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.
In October 2004, a man called Chris Anderson wrote a very influential article for Wired magazine called “The Long Tail”. In it, he explained how a little-known statistics term, called the long tail, actually explained a lot about success in the business world. The basic premise is that the market for products not widely available in bricks n’ mortar stores is as big, if not bigger, than the market for products that are carried in stores.
Set aside the notes for a minute. This isn’t a fragrance overly centered on either tobacco or tuberose. Slowdive, for me, is Hiram Green’s take on honey.
And what a gorgeous and strange honey this is. Medicinal and syrupy, it begins as a river of intense aromas all knotted together so thickly that it’s difficult to make out what one is smelling. On my first wearing, I thought the opening had something of that anisic, clove-scented cherry dough that forms the medicinal heart of L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain) or even Kimonanthe (Diptyque), but a second wearing told me I was wrong.
Maison Francis Kurkdijan’s Grand Soir depresses the hell out of me. Not because it’s a bad perfume (it’s not), but because it’s a Golden Retriever of a perfume and I was hoping for another one of Kurkdijan’s Rhodesian Ridgebacks like Eau Noire or Absolue Pour Le Soir.
I’m a fan of Francis Kurkdijan’s work, and even though I didn’t get along with one of his recent releases, Baccarat Rouge 540, I think he has one of the best batting averages in the business. And I will be forever grateful to him for making Absolue Pour Le Soir, Cologne Pour Le Soir, and recently, Ciel de Gum. His oud series (Oud, Oud Cashmere Mood, Oud Velvet Mood, Oud Satin Mood, and Oud Silk Mood) still stands out as daring and interesting, even in a field as crowded as the Westernized oud one.
But the man has to sell perfume. So every now and then he puts out a fragrance that smells like an upgrade on one of those Clean fragrances, or a plush, ambery people-pleaser (such as Ciel de Gum, which I love despite it not being ground-shakingly original). People love and people buy.
And everyone seems to really love Grand Soir. It’s the new golden retriever on the scene. People I know who don’t pay retail for anything have paid retail for this. The hills are alive with the magic sound of wallets clicking open. And when that happens, I sit up and pay attention. Because in this business, people often praise fragrances to high heaven but don’t actually lay down real money for it.
I get it. Perfume is expensive. And there is so much of it – 2,000 new releases in 2016 alone. So it makes sense to look closely at what people are actually buying, because that means much more than a glowing review. For that reason, I always check in on those “Today I Bought” threads on Basenotes, and often plan my sampling expeditions around what I see there.
Absolue Pour Le Soir is one of my favorite fragrances of all time, and I don’t find it challenging, but my tastes are lazy and mainstream enough that I was half-seduced by the thought of a more easier-going version of it. Even though a little voice in the back of my head kept whispering “But…..you know, Cologne Pour Le Soir.” Yes, voice, yes, I know.
So let me be clear. I don’t dislike Grand Soir because it’s not Absolue Pour Le Soir or Cologne Pour Le Soir. I dislike it because not only is it not daring or original along the lines of those perfumes, but it’s not even as pleasant-smelling or cushy as something like Ciel de Gum. It’s just that it doesn’t smell great. To my nose, it’s yet amber stuffed with potent woody-ambers like Norlimbanol or Timbersilk. And I expect better – far better – from a house such as Maison Francis Kurkdijan.
The rough synth edge on Grand Soir is unpleasant and harsh/burnt to my nose, pulling it surprisingly far away from the plush, velvety “night in Paris” effect that MFK was going for. Admittedly, I may be more sensitive to the presence of synthy woody ambers than most people. But, honestly, it ruins the experience for me entirely.
Apart from the disappointingly, soullessly chemical side taste to Grand Soir, there is a fundamental lack of balance here. Playing to the trend for modern fougeres, there is a bright, resinous lavender in the topnotes that feels natural and refreshingly unsweetened, but once the aromatics melt away, there is nothing left for the nose to play with beyond a waxy, honeyed amber powered with the burnt, chemical smokiness of that woody amber. There’s no counterpointing.
Both Absolute Pour Le Soir and Cologne Pour Le Soir have effective counterparts to the sweetness of the honey and amber; APLS has an almost bitter, smoky depth to it thanks to the incense, and CPLS has a touch of rosy sourness. Grand Soir has only the short-lived aromatic of the lavender, and that synthy woody-amber thing going on; without any other contrasting notes, it develops into a rather flat play-dough amber. Tonka, benzoin, and vanilla add body and sweetness, but with three materials that smell largely like, well, vanilla, there is no counterpointing ballast with which to balance the fragrance.
Ultimately, Grand Soir is as painful for me to wear as Serge Lutens’ L’Orpheline and Amouage’s Opus VI, both of which come off as bare-boned chemical skeletons draped in something smoky and something unctuously sweet.
