I won’t be sorry to say goodbye to 2015. Here in Paris, the year began and ended in tragedy. Of course, like all things of beauty, perfume can be a solace. Yet after the shock and horror, it’s been hard to channel quite the same amount of enthusiasm into it as usual. Or even to muster up much desire to write. Whenever work hasn’t been tying me down to the computer, I’ve felt the need to be with people rather than putting in more hours at the keyboard. With deadlines piling up and a nagging health issue requiring attention, the blog was the only area in my life where I could cut myself some slack, hence my silence.
Meanwhile, the landscape of Perfumeland has shifted. With L’Artisan Parfumeur bought up by the people who brought us One Million, the last nail in the coffin of the pioneering niche brands has been hammered in. To be fair, Puig does handle the unimpeachable Comme des Garçons, and L’Artisan hasn’t been properly helmed for years. Still, the brand founded by Jean-François Laporte in 1976 as a reaction to the ascendancy of marketing will become a marketing-driven brand. And in dispensing with Bertrand Duchaufour’s signature, the Catalan giant has purged the ur-niche house of its last shred of soul. Let’s just hope Puig doesn’t cull too many fragrances from the catalogue.
Of course, niche – the reason most of us became perfume geeks in the first place – is still thriving. In the list provided by the Fragrance Foundation France in view of the Experts’ Award at the 2016 French Fifis, I’ve counted over 350 launches – that’s just the stuff sold in France -- for 110 brands, a full third of which I’d never heard of. And more than a dozen of which put out 4 new scents or more in 2015: Atelier Cologne churned out a whopping 10 new juices, as did Jo Malone.
On the whole, in the limited number of things I did spend some time with, I admit I haven’t found anything that’s blown my stockings off. Still, there are a few launches I’ve loved, and one oldie I’ve (re)discovered. Here they are, in alphabetical order…
Ambre Cashmere Intense (Parfums de Nicolaï)
Amber can sit a little uneasily on the liver when expressed in all its fatty-waxy glory. Despite the scent’s “intense” qualifier, Patricia de Nicolaï delivers a deliciously Parisian – i.e. measured – interpretation of the note, dried up with iris and clove, and pricked with enough black pepper to open up the accord.
Cannibale (Serge Lutens)
I’ve been dithering about including one of Lutens’ new “Section d’Or” collection – one shouldn’t have to mortgage a kidney to smell good. Still, it’s hard to turn up your nose at scents that are so quintessentially Lutens. Like all the “Section d’Or”, Cannibale is of a denser, almost resinous olfactory texture than the “bell jar” or “export” collections. Charred rice powder and ashes of roses flutter over crackling incense tears… the cannibal in question may well refer to the alchemical process of digestion.
Cross of Asia (Orlov Paris)
In Cross of Asia, Dominique Ropion says he’s done for ylang – a notoriously difficult note to treat as a soliflore – what he’d done for tuberose in Carnal Flower. Up close, this seemingly straight-up floral is a compelling oddball that picks apart and reassembles all of the facets of ylang – including intriguing salty, rosy and green apple notes. For the time being, the Paris-based brand is only sold at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, but it’s well worth seeking out.
Olivier Polge’s first composition as Chanel’s new in-house perfumer is a deliciously retro take on the Paris violet-rose accord. Lipstick and fur on heated flesh: Chanel’s first perfume named after a woman not the founder is the brand’s most carnal offering to date.
Am I influenced by Nanban’s Asian inspiration? At the heart of Rodrigo Flores Roux’s chewy resinous incense and amber accord, I can pick out smoked plum – as though a bit of Femme had been steeped in traditional cuir de Russie.
Narciso (Narciso Rodriguez)
One of the few 2015 mainstream launches most of my French perfume blogger friends seem to agree about. To my nose, this creamy, gardenia-tinged cosmetic notes is on the same area of the scent-map as my beloved Ylang 49: a rose-vetiver axis that is faintly reminiscent of 70s chypres. I’ve been favoring the oil version, in which the vetiver stands out more distinctly.
With its splash of sap drizzling on a lick of honey, Bertrand Duchaufour’s take on daffodil reads like a color-saturated, baroque descendant of Jean-Louis Sieuzac’s masterful Dune: a northern interpretation of solar notes.
Tabac Tabou (Parfum d’Empire)
It was a bold move to launch a fragrance named after such a tabooed substance – but then, Marc-Antoine Corticchiato is one of the industry’s ballsiest noses. Matched with the hay and sap facets of narcissus, bolstered by the mulled-fruit lushness of immortelle, the scent is not about smoke or ashes but about the leaf.
Tellus (Liquides imaginaires)
Part of the “Eaux Arborantes” trilogy dedicated to trees – the brand’s best to date, to my nose – Nadège Le Garlantezec’s Tellus uproots facets of perfumery materials usually expunged from the palette. Smells of dank, mushroom, humus and dirt-smeared burrowing critters… It’s the nose gone to earth. Primeval and oddly comforting.
Timbuktu (L’Artisan Parfumeur)
Last (in alphabetical order) but not least… despite being a decade old, Bertrand Duchaufour’s interpretation of the Malian ritual of thiourayé was truly my scent of the year. I rediscovered it while researching African-themed fragrances for Citizen K International. Its vetiver backbone, slender as a blade of bison grass, holds up a grapefruit-to-smoke vertical structure as satisfying as the best white wines. And somehow, wearing it on alternate days with Mitsouko shed light on both scents, showing Timbuktu as a chypre and making the role vetiver plays in Mitsouko (in the current edp) more legible. Great perfumes, like all works of art, yield different readings over the years. Thus, my 2015 Timbuktu is not the one I knew in 2005. May 2016 bring many more such discoveries… And may Puig not discontinue this rare gem.
For more views on the best fragrances of 2015, please visit:
Illustrations: Anna Karina in stills from Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou.