One Thousand Scents

Friday, May 16, 2008

Fireball: Le Feu D'Issey

I happened to be in Toronto in 1998 just as the much-anticipated second fragrance from designer Issey Miyake was being launched. The bottle was the most arresting thing I had ever seen: a sphere of red-orange acrylic with a white liner, exploiting the optical properties of acrylic to make it seem as if the liner were flickering and changing shape as you held it and moved it. The non-cap on top of the bottle was a little truncated cone of red plastic: when you lifted the bottle, magic!--a sleeve dropped away into the bottle to reveal the sprayer. (It also came with a red plastic disc that fitted into the bottom and prevented the sleeve from moving, so that you could toss the whole thing in your luggage without fear of its detonating.)

I thought about it and tormented myself for a little while, but I knew I was lost without it, so I bought it. Of course I did. The contents hardly even mattered (though they were tremendously interesting). And I wore the scent for a couple of years, and then I got tired of it, as I will, so I offered it to my friend Charlene, one of those fabulously brassy women who can wear pretty much any scent as long as it's big and showy, the kind of thing you can never imagine on a schoolteacher or a systems analyst. I had introduced her to Angel, which naturally fit her like a glove, and also Nicole Miller; I had given her my half-used bottle of A*Men when I tired of that, and also a full bottle (I had two) of Todd Oldham. (This is because I am an enabler.) You could never see Charlene wearing L'Eau D'Issey, but clearly she was the perfect recipient of Le Feu D'Issey, so I offered it to her, and she took it.

And she wore it, too. A month or so ago she was in town and I asked if she still had it, and she warily said, "Yes, but you can't have it back!" No, I said, I just needed to borrow it so I could write about it. She kindly returned it to me for a little while, and I've been wearing it all week, but sparingly, because there isn't much of it left. You can't see the glass bottle inside the acrylic one, but you can sort of catch a glimpse of it if you peer through the bottom and hold it just so, and this is a nearly-empty bottle; there are a few millilitres left sloshing around in there, and when it's gone, it's gone.Le Feu D'Issey was discontinued not very long after it was launched: there was a half-hearted attempt to lighten it up for the terrified masses with Le Feu Light (in the same bottle but now in a pale, watery, un-fiery pink, above), but that didn't take, either, and now it's gone.

Every now and then, the perfume manufacturers will attempt to invent a new category that their new fragrance is the first exemplar of. Nicole Miller called her first eponymous scent an "explosive aura-floral", and Giorgio Red was supposedly the first "fleuriffe chypre". (You may have noticed that neither of these categories stuck around.) But bone-deep fragrance lovers love a category: they like to be able to smell something and analyze it and think, "Oh, this is a green chypre, and it resembles Diorella" or whatnot. The thing about Le Feu D'Issey is that when you smell it, and not even for the first time, you're thinking, "God, what the hell is this?"

Straight out of the bottle, Le Feu D'Issey is strange and compelling. It pulls you in two directions at once: it's simultaneously a fresh rosy floral and a thick, sweet brew which resembles nothing more than hot sugared milk with a pat of butter floating in it. Spices play peekaboo from time to time, and the drydown is warm and vanillic woody amber, but mostly what you have is roses floating in a bowl of hot milk. It is so odd, so unexpected; weird and comforting at the same time, perpetually jangling your nerves and then soothing them.

If you should happen to get hold of some this stuff, let me give you a warning: Le Feu D'Issey does not go well with food. It has qualities that dominate your sense of smell, even late in the game: it makes you think that whatever you're eating has that same dense milky-creamy quality. Don't apply it before going out to dinner.

But you probably can't apply it at all. There's some for sale on the Internet; $200 for a 50-mL bottle. Online retailers have the body lotion and shower gel for $40-50 a pop (though those are never quite the same as the actual juice, are they?). The original shower-gel and body-lotion bottles, by the way, were just as innovative as the scent bottle. Just as the scent was packaged in a sphere, the lotion and shower gel were put into flat discs, the sort of thing you couldn't conveniently put anywhere in your bathroom; they won't stand upright and they take up too much room lying flat. So the bottles had suction cups on the backs--just slap them right onto the shower wall! (That didn't last; the newer bottles, the ones currently available, aren't perfect discs, but have a flattened bottom so they can stand upright. It's just not the same.)

