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.
The word pulchritude jumps to mind while wearing Puredistance Warszawa. That’s the word that Akeelah stumbles over in her first training session with Dr. Larabee in the movie Akeelah and the Bee. Dr. Larabee tells her that it means beauty. But by the end of the movie, when Akeelah is given the word to spell as her final test in the National Spelling Bee, each letter in the word is spoken aloud in the voice of someone she loves – her mother, her best friend, her brother, and Dr. Larabee himself. And it’s then that we understand that “pulchritude” means not only beauty, but also pride, character, and an untouched quality very close to innocence.
Building a Capsule Perfume Wardrobe: If you had to build, or rebuild, your perfume wardrobe using only travel sizes and minis, could you do it? What would be on your list?
A couple of questions have been dogging me lately. First, how much perfume do I actually use in a year? And second, if my collection of full bottles was lost or stolen, would it be possible to build a small capsule wardrobe that covers all possible scenarios using only minis and travel sizes, and sticking to a putative budget of +/- $30 per bottle?
Oh me, oh my, you make me cry, you’re such a good-looking woman….
Can chypres be sexy? I never thought so until I fell in love with Femme by Rochas. Femme is sexy with a capital S. I love both versions of Femme – the vintage one with the musky plums and oakmoss, and the current version, all sharp and woody and armpit-cuminy. But I thought that Femme was an outlier. Chypres are just too upright and stiff-backed to be sexy in that low-down, guttural-growl kind of way.
Enter Shangri-La by the British indie perfumer, Hiram Green. I admire Mr. Green’s approach to making perfume. He does it slow, releasing only two perfumes in two years – and he does it right. Named for the fictional land described in James Hilton’s novel ‘Lost Horizon’, Shangri La is his second fragrance, released in 2014 after Moon Bloom, his extremely well-received tuberose soliflore in 2013.
Shangri-La, at the risk of being painfully literal here, is indeed a Shangri-La for the chypre lover. It restores my faith in the belief that modern perfumery can still turn out perfumes that rival the old greats from the past, and perhaps even surpass them now and then. Shangri-La does not surpass Femme or Mitsouko for me, but it was and is a beautiful surprise that evokes strong emotion in me.
It is also pretty sexy, in a carefully-contained way.
It opens with the traditional chypre sally – a bitter, bracing bergamot – except here it feels more lemony and sparkling than the Mitsouko bergamot, which has an aged, darkened feel to it no matter the iteration or vintage. A wave of champagne-like bergamot, then, to usher in a velvet heart of peach, rose, and iris, held aloft by a bed of what smells like real oakmoss. The peach and spices develop into a sticky compote that darkens and thickens with time – part jammy fruit, part leathery peach skin. It smells delicious – not fully gourmand thanks to the bitter facets of the iris, bergamot, lemon, and moss – but also not as forbidding and dusty as Mitsouko.
Beyond the peach and the lemon, Shangri-La is actually all about the jasmine for me. I wore it to bed one night and woke up in the middle of the night surrounded by the unmistakable, creamy scent of night-flowering jasmine petals.
Bubbling just underneath the skin of this peach and jasmine combo is something enticingly dirty-sexy and musky. Could it be a touch of castoreum, perhaps, or a not-so-clean musk? The mystery note is not explained, although I am sure it is not civet, because the dirtiness is warm and round, not sharp or urinous. Possibly it’s the jasmine, although I don’t think the more indolic Sambac jasmine has been used here – there’s a smooth fruitiness that suggests jasmine grandiflorum.
Either way, the overall effect is of a deep, sensual fruity-floral chypre that does indeed feel like a true chypre from top to bottom, but also has a welcome sexiness to it that would make me want to wear it in more relaxed situations than would normally call for a more uptight chypre.
It’s on my hit list, for sure.
