Le Labo Ylang 49 is a scent that gives me some serious cognitive dissonance. I keep wearing it and trying to figure out why, and this is what I’ve been able to come up with:
Reason 1: Almost all the reviews for Ylang 49 emphasize that, counter to Le Labo’s usual bait and switch strategy, Ylang 49 is actually strong on ylang, with many using words such as steamy, languid, or potent to describe it. That makes me think that people see the word “ylang” and automatically link it to the tropical, banana-ish scent for which the flower is justly famous. But, honestly, I think that’s the power of suggestion, something that Le Labo is relying on to happen – they give us the word, and we fill in all the blanks ourselves, whether it’s accurate or not.
To my nose, the ylang in Ylang 49 is clearly the dry, leathery facet of ylang that we see in fragrances such as Cuir de Russie (Chanel) and Une Fleur de Cassie (Malle) – not super-buttery, fleshy, or humid, but rather, arid and a bit throat-catching. You can tell that, in order to transition the Les Exclusifs from the eau de toilette to eau de parfum concentration, Chanel added quite a lot of this type of ylang to the scents, giving Bois des Iles and Cuir de Russie in particular this thickly-powdered, almost stuffy leather note that renders their texture opaque in EdP format.
Interestingly, the same has been done for the new Mitsouko (Guerlain), especially in the eau de parfum concentration, in the sense that lots of this dry, fuel-like ylang has been added to give Mitsouko a strangely smoky (but not altogether unattractive) cuir de russie leather note. I believe that this is the treatment of ylang that we’re seeing in Ylang 49, as opposed to the tropical banana custard type.
Reason 2: Ylang 49 is simply not what the reviews and notes suggest it to be. The back story has it pinned as this great, complex, throw-back floral chypre that is keeping the chypre idea alive in the post-IFRA oakmoss fallout. I mean, hallelujah and all that, but let’s get real. Ylang 49 is actually a big rose-patch, with a plummy, wine-stained rose draped over a hulkingly dry patchouli-vetiver combination that’s more suggestive of black leather than oakmoss. It achieves a quasi-mossy impression purely because the leather and patch accord is so dry. But it never really smells like oakmoss (salty, marine, inky, bitter), ergo, it’s not a chypre.
Ylang 49 smells a lot like the plummy rose patch of Voleur de Roses (L’Artisan Parfumeur) or JHAG Lady Vengeance grafted on top of the dry “semi-chypric” leather base of Noir Patchouli (Histoires de Parfums), which, in and of itself happens to be a portion of Aromatics Elixir (Clinique) extracted and blown up to scale. The ylang is there to either bolster or help construct the impression of dry, earthy leather. There’s absolutely nothing tropical or creamy or languid about the florals here, in other words, with neither the ylang nor the much-vaunted but utterly undetectable-to-my-nose gardenia note registering much beyond their textural contribution.
Ylang 49 does smell quite retro and big, of course, but that’s more because it’s referencing everything in Bernard Chant canon than reconstructing a chypre in either scent or structure. Leaving aside the thorny issue of oakmoss for a minute, what does chypre mean these days anyway? To me, chypre means a certain balancing of taste: sour (bergamot), sweet-rich (labdanum), and salty-bitter (whatever stands in for oakmoss). Substituting patchouli for oakmoss is the most popular workaround for the salty-bitter taste these days, and to give them credit, Le Labo has thought to bolster the bog-standard patchouli with rich, complex-smelling leather and floral notes. Ylang 49 does not smell thin or unfinished, as many nu-chypres do. In fact, it smells wonderful. But to my nose, it always smells more like a winey rose-patch-leather than a chypre.
It took me ages to smell Ylang 49 for what it really was as opposed to what it’s made out to be. Or perhaps I’ve just been reading way too much into it. In college, no matter how much I loved Dante, painstakingly translating Inferno into English in tiny script beside each line of each canto, I could never achieve higher than 60% in any essay I submitted. I even volunteered to do repeat essays a few times, until my professor told me (kindly) to stop; that I was just one of those people who focused too hard on the detail of Dante to ever really “get” the bigger picture.
I get like that with perfume too, I admit. Ylang 49 is my Inferno, or maybe one of those Magic Eye paintings where you have to step back and relax your eyes to see what the image hiding inside really is. For what it’s worth, I really like the version of Ylang 49 that I now see, even if few others will agree with me that that’s what’s really there.