Monday, July 20, 2009

Musty-Have: Le Labo Oud 27

“He became aware that he was uncomfortable; but then like so many times before, his uncomfortableness started to feel like pleasure. Then revulsion. Then guilt. Then pity. Then love.”
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

I detest pretense in perfume. It clouds the judgment. By Kilian, for instance, makes beautiful juice but the creative and marketing pain me. Le Labo has a handful of things I admire and wear, but the tone of the brand is so bloody holier-than-thou. The former is like an interior decoration job that is filled with things that serve no purpose other than ornament; the latter reminds me, in my less ingenuous moments, of a trendy bar washroom that’s been made to look like it dates from 1950; when, in truth, it dates from last Tuesday.

Revulsion is a great marketing tool. Aside from sensation and intrigue, we really do secretly become fascinated with the things that turn us off. With bad taste, ugliness and vice. After all, a pinch of one of these or other is what turns run-of-the-mill beauty into something addictive.

When I first smelled Oud 27, perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz and I looked at each other and mouthed “laundry bag.” (In all fairness, it was a warm May day; I’d smelled at least 40 different fragrances in the four hours preceding.) But something happened over the next ten days -- call it a strong Scent Memory -- that sent me back to Elizabeth Street holding my wallet in hand. It was like tasting black licorice as a child for the very first time, or those nasty black pellets sold in gas stations along the Autostrada that blend anise with Pirelli tire rubber. Unwittingly, a taste had been acquired. I was in love with an oud I could afford.

Oud 27 is all about that place between the sweet-savoury and the medicinal. In that sense, it occupies ground held by things like saffron and myrrh. But, allied to this dichotomy, is a hefty dose of castoreum and synthetic civet as well as a sappy woody note (birch oil). The oud used is most likely Oud Synthetic 10760 E by Firmenich. The drydown is Atlas cedar and musk. As with many natural ouds the sweetness can stray into the putrefactory, but the nose here is diverted from that path by a beautiful succession of ancillary notes: including honey, rose, labdanum, and gaiac wood.

While many will want to call this unisex, I safely can aver that this belongs on the male of the species, preferably dried on a favorite t-shirt. There is nothing pretentious about it. But, then again, on a humid summer day it’s not exactly courtly love that we’re after.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Never Change: Chanel Cristalle

In the world of perfume there are two poles – nostalgia on the one hand, and on the other a kind of reckless novelty. Nostalgia says “It Was and Ever Shall Be.” Reckless Novelty pipes “We’ll Add New Accord and They Will Grow Addicted.” Being a firm believer that you can have too much of a good thing, I try to not to side with either. A conversation that at forty-five minutes long was going to be put into your short book of Greatest Conversations became insufferable at one-hour thirty minutes. It is the same way with great perfumes. Nahéma parfum on a special evening out at the opera was divine; Nahéma Eau de Toilette sprayed on before the school pageant (and reapplied at intermission) is diabolical. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the sometimes-goodhearted attempt to improve on something deemed “old-ladyish,” viz. Mitsouko Fleur de Lotus, Shalimar Eau Légère and other latter-day flankers of Great Perfumes of Days Long Gone. I see nothing morally reprehensible about wanting to contemporize. Well .... with one exception.

Chanel Cristalle Eau de Toilette is, for me, one of the top 8 fragrances still in production. It is hard as heck to find – not to toot my horn, but Bloomingdale’s still carries it – and recently was flanked by something insipid and green called Eau Verte. It’s been around since 1974, one of the handful of masterpieces of Henri Robert. (No 19 and Pour Monsieur are its stable mates.) It straddles that shaded path between chypre and green floral, and is the quintessential warm-weather scent. Hyacinth, jasmine and melon are fronted by crisp, light citrus and green galbanum. It is youthful and full of irrepressible exuberance without (thanks to oakmoss) ever coming across as cheap or giggly. I grow worried that I don’t see testers out for it anymore – one has to ask for it, and even then the sales associates push the newer Eau de Parfum version (yes, version, not concentration - totally different fragrances). Why? Is Chanel embarassed by some of the scents in its stable? Will No. 19 fall victim to this sort of treatment soon?

Each day, my desk fills with three or four new scents for which there is nothing really new to say (or smell) except a shuffling of a few popular aroma chemicals. The vast majority strike me as old before they’re even released onto the market; a few stand out. This isn’t snobbery, it’s just a humbling reminder that precious few things are new under the sun (ever). In a sea of the static, the dynamic must swim against the tide. Cristalle did that. Thirty-five years ago, to be exact.

May it never tire.