Friday, December 27, 2013

Best of 2013: Perfume and Otherwise

2013 was eventful for me - a little more eventful than I tend to like - and it had less to do with perfume than I'd prefer. Still, there were highlights. Precious few, but they peppered the disappointments enough to keep me engaged, if barely.

- In November, Andy Tauer and I released the third fragrance in our ongoing collaboration between the characters and stories of the Woman's Picture film series and the line of companion fragrances we created, Tableau de Parfums. It was a summation for us of what we've done the last several years, and an anniversary in many ways - celebrating a creative partnership, a cycle of stories, and a love of perfume and film in general. A step forward, too, where we asked ourselves 'What now?' Selfishly, Ingrid is one of my favorite fragrances of 2013 - not just because it's beautiful, rich, and evocative, but because it relates very personally to my own experience and inner life, as the character and story it comes from do. I could pretend to be impartial and leave it off my list - I've done so in the past - but starting this post I realized that every blogger's/lover's list has hidden partialities and priorities, and pretending otherwise is more disingenuous than embracing and declaring those biases. I didn't start this collaboration, nor do I spend so much time working on it, because I wanted to pretend it doesn't matter much to me.

 - The event celebrating Ingrid was shared with author Barbara Herman, whose blog Yesterday's Perfume had long been a favorite of mine and whose book, Scent and Subversion, had just come out. It was wonderful to meet Herman, after several years corresponding with her online. Even better to discover that the book is as fantastic as I'd hoped. Full of vintage illustrations and informed by Herman's unique voice, witty without being snarky, generous in terms of sharing its influences rather than pretending all perfume knowledge springs forth from a single mind, the book is brain and eye candy, the kind of thing you read and realize you've been wishing for without knowing it. I've read many books on perfume - all of them, I think, at this point. Scent and Subversion is one of my favorites, detailing classic fragrances - high end and low - by decade.

 - Let's face it, 2013 was no peak point, and I doubt very much that any of us will look back from, say, 2016, let alone '14, and regard it as anything like a pivotal moment in time. Rounding up the mainstream releases is a depressing enough proposition (Calvin Klein Downtown, Marc Jacobs Honey, Balenciaga Rosabotanica and L'eau Rose, Polo Red, Versace Eros, Givenchy Gentleman Only, Estee Lauder Modern Muse). Even Thierry Mugler, whose annual variations on Angel, Alien and Womanity I look forward to, was a letdown, recycling old recycling (Liqueur redux). But even the niche offerings were, for me, largely uninspired. I had high hopes for Parfums de Nicolai Rose Oud and Amber Oud, for example, despite their cashing in on a dispiriting trend, but I should have known better. Both are perfectly lovely, but that's about it. I single these out because for the most part Nicolai has represented a certain kind of benchmark for me - I might not like what the house puts out, but it will always be interesting.

 - Mentioning what didn't inspire me much first could be seen as pessimistic, but it seems like a useful reference point in discussing what I did like, because for the most part, most of what I liked in 2013 might not have interested me much in years past, when more was consistently surprising me. Le Labo Ylang 49, for instance, was a favorite this year - but isn't it really very similar to Diane Von Furstenburg and La Perla and too many patch-bomb chypre concoctions past? Tom Ford Sahara Noir continues to please me, and yet considered in an overview extending beyond just the last year it's...frankincense retread, pure and simple, however pleasing. I did very much like Atelier Cologne's Silver Iris and Mistral Patchouli. Both felt simple and fresh and their own somehow, perhaps by not pretending to be the latest, most-est thing. Comme des Garcon's Black and its Bleu Series were very nice - and yet part of their niceness was a sense that however good they were on their own terms, they were first and foremost a welcome return to interesting for the line. Malle's Dries Van Noten, while thrilling to some, seemed a whisper in the wrong direction for me.

 - In the thick of all this, Viktoria Minya's Hedonist was the sincerest of high points. This fragrance was as close as I got to pure happiness and satisfaction in a scent this year. Its honeyed tobacco tones and just right floral underpinnings did what too many other failed to do - it sent my mind off on some kind of narrative journey.

 - Naomi Goodsir's Cuir Velours, similarly, took hold of my imagination in the best possible way. I can't wear this scent without wondering just how it does what it does - to my nose, my mind, the people who smell it on me. Burnt caramel leather isn't something I would have imagined cottoning to, which is exactly the kind of unexpected pleasure the year was mostly short on.

 - I loved Byredo's 1996. Vanilla, iris, patchouli, amber, hitting familiar notes but hitting them harder than I've smelled before, tapping right into my pleasure pulse points. If only I could afford it.

Bloggers participating in this round up of personal 2013 favorites:

Perfume Shrine

Ayala Moriel's Smelly Blog

The Fragrant Man

Olfactoria's Travels

The Candy Perfume Boy

Eyeliner on a Cat


Thanks out to Perfume Shrine for inviting me.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bond No.9: The Good, The Bad, and the Fugly (or, Just What Is It That Makes Today's Bond No.9 So Hit and Miss?)

Is there a more derided niche house than Bond No. 9? I'm tempted to say no. The brand's infamously aggressive tactics - with consumers, with retailers, with critics - have earned it a special place in the hearts and minds of people who write about, talk about, and sniff perfume: first there was criticism, then, more recently, silence. The increasingly outrageous pricing hasn't helped, nor have the endless series of flankers in all but name, a long line of perfumes which share the basic DNA of drugstore shampoo.

It's hard to see, at this point, what's any good, as opposed to what is merely mediocre, in the line. Some tell you it's all mediocre. I'd say a lot of it is. But there are some good, even great, perfumes to be found there. And none of this probably hurts the company anyway, judging by a recent trip to Nordstrom, where even the least interesting Bond fragrances seemed infinitely more compelling than the majority of the department store's increasingly narrowed down inventory.

Here's a list of my highly biased picks for good, bad, and otherwise:

The good...

H.O.T. Always 2003

A just right combination of patchouli, cinnamon, and civet, with the balls out feel of pre reformulation Givenchy Gentleman and Giorgio for Men. Some have commented that you might as well pay a fraction of the price for still-in-production Gentleman or Giorgio, but in my experience they aren't half as rich or satisfying, however superficially similar. H.O.T. Always was composed by Maurice Roucel, as were a number of other earlier Bonds, such as the also good Riverside Drive and New Haarlem, and the fantastic...

Broadway Nite 2003

Probably my pick for favorite, Broadway is, like H.O.T., quintessentially American in its cheeky, verging on overkill attitude. Amber, rose, vanilla and violet create the general outlines of the fragrance. It's a good time gal of a scent, not overly preoccupied with sophistication, if by sophistication you mean something like understatement. Broadway is radiant and strangely succulent, as if all its ingredients were set on impersonating berries they'd only ever actually seen in movies.

Manhattan 2012

Unlike the more recent I Love New York for Holidays, Manhattan feels like something created with this time of year in mind. Too much for some, it seems just right to me. Gingerbread and honeyed chocolate could go very wrong, but something in the mix (jasmine, patchouli, plum?) puts them in check. In my favorite Bond's, there is often a "just so" quality - the sense that with one more minor tweak, everything might have gone horribly awry. There's an audacity to that high wire act that I really like, and Manhattan is one of the only recent Bond's that revives that spirit of risk.

New York Oud 2011

It's on the expensive side, even for Bond, but New York Oud is hands down my favorite oud fragrance, and given that most of them are ridiculously overpriced, even compared to this, Bond's entry is a steal by comparison. When I tell you it's my favorite I imagine you will say to yourself, yeah, but has he smelled...(fill in the blank)? It might be hard for you to imagine this is the favorite of anyone who's smelled all the wonderful offerings that are OUD. So I should tell you I'm pretty sure I've smelled most of these now, and while some impress me, and some have even persuaded me to the point of purchase, none come close to New York Oud in my affections. Having worn it for over a year, I can also tell you I think it's worth every penny in terms of projection, tenacity, and likability. To say it's nothing more than rose, oud (or what, more likely, passes for it in most of these scents), and patchouli is like saying A sunset is basically the sun and the sky. Bond No.9 Signature is very similar in certain respects but not nearly as fantastic.

Runners up: Chinatown, Nuits de Noho, Saks Fifth Avenue for Her, Bleecker Street, Great Jones, Fire Island, and the now discontinued Andy Warhol.

The bad...

Cooper Square 2010

There are worse things, even at this price, but Cooper Square gives them a run for their money in terms of disappointment. A pronounced juniper note never really goes away - not a bad thing in itself, but everything just feels at odds in this fragrance for me, and bombastic juniper, devoid of mediating skills, struggles to keep the peace by drowning all else out. It feels like every masculine known to man, just in case whoever comes to pick it up from the airport might mistake it for anything else and leave it stranded with its considerable baggage.