Guerlain Mitsouko is by far the most fascinating, and at times frustrating, perfume in my collection. I have a complicated relationship with her. How I feel about Mitsouko depends very much on what she decides to show of herself to me on any given day. Some days, she is cold and reserved, and whatever glimpse of peaches I get is more like a pan of hard, unripe fruit being simmered in formaldehyde in a far off room than the ripe, juicy fruit of which others speak. Oh but when she decides to relent! There is nothing better than Mitsouko when she is in a good mood. Slowly, she will drop her standoffish reserve and part her musty curtains to reveal a bed of spiced peaches on a dark, mossy bed – this Mitsouko is playful and mysterious.
I am working on a theory that you can break Mitsouko a little, or at least try to bend her to your will by placing her in situations where she is forced to come out of her shell. I discovered this when I spritzed it on one day in Spring this year before going for a long, six hour walk through the city with my husband, young son, baby daughter and my mum. By the end of the day, Mitsouko had taken on this salty, outdoorsy, herbal aspect that merged with the faint sweat on my skin. It was if both Mitsouko and I had finally learned to stop pacing edgily around each other and just chill out a bit.
Part of my frustration is her unpredictability. I can never know which one of her Janus faces she will show me on any given day. I own Mitsouko in many different concentrations and vintages: the 2013 EDP, a 1970’s EDT, a 1960’s EDT (onion bottle), the modern pure perfume, and lastly, a 1970’s spray deodorant. Each one of them smells, and behaves, slightly different on my skin, and none of them are consistent in what they reveal to me of their character. For example, today, to write this , I sprayed the 1970’s EDT – a version with real oakmoss listed on the back of the bottle – on the back of one arm. It is usually the friendliest version of them all, for me. But today, its opening was rather severe and unforgiving.
Two hours in, however, and I get a surprise! For the first time in my relationship with Mitsouko, she is giving me a glimpse of her spiced floral mid-section, the rose, ylang, and jasmine that when combined with the peach and moss, manage to smell like freshly proved bread dough. It’s delicious. I am not sure how long this little détente will last, so I am holding my breath, hoping not to alert her to my presence. If it is not clear by now, then I will say it openly: Mitsouko is not a perfume you own. She owns you. As for me, she’s grabbed me by the short and curlies, if not my heart strings, and doesn’t seem like she’s letting go anytime soon.
Maybe it’s old age creeping up on me, but I’m beginning to appreciate fruit-heavy fragrances in a way I have never done before. Key to unlocking a whole category that you’ve previously dismissed is, of course, finding one example of its form that steals your heart before you even know what’s happening – for me, that fragrance was Robert Piguet Visa. I ordered a sample of it as something as an afterthought (I was exploring the house of Piguet and didn’t want to leave one off the list), and let is sit in my sample box for over a year before finally trying it out in a fit of boredom one night.
Well, that sneaky Visa – she stole my heart. The first sign that I was in love was that I started hiding the sample from myself, popping it into drawers and into cereal boxes and so on, in a vain effort to slow me down. That didn’t work and I bought a decant from a friend. That had barely arrived at my house when I decided that I needed a whole bottle, such was my anxiety that I would someday be without Visa in my household. This is crazy behavior, by the way. As for Visa itself – well, one could argue that it’s nothing revolutionary. But for me, its fantastic peach and plum notes were my aha! moment, when I realized that fruit could and should be “my thing”.
The fruit notes in Visa are remarkable – white peaches, plums, and pears that smell true to life without smelling the slightest bit loud or fake. Darkened at the edges by the burnt sugar of immortelle and wrapped up tenderly in a powdery benzoin blanket, Visa’s peaches and plums feels bathed in autumnal dusk compared to the strobe-lit glare of most other fruity-floral fragrances. There’s a certain winey, “stained-glass” glow to the stone fruit that makes me ridiculously happy.
When I visualize the type of person that might wear Visa as her signature fragrance, I see a sexy librarian with glasses and a knowing smile. As deep and as comforting as a well-powdered bosom, Visa presents the wearer with a restrained take on loud fruit-chocolate-gourmand “chypres” such as Angel and Chinatown. Here there is no excess, no loud notes playing out of tune, and thankfully, no fruit loop-flavored syrup anywhere to be found.
