One Thousand Scents

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bright Sunshiny Day: Montana Just Me

As you know all too well if you are one of the obsessed who is perpetually scouring the Internet looking for information about scents, descriptions and lists of notes are a dicey proposition at best, a complete curse most of the time.

After I had smelled Montana's 1997 Just Me a few times and jotted down some observations, I naturally wanted to see what everyone else had to say about it, so I went hunting for the lists of notes. The sort of thing that comes up most frequently when searching for these things — stop me if you've heard this — is the boilerplate

Just Me Perfume by Montana. Launched by the design house of montana in 1997, just me is classified as a sharp, oriental, woody fragrance. This feminine scent possesses a blend of oriental fruits and woods. It is recommended for daytime wear.

I don't know how many thousands of times I've read that sort of nonsense. Classified by whom? Recommended by whom? Who says so?

In case you don't know anything about how computers work, that's basically a form letter, with little placeholders inserted into the string of text:

(nameofscent) is classified as a (adjective1), (adjective2), (adjective3) fragrance. This (sexadjective) scent possesses a blend of (note1) and (note2)....

Then some poor drone just fills in a database with the relevant — and, I think, often randomly chosen — words, and it's done. The web page has the boilerplate text hard-coded into it (as they say), and then the empty spots are populated (as they also say) from the database.

Someone else uses a different database, because another site has this to say:

Launched by the design house of Montana in 1997, MONTANA JUST ME by Montana is classified as a flowery fragrance. This feminine scent posesses a blend of: oriental fruits and woods, an alluring scent. It is recommended for casual wear.

Well, what is it? Flowery or sharp-oriental-woody?

Sometimes the database for a particular scent is empty, which gives the hilarious

Perfume. Launched by the design house of in, is classified as a fragrance. This scent possesses a blend of. It is recommended for wear.

Even worse is this boilerplate (this one for the original Montana scent), which you also must have seen at some point:

Oriental, Spicy, Sweet. Created in 1986, Montana is a refreshing, woody, mossy fragrance. It's fragrant nature explores essences of peach, cardamom and ginger. Blended with notes of vetiver, amber and musk, Montana is recommended as an evening fragrance.

"It's fragrant nature explores essences of". I would like to find whoever wrote that horror and smack some sense into them. (That description is also multifariously wrong, as these things almost always are. The original Montana was a sharp-clawed animalic chypre with a radius of at least one city block, and it was most certainly meant for daytime wear, to complement those neon-coloured, shoulder-padded suits that Montana was making at the time, and god I wish I had a bottle of it right now, because it was fantastic.)

And then there's the bludgeoning type of description, which just tosses in as much information as possible, sometimes to an almost unbelievable degree. A site called Pink Fragrance seems to have just cobbled together a bunch of descriptions of random scents; here's less than a quarter of a massive paragraph of bafflegab:

An elegant, floral fragrance with top notes of rose, clementine and honeysuckle. Features tiare flower, jasmine and peony as the heart notes. Finished with sandalwood, veil of musk and patchouli as the dry down notes...Fragrance notes top with fruity, floral fragrance and a lively notes of Italian mandarin essence infuse the fragrance with zest and energy. Quince flower highlights emphasize dewy and sweet, fruity notes. Ceylon tea and iris is blended with a luminous woody accord giving the fragrance its unique, signature perfume...With top notes of Italian lime, icy pear and crisp, green almond. MONTANA JUST ME by Montana fragrance has heart notes of sugared almond and white peony and dry down notes of amber, mahogany wood, tonka beans and vanilla.

If any one scent had all that, it would probably be lethal.

Lists of notes, of course, often aren't any better. They're never particularly complete, for many reasons, one of which is that the company that makes the scent wants you to think it smells like something, not that there is necessarily any of that actual note in the product. And lists can be wildly misleading: the notes listed in that Montana nonsense up there may actually appear in the scent itself, but they tell you literally nothing of how the scent will smell, because you know nothing of their quality or proportion.

