vendredi 20 janvier 2017

My Top 10 for the Winter of 2017: Scents of comfort and fortitude

Perfume feels like a very frivolous topic to address on this particular day, given the obscenity of what is unfolding in Washington as this post goes up.

Yet… Our focus on scent is less trivial than it seems. Smell is a sense that people mostly use to detect and reject -- food that’s gone bad, but also the cooking of others, the smells of others. As perfume lovers, we’re able to go beyond that gut-level, “this isn’t me/us” rejection. Not just because of our fabled fascination for skank, but because we’ve learned to embrace notes we didn’t care about initially. We’re willing to approach them, spend time with them, “see” them differently. Go past our prejudices. Find out more.

This openness, this willingness to engage with otherness through the most intimate of our senses (along with taste) could stand as a metaphor for the open-mindedness we need to counter the rancid stench of toxic masculinity that is creeping over our poor planet. We also need the curiosity and love of knowledge that yielded the teeming culture we’ve created around perfume. Disregard for facts starts with the B.S. we get fed to make us buy stuff. It ends in post-truth.

In the short, cold days of winter, we crave warmth, comfort and light. Today more than ever. So here’s a mix of the new and old, to fight the cold and help us stand up. Scents of comfort and fortitude. As our dear departed Leonard Cohen sang in Anthem: “There’s a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”

Monday January 23rd
Just adding this whiff of the Women's March, from a piece by Laurie Penny:

"Inauguration Day stank of limp rage and lukewarm hotdogs, lost-looking people shivering in American flags, the crowd too thin to keep each other warm. The Women’s March smelled of paint and glue and, not unpleasantly, of lots of nice ladies sweating lightly under sensible knitwear, realizing that they have more power in numbers than they ever guessed."  

Little Bianca (Mizensir)
Smells don’t cheat, little Bianca. They speak to the heart, in a language that always tells the truth”, writes Alberto Morillas in the press release for Little Bianca, the rose cologne he composed for his granddaughter. A simple, luminous scent that brings together “everything I love, simple, beautiful scents so you’ll recognize what is true and essential”. This includes Paradisone, a gorgeous upgrade of hedione, which smells like the souls of all the white flowers that died for us and went to heaven. But the main ingredient is love.

Cologne pour le Soir (Maison Francis Kurkdjian)
Often neglected in favor of its more outrageous variation Absolue pour le soir, this powdery, honeyed, incense-infused scent is as softly comforting as its inspiration, the benzoin-based Papier d’Arménie.

Ambre Éternel (Guerlain)
Despite its name, this isn’t the creamy vanilla and cistus blend called “amber” in perfumery, but a gauzy aura of frosty, carroty iris layered over incense-infused orange blossom. A touch of sweet smokiness lingers like the faint memory of a log fire on a woolen scarf.

Close Up (Olfactive Studio)
Perfumery’s Riot Grrrl Annick Menardo finds the sweet spot connecting amber, cherry and tobacco on the toffee-to-coffee continuum. Anise and green coffee provide the link with the licorice-y tonka. Caramel-smooth, toasty, incredibly long-lasting and unexpectedly tough.

Oeillet Bengale (Aedes de Venustas)
The pepper-sparked, incense-fuelled carnation explosion set off by Rodrigo Flores Roux has been a winter mainstay of mine since it came out. I’d warm myself up with the Mexican firebrand at the Women’s March if I were in Washington tomorrow…

Blackpepper (Comme des Garçons)
As a (symbolic) antidote to pepper spray: after the initial blast of the titular ingredient, Antoine Maisondieu’s dark blend unfolds into a marquetry of faux noirs ranging from the dark-chocolate smoothness of tonka to the matte amber of clary sage, by way of flint, dust, leather and tar. 

Encre Noire (Lalique)
Vetiver is the most vertical ingredient I know: the very definition of an olfactory backbone. Deftly faceted by Nathalie Lorson, Encre Noire brings out glints of flint and bitter chocolate. 