Madison Soiree 2003

A dead ringer for the milky chypre Madame Rochas, for a time, Soiree is the life of the party for all of five minutes, before it buttons down and sulks into its overcoat on a low chair in the very far corner of the room, a very sour look on its face.

Fashion Avenue 2003

Great, if you could wash your hair with it, and you lived on a planet where 3 ounces of shampoo at this price made anything close to sense. Fashion Avenue is one of too many shampoo Bond's to count. Count them yourself if you like. I get them all confused.

New York Patchouli 2013

Maybe Le Labo can get away with a patchouli scent which is anything but patchouli, but Bond has its reputation working against it, and Le Labo is often at least giving you a new way to think about the note in question. NY Patchouli is part of Bond's more recent line of even higher priced fragrances. A few of these (New York Amber and New York Oud, specifically) are good enough to let pass. New York Patchouli is a sticking point. It's so generic it doesn't even smell like much of a fragrance to speak of.

The fugly...

New York Amber

If not for the price, I would put this under Good. I actually really like this take on Amber, and it has good projection and longevity. At first glance, it was foul. It grew on me until I found myself carrying it around throughout the day. Not that it takes much re-applying. I file Amber under Fugly because for me it represents a downward trend with Bond. To single Bond out for it's over-production and outrageous pricing is a bit disingenuous, as these are industry wide practices. But Bond seems particularly egregious to me. They release far more than they should, too many to keep track of, and escalate their pricing so frequently and seemingly arbitrarily that it strikes me as transparently hostile toward their consumer. Amber is a useful case in point because I believe that, were Bond not conducting itself this way, and actually took the time to focus on a fragrance like Amber properly and realistically, more people would know about it and recognize it as a good, maybe very good, fragrance. Instead, it's lost in the shuffle Bond itself initiated and continues to cultivate.

Montauk 2010 (repackaged in 2013)

Where to begin? I'll not and say we did.

The Scent of Peace for Him (2013)

The Scent of Peace, like Nuits de Noho, is by all accounts a good seller for Bond. When I meet someone who doesn't know much about Bond, they do tend to know about this one, and they want it. Peace for Him, aside from being totally unnecessary (what, for instance, makes the original particularly feminine?), manages to call its predecessor into question, prompting reevaluation. Will the guys buy it? Probably not, but I think their girlfriends will. Something in this fragrance sticks out like a sore thumb, screaming half finished and rushed for rushing's sake.

Washington Square

The ingredients: lavender, powder, and a neon sign that reads My Parents Went to Bond No.9 and All I Got Was This Poor Excuse For a Fragrance.

Runners up: Almost everything else.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fall Playlist

Summer is a real dry spell for me. I can't seem to smell anything, and my skin can't seem to absorb anything fast enough, so I end up wearing a few old reliables, things that will stand their ground against the heat and humidity. Every time Fall rolls around, it's like I'm discovering scent all over again. Everything smells so much...more than it seems to have up until then. Having restricted my diet for months, my own collection suddenly seems like someone else's - everything's new again.

Recently I was in L.A., trying to get excited about things I don't own and hadn't smelled yet. I did find some winners, but precious few. I could rant about the industry and the dearth of originality, but it's slowly dawning on me that my own experience is part of the problem. I've smelled too much at this point. What perfumer, what perfume, can compete with my whorish appetites?

No list can really represent my rotation at any given point. I wear too much to narrow it all down, and I'm not one for favorites, or not for long. I have so much, and like so much, that it's all competing for my affections and interest on a minute to minute basis. But this Fall there were a handful I was more excited than ever to pull back into rotation, or add to my list.

Dior Leather Oud (2010)

Around the time this came out, Abigail sent me a sample. I liked it but didn't think the world of it until about a year later. Maybe the word oud turned me off, which is silly but at the time and even now is probably an unavoidable reaction against such an ubiquitous trend (i.e. a shorthand for nothing new). Leather Oud is exactly the kind of thing I go for - dash of civet, tanned leather, spices, backbone of oud. It lasts like nobody's business, and does what very few fragrances do for me or on me: as it wears down, it melds with my own chemistry, and anyone smelling it or me by then would assume it's simply the way I smell. This probably contributes to its reputation among some as a B.O. scent. My feeling is that if this is what B.O. smells like, I'm all about B.O. Leather Oud joins Eau Noire as a contemporary Dior highlight for me, hitting a spot that nothing else I own can.

Jovan Woman (1976)

It gets no cheaper than this, yet Jovan Woman is one of my favorites. It's a clean, musky smell with great projection and longevity. For the longest time I was anti musk, mainly because I couldn't smell it. Even the allegedly stinkiest musks failed to persist on me. That changed with Parfum d'Empire Musc Tonkin, one of the best things I smelled last year. Jovan Woman has none of Tonkin's feral stealth. But Tonkin opened my mind to musks in general as fragrances which were worth my attention. I like Jovan Man as well, though it has a synthetic edge that puts it firmly in second place. Many I suspect would find Jovan Woman too soapy at the very least, and old fashioned at best. I keep going to it. For whatever reason, it instantly lifts my mood. No one calls this musk. Fragrantica classifies it as an oriental spicy. Maybe I'm imaging things. Maybe it's the supposed nutmeg and coriander that gets me every time. Regardless, I smell it and think "musk".

Le Labo Oud 27 (2009)

I like many a Montale, and as much as I roll my eyes at the mention of Oud, I'm drawn to more than a few practitioners. Oud 27 is for me in a class of its own. I don't know of any oud that smells quite like it, or that gets anything close to the reaction I have spraying this on. I first smelled it on a friend. I walked by her and the smell stopped me in my tracks and forced me into an about face. Like Musc Tonkin it has a decidedly feral bent, and musky underpinnings. Like Leather Oud, it's robust. Think Civet City. But the comparisons stop there. Oud 27 doesn't always last as long as I'd like, but I have no complaints, because while it does stick around it bares its teeth so hard nothing much else can come close.

Charlie Oriental (1988)

Now that Opium is no longer Opium, and Cinnabar is slightly less than it once was, I turn to Charlie Oriental, a short lived oriental which for me arguably smells as good as either ever did. There's a fruity aspect to Charlie Oriental that even the vague peachy facets of Cinnabar don't approach in terms of pushing the right buttons. It adds to the Opium/Cinnabar format a unique juiciness. The jade bottles I bought off Ebay are sticky, their weird rubbery coating gone bad, and application is by mist rather than spray. These are small things but annoying enough to count out a lesser fragrance. Charlie Oriental is rare online but you can find it at fairly affordable prices. I hesitate to mention this, lest the prices go up. But I've never heard anyone talk about this hidden gem and it deserves more attention. No relation whatsoever to the original, iconic Charlie.

Smell Bent Hungry Hungry Hippies (2009?)

I'm a fan of the line and have three or four I'd gladly own, but if I could have only one Smell Bent fragrance (hands down, though closely tied with Prairie Nymph) this would be it. Chocolate, cassis, patchouli, and I have to believe a whole lot of cinnamon, though I don't see it listed. Supposedly, a cannabis component, making this a sort of abstract pot brownie. The stuff is amazing, with so many things I admire going for it: longevity, just the right amount of complexity, projection, tenacity, all presided over by a healthy sense of humor. A bit much for some, probably, but not for anyone I'd expect to have much fun with.

Jean Patou Sublime (1992)

Call it a chypre. Say that the recently re-issued version is a ghost of what it was. I have three bottles of the stuff, from way back when, not so way back when, and just the other day. It's true, to my nose anyway, that it's gotten a little paler, but I'd wear any of those versions, happily. They all last on me, though the most recent version has less of the fragrance's former ambery warmth. To me, Sublime is all about amber and orange blossom, and take any version you like: there's nothing else quite like it. The most common complaint is that there's some kind of hairspray thing going on in there. Never smelled it myself.

Loree Rodkin Gothic II (2013)

Belinda Carlisle, knowing apparently next to nothing about niche fragrance, walks into Scent Bar and after scanning the shelves, sees Gothic II. "Oh, you have Loree Rodkin?" she says, instantly at attention. Loree Rodkin is well known in name dropping circles closed off to me, but among people who love perfume she holds no real sway. In theory, Gothic II is cutting no new ground: amber, patchouli, vanilla, repeat. In practice it's kind of its own ball of wax - or can of worms, depending on your tastes and aversions. After wearing it for a few weeks I decided I would list it, if asked, as Headshop Gourmand. You have to like Nag Champa, and you have to like patchouli. I more than like both, so I've got no complaints. I would fight someone for the last bottle on the shelf.

