Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dear Year: Reflecting on 2012

There weren't many surprises for me this year, but plenty of memorable moments. In May, for instance, after a grueling film shoot, I traveled to Portland to visit The Perfume House, my favorite perfume haunt. It was a good time to go back, as it had been a few years, and I was in a place I needed to reconnect with that original excitement perfume held for me. I discovered perfume at The Perfume House, really. I learned about Lutens there, L'Artisan, Nicolai, and scores of other fragrance options I'd never known about or even suspected.

I spent several days in Portland, which meant several days inside The Perfume House. There's a single window in the place but it's highly placed and small, and for the most part you feel you've stepped back in time, or to some pocket of time, past or present, that exists independently from the outside world. The staff feel like old friends by now, and even after all this time, having scoured the place from top to bottom, there are new discoveries, things on a bottom shelf I hadn't noticed before, or hadn't known to look for, like an old bottle of La Nuit edt, some early Rosines, and Basile, my favorite, and cheapest, discovery of the year. Basile is instant happiness for me: somewhere between Opium and L'Arte de Gucci, a subtly spiced green rose no one talks about and no one's put an exorbitantly priced sales tag on.

The weather during my trip to Portland was unusually sunny and combined with the experiences inside The Perfume House it buoyed my mood. One day, standing in the shop, I met a man who cultivates hybrid peonies nearby. He waits several years for results, and had just stopped in to show the latest fruits of his labor, two dodge ball sized peonies, one butter yellow, one blush pink. He carried them around as he spoke to the staff, talking about his process. It struck me that it takes him as long to grow a peony as it takes a perfumer to create a perfume.

The staff of the store keeps all the testers of its discontinued fragrances, so I was able to smell a few old Weil scents, Secret de Venus and Bambou. Both were beyond words, and reminded me that the past of perfumery is just as essential as the present, however hard to track down - and that the store which values this past becomes a real asset to the perfume lover.

There were only a few scents that pleased me as much as Basile. At Lucksyscent for the launch of Tableau de Parfums' Loretta with Andy Tauer, I picked up a bottle of Santa Maria Novella's Patchouli, expecting not much. I was just standing there, and it was too. So I smelled it. Turns out it's my favorite patchouli, richly herbal with chocolatey undertones, and the surprise demonstrated for me that there are still discoveries to be made, right under my nose, where I least expect them, if only I keep my mind open. It's harder and harder to do that but maybe more necessary now than several years ago, when the discoveries were so numerable I didn't have to think much about how to wait patiently for them.

The buzz this year circled furiously around fragrances that ultimately disappointed me in a big way. I shouldn't be shocked any more by the disparity between what I've heard and what I smell. I should know better at this point. Still, I was taken aback by just how boring so many of these scents were. The Ramon Monegal line was nice in places - Mon Patchouli, Kiss My Name - but emblematic as well of the high price one's asked to pay for small pleasures in the current perfume marketplace. Kurkdjian's Amyris duo was instructive, not just the scents themselves but the way they were talked about. Bloggers praised them as mainstream done well, which to me, once I smelled them, seemed like a not so coded way of saying even mediocre is exceptional when you lower your expectations sufficiently, spoken the way you do when you're in bed with the subject of your appraisal.

That told me a lot about perfume reviewing now as well. I read all the perfume blogs daily when I first started smelling, and up to the last year I continued to read even those whose prose seemed the most steeply canted toward ass-kiss. I've stopped reading all but a few now, having realized finally that for too many bloggers it's more important to know the creator of Volutes well enough to chat her up at a party than to report on the fragrance with any kind of useful honesty.

The other side of this is the tendency toward "hostility first, sober assessment later" for all things fragrant, a trend I saw more and more of on the fragrance boards and consumer review sites this year. I believe the two go hand in hand. Perfume lovers know in their guts that, however well written some of these blog narratives are, they're chronically disingenuous and often self-serving, a pretty girl insisting everyone affirm her prettiness, however ugly her behavior. More and more, bloggers seem to have crawled into bed with the makers of perfume, not just perfumers but the corporations behind them. It's only natural that the consumer, sensing this, would react defensively, distrusting everything sight unseen.

I think something will have to change, and fortunately, everything eventually does. I view this type of blogging, however current, as already paleolithic, and I look forward somewhat hopefully, though hope is against my nature, to something different, where these voices will be seen for what they are and others who haven't yet been corrupted by the betrayal of their own weak egos will start talking a little more loudly.

This shift in perspective characterized the year for me. I lost a friend in October, and the process of grief involved re-evaluation and re-prioritizing. What matters started to matter more to me after that, but I'd been moving that way for months. We're living in a highly accelerated moment, where a lot of information and many options are thrown at us on a daily, even hourly basis. We're encouraged to feel I think that we must work very hard to vie for attention, which means being heard. At the same time, we're led to believe that in this state of affairs things can still feel and be special. Who cares if by shouting I can be heard, if what the listener takes away is a lot of shouting.

By October, I knew several things: I knew that those two modes of consciousness work together destructively and are in fact actually contradictory, and I knew that I needed to step away a little so that I could somehow get back in touch with what does matter in life. At this point I need to believe, with confidence, that some things do matter. If every new perfume release does, then really nothing can. I want a little more intention in my life - in the things I value and connect with. And I want to believe a connection can transcend the next several minutes or days the way we like to say perfume can. Like my friend, a profound perfume is unique in its ability to reach you and bond with you. The most impressive thing about it shouldn't be how much money it has or how many friends in high places. I need to learn I think that the exceptional peony comes after a patient wait, and that the waiting is as important and valuable as the eventual appearance of the flower.

I hope everyone's had a good year, and is out there making personally meaningful discoveries, and perseveres in the belief that ultimately the best barometer is your own mind and heart.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Andy Tauer's Advent Calendar, Etc.

As some of you might know, this month is Andy Tauer's annual Advent Calendar of giveaways. I Smell isn't participating, but Evelyn Avenue is. Visit the site for a drawing which will conclude tomorrow night.

I'm presently in Vermont, where it's been nice to get my mind off things. Just enough is plenty for me. It's cold here and pretty rural - not much perfume shopping as far as I know (if you know differently, do tell), but there's a yarn store a few blocks away, one of the best in the region, and I've managed to start yet another sweater I hope to have finished by Christmas.

The friend I'm visiting had planned to drive me to Montreal this weekend, so I didn't bring much perfume. I figured I'd find some there. I packed Alien Cuir, Knize Ten, and Havana in my luggage, and for a change I'm spending several days focused on a limited array of scents. Havana is spicy and robust. Alien Cuir is another Alien form of Alien. Knize Ten is probably my all time favorite leather - better than Chanel Cuir de Russie and any number of leathers said to be superior. My friend Jack once declared it smells of mop water. Until I spend more time around mop water, I can neither contest or concur.

I can't say I'll miss the trip to Montreal anyway - not in terms of the perfume I might find there. Lately I look at the new releases and feel they're not really all that new. It isn't just that I feel it's all been done before. I feel it's been done much better, sometimes several times over. I read some of the blogs and am baffled by the enthusiasm. Anima Dulcis, which Dane just reviewed at Peredepierre, is a good example of a recent scent you would think reinvents the wheel, judging by the gushing love it gets on blogs. To me, it smells like a celebrity scent somehow - rich on the cheap stuff, more bark than bite. Dane might be right in saying it would make a better home candle. Volutes, the new Hermes by Ellena, etc. Are these necessary? Something might need to shake up perfumery pretty soon to hold my waning interest.

I suspect the flurry of new scents from Gorilla will help. I'm excited about these. All but one or two of the nine sound like just the thing. Right now I believe they might only be available in the UK. I haven't checked the Lush USA site recently. More on that later.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Molinard Nirmala as Ghost

Since the death of my friend several weeks ago, I've had a hard time moving forward. I suspect that's temporary. Everything but death seems to be. But for the time being, scent has become something slightly stagnant for me - talking about it, writing about it, smelling it. Scent is in a different place, far from the things I'm feeling.

My friend was an atheist and for the most part averse to scent, so memorials of one kind or another have been problematic for me. I did speak at her funeral, trying to put her character, or what I knew of it, into words, trying to take the occasion somewhere specific. When you take the spiritual element out of a service, as a pastor afraid of insulting a deceased atheist is apt to do, you're left with all the ritual but none of the crucial opportunities for catharsis. Putting words to her helped.

