Monday, July 28, 2008

Splash Down: Chanel Cologne

Having recently become a New Yorker-with-a-bike, I’ve taken to zipping around parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan I’d never had the chance to terrorize before. (An old friend once told me that Raymond Roussel took to doing similarly in a white Rolls-Royce he’d had outfitted with a harpsichord.) I love the feeling of liberation such meandering rides produce in me ... but, alas, not the smells. Hot, muggy summer-in-the-city means almost guaranteed inundation with stagnant water, sunbaked trash and something that I can only liken to the putrifaction of our piscine friends.

These are not the days for perfumes of profundity. A good bar of soap, clean water, absorbent towels and a large bottle of eau-de-Cologne will do ... all of which brings me to my supreme joy that someone with common sense was in the room when Chanel decided to include a cologne among its Les Exclusifs offerings. No matter how low the Dow Jones goes, no matter how high the price of milk or gasoline rises, each household should stock a 400ml bottle of the stuff.

A masterfully rounded Cologne, it manages to weave its very traditional components into something modern, “Coco” would have warmed to, or, at least, indulged in between her trysts with all those Grand Dukes and whatnot. Of course, the bergamot and néroli are there, but also some rose and vetiver, and a fresh-linen-smelling musk that makes me want to pour half the bottle over me. Very few drydowns transform my mood (Eau d’Hiver, Eau de Guerlain, Cologne Blanche) and this one does. It reminds me of childhood, post-bath, pre-pajama moments – moments which, sadly, are not revisited in the countless spa situations we endure in the city.

If I were you, I’d keep a large bottle on hand – which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have another bottle stored away for safe keeping.

Friday, July 25, 2008

After the Storm

Well, I guess we can all do a long exhale, as the inevitable has occurred. Chandler Burr, esteemed critic of the olfactory has passed into bafflement. Like Frank Bruni stomping out of Vong, steam billowing from his ears or a claque of Michelin Guide Rouge critics casting a Tour d’Argent duck-press into the Seine, Typhoon Burr ripped through Kerala yesterday with as much violence as Kathleen Byron in the climax scene of Black Narcissus. Jean-Claude Ellena managed to escape the 145kmh winds, while saris whipped about palm trees and servants fled to high land. Hermès Un Jardin Après La Mousson was panned.

It is, he writes, “a failure on every level, and its failure is so strangely complete, so weirdly disorienting, that after I had repeatedly smelled the bottle delivered to my office — put it on colleagues, offered my arm to strangers — I came to distrust that what I was smelling was the intended perfume.” Ellena, who Burr shadowed throughout the lead-up to the writing of The Perfect Scent, has his fair share of admirers, and in retrospect it would appear that Burr was one of them. The tone of the review remains one of grudging respect, despite disappointment. Burr would be the first to admit that even the greatest noses are capable of colossal failures. No less than Jacques Cavallier, Michel Almairac and a host of others have been dealt one-star reviews in the past. But my beef is not with the rating––it is with the review itself.

Burr’s assessment begins with a rather convoluted discussion of Hedione (the chemical responsible for the success of Edmond Roudnitska’s Eau Sauvage and Diorella) and a denigration (no fault there) of the much-overused aquatic Calone. He initially allies the rain-soaked facets of Un Jardin Après La Mousson with the latter, but later reveals that, with the help of a gas chromatograph, he realized it contained none. He then gallantly throws his mistaken assumption into striking relief by revealing that it is chock full of Hedione. Traditionally Hedione, also known as methyl dihydrojasmonate, has the effect of reanimating floral notes, making them positively shimmer. Ellena first used it in an über-opulent success of his youth, First by Van Cleef & Arpels.

Calone? Hedione? Chromatographs? By this point, any reader is straining for a description … for any form of subjectivity that transcends the mere sticking of said star to waterlogged page. Perhaps Burr assumes that the reader knows the score (in every sense) and has read his books. (From the consistent weirdness of most of the comments on the T-magazine blog, I have to assume not.) Ellena is the master of minimalism. Each of his Hermès compositions, the hard-to-find Hermessences included, is a take-it-or-leave-it study in doing without. For better or worse, these are crystalline compositions exhibiting in each iteration a trademark clarity. They are eminently wearable, if just a bit steep in price. But this is Hermès, after all. Realistic pricing would dull some of the appeal.

Whether you like it or not, Un Jardin Après La Mousson fits the mold. Perhaps (perhaps) its weak point is a dull consistency. I, for one, think the natural vetiver is handled very well. I’d reach for this. It doesn’t bother me, but neither does it bewitch. That said, Chandler Burr’s review bewilders me –– Or does it baffle? –– Oh, I forget.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Alexis (Dadier) in Wonderland

Things simply aren’t as they would appear –– not this side of the looking glass, at least!

But Alexis Dadier, the young talent behind Thierry Mugler’s À Travers le Miroir (from the Miroir, Miroir Collection), was thinking more of Jean Cocteau’s 1930 film Le Sang d’un Poète than Alice in Wonderland. One of the picture’s seminal sequences involves a man passing through a mirror, and while I will leave the psychosexual critiques to those better qualified for that sort of thing, I will say that androgyny clearly was on the perfumer’s mind when he set out to create his own version of Through the Looking Glass. The TM Perfumes website sums it up as: “a fragrance that accentuates feminine strengths and masculine fragility.” In layman’s terms, À Travers le Miroir has set out to accomplish something that niche houses the world over would like to do –– mainly, create something that men and women will want to wear, regardless of the previously “gendered” materials found inside.

