Friday, September 30, 2011

Agent Provocateur Strip

Brian surprised me with AP Strip as a gift.  I had never heard of it and had no idea what the notes were or how it was described in the ad copy.  I love blind smells like this.

Strip launched in 2007 as a limited edition.  The limited edition part is what is so unfortunate.  Many consider the original Agent Provocateur to be their best fragrance but I think Strip is easily the best from this brand.  After I read the notes list I started to smell Strip quite differently.  See how marketing shapes our impressions…how that little notes list makes you smell things you never might have smelled before?  Anyway, the listed notes are Ylang Ylang, Iris Bud, Geranium Bourbon, with Amber, Vetiver, Exotic Woods and Musks.  It’s so interesting, how clearly I smell geranium…and ylang ylang at the start after knowing the notes list.  But now that I’ve been smelling Strip so closely, it’s become a real kaleidoscope of a scent for me.  Now I smell a boozy not-especially-sweet vanilla atop fresh loose tobacco.  What I originally thought was a nice and likeable powdery amber has become a fascinating floral amber tobacco.

For some inexplicable reason, I’ve been having difficulty with all my ambery orientals lately.  I have a ton of ambers and suddenly they all smell so awfuly musty I can’t wear them.  Histoires de Parfums Ambre 114 is musty.  Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier Ambre Precieux is musty.  Annick Goutal Ambre Fetiche is musty.  Dior Ambre Nuit is musty, musty, musty.  This is driving me crazy and I’m hoping it’s a phase which will pass quickly!  But, thankfully, Agent Provocateur Strip isn’t musty and I’ve been able to wear it, with pleasure.

Agent Provocateur Strip has a decent amount of sillage and its longevity is good, about 6 hours on me.  Since I never saw the ad copy from Agent Provocateur I’ve made up my own image of what this scent is all about.  Strip isn’t some sleazy, overly sweet stripper body spray.  In its first 20 minutes Strip unfolds with citrusy geranium, ylang ylang and boozy vanillic rum.  Once Strip dries down a fresh tobacco accord emerges atop a non-musty and dry woody amber base.  Strip has a wonderful quality of being a bit boozy and a touch sweet yet stays an overall dry fragrance.  Strip is really wonderful.  Sometimes, mostly when I’m smelling it from afar or the next day on my clothes, I smell the powdery amber-patchouli scent I smelled the very first day I opened it from the box.   But most of the time, when it’s freshly applied or when I’m sniffing it up close I smell a dry boozy tobacco-wood-amber scent that is just fantastic.  Agent Provocateur Strip is both cozy and interesting.  Brian done good.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Coming clean with myself

I realized yesterday that I dislike Bond No. 9 Chinatown.  This is after years of thinking I loved it and that it was among Bond’s best offerings.  Oddly, I still think it’s a neat perfume on others, and I still think it’s among Bond’s bests, but on me it reeks of waxy crayons.  I picture red and purple crayons.  Melted.

This got me thinking about all the other perfumes I've professed my love for when in fact I’ve finally admitted to myself I dislike.  The “admittance to myself” is the key point.  I haven’t gone around pretending to like these perfumes for anyone elses' sake but my own.  I talked myself into liking them.  Many for years.  I’m unsure why.  I’m not the type of person who routinely pretends to enjoy perfumes she doesn’t.   I don’t think I’ve ever pretended I like Chanel No. 5 or Apres L’Ondee; because I’ve known from the start I would never wear either.  I also don’t think this is a case of my taste changing over time.  My taste has changed over time.  I’m experiencing a period right now where I dislike almost all of my ambery perfumes; everything ambery smells musty to me.  But this is a sudden change, and I think (hope) it’s temporary.  There are plenty of fragrances I’ve disliked over the years, but these aren’t the ones I forced myself to like, thinking that I truly liked them.

In addition to Chinatown, here are a few more I’m finally admitting I just don’t like:

Guerlain Shalimar.  Oh, I’m sure I’ve said I love Shalimar a hundred times.  I even wrote a post about how great it is on this blog.  But you know what?  I think it smells like vomit.  On me at least.  And I don’t like it. 

Histoires de Parfums Tubereuse 3 L’Animale: is another one I think smells waxy and also fatty.  I hate it.  This is beginning to feel cathartic.

Hermes Caleche:  Caleche’s sharp aldehydes shriek at such a high pitch on me it almost always gives me a headache.   I’ve worn an entire bottle in my lifetime.  No more.

Serge Lutens Chergui:  another one I’ve worn an entire bottle’s worth and sung its praises.  It’s been awhile now since I’ve worn it and there’s a reason for that; it makes me nauseous.  It’s too sweet and contains that honey note I don’t enjoy. 

So there, I’ve done it, I’ve listed five perfumes I’ve forced myself to like for a long time.  But I don’t like them, and I won’t wear them ever again.   Do you have any fragrances which you’ve openly said you liked, perhaps favorably reviewed or worn many times, only to finally admit to yourself that you just don’t like the stuff?

Red Flag

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Colors de Benetton 1987

It's probably unfair to review this one, as the liquid currently sold under the name doesn't much remind me of the original version, a bottle of which I was lucky enough to find at a discount store.  But the old Colors is such a great fragrance, especially for autumn, and so curiously forgotten, that I can't resist.

At one point, Benetton was, along with Esprit, an interesting anomaly at the mall.  The windows of the store popped with primary color in an otherwise boring beige granite landscape, and the ads, early on, were an energetic antidote to the unconscious xenophobia of my midwestern upbringing.  Say what you will about those ads - eventually, they were a logical point of contention for many: they were virtually the only thing in Vogue, short of Naomi Campbell, pointing toward a more diverse cultural color palette.

The clothes never thrilled me much.  I was shopping at thrift stores - looking for that perfect hue of sixties ochre or pea green - diametrical opposites of the bright greens and yellows at Benetton.  And until I found this bottle of Colors recently, I'd forgotten the fragrance myself.  Yet, smelling it now, all kinds of memories come back.  I was surprised it was so familiar, and it occurred to me that many girls I knew back in high school must have worn it, though it had a lot of competition.

That competition, in my neck of the woods, was roughly as follows:  Loulou, Anne Klein, Bijan, Calyx, Camp Beverly Hills, Coco, Beautiful, Creation, Joop, Obsession, Poison, Sung, and Ysatis.

Many of these are still in production, and continue to move the units at breakneck speed, and it could be argued that they've survived so centrally in the marketplace because they were more memorable to begin with.  I don't have the data to support or dispute that, aside from pointing out that Calvin Klein and Givenchy have a bit more corporate muscle than a pint-sized Italian upstart, however daring its approach.  I could also argue that few fragrances could have survived the onslaught, the following year, of the cultural behemoth known as Eternity, which seemed to shift everything - the way women wanted to smell, the way they wanted to come across, the way they wanted to live, etc.   In short, they wanted to live in a fantasy world that looked like the Eternity ad campaign.

But for me Colors has something none of its competition did.  One of the earlier forays into fruity floral, it was piquant in a way you didn't typically find at the fragrance counter.  Those early fruity floral touches were nothing like their modern spawn.  They didn't feel like bubblegum disguised as a fragrance, and they integrated their fruity elements more judiciously - in a way which felt more in keeping with the classical fragrances you were used to.

Colors is a curious medley of these fruitier notes (pineapple, peach), herbal touches, well blended florals (the notes list tuberose and jasmine but I wouldn't have been able to name them without looking), and oriental mainstays (patchouli, civet, oakmoss, opoponax).  You notice the peach and pineapple first, but rather than the syrupy compote you get in the modern fruity floral, Colors presents them more delicately, augmented with sage, vanilla, and the slightest hint of civet.  It's hard to imagine a fruity floral of today with civet, or patchouli which isn't scrubbed clean of anything making it recognizable as such.  A tricky combination, but Colors shows how well it used to be pulled off.  That peachy softness lasts for quite a while before the fragrance descends into its heart of muted vanilla and orange blossom.

