The topnotes of Serge Lutens Serge Noire‘s smoky, dried fruit incense draw me in every single Goddamn time, like a mermaid’s song. And then I am dashed cruelly against the rocks that are this scent’s downfall – the unmistakably oniony sweat of unwashed (male) armpits.
Ask me how I know. No, really. I first smelled this when I was visiting Mont San Michel with my family when I was seven. The children had sat down in a grumpy, sun-beaten heap on the doorstop of the nth church, refusing to indulge our parents any further in their unquenchable thirst for the various religious icons and tchotchkes of French medieval churches, which seemed to us to be identical to the ones we had back home, only a little older and grimier.
From our vantage point, we got to study the interiors of everyone’s nostrils, skirts, and armpits. People passed over us; we were ignored, perhaps not even seen. A middle-aged man stopped under the mantel and leaned against the cool wall for a moment to gather himself, and in that moment, I understood that dried sweat could smell like onions and black pepper and celery – the makings of a mirepoix, practically – when suspended in droplets in the thicket of a man’s armpit hair.
The onion sweat accord can be parsed out later as clove, cumin, black pepper, and incense. While I love clove in stuff like Eau Lente (Diptyque) and the Eau de Parfum by Commes des Garcons, I admit that it can come off as sweaty and metallic to an almost objectionable degree. But the operational word is almost. There’s always something in those fragrances to reign it in – herbaceous oppoponax, a bit of honey, some sandalwood. In Serge Noire, the clove business simply goes too far. It sidles up to the breaking point of human endurance and then waltzes brazenly past it, lurching unchecked into pure onion sweat territory whence it cannot be redeemed.
I keep trying it, hoping I am wrong or that my perception will loosen up, allowing me to glimpse the true beauty of this scent as others describe it. But as of May 2020, and upon my 14th attempt, I have to admit defeat.
Source of sample: Purchased over and over again from Notino.uk to no avail, because I do not and will never ‘get’ this scent.
Cover Photo By photographer Jens Karlsson, Creative Director at Your Majesty, NYC, available here via Stockpholio.net
I’m fascinated by the individuality of the models at play in the indie perfume sector. Some houses, like Diane St. Clair and Papillon work slowly, releasing an average of one perfume a year (if that), willing to wait until every single detail is ‘right’ before releasing what is a highly-finished work to the public. Others, like Prin Lomros, work gonzo style – restlessly creating, releasing, and then wiping out whole perfumes, like an artist furiously rubbing out a sketch he is suddenly unhappy with.
What this boils down to is the notion of risk. Just how much risk is Prin Lomros willing to take? In my opinion, a lot. This is a guy who has had quite a few brands and sub-brands in a very short period of time (I count three, including one disappeared, one prestige, and one diffusion, although in the last few days, I think a fourth might have been sprung upon us), populated with perfumes that appear and then disappear, never to be seen again. Other perfumes get the chop, only to return a year later under a different name.
Sure, this all sounds like Prin Lomros is having a lot of fun – but what about us? Though there’s nothing permanent in perfumery these days – Penhaligon’s glorious Ostara came and went in the space of two years, despite its critical success, and half of the 13 Gucci Flora flankers will probably have been removed from the shelves by the time I finish this sentence – expecting even the most committed of indie perfumery supporters to lay down $160 on a 30ml bottle of liquid that might be axed on a whim four months later is an exceptionally big ask.
Generally, a perfumer can only bet on their customers accepting this level of risk if one of two conditions have been met. Either a) the raw materials are of such rarity or unusual quality, like vintage Cambodi oud oil from the 1970s or a hunk of white ambergris from the Western shores of Ireland that customers buy out of the fear of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or b) the compositions themselves are so artistic or clever that customers are inspired to invest wholesale in the creative real estate locked inside the perfumer’s head.
For the former, you only have to look at the success of Areej Le Doré, Sultan Pasha, and Ensar Oud to know that the feverish fanboyism around the cult of raw materials is more than adequate to keep the ship afloat. Brands, if they are clever, might seek to co-opt a bit of this market for themselves by introducing special one-off editions focused on rare, limited run materials; Eris Parfums did this recently with Mxxx. (review here) to great effect, using a fantastic piece of white ambergris to turn their regular Mx. from a silky white cotton t-shirt into a $1,500 cashmere wrap.
