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Eve and Pandora: Two Perfumes by Diane St. Clair

4th February 2020

I don’t know how to say this without sounding condescending, but one sniff of Eve and Pandora, the new duo of perfumes from Diane St. Clair, is enough to tell that there has been an evolutionary leap somewhere between her first group of releases and this one (I haven’t smelled Casablanca, so perhaps this is the missing link).

Don’t get me wrong – I really liked the first Diane St. Clair releases. First Cut, Gardener’s Glove, and  Frost were quiet études of a lifecycle as viewed through the eye of a woman intensely connected to it; each perfume a little door cracked open onto an internal dreamscape. I liked that you could tell that these were perfumes made from a woman’s perspective: there was a female sort of tentativeness or ambiguity that I don’t feel in the work of, say, a Josh Lobb or a Hans Hendley. Her first perfumes are little crawlspaces between absolutes, allowing you to breathe and just be.

But Eve and Pandora are perfumes in which you can instantly smell all of the rich, bosomy vintage perfumes that Diane St. Clair has smelled her way through in the meantime. Eve and Pandora are confident florals that have something to say and aren’t apologizing for taking up space. They both smell like flowers, clearly, but this time painted confidently in oil rather than politely in pastel.

Others better and more interested in backstory than I have explored who Pandora and Eve were, and the vein of rebellious curiosity that unites them; all I will say is that both perfumes do justice to the conflicted, imperfect condition that is womanhood. They are abstract and perfumey – a bit resistant to analysis – mixing the bitter with the sweet, and appealing to purely adult tastes. Like women (and bank vaults), Pandora and Eve take a single set of variables, shake them up, and arrive at very different results.

Out of the endless permutations that Eve could have settled on, we arrive at innocence. Well, at first anyway. Powdery woodland flowers – violets, freesia, and a fresh, crunchy green apple note that has the good manners to smell natural for once, rather than the lurid Jolly Rancher version we usually get, or worse the fake apple-cum-Ambroxan freshness of some Creed masculines. This is the prim crispness of apple soap or apple shampoo, with a lemony lick of vetiver for that freshly-mown grass thing that goes so well with apple.

Lilacs hide and then emerge – all sullen, thick-lipped sexuality, turgid and dormant, trapped inside a prim high-necked blouse, not fooling anyone. Does that description of lilacs surprise you? Are you violently disagreeing with me as you read? Talk to me when you’ve lived for years in a neighborhood so thick with lilac bushes that you feel ganged up on. Lilacs smell soapy and prim and Victorian in the singular, in isolation, but when roaming in packs of five or six, you notice that their scent has a tipping point, where it spills over from soap into this hugely ripe, fertile, polleny smell that occupies the air like a shape. Lilacs are the smell of something that pretends it is being restrained but in reality is already touching you inappropriately.   And yet, and yet…that lemony vetiver keeps the outer garments smelling as a fresh as a daisy.

Eve is for lovers of Opardu, or better yet, Warszawa, both by Puredistance, by which I mean that it will appeal to people who appreciate a certain old-fashioned, Veronica Lake-style glamour in their floral perfumes – the scented equivalent of a high-necked white satin blouse hiding a ridiculously lush shelf of a bosom.

Pandora spins the dial on the same set of notes, but the safe opens with a satisfying click on a completely different cavity. Pandora is the Hussy – Joan Holloway to Eve’s Peggy Olsen. It opens with a perfumey blast of heavy, bittersweet gasoline and hairspray mixed with fruit – the gaseous and thick aroma of an apple perhaps, rotting slowly in an organic wrapper of green leaves and flowers. In the background, there is a civety floral musk flushing the air pockets of the scent.

This is – and bear with me here – a fruity, waxy chypre backwashed in a gauze of cigarette smoke. It smells a bit like Lucien Lelong’s Indiscret, a 1940’s femme fatale type floral that derived much of its character from a grey-green, grainy galbanum that cast a hazy fag ash aura over the whole shebang. Thanks to the passion of a close friend for Indiscret, I invested in a vintage bottle from eBay, and was left a little underwhelmed by the perfume apart from this one unique aspect – that weirdly attractive ‘turned perfume’ smell you get from old perfumes whose formerly green or fresh-smelling galbanum, or oakmoss, or God knows, coriander have slowly disintegrated over time until they’ve coagulated into this brown gunk that smells alternatively of coffee grounds, brandy, and hairspray, with a hint of stale Rive Gauche haunting the far corners.    

