One Thousand Scents

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Alexander McQueen: A Belated Appreciation

Whatever I said about Lady Gaga before, I take it all back.

Well, not all of it. She is a flesh-baring neo-disco chantoozy, but she isn't "modestly talented". She's got a gift for promotion and for wearing clothes, she has an interesting mezzo voice to go along with her interesting looks, and she made this video.

"Bad Romance", indeed: the heartwarming story of a couture-clad innocent who is captured, stripped, drugged, bathed, and taught French by a battalion of latex-clad pod people, then sold into sexual slavery to the highest bidder, whom she kills with her tits. Genius. Dazzling.

Pretty much every stitch of clothing she's wearing in that video (I don't know about the underpants) is by Alexander McQueen, a designer who, you may have heard, killed himself a couple of weeks ago, and what a tremendous loss that is. I don't pay much attention to clothing, but I after I saw the Gaga video, I wanted to know more about his work, and here is what I found: the spring 2010 show, visionary and mad and breathtaking.

In 1997, McQueen launched a scent called Kingdom that was just as forward as those clothes. I am wearing it right now, and it's all I have, literally; I just used my very last drop, and pumped the sprayer until it was gasping for breath. That's it. There isn't any more. You can't really get it online (although I know a private seller who might have a bottle for sale, and I am sorely tempted). Ebay has a few bottles for, of course, insane prices if you must have some. But there isn't much left out there, and when it's gone, it's really gone, because all the interesting things get discontinued while companies just keep on turning out more and more crap.

Let's look at that bottle, shall we?

First off, it looks like no bottle you've ever seen. From some angles, it looks like the ice-cold heart of a robot, beating with some inhuman ichor

or a biomechanical sea creature tucked away in its gleaming chrome shell

It also frankly looks like a stylized vulva, especially the limited-edition armour-plated bottle

which closed up like the Batmobile. (I'm not really sure how that works: I never held it in my hand.)

But mostly it is a heart
which is true to the essentially romantic nature of the scent within. Not pretty-romantic. Not dreamy and lovely. This is sweaty, naked skin-on-skin romance.

The top is a big shot of citrus: bergamot and orange, and lots of it. Hard on its heels is something deliciously filthy; dark, almost decaying rose and jasmine laden with the musky, spicy-sweaty smell of cumin. So much cumin! It's a courtesan's boudoir full of flowers from admirers. It's a carpet of petals you've just had sex on.

Later on: dirty-earthy myrrh, softened with a bit of vanilla.

Kingdom suggests a few other scents; it immediately calls to mind Nu and Black Orchid a little (bedroomy lush floral plus dirty), and the smuttier elements make me think of Muscs Khoublai Khan. But there's no replacement for it. It's one of a kind, I'm all out of it, and if you don't mind, I'd like to be alone with it for a while.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Not Again: Nez a Nez Atelier d'Artiste

As I mentioned, I got the latest grab-bag of samples from Luckyscent, most of which were the entirety of a new line called Nez a Nez ("nose to nose"). As I was poking through the Luckyscent descriptions trying to decide which to wear first, this jumped out at me: Atelier d'Artiste

begins with a sharp, clean vetiver that feels like throwing windows open and letting cold air whisk through a room. Then we have the smells of the room itself. A haze of dark, aromatic tobacco, a trace of strong, bitter black coffee, the enticing boozy charm of cognac and rum-drenched fruit and a vivid patchouli which smells like all the sorts of trouble one might get into with a particularly charming artiste. Warm, creamy vanilla adds a cozy sweetness....

Tobacco? Coffee? Rum? Vanilla? Gimme gimme gimme!

After an unexpected dose of boozy fruit--black grape and raspberry, says the official list of notes, plausibly enough--but no real vetiver comes the main event, and as I sat sniffing the back of my hand, I knew that I had smelled this before, not just sort of, but very precisely. Once the fruit had cleared away enough, I recognized it: it was L'Artisan Parfumeur's Eau du Navigateur.

That scent also has coffee and tobacco and rum (plus a hefty dose of wood). If you wear Atelier and Navigateur side by side--I did, of course--you will discover that they do converge pretty convincingly after fifteen minutes or so, and then begin to go their separate ways again after something under an hour. Navigateur stays warm and somewhat gourmand (but not really, unless you like eating coffee-soaked stir sticks at the tobacconist's), whereas Atelier begins to turn oddly sourish as the patchouli revs its engine. And then a ghastly thing happens: the whole composition just turns into a pile of that huge powder note that contaminates Montale Chypre Vanillé and Le Labo Labdanum 18 and Louve. If you like The Attack of the Vanilla Powder Puff, then perhaps this will be up your alley, but the rest of us are going to find it cloying, asphyxiatory, horrendous.


Here, by the way, is what can only be the company's own description of the line from Luckyscent:

They are visions of scents characterized by debates of colors, research pushed into the field of various feelings which are proposed in the olfactory world by Stephane Humbert Lucas. The perfumes were imagined pictorially. They talk, they express themselves humanly without imposing a body.

This is advertising bullshit of the very first water. "They express themselves humanly without imposing a body"? Well, what perfume doesn't? And if they were imagined pictorially, then how do they talk--where do the words come in if they're pictures? We expect a certain degree of high-flown nonsense when reading about scents, but that is just beyond the pale.

I am hoping for better things from the rest of the line, but after this experience, I'm dubious.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Running in Place

If you pay attention to the world of perfumery, you will have noticed that for quite some time now it has been pretty nearly impossible to keep up with the battalion of new releases.

Nearly every celebrity has one, rapidly followed by a bunch of flankers: Soccer player David Beckham and his wife Victoria have eleven between them, Mariah Carey has been cranking out one a year since 2007, Sarah Jessica Parker has seven under her belt.

The big perfume houses have been muscling into the niche market by cranking out massive editions, somewhat more exclusive than their department-store brands, of five, eight, a dozen scents either all at once or in a rapid series; Chanel's dozen Les Exclusifs, Dolce and Gabbana's tarot-inspired series (only five so far, but there will be more, since there are 22 cards in the Major Arcana), Cartier's hours-of-the day series (five so far of a projected 13). Hermessences started with four and now number 10. Armani Prive has 9 scents in the line.

The niche houses, new and established, are fighting fire with fire. Tom Ford, in addition to his slightly more mainstream scents (Black Orchid, White Patchouli, Tom Ford for Men, and Tom Ford Extreme), has a huge series of exclusives, currently up to 22, with no end in sight.

Most of these scents, of course, will not survive, but they're out there, and in addition to the let's say thousand or so new scents that hit the market every year (that's three a day not counting Sundays, and it's probably a conservative guess), there are all the other thousands that have already been released; old classics like Shalimar and Chanel No. 5, trendy things that haven't outstayed their welcome yet, eighties scents like Obsession that somehow keep a toehold in the market. If you are one of those people like me who really want to smell everything that comes along, you're doomed. If you were starting right now, you'd have to narrow your field dramatically, or just give up in despair.

A couple of weeks ago I ordered a sample pack from Luckyscent, the Late Winter set of 17 1-mL samples. They do these packs maybe six times a year, collecting many of their recent acquisitions and selling them at a reduced price (this one was $40, a good deal on what would be over $50 if you ordered them individually). The web page shows a gunnysack that looks like this

and I thought it was just an amusing graphic, but no, the pack really does come in a little four-by-six drawstring bag, which is charming. (There's a sticker on it announcing which set it is, just as you see in the picture, but unfortunately this sticker comes off very easily, so if you have more than one set, you pretty much have to write the contents directly onto the bag, or resign yourself to opening it up and fishing around, which you will have to do anyway, unless you are more organized than I am and keep your samples organized in boxes or little racks.)

At any rate, as I said, there were 17 samples of new fragrances in the pack: two by Costamor, three by Odin, ten by Nez à Nez, and the newest Costume National and Isabey. While I was ordering, I figured I might as well make it worth the postage, so I got some things I hadn't tried yet, another 13*, mostly Comme des Garçons.

I received my batch of 30 samples on Tuesday, in addition, you may recall, to a set of 11 Ormonde Jaynes I got the Friday before and another half-dozen samples of Serge Lutens scents (included with an order I placed for a couple of things I thought were going out of production), so, disregarding the complicated math, that's forty-six untried fragrances that have come into my possession in the space of a ten days, and this does not count the boxes of samples I have fished through but just have not had the time to try--fifteen or so in a previous Luckyscent sample order (the Fall set, I think--the sticker has come off and gotten lost) and a pile of Penhaligons, plus the plurality of a Perfumed Court order that I received, oh, some time last summer, and a large padded envelope full of Bond No. 9s, which I have reviewed eight or nine of and yet which never seems to become any emptier.

And in the three weeks or so since I placed that Luckyscent order, of which I have tried four things, there are nine more fragrances added to their stable.


Luckyscent has two of the four** Costamor scents, named for and based on the aromas of Costa Rica. Tabacca was the one that intrigued me, because I do love a good tobacco scent, and because of its clever name, which suggests a tobacco scent for women.