Prin Lomros’ perfumes lean a bit on the precious raw materials thing, but really rely more on the perfumer’s artistic vision as the hook with which to reel customers in. He takes quite a few creative risks – which makes sampling his work huge fun (but blind buys ill-advised). What this means for me is that although roughly 60% of what he turns out doesn’t work for me, the ones I do like I really, really admire and find myself thinking about long after I’ve put the sample away. Heck, even the ones I wouldn’t wear to save my life linger in my head.
worked my way through 18 – count them, 18 – samples from both Parfums
Prissana and Strangers Parfumerie during a time of great stress this January,
when multiple deadlines and the arrival of a new management team at work meant
that I survived on crisps and wine for nutrition and rarely got more than five
hours of sleep a night. Normally, conditions like these would taint my
perception of whatever I’m testing or wearing; but, a grosso modo, the
Prin Lomros stuff still emerged with a big fat thumbs up from me.
Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t a few problem areas. For one, the perfumes are all a little front-loaded, with drydowns that, while long-lasting (lots of ‘beastmode’ performers here), are a little wan compared to the richness upfront. Two or three of the perfumes I tried were marred with an overdose of noxious ‘power tool’ aromachemicals – Ambroxan, maybe, Norlimbanol, and a few of those ‘new wood’ captives; these ones were an immediate line in the sand for me. But even in those, I was able to find little pockets of something interesting or playful that kept me plugged into the experience. To say that his perfumes surprised me and challenged my preconceptions is really quite something, only because I am jaded as fuck.
I think Mandarava (Prissana) is utterly horrific but many people whose opinion I respect think it’s a masterpiece. While clearly well made, its dense cloud of indeterminable flowers, incense, and musk is unbearable to me, because note for note, it smells like someone emptied an entire aerosol of nag champa-scented room deodorizer into a small room and closed all the windows. It has the same overwhelming stuffiness and cheap, greasy-powdery musk overload as Koh-I-Noor by Areej Le Doré but lacks that scent’s more fine-tuned sense of balance that somehow keeps everything in check; Mandarava is unhinged in a way that sets my teeth on edge. But, you know, people other than me love it.
I don’t normally review so negatively, so you have to know there’s a redeeming angle here. And here it is – the drydown is weirdly good. I’ve worn this three times in the name of science, and each time the drydown takes me by surprise in a good way. Unfortunately, I never quite managed to make it to my notepad in time to write down what it is that I think almost redeems Mandarava, so you’ll have to believe me that the texture of the scent changes about six hours in, emerging from the cardboardy fug of nag champa to become sharper, woodier – more interesting somehow. If I ever subject myself to Mandarava again – which, to be honest, is unlikely – I’ll come back and update this review.
If you’re skimming this post for an entry point, then Ma Nishtana is probably the easiest and most immediately likeable perfume in either the Prissana or Strangers Parfumerie line. A judiciously-spiced church incense scent, Ma Nishtana splits the difference between the soapy, aldehyded, Coca-Cola-ish airiness of Cardinal/Avignon and the warmer, breadier, more caramelic-ambery thickness of Contre Bombarde 32 by SAUF or Samharam by Arte Profumi. The drydown drones on a bit, thanks to an application of the dreaded Norlimbanol, but even as a No-Limbs-Left-At-All-hater I have to admit that it’s applied with an unusually subtle touch here.
I don’t know that Ma Nishtana distinguishes itself so much from the stalwarts of this rather cramped incense genre to be worth the price, but of course, this is a deeply personal thing. The most innovative or unusual thing about Ma Nishtana is really that faint whiff of armpitty cumin or turmeric that’s half under-proved doughnut and half curry-sweat, but if you own either Grimoire by Anatole LeBreton or Al Oudh by L’Artisan Parfumeur, I think you’re covered. Ma Nishtana is very nice, very good – but not entirely necessary, at least in my opinion.
Tom Yum is a thing of beauty! A fantastically fresh and sour take on the classic French eau de cologne, it is something like Eau Sauvage or Ô de Lancôme flushed with the mouth-stripping aroma of lemongrass – half lemon, half rooty grass – and freshly-squeezed limes. These tart, aromatic topnotes are all under-pinned with a gorgeously sweet and dusty galangal note that stands in for musk and serves an a pillowy extension cord for the citruses well into the drydown. Although Tom Yum doesn’t smell as authentically hot, sour, or herbaceous as a bowl of Tom Yum itself, and is therefore not nearly as exotic as the notes list wants you to believe, it is still the rare ‘update’ to the eau de cologne model that actually works (and lasts).