In the same way, I kept wishing that she'd loved scent, so I'd have something to go to for help getting through the feelings I've been left with. All I remembered was a conversation we once had. She said she couldn't wear anything but Champs Elysees, a fragrance famous for its inoffensiveness. Everything else gave her migraines, she told me. I'd never thought much of Champs Elysees but immediately, days after her service, went out and bought the biggest bottle I could find. I was knitting a lot, and sprayed it all over my neck. It was barely there, and made her absence feel that much more visceral. It was so simple and sweet that it reminded me of the childhood photo she'd left up on her facebook profile - someone only distantly related to the person I remember.

I wanted something that could conjure her more fully, the way scent can with people whose memory it recalls. It's the first time I've thought about what it means that so many of the people I'm close to aren't that into scent, and why I'm so often desperate to track down something they'll like. I must want to make sure I have some portal back into their presence once they're gone. Without that, they'll seem, like my friend, stuck in some kind of purgatory, I imagine.

So I was practically euphoric last week when someone we both knew called to let me know the things from my friend's office had been cleared out and put in boxes, and in one of these boxes was a bottle of Molinard Nirmala. I'd forgotten all about another conversation we'd had, and it all came rushing back, bringing her with it.

We were sitting there knitting and she told me she really loved Angel, but that she had a hard time wearing it. I'd just found an old bottle of Nirmala, which smells remarkably similar to Angel, and told her about it, offering to give it to her. Nirmala has none of Angel's patchouli. It's a more piquant exercise in that general direction, with a wonderfully strange pineapple note standing in. I gave her the bottle the next time I saw her and never heard about it again. I thought about it once or twice, wondering if she'd been able to wear it. I suspected she hadn't.

I inherited the Nirmala bottle a few days after I heard about it again in this phone call. I was anxious to see it for several reasons. She'd kept it at work. Didn't that mean she'd worn it? Didn't that mean she had an "office friendly scent"? Would any of it be missing? I dreaded the alternative. What if she hadn't worn it or connected with it at all, making it just this empty signifier left behind, signifying nothing?

The bottle was about a third empty, and another friend told me she'd often smelled it on her sweaters. I've worn it obsessively since I got it back, and it feels a little - enough - like she's with me.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Losing a Friend

A week ago Sunday, I returned from Los Angeles, where Andy Tauer and I launched Loretta, the second fragrance in the Tableau de Parfums line. The turnout was nice, what seemed like twice the size of last year's release event for Miriam. I smelled a lot of new things I'd heard about but hadn't had a chance to get my hands on. Some were interesting. Many were disappointing.

The first several days of last week were full of catching up. The trip to LA was brief but even a brief interruption these days leaves me with a lot of loose ends. It was in this scattered frame of mind that I received news of a friend's death, early Thursday morning. When I was told by text at 6:30 a.m., it hardly seemed real. It was real, but even a week later, I keep reminding myself it's actually happened.

My friend was a pretty wonderful person. I met her about eight or nine years ago, when I wandered into a yarn shop she owned at the time to pretend I knew how to knit. I don't think I'd tried anything at that point - not even a scarf. I was attracted by the possibilities and wanted to believe knitting was something I could do if I practiced enough. The yarn was like perfume - there was so much of it, in so many different varieties. The place was like a candy store.

On any day of the week, I'd drop in and people were there knitting. If the place was open there was someone there. Often a group. Papatya had opened the store a year or so before. She held down a day job at an architect firm as a draftsman. On her lunch hours and after she clocked out at the firm, she was often at the shop, chatting with everyone, knitting herself. Weekends the place was full, and every Tuesday night people met at a large table in a side room to knit and catch up.

I met a lot of people there but no one more interesting than Papatya. Her life seemed to be very much in order. She was assertive, funny, friendly, ambitious. It seemed like she could knit or solve anything, and I doubt I would have progressed as quickly as I did without her constant tutoring. Any time I got myself stuck without knowing why, I could run over to the store, knowing she'd help. I'd get all my yarn tangled up and she'd patiently untangle it for me. She liked to do it, she said. I still find that hard to believe.

I'm an adventurous, maybe lazy, knitter. I want to use whatever yarn I like for the pattern at hand, regardless of the gauge called for. I want to use odd color combinations. I progressed to blankets and sweaters sooner than a lot of knitters do, and I wasn't afraid to take chances - but largely because I knew Papatya would support me when I hit a dead end, and she typically encouraged my choices, despite the often mixed results.

When the store closed a year later, the Tuesday night knitting group moved to a local cafe. I got busier and busier with film work, often too stressed to attend. The faces changed, but as usual Papatya was the central force holding the social network together. I saw Papatya less during that time, but she was always supportive of whatever I happened to be doing. I know from hearing others talk over the last week that she was like this with most of her friends. She made you feel you were one of her favorite people. She had that quality. It breaks my heart we weren't able to help her the way she'd helped us. She was obviously in a fix somehow, in a difficult place emotionally and mentally.  She was so good at solving other people's problems that it was hard for us to see she might need help with her own. We'll never know why she took her life last Tuesday, or why she chose to do it that day, which held a lot of significance for her, and for a lot of us.

I'm going to miss her. I miss her already. Everything I've knit reminds me of her. Knitting itself does. I've spent most of the last week editing, which helps me hyper-focus and keep my mind from spinning through the details, the why and how. I've surrounded myself with perfume - old favorites, which hold a particular appeal right now. That transports me to a better place. I hope she's in one too.

(The photo above shows Papatya as I remember her - in the middle of things, admiring someone's progress)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Zoinks! Loretta Draw Update

Dontcha just love the internet? I'm not sure I do at the moment. Some of you will have noticed there's been a problem on the Evelyn Avenue site, where Andy Tauer and I announced a draw to celebrate the launch of Loretta, the second Tableau de Parfums fragrance.

Our indomitable webmaster is looking into the issue and our fingers are crossed (and nerves frayed). MEANWHILE...the draw deadline has been extended. Winners will now be drawn and announced on Monday, October 29.

The draw itself has been moved to Andy's blog.

Please note: If you've managed to get on the Evelyn Avenue page and comment on the post there, you do NOT need to comment on Andy's post. Everyone who commented on the Evelyn Avenue post is already automatically entered into the draw and those names will be compiled with the comments on Andy's blog when the winners are selected. Check his post at the link above for details.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Tauer Drawing to Celebrate the Launch of Loretta

On Friday, October 19, perfumer Andy Tauer and I will be at Scent Bar in LA to launch Loretta, the second fragrance in the Tableau de Parfums line. Loretta is inspired by the short of the same name in the Woman's Picture film series. Miriam, released last year, was a nod to the classic floral aldehydes of the past. Loretta goes in a different direction, contrasting earthy elements with white flowers and dark fruits. Miriam explored themes of nostalgia and memory. Loretta, to me, explores the gatekeeper to fantasy fragrance can become, and how fantasies can combine light and dark elements in unique ways.

To celebrate the launch, we're conducting a drawing on Evelyn Avenue, the home site for Tableau de Parfums and Woman's Picture. Three winners will be announced on Monday, October 21. To qualify for the drawing, we ask that you leave a comment on our most recent Evelyn Avenue blog post about three perfume spots we created for Loretta.

The post talks a little about cynicism in perfumery. With so many things being thrown at perfume lovers, how do we maintain a certain level of optimism? I look at the phenomenon of cynicism from a different point of view now than I might have several years ago, before starting this collaboration between perfume and film with Andy. Over the past year we've asked ourselves what it means to address that fatigue among people who love perfume, and whether we can make some kind of difference in that trend. Is it enough that we're excited about what we do? What makes our excitement any different than anyone else's? How do we make sure that we present our collaboration with some kind of integrity where the norm is too often over-priced and over-hyped? It's an interesting vantage point for me - somewhere between consumer and producer - and the questions have percolated over the last year in our minds as we toured with and talked about Miriam and our intentions.

Winners of the drawing will receive a full bottle of choice from the extended Tauer range (including Tableau de Parfums), a DVD of the first three shorts in the Woman's Picture series, and a vintage-inspired poster designed for Loretta's packaging (pictured above).

Thursday, October 11, 2012

More Alien Still: Alien Essence Absolue

Apparently, the folks at Mugler decided that two Alien flankers a year just wasn't enough, and this year, in addition to the flanker associated with Les Parfums de Cuir and the summer version, Aqua Chic, the brand released Alien Essence Absolue, a purportedly richer, more intense version of the original.

I'm not complaining, because Essence Absolue is the best of the Alien enterprise to date, right down to the bottle, which resembles a cybernetic pear considered by citizens of the planet Jupiter to be the last word in exotic delicacies. True to the literature, Absolue is richer, but exactly why and how, even with a side by side comparison, is hard to explain.

