One Thousand Scents

Friday, November 28, 2008

Taste: Gucci by Gucci Pour Homme

Another day, another faux chypre.

I was going to do Mitsouko, but it wants me to wait until I understand it better, plus I now have a sample of the EDP in addition to the actual bottle of the EDT, so I can compare them, which, everyone says, is a necessity. (By rights, they tell me, I ought to have a sample of the extrait, too, but that will have to wait for another time.)

Since Mitsouko is a chypre, and in some ways the chypre, it makes sense that I would like to look at Gucci by Gucci Pour Homme instead. It's positioned in the category of "modern chypre" or "new chypre", and what that means is that it has a quantity of patchouli in the base. As I am sure I've said a dozen times and maybe a hundred (I'm not counting), what makes a chypre is oakmoss. There are other components to bolster the warmth, usually things like labdanum and ambergris, and a classic chypre starts out with the brilliance of citrus or other fruit notes, but the oakmoss is the one indispensable ingredient. If you don't have it, you don't have a chypre.

And most scents nowadays do not have oakmoss, or at least not in any real quantity. It causes contact dermatitis in a significant number of people, so it's been banished to the hinterlands by bureaucrats with no artistry in their souls. I would gladly suffer a skin rash every time I wore Knowing or Boucheron Pour Homme or Mitsouko if that's what it took to experience one of the most beautiful and intoxicating aromatic substances that we humans have ever devised.

So, rather than admit that the category of chypre is closed, at least for the time being, the perfume companies have simply decided to redefine it downwards as "it has some sort of moss in it" or "what are you talking about, chypres have always been patchouli-based, and if you say different then you're probably crazy". If Gucci by Gucci Pour Homme is an example of what's being called the modern chypre, then the family is dead anyway.

The top of Gucci by Gucci Pour Homme is fairly awful: synthetic woody citrus and artificial freshness (thank you, inventors of Calone), sourish and not in a good way--not crisp and acidic in the usual manner of citrus, but with a sharpness that suggests the decomposition of certain kinds of food.

Nowadays, all scents are made to be widely appealing straight out of the bottle. They have to be: there are so many hundreds upon hundreds of fragrances that marketers can no longer assume people will take the trouble to wear them for a few hours before committing their money, so they have to make them instantly legible and lovable. It's the perfumery equivalent of loading commercial food with salt and sugar and fat (three things that human beings instinctively love) at the expensive of complexity and more interesting, sophisticated flavours.

That makes it odd that the opening of Gucci by Gucci Pour Homme is not only unpleasant but thoroughly disagreeable. It isn't merely the sort of generic fresh thing that I disdain (from long experience and boredom) but that the market clearly can't get enough of. To return to the food analogy, it isn't kimchi or blue cheese or liver, things that seem appalling but are delicious once you acquire the taste for them; instead, it's all these things and a Big Mac thrown into a blender. It's muck.

After an unpleasant while, a quite wonderful thing happens: Gucci by Gucci Pour Homme disrobes and reveals its true self, and it is much nicer than you might expect: slightly sweet but never too much so, rich and full with little passing wisps of pipe tobacco, bedded on patchouli and amber and wood. Since it can't be a chypre without oakmoss, I guess you'd have to call it a woody amber scent, if you needed a category to put it into, but you might as well just call it "cologne" and be done with it. There's nothing especially novel about the scent, but if you should happen to get a bottle of this for Christmas, make sure you wait until the top has burned off: it's actually worth the wait.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Subterfuge: Secret Obsession by Calvin Klein

The entirety of Secret Obsession takes place in an unfinished basement.

It has a subterranean quality to it, not quite musty (though perhaps a little of that), but certainly underground. The top is surprisingly dark; it smells as if the base notes have already shown up, which maybe they have. (The original Obsession was also top-loaded with base notes; it smelled of amber pretty much right from the start.) It smells of dried fruits and spices in brandy, steeping in an earthenware bowl in the basement.