Yum is just sour enough in the topnotes to refresh, herbaceous and soapy enough
in the midsection to offer that essential coolness, and sweetly spicy enough in
the tailbone to avoid that throat-catching sourness of laundry musk that tires
my palate in most modern takes. For me, Tom Yum competes head-to-head with the
basil leaf-inflected blast of air conditioning that is the bottle of Paris-Deauville
(Chanel) I keep in the door of my fridge as a substitute for, you know, actual
air conditioning. If you have the money to spend on an eau de cologne-style
perfume and want it to last a fair amount of time without having to choke on
nasty woody ambers or oceans of white musk, then I highly recommend Tom
Somewhat along the same lines, if you love neroli and want a complex, natural-smelling version, then Natsumeku is very good. In keeping with its Japanese inspiration, it smells quite like a Di Ser perfume in that its tingly, orangey citrus notes (neroli in this case) tinged with the wintergreen finger snap of camphor and silvery, refined hinoki wood. In other words, neroli filtered through a Japanese sensibility rather than through the regular ole channel of an Amalfi citrus grove. It is fresh and sharp, and quite medicinal, like the cool, steamy air in a Japanese onsen on Hokkaido island, where you are getting rubbed down by a masseur with unpronounceable Japanese herbs, damp sea mosses, and yuzu-style citruses that probably only exist within 2 miles of the onsen and nowhere else. It smells like, for want of a better word, the “Other”.
I am less enthused about the solid-but-plain-Jane drydown of Natsumeku, because I am not a huge fan of neroli, and this does get very ‘neroli’-ish in the end. It might be just me who has this issue, but I always tire of the incessantly cheerful soapiness of neroli. In this instance, if I am choosing to smell soapy and clean, then I’d much rather be wearing Tom Yum, above.
Thichila is an interesting one indeed. Sorry to be bossy, but I’m really going to have to insist you disregard any reviews you see for Thichila that make it out to be tremendously complex, floral, incensey, old school, or even chypre-ish – it’s really none of those things. Because Thichila is one of those perfumes that happens to be composed in an Eastern style and uses complex-smelling, exotic naturals, many people – mostly Westerners – may mistake its complexity for a matter of construction. As a matter of fact, Thichila is simply one big bridge built between two massively complex materials – a natural Thai oud oil and a big, rustic myrrh. These two monoliths happen, in this case, to share a peculiarly rubbery-rooty-oily-anisic character that makes it difficult to tell where one ends and the other takes over. I find Thichila fascinating precisely because of this.
The Thai oud smells charmingly like the inside of a party balloon or a bouncy castle – plasticky, rubbery, with the far-off twang of trampled fairground straw and sticky, jammy-fruity children’s handprints. It reminds me very much of one of FeelOud’s more unusual-smelling oud oils, whose name I can’t recall right now, but which smelled like the air that escapes from plastic lunchboxes that you’re opening for the first time in three months when the new term is starting.
At some point, the sweet, plasticky rubber tube of oud rolls into the scent of myrrh – gloomy and rubbery, but also sweet and crunchy, like giant golden sugar crystals dipped in anise and spread in a hard, glittery paste across your skin. I think Thichila is, on balance, a great perfume, but fair warning – you have to love this particular style of oud oil and this particular sort of myrrh for it to be a success for you. A very specific perfume, therefore, for a very specific taste.
Maruyama smells to me like a richly vegetal cis-jasmone or immortelle scent, i.e., floral notes with clear overtones of burnt hay, maple sugar, or strange exotic herbs like lovage that smell half like a white flower, half like celery. It reminded me at first of Comme des Garcons’ Sequoia and then of Cardamom Rose Sugar by Solstice Scents. There’s always a point at which this sort of thing smells pleasantly like a glazed maple-cider doughnut to me, and then slightly but ever so insistently of curry and caramelized brown sugar mashed together, at which point I don’t really want to smell it at all. If you don’t hit that plateau quite so quickly as I do, then I highly recommend Maruyama as an exotic Eastern take on the classically French ‘Sables’ (Annick Goutal) territory.
Mohragot is the nouveau fougère of the line, kind of analogous to the place that Mousse Illuminée holds for Rogue Perfumery, or Eiderantler for January Scent Project, but with a thrillingly damp earth accord that whips us away from that lavender shaving foam ‘daddy’ picture and plunges us instead deep into the bowels of a violent thunderstorm in a forest, the rain and wind ripping up the soil and hurling broken branches, leaves, and air molecules into each other.