There's said to be myrrh, white amber, incense, and animalistic black vanilla pod. The balance is such that I'd be hard pressed to identify any of that specifically, though at times I feel I can detect what I think might be myrrh or what could be animalistic black vanilla pod. I'm a big fan of Alien Liqueur, and Liqueur was, itself, richer than the original Alien. I was skeptical, when I heard about Absolue; it seemed unlikely that the composition could be made any richer than that. I should have known better, because it's rare a Mugler fragrance seriously disappoints.

What Absolue seems to subtract from the original equation is the very thing I thought made that composition so complex and satisfying. Gone is the roasted jasmine quality, that super saturated, burred nutty thrust. When you smell the two side by side, they seem very similar, for just a short time, as though the same hologram has been projected before you. As that initial impression shifts, their differences, subtle but profound, become gradually more apparent.

The incense aspects of Absolue are minimal; still, they replicate then variate the fuzzy quality of the original's jasmine, generating a strange edged effect to the floral components of the fragrance. Overall, the heart of the thing feels the way the juice looks, golden, shot through with light. While Absolue definitely smells vanillic, it's only when you compare its dry down to the original that you see just how much more vanilla it has, and how the amber elements dominate. I can't detect anything remotely animalic in the mix, and yet this is a different kind of vanilla fragrance, slightly more savory than sweet. The spectral silhouette of original Alien remains, hovering there, but the body of the fragrance has arranged itself differently around that outline. Absolue has more than a little in common with the L'Or version of Dior J'Adore, but where that flanker sat obediently on the skin - even meekly - Absolue has kick.

I find both versions, original and Absolue, to be comparable in projection and longevity, though I've read many customer reviews saying that Absolue is equally tenacious but less of a headache, basically. I never got or get a headache from original Alien, nor am I exactly ever clear on what people who dislike it so strongly are chiefly complaining about, so I can't tell you why Absolue is considered by many of them to be a marked improvement. For me, it's simply a variation, if something so profoundly good can be called simple.

Note: This fragrance could have been far less interesting and still worth the price for the bottle alone.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Thierry Mugler's Angel: Les Parfums de Cuir

There are those who despise Thierry Mugler's wildly successful Angel so much that they appraise its many flankers solely by their ability to mitigate that contempt. Others - I'm one of them - look forward to each successive October, when the best of these special flankers are typically released, not as another opportunity to hate the fragrance more or less, but as another form of Christmas, where Angel will be slightly reinvented, seen through yet another conceptual prism.

This year, the flankers to Angel, Alien, A*Men, and Womanity, collectively called Les Parfums de Cuir, are truly gifts that keep giving. There are many things to admire about the Mugler line, not least of which is its packaging, a big part of its gifts to give. With the exception of Womanity, arguably a misstep in the direction of excessive ornamentation, the bottles have been endlessly entertaining, if not exactly practical - interesting not just as vessels but as objets d'art. Unlike most flankers, and despite the expectations imposed on these new fragrances by detractors of the original fragrances, those produced by Mugler don't seem too preoccupied with "improvement". Again, with the exception of Womanity, which has not quite been the hot cake that Angel and Alien have been, there's nothing, from a sales point of view, to improve. These aren't apologias.

With Mugler, a flanker often brings the best of both worlds - a wonderful new fragrance not too terribly removed from the one you love, reenacting the crush all over again. The Liqueur versions from 2009 were my favorites so far. For me, Angel Liqueur is even better than the original, while Alien is a deeper, richer more of same, forcing me to look at the Alien I fell in love with in a different way. A*Men Pure Coffee was fantastic, and Pure Malt was beyond that, and the only real bummer for me has been Pure Havane, which smelled on me a little too much like death by vinyl, side of maraschino cherry.

There are Mugler fragrances I practically ignore, like most of the summertime flankers, all of them single-mindedly bent on balancing toothpaste with caramel, and while I admired last year's Taste of Fragrance editions, I never felt, no matter how hard I tried, that I neeeeeded them. The whole Innocent range seems superfluous to me, unless you simply must have a Mugler and can't stomach anything more interesting the line has to offer. But those Liqueur versions. Those were really something - so good that each September I start thinking obsessively about what the brand will come up with next.

I'm not as crazy about the leather Angel as I am about her liqueur kin, but I don't like it too much less. Certainly enough to buy it. If it's good enough to bring the guys at Peredepierre out of semi-retirement, you know it must be pretty decent. Peredepierre described an apricot quality to leather Angel that puts it somewhere near Daim Blond. I do get peach, but not with anything like the brightness of that Lutens suede. This is definitely leather for me, not suede, dark brown in color, and the sweetness of most Angel versions, including the original, is tempered here. Liqueur Angel smells recognizably of Angel throughout. Leather Angel doesn't always or often remind me of any Angel I've smelled. If I had to find a correlate I would look to Cuir de Lancome or Heeley Cuir Pleine Fleur. Leather Angel, unlike Cuir Pleine Fleur, isn't quite barnyard-adjacent, but not so far away the wind doesn't catch up with it. As for Cuir de Lancome, what I think it shares with leather Angel is a rich, creamy leather feel, with none of the arch sharpness involved in, say, Knize Ten or Chanel Cuir de Russie.

It's most recognizable as "Angel" up top. Once it dries down to the leather, which is not skanky but plush (more leather bag or seat than saddle), it becomes something almost entirely new for me. The marketing says these flankers were marinated in leather. I can't answer to that, though I find it hard to believe. Still, smelling leather Angel, this is an apt image, and as far as PR talk goes, I'll take this kind of snake oil over the stuff Dior's writing, bottling, and peddling any day. Leather Angel, like the other two "feminines", is housed in a great bottle, which is housed in a great little leather bag, which is all kind of the icing on the cake for what turns out to be a refreshingly gratifying fragrance. By dry down, you have, for once, or a change, a contemporary mainstream fragrance which not only promises but delivers the leather, with a punch. This is truly a successful conceptual exercise, wrapping Angel in layers of rich leather, and the measure of that success is how good it smells.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Multiple Rouge by Humiecki and Graef

There's really nothing else like Multiple Rouge, which has made it difficult to write about. My favorite of the offbeat Humiecki and Graef line, it's somehow simultaneously weirder than it sounds, and tamer. There's no denying it's a big bowl of fruity berries, a sort of study in various succulent hues of red. There's no getting around the immortelle, which, like patchouli, is going to be a deal breaker for some. But somehow, these two, encouraged by a dash of coriander, play nice. Multiple Rouge is similar to the fruitchouli, but something else altogether, thanks to the immortelle and a salted caramel effect.

The berries have a darker quality than, say, the explosive brightness of a fragrance like Byredo Pulp, but Pulp is a useful comparison. Like Multiple Rouge, Pulp is an oversized fantasy take on fruit. Still, for all its outlandish strangeness, Multiple Rouge is a far mellower wear. Moodier, too. Pineapple and peach complicate things, arranging the scent into interesting tensions. This is tart but seasoned pineapple, and a stewed peach. Together they seem to conjure something like apple, if not in the shape of anything you'd want to eat.

There's a savory feel to Multiple Rouge unlike anything I've smelled in a berried fragrance. While it isn't gourmand in any conventional way, it nevertheless feels foody. There's something aquatic going on as well. So: berry, salt, apple, peach, pineapple, ozonic, immortelle. See what I mean?

People talk about Multiple Rouge's sense of playfulness. Beyond words, it's a study in absurdity, fragrance as delighted squeal. Just as many seem to feel the joke's on them, and fail to see the humor. Did I mention the booziness? Those apples and berries are on their way to some kind of special, simmering brew, the kind you find in a Crock-pot around the holidays, spiked to get you through Uncle Ed's second wind; dash of grenadine, dash of cognac.

I appreciate Multiple Rouge's unusualness, but wear it seriously. It's one of my favorite immortelle scents, along with Fougere Bengale, Sables, Eau Noire, and 1740.

Top photo: Bert Stern
Middle: Norman Parkinson
Bottom: Irving Penn

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Miss Dior le Parfum: One of Those Things That's Not Like the Other

Dior has never been one for leaving a good thing unbroken. Fahrenheit, while nowhere near what it used to be, remains within the company's inventory, but has spawned something like seven flankers - and counting. J'Adore, a bit of a ghost of its former self as well, has been parlayed into its own cottage industry, with about fourteen related "versions", including limited editions, seasonal variations, anniversary distillations, and one extrait and absolute after another. Since launching in 1999, J'Adore has been subjected to these updates or additions annually.  Addict and Dior Homme have been handled similarly.