Slumberhouse Norne (2012)

Vikt competes with this one for my affections. Both persist like nobody's business. Vikt to me is something like licorice oud. Every time I smell it I think, no thanks. Then I spray it on and the whole story changes. I can't get enough. But my soft spot is for Norne, which is, apparently, fir, spice, and incense but might as well simply list fir. That's not an underhanded compliment. For years I wanted the perfect fir fragrance. Many scents featured something "along those lines." Only Norne seemed extracted directly from the sap of the biggest fir tree known to man. Strangely, on me, while not subtle, it's nowhere near bombastic. It's brooding and insular in ways I appreciate, and the closest to a comfort scent something extracted from the bark of a tree could get.

Etat Libre d'Orange Bijou Romantique (2012)

For a while - too long, if you're asking me - bread or rice notes were all the rage in their tiny but tedious way. Maybe they still are, and they're a just tiny enough distraction for me to put out of my head. Great, a rice note. Let's move on, to paper, or computer screen, or bottom of my shoe. Achieving a rice note seems a little like winning fourth place in a cornbread competition to me, so my attention wanes at incoming reports of the latest 'winner'. First place might be the only place that counts when it comes to cornbread. The rest is simply good cornbread, and everyone moves on to the chili. There was a time Etat could do no wrong with me. Then came Like This, which was like, meh, to my nose but won over many people. Then comes the rice note, and I'm thinking of cornbread. I wasn't prepared, in the midst of all this, to think much of Bijou Romantique, and very few people will probably tell you it's the best thing ever, I suspect, in that it reminds of many other scents past. I love it, and when I smell it, all is forgiven. Like Sublime, it's mostly about amber for me, but in a very different way. I've heard people praise the beginning and bemoan the finish. It never disappoints me.

Estee Lauder Private Collection (1973)

I can guarantee you I think that this fragrance will always feel new and important to me - and by that I don't mean to say the weakened version Lauder is now selling but the stockpile I have from several years prior. I will probably always consider this, when forming a list, no matter what season, and will open the box like a well-considered gift sent to me by someone I'd given up on who finally managed to surprise me.

Photo: smelling at Scent Bar, September 2013, snapped by Steven Gontarski

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Packing the Perfect Hunch: Perfume to Go

Almost every day I pack a bag the way a parent might prepare a lunch pail for a student. Theirs are full of baloney. Mine is full of perfume. Sometimes, a perfume from this rotating mobile cabinet carries over into the next day. Occasionally, it carries over into three.

I have a sturdy plastic bag - ironically, about the size and shape of a classic square lunchbox - and in this plastic bag I can fit usually eight to ten fragrances, depending on whether or not I keep them in their boxes. I make sure to include at least three boxed perfumes to give the bag some structure and padding.

On some days, I go without actually wearing any of them. That has to do with how busy I am and whose company I'm keeping. Am I in the presence of a sneezer? (You know the type. You pull out a bottle of perfume, uncap it, and already this guy's squinting his eyes) Do I have any time to spray something on my wrist and go off into a private pocket of space in my imagination? Will I have trouble skipping back and forth across the inside my head/outside my head continuum?

I don't always wear anything at all from the bag but it's rare I don't bring at least a few bottles out at some point to sniff from the atomizers. After having done this for several years now, I've come to understand that I'm essentially curating space, making an abstract to concrete art gallery of my day. Maybe at the beginning of the day you choose those pink pants in your closet because they can be relied on to influence your mood and govern your interactions in reliable, or predictably surprising, ways. Perfume, for me, is a different kind of plan, full of a lot more alchemy. How will this grouping of perfume transform my day? You can SEE the pink pants. What happens when you can't see something which is strongly influencing your mood and the moment?

To that end, I put some amount of time each morning into the selection process. I can't tell you exactly what the thinking is there. Some days, I'm rushed, and I worry, obsessively, that I'm making the wrong choices. Three Guerlains in one bag? What the hell was I thinking? That makes for a pretty myopic afternoon. Too many fruity florals? Feeling a little claustrophobic. Extending the lunch box analogy, I try to make sure all the major food groups are represented, there's some effort toward a healthy, edifying, nutritional balance. But I like the sugar, so I make sure to throw in a good desert.

Is this all just strictly OCD? Maybe. I decided a long time ago not to worry too much about it. If you're washing your hands obsessively, what's the difference, as long as you're not hurting anyone and your skin hasn't started peeling off?

In yesterday's bag, I packed the following. Don't ask me why:

Guerlain Samsara (older bottle, which has a quality approaching licorice)
Gloria Vanderbilt V (cherry almond on the cheap; okay, so it's always pretty cheap, that combo)
Lush Icon (Sassafras incense: Hey can you quiet the God stuff down in here? I'm drinking my tea.)
Mona Di Orio Cuir (suddenly the plastic bag goes leather satchel)
Avon Patterns (woody petrol floral)
Basile edp (spicy rose oriental)
Dana Emir (OMG: Have you tried this? I'm on a mission. Everyone must.)
Montale Black Aoud (Wee! Look at me! I'm on trend.)

When I do carry a fragrance over into double or triple days, it's often because I feel sorry for it. I didn't smell you at all yesterday, buddy. You know what? I'm giving you another day. Tomorrow is your day. Tomorrow it's all about you. Then, like a deadbeat dad I forget it all over again, passing it by for more exciting momentary pleasures. The record so far is Diptyque Jardin Clos, which struggled vainly for attention over the course of an entire week, before I finally removed it, quietly. It's a hard knock life for the calone cabal.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tom Ford Sahara Noir: Just Desert

Leave it to Tom Ford to bring frankincense back to basics.

It isn't just the name of his latest fragrance, which retraces ancient trade routes, pointing farther east than the Catholic church, where westerners seem to have consigned frankincense.

It isn't just the "Noir" part, which turns the lights down on all that far east mystique, reminding us that when we think of other cultures we should probably think dark, which is to say illicit.

It's certainly more than a little to do with the price. At 150 bucks a bottle, 50 ml a pop, Sahara Noir isn't exactly sacrilege. It's more affordable - if only just - than many niche fragrances its size. But it's not so comparable to most of what it will sit alongside at the mall. As always, Mr. Ford is determined to up the aspirational ante in the mainstream marketplace.

More than anything, it's that gold bottle, which reminds you that, yeah, okay, so all that church stuff - all that holy temple hoo-ha - but let's not forget: this is the substance "more valuable than the gift of gold." Before there was a baby Jesus to give it to, Sahara Noir says, there was frankincense. Frankincense is strictly, in Tom Ford world, B.C.

I'm making it sound like I don't think much of Sahara Noir, and if anything, I think it's getting some awfully careful praise, the whole backhanded thing we've fallen into. We're in kind of a backhanded period, I guess. The needle on our bullshit detector flutters wildly at the stinky stuff, detecting it everywhere we point our noses.

Thus, Sahara Noir is "just" a frankincense fragrance - too one dimensional, not enough something else at some point. It's too heavy. It's not heavy enough. It's nice but suffocating. It's led to water but can't be made to drink. It doesn't open the door for you. Granted, Tom Ford probably asks for this and has it all coming.

The incense fragrances we remember introduce a subtle twist. It's tricky, because we want incense, but better than incense, otherwise one incense would be every other incense. I find it hard to imagine our ancient ancestors splitting these hairs. Surely, there were grades high and low, but just as surely it was enough that the stuff was burning, and smelled like the money spent on it.

Not so with the contemporary sniffer. Our favorite incense perfumes see just how far they can go before you consider them something else entirely, so for instance you get Wazamba, by Parfums d'Empire, which throws a faint but uncanny whiff of apple into the mix. Even Tauer's superficially straightforward Incense Extreme has a little inexplicable something to it, a thing you can't quite put your finger on, ever so slightly...tart?

For me, a good incense fragrance merely need be very good to win my praise, if not my utter devotion, so while I roll my eyes closer to God at the silliness that is the Ford persona,  I'm relieved I don't have to picture, let alone see, Tom Ford's ass playing nice with the asses of others in a communal shower, and I really like Sahara Noir.

My favorite frankincense is the discontinued Norma Kamali Incense. Nary a twist to that one. Norma Kamali is full frontal brute force. You understand, smelling it, why frankincense was used to mask the smell of decay after death, and how it could do this while pleasing rather than offending the powers that be in the afterlife.

Sahara Noir isn't nearly as heavy as I was led to believe - though I admit nothing ever is - but it has a quality I don't remember smelling in anything else, not even in the standard bearing Incense Series from Comme des Garcons, and it's an interesting counterpart to Norma Kamali's Incense, a basic frankincense fragrance which is good enough at being good to get away with not being the best thing ever in the history of all things historically documented. It takes the Norma Kamali approach, straight on, with addition of bottom line wearability.

Somehow, it's got a very open aired feel to it - not the open air of the cavernous temple but of the great outdoors. I'll even go with "desert", which might make it seem smarter than it is. I guess I'm trying to say that while this will be nothing new to the demographic whose mystique it mines, it's something a society lady like Barbara Hutton would consider correspondent to her waspy misunderstandings about the great Other out there, the Other she would view from behind the safety of her car window and consider herself sufficiently immersed. There's a slight sense of safe remove to Sahara Noir - but isn't that true of all mainstream fragrances? And we are nothing if not aspirational in our tastes, so we're more likely, as a whole, to follow Hutton's lead than the source.