I love this smell to the point of fetishism. I chase vintage perfumes now not really for a glimpse of how they once were, in their fully pristine, original beauty, but for the signs of this incipient decay, like a dog hunting for truffles. The combination in Pandora of this thick, gassy fruit and that ashy galbanum-vetiver is what I’m jonesing for, to be honest, and it might not even be the hook the perfumer intended to reel me in with. Whatever the intention, the top half of Pandora smells to me like the topnotes of a long-sealed-up vintage perfume, sludgy and indistinct with now banned damascones and nitro-musks, like a 1940’s Coco. I get a whiff of this with some of the DSH perfumes too, most notably Jitterbug. It effectively conjures up that fictional (fictional to me anyway) atmosphere of ladies, possibly your mother included, sweeping into the nursery with their long fur coats and Chanel lipstick and long cigarettes held preciously in long cigarette holders, wafting the mysterious musk of perfumery perfume (the ‘good stuff’ worn only on special occasions). The fact that Pandora has flashes of stale lipstick wax or cosmetic powder helps that illusion along even further.   

But if I came for the perfumey decrepitude of Pandora’s first half, I stay for the wild vetiver finale. The vetiver here almost has a texture to it, like a cup of black coffee thick with spice and wood. Addictive, rich, and very moreish, this is the saturnine heft of European style gingerbread stuffed with enough black pepper to flavor a goulash but still perfumey enough that you’d know better than to put it anywhere near your mouth.  Pandora remains determinedly abstract and fuzzy-bordered throughout, and you have to love that commitment.

Photo by Les Anderson on Unsplash

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Dusita Le Pavillon d’Or

6th December 2019

Although I’ve always worn make-up, my reasons for doing so have varied dramatically over the years. As a teenager, my first and only concern was to make my face into a blank mask to submerge any of the features that made me me and replace them with a ‘fake news’ version of myself. I used make-up to disappear myself. In my twenties and thirties, I used make-up in a purely utilitarian way, zipping through the Holy Trinity of skin-eyes-mouth simply to avoid subjecting strangers to the raw, peeled potato-ishness of my naked face. I cultivated a short-list of favorites and did not deviate, except for dropping concealer altogether when I realized that I’d stopped caring whether people saw my flaws or dark circles.

But now, in my forties – a renaissance of sorts! I have fallen completely in love with the artistry and self-expression side of make-up. And I use it now not to hide, not to cover, but to play. I can be a different woman every day, if I want. But only because I want to shape-shift or it amuses me, not because I feel I have to conform to someone else’s expectations. The pleasure I get in playing around with soft, lavender duochromes from Nabla that shift from blue to pink when you turn your head or going bare-faced with only a bright red mouth to focus the eye – well, it’s extraordinary to me. It’s equal to the pleasure I get from perfume.

The only reason I’m banging on talking about this is that Dusita’s Le Pavillon d’Or reminds me very much of the watercolor blush technique demonstrated by make-up artist extraordinaire Lisa Eldridge in this video, and also of the Japanese-inspired blush placement technique called igari, as demonstrated here. Though different in intent, the two techniques share a focus on the overlapping of delicate, watery layers of color to create a diffused effect that balances richness with translucence. Le Pavillon d’Or seems to be built along the same lines, with several layers laid down until something like the iridescence of a butterfly’s wing is achieved.  

Gosh, it’s so pretty. Mint, iris, and honeysuckle combine to form a fresh, green opening that sometimes reminds me of Chanel. No. 19 and sometimes of Diorella (and sometimes of neither). There is an illusion of galbanum minus the bitterness, or of vetiver without its dankness. The main note here is fig leaf, which would explain the faintly milky quality to the greenness, but there’s none of the urinous quality that often sullies the vibrant smell of fig leaf. There is also a whisper of fruit, but one so phantasmagoric that it might all be in my head.

These opening notes are quickly coated with an overlay of what smells to me like the sweet, musty alfalfa grass notes (half hay, half Quaker’s oats) borrowed from one of my favorite Dusita perfumes, Erawan, but minus that scent’s dusky cocoa. There is also, here and there, a touch of Chanel’s Poudre Universelle Libre – a discreetly-perfumey, buff-colored skein of powder dusted over the scent’s cheekbones.

Although perfumer Pissara Umavijani’s inspiration for Le Pavillon d’Or was drawn from three different lakes, this perfume smells more pastoral than aquatic to me. It carries the green-gold-lilac duskiness of post-harvest meadows and field margins and hedgerows.

The final layer in this igari blush-style fragrance is a crepuscular haze of almond-scented lotion, due to the heliotrope, a plant beloved of midwives for its babyish innocence. But while in less elegant hands the heliotrope might turn fudgy and turgid in that yellow cake way of Etro’s Heliotrope, Pissara has threaded the note through gossamer layers of green florals and iris so delicately that the finish retains the freshness borrowed from the first layer laid down. Simply lovely.