Everything in Visa is set at hush levels. Even the leather note is gentle – a buffed grey suede rather than a twangy new shoe. The suede and the slight drinking chocolate powder feel in the base offers a gentle cushion for the fruit notes, and a dignified end to the story. Half the pleasure I derive from wearing Visa lies in trying to guess what category it falls into. Actually, it straddles several at once – the fruity-floral, leather chypre, fruit leather, gourmand, and maybe even the dreaded fruitchouli. But far being a brainless fruity, sweet thing you use to stun the opposite sex into submission, Visa is poised and a little bit mysterious. It’s for grown-up women who know their place in the world, not little girls trying to fit in with the crowd.
This is a beautiful piece of work, and entirely fitting with Claude Marchal’s focus on commissioning perfumes that nod at French classicism without getting bogged down in pastiche. Parfums MDCI La Belle Helene has the feel of an old school fruit chypre but none of the somber tone that characterizes most of the classic examples. It opens with a shimmering pear note that’s realistic without straying into Pear Drop or acetone territory, and sharpened with juicy tangerine. Held aloft by a spackle of fizzing aldehydes, the opening notes smell slightly boozy and metallic, like the feeling you get when you knock back a glass of champagne too quickly. It’s sweet though – you have to be ok with some sweetness to like it. I do, and for me, the sweetness of La Belle Helene falls – just – within acceptable limits.
I love the start, but really, the best is yet to come. The heart notes are comprised of orris butter, plum, myrrh, rose, and osmanthus, which meld to forge a most wonderful vintage lipstick or cosmetic powder smell. It smells absolutely gorgeous – soft, rosy, waxy, and creamy. Literally, like the most expensive and most luxurious body cream you could ever afford, perhaps one of those Chanel ones that come in the white box. The osmanthus, in particular, provides an apricot jam note that is close to edible. What’s even more impressive is that the pear note is still present and detectable in the heart notes, and casts its bright, green fruit aroma over everything. At some point, the iris starts to dominate things a bit, and the perfume takes on a more powdery character.
By the time La Belle Helene reaches its drydown, much of the sweet fruits and florals have been whittled away to reveal a more adult backbone of sandalwood, moss, and patchouli. The landing is soft rather than bitter, and has an inky cocoa feel to it, an effect deliberately created, I am guessing, to suggest the dark chocolate sauce that is poured over the poached pears and whipped cream of the famous dessert this fragrance is named for (Poires Belle Helene). Delicious and elegant – a real gourmand treat in the beginning, and then a chypre in the base.
My father used to tell this joke. He would ask me and my brothers (all aged ten and downwards) if we knew what the term ‘savoir-faire’ meant. No, we would say – what?
A man is busy making love to his best friend’s wife one day. In walks her husband. He takes one look and says politely, “Oh, so sorry to interrupt you. Please do carry on,” and leaves. Is that savoir-faire?, Dad would ask us. We would nod, awestruck at the husband’s cool, unruffled response.
No, it is not, Dad would say. If the man is able to continue his lovemaking after the interruption, then that is real savoir-faire.
(It occurs to me now that perhaps this was not the most appropriate joke to tell young children.)
I’ve been wearing Le Parfum de Therese for several days now, and let me tell you – this is a perfume with savoir-faire. Everything in this perfume is pulling in exactly the right direction at the same time, and with a whole host of tricky elements to manage – melon ripe with incipient rot, sour tangerine, salty plums, grassy vetiver, and leather – it is no small feat. Le Parfum de Therese pulls it off with aplomb.