The fruit notes are gradually replaced by florals, again very dark: it's the smell of dark-red flowers macerating in Vanilla Coke syrup. In the basement. Slowly the wood paneling takes over, and Secret Obsession expires quite a few hours later in an eddy of wood, vanilla, and (in the scent's only nod to its ancestor) a little amber. It's very grown-up, a welcome relief in an endless tide of fruity-floral scents aimed at teenagers and women aspire to be them again, and it says "late Aughts" in the same way that Obsession said "mid-Eighties power perfume". (And now I find that I'm really looking forward to the men's version, which will surely appear in three or four months.)

It's very hard to imagine what that bottle looks like, by the way, from a photograph. It looks as if it ought to be flat, but it's actually very spread-out and three-dimensional, with five lobes, sort of a pentagonal version of the hexagonal bottle for Cacharel's LouLou:

At first I hated the Secret Obsession bottle, but I have to say it and its contents have grown on me. Not enough to actually buy it, though.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Mint Condition: Cartier Roadster

The trouble with mint as a fragrance note is that it has certain associations. Toothpaste. Dentists' offices. Breath fresheners. Restaurant after-dinner candy. If you're going to put mint into a scent, you have to be very careful that you're not calling any of these things to mind.

Guerlain bravely tackled the theme twice in their Aqua Allegoria series. Herba Fresca had a sort of spearmint note that commingled with grasses and leaves to give an overall effect of springtime freshness; no toothpaste there. Mentafollia had a few sprigs of mint tucked into a bouquet of indifferent flowers, and while it too avoided the dental-office effect, it wasn't very interesting.

Cartier's new Roadster, though, is interesting. It too avoids the connotations of oral hygiene, wrapping the mint in other fresh notes (green herbs, citrus) to give the opening a sense of newness and vivacity. The mint is there, and it's recognizable for what it is, but it isn't antiseptic or candylike.

The core of Roadster smells so much like that of L'Instant de Guerlain Pour Homme that more than once in the last week I've been startled by an unexpected whiff of L'Instant, knowing perfectly well I wasn't wearing it. There are differences: the mint-herbal note shows up from time to time in Roadster, making it sharper and fresher, where L'Instant is smoother and warmer in the middle. But they seem to have an identical patchouli note that shows up about half an hour in and keeps intensifying, and this note binds everything together and makes the two scents feel to me like, if not twins, then brothers. Brothers who look very much alike.

I should note that the base of Roadster is nothing like that of L'Instant, because something marvelous happens: whereas L'Instant gets darker and warmer, Roadster gets brighter, like a full moon rising over the horizon. It doesn't have the freshness of the opening, but instead the needle-sharp quality that cedar can sometimes project. People who expect a scent to end in a warm bath of balsams and woods are in for a surprise, I think. It's a surprise that lasts, too; Roadster is still clearly present on the skin a good twelve hours later.

More than a few people have declared that the bottle looks suspiciously like a BOB (Battery-Operated Boyfriend), but I have to say I don't see it. The cap--which twists to click satisfyingly into place--is a duplicate of the stem on the Cartier Roadster watch, and the bottle itself is made to stand on its base (to take up less room on your shelf) or on its side (to give it that aerodynamic feel). It's a beautiful piece of industrial design, and I like it a lot.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I was washing the dishes after lunch and put a big squirt of Method Pink Grapefruit dish soap into the sink. As I was splashing the water around to stir up some suds, I thought, "What's that smell? It's like something cooking...but nothing I've been cooking." It reminded me of gravy or something, with a garlicky overtone.

And that's when it hit me. Garlic. Pink grapefruit. I was smelling the dreaded sulfurous undertones of grapefruit for the first time!

As you will discover if you Google "garlic grapefruit perfumery", many people find grapefruit-based scents such as Guerlain's Pampelune to be unpleasantly garlicky, because both botanicals contain related sulfur molecules; grapefruit applied with an indiscreet hand or composed with other fragrance ingredients in the wrong way can turn on you. I wore Pampelune for a couple of years, and own a few other scents containing grapefruit, and I've never smelled it myself. Until now.


Speaking of Method, their new Christmas line is out: Frosted Fir (no thanks), WInter Berry (probably a lot like last year's Hollyberry), and Toasted Hazelnut. Want!

