Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Jeepers Chypres!

It takes a lot to excite me. Chalk that up to New York jadedness or whatnot. In a world of perfume junkies (bless their hearts) who constantly talk up the next new “masterpiece” and who throw the word “lemming” around with such abandon as to give the animal-rights folks a fright, it takes a real shiver-me-timbers scent to make an outstanding impression.

It was, then, with a great sense of fear and loathing that I ordered some samples of the super-exclusive line of “vintage-ey” extraits de parfums from Auguste, an unknown French perfumer who purports to have used les anciennes grimoires to concoct a chypre, an oriental, and a cuir de Russie. Grimoire, I love it. (Cut to a gallic Gargamel in front of some bubbling Turk’s head.)

What does it mean, this chic for vintage? Is it a cry for an authenticity (of the emotional sort) so lacking in the development of today’s perfumes? I dare say it isn’t some rummage-sale sort of mentality. Face it, people want designer clothing; they want labels, names if you may, not quaintness; but they want authenticity in the foods they prepare and the scents they wear.

Auguste, despite the sanctimoniousness of its venture (its almost audible straining at Preservation), has done something very, very right in the genre of the vintage chypre. Esprit de Chypre is like a miniature stumbled upon in some provincial museum. It communicates the chypre concept in an appealing and very wearable way. It isn’t an academic exercise, a caprice of the genius-mind gone amok. From the start, with its sucker-punch of lemon, bergamot, through the floral heart (lovely ylang ylang), down to the leathery labdanum and oakmoss (yes, oakmoss) base, Esprit de Chypre is a Twenties flapper who wants to get behind the wheel and drive straight through the night to Vienne. Lovers of vintage Tabac Blond, Sycomore and En Avion, not to mention the cut of an old Chanel original, will swoon over this. It’s like smelling back into time while perched (firmly) on the precipice of the future.

Ahem, lemmings, if you buy one thing this year, let it be this. Who knows how long it will be around for. Such a pity, then, they didn’t get the bottle quite right.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Search for...

My search for the perfect fragrance was a search for authenticity. Raised in the Eighties and Nineties in an affluent suburb about fifty miles from the city, I had learned about fragrances at an early age on trips with my mother to the local Saks and Bloomingdale’s. I had learned that they were about how you looked, how you made your money and how you attracted the opposite sex. By and large, they seemed to be about fulfilling the expectations created by magazine advertisements. The formula was something like that dress, that car, that house and that man. And the formula was a work of genius. Everybody wanted evidence of it in their daily lives.

It wasn’t until much later, in graduate school, that I began to think about fragrance as something that expressed the individual or that gave its wearer pleasure before anyone else. I had smelled a very fine patchouli fragrance on another guest at an East Village dinner party. Earthy, dark and pungent, it complemented her little black dress, her silver jewelry and her foreign accent. The next weekend I made a point of visiting the women’s fragrance counter at Barneys and asked the salesperson to guide me through the various renditions of patchouli. After about an hour-and-a-half I put my finger on Etro’s Patchouli, a complex patchouli with citrus and floral notes. It became my winter scent. Friends would pull me close for a kiss and then linger over my overcoat collar or cashmere scarf. Some would comment on the strangeness of it, the singularity of it. After all, it was 2001. The era of innocuous aquatic men’s scents was in full swing. If something didn’t reek of Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme, it was exemplary.

That spring, as the weather changed I realized that the patchouli wasn’t working. This time, instead of going to Barneys I went to the Etro boutique. I tried about five more of their fragrances and this time bought a bottle of Vetiver. Little did I know how important that bottle would prove to be. Vetiver, I learned, was a root much prized in India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia for staving off erosion. In many of those same places, it was used to make floor mats and shades, which incidentally worked well against mosquitoes. On me, it was austere and manly but in an introverted sort of way. I decided it would be my fragrance signature. I still knew relatively little about its importance in perfumery.

As the years went by and I came closer to finishing my doctorate, I acquired a number of different styles and “arrangements” of vetiver. There were the classical ones, like Givenchy and Carven; the wildly popular tobacco-inflected ones, like Guerlain; the dirty, sweaty ones like Maître Parfumeur et Gantier Route du Vétiver; and the seaside ones, briny and brisk, like Annick Goutal Vétiver and The Different Company Sel du Vétiver; and even the seductive Oriental ones, like Montale Vétiver Sables and Serge Lutens Vétiver Oriental. At each step of the way, I yearned for a vetiver to call my very own. Earthiness here appealed more to me than high polish. Somehow a touch of dirt brought nature back into my life in the concrete jungle and didn’t toy with my own body’s scent. But this dirt––this root system, rather, with the dirt still clinging––was maddeningly elusive.