Grand Soir is quite straight-forwardly commercial in intent. It makes a play for the same synthy radiance and power-boosted projection that I smell in a hundred other modern ambers, and the same dopey amber-tonka-vanilla base that offends nobody except me in its very featurelessness. The audacity of taupe. I find it depressing that it’s stuff like this that everyone opens their wallets for and not the daring stuff like Absolue Pour Le Soir and Cologne Pour Le Soir, both of which are being phased out of distribution outlets and confined to the Paris store because nobody bloody bought them.
Francis Kurkdijan has gone on record to say that despite all the critical acclaim that Absolue Pour Le Soir gathered, he only sold a couple bottles of it worldwide last year. Remember Eau Noire? Same thing. We all loved it – apparently nobody bought it. Perfume houses don’t discontinue brilliant, ballsy perfumes because they are mean bastards and they hate us. They pull products when they don’t sell. As perfume lovers, we just have to put our money where our mouth is, or the glorious perfumes disappear and perfumers make pedestrian perfumes that please a majority and sell to a majority.
I don’t blame Francis Kurkdijan for producing a Golden Retriever a la Grand Soir. I blame me and people like me for not buying all the gnarly Rhodesian Ridgebacks he was putting out before.
For those of you who don’t know what Slumberhouse Sova smells like, it smells like this: boozy hops, pipe tobacco, sweet green resins, piles of damp hay laid out to dry in the sun, broom, honey smeared over everything, licorice, vanilla, amber, dirt, cocoa butter, beeswax, and the pure, warm animal growl of castoreum. It smells like a rural fantasy of a childhood spent rolling around in a hayfield, lazy bees humming in the background, backlit against a haze of smoke and sugar.
What I like about Sova is that Josh Lobb seems to have set out to capture the entirety of a farm during baling season, complete with the not-so-picturesque parts. As anyone who has grown up doing farm work will know, there are a host of smells involved, and not all of them pleasant. I have baled hay – back-breaking work, by the way, with or without a machine. I have mucked out horse stables. I have even stuck my hands deep within the nether regions of sheep to pull a lamb out. Nowhere are you more intensely aware of the circle of life than on a farm.
The opening, which I have come to understand as typical for a Slumberhouse, is deeply tarry, black, and sticky. But upfront, I get a load of hay absolute mixed in with the tar, so there is an immediate sense of sunshine piercing through the upper notes. It smells simultaneously of freshly-poured asphalt, hay, trampled grass, rubber tires, something green and resiny, waxy and honeyed.
Someone I know mentioned he saw a similarity with Dior’s Eau Noire, and I have to say that I agree, to a certain extent. Both have an almost shockingly tarry, dense, aromatic note, like the burning smell you get when you spill coffee or sugar on a boiling hot stove. It is almost too roasted, too intense, too “black” a smell. But Sova is more immediately sweet, a deep, honeyed stickiness coming from, I think, tonka beans or the vanilla.
The hot asphalt smell reminds me of nothing so much as those pools of poured tar on holes in the road that would always soften and almost liquefy somewhat in the heat of summer. In Ireland, growing up, there was maybe one day in the year that was ever hot enough to make the road tar all gooey like that, but that would be the smell that defined the whole summer for me, somehow – kind of like a child only ever remembers summers being sunny when he or she was a child. It also recalls the smell of heated tires and running tractors, farm implements lying around on a hot day – quasi-industrial smells mingling with the sweet smell of hay that has been cut and is now drying out in the fields. Also, I get a raft of sweet, grassy notes that are fresher than the hay note, which I presume are the clover and broom notes.
Reversing what I’ve experienced with Slumberhouse perfumes, Sova does not grow drier and more sparse, but indeed, darker, more syrupy, and somehow more “stewed” in texture. It is a very wet hay type of smell, which to my nose, is incredibly pleasing and sensual. The smell is almost like the gingerbread, dry, fruity, wet-dry smell of tobacco leaves laid out to dry in the sunshine. It also picks up a dried fruits feel, not a million miles away from the intense fruitcake feel of a Serge Lutens, specifically something like Arabie.
As the scent progresses, the tar notes, the heated asphalt and running farm vehicles smell –all shift to the back and let the stewed hay and dried fruits accord take center stage. Towards the last stages of Sova, I sense the tar notes get drier, until they manifest more as a smoke note, adding to the fierce pleasure I get from smelling this. On repeated wearings, I pick up even more smoke in the background, almost ash-like, and a sweet type of burning incense smell. The castoreum and vanilla in the base gives it this wonderfully warm and dirty feel, somewhat reminiscent of the deep warmth of Chypre Palatin – except in Sova, it is the warm dirtiness of a haybarn, not the inside of a musty castle.
Something about hay and grass notes bring me straight back to summer days, to my youth, to the simple pleasures of hard physical work, and the rewards of sensory delights of rolling around in cut hay. It seems that Josh Lobb intended for this fragrance to be experienced as a sort of nostalgic, rural childhood fantasy scent, because the re-launch of Sova on the Slumberhouse website is accompanied by this delightful little quote from Montague, which accurately sums up its nostalgic effect: “All the glorious trials of youth dear boy. When I was a lad I’d rocket off on my tandem with Wrigglesworth and ride and ride. Find some old barn and fall asleep with the sweet perfume of hay on our lips.”