It took me forever to work out why I love the wet, dark, green ‘mustiness’ and soil-y ‘moldiness’ of this opening, until I realize that it replicates the same ozone-in-turmoil atmosphere ofSupercell by Sixteen92, and to a lesser extent, the ‘old’ and ‘clay-like’ green earthiness of Oakmoss (Muschio di Quercia) by Abdes Salaam Al Attar.
Someday, I’ll figure out what it is about this sort of scent that moves my black soul, but right now, all I can think of is that this kind of mossy vetiver smell is alive and dead in equal measure. The mold and the dustiness, the ‘aged’ browny tint of the earth smell, its overall murk and gloom – this reminds me of the ‘newly-opened tomb’ dead air that billows out of Onda parfum (Vero Profumo) and Djedi (Guerlain).
But here and there, there is the juicy rudeness of new plant life poking its way through, the air crackling with ozone. So yes, though the hummus-rich, brown-green earthiness is all-encompassing at first, soon you notice that it is pierced here and there with the minty vase water of oakmoss.
On balance, however, this is not a particularly fresh or herbal example of a fougère. Pandan leaf, or screwpine, is mentioned in the notes list, so perhaps the gentle sweetness of those screwpine ittar they use to flavor syrups, tobacco, and cosmetics in India is what is relieving Mohragot of that tiresomely ‘Brut’-like, aftershavey bitterness that usually makes fougères such a bore to wear (as a woman). The pandan leaf note gives Mohragot an interestingly milky, nutty tonality, yet it is not as piercingly sweet or as fruity as an actual screwpine ittar. I find Mohragot one of the more interesting perfumes in the Prissana line, because it takes a while to pick apart, and even after three or four wears, parts of it remain impenetrable to me. I do appreciate that the ubiquitous 21st century finish of dopey tonka bean has been swapped out for a softly musky tobacco accord that smells like an idealized vision of an autumn walk. Unfortunately, Mohragot disappears from my skin within three hours. Now, I’m no longevity bore, but for $160 for 30mls, that’s just taking the piss.
If I’d been dipping my toes into Strangers Parfumerie to test the waters and encountered Aroon Sawat first, I’d have turned 180º on my heels toute suite. Its clumsy mish-mash of woody ambers and big, syrupy fruit is bathed in a chemical radiance so powerful and all-reaching that my eyeballs hurt even to remember it now. It is a perfume whose finer points are wasted on me completely, obscured as they are by this big, thick gloppy blanket of amber-wood-syrup-resin-fruit aromachemicals. It’s just atrocious. A crime against perfume.
Thank God I operate a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, because all the other Strangers Parfumerie perfume turned out to be either memorably quirky, or charming, or at least interesting enough to redeem the utter horror that was Aroon Sawat. In fact, in general, I liked the Strangers Parfumerie as much as, if not more than, the perfumes in the more upmarket (and more highly priced) Prissana line. The fact that they represent much better value for money is almost beside the point.
SM Café is possibly one of the most successful coffee-based perfumes out there, and I say that as someone who rarely thinks that coffee-scented anything works (apart from the real thing itself of course). The SM in SM Café stands for sado-masochism, but there’s nothing really risqué about this nicely-balanced dance between the intense, burnt flavor of freshly-roasted coffee beans and the clean sweetness of wood, musks, and amber resin. The coffee does smell undeniably dirty and grungy, but it’s more the funk of damp coffee grounds you’re cleaning out of the pot than anything S&M or leather related, and anyway it all gets balanced out by the milky ambers and beeswax in the base.
Although not terribly fruity, the sour morello cherry accent and the coumarin add a certain pipe tobacco angle to the concoction that I find broadly handsome – it also makes SM Café the indie synonym for Close Up by Olfactive Studio. But truth be told, SM Café is far more austere and masculine-leaning; in overall orientation, far closer to the dusty, burnt, 1970s character of Coze by Parfumerie Generale than to the sweetened coffee-tobacco of Close Up.
I’m confused by just how much I enjoy the gourmand perfumes in the Strangers Parfumerie line-up. Gourmand perfumes are not generally my thing. The designer ones are gloppy glucose bombs with zero distinguishing features, the niche ones use higher quality or more interesting sugar-choco-frooty aromachemicals but unfortunately tend to arrive at much the same place as the designer ones (and cost about $200 more), and the indies, well, in their effort to be all weird and ironic and indie about it, push the gourmand notes into ever-increasingly grotesque forms just for the sake of it (with few of them very wearable in the long run).