And of course there is never any guarantee that the list you're reading actually belongs to the scent it's attached to. Someone at Basenotes thoughtfully included this in their review:

Just Me was composed by Francoise Caron and included topnotes of grapefruit, ginger, caramel and pepper; heart of jasmin and ylang ylang; basenotes of musc, vanilla and amber.

Don't know where they got that from, but unless Just Me underwent a drastic reformulation at some point in its very short life, that is not at all what the scent in my bottle is.

A few other pages suggest that Just Me is instead a

spicy oriental fragrance with pineapple, honey, jasmine, chocolate and leather notes

and that is more on the nose. No pun intended.


Recently I found this and had to have it, mostly for the Just Me, which I, despite having read good reviews, had boobishly passed up on ordering a few years ago and had been regretting ever since:

Not my photo, but a borrowed one: you can tell because in my set, the Le Dix was half-empty, having leaked, dissolving the name stencilled on the bottle while giving the coffret a deliciously plush and expensive smell and some untoward stains. The Cabochard was likewise half-empty, but had demurely evaporated rather than staining the box (which had never been opened). Otherwise everything was in perfect condition, which means it held up well, considering that, as far as I can determine, the box is over a decade old.

(By the way, if you Google "les meilleurs parfums de Paris", you will get many, many hits, hardly any of which are this particular collection, though they all look pretty tempting. I don't know if anybody has a trademark on that title or if it's just used for any old batch of miniatures that someone wants to unload: at any rate, I rather doubt that these five are or ever were "the best perfumes of Paris". The back of the box says it's a product of "Vendôme Cosmetic Laboratories", but a Google search just left me befuddled and bored, so I gave up. I don't care that much.)

I had read many good things about Just Me and as soon as I saw it on the box cover, I had to have it. It did not disappoint. It opens with a madly cheerful dish of fruit cocktail dressed with citrus zest and dominated by sugared pineapple, a radiant burst of sunshine. Pineapple more than any other fruit, any other thing, is sunshine you can smell, bright and angular, penetrating and caressing. If this sort of thing doesn't make you happy, then I don't even know how your nose works: the smell of pineapple always brings a smile to my face.*

The top seamlessly flows into a warm jam-and-chocolate floral with an emphasis on "warm": this is practically tropical, with the spiny, pineapple-y brightness lingering well into the heart of the scent, and has "summer day" written all over it. Eventually the radiance vanishes altogether and the scent segues into a smudgy, salty, vaguely leathery drydown that lies very, very close to the skin. You wouldn't call Just Me a proper leather scent, because the leather doesn't appear until very late in the game, but a fragrance has to end with something. That doesn't even matter: from start to finish, Just Me is gorgeously proportioned, charming, and most of all, so much fun!

Oh, and here's the packaging of the full-sized bottle:

Despite that fact that the box has it right — the zipper pull is at the bottom of a teasingly undone decolletage — and the bottle necessarily has it wrong (and quite properly so, because doing it the other way around would have looked stupid), that is a terrific bottle. Actually, there would have been one way to salvage it, to put the zipper at the bottom where it belongs, but we'll get to that next time.

*With one exception that I've encountered: I bought a small bottle of Dawn dishwashing liquid in Hawaiian Pineapple scent and it was horrible. I couldn't bring myself to throw it away — I'm just that cheap! — so I used it up in little increments, putting a tiny squidge of it into a sinkful of proper lemon-scented Sunlight Liquid, which smells as dish soap is meant to smell. It didn't eliminate the horrible artificial pineappleness of it, but it brought it down to bearable levels. In retrospect, I don't know why I didn't throw it out; it was less than a buck. Sheer stubbornness, I guess. If you haven't met me, you have no idea how stubborn I am. It runs in the family.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Summer Cool: Comme des Garçons Series 5, Sherbet

But first, he rambles endlessly, and talks about heavy, unsummery oriental scents from a few decades ago.


I was idly thumbing through Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez' "Perfumes: The Guide" when I chanced upon this opening sentence for her review of Caron's Le Troisieme Homme:

For eye candy, both men and women look at women: men are simply not decorative, as everyone knows.

Everyone knows no such thing. What a stupid, mindless assertion that is.