Colors is a strong, long lasting fragrance, but a mellow wear.  It's classified as an oriental, not a fruity floral, in fact, and the use of vanilla and orange blossom (both of which I smell right down to the bottom) give it an overall creaminess which comes closer to LouLou and Ysatis than any of its other competitors.  It feels younger than the latter; a little older maybe than the former.  It's miles away from the powerhouses of its time - Poison being a good example - and I wouldn't say it's as strong as many of the louder fragrances currently front and center at the mall.

It was created by Bernard Ellena, who did another little one-time sleeper for Benetton called Tribu.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Chanel 31 Rue Cambon

Chanel calls 31 Rue Cambon a chypre - sans oakmoss - and for a while I couldn't really see it.  The fragrance is rich and gorgeous, for sure, and somewhat old school in character, but it lacks that earthy, vaguely animalic bitterness I associate with the chypre accord.  Many "modern chypres" lack that, leaving me to wonder what exactly a word is worth if, eventually, it can be used to mean practically anything.  I understand that oakmoss is now restricted, but many of the so called chypres on the market these days don't seem to capture the essence of what a chypre is meant to be, oakmoss or no.  31 Rue Cambon seemed much zingier to me than any chypre that came to mind, and while not exactly as far removed from the term as a fragrance like the strawberry-saturated Miss Dior Cherie, it seemed closer to something like Allure (oriental - floral) than, say, Cabochard or Knowing.

Until today.  Recently, a friend found a vintage bottle of Mitsouko in a local antique store.  The Baccarat bottle is the nicest I've ever seen - blockish and curvy in all the right places - and the juice (I believe it's eau de toilette concentration) is a lot deeper than the present formulation, but it dries down to essentially the same thing, and because I've been smelling it a lot lately, and happened to revisit 31 Rue Cambon in the meantime, I saw similarities I hadn't before.

For me, 31 Rue Cambon sits somewhere between the floral vanilla of Allure and the deep golden hues of Mitsouko.  It's a bright fragrance, so shimmering at first, and really for a while, that it was hard for me to classify in any useful way.  Where Mitsouko is somewhat like sunshine through a pane of amber glass, 31 Rue Cambon is like sunlight hitting the beige upholstery of a sublimely cosy couch.  It's well blended, and more than anything it simply smells like "Chanel" to me.  That's part of its draw for me - its ability to evoke a world and a sensibility you can see and feel but can't pin on any one thing in that universe.  I don't get specific florals, or woods, or the bergamot I'm sure must be there.  I get "Chanel" - and unfortunately I can't tell you exactly what that is.  Pyramids are useful where words fail, I guess, and I could tell you what is said to be in 31 Rue Cambon - pepper, floral notes, chypre accords, iris - but the fragrance is more about associations to me.

It's as if the brief for 31 Rue Cambon were simply "Elegance".  I love many Chanel fragrances - particularly Cuir de Russie, No. 19, No. 22, Coco, and Coromandel - but none, not even the house's most iconic scent, No. 5, really seems to conjure the spirit of the woman behind the house and all the legends and details that coalesce in her biographies in any comprehensive way.  It's fitting that 31 Rue Cambon is named after Coco Chanel's famous address, at which were constellated her apartment, her design studio, her workshops, and the line's haute couture salon and boutique.  All the other Chanel fragrances pinpoint for me one or two aspects of the Chanel persona and mythology, but 31 Rue Cambon seems to take in the whole legend, playing out on the skin like a greatest hits anthology.

Which isn't to say it lacks focus.  31 is in fact an incredible distillation of a pretty complicated series of impressions about Chanel, the house and the woman, apocryphal and otherwise, and it might be best to think of it like one of the iconic photos depicting Chanel sitting in one of the address's rooms, her stare and her surroundings inviting projections about luxury, beauty, and the past.  31 lasts reasonably well, though it drifts sooner than later into a soft, powdery, floral melange, and rides things out from there, fading like a memory.

