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.