Either she means that men do not decorate themselves in Western culture, which is a commonplace and so obviously true as to be not even worth mentioning (although throughout history of course they did, and in cultures other than our own of course they do), or she means that women are inherently decorative and men are not, which is insulting to both men and women as viewers and as the viewed, and also completely wrong, as a quick tour of the Internet would demonstrate. Clive Owen is much more decorative than Juliette Lewis, whatever they happen to be wearing.


Having said that, though....

When we were in New York recently, Jim and I saw the movie L'Amour Fou, a documentary about the lifelong relationship between Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. "Amour Fou" means "mad love", but this was the least mad thing you can possibly imagine: dull, placid, stodgy, napworthy (unless you consider expensive furnishings to be pornography).

The movie of course had to make a mention of Saint Laurent's sensational 1977 perfume Opium, so it showed this ad:

Well, perhaps it hasn't aged well and is a silly thing. But I have always found its star, Canadian model Linda Evangelista, to be impossibly beautiful, quite possibly the most beautiful woman who has ever lived, in no small part because she was perpetually changing her look, and no matter what she changed it to, she always looked extraordinary — she could and did wear any hair colour or style and make it look good, and you know how rare that is. I mean, just look at this:

So if someone wishes to claim that women are somehow simply more decorative than men, I'd say that person is an idiot; but if someone wants to claim that Linda Evangelista is more decorative than mere mortals, I'd have to give them that.


And speaking of old perfume commercials, you must have at least heard of the infamous quartet of Obsession TV ads from 1985? For the longest time there was, as far as I knew, only one on Youtube, the one with the boy:

Last night, on a mission, I hunted a little harder, and found two more. Here's the first in the series, with the older man:

Here's the second, with the younger man:

(I never have found the fourth ad, with the woman; perhaps it's carefully hidden away, or perhaps it just isn't there. Yet.)

And maybe you're choking with laughter, maybe they are ridiculous and overwrought, but they still give me a shiver. When Obsession was launched, a local department store had the four commercials playing on a loop on a TV screen, and I am pretty sure I watched them over and over again for half an hour; it might have been more.

There is something fearfully oneiric about these ads: the way they are trapped in a little isolated fragment of the universe, the arch, elliptical speech, the symbols so full of meaning to be teased out (the flower, the chess piece, the little book of secrets). Perhaps they are ridiculous and faux-Freudian, but I love them nonetheless, because for me they capture not only a time and a place, but a smell.

I put on a little spray of Obsession this morning, a recent vintage, and shouldn't have bothered; it has been altered nearly past recognition, not remotely what it used to be, and what a shame that is. It was once great, in a vulgar, deliciously trashy way, and now it's just cheap.


Since it's summer and the days are warming, I assume we've all put away our winter fragrances and broken out the bright, cooling scents that make the heat more bearable. I recently discovered in my box of samples all three of the Comme des Garçons Sherbet scents, and couldn't believe I hadn't tried a single one of them. What could be summerier than sherbet? (If you pronounce it "sherbert", you will not be able to tell but I will be wincing inside. It's "sherbet", please, from Arabic "sharbat", only one "r".)

In North America, sherbet is a frozen dessert based on fruit, with a very small dairy content that gives it opacity and a slight creaminess, distinguishing it from sorbet, which is the same thing except without the milk. I was therefore expecting the CdG Sherbets to be fresh and a little creamy. I was not counting on the fact that Japan is not big on dairy products, and so the unisex Sherbets are not remotely sherbety or even sweet, but fairly clean, stripped-down fantasy scents, an alien's idea of Earth sweets.

Peppermint is a nasty thing, a combination of the bright fresh synthetics that CdG seems to do so often with a sharp muddle of peppermint, spearmint, undefined spices, and an indiscriminate greenness that suggests someone walked into an herb garden and began whacking everything with a stick. It is genuinely horrible, with overtones of industrial soap, scrubbed tile, and possibly insecticide or herbicide or at any rate some sort of cide. After a while the generalized awfulness fades away and is replaced with a soft, not altogether unpleasant minty woodiness, but it's not enough to erase the memory of the horror that preceded it. Some people love this, though I can't imagine sitting through that opening, even once, ever again.