So Fetch, for example, has a protein bar accord and is based on a phrase from Mean Girls, so you’ll forgive me if I say I was ready to automatically class this with the third category. But I WAS WRONG. This stuff is just delightful. It has sass. It opens up on a huge whoosh of cherry-flavored fizz, as if someone dropped a whole packet of Love Hearts into a 2 liter plastic bottle of 7-Up and shook it all up until it exploded like a trailer park Prosecco.
So Fetch makes me feel young. It makes me imagine what Bendelirious by État Libre d’Orange might smell like if cross-pollinated with the rubbery tennis balls of The Soft Lawn (Imaginary Authors). There are, at points, beguiling little whiffs of rubber tires, fuel exhaust, and lemon-scented sherbet powder. In the drydown, notes of pink lemonade, strawberry erasers, and marshmallow fluff float into the picture – basically the same soft, billowy lokhoum fun of Douleur! by Bogue, minus the enamel-stripping rose oxide. Really, really good stuff.
Sangre Dulce is darker in tone than So Fetch, but no less weird or interesting, or ultimately, wearable. Immediately on application, there is something here that reminds me of something Lush or BPAL would make: burned sugar crossed with the headshop murkiness of amber cubes and dragon’s blood incense, or some mysterious dried herb concoction in a burlap sack. It smells very indie – not in the super-fancy artisanal sense of the word, but more in the sense of the Etsy crowd dropping a Solstice or Hexennacht release of perfumes honoring the Moon or witches or something. Not saying that to knock it, by the way – many of my favorite perfumes are indie oils from the latter category (I am just not into the witchy side of things).
I smell in Sangre Dulce a whole host of confusing but really pleasing notes that seem to hang together very well – burned sugar, rubber galoshes, sugar mashed into dirt, bathtub booze, and in the far drydown, something that smells like over-baked wheatgrass and granola bars (maybe this is where that protein bar ended up). If Luca Turin were to smell this, I’d imagine he’d find a way to praise Prin Lomros for his off-the-wall thinking, in the same way he (almost wistfully) loves the Constantine father and son duo at Lush for having the guts to just throw everything into a pot as a mad experiment and see what works (“Someone seems to be having a lot of fun over there” as he might say, in that impish way of his).
A basic way to describe Sangre Dulce is to say that it smells like sugar cubes and burned wheat that took a wrong turn somewhere and fell down a dark cellar into a pot of hooch, dragging with it some Converse sneakers and a vial of herbal folk medicine. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was the creative brief for Lush’s All Good Things.
Cigar Rum seems to be one of the most popular scents in the Strangers Parfumerie stable, probably because the handsome, complex aroma of tobacco absolute never fails to please. This is a good but hardly unique take on tobacco leaf – most of the heavy lifting is done by the tobacco absolute, but there’s a flash of warm, boozy rum up top to dress it up, and it skips over the heavy vanilla or dried fruit stickiness of Tobacco Vanille.
That said, it does nothing special or new above and beyond the real baseline for indie tobacco perfumes, which remains Tabac Aurea by Sonoma Scent Studio. Cigar Rum is also one of the Prin Lomros scents that falls flat in the base – there’s very little there to hold it together once you get past the richness of the tobacco opening. If you’re thinking of investing in an indie tobacco, I’d still go for the best-in-class of Tabac Aurea.
Rum Intense is the same,
but is obviously a concession to the bros, who always want something more
chemically radiant and beastmode. Anything nice-smelling or natural about Cigar
Rum has been wiped out by the heavy woody ambers in the Intense version. Honestly,
I’d steer clear and leave this one to the bros, because God knows those poor
guys are under-catered to/s.
Burning Ben is so, so good. You definitely need to love phenolic scents to like it, but as long as your fetish is smelling like beef jerky on a campfire, then Burning Ben will really do it for you. It runs along the same lines as Le Labo Patchouli 24 or Slumberhouse Jeke – basically big, billowing bombs of birch tar, cade, and lapsang souchong smeared over a sweet or boozy baseline. But it features an innovation so good-smelling and so damn right that I can’t believe nobody’s thought of before now: coffee! The burnt, aromatic ‘fresh roast’ coffee bean note lifted out of SM Café and grafted right on top of the burning cade-birch heart of Burning Ben makes for a smoky, tarry coffee darkness that smells fantastic.