This one may be a niche scent, but it has its eye firmly on the mainstream, because it opens like a fruity floral scent, with a burst of apple and rose. Lurking underneath is sweet tobacco with a sharp green edge, and there's nothing particularly feminine about it; it's just tobacco, and if you hadn't experienced the opening, you would probably even guess that this was a men's scent. The closing is a long-lasting sweet woody amber of the sort you find in a great many things nowadays.

Although there are not many tobacco scents for women on the market, I can't see that there's anything special about Tabacca. It's reasonably priced for a niche scent, $75 for 50 mL, but there are lots more interesting tobacco fragrances out there, even if most of them are aimed at men: Herrera for Men, assuming it hasn't been reformulated beyond recognition, is or used to be a stunner, Versace The Dreamer is like nothing else on the market, and even Etat Libre D'Orange's Jasmin et Cigarette is more novel than this one. I guess if you're looking for a nice, simple, non-threatening, niche-esque tobacco scent, something that reads as a bridge between a department-store fruity floral and something a little more daring (but only a little), then you could do worse than Tabacca.

* Why 13? Because if you live in Canada, the shipping cost for a sample-only order of fewer than 15 items is $5 by U.S. Post, $20 by FedEx if there are 15 or more samples. But the sample pack counts as one sample. So go ahead and order a bunch; by my reckoning, you can get 5 more samples with the money you're saving on shipping, as long as the total number of items is under 15.

** Why 2? Why not the whole line? Did the Luckyscent buyer sample all four and decide that only these two were good enough?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Downmarket: CSP Caramel Sunset

Maybe ten years ago when we lived in Saint John, Jim and I used to rent a car--we've never owned one--and drive to Calais, Maine, at least once a month during the spring and summer. It was a reasonably beautiful drive, and it was fun to go to a completely different country by car (still a novel experience for me, who grew up on an island but hasn't lived there for half his life) and buy things we couldn't get in Canada. One of those things was Sathers Coconut Stacks

which were little droppings of slightly waxy cheapjack caramel (surely made with hydrogenated fat) and minced coconut.

To paraphrase Noel Coward, "Extraordinary how potent cheap candy is." They were positively addictive, and we would buy a few little bags with every trip and try not to wolf them all down before we got home. We would usually succeed, but they wouldn't last past the next day.

The last few times we went to Calais, we couldn't find them, and Jim figured they were withdrawn from sale as a way of protecting the public from acute fake-caramel intoxication, but no, they're still available: the company's website shows them, and you can mail-order them from various sites by the case (12 bags, surely a lethal dose). We don't dare.

How clever of Comptoir Sud Pacific to create Caramel Sunset, and in so doing exactly recreate the experience of being sold a bag of stale, dusty Coconut Stacks by a woman wearing gardenia perfume.

It's not all coconut, caramel, and tiare; there's plenty of that signature CSP vanilla in the base, for all the good that does.

As any perfume fanatic knows, the ones you dislike the most are generally the ones that stay on your skin the longest: they're the cat the makes a beeline for the one cat-hater in the room and won't leave him alone.* If it turns out that you like Caramel Sunset, you will have the pleasure of its company for a long, long time.

*The reason cats do this, in case you wondered, is that we humans tend to look at things we like, but in the most of the rest of the animal world, this prolonged adoration is called staring, and it's a threat. Cats will tend to gravitate to people who avoid their gaze, perverse though that seems. If you want to make a cat feel at home, don't meet its gaze, or blink obviously and repeatedly. If you want to drive it away, glare at it. This is not guaranteed to work, cats being what they are.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Attack Mode: Serge Lutens Datura Noir

The name "Datura Noir" conjures up images of bygone Oriental exoticism and heady mysteries. It sounds lusciously dangerous. It could be a little vial of poison, or the perfume a femme fatale would wear when setting her trap for the film noir antihero.

What a disappointment to discover that it is basically a huge--huge--white floral based on the tuberose. There are other things in it--a bright transparency at the beginning like a window, a splash of coconut water and perhaps a smidgen of almond extract--but nothing can survive the onslaught of that steamroller tuberose. If you like tuberose perfumes, then by all means give it a try. Otherwise, run away. I did.


Sunday, February 14, 2010


I have been recently plagued with anonymous spammers who use the comments section as a place to vend their wares, and it's going to stop. I like getting comments, but I have been spending a lot of time recently cleaning them up, and worse, cleaning up my e-mail In box, because I get an e-mail notification every time someone leaves a comment. (And I have two blogs, so it's twice as bad.) I don't like having to do this, but I don't have any choice any more, because the jerks are winning. If you want to leave a comment (and why not?), you'll have to have a Blogger account. If you don't already have one, maybe you should make one: you're bound to use it sooner or later, even if it's just to comment on other restricted blogs, and who knows? Maybe it'll inspire you to make a blog of your own.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Over on my other blog I posted about some typos on the Ormonde Jayne website, but I'm guessing that doesn't interest you all that much, since you would much rather hear about Ormonde Jayne. I've reviewed only one of their scents, but I loved it, and I figured (after mentioning their sample program in that posting) that it was high time I tried the rest of them.