I think Le Feu D'Issey could make a go of it in the new marketplace: it was too forward-thinking for 1998, but the ensuing decade has changed things, a lot, in the world of fragrance. (There was even a scent, Matin Calin, that strongly resembles the hot-milk quality of Le Feu.) Rather than crank out variant after tiresome variant of L'Eau D'Issey, I wish the house would:

1) Revive Le Feu D'Issey. Build up to it: drop a few hints that the scent is returning, exactly as it was, none of these miserable reformulations that make no-one except the accountants happy, in that same spectacular bottle. Play it up. Make people really desperate for it to reappear. (Ads with a few more words in them would be a big help: the ad above is not going to do it.) Then launch it wide.

2) Release Le Feu D'Issey Pour Homme. Spend some time and money on it: make it a respectable, intriguing variation on the women's scent. Put it in an equally stunning bottle, maybe a blocky, rounded-off variation of an icosahedron.

3) Every year, put out two limited editions, one for women and one for men, in recoloured versions of the bottle. Le Feu Vert D'Issey. Le Feu Lapis. Le Feu Blanc. Not just some cheap knockoff flankers, either; make them really good, desirable versions of the original. Put them on a schedule, like Beaujolais Nouveau, so that people can anticipate them; say they hit the shelves on September 8th, then disappear just before Christmas.

4) Finally come out with Le Terre D'Issey and L'Air D'Issey. I mean, if you're going to name your first two scents after two of the classical Greek elements, you might as well keep going.


  • oh this is such a nostalgic read. i should have been warned the Feu was dicontinued, it was one of my all time faves

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:59 PM  

  • I was desperately sad when I could not find this in the market anymore. I'd LOVE to see the relaunch! Thanks for bringing the memory of the scent wafting back into my brain... Oh, how I miss thee!

    By Blogger vanessa, at 4:00 AM  

  • Rei Rien has unopened samples of Feu d'Issey for only US$3.50. I ordered one just because of this post. And...
    I think it's a scrubber for me. I really don't like it. Unless the samples have gone off with age, I don't get the milky quality at all, there is the rose, but it's much more rose-boxwood-rotten milk to me. Sorry, I don't like, but if you do, snap up the stock they do have while it lasts.

    By Blogger cally, at 2:24 PM  

  • It certainly might have spoiled. Fragrances go off all the time: I've had a full bottle go from fine to rancid in the course of a month or so (it visibly changed colour to an evil-looking purple), and a full-sized Demeter that I have is in the process of doing the same, gradually turning a rather unwholesome brown colour, like a urine stain. (I know I should toss it but it still smells okay....)

    Or maybe it smells as it ought to, and you just hate it. You're not the first to mention the "rotten milk" quality: it, and other milky scents such as Matin Calin, strike some people as smelling of spoilt milk, or worse, baby vomit. And it's fine if you hate it, of course; it doesn't work for you. There are zillions of other scents out there for you to love. At least it's so long discontinued that you don't have to worry about smelling it on other people, unlike Angel, probably the number-one love/hate scent on the market.

    By Blogger pyramus, at 2:58 PM  

  • I'm about to publish a nasty, negative review of this scent in my own blog in my "blog diva" persona. I didn't want describe in full detail how horrible I found it in the comments of your own blog.

    By Blogger cally, at 4:41 PM  

  • You could've. People are allowed to disagree with me (as long as they're not noxious about it).

    You shouldn't have told me about Rei Rien, though, because they have stuff I want but don't need, and now I'm fighting with myself to try to keep from placing an order.

    By Blogger pyramus, at 8:27 PM  

  • I have anxiously been waiting for the re-launch of the original 'Feu' as well. I absolutely love the scent. It goes well with the other things that I value in life: creative expression, equal opportunity and embracing new challenges.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:45 PM  

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