Sahara Noir isn't a refreshing fragrance if you expect it to be something unlike anything ever done before. But it's certainly not being done much in the mainstream sectors of society. I appreciate that, and I appreciate the fact that it smells wonderful, lasts well, and takes pains not to insult my intelligence the way so many high priced "luxury items" do. For the record, I like it as well if not better than anything in the CDG Incense Series. It won't surpass Wazamba for me, but I don't need it to.

The notes list honey, jasmine, rose, and papyrus, none of which I smell even the slightest suggestion of. I do smell the cinnamon, which is twist enough for me. Like Ford's other mainstream bids, Black Orchid, White Patchouli, and Violet Blonde, Sahara Noir wears with presence.

(Pictured: Poor Little Rich Girl Barbara Hutton, doing as the Romans do, in Tangiers)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Le Labo Ylang 49

There's a unifying thread in the some of the work perfumer Frank Voelkl has done for Le Labo, but you'd have to consult another blogger to tell you in any kind of useful way what that is. All I can say is that I smell something in Iris 39 and Santal 33 that seems very much present in Ylang 49, which isn't much help. For lack of a better way to put it, I'll call it a certain kind of damp rooty tenacity, and if you feel Santal or Iris dig a little too deep, you might not cotton to Ylang.

Me, I like it plenty. Like everything else Le Labo produces, Ylang is loosely titled, and a novitiate to the brand might approach it with one presiding question: What ylang? The bigger question for me has to do with categorization in general. Is Ylang 49 aptly classified as a chypre? Seasoned vets have been remarking on the patchouli, the jasmine - but, especially, the oakmoss. I can't identify the latter any more than the ylang. That isn't a problem for me, as ultimately I'm perfectly happy with a fragrance I love, no matter what it's being called or is said to contain, but it does beg a few questions, and the disconnect fits right in with Le Labo's particular way with misrepresentation.

If you do smell the oakmoss, you'll be right on board with those calling this a chypre. Ylang 49 is being praised as a new kind of New Chypre - one that actually warrants the label. We're in a period of perfumery where almost anything can be called a chypre - and is. As in the film industry, where audience pre-awareness is crucial to the success of a new release, so in perfumery. Chypre is something of a franchise, and a franchise is an easier sell than many other things Ylang might be called.

As restrictions on oakmoss make chypres as we know them things of the past, a companion hunger for them metastasizes in those of us who hate to see them, and all their companion memories, go. The word chypre means something to a lot of people; never mind that, as we move farther and farther away from its original definition, it means less and less what it once did. There's every reason in the world for the perfume industry to make the category elastic, not least of which is capitalizing on the nostalgia generated by it being technically obsolete, but for me it's quite a stretch to apply it to Ylang 49, and replacing one memory with another isn't exactly what I'm after when seeking to preserve the past.

Ylang reminds me very much of Elie Saab, a favorite from a few years back. When I first sprayed it, I was amazed no one has compared them. Maybe it's early, or I'm imagining the similarity. If Le Labo's prices are a bit too aspirational for you, I suggest checking out Saab, which is also aspirational, but isn't quite the niche bracket either. I also see similarities to the much more affordable by far La Perla.

Like Saab and La Perla (which is, loosely, a rose chypre), Ylang has something that speaks back to vintage perfumery, which is to say pre-right now perfumery, right now being a fairly feeble, wan moment overall. Ylang has waft, presence, persistence, and richness. Any one of these qualities puts it ahead of the majority of its peers. It's a fragrance you put on to remind yourself why you love fragrance, as opposed to the very popular contemporary style of fragrance, crowding the shelves at the mall, which reminds you that not everyone does.

I agree with those who say that Ylang is simultaneously "there"and not there. It isn't anywhere close to sheer. It isn't anything remotely like a skin scent. You know at all times that you're wearing it, and I suppose others might too. And yet despite its intoxicating qualities, which amount to a kind of heady hothouse feel, it isn't bombastic. In this way, it's more contemporary than vintage. The patchouli, which is not so much a clean patch as a patch of the past, is unmistakable, which is either going to be a selling point or a death warrant, depending on your tastes (or aversions).

Ylang 49 is right up there with my favorite Le Labo fragrances, which include Aldehyde 44, Iris 39, Oud 27, Patchouli 24 (original), and Santal 33. It seems unisex to me, but I wear Poison, so I advise asking someone else.

(Photo:Nina Leen)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Luxe Patchouli EDT: Comme des Garcons

Several years ago, traveling back from a film festival in Greece, a good third of a full bottle of Luxe Patchouli leaked out into my carry-on, much to the displeasure of the man whose seat adjoined mine. He liked me even less when some of it - or a lot of it, if we go by him - got on my hands. I'd loved Luxe Patchouli from moment one, and finally splurged on a bottle. It was my first international festival and my first film and these seemed like suitable justifications, in case my guilt had plans to put me on trial. I knew Luxe was strong, that it might not be to everyone's taste, but it wasn't until that seemingly endless plane trip that I realized just exactly how...singular the fragrance is.

I have a soft spot for the curry-steeped-in-maple-syrup qualities of fenugreek, which makes Luxe Patchouli a real bonanza for me. Patchouli haters will assure you it is aptly named, but I consider it more of a fenugreek scent than a patchouli proper. Add some pepper, woods, and a little vanilla, and you have something somewhere between edible and earthy. This is a polarizing scent, and consider this: Some of them still should be. I find it extraordinarily nice, but others might recoil. While I'm not arguing for more recoil in modern perfumery, I don't think strong, passionate feelings for or against should be as much a thing of the past as they seem to be threatening to become.

Unfamiliar with fenugreek? Here's author Steffen Arctander's take on it, quoted from Glass Petal Smoke:

"The characteristic odor of fenugreek extract is a celery-like spiciness, a coumarinic-balsamic sweetness, and an intense, almost sickeningly strong, lovage-like or opopanax-note of extreme tenacity. The diffusive power of the odor of this material is usually underestimated by far."

That gives you an idea why the guy next to me was crying.

This description would scare off many, even though wearing Luxe Patchouli doesn't require spilling it all over yourself and can be used just as wonderfully in small doses as large. The price didn't help the scent's reputation, either, and it has gone practically unremarked. The eau de parfum version is (still) pricey at over 200 dollars for 45 ounces, so I've worn mine sparingly, which is to say rarely. In perfume years, the fragrance came out close to a century ago, way back in 2007.

Now, six years later, Comme des Garcons, who have been on an upswing creatively of late, have released both Luxe Patchouli and its companion fragrance, Luxe Champaca, in eau de toilette versions. At over 100 bucks for 100 ml, the fragrances are still arguably cost prohibitive, but compared to the originals they seem practically free.

I was worried that the EDT version of Luxe Patchouli would be - I don't know - 'effervescent'? Tastes since 2007 have nudged then shoved patchouli away from its dread grunge origins, making it ever cleaner, smoother, creamier, and otherwise unrecognizable and unremarkable. I think I've actually yawned once or twice smelling some of these contemporary interpretations. Comme des Garcon hasn't always followed trends, and isn't afraid of a fragrance that frightens the horses, but in the recent past they've veered toward tepid if not exactly tame. It's all been a little airy for me. Was there a "modernization" effort involved in the edt? A re-orchestration?

I'm more relieved than someone probably should be over something like this to say that the edt version of Luxe Patchouli is a.) practically identical in smell to the edp, b.) in other words not at all light, and c.) money well spent. It lasts as long, as far as I can tell, if not quite as long, and would have gotten me as much grumpiness on a flight from Greece as I've grown accustomed to. If I notice one difference - if I'm splitting hairs - it's that the fenugreek and patchouli give way in the far dry down to a marked hint of vetiver I don't remember from the EDP. But that's if I squint, and the trade-off is that the opening is lightened just enough that everything I've always loved about the scent rings out more clearly. Let's hope this and Black are signs of things to come from Comme des Garcons, rather than momentary aberrations.

All that said, a note about packaging. Really, Comme des Garcons? Two boxes of the same size, joined at the hip, one empty, one full?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Dressing the Part: What a Dandy Wears

When I first heard about my friend's twin brothers and their obsession with dressing themselves like something out of a Bond film, I asked her whether they wear cologne. I couldn't imagine spending that much thought and time crafting a public persona without scent being a crucial component of your wardrobe.

She said she wasn't sure, so before I headed over to film them, I packed up some of the cologne on hand I thought I might be able to convince them to wear - Hermes Terre d'Hermes, Gucci Pour Homme (2003, natch), Gucci Envy, and Divine L'etre Aime Homme.