Photo by Linh Ha on Unsplash

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Francesca Bianchi Lost in Heaven and The Black Knight

30th October 2019

The amount of depravity Francesca Bianchi subjects orris root to, I don’t know to be scared of meeting her in a dark alley – or take her out for an Aperol Spritz. People are just now starting to talk about a Bianchi DNA, but I think that her signature was fairly evident from her first releases. If I were to sum it up, I’d say that Bianchi takes materials that seem innocuous and innocent in and of themselves – light suede, powdery orris, fresh vetiver – and works them over with a knuckleduster until they smell rough around the edges and distinctly unclean.

I wonder if, when Luca Turin said in The Guide 2018 that most of the creativity in perfume these days was coming out of Italy, he meant Italians are not afraid of making a statement? Because that’s true in Francesca Bianchi’s case. She doesn’t shy away from pungency or notes that traverse the scale from matted bear to Siamese kitty. But while I wouldn’t rate Bianchi’s perfumes as particularly beginner-friendly, there’s an (Italianate?) smoothness of finish that renders them beautifully wearable. In fact, I can’t think of any other indie whose work falls into that tight space between animalism and polish as neatly as Francesca Bianchi (although Marlou comes very close).  

Although very different to each other, it’s hard not to see Lost in Heaven and The Black Knight as anything other than two sides of the same coin, joined as they are not only by their twinned launch but by the patented Bianchi move of perverting the aloofness of orris with rude skin musks and the salty, urinous twang of ambergris. Leather is the outcome in one; a diffuse taffeta ruff in the other. But something about both perfumes make me think, ‘Francesca Bianchi, you are a bad, bad girl’.

The Black Knight in particular drives me wild. It took me a bit of time to understand it, but after ten days straight of wearing the damn thing, I’m all in. Opening with a hoary ‘Old Man and the Sea’ vetiver that smells like a bunch of whiskey-sozzled men in damp tweed around an open fire in a cramped little Irish cottage beside the sea, it immediately establishes a tone of neglect and closed-up spaces. Slightly analogous to vintage Vetiver by Annick Goutal and Muschio di Quercia by Abdes Salaam al Attar, the vetiver here is denuded of all freshness and twisted into a grungy leather that smells more like something dug up from the bowels of the earth than grass. But for all its salt-encrusted, boozy ‘staleness’, I think The Black Knight succeeds for much the same reason that Patchouli 24 does, in that it balances out a smoky, barely civilized leather accord with a softening layer of something sweet and balmy, delivering both the sting of the whip and a soothing caress in one go.

The Black Knight swaps out the birch tar of the Le Labo for an interesting cuir accord built mostly (as far as I can tell) from that hulking vetiver and some of the bitter, meaty Cellier-esque, Isobutyl quinoline-infused leather that’s been popping up quite a bit recently (see Rose et Cuir). It takes some time to dry down into that softening layer of balmy beeswax – infinitely more balanced than the sweetness in Patchouli 24, which is more sugary and vanilla extract-like in character – so before we settle in for the final, long drawn-out waltz of leather and cream, there’s a surprising development or two.

Most notably, past the opening of dusty ‘grumpy old man’ vetiver, an animalistic accord emerges, pungent and sticky with honey, and almost honking with the freshly-urinated-upon-hay stink of narcissus. Bianchi’s treatment of orris is fascinating to me – she can make it high-toned and mineralic, or funky with the low-tide halitosis of ambergris or blow it out into a big, civety floral cloud. Here, the orris is briefly pungent, with disturbing hints of rubber, boot polish, tar, and urine. This pissy-rubbery stage almost never fails to surprise me – and I’ve been wearing these two samples for the past ten days straight. Don’t smell your skin too closely and you might miss it entirely.  

The Black Knight seems to go on forever, dawdling in that balmy double act of creamed beeswax and ‘hard’ leather before eventually dropping all the sweetness, leaving only mineralic dust and the faint whiff of marshy runner’s sweat (a drydown it shares with Le Labo Patchouli 24). The Black Knight is a bolshy, mouthing-off-in-all-directions strop of scent that’s probably not the easiest thing for a total beginner to carry off. But it’s striking as hell, and never less than sexy.   

I can never tell if Lost in Heaven is a civety floral or a floral civet. There’s a brocaded sourness of honey, pale ale, and resin in the far drydown that gives it something to rest against. But mostly this is a bunch of dollhead-sweet flowers blown out into a diffuse cloud of satiny musks and underlined with something very, very unclean – like leaning in to kiss and girl and catching a suggestion of unwashed pillowcases, scalp, and skin that’s already been licked.

