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Parfums Prissana and Strangers Parfumerie: A Sampling

12th February 2020

I’m fascinated by the individuality of the models at play in the indie perfume sector. Some houses, like Diane St. Clair and Papillon work slowly, releasing an average of one perfume a year (if that), willing to wait until every single detail is ‘right’ before releasing what is a highly-finished work to the public. Others, like Prin Lomros, work gonzo style – restlessly creating, releasing, and then wiping out whole perfumes, like an artist furiously rubbing out a sketch he is suddenly unhappy with.

What this boils down to is the notion of risk. Just how much risk is Prin Lomros willing to take? In my opinion, a lot. This is a guy who has had quite a few brands and sub-brands in a very short period of time (I count three, including one disappeared, one prestige, and one diffusion, although in the last few days, I think a fourth might have been sprung upon us), populated with perfumes that appear and then disappear, never to be seen again. Other perfumes get the chop, only to return a year later under a different name.

Sure, this all sounds like Prin Lomros is having a lot of fun – but what about us? Though there’s nothing permanent in perfumery these days – Penhaligon’s glorious Ostara came and went in the space of two years, despite its critical success, and half of the 13 Gucci Flora flankers will probably have been removed from the shelves by the time I finish this sentence – expecting even the most committed of indie perfumery supporters to lay down $160 on a 30ml bottle of liquid that might be axed on a whim four months later is an exceptionally big ask.

Generally, a perfumer can only bet on their customers accepting this level of risk if one of two conditions have been met. Either a) the raw materials are of such rarity or unusual quality, like vintage Cambodi oud oil from the 1970s or a hunk of white ambergris from the Western shores of Ireland that customers buy out of the fear of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or b) the compositions themselves are so artistic or clever that customers are inspired to invest wholesale in the creative real estate locked inside the perfumer’s head.

For the former, you only have to look at the success of Areej Le Doré, Sultan Pasha, and Ensar Oud to know that the feverish fanboyism around the cult of raw materials is more than adequate to keep the ship afloat. Brands, if they are clever, might seek to co-opt a bit of this market for themselves by introducing special one-off editions focused on rare, limited run materials; Eris Parfums did this recently with Mxxx. (review here) to great effect, using a fantastic piece of white ambergris to turn their regular Mx. from a silky white cotton t-shirt into a $1,500 cashmere wrap.

Prin Lomros’ perfumes lean a bit on the precious raw materials thing, but really rely more on the perfumer’s artistic vision as the hook with which to reel customers in. He takes quite a few creative risks – which makes sampling his work huge fun (but blind buys ill-advised). What this means for me is that although roughly 60% of what he turns out doesn’t work for me, the ones I do like I really, really admire and find myself thinking about long after I’ve put the sample away. Heck, even the ones I wouldn’t wear to save my life linger in my head.

I worked my way through 18 – count them, 18 – samples from both Parfums Prissana and Strangers Parfumerie during a time of great stress this January, when multiple deadlines and the arrival of a new management team at work meant that I survived on crisps and wine for nutrition and rarely got more than five hours of sleep a night. Normally, conditions like these would taint my perception of whatever I’m testing or wearing; but, a grosso modo, the Prin Lomros stuff still emerged with a big fat thumbs up from me.    

Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t a few problem areas. For one, the perfumes are all a little front-loaded, with drydowns that, while long-lasting (lots of ‘beastmode’ performers here), are a little wan compared to the richness upfront. Two or three of the perfumes I tried were marred with an overdose of noxious ‘power tool’ aromachemicals – Ambroxan, maybe, Norlimbanol, and a few of those ‘new wood’ captives; these ones were an immediate line in the sand for me. But even in those, I was able to find little pockets of something interesting or playful that kept me plugged into the experience. To say that his perfumes surprised me and challenged my preconceptions is really quite something, only because I am jaded as fuck.

I think Mandarava (Prissana) is utterly horrific but many people whose opinion I respect think it’s a masterpiece. While clearly well made, its dense cloud of indeterminable flowers, incense, and musk is unbearable to me, because note for note, it smells like someone emptied an entire aerosol of nag champa-scented room deodorizer into a small room and closed all the windows. It has the same overwhelming stuffiness and cheap, greasy-powdery musk overload as Koh-I-Noor by Areej Le Doré but lacks that scent’s more fine-tuned sense of balance that somehow keeps everything in check; Mandarava is unhinged in a way that sets my teeth on edge. But, you know, people other than me love it.