There was so much I wanted to bring but doubted I'd get them to try. What could be better for a self-professed, pink-panted dandy than Penhaligon's Sartorial, Caron's Third Man, Yves Saint Laurent's Rive Gauche Pour Homme, or any number of classic man of discerning taste fragrances that come to mind? I'm not about to throw a bottle of Amouage Gold at just anybody.

My subjects, clearly, aren't just anybody. A lot of eighteen year-old guys are obsessed with the way they look. A lot of them spend much of their time and money on clothes. I don't think I've ever met a guy their age whose sartorial interests reference Marshall and Parker's primary influences, let alone one who shares their disregard for the kind of gender inhibitions that keep most men far away from the color pink. It's just as rare in my experience to meet someone their age who isn't afraid to take something seriously and wear it on his sleeve. Fingers crossed they get the scent bug, too. Nothing makes me happier than the thought of someone their age dressed as well as they do, wafting around on the scent of good cologne.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hedonist by Viktoria Minya: What's in a Word

It's been interesting, as early reviews of Hedonist have come in, to see what people make of the word. I had no idea it had quite the reputation it does - you'd think, from some of these reactions, it were a synonym for harlot, trollop, or worse - and I wonder what Viktoria Minya, the perfumer behind the scent, thinks about all this, because to my nose the fragrance is more in keeping with the actual definition of hedonist than with these apparently somewhat popular connotations, and I imagine she must have been thinking of the bigger picture too.

Strictly speaking, hedonism has to do with the pursuit of pleasure - as in, first and foremost - which would make a hedonist, I guess, on the one hand a pleasure seeker and on the other averse to anything which veers in the opposite direction. Nothing in that definition privileges carnal pleasure, though the physical would obviously be included in any bullet list of what floats the boat. That bullet list might also include fine cuisine, silk clothing, spring days, comfortable furniture, and feathers, depending on your taste. It probably wouldn't include okra. Regardless, Hedonist doesn't make any effort to claim one pleasure at the expense of others - and when I smell the perfume it's far more expansive in tone than the "merely" sexual, if those two words can be used together.

Minya, who is based in Paris, has mentioned in the literature for Hedonist that it harkens back to classic perfumery, and it does feel classical, even grand. There's a retrospective quality to the fragrance that nods back to early twentieth century perfumery, certainly - but again, I think the scent sees a bigger picture in its references as well. Some reviewers have compared its wonderful peachy facets to Mitsouko (a reference point I can get behind, as long as I'm not stuck there). For me, one of the fragrance's biggest bonuses, not to mention pleasant surprises - and there are many - is how strongly it relates to some of my favorite eighties fragrances.

That's where some of you will stop reading, I suspect, whereas some will now have perked right up. Hedonist certainly has the iconic sensual boldness that characterizes some of my favorites from that era - Poison, say, or Diva - but without their take no prisoners bombast. I see an 80's connection, I guess, mainly because that decade was the last great period for this kind of sumptuousness, a time when a fragrance was meant to be smelled rather than merely perceived, to register not as a whisper but as a declaration - of elegance, of personality, of intent. Poison, Diva, Paris, and, say, Giorgio, are the no-brainer 80's benchmarks, but Hedonist reminds me more of lesser known favorites from that era; particularly, a fantastic earlier Krizia fragrance, Moods.

Like Moods, and some of the other 80's fragrances I'm thinking of - the once wonderful Creations by Ted Lapidus, for instance, Houbigant's Demi-Jour, or the reformulated Shocking de Schiaparelli - Hedonist is maximally honeyed. It has a green-tinged vanillic sweetness to it I remember from Moods as well. It's a fully saturated fragrance but plays off the skin in a very contemporary, radiantly diffusive way. I imagine people will notice its sillage, without feeling victim to it, and in that way, among others, it updates some of its influences.

Honey-faceted fragrances often have a slightly animalic quality to them, to put it diplomatically. While its aura is lush and dramatic, Hedonist has a sweeter, cleaner disposition. I get a tea note, a very nice tobacco storyline going on, orange blossom, and that honey, primarily. It's a fascinating combination, which lasts well and conjures any number of nostalgically pleasurable mental and emotional sensations. One Fragrantica reviewer characterized the overall effect as "really golden...[reminding her of] honey and ambrosia with a glass of Alsatian Gewurztraminer." I've never had gewurztraminer, but I like the sound of all that. Hedonist feels strangely familiar at various points during its lifespan, maybe because in some way it catalyzes little memories of comfort like this. It's familiar the way remembered pleasures can be. The dry down does interesting, even subtly unusual, things with its osmanthus/peach/tobacco combo, opening it up rather than narrowing it down. The fragrance is heady but bright, surrounding rather than suffocating the way fragrances this opulent can tend to do.

I miss some of those eighties honeyed fragrances, so Hedonist has been a welcome surprise. They don't make them much like this anymore. In most ways the perfume landscape, commercially and otherwise, is starting to seem pretty spare and minimalistic, kind of anemic in the pleasures it affords. Hedonist would be a welcome change at half the fragrance it is. Fortunately, its pleasures pay off in dividends. In the few weeks I've been wearing it I've grown to like it more and more, and I keep noticing different things - like, I think, some cedar in the mix, and a presiding creamy warmth I hadn't singled out for a while because I kept focusing on the peach and the tobacco specifically.

Fragrantica calls it a woody chypre. For me, it has more affinities with the floriental. I hope Minya does more but Hedonist already feels like an old favorite, and I'll take a new line with a single fantastic scent over one with ten mediocre fragrances any day. Luckyscent sells the fragrance, which comes in an appropriately luxurious bottle (pictured above) and box. Already, with this perfume, Hedonist has a new connotation for me.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Buying Perfume on Ebay: Things to Keep in Mind

Over the last several years, I've purchased something like 50 bottles of perfume on Ebay.

For the most part, my transactions with sellers have been good experiences: the product I receive is essentially the product I believed was on its way. I'm not an extravagant buyer on Ebay, whatever the number 50 might lead you to believe. I have a policy with myself. I generally have a limit, which happens to be under thirty dollars and often falls below twenty. I also have a bit of an advantage, because while some people go online looking for precious vintage bottles of My Sin or Coty Chypre, I'm more apt to consider a discontinued Avon fragrance like Patterns or Perle Noire a costly treasure. I rarely set my aim too terribly high and even more rarely bid on an item I expect to be surrounded by stiff competition. These things alone minimize my sense of risk.

That said, I know many perfume lovers who avoid Ebay altogether, either because of their own bad experiences or because they've heard horror stories from others. I won't tell you there aren't dishonest people on Ebay, or that you'll never get burned, but there are ways to mitigate those mishaps, and ways to hold duplicitous sellers accountable.

The following are only suggestions, based on my own shopping history. They aren't an endorsement for or against buying on Ebay; however, if you're curious and haven't taken the leap, some of these things are things I wish I'd known when I made my first purchase, and you might find them helpful too.

1. Ask questions...

Don't be afraid to clarify anything you're uncertain about when it comes to a listed item. Has the seller tried the atomizer? Is the item for sale the item pictured in the listing? First read the description thoroughly. Then read it again. If you still have questions, contact the seller directly or post your question under the listing.  The speed with which the sellers answer will tell you something about what to expect from a transaction with them. Their willingness to take the time to answer you thoughtfully and comprehensively will too. Pay attention to your gut about all that. While a prompt and thorough answer doesn't necessarily indicate that shipment will be speedy, it does reflect something about how efficient and serious the seller is. A seller's patience is a good indication that not just this sale but your repeated business is of value.

2. Never assume...

You know the saying. Unfortunately, when assuming on Ebay, only you end up the ass, stuck with something you might have avoided had you read more carefully or asked the right questions. I've made many assumptions, and many of them have cost me, causing either inconvenience or disappointment. First and foremost, don't assume that the seller has listed everything you need to know about the item - let alone that the seller KNOWS things a seller SHOULD when it comes to this or any other item up for sale. Do not assume that the bottle must be a spray, using the logic that if it were a splash this information would be indicated explicitly. Do not assume that vintage means old (see number 3). Do not assume that the seller knows much if anything about perfume (refer to number 1). Do not assume that the photo depicts the actual item up for sale.

3. Vintage doesn't always mean vintage...

Some perfumes can be counted on as vintage simply by virtue of the fact they haven't been manufactured in years. My Sin is going to be vintage (whether it's authentic is another issue entirely, and one of utmost concern when shelling out big bucks). Tabu might or might not be. Do some research - not just with the seller but through sources online. Take Tabu as an example. Vintage is quite a different thing than the stuff they sell now. Sometimes you can distinguish old from new by scrutinizing the packaging. This is where asking questions comes in handy - maybe the bottle pictured is old packaging but the seller isn't using an image of the actual bottle on sale; can the seller tell you what the ingredients list looks like, helping you determine the age? Most sellers won't photograph the back of the box, where not only the ingredients but the manufacturers are listed, but they can tell you what the back says. Some sellers sell regularly, but rarely perfume. These can often be very good deals, but that seller might not know to list certain things that other more perfume-centric sellers would know to be necessary information. As far as they're concerned, they haven't seen a bottle of Tabu in a good two decades, until this bottle they found at an estate sale; therefore, to them, it's vintage, hard to find, rare, and just short of the golden fleece.

