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.
There’s something very basic, almost therapeutic about the smell of wood, isn’t there? Rosewood, or palisander, is especially comforting, because it smells mostly like a freshly-split log of wood, but has warm, steamy undercurrents of curry leaf, pressed rose petals, and chili pepper for interest. Ava Luxe’s Palisander is not only an excellent representation of the rosewood note, but the plainness of the wood is dressed up with enough amber and incense to prevent it from ever smelling skeletal.
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.
All Neil Morris fragrances smell like they come already pre-aged in brown apothecary bottles, lifted from the dusty shelves of the local Salvation Army store. Evocative, rich, and hippy-ish, they act as sealed time capsules of a specific mood or place that, notwithstanding the exoticism of the inspiration, always manage to smell comfortingly familiar.
Neil Morris Rose of Kali, for example, takes its inspiration from India, but it smells like a memory of something far closer to home. There is a mix of dank chocolate, rose, and fruit that smells less like the cited pear (although there is a solvent-like nuance) and more like strawberries, with the result that the topnotes of the perfume smell like those dusty fondant-filled chocolates that nobody chooses in the selection box.
Couteau de Poche means pocket knife in French, a name you’d think has little connection to an American niche perfume brand until you realize they’re based in Brooklyn and suddenly it all makes sense. The brand’s first perfume, Fumabat, costs a hefty $160 for 50mls, which I’m only paying if it’s served to me in a mason jar by a trustafarian with a man bun.
No, no, forgive my good-natured joshing: I’ve only recently let go of my outrage, you see, of having to pay $18 for a spinach frittata the size of an ash tray in Williamsburg earlier this month – it’s not that I don’t understand that the price is the new normal, for both the area and the artisanal side of the niche perfume market.
Regular fragrance fans would find that expensive, but for the trendy young hipster with a job, Fumabat is probably justified as a one-off investment into something that will make them feel unique and offbeat. What we in the fragrance community tend to forget is that while we often buy more than one fragrance per month, there’s a whole market of people out there who don’t buy more than one fragrance per year. And since we’re talking about a high value segment of the market – young professionals with a strong need for differentiation and individuality – as a brand it makes sense to hit them up hard on that one transaction.
Working through on that logic, does it follow that because Fumabat is not aimed at me, I won’t find it special or noteworthy?
Actually, I think Fumabat is pretty striking, although probably not in the way the brand intended. You can read the notes list at the end of this short review if you like, but despite everything pointing to a smoky incense oriental along the same lines as Black Afgano or Sombre Negra, Fumabat actually smells like vintage Opium, specifically the last droplets of vintage parfum that’s evaporated over time until only a smear of brown sludge is left in the vial. Now, what on earth could be going on in this modern, urban, hipster-y perfume to give off such a pronounced retro flavor?
Well, let’s break it down. When first applied, the topnotes smells pleasantly of stale but minty furniture lacquer on old furniture or decorative Chinese fans that have been left to fester in a damp, closed-up room for decades. The slightly airless, varnishy smell make me think of certain aged oud oils at first, but then I realize that the notes are triggering a scent memory that goes further back, to my childhood. It takes me a while to pick apart the associations: there is the handsome smell of soap bars kept in clothing drawers, incense sticks, little sandalwood elephants, patchouli oil, and winter coats with last year’s woodsmoke still embedded in the wool.
Slowly, I follow the train of thought to my stepmother, a half-Danish, half-Macedonian woman with a gypsy spirit and a talent for making every abode smell like her within minutes of arriving. Her name is Snežana, or Snow White, and for me, the smell of vintage Opium is the closest thing in perfume form that matches the exotic-but-homely maelstrom of aroma that accompanies her. She smells of sandalwood, soap, colorful wool, and incense sticks, and so does Opium.
In Fumabat, the direct link is found in its soapy pine and varnishy incense notes, but also quite strongly in the spicy, powdery carnation note that gives Fumabat (and Opium) its balsamic warmth. Actually, from a technical standpoint, it’s possible that the heavy patchouli and oakmoss in the drydown places Fumabat closer to scents such as Paloma Picasso or Norma Kamali Perfume (original) than Opium, but let’s not quibble. The fact is that the strangely vintage “grande dame” perfume vibe will surely strike a familiar chord for anyone that wears or collects the classic patch or spicy sandalwood bombs of the 1970’s.