I haven't, yet, because my box of samples arrived today, which means I didn't get it until after work, and since Jim has his weekends off, I won't be able to start spritzing myself until later in the week. And I will. Oh, will I! But until then, I want to talk about the packaging, which is ridiculously gorgeous.

Black and gold, of course, the standard way to express quiet elegance in the perfumery world (and I guess the fashion world in general). The box has a matte finish, but over on the right-hand side--you can sort of see it in the picture--is a glossy blob that resolves itself into a Rococo chandelier, or part of one. When you pull out the drawer that contains the samples, you see that the equally matte gold lid has another glossy blob, and that the two together form the entire chandelier. It is a little surprise, and very lovely.

Another charming surprise: when you pull out the drawer containing the samples, the other drawer holding the leaflet also automatically slides out from the other side. I felt very Homer Simpson ("Bed goes up, bed goes down....") as I kept sliding the little drawers in and out in a pixillated manner.

The samples are eleven two-millilitre glass spray vials, representing the entire line except the newest, Tiare. There's a big collection to choose from: The signature Ormonde Woman and Ormonde Man, two more men's scents (Isfarkand and Zizan), three floral orientals, and four soliflores. Just sniffing the array of vials is a heady experience: the overall smell is rich and lush, heady with Orientalia: it makes you want to dive in.

I suppose I need to emphasize that they are not paying me to say this (they should, but they didn't offer), but what we have here is something very lovely and desirable, and you might want to consider ordering the set for yourself: it's £35, very reasonable, I think, and shipping is free anywhere in the world. Naturally, you will want to read some reviews of the scents firsts (or wait for mine)--if you don't think you'll like even half of them, then it's probably not a good investment. But I'm always willing to throw a few bucks at some samples, because these days (with the obvious exception of my beloved object of obsession, the Serge Lutens collection) I'd rather have a dozen samples of things that I get to play with and discover than a full bottle of something I know I'll never see the bottom of.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Great Pretender: Serge Lutens Cèdre

If you are a normal person and you are going to make a perfume called Cèdre, which is the French word for cedar, then by god you are going to make a cedary scent, something that puts the spotlight on the wood. If, on the other hand, you are Serge Lutens, which is to say by definition you are not a normal person, then you are going to make a big, wild-eyed tuberose scent and confuse the hell out of everyone.

I am generally very black-or-white: either I love something absolutely or I despise it mercilessly. Sometimes, though, something uncategorizable slithers into my Manichaean worldview, and I will concede that whatever it is, it is very good; I just don't like it. Cèdre is such a thing. The opening is an explosive tuberose, kind of dirty, with a weird toothpasty quality--toothpaste without the mint in it. There is a faint burning spice in there, although really nothing could survive the onslaught of tuberose sweetness. The sweetness is key, because this doesn't have that harsh, screechy edge that tuberose so often has for me, and that's the only reason I could sample this and not desperately want to scrub it off. Even so, it's kind of cloying; it keeps coming at you, demanding to be noticed.

Eventually the floralcy, though not the sugar, begins to die down a little, and the cedar finally sidles into view, with the faint ribbon of wood smoke that cedar so often carries. This is very nice, and it lasts a very long time.

Cèdre for me works less as a scent than as an intellectual experiment, an essay in cognitive dissonance: what you read doesn't match what you smell, and what you smell is two extremely disjunct things forced into harmony. I could never wear it, that's for sure. As I said, I don't like Cèdre, but I rather admire it, and I bet that there are people out there who adore it.


Friday, February 05, 2010

Critical Mass: Montale Chypre Vanillé (eventually)

A critic, a proper critic, has to have three things: a bottomless passion for his subject matter, a large accumulated body of knowledge about it, and the unshakeable conviction that he is correct.

