seeing what others like you might have posted since the last time I looked.

Dain said...

That was a beautiful and wonderful piece to read. Thank you so much for sharing.

Scent Hive said...

I think some"thing" new is because I intentionally limit my time there. It's is my CdG-woods-and-L'Artisan-fruits-day. If I don't stay focused I get resentful that I have to pick up my kids or head to the grocery store or do some mundane thing that takes me away from sniffing the day away. Maybe if there are some other Portlanders on this blog we could all do a little meet-up a the PH in Feb? Or maybe that would entail too much enabling? LOL.

Caitlin Shortell said...

I liked this piece. You seem to be pointing to something larger and more meaningful than *gasp* even perfume when you talk about your decision to pursue your passion without fear.