Oddly, as the perfume hits the base, it shakes off the corduroy-brown glaze of the 1970’s, and stepping out from behind its bushy sideburns, reveals itself to be the smoky frankincense scent I thought it was always going to be, based on the notes. With a dry, sooty Somalian frankincense as matte as charcoal, it reminds me very much of Comme des Garcons’ Black, right down to the licorice twist. Lovely, smoky, satisfying stuff….albeit with zero connection to anything that had gone before.
On a more basic level, Fumabat is a great WTF perfume. You know, one of those madcap, slightly screwy perfumes that play mind games with you, making you wonder if you’ve got your frame of reference right. As a writer, these moments of self-doubt and “lost-ness” are essential to stop myself from crawling too far up my own arse. It’s possible that I return to this a few months down the line and realize that it’s not even that interesting, let alone good, but at least this review will be here to remind me that Fumabat got me going today.
Either way, Fumabat hit right at my emotional gut and connected, which was unexpected, considering the source. I’ll be back in Brooklyn in January, hopefully, so perhaps I’ll swallow the awful indignity of being awkward and un-cool in achingly hip Brooklyn and head round to their place to see them in situ. Let’s just hope they don’t read this poor excuse of a review and block the door.
Notes: green tea, galbanum, mint absolute, Bulgarian black pine, carnation, Somalian frankincense, vetiver root, leather, oakmoss, patchouli
“It’s four in the morning, the end of December, I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better…”
Leonard Cohen was following me around Bosnia. Or rather, his voice was. My Dad was a customs officer and had to drive to the most remote border crossing points, and me, being a penniless student with little to do on my holidays, would fly out to Bosnia to spend to join him on road trips up and down the war-ravaged country.
This was the third time we’d stopped, the third bleak, deserted café in the wasteland of Bosnia after the war. Three different towns, three different ethnicities, three different currencies….and the only unifying factor was bloody Leonard Cohen.
I say “bloody Leonard Cohen” in a fond-but-exasperated way. My father, known in our family as a “Cohen pusher”, would play his records over and over again to anyone who will listen. Holidays to France, with four kids captive in the back seat of our Renault 12, were pure torture.
In revenge, my brothers and I would try to taunt him by staging elaborate suicide scenes, such as lying in wait in the bathroom with a razor poised at the wrist, or play dead on the couch with pills (Smarties) strewn around our lifeless bodies, croaking “We’re doing a Leonard, Dad”.
Never got a rise out of him.
Anyway, the fact that Cohen’s music was playing in each of three cafes or restaurants we stopped at that day made my father very happy indeed. And in a way, it was fitting, because in this country, as broken and divided as it was, there was always more to unite them than divide them. The coffee was the same, even though they called it by different names. They all ate those sticky, syrupy cakes made so popular by the Turks during their, um, residence in the country. And they all seemed to really like Leonard Cohen. They might have played First We Take Manhattan at the Dayton peace talks and wrapped the whole thing up quicker.
Cohen himself was a pretty Zen guy. I like to think the universe paid him back by giving him plenty of women, acclaim, and mass turnouts at the comeback concerts he forced to do when his manager stole all his money.
Ancient Resins by Aftelier was developed by perfumer Mandy Aftel in cooperation with, and expressly for, the great Leonard Cohen himself. It smells exactly what you’d think a Zen guy like Leonard Cohen would like – a warm treble base of resins that balances the bitter, cleansing properties of something that might be used in a Shamanic ritual with the dusty smell of wood, paper, and rosin breaking down in old record stores or bookshops.
I’m not sure it makes much sense to analyze this beautiful oil too much – just let it wash over you in a peaceful wave, just like Cohen’s music – because it is, at heart, just a collection of resinous basenotes. And yet, the total effect is uplifting in a way that belies the simplicity of the blend.