4. Check the seller's ratings...

Read the fine print. Great, the seller has overall good ratings. However, most highly rated sellers have disappointed customers now and then, and usually those customers will voice their complaints through negative reviews. A seller with a lot of negative reviews is iffy no matter how you slice it. Most often the complaints have to do with false advertising. Pay attention. Have a policy with yourself. Mine is that only on very rare occasions will I buy from anyone whose rating is below 99.7%. If customers complain that items are received three weeks later, and you're fine with waiting periods, go for it. If they complain often that the perfumes seem to be weak or don't smell as they should, you might want to save your money. Even when a seller has good ratings the complaints are instructive and indicate what to expect. When a high ticket item I really want seems too good a deal to pass up, I will only move forward with the transaction if I believe the seller is reputable. By the same token, if a seller is listing a rare bottle of perfume at far below the average asking price, I will not automatically assume something is fishy (see numbers 2 and 3). I look at the seller's ratings. Most of the real steals for me have come from sellers who are more likely to list fishing tackle than perfume. Every once in a while, they find a vintage bottle of Estee Lauder Youth Dew bath oil. They don't charge a lot for it often, not just because they got it for very little to begin with but because they know they aren't qualified to distinguish its true value, whatever the "going rate", and can't have such a conversation with any kind of confidence or authority. Another thing the ratings will tell you is what kind of character the seller has. I've avoided certain sellers who had pretty decent ratings simply because the way they responded publicly to their customers seemed like a pretty safe indication of their abilities to handle and resolve conflicts. See number 5.

5. Try to resolve conflicts privately...

Most sellers will want to maintain high ratings. They count on the fact that other buyers will read the reviews in order to determine whether doing business with them seems smart or stupid. Sellers who care about their reputation do whatever they can to resolve conflicts harmoniously. When trying to resolve a conflict, first look at whether you in some way contributed to the problem. Did you fail to read all the descriptive information? Did you make assumptions? Fail to ask pertinent questions? I don't blame a seller when I'm at fault for not buying responsibly - which doesn't mean I don't try to resolve the misunderstanding. It simply means I try to be honest with myself about what contributed to the situation. A good, reliable seller will appreciate the opportunity to satisfy the buyer. Handling the conflict through a private exchange allows them to preserve or improve their rating through one on one customer service. Your posting a negative comment publicly before giving them a chance to make things right doesn't tend to breed mutual respect and consideration. Save the Oh No You Didn't attitude for your Maury Povich appearance, even when you suspect you're dealing with a fellow traveller. Keep in mind that some sellers will choose not to SELL to buyers with poor ratings, which means that for every negative rating you leave you might earn one of your own. I have only ever resorted to a public/negative review when I feel I've given the seller the opportunity to respond and the seller continues to deceive, make empty promises, or refuses to resolve things in a way which is fair. I do this not to be mean spirited but because these are things a buyer deserves to know before dealing with a seller - things I'd want to know myself in hopes of avoiding problems. When I do this, I count on the seller responding defensively, so I think carefully about what I will post and how I will respond to what I can expect that seller to say in return. Expect that seller to accuse you of child neglect, so stay focused and avoid personal attacks. Stick to the basics of the transaction and the source or your dissatisfaction.

6. Bid strategically, not systematically...

A big part of successful bidding is the element of surprise. First and foremost, decide how high you're willing to ultimately bid, and commit to that. Avoid impulse bidding by being clear with yourself what the value of the item is to you. When you make that decision, don't immediately enter that number as your high bid mark. Consider this: say I'm bidding against you, and I've decided I'm willing to pay four hundred dollars for the item. Say you're willing to pay 100. Obviously, you'd prefer to pay far less if you can - as close to the opening bid as possible. Entering your high bid of 100 right off the bat or even at anytime during the main portion of the bidding window will result in a few possible scenarios, none of them advantageous to you. Say that I decide I'm going to try to outbid you, and I take my bid up to 95 eventually, then get bored and forget the whole thing. You will be stuck with paying a lot more than you might have, had you bid more strategically. Say, on the other hand, that I feel the competition for this item is stiff: I'm going to watch that auction like a hawk, and you're unlikely to get anything by me.  If you wait until very late to increase your bid, you don't give me much time to outbid you, which means you could not just win but walk away paying less as opposed to more.

Here's what I tend to do. I first determine how long the bidding is open, putting the item on my watch list. If I really want it and intend to win, I wait until the last day to bid at all. People tend to operate by suggestion. If nobody seems to want it, they feel less pressured and sometimes less attracted. Their impulse triggers aren't activated. When I make my initial bid and I am then outbid, I do not immediately raise my maximum bid. I wait until the last forty seconds of the auction, at which point I enter the maximum bid I've decided on, leaving the other unsuspecting bidders very little time to outbid me. When the competition doesn't seem to be anywhere near fierce, people aren't likely to bid extravagantly. Like you they want to get away with paying as little as possible. If only one other person has bid during the auction before them, and no one bids after, they feel confident and aren't as likely to raise their maximum bid to what they're really willing to pay "if it comes to that". There seems no reason to. If you alert them of the competition too early, they are more likely to enter their maximum bid much higher, and at the last minute, when you try to outbid them, you will keep hitting the wall of their maximum bid, losing to them ultimately.

You can still be outbid this way - I've lost two out of ten items regardless of this strategy. However, I believe it would have been more otherwise. More than anything, relax. You win and you lose. It's fun to approach an Ebay auction with a poker face and a strategy, as long as you can take losing in the spirit of fair play. If you're the kind who gets your panties in a wad with the least provocation, trying to outsmart an auction opponent - which is just as likely to fail as succeed when all is said and done - probably is too big of game for the weapons in your holster. You probably want to save your competitive streak for boardgames with people who are used to your temper and will react predictably and reassuringly to your little pistol.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Youth Dew Gets A(nother) Face Lift

Recently, I've been exchanging emails with Elena over at Perfume Shrine about a series of mysteries revolving around Youth Dew and its somewhat unknown related iterations, all of which were released during a little blip on the Lauder screen in the mid seventies. It's been fun playing detectives - the fragrances have come and gone, so it's all harmless mystery. Things get a little more serious, I learned, when a more established fragrance is forced into what is considered by its die hard fans a weird sort of early retirement. I'm speaking of the latest Youth Dew reformulation, but I'll get to that.

In 1977, Estee Lauder released Soft Youth Dew, a flanker to her flagship fragrance. At least, I think she did. Pick a day, any day, and run a search on Ebay for Soft Youth Dew. All you're ever likely to find are half ounce gift with purchase bottles. It's almost as if the fragrance was put on a giveaway trial run and quickly considered ill-advised, without ever actually being put on sale. Stranger still, when I did find something other than a half ounce bottle of Soft Youth Dew, it was a vintage tester bottle. The juice in that tester bottle smells very little like the Soft Youth Dew contained in the half ounce bottles, several of which I've smelled. It's much closer to Youth Dew proper, with a hand extending firmly toward Cinnabar.

Cinnabar was released a year after Soft Youth Dew, and the bottle it comes in hasn't changed much over the years. What has changed is the cap, and the name. Soon after the appearance of Soft Youth Dew, Cinnabar was introduced under the title "Cinnabar, Soft Youth Dew Fragrance". The cap for the earliest spray bottles of Cinnabar is identical, except in color, to the cap on my Soft Youth Dew tester bottle. Viewing these together was the first time I'd thought about a direct, explicit connection between Youth Dew and Cinnabar. When you remove Cinnabar's cap, you see that the bottle looks very much like the original bath oil and cologne flacons for Youth Dew. Many people have commented on a connection between the fragrances, but that has always been a perceived connection, based on ingredients and standards of classification. Those earliest bottles for Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar, as well as the commingling of their names, makes their intrinsic connection crystal clear.

Also clear: Lauder had no apparent problem with a connection being made. Either way, she would succeed: Cinnabar might, on the one hand, trade on the success and lineage of Youth Dew; on the other, it might break new ground as something quite different, for those who didn't really fancy Youth Dew much. Soft Youth Dew disappeared. Youth Dew and Cinnabar prevailed, the latter presenting some formidable competition for Opium, a similar oriental released the year before.