At the same time, Dior has shown some superficial sensitivity to the preservation of its antiques, housing them, however renovated, within the collection called "Les Creations de Monsieur Dior", a funny name maybe, considering the monsieur in question would presumably be Christian himself, whose name has been removed from the brand for some years, which is simply now referred to as "Dior." It's questionable at this point just who Monsieur is meant to mean: Christian, or François Demachy, the man responsible for overseeing these various "collections" and for re-orchestrating (i.e. reformulating) their constituent fragrances.

Diorling, Diorella, Diorama, and Dioressence bear little resemblance to the scents they once were. Demachy has argued that the auteur theories about perfumers are overstatements, if not misleading simplifications. A fragrance like Ungaro Diva, commonly regarded as an early composition by Jacques Polge, was in fact, Demachy has asserted, more collaborative, representing the work of several well known perfumers, among them Demachy himself. I don't doubt it; nor do I believe that our romance about perfumers and the sanctity of their work properly accounts for the bigger picture reality of business as usual at a large aroma-chemical corporate entity like Givaudin or Symrise.

Demachy has something more at stake in this line of argument promoting the devaluation of single authorship in mass market perfumery.  Dior's parent company, LVMH (of which Demachy is "super creative director"), has moved to take over Dior's fragrances, previously owned as we knew them by chemical corporations (such as Givaudin and Symrise, et al) which copyrighted the original in-house formulas. By creating these variations, Dior and LVMH seek to restore their ownership and control; slightly different names, slightly different formulas, made with materials other than those owned by the companies who patented them. The fact the resulting fragrances bear little resemblance to their namesakes is I guess apparently neither here nor there, unless you are a consumer who fell in love with the originals. Still, you have to ask yourself what Dior doesn't seem to be asking itself - is it worth holding onto these names if they gradually move so far astray of recognizability that what's in a name means next to nothing? Demachy says yes indeedy, by contesting, however justifiably, issues of authorship.

Miss Dior Cherie and Miss Dior are the first real indication of what all this means for those of us with our fingers on the atomizer. Created by perfumer Christine Nagel for Givaudin, the original Miss Dior Cherie was maybe one of the best iterations of what we now know as the category fruity patchouli. It had an interesting tension to it, part strawberry, part caramel, part buttered popcorn. It bore some relation to Angel, but was brighter somehow, its contrasts, though bold, not quite as confrontational. Some loved it, some hated it. In the last several years, Dior and LVMH seem to have used Miss Dior Cherie as a litmus for how far they can take Dior's fragrances away from their vocabulary, and as a barometer for the usefulness of that vocabulary in the first place.

Miss Dior Cherie is now, for all intents and purposes, Miss Dior, and Miss Dior is something no one talks about. We all know it existed. We all know this Miss Dior is not that one. That Miss Dior, I imagine Demachy would be the first to point out, was already very little who she'd once been. She'd been, as we say, gutted. Though still recognizable, facelifts had rendered her indefinably altered. We lamented the changes, however hard they were to pinpoint. Demachy seems to be saying that nothing remains the same, so laboring over a name is a pointless endeavor. But trying to pinpoint the changes, I'd argue, with an existing reference point - i.e a name - was useful in some way. What happens when the reference point is evacuated entirely? The reference points are arguably essential, if only to attempt to qualify how over time things inevitably change, and what change means as an ongoing reality.

The conversation generated by those kinds of ongoing comparisons (between original and reformulation, for instance) is killed as far as Miss Dior is concerned. Before long, it will be as if the conversation never happened. The conversation will live on in our minds, vague over time, the way the original Miss Dior, or its facsimiles, will. Imagine the dialogue at your local department store now, where the Dior sales associate will look at you foggy eyed when you assert that there was once a Miss Dior of a different stripe, that Miss Dior is not in fact simply Miss Dior Cherie renamed and rebottled. Try to imagine a conversation of this kind, dealing in nuance and subtle distinction, with associates who still actively contend there is no difference between an eau de parfum and an eau de toilette. These are, typically, people who, as it stands, treat anything they don't stock as fictitious. I have to question Dior's game plan, after my experience buying Miss Dior le Parfum. The Dior associate who helped me spent twenty minutes trying to track down just what I was looking for, with all the boxes (Miss Dior eau de Parfum, Miss Dior Cherie EDT, Miss Dior Cherie EDP, Miss Dior Eau Fraiche, etc.) lined up right under her nose. Try cultivating brand loyalty when determining what exactly the brand is involves an afternoon-long excavation.

Miss Dior le Parfum smells lovely. There are remnants or echoes of original Miss Dior Cherie in it, though nothing I can discern remotely connected to the original Miss Dior. Like much of what Demachy has done, there is an abiding amber creaminess to Miss Dior le Parfum. It's rich, if not particularly expansive. There's something like strawberry in it, marinated in an abundance of vanilla, amber, and refined patchouli. One wonders, smelling it on cloth or paper, whether anyone involved in its creation ever actually smelled it on skin, because on skin that richness becomes a bit self-absorbed - rarefied and stingy like the girl at the party who knows everyone will eventually come to her. Like J'Adore L'Or and Hypnotic Poison Eau Sensuelle, both also by Demachy, Miss Dior le Parfum approaches embarrassment of riches, in the sense that it is almost too refined to bother with pleasing anyone but itself, let alone you. It makes the most sense on a paper strip, where it plays out slowly.

It's one of the more exciting things at the department store counter right now, and that makes it seem very exciting indeed. How exciting is that, when the barometer is lower than the final stages of a drunken game of limbo, where the bar is down where only the truly inebriated would dare to crouch? I love it, with some kind of qualification I can't put my finger on, but who can spot much with a moving target? What exactly am I comparing it to, and why bother? It's a great fragrance: something old, something new, a department store fragrance done well. It invites a series of fantasies. It lasts reasonably well. And it has no relationship to anything I can attach emotional significance to.

It has nothing at all to do with its namesake, and hardly needs to, so I suppose the problem for me lies with Demachy, Dior, and LMVH. While I sympathize with their position, I find their tactics dishonest and offensive. It's a small thing, ultimately. They're telling me that the name means nothing. And yet they're fighting hard to keep it, which indicates otherwise. We all know, as consumers, that these names do in fact mean many things, many infinitely personal things. These creations live with us and become parts of our narratives. I trust Demachy, at least, knows this. It's one thing to be told that things change and that, for instance, the fragrance your mother or your grandmother wore as an integral part of her identity and your understanding of her will go the way of all relics. It's quite another to assert that you might as well play fast and loose with these cultural signifiers, insisting on the one hand that they mean very little, even as you work hard to capitalize on their mystique.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Comme des Garçons: Original

A good ten years before I started collecting perfume in earnest, I visited New York, and made a stop at Barney's. I'd always loved perfume but I didn't wear it much, if ever. I had an old bottle of Coriandre and a few other things, and I kept these in the bathroom cabinet, back when there was room to do such a thing. I'm not sure what I was doing at Barney's, or why I felt it necessary to go - but Comme des Garçons had just come out, and it was heavily represented on the first floor, and there wasn't much time wasted between smelling it and purchasing it.

A few years later, I gave my practically full bottle away. A friend really loved it, and it was hard to make an argument with myself for keeping it, given I never wore it. Several years later, once I had quite a few fragrances, so much that there was no more room in the bathroom cabinet, I was in said friend's bathroom and saw my old bottle of Comme des Garçons sitting there on the counter. I smelled it again and tried to remember why I'd thought it rational in any way to part with it. Within a few weeks I'd purchased another bottle online.

Marc Buxton created this fragrance in 1994, and while there might have been a few things like it at the time, I'd never smelled them. Intensely woody and spicy, Comme des Garçons explores now standard territory for niche (and even mainstream) perfumery - CDG itself has investigated nearly every facet represented here in its own range of perfumes since - and yet, nearly fifteen years later, the fragrance smells entirely new each time I smell it.

Interviewed upon its release, Buxton spoke of the freedom he was given - and the responsibility that came with it. Given carte blanche creatively, he was limited only by his conviction that the fragrance should be something one could, and would want to, wear. It is wearable, but also stratifying. The alleged medicinal aspects of Comme des Garçons waver on a line that divides opinion. That said, this is no Secretions Magnifiques. I say alleged because I've never gotten any such medicinal thing smelling it. I get woods (sandalwood, cedar), spices (cardamom, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, coriander), incense (frankincense), honey, and something which conjures rose. The overall impression for me is something as boozy and illicit as a prohibition speakeasy - a little wood, a little leather, the sense of something you wear with the intent of getting yourself into some trouble.

