One Thousand Scents

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Element of Surprise: Comme des Garçons Odeur 71

There are a great many things to loathe about spring. Early on, the snow begins to melt, leaving behind all the garbage and detritus and dog leavings and rotting leaves deposited during the fall and winter. Later, it is a preview of summer, that most loathsome of seasons, when sunlight hits your skin like millions of poisonous, cancer-bearing needles and the heat and humidity and insects make daily life a misery. Those of us blessed with pollen allergies begin taking the various medications (mine is cetirizine — Reactine here in Canada, Zyrtec in the US — for birch-pollen hay fever) that, although we are glad to have them, do not quite block the itching and sneezing and runny noses that plague us for a month or more.

But there is one good thing to be said for spring, at any rate, and that is that the flowers begin to open. And here in the Maritimes, it is lilac time again; just a few days ago the trees were barely budding, and now they have exploded into bloom. Walking down the street on the way to the gym this morning, I was wrapped in an eddying cocoon of perfume, though the nearest lilac tree was at least fifty yards from me. As I write, little ribbons of lilac are twirling through the window. It is everywhere, and it is ravishing. It almost makes the season bearable.

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I will be going to New York shortly for just under a week, and since I am a slave to Serge Lutens, I decided that despite my resolution not to buy a single scent this year (a resolution which I have so far managed to keep), I was going to go after, and I think very likely buy, his recent Jeux de Peau, which sounds like a return to form and just the kind of thing I love, a gourmand oriental based on toasted bread. (I bought my first ever Lutens, Chypre Rouge, in New York, at Bergdorf Goodman, and although I could easily buy Jeux de Peau online, or get a sample of it likewise, I love the idea of buying it at the same spot I got my first one.) And now I discover that that malicious bastard Lutens is launching a carnation scent, Vitriol d'Oeillet, in July, a month too late. He knows (I assume) that I am insane about carnations, and that I am almost certainly going to have to own this. Why would he do this to me? Why couldn't he launch it now, so I could at least sample it in the store?

He is a cruel, cruel man.

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I was in the local hyperdrugstore today seeing if there was anything worth sniffing (there wasn't) and listening to an audiobook on my iPod when a saleswoman came and stood beside me and asked if I needed any help. It was, of course, obvious that I didn't, and that I was otherwise engaged, because I ignored her as thoroughly as it is possible to ignore her: I ignored her like a cat ignores people. I continued audio-reading and browsing, and she repeated her question, or at least I assume she did, because I couldn't quite hear her, being engrossed in my book (The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester) and trying very, very hard to be left alone. But she wasn't having any of that. She put her hand on my bare arm, and when I snapped my head around to look at her, she asked me if I needed any help. A complete stranger commanded me to pay attention to her by grabbing me.

If I were the sort of person who is capable of thinking on my feet in such situations, I would have said, "What do you think you're doing? I couldn't make it any more obvious I don't need any help, and I'm just trying to browse, and you won't leave me alone. And how dare you touch me? What if my religious beliefs prohibited contact with women? You don't know!" But I freeze up, so I just said, "I'm fine, thank you," and continued what I was doing. But I was seething inside.

I work in retail. I know how this works: we are ordered to interact with all customers. But if a customer is making a point of not seeing you and hearing you, then you cannot force that customer into an interaction; it has to be a two-way street. And you absolutely positively cannot under any circumstances compel them to pay attention to you by touching them. Her purpose, or at least the corporation's purpose, was to make me feel at home, and thereby loosen up my purse-strings. Did it work? No. I just wanted to get the hell out before someone else could wander along and manhandle me.

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Comme des Garçons' Odeur 53, and the very next day I started reading John Waters' most recent book, Role Models. There's a chapter in there about Rei Kawakubo, CdG's designer, whom Waters admires and wears. And right in the middle of the piece is this paragraph:

Only in Manhattan do I dare wear a fragrance. And that’s Odeur 53, Rei Kawakubo’s scent that to me smells exactly like Off! insect repellant. The best thing about Odeur 53 is that the smell doesn’t last very long. “Rei doesn’t really like perfume for men,” a salesperson needlessly tried to explain. I love the idea of a perfume that disappears—you don’t need to convince me! Designed to “confront the nose”—the press release’s copy for this “anti-perfume” was art in itself—“a memory of smell…entering the world of abstraction by way of a feeling…the future, the space, the air.” With astonishing seriousness Rei listed the inorganic ingredients: “the freshness of oxygen, wash drying in the wind, nail polish, burnt rubber and the mineral intensity of carbon.” That’s exactly what I want to smell like! How did she know?!

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Odeur 71 is the follow-up and in many ways the opposite to Odeur 53. They are both deliberately, proudly synthetic: but while 53 starts out smelling manufactured but has little wisps of real-world perfumery tucked into it (vetiver, cedar), 71 starts out smelling very much like a standard fresh cologne and only later takes on its synthetic quality. It does this with a determination that is positively alarming.

The predictably daft list of notes provided by the company:

Electricity, Metal, Office, Mineral, Dust on a hot light bulb, Photocopier toner, Hot metal, Toaster, Fountain pen ink, Pencil shavings, The salty taste of a battery, Incense, Wood, Moss, Willow, Elm, Birch, Bamboo, Hyacinth and Lettuce Juice.

There are lots of green things in half of that list, and the opening shot is green and fresh, a fougere cologne that could have come from anyone. There is a little jolt of synthetic freshness with a sort of electrical charge to it, almost like biting on a piece of tinfoil, but it is lightly done.

And then as the scent develops (and it develops much more than Odeur 53 does), the greenery dies off and it becomes more and more artificial; although it doesn't specifically call to mind most of the things in the list of notes, it does smell very laboratorial, electrochemical, like the sorts of things a mad scientist might cook up in between building death rays and resurrecting the dead. It smells of recently oxidized metal that has been aggressively scrubbed, much like Dry Clean, brightly metallic and brittle.

In fact, I find it increasingly unpleasant as it progresses; it just gets cleaner and sharper and more intensely synthetic to the point of hostility, and finally I can't stand it any longer. If you guessed that it defies being scrubbed off, then you guessed right; one of the (usually) desirable properties of modern synthetics is that they can make scents last much longer than they otherwise would, and that is true with a vengeance here. Showering won't remove it: you couldn't take it off with an industrial sandblaster.

Odeur 71 has been in production for over ten years, so someone must be buying it. In truth, I can see how it would appeal to some people; it presents the illusion of a classic men's scent and then strips away the outer shell to get at the wiring beneath, and that is perversely fascinating. Not pleasant, exactly, but undeniably interesting.

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