Photo by Chloe Evans on Unsplash

I don’t normally review so negatively, so you have to know there’s a redeeming angle here. And here it is – the drydown is weirdly good. I’ve worn this three times in the name of science, and each time the drydown takes me by surprise in a good way. Unfortunately, I never quite managed to make it to my notepad in time to write down what it is that I think almost redeems Mandarava, so you’ll have to believe me that the texture of the scent changes about six hours in, emerging from the cardboardy fug of nag champa to become sharper, woodier – more interesting somehow. If I ever subject myself to Mandarava again – which, to be honest, is unlikely – I’ll come back and update this review.

If you’re skimming this post for an entry point, then Ma Nishtana is probably the easiest and most immediately likeable perfume in either the Prissana or Strangers Parfumerie line. A judiciously-spiced church incense scent, Ma Nishtana splits the difference between the soapy, aldehyded, Coca-Cola-ish airiness of Cardinal/Avignon and the warmer, breadier, more caramelic-ambery thickness of Contre Bombarde 32 by SAUF or Samharam by Arte Profumi. The drydown drones on a bit, thanks to an application of the dreaded Norlimbanol, but even as a No-Limbs-Left-At-All-hater I have to admit that it’s applied with an unusually subtle touch here.

I don’t know that Ma Nishtana distinguishes itself so much from the stalwarts of this rather cramped incense genre to be worth the price, but of course, this is a deeply personal thing. The most innovative or unusual thing about Ma Nishtana is really that faint whiff of armpitty cumin or turmeric that’s half under-proved doughnut and half curry-sweat, but if you own either Grimoire by Anatole LeBreton or Al Oudh by L’Artisan Parfumeur, I think you’re covered. Ma Nishtana is very nice, very good – but not entirely necessary, at least in my opinion.

Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

Tom Yum is a thing of beauty! A fantastically fresh and sour take on the classic French eau de cologne, it is something like Eau Sauvage or Ô de Lancôme flushed with the mouth-stripping aroma of lemongrass – half lemon, half rooty grass – and freshly-squeezed limes. These tart, aromatic topnotes are all under-pinned with a gorgeously sweet and dusty galangal note that stands in for musk and serves an a pillowy extension cord for the citruses well into the drydown. Although Tom Yum doesn’t smell as authentically hot, sour, or herbaceous as a bowl of Tom Yum itself, and is therefore not nearly as exotic as the notes list wants you to believe, it is still the rare ‘update’ to the eau de cologne model that actually works (and lasts).

Tom Yum is just sour enough in the topnotes to refresh, herbaceous and soapy enough in the midsection to offer that essential coolness, and sweetly spicy enough in the tailbone to avoid that throat-catching sourness of laundry musk that tires my palate in most modern takes. For me, Tom Yum competes head-to-head with the basil leaf-inflected blast of air conditioning that is the bottle of Paris-Deauville (Chanel) I keep in the door of my fridge as a substitute for, you know, actual air conditioning. If you have the money to spend on an eau de cologne-style perfume and want it to last a fair amount of time without having to choke on nasty woody ambers or oceans of white musk, then I highly recommend Tom Yum. 

Somewhat along the same lines, if you love neroli and want a complex, natural-smelling version, then Natsumeku is very good. In keeping with its Japanese inspiration, it smells quite like a Di Ser perfume in that its tingly, orangey citrus notes (neroli in this case) tinged with the wintergreen finger snap of camphor and silvery, refined hinoki wood. In other words, neroli filtered through a Japanese sensibility rather than through the regular ole channel of an Amalfi citrus grove. It is fresh and sharp, and quite medicinal, like the cool, steamy air in a Japanese onsen on Hokkaido island, where you are getting rubbed down by a masseur with unpronounceable Japanese herbs, damp sea mosses, and yuzu-style citruses that probably only exist within 2 miles of the onsen and nowhere else. It smells like, for want of a better word, the “Other”.

I am less enthused about the solid-but-plain-Jane drydown of Natsumeku, because I am not a huge fan of neroli, and this does get very ‘neroli’-ish in the end. It might be just me who has this issue, but I always tire of the incessantly cheerful soapiness of neroli. In this instance, if I am choosing to smell soapy and clean, then I’d much rather be wearing Tom Yum, above. 

Photo by Sonny Ravesteijn on Unsplash

Thichila is an interesting one indeed. Sorry to be bossy, but I’m really going to have to insist you disregard any reviews you see for Thichila that make it out to be tremendously complex, floral, incensey, old school, or even chypre-ish – it’s really none of those things. Because Thichila is one of those perfumes that happens to be composed in an Eastern style and uses complex-smelling, exotic naturals, many people – mostly Westerners – may mistake its complexity for a matter of construction. As a matter of fact, Thichila is simply one big bridge built between two massively complex materials – a natural Thai oud oil and a big, rustic myrrh. These two monoliths happen, in this case, to share a peculiarly rubbery-rooty-oily-anisic character that makes it difficult to tell where one ends and the other takes over. I find Thichila fascinating precisely because of this.

