Saturday, February 20, 2010

Byredo Baudelaire: Unintentional Outcast

I'm fascinated by some of the reverse snobbery involved in the active appreciation of perfume. On the one hand, critics (and by this I mean makeupalley reviewers, bloggers, and print media practitioners alike) are apt to dismiss the relatively inexpensive, as if equating quality with cost. On the other hand, we often fault companies which seem to have become or to have started out too big for their britches. We fault the attempt to try new things as pretentiously artsy and obscure, then deride the latest posse of ubiquitous fruity florals for cashing in on a dead horse.

Case in point, Byredo, a small, relatively pricey line I've never heard many good things about. Byredo has been around for a while now, long enough for me to grow accustomed to the general apathy and casual skepticism they seem to engender among perfume lovers. But it surprised me, recently, when I looked into Baudelaire, one of the line's latest, and discovered that what started as mild disdain has gradually evolved, with what seems like very little active encouragement, into venomous ire.

I might not find this so perplexing, were the fragrance in question, say, Gypsy Water or Rose Noir, both rather inauspicious entries into niche perfumery. At 200 bucks, a rose needs to pop in some way for me. Rose Noir is nice but hardly as dark or dense as the name indicates. Neither Rose Noir nor Gypsy Water have much going for them in terms of persistence or projection. And I would never argue that Byredo is as consistently interesting or pertinent as lines like Serge Lutens or L'Artisan. Byredo's ratio of hits to misses is skewed in favor of misses. But this Swedish outfit does have winners, for me at least, and I appreciate the line in general for a number of reasons, many of which have to do with the care put into the presentation of their product and the overall understatement of the brand.

I liked Baudelaire better than anything else I smelled at Barneys. I sprayed some on my hand and walked around with it all day, enjoying it more and more. I'd intended to disregard it. I needed the real estate on my hands and arms for more coveted items: I hadn't smelled any of the Maison Francis line, perfumer Francis Kurkdjian's breakout bid for marketplace independence. There were a few new Tom Ford items to smell. A few new Serge Lutens.

I liked the Lutens, and the Fords were somewhere along the continuum of quality I'd come to expect, but Maison Kurkdjian was a massive disappointment. The fragrance I'd been most interested in trying, Lumiere Noire, is in fact very pretty, but it's a rather weak entry into a population of much more interesting, forceful and diffusive spice rose scents. APOM, Kurkdjian's orange flower-centered fragrance, was persistent enough, but rather flat and incongruously synthetic for a high quality line. Knowing that Kurkdjian has been creating perfume for years under the direction of other people, I expected something much more adventurous, even audacious. Instead, I found that the Maison Francis line pales alongside efforts he's executed for other people. I went down the street to Dior to buy a bottle of Eau Noire, done several years earlier by Kurkdjian, something I've lusted after for several years now without buying. And I realized that Fleur du Male, which Kurkdjian did for Gaultier, is the best orange flower I've ever smelled and a hard act to top.

How is it that Kurkdjian, who has marketed his new line like gangbusters, is taken at face value, where Byredo, who remains relatively obscure, is regarded with open, uncensored suspicion bordering on hostility? Reviews of Baudelaire criticize Byrdeo for very shrewdly putting out a masculine which stoops to smell like other masculines. Reviews of Kurkdjian celebrate the perfumer's innovation. Perfumed bubbles? How quaint! Nevermind that the bubbles are a novelty at best and so overpriced (eighteen bucks per ounce and a half) that it's hard to see them as anything but calculated. No one seems to question the integrity of Kurkdjian's stated desire to make luxury fragrance affordable to everyone in the form of 45 dollar liquid detergent. I'm not saying anyone should, but I find it curious someone doesn't.

Baudelaire's apparent disadvantage is that it is just a fragrance, that rare dinosaur, something to be worn on the skin. Another disadvantage is its resemblance to other fragrances. This seems like faulting a fantastic little black dress for being black and a dress. Every woman has that black dress, and it resembles every other black dress in at least two ways. But the importance of it resembling others enough can't be underestimated. There is a place for a little black dress, and there's a place for a good, traditional, well made masculine. It seems more than irrelevant to me that Baudelaire resembles masculines of the eighties. The question is whether it stands alone as a good fragrance and holds its ground among the others. I would say it does both, whereas Lumiere Noire, also derivative, is a whisper you would scarcely hear next to the magnificence of Montana's Parfum de Peau.

Another criticism of Baudelaire and by extension Byredo is that it capitalizes on a trend for incense fragrances, as if Byredo, unlike Maison Francis Kurkdjian, should not be in the business of trying to sell perfume. Personally, I find Kilian far more questionable in this area than little old Byredo. Even L'Artisan has jumped on the oud gravy train. That said, Baudelaire, like the recent signature scent from another widely maligned line, Bond No. 9, is one of my favorite recent incense fragrances. Baudelaire wears smoothly but with presence. It has chocolaty undertones. It smells of leather, like well known masculines of the eighties, and looks forward, carrying that quality into the present tense with a remarkable levity. My first impression, upon smelling Baudelaire, was that it smelled like something else, only much, much better. Juniper and floral undertones give it interesting contrasts. It lasts all day. The frankincense in Baudelaire is to die for. So smooth you don't even realize how fearsome it is.