The photo above was taken on the set of the film made by Karl Lagerfeld in Chanel's former apartment at 31 Rue Cambon, and feels to me like the fragrance, a reconstruction based on iconic motifs, shapes, colors and silhouettes.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Perry Ellis for Men

When I was in my teens, Perry Ellis - the brand as well as the designer, the two of which were inseparable in my mind - represented something unique culturally.  While not openly gay, Ellis and his sensibility felt that way to me.  Something about him set my radar off; maybe the way he concluded each of his shows by skipping down the runway.  You didn't see Oscar de la Renta skipping.  Even ruffled Ralph Lauren kept his catwalk appearances to a stroll.  Ellis was boyish and good looking and had an aura of charming, all-American insouciance about him.  He wore his hair long and looked like something between hippy and private school graduate.  He was preppier than Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, whose images seemed forced compared to his, and he conveyed a sense of warmth, good humor, and accessibility their personas and clothing lines didn't quite express.

In fact, Ellis was a shrewd businessman, with a masters in retailing.  There was no one like him in fashion or in the media, and his clothes, first for women, then for men, were meticulously thought out iterations of relaxed, unstudied comfort.  He knew the industry inside out, having started as a buyer and a retailer.  And in contrast to his carefree, candid social demeanor, he led a scrupulously invisible private life, well outside the consumer's eye.  His death from AIDS in 1986, at the height of his fame (and success), came as a shock which contrasted deeply against his public image.  He was one of the first quasi-celebrities to die of the disease, at a time when much fear and hysteria surrounded the epidemic, and that fear and hysteria cast a pall over his memory.  Compared to the omnipresence of his brand and his image at the time of his death, he's all but forgotten as a personality now.

But I remember him, and the feeling that seeing him in print gave me, and I remember his first fragrance for men, which remains something of a classic for me.  That fragrance, called simply Perry Ellis, might have done much better commercially, had it not been released in 1985, the year before he died.  Like the death of Rock Hudson, the death of Perry Ellis was not perceived just as a shock among the buying public but as a betrayal, signifying deceit.  It destroyed the myth implicit in the Perry Ellis image, suggesting a host of things that contrasted sharply and darkly with the all-American persona which had generated around the man.

It probably didn't help that Perry Ellis for men also contrasted with Perry's public image and complicated the casual, unstudied-seeming elegance of his clothing line.  It was darker and moodier and a bit more secretive than might have been expected.  Had it been more in line with Perry Ellis for women, a bright, somewhat crisp floral aldehyde released the same year, it might have persisted a bit longer in the marketplace, but I doubt it.  The damage to the Perry Ellis public image was too extensive and complete, the fragrance too palpably at odds with the line's sensibility, too well aligned with the sense of shrouded contradictions and finality surrounding Perry's death.

At the same time, Perry Ellis for men is emblematic of the masculines which were its peers.  It fits within the trajectory of potent, aromatic fragrances such as Grey Flannel (1975), Polo (1978), Lagerfeld (1978), and Oscar Pour Lui (1980), to name only several iconic scents roughly from that era.  Classified as a leather, it has dark chypre qualities as well.  The oakmoss in Perry Ellis is deeply submerged within a carnation note, which is startlingly robust upon application.  Galbanum lends the proceedings a burnished herbal effect.  No spices are listed but they're felt, and it's doubtful this is just the clove influence of carnation.  The fragrance feels peppery for much of its duration.  Vanilla, rose, and a leather accord round everything out.  Perry Ellis is unquestionably a leather composition, and one of the more interesting leathers of that time, I think, in that it walks various fine lines between floral and spice, leather and moss.