The Thai oud smells charmingly like the inside of a party balloon or a bouncy castle – plasticky, rubbery, with the far-off twang of trampled fairground straw and sticky, jammy-fruity children’s handprints. It reminds me very much of one of FeelOud’s more unusual-smelling oud oils, whose name I can’t recall right now, but which smelled like the air that escapes from plastic lunchboxes that you’re opening for the first time in three months when the new term is starting.

At some point, the sweet, plasticky rubber tube of oud rolls into the scent of myrrh – gloomy and rubbery, but also sweet and crunchy, like giant golden sugar crystals dipped in anise and spread in a hard, glittery paste across your skin. I think Thichila is, on balance, a great perfume, but fair warning – you have to love this particular style of oud oil and this particular sort of myrrh for it to be a success for you. A very specific perfume, therefore, for a very specific taste.

Maruyama smells to me like a richly vegetal cis-jasmone or immortelle scent, i.e., floral notes with clear overtones of burnt hay, maple sugar, or strange exotic herbs like lovage that smell half like a white flower, half like celery. It reminded me at first of Comme des Garcons’ Sequoia and then of Cardamom Rose Sugar by Solstice Scents. There’s always a point at which this sort of thing smells pleasantly like a glazed maple-cider doughnut to me, and then slightly but ever so insistently of curry and caramelized brown sugar mashed together, at which point I don’t really want to smell it at all. If you don’t hit that plateau quite so quickly as I do, then I highly recommend Maruyama as an exotic Eastern take on the classically French ‘Sables’ (Annick Goutal) territory.

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

Mohragot is the nouveau fougère of the line, kind of analogous to the place that Mousse Illuminée holds for Rogue Perfumery, or Eiderantler for January Scent Project, but with a thrillingly damp earth accord that whips us away from that lavender shaving foam ‘daddy’ picture and plunges us instead deep into the bowels of a violent thunderstorm in a forest, the rain and wind ripping up the soil and hurling broken branches, leaves, and air molecules into each other.

It took me forever to work out why I love the wet, dark, green ‘mustiness’ and soil-y ‘moldiness’ of this opening, until I realize that it replicates the same ozone-in-turmoil atmosphere of Supercell by Sixteen92, and to a lesser extent, the ‘old’ and ‘clay-like’ green earthiness of Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) by Abdes Salaam Al Attar.

Someday, I’ll figure out what it is about this sort of scent that moves my black soul, but right now, all I can think of is that this kind of mossy vetiver smell is alive and dead in equal measure. The mold and the dustiness, the ‘aged’ browny tint of the earth smell, its overall murk and gloom – this reminds me of the ‘newly-opened tomb’ dead air that billows out of Onda parfum (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain).

But here and there, there is the juicy rudeness of new plant life poking its way through, the air crackling with ozone. So yes, though the hummus-rich, brown-green earthiness is all-encompassing at first, soon you notice that it is pierced here and there with the minty vase water of oakmoss.

On balance, however, this is not a particularly fresh or herbal example of a fougère. Pandan leaf, or screwpine, is mentioned in the notes list, so perhaps the gentle sweetness of those screwpine ittar they use to flavor syrups, tobacco, and cosmetics in India is what is relieving Mohragot of that tiresomely ‘Brut’-like, aftershavey bitterness that usually makes fougères such a bore to wear (as a woman). The pandan leaf note gives Mohragot an interestingly milky, nutty tonality, yet it is not as piercingly sweet or as fruity as an actual screwpine ittar. I find Mohragot one of the more interesting perfumes in the Prissana line, because it takes a while to pick apart, and even after three or four wears, parts of it remain impenetrable to me. I do appreciate that the ubiquitous 21st century finish of dopey tonka bean has been swapped out for a softly musky tobacco accord that smells like an idealized vision of an autumn walk. Unfortunately, Mohragot disappears from my skin within three hours. Now, I’m no longevity bore, but for $160 for 30mls, that’s just taking the piss. 

If I’d been dipping my toes into Strangers Parfumerie to test the waters and encountered Aroon Sawat first, I’d have turned 180º on my heels toute suite. Its clumsy mish-mash of woody ambers and big, syrupy fruit is bathed in a chemical radiance so powerful and all-reaching that my eyeballs hurt even to remember it now. It is a perfume whose finer points are wasted on me completely, obscured as they are by this big, thick gloppy blanket of amber-wood-syrup-resin-fruit aromachemicals. It’s just atrocious. A crime against perfume.