Comme des Garçons is long lasting but not hugely diffusive on me. It falls into a category I have no name for in my collection but which includes Black Cashmere, L'Air du Desert Marocain, Yatagan, Norma Kamali Incense, Monk, Moschino de Moschino, and Jubilation XXV, among others. What is that category, exactly? You'd have to tell me. When I feel like what CDG has to offer, nothing else, not Lutens, Montale, the Incense Series, or even any other fragrance in this loose category will do. Of all the interesting things Marc Buxton has done, this remains my favorite.

Friday, September 7, 2012

By Hové: Three from New Orleans

I'd been living in Memphis a good two decades, a hop and a skip away from New Orleans, and a couple of years into collecting all things perfume, before I learned about Hové Parfumeur. Located on Chartres St., in the French Quarter, Hové has been around a lot longer than I've been around here, let alone anywhere. The store opened for business in 1931, right after the worst stock market crash in history.

Opening a luxury perfume house during an economic depression seems like the kind of bold, if not foolish, move only the truly deluded would make, but like other forms of entertainment - movies, for instance - perfume offered a reasonable and useful distraction, if not relief, from overall financial duress. While it might have been tempting to view Hové's founder and perfumer, Mrs. Alvin Hovey-King, as a naive woman when her bright idea struck, it's now just as tempting to view her along the lines of a small-scale Coco Chanel, somewhat visionary in her understanding of the things which sustain people during hardship, priceless commodities for which they're willing to pay with what little money they have.

Her husband's investment business went the way of the crash. There must have been few other prospects. Opening a perfumery was a wild hair idea, maybe, but probably less ridiculous than doing nothing. The couple lived above the first shop, located on Royal Street. In 1938, the year that Commander Hovey died, the outfit moved to Toulouse. Again, Mrs. Hovey lived in an apartment above the store.

In 1961, the widowed Hovey, having survived her husband by over twenty years, passed away, leaving the brand to her daughter and granddaughter. Before its move to Chartres, Hové was moved to one other location. Since the death of its founder it has been passed along to several generations of the extended Hovey family. Currently, it's being run by the Wendels, husband and wife, who, like Mrs. Hovey, live above the shop.

Mrs. Hovey is said to have learned the craft of perfumery from her Creole French mother. There's very little about Hové online, other than the company's website, and I've been unable to find out who its "house" perfumer is now. Several of the fragrances - there are quite a few - are said to have been revived, suggesting reformulation. I still haven't made it over to the storefront, but friends have visited and, calling me on the phone from the counter, relayed their impressions based on what they imagined I would like.

Hové sells parfum extrait and eau de cologne versions ranging in sizes from half ounce to four ounce splashes. A half ounce of extrait runs for 55 to 65 dollars, depending on the line. The smallest cologne comes in a 2 ounce atomizer and costs 31 or 37.

After our telephone conversation, a friend brought me back Vetiver, Fascinator, and Spanish Moss, the three I felt might be most up my alley, or at least as good a place as any to start. Of the three, I've smelled only the vetiver in both cologne and extrait formulations.

VETIVERT is the safest bet. It's one of the nicer vetivers I've smelled; strong - and persistent - enough to satisfy in either concentration. Hové's Vetivert is raw and peppery. Of the many vetivers I know, I'd say Encre Noire comes closest. As much as I love Encre Noire, I prefer Hové's version: it's rawer still. For all its earthiness, Encre Noire has an airy quality I wish would dig deeper. Even in cologne form, Hové's vetiver maintains the rooty opacity of the best vetiver oil. Despite this, it isn't a "thick" wear. It's just that it doesn't bat its eyes at you. It has none of the cheery bright reassurance of the present day Guerlain Vetiver.

SPANISH MOSS is my second favorite. The subject of some debate in the few online reviews I've read, it is said to be either the perfect moss or nothing close. It smells plenty mossy to me. Hové's website doesn't list much by way of notes, but on one customer review they're listed as: Lilac, lemon, rose, orange blossom, osmanthus, orris, heliotrope, myrrh, and vanilla. That all sounds about right to me, and sniffing my wrist I get more than anything the heliotrope, vanilla, rose, and orange blossom. Why there isn't any moss in the formula, if in fact there isn't, is something you'd have to take up with the ghost of Mrs. Hovey, but like Nahema, a rose which is said to contain anything but, Spanish Moss conjures the impression of sweet, dry moss with a floral wind running through it. The extrait lasts respectably, with modest projection.

FASCINATOR, according to the Hové website, is a medley of musks and moss. It's an old school scent, to my nose somewhere along the chypre continuum - falling on the light side. Aspects of the fragrance remind me of 31 Rue Cambon, which isn't to say they smell alike; only that both get close to what I imagine people must mean when they talk about modern day chypres. In other words, they smell like the present with a distinct nod to the past. Fascinator smells best right out of the bottle, and I wish it would stay that way. It fades to a murmur too quickly for my taste. I picture the little pieces of drama it's named after, those vintage hats, and I want it to have more of their flair.

All three of these Hové scents, while wearable as modern perfumery, rather than mere curiosity pieces of the past, have a definite vintage vibe to them.

Hové doesn't seem to offer sample vials, so it's a bit of a crap shoot exploring the line. The packaging is fairly utilitarian. The bottles are simply labeled, with no particular frills to their silhouettes.  The company also sells soaps in some of the scents it produces. I've smelled vetiver, which was wonderful. I keep trying to find an excuse to get back to New Orleans so I can spend some serious time in the shop, but it hasn't worked out yet.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bottling Shame: Why Perfume is My Dirty Secret

After all these years, I'm still ashamed about perfume. I am ashamed, I realize - I must be - even though I talk about it openly and wear it fairly indiscreetly, and argue for dispensing with the idea of some stratifying line between what's "Masculine" and "Feminine" in fragrance.

Last weekend, a friend who doesn't know much about perfume came over to interview me and to see what I have. People often want to come over and talk about perfume. They know I have a lot and many of those things are things they haven't smelled. I have a reputation for giving full bottles of perfume away. That tends to draw a crowd. This friend really didn't want any, for a change. She was, I think, genuinely interested in what this interest says about me. I still gave her some, of course.

All day I was anxious and nearly called it off, mainly because no one's ever really seen my stash. My stash, even more than my writing, tells you exactly how deep the obsession runs. You see my stash, I think, and you see that something I talk about on and off is, in fact, something I never stop thinking about. The stash is excessive no matter how you look at it.

I'm always guarded about the way I bring things out for people to smell. I seat visitors in the living room and ask them to please stay there and wait. They sometimes try to follow me into the room where I keep most of my stash, and I don't want them to see it, so I preempt them by stationing them out of the way. I even did this when Olfacta was in town from Georgia. Olfacta must be as obsessed as I am - she is, judging by our conversations over the last couple of years - and yet like everyone else she was cock-blocked.

Once or twice someone has been allowed to follow me in, but I make them avert their eyes and promise not to look. It sounds deranged but it's true. And they agree, although whether they sneak a look when my back is turned is something I think about. When someone tells you not to look you almost always feel you should.

Generally I seat people in the living room, disappear into the stash, make some selections, and bring them back out, loading up the coffee table with bottles and boxes. We sit there and smell and I get to watch their faces either shrink in displeasure or light up in epiphany, and this format is a lot more comfortable for me because their exposure to the depths of my stash has been controlled and contained and doesn't distract from their reactions to the perfumes themselves.

I don't want them to see me digging through a puzzle of precariously stacked boxes. I don't want them to see the overspill onto the nearby floor. I don't want to look like one of the subjects of HOARDERS who, when the camera follows her through her home, tries to pretend that stumbling over mounds of shifting what-nots is no different than Donna Reed navigating a vacuum across the carpet in heels.

But I showed this friend last weekend everything. I even took her down into the basement, where I keep maybe a third of my stuff in two laundry baskets. I let her take pictures, showing the cinder block walls in the background, pictures I imagine will look like some clandestine meeting in an underground bunker, where bottles of perfume are rationed out like cans of past due-date soup.

Having her there made me aware of things I haven't had to be. I do think about how I store my perfume, but not why I choose one way over another. I have thought about how I spend time with the stuff I own when no one else is around, but I've never verbalized it, which can make you look at something in a different way. "How weird I do that. I wonder why."

