One Thousand Scents

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Sacred And The Profane

Perfumery--this is not a new insight or a great revelation, but it may come as a surprise to some people--is entirely about sex. It is about altering your perception of yourself, and other people's perception of you, to make you sexually appealing, whether the scent you choose to apply to yourself makes you innocent or worldly, brash or shy, commanding or retiring, strong or delicate. What, after all, is a light floral scent but a subliminal indicator that the wearer is a fragile flower? What is a rich ambery oriental scent but an amplification of the smell of hot, sweaty skin and genitalia?


On the way back from London, at Gatwick Airport, I was awed by the size and scope of the duty-free shop. The airport itself, once you're past the international gate, is really a shopping mall, and the duty-free store, dominated by its fragrance department, is astounding, like nothing I'd ever seen before.

As I strolled through it, though, I became more and more disenchanted. The prices didn't seem to be that much better than I could find anywhere else. The products were the same as I'd seen throughout the UK: there were a few travel collections, sets of miniatures or special editions of things, but nothing genuinely exciting. Scents make me happy, and the prospect of finding something new, or a real bargain, make me even happier, but there was nothing here to thrill the soul. (Clearly I had been ruined by another fragrance-shopping experience a couple of days previously, about which more in a bit.) As I walked through, becoming more dispirited by the minute, it struck me: if fragrance is about sex, then this is its government-sanctioned red-light district, everything out in the open, no mystery, no secrets, just product product product and sunshiny procuresses willing to sell it to you.
(I did find one thing I hadn't seen anywhere else, Dior's limited-edition Eau Sauvage Fraicheur Cuir, but at £35 (about $80), I couldn't justify it, not after all I'd spent already. Was I going to use up even a reasonable fraction of a 100-mL bottle? Never. Did I need another leather scent, nice though it was? Not really. Bye-bye, Fraicheur Cuir.)


If the Gatwick duty-free shop is a whorehouse, then the Harrods fragrance department is a temple of sex, a holy place.

On entering Harrods, you walk through a vestibule and into the cosmetics department, a brilliantly lit warehouse of white walls and mirrors, the better to show just how awful you look without its products. Once you're through that gantlet, you enter its polar opposite: a large room, but as dark as the previous room was light, black floors, black walls, low lighting, and a large staff of salespeople; if they're not all clad in black, they give that impression nonetheless. Harrods is a temple, and they are its votaries. They want you to submit to the mysteries of the sex they have to offer, and you will, because you must.

The room is not brightly lit, but there are bright lights: they're focused on the scents themselves, which seem to glow with a mysterious power. They compel you to stop and sample them. I found myself sniffing things I already knew, just because they were there. I sniffed everything. I wore my nose out.

The votaries do not undersell their deities. I saw one of them pick up a bottle from his counter and spray the air in front of him a half-dozen times; for his own pleasure, or to lure another worshipper? As I sampled Serge Lutens (Chergui! Rousse! Daim Blond!), with each new scent the priestess would pick up a fresh blotter and spray it front (psst psst psst) and back (psst psst psst) before handing it to me, the better to overwhelm my senses.

And there, in a far corner of the store, was the Caron counter, and there in the middle of it was my holy grail, the object of my adoration: Coup de Fouet.

I didn't need to smell it, but I did anyway. Took the blotter, wandered away, my eyes a little glazed, my heart beating a little faster, sniffing again and again. Finally, satiated, I made my way back to the counter and bought it--the price was irrelevant at that point--and can finally worship at its pedestaled, perfumed feet.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

England Swings

If you're reading my other blog--no particular reason you should, but you might be--then you know I'm in the UK for a couple of weeks.

They take fragrance very seriously over here. It's wonderful. Even small drugstores in smallish cities such as Bath have large and varied selections of scents, and not all the usual Calvin Klein or celebrity stuff you find in any old drugstore, either (though there's plenty of that); older scents are fairly easy to come by, particularly in the larger cities.

A great number of people wear fragrance: you can be walking down a street almost anywhere and catch a ribbon of scent from a passer-by. I walked into a restaurant a couple of days ago in Cardiff; a young woman was sitting near the door, and I was intoxicated by the scent of Byzance. Just this morning, in Edinburgh, a tiny old woman crossed my path and I was delighted to smell something young and fresh on her (I think it was Guerlain Insolence, but I wouldn't swear to that in a court of law).

It isn't just the women, either. A free daily newspaper called Metro has a style section, and here's a quote from today's issue, in a piece about what the well-dressed man will be wearing this fall, from a stylist named Thom Murphy:

Chanel No. 5. I kid you not! This big nan's blouse perfume is only for the truly hard boys. It's such a familiar smell but, on a man, the fragrance changes and leaves people confused--which is always good.