Thank God I operate a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, because all the other Strangers Parfumerie perfume turned out to be either memorably quirky, or charming, or at least interesting enough to redeem the utter horror that was Aroon Sawat. In fact, in general, I liked the Strangers Parfumerie as much as, if not more than, the perfumes in the more upmarket (and more highly priced) Prissana line. The fact that they represent much better value for money is almost beside the point.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

SM Café is possibly one of the most successful coffee-based perfumes out there, and I say that as someone who rarely thinks that coffee-scented anything works (apart from the real thing itself of course). The SM in SM Café stands for sado-masochism, but there’s nothing really risqué about this nicely-balanced dance between the intense, burnt flavor of freshly-roasted coffee beans and the clean sweetness of wood, musks, and amber resin. The coffee does smell undeniably dirty and grungy, but it’s more the funk of damp coffee grounds you’re cleaning out of the pot than anything S&M or leather related, and anyway it all gets balanced out by the milky ambers and beeswax in the base.

Although not terribly fruity, the sour morello cherry accent and the coumarin add a certain pipe tobacco angle to the concoction that I find broadly handsome – it also makes SM Café the indie synonym for Close Up by Olfactive Studio. But truth be told, SM Café is far more austere and masculine-leaning; in overall orientation, far closer to the dusty, burnt, 1970s character of Coze by Parfumerie Generale than to the sweetened coffee-tobacco of Close Up. 

I’m confused by just how much I enjoy the gourmand perfumes in the Strangers Parfumerie line-up.  Gourmand perfumes are not generally my thing. The designer ones are gloppy glucose bombs with zero distinguishing features, the niche ones use higher quality or more interesting sugar-choco-frooty aromachemicals but unfortunately tend to arrive at much the same place as the designer ones (and cost about $200 more), and the indies, well, in their effort to be all weird and ironic and indie about it, push the gourmand notes into ever-increasingly grotesque forms just for the sake of it (with few of them very wearable in the long run).

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So Fetch, for example, has a protein bar accord and is based on a phrase from Mean Girls, so you’ll forgive me if I say I was ready to automatically class this with the third category. But I WAS WRONG. This stuff is just delightful. It has sass. It opens up on a huge whoosh of cherry-flavored fizz, as if someone dropped a whole packet of Love Hearts into a 2 liter plastic bottle of 7-Up and shook it all up until it exploded like a trailer park Prosecco.

So Fetch makes me feel young. It makes me imagine what Bendelirious by État Libre d’Orange might smell like if cross-pollinated with the rubbery tennis balls of The Soft Lawn (Imaginary Authors). There are, at points, beguiling little whiffs of rubber tires, fuel exhaust, and lemon-scented sherbet powder. In the drydown, notes of pink lemonade, strawberry erasers, and marshmallow fluff float into the picture – basically the same soft, billowy lokhoum fun of Douleur! by Bogue, minus the enamel-stripping rose oxide. Really, really good stuff.

Sangre Dulce is darker in tone than So Fetch, but no less weird or interesting, or ultimately, wearable. Immediately on application, there is something here that reminds me of something Lush or BPAL would make: burned sugar crossed with the headshop murkiness of amber cubes and dragon’s blood incense, or some mysterious dried herb concoction in a burlap sack. It smells very indie – not in the super-fancy artisanal sense of the word, but more in the sense of the Etsy crowd dropping a Solstice or Hexennacht release of perfumes honoring the Moon or witches or something. Not saying that to knock it, by the way – many of my favorite perfumes are indie oils from the latter category (I am just not into the witchy side of things).

I smell in Sangre Dulce a whole host of confusing but really pleasing notes that seem to hang together very well – burned sugar, rubber galoshes, sugar mashed into dirt, bathtub booze, and in the far drydown, something that smells like over-baked wheatgrass and granola bars (maybe this is where that protein bar ended up). If Luca Turin were to smell this, I’d imagine he’d find a way to praise Prin Lomros for his off-the-wall thinking, in the same way he (almost wistfully) loves the Constantine father and son duo at Lush for having the guts to just throw everything into a pot as a mad experiment and see what works (“Someone seems to be having a lot of fun over there” as he might say, in that impish way of his).

A basic way to describe Sangre Dulce is to say that it smells like sugar cubes and burned wheat that took a wrong turn somewhere and fell down a dark cellar into a pot of hooch, dragging with it some Converse sneakers and a vial of herbal folk medicine. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was the creative brief for Lush’s All Good Things.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Cigar Rum seems to be one of the most popular scents in the Strangers Parfumerie stable, probably because the handsome, complex aroma of tobacco absolute never fails to please. This is a good but hardly unique take on tobacco leaf – most of the heavy lifting is done by the tobacco absolute, but there’s a flash of warm, boozy rum up top to dress it up, and it skips over the heavy vanilla or dried fruit stickiness of Tobacco Vanille.

