One Thousand Scents

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandem: Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan

The other day I wrote about a scent that didn't make any sense to me, and a reader, Joe, had this to say:

The thing that's great is that there are probably people out there who just LOVE this scent. I really enjoy thinking of it that way. It's terrific that almost anything under the sun will find an audience and fanclub.

Beyond a doubt. There certainly will be someone out there who thinks Encens et Bubblegum is fantastic, and will buy it. There may even be quite a few of them. My problem with that particular scent is that Etat Libre D'Orange positions itself as an edgy, modern, envelope-pushing line of fragrances (they have one named after Tom of Finland, a pornographic artist), and yet they have produced a scent that smells more or less like a teenaged Twilight fan's bedroom, everything but the Hello Kitty straightening iron, and I don't think teenaged girls are the line's audience, if that's the right word for a fragrance.

At any rate, as the title says in Latin, there is no accounting for taste. Human beings are so varied and variable that one person's disgust is another's delight, at art forms as varied as cooking, music, movies, fashion, painting, and of course perfumery.

In fact, music is so often used as a metaphor for perfumery that it seems appropriate to use it here as well. I have never liked the singing of Maria Callas, considered by some (many, perhaps) to be the pre-eminent operatic soprano of the twentieth century. Her voice seems to emanate from very low in her face (what singers call the mask), giving the overall sound a thick, wobbly quality that sounds as if she's singing through a mouthful of suet. It is, to me, a most unpleasant sound: I prefer very high, light, bright sopranos with some brilliance--sharpness, perhaps--to their tone, and my favourite of all is Beverly Sills. It was a bit of a shock, then, to read a couple of weeks ago someone describing Sills' voice as "hideously ugly", which couldn't be farther from my experience--which, in fact, I couldn't even process. Obviously that patron of the arts and I have very, very different ears.

But of course there are multiple levels of appreciation of art. It is possible (and common, and pleasurable) to love something unreservedly, but it is also possible to see the artistry in it even if it doesn't appeal to you personally. I may not like to listen to Callas, but if you watch her perform, it's nearly impossible to think anything but, "Goddamn she's a terrific actress!" In perfumery, I usually have one of four responses: unconditional love, disdain, outright hatred, and the understanding that, although the scent might not be to my taste, I can see the artistry behind it. This last position is, for me, a real leap, because I tend to be very extreme in my likes or dislikes: all or nothing, black or white with no shades of grey.

If you read some reviews of Muscs Koublai Khan, you will begin to notice a couple of common threads. A lot of people think it smells foul: some of the descriptions include such phrases as "unwashed armpit", "unwashed privates", "sweaty scrotum", and, well, you get the idea. A lot of other people, presumably having read such reviews, think it smells much nicer--or, perhaps, that those things can actually smell nice. (After all, among perfume fans, "skank", which is to say "animalic aromas", is a term of approbation.)

When I first tried Muscs Koublai Khan--and I didn't just dab it, I sloshed on a fair amount, to give it a chance to overwhelm me--I thought briefly of another Serge Lutens classic love-to-hate-it scent, Miel de Bois, with its thick, cosseting wood-honey quality, because Muscs Koublai Khan has some of that very same honey to it. Within the space of a minute, though, MKK had blossomed into something else altogether: a bouquet of roses, dabbed with honey and dusted with powder. It was almost demure. There was a certain small degree of skank, a suggestion of delicious filthiness underneath, and I felt pretty sure that this would increase over time, but at first, it was mostly a concoction of honeyed roses and baby powder, and it was extraordinarily lovely.*

Underneath, though. That's something else altogether. The skankiness did in fact increase over time: from what I'd read, I would have been surprised and disappointed if it hadn't.

MKK is dirty at its heart, though I honestly don't get the armpit/crotch thing. There's sweatiness to it, yes, and some animal raunch: it's in the same general category as Yatagan and Tabu (which it ought to be, having a number of the same animalic components, including castoreum and civet as well as dirty-earthy patchouli), but it doesn't strike me as being the outright filthfest that they are. It's subtler than that. Not subtle, god knows, but less extreme. MKK reminds me more of a recently vacated set of bedsheets. What went on between them is open to interpretation.

The scent, too, is clearly a matter of interpretation, and of individual tastes. If I were to wear it to work today--and it seems thats I'm going to have to, because I had to put it on to write about it, and it doesn't wash off--some people might smell it on me and think I haven't washed recently (a filthy lie!). Others will think I smell good. Most won't even notice (because I wear scents discreetly). As for me, within an hour of first putting it on, I was starting to wonder where I might be able to buy a bottle**. Serge Lutens, whatever your inclinations, has that kind of polarizing effect on people: you love it or hate it and there isn't much middle ground. This one I love.

* I would be interested in smelling this drastically rebalanced, so that the honey-powder-rose bouquet is front and centre, longer-lived, and the filth is a bit player in the very bottom. I bet Lutens could do wonders with it. For all I know, he already has.

** Not locally. MKK is part of the Exclusive line, and if you don't know anything about Lutens, you should know that there are two lines, Export and Exclusive, and the former is available in North America and the latter isn't. Every year, to the best of my knowledge, an Exclusive is made available to the export market: MKK isn't one of them. Yet, anyway. That air of rarity makes the Exclusives, of course, seem even more desirable.



  • The rumor is that MKK is going to be added to the export line this Xmas.

    Fingers crossed!

    By Anonymous moongrrl, at 11:15 AM  

  • Woo-hoo! My fingers are crossed, too. It's great stuff, and although the LAST THING ON EARTH I NEED is another full bottle of anything, well, this might just be a candidate.

    By Blogger pyramus, at 11:22 AM  

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