Let’s face it: the world has seen dozens of tuberose accords. To name the principals: Robert Piguet Fracas, Givenchy Amarige, Guerlain Mayotte/Mahora and Jardins de Bagatelle, L’Artisan Parfumeur La Chasse aux Papillons, and, most recently, Serge Lutens Tubereuse Criminelle and Frédéric Malle Carnal Flower. Fracas is the undisputed queen of tuberoses, big, sweet, buttery and unmistakable in a closed room. With its coconut shavings, Carnal Flower is the gourmand of the pack. Tubéreuse Criminelle is the bad girl, her flower steeped in gasoline, like a Molotov cocktail.

À Travers le Miroir is the boy-girl, with its heady white florals emerging initially but quickly overtaken by herbaceous, bitter, absinthe-like notes (nod to Lolita Lempicka for Men and Giacobetti’s Fou d’Absinthe). Here, liquor meets ice but forgoes the gourmand temptations of black licorice. Instead, Dadier overlays the whole production with a camphorous, mentholated note (wintergreen, I think), acknowledging a late-great tuberose from Le Galion, c. 1936.

I love the coolness of it all, as if we were relaxing on the other side of mirror with a tuberose Italian ice. Great work.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Few Faves du Jour

This is one of those superlatively subjective posts that I’m doing just because it feels good. For a great many perfumophiles, fragrance is a form of therapy. Like a person who finds in a glass of wine a problem to be worked out (“what am I smelling in here?”) or the amateur pianist who plays an étude to experience the composer’s tonal dilemma (“what was he grappling with, sonically?”), the person with olfactory sensitivities turns to the ... bottle – No, I mean the flacon.

This evening, after the gym, I spread out on my desk about fifteen perfumes. There were some Parfumerie Générales, some Profumums, some Tauers, some Frédéric Malles and some Serge Lutens. For the most part, I knew them. So I begin sifting through. First cut, second cut and, finally, the remaining three bottles: Une Fleur de Cassie (Frédéric Malle), Incense Rosé (Tauer Perfumes) and Bois de Violette (Serge Lutens).

There were a great many very good scents there before me, but these were the masterpieces. Or to be more precise, the masterpieces of Blending. (I guess, then, you’re thinking that this is my response to the Top 25 Fragrances postings on many of my sister blogs. Honestly, it is. I just can’t bring myself, however, to sum up great things in four words or less.)

Une Fleur de Cassie is as beautiful a perfume as they come. It’s like the feeling that comes when you’ve finished a chapter of Colette; a feeling, that is, wagered on the piling up of pastel adjectives – the prose equivalent of a Renoir oil sketch. Mimosas and almond milk and pearls held up in the light. It’s a floral that doesn’t project the aura of flowers. It’s a meal and a kiss and a brush stroke all in one.

Incense Rosé took me months to comprehend. It’s one of the very few incense perfumes that does the “incense thing” with boldness. If Chaim Soutine and Philip Guston got together to create a perfume, this would be it. To me, it’s not rosé – it’s as “rouge” as it comes. All I get here – and if that were all, I’d be ecstatic – is a canvas caked with red paint; caked, and then overlaid and glazed with wonderful things, like vetiver and myrrh. And then, comes the rose. Big and red and bit blown.

Bois de Violette is the type of perfume that, as a boy, I’d have associated with a very rich and elegant woman on a cold night. That said, it’s gorgeous even on summer evening in New York City. (Caveat: I’m indoors with the a/c running.) Wood, violets and something like purple silk cravat. God, I love alpha-methyl ionone ... especially, with the dark touch of Messrs. Lutens et Sheldrake. Warm, sweet and delicious.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Prada No. 5 Narciso

Narcissus is one of those brand of soliflores that people either love or hate. I have yet to encounter a happy middle ground.

On the face of it, it would seem that any floral accord which strays into the province of the indolic runs the risk of alienating certain people who “think” they like white florals when what they truly like are scrubbed-up florals done in cosmetics labs. Real flowers aren’t hygienic-smelling at all. They grow in the dirt: they co-exist with decaying plants, animals, and minerals. They have “complexity” in their blood, or roots, or phylum or whatever you call it.

Prada’s No. 5 Narciso, one of the quietly released perfumes available exclusively in select Prada boutiques and Liberty of London, is, like its bedfellows Oeillet, Fleur d’Oranger and Cuir Ambre, a vintage-styled gem. This is narcissus in the late morning, when you take a few steps in the kitchen yard and run your hand through the green stalks. The perfumer manages here to imbue the green-sweet-polleny solvent-extracted narcissus poeticus note with a certain sunniness, owing to the inclusion of orange blossom absolute, beeswax absolute and narcissus tazzeta.

If that isn’t special enough, after about fifteen minutes on my skin the vetiver peeks through the flowers, dry and spicy, mimicking human perspiration. All in all, this is a very human scent, neither vaunting prettiness or brute strength. (Personally, I’d have gone with some oakmoss in the base for a chypre effect.) It speaks clearly and, on a warm summer morning, you find yourself listening.