Elena pointed out to me the possibility or probability that Lauder and Yves Saint Laurent might have been in competition over the choice of Opium's inro style tasseled bottle. Had Lauder won, the strategy for Cinnabar's marketing might have been different. Opium, of course, won, but Lauder clearly next bested Yves, choosing a name for her oriental which embodied inro without having to shape itself as one. There was a bit of been there done that to Lauder's decision in packaging Cinnabar anyway. For years she'd been presenting solids of her fragrances in decorative compartments one could attach to a dangling chain. Essentially, as Elena pointed out, the inro-themed idea was first hers. Besides which: While Opium was a provocative name, Cinnabar was a richly evocative one, whose associations reverberated in the consumer's imagination, as opposed perhaps to simply scandalizing or titillating it.

Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar/Soft Youth Dew Fragrance weren't the first times an Estee Lauder fragrance appeared and disappeared in short order. Soft Youth Dew competed with Lauder's own trio of fragrances: Pavilion, Celadon, and White Linen, one of which will sound very familiar to you, two of which you've possibly never heard. It wasn't the last time the Youth Dew franchise was openly toyed around with, either: years later, Youth Dew Amber Nude was there, then not.

In between all these up front conceptual tinkerings have been behind closed doors tweaks and adjustments - and not just of Youth Dew but of all the Lauder scents. Almost everyone realizes that Youth Dew has changed at least a little over the years. The animalics it originally contained had long since been removed a year ago or less (or more), when the fragrance changed more than ever before. Until this latest change, Youth Dew die hards remained content(-ish). The juice remained that nice dark balsamic brown. Its oils pooled luxuriantly on the skin. Its smell contained a thousand childhoods, and motherhoods, a menagerie of memories and remembered moods.

Want to see a shit-storm? Visit the Lauder page and peruse the customer reviews for Youth Dew. Notice that around this time last year, the objections began. They haven't stopped since. "This is not my Youth Dew," wrote YouthDewGirl, age 55-64, El Cajon, California. "I do not know what Estee Lauder has done to this fragrance but it is terrible now... Bring the old Youth Dew back again!"

"The new generation will never know what they have missed," according to Mother01, age 55-64, Elkton. "They will try the new version and move on, because it is nothing special now. The original scent was used by four generations of women in my family."

You get the picture. So do they. This litany of objections, as several note in the "reviews", demonstrates how savvy the loyal consumer is. The Lauder lady at the counter will tell them nothing has changed, just as I was told yesterday at the mall, but the longtime Lauder buyer smells rat. In a sense, Elena and I have been, in the last few weeks, enacting our own version of this online commiseration, comparing our impressions and theories about Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar and their relationship to Youth Dew original, testing personal perceptions against those of a peer.

For us, it's innocent sleuthing. To the Youth Dew Loyalist, changes to the formula are a far less entertaining affair. For the Lauder brand, this breach of contract with the consumer is serious business indeed, and if the reviewers honor their word, the company will realize they only thought they knew what a slump in sales truly meant. Reading these reviews I thought, don't mess with loyalty. Then too, I thought that anyone who's ever gotten into an argument with a woman of a certain age should know better than to try to pull the rug out from under one. Tell her you're selling insurance out of Cambodia and need to dip into her pension, maybe, but messing with her fragrance is folly.

Still, I thought, how bad could it be? So I went and smelled it.

I don't think it is bad. In fact, I like it. It's a fine fragrance, better than most, on its own terms. The problem is that Youth Dew can't be separated from its own terms: that's a lesson Lauder might have learned herself with early Cinnabar and Soft Youth Dew, and it's a lesson Tom Ford must have surely learned the hard way with Amber Nude. As the Lauder sales associate told me yesterday, the biggest obstacle for Amber Nude was the fact that no one seemed to be able to figure out it wasn't meant to REPLACE Youth Dew. Thus the constant refrain: What happened to my Youth Dew? Hard to sell a flanker when it sits between the original and its loyalist.

The feelings for and against Youth Dew are strong enough that no side really wants to see something slightly different. Take it or leave it, yes. Six or half a dozen, not so much. "Everything that made Estee Lauder's original fragrance so unforgettable is still here," read the ads for Soft Youth Dew. "It's all just a little s-o-f-t-e-r." Apparently, not soft enough, or too soft altogether when it comes to lovers and haters of the original.

The newest Youth Dew is more leathery to me. It still comes in the Body Satinee, the cream, the dusting powder, the bath oil, the deodorant (head scratcher, that one). All are arguably just as penetrating as Youth Dew's ever been, in any concentration. The oil won't be pooling, but the fragrance sticks around. No more cola colored contents. No more deep, dark, recesses of the earth balsamic structure. It can hardly be said that this Youth Dew is younger, or hipper, less stately than Youth Dews past, so it's hard to believe the changes have been an effort to win new consumers. It's a woody oriental, with less floral decadence than it once, even recently, had. Stealth woody orientals aren't selling like hotcakes, last time I checked.

This version, in fact, reminds me more of an exercise like Amber Nude and Soft Youth Dew than it does a reformulation. In effect, in all but name, a flanker. In some ways it reminds me of the reformulated Magie Noire's relationship to its original. It remains, however dark and oriental, surface bound somehow, lacking that weird vintage resonance. Still, for me, if not for the Lauder website reviewer, it's unmistakably Youth Dew - and latest Youth Dew's version of surface is still far deeper than the majority of contemporary fragrances.

It's interesting to consider what Lauder, still living, might have made of all this - let alone to ponder whether she would have allowed it in the first place. I like to think she learned some kind of lesson with Soft Youth Dew and Cinnabar, though I don't know just what that would be. In truth, her handling of those two related fragrances, however superficially confusing, was done intelligently enough that no existing fragrance was compromised, no established name muddled. It's hard to imagine Estee, who spent so many years building her empire, woman by woman, relationship by relationship, countenancing this kind of maneuver, which amounts to betrayal in the eyes of many of those women. Better to have let Youth Dew die, she might have thought.

Which is exactly what the ladies on Lauder's website are saying.

(Pictured: the changing face of Youth Dew - from Youth Dew to Cinnabar and everywhere in between. Top photo: Cinnabar, Soft Youth Dew Fragrance. Second down: Tester bottle for Soft Youth Dew. Third down: Early bottle for Cinnabar. Fourth down: Early Youth Dew cologne bottle. Fifth down: Magazine ad for Soft Youth Dew. Sixth down: A hybrid Cinnabar/Youth Dew/Soft Youth Dew bottle, with Youth Dew's silhouette, Soft Youth Dew's name, and Cinnabar's branding.)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Rarities: Coty Amaranthe

In 1969, Dina Merrill, until then regarded as a socialite turned model/actress, created a line of cosmetics in association with Coty under the name Amaranthe. Merrill's father was E.F. Hutton (When he talked, people listened). Her mother was cereal heir Marjorie Merriwether Post. During Merrill's childhood, her mother convinced her father to buy out Birds Eye frozen foods. He resisted, thinking frozen foods were a fad with a short shelf life. She insisted, pointing out that shelf life was immaterial when it came to frozen foods, and their fortunes significantly metastasized. Their company eventually became General Foods. You've probably eaten more than a few General Foods products, so you can imagine how wealthy Merrill's family was. Along with that fortune, Merrill inherited her mother's headstrong business sense, making her a logical choice for Coty.

She wasn't simply the name behind Amaranthe, the way Jennfier Lopez and any number of celebrities put their names on beauty products now. Running a company was in her blood. Coty had been bought out by Pfizer in 1963, and was going through the kind of seismic changes representative of the cosmetics industry at large. Those changes required different directions, territory most recently, at the time, epitomized by Revlon. In 1956, Charles Revson had the wisdom to bring Princess Borghese's cosmetics line into his company's portfolio. Borghese was real life Italian royalty and her cosmetics were known in her country as "family secret recipes". My family's secret recipes involve cookies, but the rich roll differently, and the buying public has always been fascinated, to the point of mimicry, with the rich, which might be why cookies cost a fraction of the price on a tube of a royal's lipstick.

Revlon's move wasn't an unmotivated stroke of genius. All of the cosmetics companies were losing ground to Estee Lauder, whose higher price points and limited distribution strategies had changed the playing field. Revlon competed through its Borghese acquisition. Faberge launched the Juliette Marglen division. Max Factor purchased the already established Alexandra de Markoff line. Perfumes and cosmetics had long been endorsed by celebrities, but Lauder was something different, a sort of homespun in-the-know, hands-on magnate - what the British might call a Battle Axe, with flawless make-up on - and the success of her persona forced her competitors to rethink their market profiles - drafting not just endorsements but self styled "creator pioneers".

