When I first tried Arquiste Ella, in a niche boutique in Bordeaux last autumn, I thought, well, at least I can put this one out of my mind. I had been interested in the 1970’s retro marketing drive behind it and its sexy-sleazy disco bomb reputation, but on the skin, it just felt unresolved and murky.
Superstitious is like a woman that walks into a party wearing a gold lame dress that plunges to her navel. Like everyone else in the room, you think she’s gorgeous, but you’re not sure if she’s really your kind of people. I’m not sure I understand her yet, so I’m going to circle this interesting creature a little bit longer while I try to figure her out.
People are citing all manner of classic perfumes as reference: Arpege, Gold, even Portrait of a Lady. But none of those references help me place her in my mental pantheon of smells. Superstitious strikes me as more a modern cyborg than something classical or referential. And it certainly has nothing to do with Portrait of a Lady. Actually, I find it comes at me from slightly beyond my frame of reference, and thus my footing is unsure.
Something that takes me aback is the astringency of the opening: it’s as metallic and bitter as a mouthful of pennies, sluiced with the acid of unripe fruit. Sensation-wise, it reminds me of biting into a persimmon that’s two weeks away from becoming perfect, ripping all moisture from my mouth.
I’m starting to understand that not aldehydes smell or feel the same. Some feel loose and creamy, like those at the top of Chanel No. 22 – the fizz of a can of Fanta mixed into a pot of Pond’s Cold Cream. Some feel tight and lemony, like Tauer’s Noontide Petals. The aldehydes of Superstitious, on the other hand, are extremely fine-grained and waxy, like a bar of green soap put through a microplane grater and blown up your nose. It reminds me somewhat of the opening to Seyrig by Bruno Fazzolari. The onslaught is aggressive, and slightly mean.
What’s amazing about this fragrance – and I say this even before figuring out whether I like it or not – is how the clean, chemical bite of the aldehydes have been balanced out by the dirty, botanical impression of flowers. Even in the first onslaught of the perfume’s harsh, soapy green fuzz, you can smell the slightly unclean jasmine – wilting and browning, as if about to drop off a vine and into your lap. This produces an effect that is half synthetic, half naturalistic. You can almost imagine the perfumer muttering to himself as he works out the formula, “a little bit from the lab, and now a little bit from the garden”.
The quality of the florals is amazing – there is a Turkish rose, jasmine from Grasse, and a hint of dry peach skin a la Mitsouko in the later stages. But put aside expectations of sweetness, or even density. Even with the late addition of the peach, things stay dry, leathery, and slightly sour, like the inside of the strap of your watch after a long hot day, or the taste of a very dry, metallic white wine on the back of the tongue.
Which is a way of saying that although all signs point to lushness, this is not a particularly lush perfume. Being a longtime fan of Alber Elbaz and his work for Lanvin, I had expectations of something with as many dangerous curves as his midnight blue and flesh-colored dresses for this house in the 2008-2009 period. Alber himself is round; is it weird that I was expecting a perfume with his name on it to be round too? But Superstitious turns out to be as chicly angular as one of his models.
The drydown is a slightly smoky, raspy base of vetiver and woods that somehow reads to my nose as incense. It is slightly sweeter, or at least, less tart in the far reaches of the scent, and I find it comforting.
Superstitious is a very interesting, beautiful, and somewhat challenging perfume. It is perhaps easier to admire than to love, because a certain bitchiness inherent in its character suggests that this is a perfume that might not love you back. But despite a certain lack of easy access here, I really do like Superstitious, not least because it turns my expectations on their head. Expecting lush and sweet, I get angular and tart. Expecting classic, I get modern. Most of all, I admire the perfume’s sublime balance between its metallic, chemical shimmer and its unclean, slightly earthy flowers and fruit – and it’s this last aspect that might move me towards an eventual purchase. Some day.
All of Bruno Fazzolari’s perfumes are interesting. Some are interesting and beautiful (Au Dela) and some are interesting and edgy (Room 237). Seyrig is interesting and repellent.
It’s a total head trip, this perfume. It transports me on a whoosh of hairspray aldehydes to a bathroom in the 1970’s, where a man in Stetsons is combing his sideburns and sweet talking his own reflection, the bathroom mirror fogging up with the soapy fumes of his bath water and the copious amounts of Aqua Velva he’s just emptied onto himself.
There are other smells in this bathroom too. His wife has been in recently, the memory of a violent application of hairspray lingering with its chemical aftertaste, and his daughter with her precious lilac soaps taken out, used, and then carefully reinserted in their plastic wrapping, the gentle floral aroma floating through the bathroom fog and bringing a maudlin smile to Daddy’s face.
Under that, the clean-dirty stink that Luca Turin called “other people’s bathrooms”, this one’s aggressively sanitized atmosphere not only failing to eliminate the odors of the man’s morning ablutions but serving to accentuate them, the way that a can of air freshener will always make a stink worse. The chemically clean fizz of the bright blue urinal cake dropped hurriedly down the bog offends in its hyper-cleanliness, smelled as it must be against the gloomy backdrop of human waste.
Seyrig is a huge aldehydic floral. But these are not the creamy, pretty aldehydes of the old Chanels. Seyrig’s aldehydes – deliberately chemical, astringent, fused with herbs and flowers – mirror the style of certain Italian perfumers such as Angelo Pregoni (O’Driu) and Antonio Gardoni (Bogue) who use aldehydes in a knowing, ironic kind of way, as a sort of inverted commas on a trip down memory lane peopled by fantastic Big Bitch aldehydes from Arpege all the way to No. 22. These guys make aldehydes butch, not bitch. Subversive and ugly, they come out of the bottle swinging at you with all the pent-up fury of a Travis Bickle.
With Seyrig, Bruno Fazzolari layers these hostile aldehydes over a pretty red mandarin, some fey rose de mai, and a soapy syringa note, hardly notes possessed of the strength of character needed to stand up to the assault. A musky base brings up the rear, in every sense of the word. It’s not dirty per se, but it does bring a feeling of something unclean. The florals are besides the point here – they float prettily through the perfume – but do little else. The main impression is of a bathroom aggressively cleaned with Cillit Bang and Toilet Duck but with the lingering undertow of the collected smells – pleasant and unpleasant – that we humans leave behind.
I absolutely hate it. Every minute it was on my skin was a trial. But I have to hand it to the perfumer – it’s a perfume that painted a crystal clear image in my head, and given that most perfumes leave only a blurred, vague impression, that’s really saying something. In fact, in terms of transportative immediacy, its power is matched only by something like L’Air du Desert Marocain. Just don’t make me wear it, please.