At first, as you might imagine, it’s a bit too intense, like a billycan of coffee that’s boiled over on a campfire and is now sizzling meanly on the embers beneath. The addition of the coffee gives the birch tar leather a more masculine bent, and for part of this ride, I feel like I’m wearing my boyfriend’s leather jacket, infused with his scent of aftershave, manly musk, and general ‘maleness’ – this I find sexy in a cross-dressing way, and for people who find Patchouli 24 not masculine or butch enough, well, voila Burning Ben.
But before all of these intensely burnt, roasted flavors can run over into harsh or bitter, an oriental-ish and sweetly nutty base arrives to soften the edges. The basenotes are vague and amorphous in a way that makes you think, ‘Mmm, that smells good’, but also leaves you at a loss to define any one particular note or accord that’s making it so.
The best I can do is to say that it’s more like a texture than a taste, like those firm salted toffees whose pleasure lies mainly in the chew. Salty-sweet amber, toffee, beeswax, crushed hazelnuts – a sensuous mélange of silky, warm ‘brown’ flavors that are the perfect accompaniment to the sharper, smokier ‘brown’ notes of birch tar and coffee up top. Burning Ben is one of the Strangers Parfumerie scents that smells ever better the more it goes on – perhaps the forceful nature of phenolic scents in general is what ensures the richness doesn’t attenuate as quickly. Anyway, I love this category of scents, so it follows that I love Burning Ben. Beyond my general bias, I think that Burning Ben manages to pull off a bit of innovation in a genre that I suspect is rather a self-limiting space.
As good as Burning Ben is, I’ve left the best for last. Salted Green Mango is, for me, the standout of the Strangers Parfumerie line. The mango note is not really the point – it’s just a momentary swelling of something syrupy and green-tropical behind the avalanche of musk and vetiver, subsiding into the ether far too quickly to be a feature.
The thing to pay attention to here is the salt. Salted Green Mango is basically a huge, spacey cloud of sparkly vetiver-musk molecules that mimics the invigorating scent of salt air. It smells clean, but despite the probably industrial amounts of white musks or Iso E Super used here, also quite organic, like what I imagine the air around the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah smells like on a breezy day. And yet, there is something clearly lab-made about the scent; it feels engineered, ergonomic, and therefore a bit more chic or more modern than just a simple clustering of naturals.
I’m in love with how this (really quite simple) scent of white, clean, salty woods and musk gives me that ‘my-skin-but-better’ aura; it’s effortless and sensual. I’m willing to bet serious money that people who love those modern, shape-shifting floral-woody musks made to smell like 50% cyborg, 50% warm human skin – stuff like Glossier You, Diptyque’s Fleur de Peau, and Le Labo Ambrette 9 – will love Salted Green Mango. For me, it knocks all those modern skin musks, as well as Jo Malone’s (really excellent) Wood Sage & Sea Salt, right off their perches. This one goes straight on the full bottle list.
Mxxx. by Eris Parfums is an almost embarrassingly
sexual scent – the result, I imagine, of an experiment to cross breed the silvery,
driftwood aroma of a far-off beach bonfire with the boudoir-ish scent of smoked
butter, incense ash, and the baritone subwoofer of 88% cocoa powder.
I really liked the original Mx., which, with its creamy-spicy-woody character (à la Cadjméré by Parfumerie Generale), was a bright and casual affair. The innovation here, with Mxxx., is that Barbara Hermann and her perfumer for Eris Parfums, Antoine Lie, decided to up the stakes by adding a large dose of 7% natural ambergris tincture, cacao from Trinidad, and hyraceum tincture to the formula. The difference this has made to the bones of the perfume is striking. It’s not just that the natural ambergris has made the perfume warmer, siltier, more animalic – which it has – but that the furniture has been rearranged in a way that makes me think it’s another room entirely.
Each time I wear Mxxx., it overwrites my memory of the original a little bit more. I remember the original smelling like sandalwood, if sandalwood was made of pine, milk, hazelnuts, and chocolate oranges – sexy in a tousled, white cotton t-shirt kind of way. Mx. was firmly unisex, or just ever so slightly feminine-leaning, and clearly a perfume for daylight hours.
Mxxx., by contrast, is a smeary creature of the night and more emphatically masculine. The bright chocolate-orange sandalwood of the original has been replaced with a smoky butter note, which is held in place by an quasi-fecal cedarwood with bitter, chocolatey undertones.
In its total effect, Mxxx. still smells like sandalwood to me, but a much earthier, more aromatic version than the milky ‘saffron orange’ sweetness of the original. The butter-cacao undertone here is unctuous but roughened with a kitten’s lick of grey sea salt that catches at your throat and stops the scent from smelling overtly gourmand. The incense, subtle spices, and the musky cedarwood give the scent a dry, gauzy texture, like ash from a wood fire blown into the air.