That said, it does nothing special or new above and beyond the real baseline for indie tobacco perfumes, which remains Tabac Aurea by Sonoma Scent Studio. Cigar Rum is also one of the Prin Lomros scents that falls flat in the base – there’s very little there to hold it together once you get past the richness of the tobacco opening. If you’re thinking of investing in an indie tobacco, I’d still go for the best-in-class of Tabac Aurea.

Cigar Rum Intense is the same, but is obviously a concession to the bros, who always want something more chemically radiant and beastmode. Anything nice-smelling or natural about Cigar Rum has been wiped out by the heavy woody ambers in the Intense version. Honestly, I’d steer clear and leave this one to the bros, because God knows those poor guys are under-catered to/s.  

Burning Ben is so, so good. You definitely need to love phenolic scents to like it, but as long as your fetish is smelling like beef jerky on a campfire, then Burning Ben will really do it for you. It runs along the same lines as Le Labo Patchouli 24 or Slumberhouse Jeke – basically big, billowing bombs of birch tar, cade, and lapsang souchong smeared over a sweet or boozy baseline. But it features an innovation so good-smelling and so damn right that I can’t believe nobody’s thought of before now: coffee! The burnt, aromatic ‘fresh roast’ coffee bean note lifted out of SM Café and grafted right on top of the burning cade-birch heart of Burning Ben makes for a smoky, tarry coffee darkness that smells fantastic.

At first, as you might imagine, it’s a bit too intense, like a billycan of coffee that’s boiled over on a campfire and is now sizzling meanly on the embers beneath. The addition of the coffee gives the birch tar leather a more masculine bent, and for part of this ride, I feel like I’m wearing my boyfriend’s leather jacket, infused with his scent of aftershave, manly musk, and general ‘maleness’ – this I find sexy in a cross-dressing way, and for people who find Patchouli 24 not masculine or butch enough, well, voila Burning Ben.

But before all of these intensely burnt, roasted flavors can run over into harsh or bitter, an oriental-ish and sweetly nutty base arrives to soften the edges. The basenotes are vague and amorphous in a way that makes you think, ‘Mmm, that smells good’, but also leaves you at a loss to define any one particular note or accord that’s making it so.

The best I can do is to say that it’s more like a texture than a taste, like those firm salted toffees whose pleasure lies mainly in the chew. Salty-sweet amber, toffee, beeswax, crushed hazelnuts – a sensuous mélange of silky, warm ‘brown’ flavors that are the perfect accompaniment to the sharper, smokier ‘brown’ notes of birch tar and coffee up top. Burning Ben is one of the Strangers Parfumerie scents that smells ever better the more it goes on – perhaps the forceful nature of phenolic scents in general is what ensures the richness doesn’t attenuate as quickly. Anyway, I love this category of scents, so it follows that I love Burning Ben. Beyond my general bias, I think that Burning Ben manages to pull off a bit of innovation in a genre that I suspect is rather a self-limiting space.             

Photo by Gustavo Espíndola on Unsplash

As good as Burning Ben is, I’ve left the best for last. Salted Green Mango is, for me, the standout of the Strangers Parfumerie line. The mango note is not really the point – it’s just a momentary swelling of something syrupy and green-tropical behind the avalanche of musk and vetiver, subsiding into the ether far too quickly to be a feature.

The thing to pay attention to here is the salt. Salted Green Mango is basically a huge, spacey cloud of sparkly vetiver-musk molecules that mimics the invigorating scent of salt air. It smells clean, but despite the probably industrial amounts of white musks or Iso E Super used here, also quite organic, like what I imagine the air around the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah smells like on a breezy day. And yet, there is something clearly lab-made about the scent; it feels engineered, ergonomic, and therefore a bit more chic or more modern than just a simple clustering of naturals.

I’m in love with how this (really quite simple) scent of white, clean, salty woods and musk gives me that ‘my-skin-but-better’ aura; it’s effortless and sensual. I’m willing to bet serious money that people who love those modern, shape-shifting floral-woody musks made to smell like 50% cyborg, 50% warm human skin – stuff like Glossier You, Diptyque’s Fleur de Peau, and Le Labo Ambrette 9 – will love Salted Green Mango. For me, it knocks all those modern skin musks, as well as Jo Malone’s (really excellent) Wood Sage & Sea Salt, right off their perches. This one goes straight on the full bottle list.   

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