I would have to agree with that. I used to wear Chanel No. 5 (the extract, or perfume, which is the densenst and most interesting version), and on my skin it was dark and strange and fascinating, not anything like you'd imagine on Marilyn Monroe. I can't see myself wearing it any more; my skin, and my nose, have changed. But I'm glad I had the chance to once.

I have been shopping, of course, and I've been extremely good, managing to limit myself to 14 scents. On my second day in London, I bought a bottle of YSL Yvresse and a tiny bottle of Thierry Mugler Alien. The next day, at a high-end department store called Debenham's, I got 30-mL bottles of Dior's new Midnight Poison (rose, patchouli, ambergris, vanilla) and the new Kenzo for men, Tokyo (spicy-fresh, woody, incensy). And then a couple of days later in Bath, I bought a couple of different sets of 5 Salvador Dali miniatures, including the astounding original scent, the men's scent, Daliflor, Rubylips, Laguna (which I used to hate--have I changed enough to love it?) Dalissime, Eau de Rubylips, and a couple of others. Add in a bunch of samples, and I have lots to write about in the coming months. In theory.

What didn't I buy? Lots of things. Today I was in an Edinburgh store called Jenner's, and was much tempted. Tom Ford's recent Black Orchid was exceedingly tempting, but the price was way out of my league. Likewise with Caron's Tabac Blond: it seems like the sort of thing that would sit well on my skin, but I couldn't justify the price tag (£80 or so for a 50-mL bottle if I remember correctly). If they had had Poivre or Coup de Fouet, I think I would have bought, regardless of the price, because of my mad love for carnations. They also had a bunch of Serge Lutens, but I thought it was wise to steer clear. There will be other trips and other temptations....

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Curves: Le Classique by Jean-Paul Gaultier

Jean-Paul Gaultier's scents, on the whole, don't work for me. Fleur du Mâle was a gigantic misfire, I thought; Gaultier² was boring (ambered vanilla musk with no development whatever), and Fragile was a hideous blast of tuberose (in a really fantastic bottle). I wore his first men's scent, Le Mâle, for a while, and while I can appreciate it as an objet d'art, it doesn't suit me, at all. But his first scent, Le Classique, is a women's floral-oriental that manages to be both classical and modern. It's a wonderment.

How about a couple of lists of notes to start? They have nothing to do with one another, and neither of them seems to be entirely correct, but I'm not a trained nose, so what do I know? First, from Basenotes:

Top Notes: Rose, star aniseed, orange, mandarin, pear liqueur.
Middle Notes: Iris, orchid, plum, ginger, orange blossom, ylang-ylang.
Base Notes: Musk, vanilla, woody amber.

And from Susan Irvine's "The Perfume Guide":

Top notes: Cyclamen, freesia, lotus, rosewater, bergamot, lemon, mandarin, plum, peach.
Middle notes: Carnation, peony, lily, ginger.
Base notes: Ambrette seed, woody note, musk, osmanthus, cinnamon, tonka bean.

Not much overlap there!

I once called the scent "rosy-sherbety", and that's the overall effect for me, despite the fact that Gaultier famously (and worrisomely) said, before its launch, that the scent was concocted to remind him of his grandmother's dressing-table, with the scents of face powder and nail polish remover. No acetone in here, though.

It starts out sweet and it stays that way for its entire life, which is a long, long time, thanks to the preponderance of base notes: Le Classique is a floral oriental, but as it dries down, it's most definitely an oriental. The top is a compote of sweetened fruit (peaches and plums, reminiscent of Gem by Van Cleef & Arpels) with a little frisson of citrus and anise. Immediately underneath this is a bouquet of flowers: primarily rose, de-thorned, softened, and powdered, and orange-flower, though rose is still the predominant note, if anything can be said to predominate in this seamless blend of flowers. (If there's carnation in there, I can't find it. )

The flowers soon sink into a vat of durable oriental notes, still sweet and perfectly smooth; mostly ambergris, tonka bean, and vanilla. Gaultier's clothes might be modern, but this scent, without being old-fashioned, is comforting and extraordinarily pretty.

You can't really talk about Gaultier's scents without talking about the bottles, since they were clearly designed to be conversation pieces. This one, which caused a sensation when it was launched, is based on Schiparelli's Shocking

(which was supposedly modelled after Mae West's torso), but more so: Gaultier's version is exaggerated, with its big bosom and tiny nipped waist, an homage to his famous corset couture (also alluded to by the bottle's frosted clothing). Over the years, he's rung any number of changes on the bottle, too: it's always that same curvaceous, holdable shape, but the clothing is designed to appeal to women who once played dress-up with their dolls. One version came in a removable metal corset, and another was wearing a tiny peach-coloured fabric corset. Yet another had the underwear applied as red flocking, and every year there seems to be a new version depicting the clothing as filigree, handmade lace, or an elaborate tattoo. At least he's had the good sense not to mess with the juice inside, and why would he? It's a classic.