Unfortunately, the Method folks have not released these in Canada. Instead, perhaps assuming we wouldn't notice, have given us last year's lineup of Hollyberry, Cinnamon Bark, and Peppermint Vanilla.

Oh, we noticed, all right. And we are not pleased.


Rather than simply launch yet another variation of the standard men's fragrance, Axe has decided to take a different route, and has given us Dark Temptation, which supposedly smells of chocolate, the theory being that women love chocolate and will not be able to keep their hands off you if you wear this.

But it smells more or less like a knockoff of A*Men, only cheaper, of course.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Evolution: Habit Rouge Légère

As I said when writing about Shalimar last year,

The vanilla in Shalimar, in fact, is very reminiscent of the vanilla in a much later Guerlain scent aimed at men, Habit Rouge, which was launched in 1965, forty years after Shalimar made its debut. You could certainly guess that they were made by the same perfume house if you didn't know.

Today I'd go farther than that, actually. I'd say that Habit Rouge is Shalimar Pour Homme. They have a similar structure, with the heaviest oriental notes of Shalimar replaced by leather, but they're both still dominated--defined by--the citric top and the vanilla. And my complaint with Habit Rouge is the same as with Shalimar, especially the parfum: too much.

I admire Habit Rouge without liking it very much, and I say that as someone who used to wear it (I used to wear Lagerfeld, too, and that's even sweeter than HR, though not by a whole lot). If only someone had reconceived it so that it was less intense, less overwhelming, less (let's be honest) noxious in quantity.

Someone did, and in 2005, Guerlain launched it as Habit Rouge Légère.

The opening of the Légère (French for "light") is bright and sharp and brittle, not as easily cowed by the onslaught of vanilla: it's slightly candied citrus fruit, lemony and vivacious. The rest of the scent proceeds just as in the original; patchouli, leather, oriental notes, and of course all that famous Guerlain vanilla. But somehow, magically, the whole thing has been dialed back: where Habit Rouge is permanently set on 11, the Légère is modulated to a comfortable 7. It's not pale or watered down: it's just restrained.

Habit Rouge Légère is hard to come by, but you can still pick it up for a reasonable price at some of the online discounters here, for example). If, like me, you sort of liked the original but just couldn't deal with the too-muchness of it, trust me: Légère is what you want.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Cautionary Tale

Yesterday I worked early, so I planned to go to the gym afterwards, and accordingly brought my gym bag to work. Around 10:30 a.m. I opened the bag to check my cell phone for messages, and thought I smelled something extremely pleasant. My thought process was, approximately, "Gee, that's nice. It smells kind of like raspberry jam OH SHIT IT'S DEMETER RASPBERRY JAM!"

A whole half-ounce bottle of Demeter Raspberry Jam, as it turned out, which had mischievously unscrewed its own cap and dumped itself all over the inside of one of the end pockets, and left no friendly drop to help me after. Luckily, it's a well-made gym bag, and the ends are lined with a pretty impermeable synthetic rubber (presumably so you can carry sodden and/or stinky gym clothes home if you should happen to forget to bring a plastic bag in which to insulate them). Unluckily, my keys were inside that pocket, and I had to remove them and wash them, and I got Raspberry Jam all over my hands and could smell it all day, which isn't a bad thing except that I was convinced it was coming from the gym bag itself (which it wasn't) and was therefore incommoding customers and co-workers alike. And then after I got to the bus stop I couldn't find my keys because after washing them I'd left them in the frame shop.

In the end I didn't even get to go to the gym, because I ended up working later than expected and by the time I was done I'd been on my feet all day and couldn't face a workout (and was hungry to boot, as I hadn't brought any lunch).


1) The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men et cetera et cetera.
2) Buy a good-quality gym bag.
3) Don't carry screw-cap bottles of fragrance inside your totables unless you plan to check the caps on a very regular basis.

Also, Demeter should make their labels out of plastic, or at least plasticize the paper labels they do use, because as soon as a droplet trickles down the outside (which it will), it begins to dissolve the ink, leaving the bottle in kind of a mess. Not as bad a mess as the Raspberry Jam label was after the contents had marinated it, but still not attractive.