An anniversary edition of the fragrance was released within the last several years.  While it's perfectly nice, and generally in keeping with the original, it's a slightly different fragrance, essentially more synthetic, its rough edges less contoured to balance out the composition properly.  It feels like the work of a less seasoned perfumer faced with economic and artistic constraints his experience doesn't endow his imagination to handle effectively and resourcefully.  I found an older tester bottle in a discount shop in town, and prefer it.  The newer Perry Ellis shouts a bit more and gets what it has to say off its chest pretty quickly, after which it shrinks.  The older version goes on much more richly and, though it dries down fairly quietly as well, maintains its deep, enigmatic tone throughout.

Perry Ellis for men feels emblematic of the designer's secret life to me as well, so there's something melancholy and irreconcilable in it, a quality I appreciate on a fall day, when happy thoughts go hand in hand with more troubling ideas.  The brand has released many fragrances since, but all have been much more careful to correspond to the public image of the label, and they lack the drama and the undisclosed mysteries of this earlier scent.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tabu: Things Don't Happen the Way They Used To

I don't imagine the Tabu you get at your local drugstore is anything but a remote facsimile of the original.  And how could you expect it to be - at roughly fifteen dollars?  I suspect Tabu was once something closer in spirit to Muscs Kublai Kahn by Serge Lutens, and in fact when I smell many of the Lutens fragrances I'm reminded of the way I've heard vintage Tabu described.  I think of Francis Kurkdjian's wonderfully strange and smoky Absolue Pour le Soir, a raunchier Chanel Coco, Le Labo's Patchouli 24.  The current version of Tabu is a much paler cousin of these, but I like it the way I like other simple things that don't cost me too much, with a peculiar kind of affection I wouldn't afford it at a steeper price.

Though Tabu's creator, perfumer Jean Carles, was known for doing much with little - and by little I mean cheaply, because from all accounts Tabu had everything but the kitchen sink in it - he was like many great perfumers a master of finding the right combination, the most radical alchemy, of these various ingredients, and what's missing from the modern formulation of Tabu, aside from high quality materials, is that careful alchemy.  Many of the things which made Tabu striking in its original form are still essentially there - the patchouli (and how), amber, resins, spices - but much more crudely combined and calibrated.  And the ingredients most crucial to its scandalous appeal - natural musks and civet - have been replaced with synthetic alternatives and their dosages diminished for the tastes of the modern consumer.

Talk to anyone who remembers early Tabu and they will tell you that a certain kind of woman wore it and was known for wearing it.  Tabu was truly, at one time, the kind of perfume synonymous with, if not easy virtue and illicit behavior, then a certain regard for pleasure and candor.  Recently I talked to a woman about the perfumes the women in her family once wore, and they broke down into pretty broad, easily identifiable categories.  Her aunts wore Youth Dew, Marie Becker body cream, White Shoulders, and Tabu.  A floral, White Shoulders is really the far opposite of oriental Tabu, suggesting a traditionally femme respectability.  Tabu, in this woman's family, was shorthand for recklessness and maybe carefully judged abandon, at a time when female abandon necessarily courted disrepute.  Tabu was, it seems, the scent an animal gives off to the opposite sex, indicating anything from availability to the need for caution.  Rumor has it that the brief Carles was given for Tabu instructed him to create "a fragrance for a whore."  Copy for one of the ads (pictured above) called it "the forbidden fragrance".

Tabu was released in 1932 and was said to contain citrus, spices (of these, predominantly clove), jasmine, narcissus, rose, ylang-ylang, amber, resins, civet, sandalwood, and patchouli.  Rest assured it contained that and much more.  But that was the picture painted for the consumer, who probably only needed to hear patchouli, civet, and spices to ascertain the fragrance's carnal agenda.  This particular cocktail would have heated up nicely as the skin did, meaning that ardor could be expected to generate something like a feral frame of mind.  Today's tamer version still has sensual, if not sexual, warmth, but virtues and sexual mores have shifted and expanded and are more elastically defined now - more often than not the average consumer has seen if not done it all - so it's difficult, based on drugstore Tabu and our contemporary climate, to imagine the kind of scandal the perfume once implied.

