One Thousand Scents

Friday, November 16, 2012

Swayed: Angel Les Parfums de Cuir (eventually)

I'm going to gas on about Japan for a while longer: would that be all right? Usually I'd do it over on my other blog, but I'm trying to let that die a natural death so I can bury it out back. If you're not interested, just scroll down to the pretty bottles.

Now obviously as a middle-aged white guy who spent two weeks in Tokyo, I am extremely well qualified to make all kinds of judgements about the city and its culture, he said while rolling his eyes to an almost audible extent. At any rate, here are a few of the things I have noticed:

Japan is Canada. No, hear me out. Every Canadian knows what it is like to live on the border of an enormous, powerful country with many times the population, with the dual result that 1) Canadians often show some animosity to the idea of America, though not usually to Americans themselves (and it is a mistake for Americans to take that animosity personally) and 2) Canadians are not fond of being mistaken for Americans. I discovered that the same basic facts are true of New Zealanders, who are not Australians. And it seems to me that Japan has a similar sort of relationship with China, which is huge, populous, and right next door. Certainly Chinese tourists have noticeable cultural differences from the Japanese, even to our Western eyes: they're louder and they take up a lot more room in subways and restaurants.

Therefore, Canadians feel at home in Japan. We certainly did. Despite the language barrier, we immediately felt comfortable there, and I hope the Tokyoites felt as comfortable with us: we tried very hard to follow all the rules and not be loud or obnoxious or stand out in any way.

Politeness is awesome. I think that when you live in a city with extremely limited real estate and eight million people, you either force yourself to be polite from the earliest age or you all go mad and start killing one another, so luckily for everyone, Tokyo has taken the first tack. I expect there's a downside to this, that civility is hammered into children and it has a repressive effect, but at least on the surface everyone is nice and polite, and that counts for a lot.* One of the first stereotypes of Japan is that everyone bows, and this turns out to be true, and it is really quite wonderful: Westerners aren't expected to get all the nuances right but they are expected to make the effort, and so you make a transaction at a department store and the clerk makes a little bow to you when you're done and you make a little bow right back and it feels enormously respectful and gratifying, considerably more so than the fake wide-smile friendliness that North American stores cultivate. I like being bowed to, and I like bowing in response, and if I ever go back I am going to try to get it right. Righter, anyway.

However, Tokyo is noisy. The noisiest city I have ever been in. The Japanese may generally be quiet and polite and self-effacing, but by god Tokyo has got things to sell you and by god you are going to hear about them. Drugstores are Bedlam, with music — the same one song playing over and over — and announcements coming over the loudspeakers, and little video screens in every aisle blaring out their tempting come-ons (in Japanese, of course, so we were not tempted). Electronics stores, and there are a lot of them, have two or three touts with megaphones out front trying to coax customers inside. Enormous trucks papered with banners advertising the latest J-pop sensation drive around blaring the latest J-pop hit, and speaking of which, you have to watch this, the very essence of J-pop, nominally a song called "Wee-Tee-Wee-Tee" but actually an ad for the latest-generation Furby: it played on video screens just about everywhere the Furby was sold and is the single catchiest tune in the history of the human ear.

No, the Japanese do not all look alike. That is just some straight-up racist bullshit right there. There is a lot of variation in the phenotype, just as there is in any large population, and I assume that's grown since Japan opened its borders, because people like to mate with people who are unlike them, so there are skin tones from white (like not Caucasian white but paper white, helped along with cosmetics) to very dark, there are all sort of different facial structures, and there are many different eye shapes (again sometimes helped along with cosmetic aids such as this one)

which, yes, is an actual thing that we were too embarrassed to buy, although we desperately wanted to and doubtless the cash-register jockey wouldn't have cared a lick. Also, despite the reputation of the Japanese for being slim, which mostly is true, there are lots of different body shapes, too: the dumpling-shaped schoolgirl, the pudgy teenager, the thirty-five-year-old office worker with a gut (plenty of those), the grim, defeated fiftyish housewife with an enormous ass. And one woman who was taller than I am. Like, six feet for sure, maybe more.

Oh, and another thing about appearances. That "makes your eyes attractive" subtitle notwithstanding, wanting double eyelids (aka the epicanthic fold, which is what Westerners generally have and Asians generally do not) isn't some admission of inferiority: it's just another product that a company is happy to sell to women, and this is all very complicated and book-length and tied up with the cult of youth but the nicest gloss we can put on it is that women like to do fun things that make themselves look different, changing their hair colour and texture and applying colours and shadows to their faces to change the shape and emphasis of various features and generally just having a ball, and I do know plenty of young women who love playing with their looks with cosmetics. So if nearly all Japanese women have the same eyelids as you do, then you are going to want to do something to make yourself look different, and eyeshadow only goes so far, so you are going to buy some double-sided tape and by god give yourself an epicanthic fold. It can get a lot creepier than that, of course, and if you want an illustration of the cult-of-youth thing that I mentioned then you ought to check out the Japan Trend Shop and prepare to be appalled. Or possible intrigued.