Cinnamon, on the other hand, is delightful, a soft little cloud of spices and wood, and though "inoffensive" sounds like damning with faint praise, it is inoffensive; an ideal summertime scent when you want to smell like more than yourself, without projecting at all. Someone would have to get close to you to smell this, and I think they would want to. It smells like your own skin, cooked a little in the summer sun, only better, of course.

Rhubarb is certainly the best of the lot, with a real charm — a unisex fruity floral (there is such a thing) done right: a little zing of citrus, a freshly snapped rhubarb stalk, a dreamy haze of unnamed flowers, a blurry warmth that never overpowers. (If you told me it was the newest of Guerlain's Aqua Allegorias, I wouldn't be at all surprised, although I can't imagine what they would call it.)

The official notes, for whatever that's worth to you:

PEPPERMINT: Curly Mint, Peppermint, Bay Rose, White Pepper, Cardamon, Amber, White Musk.
CINNAMON: Cedar, Bergamot, Cinnamon, Saffron, Carnation, Benjamin, Vetiver, Teak Wood, White Musk.
RHUBARB: Bergamot, Rhubarb, Litchi, Orchid Sap, Japonica Flower, Vanilla Cream.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Have Your Cake And Wear It Too: Jacomo Art Collection #02

As I mentioned, when I was at Bergdorf Goodman a few weeks ago, the nice saleswoman, when she discovered that I liked leather scents (or at least was interested in buying a specific leathery scent, which is not exactly the same thing, but she was on a mission), started plying me with all the leathers she could think of. The first was Jacomo Art Collection #02, which is meant to smell like leather and modelling clay and bubble gum, so I guess that means it has heliotrope in it, which a lot of people think smells like Play-Doh, and birch tar, which stands in for leather in fragrances, and possibly ethylmaltol or one of the other candy-note aromachemicals. But here is what it smells like:

A leather birthday cake. Tons of leather at first, lots of birch tar. Then cake. There are sprinkles on top, plenty of vanilla in the frosting. And birthday candles, smoky-waxy. Over a few hours, the sweetness of the cake gradually drowns out the leather, but it's never overpoweringly sweet, and the leather never quite goes away. Late in the game, there is a sprinkling of vanilla-laced baby powder over the whole thing, for some reason.

And really that's it. Not terrible, but too simple for what it's supposed to be, which is art.

Since this is a collection, there are several scents, all apparently gourmand — I didn't try either of the others — and packaged in arty boxes that I find sort of hideous, so I'm not going to show them to you (you can look them up yourself if you must; that's what the Internet is for), but the bottles are attractive:

If they add to the collection and do some blues and greens, and then sell the whole bunch of them as a set of half-ounce miniatures, it would make a nice little arrangement on your dresser, cluttery and charming.

Speaking of miniatures: maybe the bean-counters at the fragrance houses know something I don't, but why don't all scents come as minis? I personally love them. I would never have bought a full bottle of Ambre Narguile at $200 or whatever it's vending for these days, as much as I love it, but I did buy a set of four 15-mL bottles of the first four Hermessences for $135 or so; the company didn't lose money on the deal, because they got me to buy something I wouldn't have, even if they earned less money from the transaction. At Bergdorf Goodman, I would have laid out $85 or $90 for a 50-mL bottle of Je Suis Un Homme which I'll never see the bottom of, but instead I paid $150 for a batch of 16 10-mL bottles, so everybody wins. I could be wrong about the economics of it, but I am reasonably certain that if everything as a matter of course were launched in 15-mL sprays, or collections of miniatures once a year, a lot more scents would be sold. People who can't justify buying a full bottle will spring for a smaller one. People who just want to try a scent will buy the smallest size and maybe finish it and then spring for the big bottle. Completists will buy sets of minis just to have them. Addicts who have to have everything a particular house releases will clamour for them: I'm thinking specifically of Guerlain and Chanel here. And just think if Serge Lutens or Parfumerie Generale did sets of miniatures! Honestly, it's win-win all the way down.

