Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Two Andies

Traditionally, the Third Sunday of Advent is seen as a respite from preparatory austerity of the season. Also known as Gaudete – its Lenten counterpart being Laetare – this Sunday is a fleeting glimmer of the celebration of Christmas. Statues can be displayed, High Altar candles can be lit, flowers – usually roses – can adorn the sanctuary, and – surprise! – pink vestments and altar clothes can be used. (I seem to remember one priest of my youth referring to Gaudete as “Gay-day-té.”) And then, particularly in Catholic and Anglo-Catholic congregrations, there’s incense. I’ve written about incense before, the “odor of sanctity” and all that.

I can’t say that, outside of church services, I’m a huge fan of the more ecclesiastical incenses. Unlike the more Eastern incense blends, I prefer to have this smell on my clothing rather than on my person. Comme des Garçons Incense Series and Diptyque L’Eau Trois are my benchmarks, though Heeley Cardinal and Etro Messe de Minuit are also among my choices. For whatever reason, I’ve given scant attention to Creed Angelique Encens (even if the Creed family presented a special version of the scent to the Holy Father last year in New York).

Two exceptions that I will make to the not-on-my-person, or N.O.M.P., rule are the two Andies: Andy Tauer Incense Extrême and Andy Warhol Silver Factory. The former is cool as ice and dark as darkest moonless Northern night, with starlight piercing the pitchblack scrim in the form of cedar and iris; the latter is incensey but in that I’m-a-woman-who-wears-incense-yes-incense sort of way. If you’ll allow my poetic license, it’s incense with blue mascara. The cardinal rule of incense notes being, They Must Last, both fragrances have excellent sillage and tenacity.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bitter, Bitte: Bandit

Germaine Cellier (1909–1976), unarguably the bitch goddess of modern perfumery, was beautiful, smart, indomitable and unapologetically direct in her approach to the olfactive experience. She sired (yes, sired) a quartet of masterpieces (Vent Vert, Fracas, Bandit and Jolie Madame) and a host of other perfumes which, while carrying the names of her collaborators, bore her smudge and smell. According to critic Chandler Burr, Cellier’s final result often flaunts the impassioned, unabashed features of, say, a de Kooning’s Woman. According to Victoria Frolova of Bois de Jasmin, she was “a creator ahead of her time, relying on short formulas to paint dazzling abstractions.” To me, a Cellier creation can range in resemblance from an early Schönberg like Verklarte Nacht to a late concerto by Lutoslawski, from moon-kissed verdure to picaresque in retrograde.

If Chanel No. 5 is Jazz Age modern, all star-upon-the-forehead coyness, Bandit is Modern Art, High Art, Difficult Art – the olfactive equivalent of Ayn Rand or Nathalie Sarraute. It does not show or flaunt; instead, it taunts and tempts and plays its quarry until coming within an inch of an edge, but an edge which only resembles an edge. In a strange reversal of roles – it was created in 1944 – it is, for me, a very Fascist perfume. (But, there again, we say such paradoxes live on. Wasn’t post-war Germany the best market for Dior’s New Look?)

Bandit is a perfume ripe for psychoanalysis or, better yet, shock therapy. It retires, like a rich person retiring to a “health farm” or like a Lowell retiring to MacDowell Colony, to write a book or carry on a type of tender, tortured affair with a younger woman deemed too beautiful for books and barbiturates. It understands that feelings, even potentially destructive ones, are to be heeded and that the drink you take before you fall may be the very best one of all.

I, for one, love its glove-compartment aura. Cracked leather gloves, a set of keys, a crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes. It makes me think of a housewife turned into an accomplice, like Joan Bennett opposite James Mason in The Reckless Moment or Janet Leigh tormented by reefer-crazed dykes in Touch of Evil.

It’s a famously short formula with about 1% of isobutyl quinoline (or IBQ, as my friends call it) amped up with the very same galbanum that, three years later, Cellier would transform into her pastoral masterpiece Vent Vert. The middle notes are, at turns, indolic and spicy (jasmine, carnation absolute) and single-handedly responsible for the concept of some great later masculines like Dior Jules and Patou pour Homme. At this writing, it is still among the most astonishing, disturbing perfumes on the market and to miss it would be like going to Vegas to study the postmodern “architecture of spectacle” and missing the pirates at Treasure Island.

Image credit: 35mm color still from The Image (1975) by Radley Metzger

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Violets Smell Funny

Possessed as I am with a sort of talent for parsing phrases, all I can come up with is ... Violets smell funny. They just do. Not that I’ve ever smelled a living violet. I’ll leave that to Audrey Hepburn peddling them for Rex Harrison on the back lot at Warner Brothers. Aside from their purpled character, I’d never, say, find them joyous or regal; nor are they particularly sad. Rather, they are demure ... and sort of funny in their demureness. Demure the way that Rei Kawakubo is demure. (Or, is she just quiet?)

Anyway, there are days when I am positively to addicted to perfumes with violet; like, for instance, the other night after a workout. I simply gave no mind to all the hairy pecs and post-shower masculine preening, and splashed some Annick Goutal La Violette on my wrists and neck. It’s one of the best violets out there (and it’s by Isabelle Doyen, a perfumer for whom I have nothing but praise) and it does the trick. It gives me a fine dose of that pastel-brushed petrol (Oeno-olfactospeak for gasoline, guys) note that octin esters (the chemicals responsible for green-violet leaf smells) produce, reminding me of a muscle-hunk wrapped in yards of silk tulle.

Another favorite isn’t even billed as a violet per se: The Different Company Bois d’Iris by Jean-Claude Ellena. Aside from having one of the most divine dry-downs of anything I’d put on man or woman alike, it plays those frosty ostrich-feather-grey irones (the chemicals responsible for iris/orris root notes) against cedar and vetiver (both top-notch materials), overlaid by a holographic veil of moody, pouting violets. The only downside is tenacity in warmer weather – to which I say, Spray it like you were a Rockefeller.

Lots of good things in life can smell funny. Use your imaginations and just think of the last time you drank a really fine Mosel Riesling. Jawohl!

9th Annual Basenotes Awards

Voting has begun for the 9th Annual Basenotes Fragrance Awards. The awards are sponsored by FragranceNet.com, and one lucky voter will win a $250 FragranceNet.com Gift Card.

Categories include Best New Fragrance, Best Overall Fragrance, Best Designer Fragrance, Best Niche Fragrance, Best Celebrity Fragrance, Best Home Fragrance, Best Fragrance Blog and more. Register at Basenotes to vote; the polls will remain open until January 21.