Balm of Gilead is a note that jumps out at me, though, for its unusual biblical associations. Looking it up, it seems that the name refers (in religious history) to a balsam that was used as a spiritual balm to weary souls in Talmudic, Old Testament, and Muslim/Arabic history. Sources differ over what species of tree actually produced this balsam, although it seems to be either from mastic (green, herbal-smelling), pine, or terebinth /turpentine trees.
Although the opening notes of the oil are indeed very pine-like, I assume that this comes from the terpenes naturally present in the frankincense, because Mandy After clarifies that the Balm of Gilead note in Ancient Resins comes from poplar buds, from the Populus species of tree. These trees produce a nicely balmy scent on the white undersides of their leaves, and are used to produce the modern-day versions of the Balm of Gilead – basically, a wound- and spirit-healing balm.
And Ancient Resins is healing. It is healing and calming and restorative. I can see why Leonard Cohen reportedly wore this every day of his life. I was, coincidentally, wearing Ancient Resins in my hair when I heard that he had passed away. I had been using it almost every day since I received a generous sample of it, because the American elections had just taken place and I was feeling stressed out. Ancient Resins seems to have the power to right everywhere that is wrong in the world, just like Cohen’s music seemed to be doing in Bosnia that day. A knitting together of things that have been fractured.
I like to think that when he died, Leonard Cohen was laid naked in a white shroud, anointed from head to toe in Ancient Resins, and then burned on a pyre that floats off down the Ganges. But recently, I learned that Cohen loved more than one of Mandy Aftel’s creations. In fact, Mandy Aftel told me that Cohen wouldn’t go out without a drop of her Oud Luban on his person.
Learning that made me reassess my imagining of Leonard Cohen as a gloomy, depressive poet, anointed with the biblical-smelling Ancient Resins. Because Oud Luban is an oud fragrance that takes what Luca Turin mentioned as an “inherent brown study grimness” characteristic of the material and shoots it through with a light-strobing blood orange note that makes it feel like liquid late-afternoon sunshine.
Superior, Hojari-grade frankincense from the Dhofar desert in Oman adds a bright, terpenic freshness that sidles up to the citrus and supports it – think crushed pine needles, with their juicy, lemony, green scent on your fingers after you touch them. And all this against a very smoky, leathery oud oil that is darkness personified. A superb, natural-smelling, joyful balancing of dark and light, Oud Luban displays a sort of switching-on-of-the-Christmas-lights effect. I don’t think I have ever smelled a perfume that works oud quite like this. The smoky, growly undertones of real oud are there alright – no mistaking this for a synthetic variant – but its usual tendency to spread its gravel-voiced gloominess over everything has been reined in by the bright, citrusy resin elements. I think of it as humorous and hopeful.
And maybe this humorous, fey thing is a truer portrait of Leonard Cohen than my historic, mental imagining of his character. My dad recently told me a story he had read somewhere, of Leonard Cohen at a party. He just sat down on his own, picked up a guitar and started to strum, quietly humming the words to one of his famous songs. Bit by bit, women, young and old, began to kneel down at either side of him, listening intently. One of his friends whispered to him, Leonard, did you notice that you’re surrounded by women. Without looking up from his guitar and strumming away, he whispered back, “Works every time”.
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.
What I love about Sonoma Scent Studio Tabac Aurea is that the perfumer – Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studio – has had the confidence to showcase all the wonderful complexities of the material itself without clogging it up with other notes. And tobacco is one lily that doesn’t need to be gilded. The textures of the tobacco leaf range from leathery to wet mulch, and the notes can comprise dried fruits, leather, wood, clove, cinnamon, apples, plums, paper, and gingerbread. Tabac Aurea showcases all of these different textures and notes, and the total effect is as if the perfumer held a dried tobacco leaf up against the sunlight, slowly turned it around in her hands, and captured each of its changing colors and smells in one small bottle.