Dina Merrill wasn't Italian royalty but she was a pretty close stateside approximation, and more than Borghese she touched upon the all-American appeal of Estee Lauder. She supervised the Amaranthe line until the mid -70's, when it folded. In a People magazine article from 1980 she mentioned her frustration with the way department stores allotted floor space to cosmetics companies, calling their practices corrupt. You have to imagine she was referring in a veiled way to Lauder, who, to this day, has the kind of focused presence in department stores that Coty and Revlon can only dream of. While Coty has plenty of celebrity scents represented at the mall, you're just as likely to see its product at Walgreen's, whereas Lauder has, after all these years, maintained its uniquely exclusive, independent counter presence at Macy's and its ilk (not just through Lauder proper but through Clinique, another kind of main street apothecary-in-the-mall brainchild). Lauder had taken the model of the door to door Avon saleswoman - a neighborhood friend bearing tips and trends - and transplanted that living room experience into high end, high volume brick and mortar sales figures.

Merrill's official story differed from Lauder's in the sense she had no real "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" appeal; yet the women shared a unique persona, that of perfectly coiffed business sense steeliness. Ultimately, Merrill might have been the wrong kind of move for Coty in this chess game with Lauder. Like Grace Kelly, Merrill was perceived as a bit of an ice princess shiksa by the American public, with none of Lauder's underdog brunette chutzpah - admirable, but not exactly relatable.

Business sense doesn't necessarily imply audacity, but it did for Lauder, who was perceived in many ways as the woman next door with bright ideas and no nonsense advice. She wasn't above getting her hands dirty, which is a little different than a socialite sitting on the board of directors, high up on a corporate penthouse floor. In all the stories about Lauder you can imagine the feisty click of her fast moving heels. Merrill's are muffled by plush carpet. These aren't nearly the truths of the matter, but Lauder, famously elastic with the truth, knew better than anyone that the buying public didn't go by truth but by appearances, and Merrill's public persona was a lot more patricianly effete.

Amaranthe released one fragrance of the same name, and however lovely, it too was a bit ill-judged. Hate them or love them (I love them), Lauder's fragrances match her persona - strong willed, full of presence and drama, a little bossy, a little intrusive. Even Soft Youth Dew - until then, about the softest Lauder fragrances got - was more shrieking than shrinking violet. It wasn't really until the -90's that Lauder produced anything even remotely resembling something other than bombastic, and it's arguable that even Pleasures and White Linen Breeze had the kind of stealth you could never really misconstrue as anything other than robust.

At the time of its release, Amaranthe had Estee, Youth Dew, and Azuree to compete with in the Lauder line-up. Those fragrances, even then, were slightly old fashioned - high drama balsamic, aldehyde and leather constructions. Amaranthe was old fashioned in a different way - probably closer to Coty's 1913 Muguet de Bois than anything more up-to-date in the brand's fragrance profile. Yet it was hardly outdated, unlike Lauder's output at the time maybe, and in fact more forward thinking, adding to its muguet theme a bright peachy succulence. It thought ahead to the kind of fragrance which is practically ubiquitous today, upbeat and unassuming, but executed it with far more class. Put the name Ralph Lauren on the bottle and it would sell respectably in today's marketplace, I imagine. Amaranthe isn't exactly squeaky clean, though I smell nothing anywhere near animalic in it - but far more than anything Lauder or Borghese produced, it was bright and more arguably classically all-American. It was more mid -50's than late -60's probably, but hardly -30's and -40's like, say, Lauder's bestsellers.

There's nothing even faintly sensual about Amaranthe; nothing close to dramatic. Which isn't to say it isn't wonderful. However familiar in its parts, the whole is something I can't remember smelling before the mid-nineties. Knowing anything about Merrill's persona, it's hard to imagine her approving anything else. Amaranthe is perfectly engineered to express her known cinematic qualities - more blonde than brunette, more reserved than showy, reassuring rather than provocative. In addition to the muguet and its counterpart peach theme, Amaranthe has something subtly lactonic going on. I would call it golden milky, a quality its bottle and packaging somehow reinforce.

The shape of the larger bottle resembled a peach, forcing you to hold it as you would that fruit. Its glass extends this impression further, covered in a rubbery tactile material, showing the "juice" inside - half brandy, half sunshine in color. There's the subtlest trace of high end liqueur in it, as well as whiffs of rose and jasmine, but it steers clear of deep woods and white floral indoles. It isn't in the least declarative. It's what you imagined you might smell if you got close to the face of -50's mainstays like Doris Day and, obviously, Dina Merrill herself, the peachy, good natured cleanliness America wants to believe emanates from the rosy cheeks of its young women. The bosom was left to Lauder, and the success of her fragrances, and the relative failure of Amaranthe, suggests that, however in love with the ideal of a clean-scrubbed face America was, it inevitably stooped to cleavage.

Amaranthe is almost impossible to find now. I found a bottle like the one pictured above on Ebay, reasonably priced.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Miss Habanita: Dark in Broad Daylight

If you've only smelled the reformulation of Molinard's Miss Habanita and been led to believe it has little or no connection to its reason for being, good old smoky Habanita, it's perfectly understandable - and I feel sorry for you. Here's a good, if kind of tragic, example of a careless reformulation, where everything interesting and even remotely complicated has been altogether removed from the fragrance as initially conceived. And for what? It's hard to imagine the current version of Miss Habanita selling any better in the present marketplace than what it replaced might have.

Released in 1994, over 70 years after the release of Habanita, original Miss Habanita is one of my favorites, and the two relate to each other in fascinating ways. Miss Habanita, these days, is a densely sugared white musk affair, chokingly sweet, depressingly banal for something so relentlessly perky. Its fruits are neon jammy, and the neon is right up in your grille. Fruits have been done better, frankly, and original Miss Habanita is still around here and there on Ebay to prove it.

Classified as a fruity chypre, its take on fruit recalls Nina Ricci's Deci Dela, by Jean Guichard, which was released the same year. Deci Dela and Miss Habanita are very similar in their use of steeped fruits over a drier than dry base of oakmoss. This isn't cheery, life affirming succulence. It's darker than that; more earthy. While we're all waxing poetic over our romantic ideas about oakmoss, let's remind ourselves how the Egyptians viewed it. As Edwin T. Morris mentions in Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel, it was once an essential part of the embalming process. Egyptians stuffed the cavities of eviscerated corpses with it, preparing for burial and the afterlife. Then as now, it was a good fixative; its antimicrobial properties "serving admirably in the mummifying process". When some people smell oakmoss and say it reminds them of something damp and musty, they're not too far off the mark.

Pretty elemental stuff - as opposed to, say, something slightly smooth and sweet which used to be in a lot of fragrances in much larger quantities. Vis a vis Miss Habanita, let's put it another way: someone took the peach off Mattisse's table, where it fit in with the contrived color scheme, and threw it out in the yard, where time's gotten to it and reminded you that a painting, like mummification, freezes things into a lie. The fragrance sits comfortably somewhere between compote and compost. Original Miss Habanita was a late stage reminder that at one point perfumery had as much to do with the unknown and the unsettling as smelling fancy or clean. Miss Habanita has a little weirdness and mystique in it, mixing the beautiful with the ever so slightly macabre. Listen, don't get me wrong. Miss Habanita isn't that dark. But we've gotten so used to FRUITY FLORAL meaning something much brighter and perkier and airheaded that a recalibration might be necessary before approaching what that used to mean.

Miss Habanita distinguishes itself from Deci Dela further by faithfulness to its source, a composition which itself plumbed the depths of the darker side. I wouldn't say that Miss Habanita is perfect for those who find Habanita a little much, obviously. For one thing, a Miss can get in just as much trouble as a Mrs., if not more. Ideally, appreciating one means appreciating the other. Miss Habanita isn't a refinement or a series of improvements but a way of contrasting certain aspects of the original in refreshing ways.

The moss - and some vanilla - speak to the creamy tobacco of vintage Habanita. Everything anyone might find questionable, if not entirely objectionable, is still there - the leather, the tobacco, the dirtied amber, the palest hint of decayed floralcy - and maybe even amplified in some way by bringing a certain amount of translucence into the equation. I can just as easily imagine Miss Habanita being used to scent cigarettes, as Habanita once was, and Habanita is such a dense proposition that it's easy to forget it also contained peach and orange blossom and plenty else besides, much of which reappears in its progeny to more emphatic effect.

Miss Habanita reminds me of Habanita with the lights suddenly turned up. Everybody's still doing what they were doing in the dark. They haven't had a chance to pretend otherwise yet. It lasts amazingly well, always surprising me by its persistence. It's a wonderful fragrance, full of quiet melancholy. Other than Habanita, there's really nothing quite like it.

I suggest looking for it on Ebay. I've seen it through e-tailers but the bottle you receive is not always the bottle pictured, and a simple exchange of emails with an Ebay seller will reassure you of getting what you pay for. The original formula came in two bottles, one frosted mustard, the other translucent amber. One of these is simpler in design; my favorite of the two, the amber glass, looks exactly like the famous Lalique Habanita bottle graced with water nymphs and has a glittery metallic bronze cap.