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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Carbo Loading: Serge Lutens Jeux de Peau

I often feel at a disadvantage when pondering the names and descriptions of French scents, because the descriptions are often so big and flowery that I know a translation is not really going to do them justice, and the names often force me to suspect there is a secondary meaning to them that only a deep knowledge of the French language and culture would make clear. Why is Etat Libre d'Orange's Rossy de Palma scent subtitled "Eau de Protection"? Does that mean something to French ears that is lost to English speakers? (Or is it just weirdness for its own sake?)

Serge Lutens' recent Jeux de Peau literally translates as "Skin Games", but can that really be what's intended? Does it have some other meaning? Is it a reference to something, a novel or a TV show? It is a pun or other play on words somehow? Aren't all fragrances skin games, really?

As I said about my first encounter with Jeux de Peau, my immediate reaction was, and I quote, "Hmmm, interesting OH MY GOD." The "Hmmm, interesting" part is because the scent starts with a flash of typically Lutensian strangeness, bright and trinkety, so brief I can't even tell exactly what it might be: it's just sort of odd, metallic and spicy, maybe the cast-iron pans in a rundown curry-house kitchen. It is the sort of thing we expect from Lutens, and I reasonably enough thought that the opening of the scent would establish this oddity more fully, play it out and develop it.

But no, it is a trick, a ruse; it simply vanishes, and like magic the scent opens up into a massive "OH MY GOD" spread of baked goods, all at once, dark and mouthwatering. A thick layer of hot butter on grilled bread; waffle cones, cooked almost until burnt; toasted hazelnuts, maple glaze, croissants. Ridiculous. Extreme. Over the top. So gorgeous that when I wear it I cannot help but smell my own skin, over and over again. I wore it every single day last week; I almost forgot I owned any other scents.

After a couple of hours, most of the baked goods have been eaten, and what is left is, perversely, Santal Blanc. Not just "sandalwood" or even "Serge Lutens sandalwood", but actually Santal Blanc (I own it, so I know). It is not out of place; austere, bone-dry, it is a welcome counterpart to the buttery richness of the bake shop.

But there is another trick, one more game to be played in these skin games, hours and hours later: the baked goods return. Perhaps they were there all along, merely drowned out by the sandalwood, but at any rate, that drifts away and the bakery reasserts itself. It's subtler now, and sweeter; less brioche-and-croissants than pecan pie, caramel sticky buns, maybe molasses cookies, undeniably yummy. It lasts for hours and hours, of course.

There are a great many gourmand scents on the market, with more arriving every day; I just discovered that Mugler is launching an EDT version of the proto-gourmand Angel with some altered notes but (it sounds like) the basic gourmand structure intact. But nobody ever thought of doing a gourmand so resolutely peculiar and commanding as Jeux de Peau, because only Lutens is Lutens.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Trompe l'Oeil Coq

Okay. This is the packaging for the original Jean-Paul Gaultier scent for men, Le Male:

Now, this is the packaging for his upcoming men's scent, Kokorico:

In case it is not absolutely clear, the front of the bottle is a man's head in profile, and the edge of the bottle is the profile of the original bottle. Dazzling!

The packaging is also a clever play on the original's audacious tin-can outer package.

"Cocorico", in case you didn't know, is the French version of what we render in English as "cock-a-doodle-do"; the sound, in other words, that a cock makes. Just joke laid upon joke, isn't it?

The scent, which I have not tried yet but will at the first opportunity, is meant to smell of fig leaves (another joke!), raw cocoa beans, and wood (yet another joke!).

What fun it must be to be Jean-Paul Gaultier.

How is it that I've never actually reviewed his original scent? Must be because I don't own a bottle of it. I used to own it — got it in a swap, wore it for a couple years, swapped it away and haven't really regretted it — but I do have a sample; maybe I'll take a crack at it one of these days. (I had a go at his follow-up; sure didn't like that very much.)