It was the first time I'd told anyone, for instance, that when I leave for work every morning I fill a small bag with anywhere from five to ten perfumes, the same bag everyday, and that, ever since I got a baseball cap at some event I'd been to, I keep the perfume covered with the cap when I enter and leave the building, as if to say, "Oh - hey there; I'm just coming in with my little bag of baseball cap. No girly things in here." I knew I was dong this, of course, but somehow it was just something I'd started doing because the hat once fell on top of the bag, and eventually I kept it there, as a sort of "cover".

This stash has been building for over four years now. I've had plenty of time to organize it differently. Some people organize in nice cabinets or have efficient storage systems - this shelf for this, that shelf for those. I have enough room in my house to devote an entire piece of furniture to what I own. I have the room to organize it all in one place, where I could get to anything I might want to find easily, in one stop. Yet I keep it scattered in little areas about the place: here in a cupboard, there in laundry baskets, and in various other stacks of varying heights and loosely organized categories.

It occurred to me there's something pleasurable in shame - some frisson or excitement I want to hold onto. Why else would I persist in storing my perfume as one stores hidden things in attics or hard to reach, out of the way areas? I remember being a child, sneaking up into my grandmothers' attics, where forgotten relics were shoved, then forgotten. I got to discover them in secret. They were secrets because no one wanted to remember them. I wasn't supposed to be up there, so I certainly wasn't free to talk about what I'd found. My family wanted to forget the things they were reminded by these objects, without being able to actually let them go. The loot lived up there in a half life.

It's ridiculous to be ashamed at my age, though many people are, and for me it's even impractical. I'm way too open about what I do. I think it's because of that openness that I protect and store my stash the way I do. I want to preserve an air of sacred secrecy around it. I hide it from myself in little places I can return to in order to make my discoveries all over again, to relive that private joy repeatedly. I think shame might be a comforting feeling for me, rather than some artifact of immaturity I've never grown out of.

The perfume was moved into laundry baskets during the shoot for my last film. I needed to transport it to one of the locations we were using, and that was the handiest way. I don't remember where these bottles and boxes were stored beforehand. I never returned them there. Something about those laundry baskets rekindles the sensation of the profound hidden in the banal that I enjoyed during my childhood. The baseball cap is a way to keep my obsessional shame active, a way to carry it out into the open world with me without diminishing its powers. Not "Oh, there's Brian, with his bag of perfume again" but "What's with the bag and the cap?"

I guess shame has its uses.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

If Fragrance is a Thing of Wonder, Why Do I Always Try to Put It Back in the Box?

A few days ago, doing some maintenance on the blog, I realized that I don't often review recent fragrances, and I started thinking about why that might be. Plenty of new things come out - there's a constant stream of things, and many of those are worth talking about. I could write a post every week about something new.

I used to think I was stuck in the past. Most of my posts are about fragrances that took hold in my memories a long time ago, even as far back as childhood. I don't think of Coco or Private Collection or any number of eighties fragrances without viewing them through a complex prism of memories involving my sister and high school friends and experiences, for instance. I tend to think about fragrances as specific points in time, and only have much to say about them if I've lived with them through something or they've fused with a nexus of recollections about people I've known.

I smell new things all the time. There isn't much that hits the market I don't smell and develop impressions about. But those impressions always seem premature, sort of flimsy to me. How can I really know a fragrance until it's lived with me? I marvel at other blogs. They remain so current. They have early impressions and those impressions seem definitive, written with an assurance that's pretty foreign to me so early on in my experience with a scent. I can see a film and know what I think about it pretty instantly, at least with the confidence to express an opinion about it, however much that opinion might evolve over time. With fragrance it's different for me. I feel like I know next to nothing about a fragrance and can't trust my initial sense of it with any kind of certainty after a few first impressions. I feel that way about people, too, however much I'm smitten with them at first.

I once interviewed several bloggers, asking them how they go about reviewing fragrances. I talked to about five people, all of whom said that they spend anywhere from a few days to about a week with a fragrance before writing about it. Like everyone else who loves perfume we're excited to start talking about it. We fall in love or we don't, and we document the affair. I've always trusted these early reviews, relied on them, hungry for other people's ideas about scents I'm coming to for the first time myself. That's part of my daily conversation. But the conversation that really sustains me is the one where people talk about a fragrance they've spent years with, revisiting it again and again over time under constantly changing frames of reference. It isn't just our own feelings that change. Culture itself shifts around a fragrance, distorting or revealing undiscovered facets.

Once we write about something, we rarely go back to revisit it in print, and yet we all know that the way we felt about a fragrance a month or even a year ago can seem totally alien to us when we smell it today. The fragrance boards are full of comments about virtually every fragrance on or off the market, detailing the time we've sat with them and the way we either confirm our first impressions or come around to the previously unknown attractions they've harbored. Myself, when I write a post, I always feel the pressure to look at something I haven't before; revisiting something I've already covered would be redundant, or would in some way undermine my credibility. If I disliked it or felt ambivalent about it last year but have since changed my mind, why should anybody read what I might have to say? Clearly it's untrustworthy. I'm supposed to stand by my opinion. What happens, though, when we're not standing together any more? Isn't there something to be said for being candid about that? Doesn't it say something important about scent?

The truth is, there isn't a day where I don't go to the perfume cabinet and pick something up, even something I've smelled regularly, and think, wait a minute, what's that? Where did that little thing come from and why didn't I notice it until now? The day to day reality of perfume for me isn't really reflected in the way I've written about fragrance. The way I feel about fragrance day to day is constantly shifting and re-situating itself. It's full of doubt and discovery and epiphany. Disappointment that turns to satisfaction. Estrangement that becomes intimacy. The blog is a ceaseless thrust forward, clocking things off one by one, avoiding the reality of fragrance's mercurial nature.

Isn't that a lot like the worst parts of the fragrance industry and the marketplace in general? I'm constantly bemoaning the way things are simplified or distorted by perfume creators and marketers, and yet the way I approach perfume in print supports that culture and those trends of impermanency and novelty. Something new every day. This is the latest: onto the next. By simplifying fragrance into a single, definitive entry in my quest for the new surprise or delight, am I contradicting how I really feel about it and what it means to me? Am I colluding with an industry I often feel hostility or bewilderment toward in confirming that one word is the last word?

I smelled Balenciaga Cristobal Pour Homme this morning, on a rainy, sleepy day here, and I liked it so much better than the last time I saw it. Sometimes the vanilla is all I smell, and I think of it as a sugary behemoth. Other times, I smell it and everything seems perfectly balanced. Sometimes it's more masculine; sometimes more androgynous. Even a fragrance like Coco, which I've always loved and never doubted, shows me new things, new textures and feelings, every time I smell it. Private Collection is often like an old friend - but I return to it each time feeling that as much as I've loved it all this time, I've also diminished it, because I can't see all of it or see it as it truly is. I keep projecting onto it, depending on my mood, and even though the projections are positive they feel like they have more to do with me than Private Collection ultimately.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Histoires de Parfums' 1740 Marquis de Sade: Dulling the Whip

As excited as I was to smell one of the latest Histoires fragrances, Editions Rare Petroleum, recent sniffs from the rest of the line's testers were a serious disappointment. I like most of the fragrances, but I liked none more than 1740. Discovering that many of them seemed to have been ever so slightly tweaked was shock enough, given such a relatively young brand. Changes in 1740 have left it, for me, a ghost of its former self, and I feel that absence the most acutely and personally.

As with most subtle tweaking, the smallest alteration can wrought a most profound transformation, and while 1740 is there in basic structure it feels gutted somehow. I doubt anyone associated with the line will confirm this, no more than anyone at Lauder would fess up to the renovation of Private Collection, but I detected the difference instantly and was heartsick about it.

I have an older bottle, and sprayed some on this morning. I went out for a walk through the state forest, up hills, down around creeks, past a massive hornet's nest dangling by a thin vine from a tree branch. I perspired from the heat and exertion but the scent stayed with me, and even now I can smell it wafting up from my skin, creating some future narrative of memory around the experience of the woods. I don't know of any other scent that endures with the potency of 1740.

For me, aside from Tauer's Lonestar Memories and Vero Kern's Onda, no other fragrance I own has built up a wider series of stories over time, intertwining with my own day to day life. As with Lonestar Memories, which conjures back trips to LA and Massachusetts and the momentous things I went through while at those places, 1740 reads like a roadmap of my recent past, detailing all the emotional peaks and valleys. The latest version of the fragrance barely made it out of the store and down the street on my skin with anything resembling its previous tenacity. It's hard to imagine it surviving past the first serious incline in the forest.