Tobacco is a deeply evocative smell for me. I lived for 16 years in the Balkans, where there is a century’s long tradition of smallholders growing tobacco and curing it in the sun before selling it to the local tobacco company, NDKP. The collapse of Yugoslavia in the nineties, coupled with NATO sanctions and the rise of cigarette smuggling meant that local farmers switched to other crops. But now, farmers are once again growing tobacco in Montenegro. They grow a kind called Oriental Tobacco, a small-leaved, hardy type of tobacco that is cured in the hot Balkan sun for up to a month. Intensely aromatic, the smell of the leaves curing in the sun spills out from the fields and into the air around you. There is one such field near a shopping center, and when I walked by there, I loved watching people get hit with the aroma – inevitably they stop, inhale deeply, and stagger away as if high.
Tabac Aurea captures this smell exactly. The smell of tobacco leaves curing in the sunshine is extraordinarily complex and multi-faceted. At first, it smells like a big, thick handful of shredded, wet tobacco leaves that have been steeped in booze of some sort. The effect is rich, but also tannic enough to suck the moisture out of your mouth. The confident spicing, along with a slight dried fruits and candied peel tone, creates an effect that is close to the taste of those medieval types of sweets and cakes, such as panforte, parkin, or gingerbread. These medieval treats would have had a touch of dry honey to them, otherwise, no sugar would have been used.
Throughout the day – and this is a serious, all-day fragrance – you begin to notice the tobacco smell dries out considerably, taking on a leathery and slightly grungy tone that I attribute to the labdanum resin that Laurie has used to round the fragrance out. However, the overall richness of the fragrance never abates – this is one thick, rich smell that stays dense and heavy all the way to the end. This makes it a fragrance one must commit to 100% before putting it on for the day, but if you love the smell of tobacco, then this one is a must. I put it on and it keeps me warm as I go off out into the autumnal sunshine to kick some leaves around.
I left Ireland for Bosnia when I was 22, without so much as a backwards glance. Over the following 16 years when people asked me if I missed home, I would always be startled and say yes – automatically – but it wasn’t quite true. I just never thought of home as being anywhere other than wherever I was right then.
I never realized that the gene for “home” was carried deep within my DNA until one dark night when I stepped out of a snow-stalled car into the deserted crossroads of a tiny village in Bosnia and was hit in the solar plexus by a waft of smoke from a coal fire.
Not just one – dozens of coal fires. All sending plumes of sweet-smelling smoke into the black, starless sky. In my mind’s eye, I could see walls covered with centuries of soot, men huddling round the heart smoking cigarettes, and the fingers of women putting more coal on the fire.
My mother’s fingers, black with soot. In that moment, every cell in my body ached to be back home, watching the familiar sight of her white fingers gingerly placing another coal on the flames, egged on by her always-cold children. Was she sitting beside her fire now, thinking of her first child, wondering if she was cold?
Comme des Garcons Black is the smell of home to me. It smells of coal dust, sweet woodsmoke, frankincense, dry cedar logs, licorice, and finally, in its dying moments, a salt-encrusted leather belt. Not of these things directly but of these things burned on a fire and sent out into the crisp, cold air of a Northern night sky as a single curl of smoke. Every time I spray it on, I experience a joy like that of launching into a sudden run.
If I were being picky, I’d say that the projection and longevity and projection of Black leave much to be desired. But I’m content with this in a quasi eau de cologne format. I’d be afraid that any attempt to make Black stronger would compress all the air out of its airy weightlessness. I like that Black takes the form of coal dust mites, shifting as you move; acting as your own personal force field.
I’ve long been looking for a smoky, woodsy birch tar fragrance that hits this exact spot – the coal-fire-in-Bosnia spot. I love Le Labo Patchouli 24 for coming close, but the vanilla syrup makes me pause, and Bois d’Ascese is far too dense and acrid. Memoir Man does smoky, charred woods and Frankincense beautifully, but it has a somber, sulky feel that might prove difficult. Black, to me, is what you might get if you were to put all these perfumes through a Photoshop filter and apply a filter to reduce the density by 70%. Black does indeed smell truly “black” but it’s more a sheer wash of color rather than a thick daub of oil.
I love it. It’s the first Comme des Garcons perfume for which I’ve been able to locate a heartbeat. I admire their modernist approach but something in their stripped-down aesthetic usually leaves me cold. Here there’s both an emotional core and a minimalism that’s entirely in keeping with the house signature. Maybe the heart bit is all me, but I do feel there’s something warm and human about Black.