Animalic? Technically, yes, I suppose it is. But Mxxx. isn’t one of those fragrances that sacrifices smoothness or wearability at the altar of animalic authenticity. I think we’ve all smelled scents where castoreum smells like the pissiest, driest, most urine-soaked piece of leather imaginable, or where their natural ambergris smells alarmingly like halitosis, horse dander, and low-tide harbor. While I admire those kind of scents for pushing boundaries, and for testing our tolerance for the unabridged ‘realness’ of animal secretions at their rawest, they sure as hell can be a trial to wear.
Give me something like Mxxx. any day. It smells great, and sexy in a skin-like kind of way, but never like something that’s playing a game of chicken with me. It really isn’t any more challenging or animalic than, say, the full-bodied, all-original-woods-and-civet-intact lasciviousness of 1980s-1990s perfume, like Samsara (Guerlain) or Ubar (Amouage) or Creed’s fantastic Jasmin Impératrice Eugenie (not that Mxxx. smells like these, particularly; I’m just referring to a similar ‘generosity’ in their proportions of thick, pongy-sandalwoody-French-perfumeyness).
The smoked butter note is, for me, the primary animalic element. It smells a bit fatty and skin-like, at first, before the smoke and ashy woods arrive to dry it all out. The smoke here is subtle, rising in curlicues up from the bottom of the scent, and sifting its way lazily through the salty, melty cocoa-butter of the topnotes. This is not the strong smoke of cade or birch tar, but rather the rubbery, sweet smoke of the tire leather in (vintage) Bvlgari Black.
It’s a genuinely sexy perfume, this minxy Mxxx., but not in an immediately obvious way – far more Hot Priest from Fleabag, let’s say, than the knowingly calculated (and boringly obvious) head-tilt of George Clooney.
Source of sample: Barbara Hermann very kindly sent me a sample to test (with no obligation to write about it), for which I am very grateful. I believe that wearing it has increased my sexual attractiveness by about 156%, but I work with scientists, so I should say that there’s no real evidence to support that figure outside of my own imagining.
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.
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.
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.
Hyde by Hiram Green is an exercise in birch tar. Actually, it’s an exercise in how to do birch tar without swamping the structure in an overwhelming wall of BBQ smoke. The scent opens with the peculiarities of rectified birch tar on full display: the tarriness of melted gumboots brushed with the cooling tingle of wintergreen and the medicinal sting of TCP (Germolene). A pleasantly boozy warmth, a licorice-like chewiness, stirs underneath the surface.
In autumn 2018, Areej Le Dore released its 4th generation of fragrances. Russian Adam very kindly sent me a sample set, which I’ve been playing around with for a while now. Without further ado, here are my reviews of Areej Le Dore Koh-i-Noor, Malik al Taif, Oud Luwak & Baikal Gris.
Antonio Gardoni’s style is so distinctive that his work can almost be graded in Gardoni-ness, with Noun being a 9/10 (i.e., immediately identifiable as an Antonio Gardoni creation) and Aeon 001 being a 3 or a 4 (identifiable as a Gardoni only if you think hard about it). I’ve never had the chance to smell Gardelia, but from all accounts, its honeyed white floral softness places it slightly outside Gardoni canon, so perhaps a 1 on the Gardoni scale.
For those unfamiliar with the Gardoni style, the recurring motifs might be loosely defined as (a) a lean and elegantly bitter mélange of apothecary herbs and spices, tending towards medicinal, (b) a butch, non-traditional treatment of white florals, especially tuberose, and (c) a complex, brocaded drydown that mixes resins with musks, castoreum, ambergris and/or other animalics. More prosaically, I always think of Gardoni’s creations as possessing an authentic ‘golden’ vigor that’s masculine in an old school manner.
Zoologist, as a brand, could also be said to have a distinctive house style. Of course, since each perfume has a different creator, it’s more difficult to pin down the specifics beyond the fact that all seem to be built on an exaggerated scale, with one chosen element (woods, smoke, leaves, fruit) blown up until it towers comically over the composition like King Kong. They are all exciting, vivid fragrances, but often quite rough, probably because they aren’t put through the glossing filter that most other niche scents go through to reach market these days. As an example, Hyrax would be a 10 on the Zoologist scale, because its filth-and-dried-urine-inside-burning-tires aroma makes it one of those hardcore ‘I dare you’ scents that only the nichiest of niche-heads would wear, whereas something like Hummingbird is a solid 2: a frothy whirl of fruit and flowers that won’t scare the horses.