Thursday, June 09, 2011

Helluva Town

Aaaaaaand I'm back from New York. It was pretty effing hot the first day we were there, last Friday; the weekend was nice, rainless and temperate, and then it just started getting hotter and hotter, until yesterday, our last day, it was in the neighbourhood of 30-feels-like-40, and today, right now, it is 34-feels-like-44, which is just wrong, and thank god we're not there is all I can say, because we would be spending the whole day in the hotel room sitting about six inches away from one of the air conditioners.

Oh! The hotel room! You have to see this, because we didn't quite believe it when we walked in. We always stay at the Salisbury Hotel (123 W 57th Street), because it is one of the few privately-owned hotels in the entire city, reasonably priced, not what you'd call luxurious, but nice enough, and located ideally — less than a block from two different subway stops, within easy walking distance (if it is not 44 degrees out) of restaurants and theatres and drugstores and many, many other things, and I am giving them some free publicity because they are awesome. When we arrived on Friday just after noon, the hotel was pretty full up, so they didn't have a room for us; we went away and came back a few hours later and the two men behind the desk had a little confab and presumably there still weren't many empty rooms because they decided that they would give us room 1010, which you can find in the picture below (click to embigulate, if need be):

See that big red dot? That's where we were. Our room. IT WAS HALF A CITY BLOCK LONG. For two people. The bedroom was at one end, the inner-edge-of-58th-Street end, so it was nice and quiet; in the middle was the bathroom and the dining room; and at the other end was the living room, with a TV and a sofa-bed and some armchairs and a desk and some other things, probably. There was an air conditioner at each end, and also a TV. We always get lots of exercise when we travel because we walk pretty much everywhere that's close enough to not need public transit, but on this trip we got a fair portion of our exercise just walking from the living room to the bedroom and back.

On Saturday we took the subway to Brooklyn and walked back into Manhattan along the Brooklyn Bridge, which was an excellent way to spend a morning, and then Jim went back to the room for a bit while I went shopping. Of course I did! For a trip more than 24 hours but less than 7 days, a Canadian can bring goods worth up to $400 into the country, and I made a valiant effort to use up my entire allotment within 24 hours of arriving. I failed, but not for lack of trying.

First I went to Henri Bendel, which is the place in the city that sells Etat Libre D'Orange; I figured, hell, I could mail-order it but I'm here, Bendel's is a couple of blocks from the hotel, I might as well get Je Suis Un Homme, which is my favourite of the line so far (of the ones I've tried). And I walked in and was attacked by a very friendly, very determined, possibly Polish but certainly Eastern European saleswoman who had definite ideas about what I was going to walk out of the store with.

The first thing I snapped up was a set of Ineke samples, $25 for the first seven in the line, and I haven't smelled any of them yet, but the packaging is so ludicrously beautiful and thought-through that I couldn't resist. After I expressed my interest in the Etat line and made it clear, as ever, that categories such as "masculine" and "feminine" have no meaning for me, that I wear whatever smells good, the saleswoman had me try Like This, which is pretty spectacular (carroty spiced pumpkin, citrus and immortelle), but she didn't have a sample and I'm not going to buy it based on a quick sniff. I told her about my idea that Je Suis Un Homme is as close as I'll ever come to the limited-edition Fraicheur Cuir, and she decided that therefore I loved leather and started hunting down all the leather-based scents they had, and spraying like a madwoman. I tried at least a dozen things, including three of the SoOud line, all of them beautiful (one, though I can't remember which, particularly smoky and delicious), and one of the Jacomo Art Collection line, No. 2 ($89, I think, for 100 mL), which is meant to smell like leather and modelling clay, and it is really outstanding. And here was the odd part; I noticed that Bendel had the Etat coffret, 16 10-mL bottles, for $150, and since I had passed it up in Paris last year I decided to get that instead of Je Suis un Homme ($80 or so, if I recall correctly), and the saleswoman tried to talk me out of it. Tried really hard! "But it's only 10 mL of the one you wanted, and you will run out of it! And what if you don't like most of them? What will you do with them? And if you want to spend the money, you could buy the one you want and the Jacomo for hardly more than the cost of the set, and have two things you really like!" I'll never use up 50 mL of anything any more, I said, and if I don't like any of the little Etats, I'll just give it away. And that satisfied her, and she rang me through. She tied up the Etat box, which was not wrapped or sealed in any way, in a great length of wide brown ribbon decked with white polka dots, found me a sample of the Jacomo and a couple of Je Suis Un Homme ("because you like it so much, and so you will be able to carry them with you"), and tucked everything into a big heavy Bendel shopping bag of dark-brown-and-white stripes.

