On my way back from visiting my mom, I spent some time in Toronto with my friend Ralph. After we'd seen a movie, we popped into a drug store so I could look for some shower gel: the toiletries in my hotel room weren't really up to scratch, and I wanted to be able to shower without feeling the need to gag.
No dice. Nothing was unscented, of course: hardly anything is any more. I must have opened and sniffed a dozen bottles, and I didn't like any of them, so I left empty-handed. Ralph mentioned that his wife was having the same problem: she could hardly find any usable personal-care products because she was becoming increasingly sensitive to the fragrances they all seem to contain.
I had to tell him that the problem isn't necessarily with the fact of fragrance (it is possible to scent a product attractively and unobtrusively), but the nature of it. In the last couple of decades we seem to have reached a cultural consensus: every fragrance, every scented thing, must
smell fresh. It isn't enough that laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and dish soaps must smell clean, bright, fresh and airy: so must fragrances, shampoos, conditioners, shower gels, sunscreens — every single thing we put on our bodies.
I am scarcely exaggerating. It is essentially impossible to find a mainstream scent that doesn't start out with the ubiquitous fresh-ozonic top note. Once upon a time, you could walk into a department store and have your choice of a dozen different styles of scent with a hundred little variations to distinguish them one from another. Nowadays, everything has been reduced to a lowest common denominator, and that is the imaginary, reconstructed scent of freshly laundered clothing and thoroughly scrubbed skin: whatever fragrance category a scent falls in, be it a floral or an oriental or a "new chypre" (with patchouli subbing, inadequately, for oakmoss), it must smell clean — or rather cleansed, purified. For some reason, we seem to have voted to smell as if we didn't have a smell and never did.
It's not just new scents, either. Long-established fragrances have also been reformulated wholesale to appeal to the modern nose with its endless desire for the illusion of perfect sanitation. The once-ravishing Trésor
has been destroyed, to my everlasting dismay, by the addition of a needle-sharp fresh top note. Another fragrance that is gone is Jolie Madame de Balmain, though that one isn't just spoiled by the addition of a soap-clean top as Trésor is: it's a complete reformulation, an entirely different scent under the same name.
My mother fell in love with Jolie Madame in the mid-1970s and had been wearing it ever since: I'd bought it for her a couple of times by mail order as it became harder and harder to find. The last time she bought it, she discovered that it had changed: she wears it from time to time, but her heart's not in it. She still has a few droplets of the vintage stuff in a spray bottle: I don't think she even sprays it any more (I filched one little spritz so that I would know what it had once been), but just takes a whiff of the sprayer to remind her of better times.
What Jolie Madame used to be was a wonderfully severe leather chypre with a floral middle composed mostly of violets: it is the sort of forties thing you imagine being worn by a woman in a skirt suit and a look of determination, and to my nose it is also perfectly wearable, with its heavy dose of oakmoss, by a man. Now of course the oakmoss is gone, and it's just a brightish, vaguely violet floral thing with a bit of leather and patchouli in the base, no real distinction, nothing terrible or shameful but also nothing of any especial interest, certainly no magic.
When I went to visit my mom, I took a half-dozen little vials and decants of scents with me, naturally enough: fragrance is basically invisible clothing, and you wouldn't wear the same thing for two weeks, would you? One of them was Fête by Molyneux, a few millilitres of which I had tipped into a sprayer. The day after I arrived, it occurred to me that Fête was the kind of thing she might like, so I suggested she put a little on her skin.
Instant love, of course. (I gave her the sprayer.) Fête, like Jolie Madame, is a true, old-school chypre: bright fruity top, deep oakmoss-labdanum base. Everything else is at the whim of the perfumer.
My bottle looks like this, only mine is about a third full of gorgeous, gorgeous Fête.
At first whiff, not knowing what Fête is, you would be excused for mistaking it for the likes of Clinique Wrappings or Guerlain Vega or some other brilliant aldehydic floral: piercing (but not fresh-and-clean!) top notes with a slug of fruit, mostly peaches and plums, followed shortly by an abstract bouquet of roses and jasmine. But Fête has other things on its mind, because hard on its heels comes that dark, subterranean quality that only oakmoss has, and the whole scent opens up, enlarges and deepens: suddenly the fruits and flowers have context, as if you can see the whole world of their origin, the earth from which they sprang. It's the olfactory equivalent of a pull-back shot in a movie. It's thrilling.
"Fête" means "party" in French — the word is related to "festival" and "feast" — and that seems like a disconnect, because nowadays a party scent would probably be nothing but bright sunshiny fun. But Fête is not a streamers-and-cake birthday party: it's a very grownup soirée with cocktails and a string quartet in the corner.