The notes list davana sensualis, patchouli, coriander, cardamom, cedar, elemi, labdanum, and leather. What I've always smelled is something sitting between the honeyed savory of immortelle, tobacco, and tawny port, a fantastically sensual arrangement of notes which on their own would be too much to stomach but in this particular combination take me right to the point of excess and hover there. This latest version airs everything out to something approaching sheer. The basic qualities are still present but they feel shrill and excessive without the heart of the fragrance there to cohere them. Once rather rich, the perfume now feels merely loud, and only for a short time.

1740 is - was - one of my favorite fragrances. It's a day long event and I've reserved it for times I know I'll be able to stick with it and remain in a reflective frame of mind. I'll be hoarding it even more selectively now, and it frustrates me that I'll never be sure which version people are talking about.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

More Perfume in the Movies: The Last Picture Show

There's a great scene early on in The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) between Cybill Sheperd and Ellen Burstyn, who play mother and daughter in a small, stifled Texas town, circa 1951.

Teenage Cybill is alone in her frilly bedroom, reading a book on her bed while absently stroking her cat. Her mother, played by Burstyn, walks in, and Cybill immediately stomps to her vanity, where she faces the mirror, presenting her back in adolescent contempt to the parental intrusion.

Burstyn tells her she's foolish to spend so much time with her boyfriend, Jeff Bridges, who will never amount to much. He has no money and he'll never make much of himself, and she's too young to realize what being stuck in town the rest of her life will do to her.

Cybill says money doesn't seem to have made Burstyn very happy, and besides, when she married Cybill's daddy he had no money. Burstyn says she basically scared him into making something of himself. Cybill says Bridges can be made scared too, and Burstyn laughs, telling her daughter she isn't nearly mean enough to scare anybody, least of all a boy.

Burstyn is as well dressed and pretty as her daughter, with a harder edge, and it's obvious where Cybill's looks and her obsession with them came from. At one point, Burstyn approaches Cybill and grabs a perfume bottle off the vanity. She sprays it on her neck and Cybill says in disgust, you have your own, suggesting they share the same taste in fragrance.

Burstyn's great response: Maybe I want to smell good right now.

When her mother leaves, Cybill stomps back over to the bed and flings herself on it, after unceremoniously tossing the cat off, through with the girly stuff.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I Might Spray You, If You Weren't So Busy Sucking: Perfume as Epic Fail

Last Sunday, in a not so rare mood of profound boredom, I was sitting in front of the TV, as I sometimes do, trying to decide whether I should read from a stack of waiting books, or do laundry, or write friends I owe long emails, and I noticed that the last Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon, was available on Netflix, and I decided to watch it, if only because it was there and free and I couldn't seem to make up my mind about any of the other things. In a similar mood, though with imminently more rewarding returns on the investment of my attentions, I've embarked on viewing, in quick succession, all 200-something episodes of Cheers.

Dark of the Moon was the loudest, most confusing thing I'd seen in ages, and while I wasn't exactly or even nearly riveted, I did what you do when you're faced with that kind of movie: I let my mind roam into various philosophic dimensions sorting underwear never gives it much opportunity to. Among other things, I started thinking about how the bombast of the film, the sheer cacophonous messiness of it, reminded me of perfumes that don't work on any conceivable level but die extravagantly loud deaths trying.

It wasn't just that the scale and proportions of Dark of the Moon were all wrong, or all over the place, the way a perfume which tries to be all things to all people can be. It wasn't just the busy spectacle of the CGI effects, which made me realize for the first time that computer generated imagery is essentially, like many celebrity scents, a modern form of cartoon, substituting synthetic shorthand for human warmth and drama. Not just the ridiculous voice overs of the Transformers themselves, their cadences the vocal equivalent of Muzak, compressed for maximum appeal. Dark of the Moon, like many perfumes these days, felt overall like a live action, three dimensional Jackson Pollack painting. There was no appreciating the artistry. It never settled into anything remotely picturesque.

Dark of the Moon was all top notes, a constant barrage of quick, spectacular effects grandstanding each other. Even the presence of weighty thesps like Frances McDormand and John Torturro couldn't anchor the affair into something resonantly coherent, and ultimately functioned like the incessant foghorn of a cut rate patchouli or one of those emphatic but flatlining woody ambers fighting the good fight in cascading sparks of fruit and floral.

Things were flying all over the place but it was hard to figure out what that place was at any given time. Here a suggestion of tall building. There some crudely, hastily sketched impression of military complex. The movie was on the moon, then it was back on Earth; it was thirty years ago, then who knew exactly when or where. There was no getting a grip on its spatial coordinates. It's noise and images had no through line. A great big mechanical snake coiled around phallic skyscrapers, castrating them in explosions of metal, glass and plastic. People fell out windows, parachuted from helicopters, were thrown from cars then, the cars having morphed into something else, snatched back up again. If this sounds exciting, it's only because more thought went into composing the sentence I used to describe these events than the filmmakers put into filming them.

Did the film do well? I haven't checked the numbers. It hardly matters. Like many a mainstream - and even, increasingly, some niche - fragrances, the bigger picture is the ongoing franchise. It probably won't matter that a fragrance like Marc Jacobs Dot is no less a creative bankruptcy, taken on singular terms. Inevitably, Dot, with its Transformer-esque bottle design (I'm a perfume bottle that's an atomizer that's an art piece that's a swirling-parts sex toy!) will advance the brand, promoting its own version of ancillary bendable action figures and plastic wrapped gew-gaw. Though it's hardly an offense along the lines of a sensory onslaught like Dark of the Moon, the latest from Donna Karan, Woman, focuses, like that film, on surface pleasure (the bottle being the most interesting thing about it, a Giger alternative to Dot's Disney-Murakami adolescent fantasia) than depth of content. What harm will a passing little distraction like La Vie est Belle do Lancome? It can't be the worst thing in the world, with Dominique Ropion on the CGI effects team, and will do no more damage than, say, Tresor Midnight Rose did, probably, but how many whirligigs of caramel, praline, and third world patchouli must iris be subjected to before someone notices it's left the building?

If nothing else, the overload of a tentpole film like Dark of the Moon makes me appreciate the mechanical simplicities of a well constructed, perfectly judged, thoughtfully balanced ongoing narrative like Cheers, where the comic stuff of Diane and Sam and Carla and the coach is infinitely legible and lastingly pleasurable. Thank God there are perfumers and fragrance lines out there who still see the appeal of a good script and recognizable stories.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Few Things I'm Looking Forward To, Though I Should Probably Know Better By Now

Maitre Parfumeur et Ganteur has released Ambre Dore, which seems to be (might be?) a re-release of Soir d'Orient, a hard to find fragrance which was once in limited release then seemed to disappear. Soir was spoken about mostly lovingly on Make-up Alley and Basenotes as an ambery leather. Ambre Dore lists styrax resin, saffron, coriander, myrrh, and vetiver in addition to oud and ambergris. Hopefully, if it is a re-release, it hasn't been reformulated out of recognition, though I wouldn't know, not having smelled Soir.

In October, Mugler is releasing leather versions of Angel, A-Men, Womanity, and Alien, and I'm hopeful about those too. I wasn't thrilled with the Taste of Fragrance versions of these scents last year, but the liqueur series remains a favorite and produced two heavy rotation pleasures for me with its remixes of Alien and Angel.

I'm less excited about Agent Provocateur's Petale Noir, but more enthused about it, certainly than Coco Noir, advance news of which sounds reliably grim.

Please be good.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Parfums de Nicolaï: Number One Intense

There aren't many Parfums de Nicolaï fragrances I don't at least like a lot, and some, like Maharanih Intense, are among my favorites. Several of those I like most are a little more formally innovative or inventive than my ultimate favorite, Number One Intense. Vie de Chateau, for instance, with its curious hay note, is full of subtle, elegant herbal twists. Nicolaï Pour Homme always surprises me, somehow. And yet not one of these satisfies me more than Number One, which seems so pure and perfect in its way that I realize I'd rather be fulfilled sometimes than startled.

Number One was, aptly, my first Nicolaï purchase. Recently, at the Perfume House in Portland, where an older bottle was still in stock, a friend opened it and smelled it and nothing else seemed as good to me in the store. I remembered instantly how much I love it. I would classify Number One as an amber floriental I guess. For a while I thought it was a lot like Hermes 24, Faubourg, another amber floral which seems illuminated from within - until I compared the two side by side. They have a lot in common, but alongside Number One, 24 seems, if not shrill, then a little heavy on the treble. Faubourg seems more like a citrus cologne by comparison.