Everything falls right into place here – click, click, click is the sound you hear as each of the elements take up their assigned place. The bitter tangerine dropping in beside the ripe melon, ready to tame its excessive sweetness. The bite of the black pepper anchoring the boozy purple plum. The texture fizzing with a twang and a snap, but also smoldering with ripe fruit, rose, and leather. Dewy fruit is balanced by an almost meaty, savory feel. The jasmine smells thick and heavy, and yet the perfume as a whole never loses that watery, citrusy, green-yellow timbre that brings it close in feel to both Diorella and Eau Sauvage by Dior.
What these wonderful perfumes all have in common is, of course, the perfumer – Edmond Roudnitska. Considered to be one of the greatest perfumers that ever lived, Edmond Roudnitska developed a famous chord based on the pairing of jasmine, citrus, moss, and slightly overripe fruit, and he deployed this chord with great effect both in Diorella (citrus and rotting fruit) and Eau Sauvage (fresher, mossier, more citrusy). The genius of this chord was to suggest summer freshness and incipient decay in one breath. I prefer Le Parfum de Therese to Diorella because it strikes me as deeper and more carnal, and also because I don’t want to waste any tears on tracking down a good vintage bottle of the stuff. Eau Sauvage is truly excellent – a benchmark in its genre and still fabulous in its current form today – but it has belonged to my father since forever, and it’s his version of savoir-faire, not mine.
With its plum notes and slight leather feel, Le Parfum de Therese reminds me of a restrained, cool, and fresh take on the sultry Femme by Rochas, also by Roudnitska. Femme takes the jasmine-plum-leather chord, strips it of any freshness, and sets it to vibrate at sex levels. Femme is basically a rich, luridly-hued pile of plums, peaches and peach skin, dusted in warming spice and set against a backdrop of lacquered woods, leather, and damp moss. There is a fair amount of cumin or civet in it, too. Femme is much raunchier than Le Parfum de Therese, but also much cruder in execution, as befits its intent to seduce.
Le Parfum de Therese clearly contains the Roudnitska DNA and therefore belongs to this ‘stable’ of scents – fruity leather chypres with varying degrees of lemony freshness, innocence, and plummy carnality. I think I like Le Parfum de Therese the best out of this group, though, precisely because it strikes me as the perfect middle ground between Eau Sauvage (high on citrus, low on carnality) and Femme (low on citrus, high on carnality).
Most alluring to me in Le Parfum de Therese is the slight smell of salt grass wafting through the perfume. It brings to mind a woman reclining on the reeds of a salt marsh after a tryst with an illicit lover. Le Parfum de Therese is the smell of her nape as she drowsily pulls her loose hair up into its habitual bun – salty droplets of moisture that have gathered there during intimacy, as well bits of crushed grass, flowers, and the imprint of her lover’s plum-stained mouth. In a few moments, she will button up her white silk blouse and become again the respectable, bourgeois French wife and mother that she always is. But right now, she is a woman come undone – her body loose and relaxed with love.
And this is a perfume that famously speaks to love. Roudnitska composed it for his beloved wife, Therese, in the 1950s, and she was the only person in the world allowed to wear it. After his death, Therese allowed Frederic Malle to take the formula and make it into a commercial perfume for all of us to enjoy. At first, l wondered if I could ever feel comfortable wearing a perfume made for another woman – it might feel like I am intruding on a private expression of love between a woman and her husband.
But then, my sample of this came to me from my friend and wonderful writer, Conor, more widely known as Jtd, whose husband had bought it for him as a present for his fiftieth birthday. It touches me that he sent me something that is part of his love story with his husband. So maybe Le Parfum de Therese is just an exquisite expression of love that we can all share, and continue to hand down from generation to generation, irrespective of gender, sexuality, age, or race. I like the thought of that. Perfume as a hope chest.
On, and needless to say, there is something very French about Le Parfum de Therese. Something about the balance between sweet, salty, sour, fresh, prim, and carnal that reads as both deliberate, and a happy accident of nature. It is sophisticated and yet effortless. In fact, if Le Parfum de Therese was a person, she would be the man who is able to continue making love to his mistress after her husband has interrupted them mid-coitus. The very definition of savoir-faire.