Cuir de Russie (Chanel)
Remember that scene at the end of Casablanca? Captain Renault (Claude Rains) bins a bottle of Vichy water, ditching the collaborationist French government (then based in the spa town of Vichy) to go over to the Resistance with Rick. Given the current circumstances, the scene popped into my mind as I reached for Chanel’s classic… But I’m hanging on to the EDT version I bought days after Obama was first elected. The new EDP version, while lovely, tones down the cool sheen of aldehydes and that slight stable-y funk, while amping up the musks. In either version, this olfactory emblem of women’s emancipation in the 20s is still pretty badass.

 N°19 (Chanel)
To remember that spring does come back, eventually. Because I need a scent with a backbone. A scent that is irrefutable. I’ve got a couple of vintage bottles in the fridge, along with a recent-ish extrait that’s still glorious.

Aromatics Elixir (Clinique)
I recently caught a patchouli-laden whiff of this in an office and thought: this classic American fragrance is unimpeachable

For more seasonal round-ups, see the usual suspects:

The picture above was taken by me in Montreal.

vendredi 30 décembre 2016

Scents of the Year: My Top 10 Picks for 2016

All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten the rancid stink that rose up from ballot boxes in 2016. Foul whisp’rings are abroad indeed... The 1930s gave us Shocking, Scandal and Révolte (later renamed Cuir par Lancôme). Let’s just hope that at some point within our lifetime, our Air du Temps will be swept by the springtime vigor of a Vent Vert. Without having to go through a world war in the interval, if at all possible…

On the slightly less gloomy side, there have been lovely things to smell -- as well there should be, considering the year’s 2000+ launches. In particular, I’ve been happily poking my nose into brands founded by seasoned perfumers who got fed up with being asked to tweak their formulas for no good reason. Because the likes of Alberto Morillas, Michel Almairac or Pierre Bourdon have shaped the history of perfumery, exploring their “director’s cut” catalogue is like zipping through wormholes into earlier decades. That said, they’re less self-consciously about past references than niche products like Arquiste’s Ella or indeed, much of niche (the entire genre being founded on nostalgia). They’re just happy to get a breather, hence the sprezzatura of their scents (defined by Castiglione as "an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them").

And now, without further ado, here are my top picks for the Annus Horribilis of 2016. Lots of tenderness -- God (aka Jacques Guerlain) knows we need it. And a bit of the bitch. May their discovery inspire happy thoughts.

Guimauve de Noël (Parle-moi de Parfum)
When I walked into the shop opened by the sons of Michel Almairac (Gucci Rush, Dior Fahrenheit, all of Chloé’s roses…), I never thought I’d get a crush on his gourmand Guimauve de Noël. Almairac explains that as he was working on an orange blossom and vanilla accord, he got a Proustian flash of fougassette, a famous delicacy of his native Grasse. Deceptively simple, Guimauve de Noël spans from fizzy neroli to slightly roasted crust while somehow translating as perfume. This is Séville à l’aube’s Provençal cousin playing Sugar Plum Fairy.

Florentina (Sylvaine Delacourte Paris)
Guerlain’s former olfactory development director was dreaming of starting her own brand: when the right partner showed up, she left the house of the golden bee to found her own. Perhaps the most striking of her first series dedicated to musks, Florentina crosses the angora-kitten softness of L’Instant or Cruel Gardenia with the iris and carnation wistfulness of L’Heure Bleue, her favorite Guerlain. Yet it speaks a language all its own. Who doesn’t need an angora kitten of a scent in these harsh days? 

Sous les Magnolias (Pierre Bourdon)
Pierre Bourdon’s brand, developed by an Austrian company owned by a long-time friend of the perfumer's, is frustatingly difficult to track down (in Paris, it’s just sold at Astier de Villatte on the rue de Tournon). Which is a true pity, as the author of Kouros, Cool Water or Féminité du Bois (with Chris Sheldrake) aligns truly masterful scents here: unsold formulas that he considers his best work. The fresh, gloriously rounded chypre Sous les Magnolias smells like the magnolia fragrance Edmond Roudnitska always dreamed of doing but never managed. La fin d’un été, blending fruity chypre with a tart plum and gingerbread accord, is my next full bottle buy. Will a retailer pick up this brand already ????