Number One was created in 1989, which makes sense, because that era produced a lot of my favorites. Like a lot of those '80s fragrances, Number One is rich to the point of plush, but where a lot of those scents have conjured the analogous big shouldered outfits of their time, Number One, despite all its voluble drama, feels softened and remarkably supple, a symphony heard through velvet. Part of this, I suspect, is the restraint shown with tuberose, which in many eighties frags becomes their sole reason for being. The tuberose in Number One plays nicely with the other florals - namely, jasmine, ylang ylang, rose, and orang blossom - allowing all of them to show something of themselves. There's a unique harmony to the fragrance.

The base of amber, oakmoss, and sandalwood shows, for me, the kind of durability and backbone emphasis most fragrances need a hefty dose of patchouli to achieve. Number One is the rare fragrance I imagine patchouli would have ruined rather than improved. And I like to think the use of tagetes up top gives it some level of distinction often lacking in its eighties brethren. The fragrance is perfectly judged and balanced and I couldn't imagine it any other way. It lasts all day on me, without, by the end of the day, feeling more like the day after.

I understand, I think, why it isn't discussed more often. Revisiting Number One recently started me thinking about the way we "review" fragrances. There are so many - so many in existence and so many emerging. It's easy to fall into judging them by what they do that something else hasn't, when sometimes, as with Number One, what they do different is simply, for a change, get it wonderfully right.

Painting: "Torrid Day" by Jane Wilson

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Space Oddity: Vero Kern's Onda Eau de Parfum

 I was excited, in 2010, when Swiss perfumer Vero Kern released eau de parfum concentrations of the three fragrances in her line, Vero Profumo. I'm not much of an extrait wearer, and the cost of Onda, Kiki, and Rubj were steep. I'd smelled them all at Luckyscent in Los Angeles, and thought that Onda was just about the most fantastic thing I'd ever laid hands on. It was smoky and mysterious, a meditation on the darker edges of the olfactory palette. I loved Kiki and Rubj, but for me Onda was one of those fragrances you come across and realize you've been waiting for without knowing it.

Early reports indicated significant differences between these new eau de parfum versions and their extrait counterparts. By introducing a passion fruit note to all three, Kern essentially remixed the scents the way a musician revisits a beloved song with slightly different instrumentation. While passion fruit was said to add something odd to the already profoundly odd Onda, I was skeptical. What I thought I liked best about the extrait was its deep, dark, near-incantatory properties. Onda extrait was some kind of pitch black spell wrought through scent instead of words. Kern stated that the passion fruit added a "sensual and erotic lightness" to the composition. While the original style of the extrait was said to remain intact, the mission of the eau de parfum versions was to render the scents "easier to wear".

I'm no more a fan of the phrase easier to wear than I am extraits, and the idea of these new formulas made me think of David Bowie re recording LOW with Muzak accompaniment. I was worried, and the worry kept me from buying Onda. It didn't help that for a while Luckyscent didn't have tester bottles of the EDPs at Scent Bar. I was so skeptical that I wouldn't even shell out the seven or so bucks for a sample. I knew that, like Bowie, Kern had a sort of bedrock integrity when it came to artistic vision, and that probably anything she did would be at the very least fascinating. Then again, I'd never been a huge fan of Bowie's "Let's Dance" period, and couldn't forget that embarrassing duet with Jagger, which had only been fascinating the way a car crash in reverse might be. Backwards or forwards, a car crash is a mess.

When Andy Tauer and I visited Scent Bar for the release of Tableau de Parfum's Miriam last October, I finally got a smell of Onda EDP, and I didn't know what to think. It was quite different, and I'd built it up or knocked it down in my head for so long that all kinds of mental adjustments were required to even properly apprehend, let alone appreciate, it. We were there about a week, and I kept coming back to it. Ultimately I bought it, and wore it out in the desert a lot when we traveled to Joshua Tree.

Onda EDP was the perfect scent-track for the trip. While there, we talked a lot about the attitudes and emotional effects of the desert landscape, its peculiar, powerful state of mind. It's a bigger than life place - too big and strange to take in all at once, if ever. Ultimately you surrender to it. The dry heat has an insidious effect and after a day in the sun you can easily feel exhaustion, precipitating that surrender with a sudden, out of the blue, immediacy.

Onda is indeed lighter than the extrait, and also, for me, more colorful. I would say...radiantly purplish. That's a horribly inept way to describe a fragrance, but like the desert Onda EDP is next to impossible to put into words. The extrait draws you in to some pitch dark, loamy underworld. It's buried deep in some unconscious territory and feels very gothic. The EDP concentration explodes that soil, sending all its particles airborne. Light from the sun heats and illuminates them, opening it all up without reassembling the constituent parts. The scent remains wonderfully expansive. I could tell you I smell passion fruit. I could say, Hey, there's the vetiver. But you experience this scent all at once, and it's that inability to put it into words, to narrow it down, that matches the extrait's qualities of strangeness, a relation that is more conceptual and philosophic than literal. There's something uncanny about Onda EDP, something at once overwhelming and intimate. I would agree it's sensual. And at this point, having spent a year with it, I would say it isn't just a desert island fragrance for me but the desert island itself.

The addition of a tropical fruit to Onda is no simple happy medium, nor does it produce standard, commercial impressions of the "tropics", with all the attendant coconut and shea butter stereotypes that typically implies. Here passion fruit is a study in what I guess I'd call vibrant decay. In other words, light and dark qualities existing in a tricky dual relationship where the one is viewed through the other no matter how you approach the sum total. Vibrant decay will be as much a turn off to some as easier to wear is to me, but for those who appreciate uncanny exuberance and a certain kind of jolie laide, Onda EDP will feel like a spectral visitation shrouded in ambient light, emerging from a portal no one and nothing else could possibly fit through.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Scent Memories: Three Women in Hickman, Kentucky

Around this time last year, I interviewed a woman about the scents the women in her family used to wear. Each of her aunts had her own signature scent. There was Dot, Baby Doll, Judy, Juanita, and Linda, the youngest. She said her aunts wore White Shoulders and Youth Dew, among other things, and together they represented what she called a "menagerie of scent." Until 2011, all of the five women were still living. Last summer, Linda was having trouble hearing and went to the doctor. Her body was riddled with cancer and she died about a month later. This summer, Dot died, leaving three.

Dot had kept up the family home in Hickman, Kentucky since their mother's death in '95. My friend, who is the daughter of the woman I interviewed, had been to the funeral and came back telling me about the place. She texted me pictures to illustrate. In the attic, there was an old Guerlain dusting powder box: L'Heure Bleue.

I've been wanting to make a western movie of some kind, ever since Abigail recommended the book The Sisters Brothers to me. The book was as fantastic as she'd said it would be, and instantly made me want to do something with some of that frontier mood. I told my friend I was writing a story but didn't have a house to film it in, and she mentioned this place in Hickman, and off we went with cameras and microphones to check it out.

Since Dot died, the house is just sitting there, used mainly for rare family get togethers. There are family photos all over the mantel and propped along the transoms. A sign between the dining room and the kitchen reads: "God help me to know when to keep my big mouth shut." In the small bathroom, there's a single bottle of perfume, an older version of Cachet.

The three surviving sisters knew we were coming and were at the house when we got there. They'd brought fried chicken, okra, and biscuits. There was Diet Coke in the fridge. They all sat in the living room while we took test shots of the place but it soon became pretty obvious that they were the most interesting things in the house. They talked about their memories of boys and each other and the people in Hickman. And I asked them about perfume.

Judy told me about the time she'd saved her allowance and the money she got for Christmas, which added up to 29 cents, to buy a perfume set which included powder. I can't remember what scent it was. Like her daughter, who I'd interviewed, she recounted what all the women had worn, but their stories differed slightly. They seemed to remember every perfume they'd ever worn.

There was a Hammond organ in the room and at one point Juanita played it while the rest sang hymns. Baby Doll was eating pie out of a tin dish and started to cry, maybe because all the talk about perfume brought back memories, and she felt the absence of Dot and Linda. When we left Judy told us she didn't know why they all got so mean but she thought it was probably because there were three men present, counting me, and men seemed to do that. I didn't think they were mean and I think maybe what she meant was that they got candid in a way they worried might be unladylike. I loved that they talked freely, the way I imagine they do when they're alone with each other.