And then, this past summer, I found it. After sniffing hundreds of different vetivers, I came upon a new one right back where I had started ten years before: Nasomatto Absinth. It was an unexpected surprise. Rooty, nutty and mushroomy, it captured my attention immediately. Finally, I thought, here’s what the French call sous-bois (“undergrowth,” “forest floor”). But the real surprise came when I realized that the unadulterated vetiver for which I’d yearned all those years was unattainable without the help of things like patchouli, bergamot and wild fennel. Where Paradise was lost, the art of perfumery had begun.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Lime Flower

Tilleul (tee-LOO).
Tilia vulgaris, etc.
The lime- or linden blossom.
The tisane savored by Proust’s (namesake) narrator.
Remedy for hysteria.
A spoonful of honey.
A hotel soap.

How to describe it? Fragrant. Sweet. Old-fashioned. The sort of thing I’d imagine in one of those bottles on Clarissa Dalloway’s vanity. Complicit with orange blossom, rosemary, lavender, and bergamot (and about 10 other ingredients) in Guerlain’s Eau de Cologne Impériale, created in 1853 for the Empress Eugénie. While hats go off to the much later Eau de Guerlain (1974; I would come along about a year later) for its high-octane lemony zing, there’s something about EdCI which refuses to get all worked up. It’s a cool house in the Ile-de-France on a hot summer day; a bed on which the white linens have been pulled tight; afternoon naps; the chequered shade of the garden where, in a few hours, the family will gather for lemonade and cookies.

Eau de Cologne Impériale is one of my few personal extravagances. It gets its own pocket in my summer tote, and frankly I don’t care if a person on the subway stares me down for spritzing myself. The way I look at it, he’s the one making good on his 2-buck Metrocard swipe.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Vero Profumo

For those of you who attended this weekend’s Sniffa Spring Fling, I would like to follow up my presentation of Vero Kern’s extraits de parfums. Many of you already know the admiration with which I hold this Swiss master perfumer and student of the esteemed Guy Robert. Her three extraits de parfums (Onda, Kiki and Rubj) provide for endless olfactory fascination. But unlike many niche perfumes, Kern’s actually work as “statement scents” not mere curiosities for me and my wrist. Having lived in that country of milk and mountains, I can say that her creations are most definitely not Swiss in conception or execution. They are very French but without the million-dollar advertising hype we associate with the great maisons de parfums.

Vero Kern’s creations are currently unavailable in the States. They can be purchased directly over her Web site, veroprofumo.com.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Lads in Lavender

Amid the dearth of scents which try – unsuccessfully – to turn men into boys, there are a few fragrances which turn boys into men. Caron Pour Un Homme is one of them. Created by the legendary Ernest Daltroff in 1934, it resides on a plane far removed from that of most classic splash “colognes.” It feels manly but not dandy, masculine but not hirsute, refined but not stuck up. Wearing it at thirty is the olfactory equivalent of buying one’s first really good suit ... or finally confessing (silently to oneself) that, after all, Dad did know something about getting dressed.

For those who write it off as as a mere lavender, bah I say. We’d do well to come to know lavender outside of the precincts of the apothecary aisle of the local “healthy” supermarket or of the sachets which used to lingers in our mother’s linen drawer. Pour Un Homme is lavender that conjures up the sunny South of France, the minimalism of modern menswear and a sort of stylish conservatism that – in light of recent menswear collections by Thom Browne, Michael Bastian and Band of Outsiders – is likely to stick around for the next few seasons. (And a large enough bottle will ensure that it sticks around long after that. Perhaps long enough to give you a chance to give Junior a spritz behind the ears.)

A sharp jolt of lavender is an instant appeal for me. In either the classic or Impact EDP concentration, it’s strikingly apparent, though Impact draws it out a bit longer. Both concentrations progress through the woody middle notes rather quickly and leave us with a supple, sensuous drydown which mingles amber with tonka bean.

Pour Un Homme (still reasonably priced and in a variety of luxurious formats) is available at the Caron Boutique at Phyto Universe in New York City. To order, contact Diane Haska at 212 308 0270.