This third is where I really fall down. I'm could never be a proper critic because, whatever my knowledge (could be greater) and passion (probably couldn't), I can never assert that I am absolutely right in my opinions and therefore dissenters are wrong. Even when I loathe something and decry it as absolutely valueless, I'll still cave when someone else says they like it.* If they say it's good, I might argue the opposite: but if they say they like it, who am I to dispute that? It comes down to taste. I like things that aren't good, that are perhaps indefensible, what are generally known as "guilty pleasures" (though I feel no guilt). If you like one of the various Britney Spears flankers or some cheap drugstore cologne, hey, enjoy. Don't let me stop you! (And maybe it works. A co-worker, a girl of 19, wears a discreet amount of the only scent she owns (I asked), Siren by Paris Hilton, and even though it's one of those standard-issue gourmand fruity floral things that we've seen about four million of in the last decade, she smells nice when you're working with her, so who am I to say she ought to shell out a hundred bucks for something better?)

I would like to stress that I am not saying there isn't any such thing as good and bad. There are great works of art and terrible ones, and all sorts in between, and the world would be a better place if people developed a sense of taste about artistic matters--including perfumery--and used it to discriminate between the worthy and the un. But if you refuse to watch subtitled movies ("I don't go to the movies to read!") and prefer those machine-made Hollywood blockbusters, if you hate all the classic perfumes and would rather wear the latest celebrity scent, have at it. I don't run your life.

A couple of quotes to illustrate the point:

Ethel Merman, after seeing Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy", said (as quoted by Fierstein himself), "I thought it was a piece of shit, but everyone else was laughing and crying, so what the fuck do I know?"

That's the classic non-critic response: "I hated it, but other people love it, so I could be wrong." It's my usual tack: my taste isn't everyone's taste, but even though I may think something is dreadful and without merit (and will always happily argue the point), maybe you like it, and who am I to say you're wrong? (Even though in writing I express my opinions as fact, I'm not as dogmatic as that.)

On the other side of the fence, expressing immovable certainty born of long consideration and the belief in one's own taste, is George Bernard Shaw: "With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his."

To compare yourself to Shakespeare and come out the victor? That takes a special kind of nerve. That takes a critic.


And this brings us to Chypre Vanillé by Montale.

I think it's utterly dreadful: a huge, perfumey opening, possibly aldehydes, certainly a big, vicious floral bouquet up front and centre and leading into the core, laced with a trickle of the promised vanilla contaminated by a huge helping of the same gagging powderiness that made Le Labo's Labdanum 18 such torment to be around. Surprisingly, there is a genuine chypre feeling to the base; even though oakmoss is a rarity in scents these days, and there doesn't appear to be any in Chypre Vanillé (the given notes are vanilla, rose, amber, incense, sandalwood, iris, vetiver, and tonka bean), it has that bit of snap and snarl--hard to define, but so obvious in classic chypres like Mitsouko and Paloma Picasso Mon Parfum--that make chypres so interesting. But it is so deeply lodged in the overwhelming powderiness that it just flails around helplessly; it can't assert itself, because nothing could.

I don't think I can exaggerate the sheer enormousness of the powder. It surrounds you like a cloud of gnats, and it will not leave you alone; it leaves trails when you move. It will not be washed off: three increasingly severe and desperate hand-washings (because I always apply to the backs of my hands) did nothing to dislodge it. The little vial on my desk reeks of it. I can't even imagine wearing this in public, because you would occupy all of the space you were in: an office, a subway car, the Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace.

But what the fuck do I know? Maybe it's great. Maybe everyone else is laughing and crying (in a good way). Nevertheless, into the garbage, wrapped in a couple of layers of plastic just in case, goes my sample: I won't be subjecting myself to its special brand of horribleness again. If you want to, it's going for $125 for a 50-mL bottle. Just don't wear it around me.

* Or even if they think they might like it: after tearing La Voce to shreds, I backed down as soon as a commenter expressed disappointment that it wasn't any good, and I immediately said, well now, don't take my word for it, try it anyway, you might love it. And she might. Who am I to remove a possible source of pleasure from her life?


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

There's No There There: Ulrich Lang Nightscape

If you are looking for a scent that challenges no preconceptions, sets no noses a-twitching, offends no-one; that can be worn to work, on the sporting field, or to the theatre indiscriminately, because it is absolutely shapeless and faceless, with no personality whatever; that consists entirely of a standard bright-ish opening, vaguely woody clean patchouli, and (admittedly nice) vanilla musk; that bears the imprimatur of no creative genius, nor indeed of anyone at all; that contains nothing to stir the imagination, to arouse interest; that would be described by anyone in your immediate ambit, if it were noticed at all, as "nice": if you are a man (or a woman who wears men's scents but is nevertheless completely unadventurous) who is looking for a scent that is as close to absolute neutrality, to not wearing a scent at all, as is possible, who wishes to smell faded and drab and uninteresting, then by all means buy yourself a bottle of Ulrich Lang Nightscape, currently $110 for for 100 mLs.