Does it smell like its namesake? I never smelled the man, so I can't say. I'm not sure his work has a smell either, or that its associations could be agreed upon. The general consensus seems to be that a fragrance named after Baudelaire should be a shade skankier. I'm not sure I agree with that. Baudelaire's evocation or even exaltation of the ugly and perverse involved seeing beauty in them. I'm not convinced that a cumin note, for instance, which might lend a suggestion of body odor, is the only means to inject the pretty with some ugly. It doesn't do the trick for me in Lumiere Noire. And I'm not so sure something has to be ugly to be beautiful in the way Baudelaire means. I'm not so sure seeing or appreciating the perverse requires viewing it as repulsive. There are opposites in Byredo's Baudelaire, and Baudelaire is a rich, pleasing fragrance. We all know how marketable a fragrance like Secretions Magnifiques is, and how reviled. How many wear it? Would we only have accepted Baudelaire in the form of something widely regarded as unwearable, and if so, who is operating with narrow vision? Interestingly, Kurkdjian's lovely, lush Fleur du Male is a Baudelaire reference few seem to accuse of mismatched or opportunistic profiteering. Funny world we live in.


rebella said...

I have yet to try the perfumes from Byredo, and it is quite sad since it´s after all a Swedish brand, (I sniffed some of them briefly in a store though)

Another sad thing (IMO) about Byredo is that they are after all a "Swedish" brand and why on earth they decided to call this Baudelaire? Is it anything wrong with Strindberg? :(

Anonymous said...

I guess in some sense I feel very removed from this, being in Switzerland; gratefully so, as I have been able to explore the line myself and draw my own conclusions without any reviews.

I somehow (don't know how!) missed this post of yours Brian, and so when I tried Baudelaire the other day, I was blown away. It has now been added to my list of must-buys. (I'm here because of Abigail's random thoughts column)

I was shopping for my husband (I thought of you and Abigail when I asked for a sample of Alahine), and so had tried Malle's French Lover (my favourite man's scent, along with Eau Sauvage), Bigarade Concentrée (don't think I can persuade my husband to deliberately apply scent that smells like unwashed armpit, even though I think it is a fascinating and complex scent), and Baudelaire.

Baudelaire was the big surprise for me... and yes, I couldn't stop sniffing it, all day, and the next (could still get some remnants of it). A gorgeous scent that makes me happy. What's not to love?

I think this hate-on is just reverse marketing, and it disappoints me to see how suggestive most people are; that they really truly cannot evaluate a perfume on its own merits. I suspect that there are as many fraud perfumistas as there are wine "connaisseurs".


RM said...

I don't know if I agree about the whole idea of perfume ethusiasts and the media etc. dismissing cheaper products on the basis that they're of lower quality. The posters on NST for example are always on the look out for "cheap thrills" and will be the first to sing the praises of any good perfume regardless of whether it's celebrity, designer, niche or cheap or expensive.
I think the general public sentiment never lies and if a company, whoever they may be, consistently release crap people will notice. If you're a musician for example, there's only so many crappy albums you can release before people just stop buying. But release one good song after another and we'll start paying attention. No one can ignore quality and a unique point of view for very long. And I think in this case, there hasn't been enough hits to achieve a certain level of respect from the fragrance enthusiasts and the like.
I think that if a perfume is good, people will say so, regardless of which brand releases it and what price point is sells for.

Mals86 said...

I liked ByRedo Green, but Pulp was just... okay, it was freaky. It was a frozen juice bar on steroids.

I am a big fan of Dark Roses (favorites include L'Arte di Gucci, Lyric Woman, Citizen Queen, and MH Rose en Noir, though Une Rose was *scary*), and Lumiere Noire BLEW ME AWAY. I get a lot of narcissus out of it, and it makes my knees weak. Hold-onto-the-headboard-and-moan stuff, IMO. Was much less impressed with the few other FMK's I tried.

I don't feel able to dismiss whole houses out of hand - I don't think I've got enough info to do that yet - for the quality of their scents. I'll admit, though, that I've dismissed houses for other things, like ridiculously pricey packaging (By Kilian), over-the-top ads (Tom Ford), and copy that makes me shudder (ELd'O).

But then I never claimed to be neutral. I want perfume that pleases ME, top to bottom, and I'm probably going to be less happy if I've got to shell out for a fancy box with a keeeeeyyyy, like that's worth it to me. For the record, after excoriating By Kilian for its snobby packaging, I did recently pick up a slightly-used travel bottle of Beyond Love for $20, and it's gorgeous, but I Sure As Heck would not have been so impressed if I'd had to pay through the nose for it. Yeah, I'm biased. So what? I don't claim not to be.

Brian said...

Scary? Really? That's great. Une Rose is my idea of holding on to the headboard. I love that stuff. I thought Lumiere Noire was very pretty, but it was so damn sheer. It lasted, I'll give it that, but I wish it had APOM's diffusion.