I've found eau de cologne versions most regularly, but did find an edt not too long ago.  These formulations smelled similar, but I prefer the cologne.  It lasts as long and doesn't feel quite so polite.  I want to get as much roar as I can out of this aged beast, and the cologne is, for me, slightly more ragged and robust.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Leather Fruit: CK One Shock for Him

The most shocking thing about CK One Shock is how good it is, compared to how mediocre it should have been.  What of note has Calvin Klein done in the last several years?  Secret Obsession, Beauty, and any number of interchangeable flankers have been disappointments - even the pleasures of Euphoria were pale in comparison to the brand's great fragrances of the eighties and nineties.  Obsession, Escape, Eternity, and CK One, however repugnant to some, were distinctive enough to warrant strong opinion, and each seemed to encapsulate its era through a radical marriage of scent and sensibility.

There have been many seasonal Ck One successors, none of which I paid much attention to.  By now, these iterations are so far removed from the original that they have nothing to do with it, and Shock, particularly, has more to do with other lines and other trends in perfumery than it has to do with the original CK One.  In that sense, it can be viewed as redundant, but Shock coalesces these trends in such subtly surprising ways that, for me, it transcends its influences, and feels altogether new.

It borrows much from Bulgari Black, Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight in Paris, Paco Rabanne One Million, and Jean Paul Gaultier Le Male, to name only several, but it doesn't read like a compendium; nor does it feel derivative.  It has some of Black's strange rubbery facets, making much more of them than the lackluster Givenchy Play Intense did.  It has shades of the fruity spice undertones overdone in One Million, subtle black tea hints from Black and Midnight in Paris, the tension between sweet and tart played out at maximum volume in Le Male.  It is strong but subdued, feeling much more like a niche release than a mainstream mall fixture.  At times during its development it reminds me of Santa Maria Novella's wonderful Nostalgia, part asphalt steam and the friction of tire against road, part floral, part fruit and spice and leather gloves.

The notes are laughably inventive.  It's described as an oriental with mandarin, cucumber, Red Bull accord, pepper, cardamom, tobacco, ambrene, musk, and patchouli.  I've also heard: black basil.  Of these, I can identify nothing definitively but the tobacco, which is where the fragrance ultimately comes to rest, in a wonderfully soft, powdery sweet melange of cigar stub and sugared rubber.  This dry down is wonderful, but the real moment of distinction in Shock, where it earns its name, is upon application.

The combination on skin isn't something I've smelled before - not quite.  It's as if Shock reassembled familiar motifs, changing the chemistry of their individual properties through skillful, well calibrated combination.  I get spices and leather, a wonderful balance between opposites.  This isn't the effervescence of a citrus but the succulence of something like a peach or a ripe mango.  Mind you, I don't smell either of those fruits in the mix.  Just their quality of succulence, and it's perfectly tempered and muted by a phantom sense of florals which apparently don't exist here.  I smell the ghost of jasmine, personally; probably an illusion created by the mellow alliance of leather, spice, tobacco, and musk.

I would never mistake this for a feminine, and in fact it seems less commercially unisex to me than Bulgari Black.  It announces itself pretty emphatically as a masculine, and yet in overall effect it isn't quite like any masculine I know, however many fragrances of the category it recalls or references.  Ultimately this is what makes it most literally and refreshingly unisex to me.  As on a man, on a woman it would seem familiar but distinctive, the smell of her leather gloves mingling with her perfume and the events she's just experienced out on the road.  It feels unisex, in other words, in a way which isn't marketable, which is probably why there is a feminine counterpart on the other side of the store.

Once it arrives at its tobacco base, Shock goes on indefinitely.  It has minimal but decent projection.  It is just odd enough, and I would love to see more mainstream releases achieve this kind of delicate alchemy.  The ad campaign and the design of the bottle demonstrate how entirely accidental this accomplishment of novelty is, referencing not the moment but some moment past, drunk on the look of a Stephen Sprouse ensemble from the mid eighties.