English is the second language of Japan but they're not that good at it, and you can hardly blame them for that but while we were grateful that the signage and packaging had enough English to allow us to get by, it was often baffling or hilarious. This may have been deliberate

(Sadistic Action is a clothing store in trendy-or-die Harajuku, alongside such stores as Hysteric Glamour and Nudy Boy and Store My Ducks) but things like this

get it almost right while missing the mark just enough to be funny (I assume the writer meant "It's best to use this with body shampoo" but didn't get the idiom right), and things like this

are just hilarious. We said "Let's vitamin!" to one another for days after buying this, in the same way someone might say, "Let's go." Also, there is a beverage called Calpis

which sounds horrifying but is actually delicious. Oh, and I swear to you that there is a clothing chain called Titty & Co., which really is a real thing that really exists and sells clothing to young women and everything.

Thierry Mugler knows how to do flankers right. Most companies just chuck some new juice in the same bottle, tweak the colour scheme, and then ride the coattails of the original scent's name, which is certainly what Dior did with its Poison line, five unrelated scents

one of which, Hypnotic Poison, got its own unrelated flanker, Eau Sensuelle.

Mugler, on the other hand, takes one or more scents from his line — Angel, A*Men, Alien, and Womanity — and gives them a spin, tinkering with the balance (as in the various Angel extraits) or adding new elements. A*Men was masculinized and improved with, in order, coffee in 2008, whiskey a year later, and tobacco in 2011. As well, the entire lineup was given a dose of food elements in late 2011: Angel got a dusting of bitter cocoa, Alien a dollop of salted butter caramel, Womanity a spoonful of fig chutney, and A*Men a jolt of red pepper. (I smelled Angel and A*Men and didn't think them different enough to be worth buying.)

This year, the theme is leather: they were bound to do it sooner or later with the men's scent, but it's a bit of a surprise that they added leather to all four.

A*Men is apparently very hard to come by: I haven't seen it anywhere. But the other three are pretty much everywhere in Canada, and so I ended up buying a bottle of the Angel, which is an excellent twist on the original. How excellent? I wore some to work the other day and a customer I was helping with some heavy objects said, "My GOD you smell good!" So there you have it.

If you know Angel — she didn't, it turns out, which amazed me, because I forget how insulated our little scentaholic world can be but honestly not having heard of Angel is kind of like someone never having heard of not only the new James Bond movie but James Bond in general — then you know the basic structure: lots of complex sugary foody things layered over lots of patchouli with not an identifiable flower in sight, the gourmand scent that twenty years ago sparked a revolution and launched a thousand other gourmand scents. Angel Cuir (I suppose I can call it that) tweaks the formula by floating apricot jam on top and adding a smudge of iris, not enough to bother me but also probably not enough if you really love iris.

And all that perplexingly masculine patchouli is now joined by leather — not leather exactly but creamy-plush suede. If you are thinking, "Apricot? Iris? Suede? That's Serge Lutens' Daim Blond", then you are not far off, because this does sort of smell like someone tipped a bottle of the Lutens into a vat of Angel.

You can't tell from the photo, or in fact from any photo of the bottles that I've seen, but that chromed-plastic structure around the bottle is actually a peaked, five-pointed star, and here's my own (dreadful) photo to prove it:

The bottle is a perfect little handful, like a faceted gem in a claw setting, and it comes packaged in a leather drawstring pouch (the strings are baby-blue satin to go with the original's packaging colours) which is nestled inside a sort of jewellery box. Mugler does amazing presentations, and this one is no exception. Since the three women's Parfums de Cuir scents are packaged in the same bottle, they all have a leatherette tag to identify them.

If you already have Angel, you might not need this, although I do have two of the A*Men flankers and I'd probably have more if I'd ever had a chance to smell them, because Mugler knows how to do flankers, dammit. If you can find a tester, and you like the idea of Angel, then you ought to give this a shot, because it might seduce you the way it seduced me.

* A black American co-worker once told me she figured Canadians were every bit as racist as Americans, but Americans were at least willing to tell you to your face, whereas Canadians hid their behind a veil of niceness, which I can't convince myself is a bad thing: it might look like hypocrisy to some, but concealing whatever is roiling around in your mind and being polite on the surface seems like basic civility to me.

One day in Toronto — we spent a week there to decompress following our two weeks in Tokyo — we passed a bunch of students on their lunch break, and black teenaged girl was saying, "I'm not racist against white people. I mean, I hate some white people, but I don't hate them because they're white: I hate them because they're assholes." Words to live by!


  • ooh loved the Japan travelogue, and although I really like Angel and Womanity, not sure I need to sniff this - thanks for doing it for us readers!

    By Blogger Carol, at 1:50 PM  

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