My next and last stop was Bergdorf Goodman, where I had bought my first-ever Serge Lutens a year and a half ago, and where I was, as I have mentioned, going to sample and presumably buy Jeux de Peau. I asked the salesman standing guard at the Lutens zone (it isn't a counter, just two imposing glass shelving units against a wall) if they had it; he sprayed a blotter and handed it to me, and my first reaction was "Hmmm, interesting OH MY GOD." (We will delve into that next week.)

I told the salesman about my ridiculous Lutens collection (nine and counting), and he tried to get me to sample a few more things that he thought might be to my taste, but I was already a step ahead of him; he proffered the Cèdre bottle, and I said, "That's the one with the tuberose, right?" "Well, yes, but it's not just tuberose," he said, reaching for a blotter to spray. "No, really. I've tried it. Tuberose and I are not friends," I said, and he relented. He made a gesture towards L'Eau Serge Lutens, I disdained it, and he said, "Well, Lutens made it as a joke." Then he picked up the new Bas de Soie, and I said, "That's the one with all the iris, right?" "Yes," he said, perhaps a bit warily. "Iris and I are not friends. But I'll try it anyway." He sprayed, I hated: face-powder florals, iris, uck.

I did, though, buy the Jeux de Peau. Of course I did! And now it's ten and counting, and if I ever smell Vitriol d'Oeillet, god help me.


Monday, June 06, 2011

Drink Up: Gres Cabaret Shower Gel

Even though I am on a self-imposed moratorium and am trying manfully not to buy any scents in 2011 (I will probably fail before the year is up), I have given myself a little bit of wiggle room: any bottle of fragrance that I buy is going to be around for a long, long time, given how many bottles I own, but shower gel gets used up at a pretty fast clip, so I can judiciously buy that, if I really must.

I was at Winners the other day, the Canadian version of TJ Maxx, and in the soaps-and-lotions section they had four boxes of Cabaret shower gel by Gres. They were all sealed, so I couldn't test one, but I vaguely remembered having smelled it when it was launched in 2003, and thought I recalled a lush, seducey oriental; a bargain at $5.99, so I talked myself into buying one.

As it turns out, Cabaret is not an oriental at all, or at least the shower gel isn't; it's a crisp, brilliant citrus rose with a vague, almost subliminal wood note underneath. There is certain to be more going on in the eau de parfum, but the shower gel is simple, stripped down, and immodestly cheerful; just lemons and roses, and lots of both. It is also very big; probably best not to use this one at the gym, because it is highly perfumed and very, very diffusive, although very little of the scent clings to the skin after towelling off, and what remains doesn't last long.

The box is splendid: festive red and gold in a sawtooth pattern laid transparently over an iridescent metallic. The bottle, unfortunately, is cheap; a mere tube, with a pleasant-enough matte finish, capped with a cheap, trinkety gold-plastic screw-on cap, which is maddeningly inefficient — unscrew the cap, and then what? You have to set down the cap somewhere in order to squeeze out the contents, and then you have to set down the tube somewhere to use the product, and it's a tube, so it's teetery and hard to balance. Very poorly thought out.

But the gel itself is a real surprise; that's where most if not all of the thought went in this product. It's a pale, translucent apricot colour, bejewelled with tiny iridescent particles of shimmer and studded throughout with little spheres in white and gold, also iridescent. These globes aren't full of moisturizer or whatever such things are usually loaded with; they're solid (but easily crushed) clumps of that same shimmer that the gel is laced with. After pouring it into my hand and examining it for a minute, I finally realized what the total effect was meant to be; it's champagne. And of course it is; what else would you be drinking at a festive cabaret?


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.


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.


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.


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?!


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.