At first, Lost in Heaven reminds me very much of other vaguely retro indie floral civets (or civety florals), especially Maria Candida Gentile’s irisy Burlesque – a mini of which I bought for myself as a birthday present and am rapidly burning through – and Mardi Gras by Olympic Orchids. Then it strikes me that it’s not only the civet (or technically, the ambergris in the case of Lost in Heaven) that’s linking all these scents in my mind, but a certain indie treatment of the iris, or orris, that they all share. I’ve smelled it in Andy Tauer’s iris-centric work too, most notably in Lonesome Rider and his more recent Les Années 25, and it runs like a hot streak through Francesca Bianchi’s work.

The only way I can describe this specifically indie orris treatment is this: take a huge mineral-crusted rock from the beach, wipe it down quickly with a lemony disinfectant, stick it in a clear glass kiln and turn up the heat to 1370 degrees C until it vaporizes, filling the closed-in space with a glittering miasma of acid, mica, and lime-like tartness. I have a suspicion that a matchstick’s worth of Ambrox or Cetalox is the fuse that ignites the orris here, with castoreum creating that dusty, soot-like dryness that approaching freshly tanned leather or suede. The end result is a rather sour and acid-tinged iris that smells like you’re smelling the material diffused in the air after a lab explosion rather than from anything growing in nature. Actually, to be fair – I’ve smelled this ‘hot lava stone’ treatment of orris in landmark Guerlains too, most notably in Attrape-Coeur (one of my all-time favorite scents), which layers a dollop of peach and raspberry jam over a bed of these hissing-hot iris rocks and watches for the chemical reaction. Fridge-cold jam against hot minerals, with a side of sweet, rubbery dollhead, all blown out into sour, almost boozy mist – well, what’s not to like, really?

God, I only hope I’m making sense to someone out there.  

Image by Mark Frost from Pixabay

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Papillon Artisan Perfumes Bengale Rouge

8th July 2019

 

I have an opiate opoponax problem. It started with an unexpected capitulation to the Red Hot charms of Eau Lente, segued into a sudden and slavish devotion to Jicky, and culminated in a shameful episode a few weeks ago, when I found myself outside a train station at 7.30 a.m. palming a wad of cash to a shady eBay guy for a brown paper bag containing two smeary half-bottles of Carthusia’s Ligea La Sirena.

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Francesca Bianchi The Lover’s Tale (2018)

11th October 2018

 

Francesca kindly sent me a preview sample of The Lover’s Tale and as we were chatting about it over email, she mentioned that at Pitti fragrance fair, the perfume proved to be quite divisive; most of the (Russian) men from Fragrantica loved it while she could see that others were clearly struggling with it.

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Neela Vermeire Creations Niral: A Review

11th April 2018

Picture a delicately carved silver dish piled high with quivering cubes of rose milk lokhoum, barely set and opalescent. This tower of pink jellies, as wobbly-legged as a newborn giraffe, sits perched on a folded suede opera glove. In the background, a complex but translucent inter-knitting of pink pepper, fruits, roses, and white tea recalls the faded-silk grandeur of both Etro’s Etra and Rajasthan,  a series of polite, sepia-toned portraits of India as seen through the rose-tinted glasses of imperialists.

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Strangelove NYC: silencethesea, meltmyheart, & deadofnight

5th February 2018

 It’s difficult to figure out what Strangelove NYC is, as a brand. If you were to go by appearances alone – the fashionably minimalistic, almost text-free website, the $260 perfume necklaces with 1.25mls of perfume oil, the fact that Helena Christiansen is the brand’s spokesperson – you’d be forgiven for writing these off as perfumes for New York socialites, designed to look banging on the glossy, bronzed neck of a supermodel as she poses for a photo to go with her ITC Top Shelf interview.

 

But you’d be wrong.

 

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Belles Rives by La Parfumerie Moderne: A Review

4th February 2018

 

I’ve never smelled the legendary Iris Gris by Jacques Fath, but I imagine it to be something along the lines of Belles Rives by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato for La Parfumerie Moderne: the dove-grey pallor of orris warmed at the edges by a shimmer of peach.

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Bruno Fazzolari Feu Secret: A Review

16th January 2018

Bruno Fazzolari Feu Secret opens with the balsamic, fruity tang of fir balsam, jammy and bitter in equal measure. Underscored with the earthy tang of turmeric, the coniferous notes feel unfamiliar, because the combination smells simultaneously earthy, green, sweet and waxy, like a piece of fruit dropped into a bag of powdered herbs.

 

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