Sova is a pure parfum and made from hellishly expensive ingredients, some of which apparently cost over $1,000 per ounce, such as fossilized amber, pure broom, sweet clover, and Tahitian Vanilla. I’m told that the reason Sova was discontinued originally was due to the expense and difficulty of getting hold of all of the expensive materials needed to make it. The further I get in this hobby of mine, the more I want to pare back to just a few bottles that are worth owning, no matter how expensive, rather than a whole cupboard full of lesser scents. Sova is one of those scents worth ten of what I already have.
O’Driu Peety, hmmm.
This fragrance famously comes 49ml to the bottle, with the final 1ml to be topped up using a drop or two of one’s own urine. I only had a small sample vial, though. I gave it my best shot, logistics not being my strong point and all, but there I was, crouched furtively over the small vial when the horrid thought occurred to me: WHAT IF THE PERSON WHO GAVE ME THE SAMPLE ALREADY PEED IN IT?
I thought quickly – who had given me the sample? Ah, that’s right – Colin Maillard from Basenotes. So off I waddled to my computer, my panties around my knees, and past the living room, where my husband looked up from his newspaper and called out mildly, “Everything alright, dear?”
Colin had not, it turns out, adulterated the sample. I was free to pee. But in the end, I chose not to. I’d like to say it was logistics, but really, I am a wuss.
So what does Peety smell like?
Surprising (to me). I don’t know why but I had expected something comforting and stodgy, like a piece of marmalade pudding with custard on a cold day. It’s something about the listed notes that made me think that – tobacco, tonka, honey, oranges. I had been imagining Tobacco Vanille mixed with a little bit of Absolue Pour Le Soir and rounded off with a touch of Feve Delicieuse (or Pure Havane).
No such thing – this is the opposite of comfort. This is startling. Uncomfortable even. In a good, on-the-edge-of-your-seat way.
The first whiff corresponded with the notions of tobacco comfort I’d nurtured: a deep waft of whiskey and tobacco and even hay, and there I was with a grin on my face and getting ready to sit back and enjoy the ride.
But then in rode this wave of licorice-like herbs and citrus fruits, all drenched in this dark, bitter honey with a deep piss-like nuance to it. Bitter oranges and lemons might indeed explain some of the sharpness, but here the citrus is not fresh. It smells like a cross between a bunch of dried herbs and a lemon, like lemongrass or singed lime peel. The herb-citrus mélange covers the fragrance with a deep medicinal gloom that seems almost black to me, like viewing a pile of luridly-hued fruits under a thick brown preserving glaze in a museum bell jar.
The sharp atmosphere that this almost toxic stew of pissy-honey, civet, medicinal clove, herbs, and preserved lemons creates forms the central character of Peety – and it never quite leaves. But that is what is fascinating to me. It reminds me of something caustic you’d use to lance a boil or dress a war wound.
Actually, this sort of barbershoppy, herb-strewn, musky character is something I associate with a certain style in Italian perfumery. I have experienced the same herbs-and-citrus-on-steroids openings in many of the other O’Driu’s, including Eva Kant, and in Bogue’s Maai and Ker. There is a sort of hyper-masculine, but self-conscious retro barbershop style at play here, as if these perfumers are trying to re-imagine the traditional Italian barbershops and apothecaries they might remember from their childhood.
The style is specifically Italian to me, and although I didn’t grow up in Italy, I did live there, and I recognize the atmosphere of those old, dusty places where traditional healing remedies, tisanes, and unguents sit right next to little white boxes full of Swiss-precise modern medicines. The whole of Italy is kind of like that; this weird and charming mix of traditional superstition and ultra-modern moral mores. So when I say that parts of Peety remind me of those Ricola honey-anise throat pastilles you see at every cash register in Italy, I don’t mean that it literally smells like that but that there is a memory association there for me.
Later on, a musky tobacco accord emerges, rich and glowing. The end result, on my skin anyway, is a sort of “old leather” aroma redolent with male musk and warm, stubbly cheeks (the type on a man’s face, one hastens to add). The aura of rich male skin and musk is bolstered by a warm, almost sick-smelling castoreum, and while there is never sweetness, there is a feeling of sharp edges being rounded off and sanded down – a sleepy warmth.
Funnily enough, it is only in the very later stages, when the bitter herbs and spices have banked down a bit, that I can smell the flowers – a rose and jasmine combination that smells both sultry and medicinal. Joined with the cozy ambroxan or amber-cashmere material in the background, there is an effect there that is quite similar to Andy Tauer’s Le Maroc Pour Elle (although this is not as sweet). The dry, papery (and hyper-masculine-smelling) tobacco accord in the dry-down is a real delight. It is not fruity or sweet like other tobaccos – this is dry and leathery. Persistence is extraordinary – I could smell this on my face cloth for four days afterwards.
A fascinating experience, this perfume, and just one of those things you feel richer for having experienced. Very few moments of wide-eyed delight come about for me these days, so hats off to Angelo Pregoni for Peety.