L’Ombre du Lys (Mizensir)
I’ve finally gotten around to the brand Alberto Morillas founded with his wife and daughter -- now at nearly 20 scents and still growing, as the author of Pleasures, CK One and Flower by Kenzo, who admits that he initially got cold feet about composing in his own name, says he’s now given in to the urge. A tad less abstract than the Sevillan maestro’s mainstream compositions, L’Ombre d’un Lys hits its lily with a beam of sun through a stained-glass window. Though Morillas at his best is always brilliant, his work for Mizensir has a particular tenderness to it: clearly, it comes from the heart.

L’Air du Temps - Le Crépuscule (Nina Ricci)
I’ve already said why I love Calice Becker’s “twilight” take on L’Air du Temps, which manages to morph the original’s carnation into Mirabilis jalapa, the four o’clock flower more poetically known in France as “Belle de Nuit”. What’s striking is that even if you have no idea what the blossom smells like, you can tell it’s the scent of an actual flower (rather than some floral abstraction). I also love the fact that Becker, who grows Mirabilis jalapa under the windows of her bedroom in her country house in Burgundy, had been wanting to do a perfume based on its scent for years. Hence the very personal, vivid voice of Le Crépuscule. A pity it’s a high-priced limited edition.

Queen of the Night (Grandiflora)
From twilight to nightfall… Bertrand Duchaufour’s take on the night-blooming flower of the Selenicereus grandiflorus cactus for the Australian brand is pretty much the polar opposite of his Nuit de Tubéreuse for L’Artisan: instead of deconstructing the scent of a flower done by perfumers a thousand times, he’s gone and invented what the cactus blossom ought to smell like. Which is an indole-wafting diva sprouting sticky black berries. Pretty much what Mozart’s Queen of the Night would spritz on in a Cronenberg staging of The Magic Flute. Ok, why isn’t that a thing yet?

Night Flower (Eris Parfums)
If Shalimar tripped into a vat of tonka absolute on its way to party with Poison, their love child would probably smell like Antoine Lie’s Night Flower. The Animalis-driven Ma Bête has been getting most of the love, but Barbara Herman’s spicy, musky leather-petaled blossom has been creeping up on me. The night is dark and full of terrors, isn’t it?

Ella (Arquiste)
My first snootful of Rodrigo Flores-Roux’s “animal chypre” wasn’t so much a Proustian buzz as a full-on, “decade of my life flashing by” experience. I’ve been howling my love for it ever since. How can this palimpsest of olfactory references still come off as a perfume rather than an industrial accident? This is actually one of the few scents I’ve had the time to review this year, so for more, click here.

Peau d’Ailleurs (Philippe Starck)
If the fragrances sold by Philip Starck’s mother gave him an excuse to touch women when he was a boy, his first collection sticks to the immaterial. The designer gives no indication of notes for his first collection. Just oxymoronic intentions : « capture the intangible », « the perfume of happy nostalgie », « the cosmic smell of the void ». The ballsy author of Bulgari Black didn’t flinch. Annick Menardo found the olfactory wormhole connecting « happy nostalgia » and « cosmic void »: a whiff of dusty, musty cellar and beetroot out of which a planet-sized aprium (the hybrid of plum and apricots) comes barrelling. A fruity chypre for the Interstellar era. And most definitely habitable.

Galop d’Hermès (Hermès)
True to its name, Christine Nagel’s first major feminine fragrance for Hermès, a rose and leather « animal floral », swiftly moves from a limpid overture to liqueur-smooth richness. Straight out the gate it’s tempting to see a segue from Ellena’s trademark grapefruit in the sulfurous cassis bud that dominate the top notes. But the plush powdery rose that blooms almost immediately seems to channel the hug-me, powdery-musky jamminess of 90s classics. In Galop d’Hermès, it melds with leather to yield a velvety, petal-and-peach-skin texture. A very modern, gender-fluid rose, bearing both a whip and a cleavage.

For more 2016 round-ups, please visit:

Illustration: Louise Brooks, sourced from The Nitrate Diva's Twitter account.