Apologies for the lengthy preamble, but anyone dithering over a blind purchase of either a sample or a full bottle of Zoologist Tyrannosaurus Rex will want to know how Gardoni it is, and also possibly, how Zoologist it is, on a scale of 1 to 10. My short answer is that Tyrannosaurus Rex is a 4 on the Gardoni scale, and a 8 on the Zoologist scale. In other words, I don’t know that I’d guess it’s a Gardoni creation from smelling it blind (although digging in, there are a few clues), but I’d confidently peg it as a Zoologist release.
Tyrannosaurus Rex opens with a furnace blast of burning tree sap and smoke, featuring both the rubbery green soot of cade and the piney sharpness of frankincense. This sounds rather par for the course for anyone who’s ever collected or smelled the most popular scents in the phenolic category, like Encens Flamboyant (Annick Goutal), A City on Fire (Imaginary Authors), or Revolution (Cire Trudon), but Tyrannosaurus Rex immediately distinguishes itself from this company by layering a core of buttery floral notes through the rough-grained miasma of smoke.
In particular, a thickly oily champaca stands out, smelling not of the its usual fruity-musky cleanliness but of the almost rancid, stale ‘Irish butter’ gardenia undertones of Indian champaca, the red ‘joy oil’ stuff that gives Strangelove NYC’s lostinflowers its pungency. Picture the greasy saltiness of gardenia, rose, and ylang butters thrown onto a burning fire with some laurel leaves and fir, and you’ll get a sense of the opening here. It smells like something charred to purge the air of impurities and sickness; the smoke element more medicinal than holy. This facet, plus the fact that it smells the way frankincense gum tastes, identifies it as being Gardoni-esque.
The sheer brute force of the opening, however, is more Zoologist in style. The marriage of smoke and oily floral takes some getting used to. It smells rich and addictive, but also a little too much of a good thing, like staying too long at the fuel pump to breathe in the gasoline fumes, or walking through a rubber plantation on fire fully aware that you should run before the toxic fumes get you but also weirdly narcotized into a trance-like state.
The smoke, in particular, is what pushes this one up on the Zoologist scale. It’s an element I associate with, in particular, Hyrax, a 2018 Zoologist release, which smells like a well-used rubber incontinence sheet set on fire. While Tyrannosaurus Rex is far more accomplished and not provocative for the sake of being provocative, there’s no denying that the shock factor of the opening is high. Unless, unlike me, you’re one of those people who absolutely live for the most challenging parts of a perfume, like the Listerine mouthwash of Serge Lutens’ Tubéreuse Criminelle’s topnotes or the putrid cherry cough syrup first half of Diptyque’s Kimonanthe, in which case, the ‘burning rubber plantation’ portion of Tyrannosaurus Rex will be the highlight.
For me, though, the latter parts of the scent are the most enjoyable because that’s when everything relaxes and the warning system in my solar plexus stops ringing. This is where things get seriously sensual. Only two components of the drydown are identifiable to me, or at least familiar. First, a minty-camphoraceous balsam note, like a solid cube of Carmex set to melt gently on a hot plate, mixed with the gritty brown sugar crystals of benzoin or some other ambery material. At times, it smells like fir balsam and old leather mixed with vanilla ice-cream (soft and almost creamy), and at others, it is bitter and metallic, thanks to rose oxide, a material that smells like nail polish mixed with mint leaves and rose.
The second component in the drydown, for me, is the sandalwood. Although I don’t know whether sandalwood synthetics or natural sandalwood oil was used, the note reminds me very much of Dabur Chandan Ka Tail (Oil of Sandalwood), a santalum album from India that’s sold as an ayurvedic medicine rather than as something to be used as perfume. Dabur comes in a small glass container with a rubber cap to allow penetration by a syringe, which you’re supposed to remove, but that I (not being a meticulous person in general) do not. Accordingly, the topnotes carry a bitter, smoky rubber and fuel exhaust overtone that’s curiously addictive. Tyrannosaurus Rex’s sandalwood component is roughly similar: it is creamy and aromatic, but tainted by all these weird little wafts of rubber and car exhaust that add character to the usual pale milk of sandalwood. It’s sexy as hell. Damn, give me a big, rich sandalwood base any day and you’ve got me. It’s like nuzzling into the chest of a biker who’s ridden through 50 miles of Mysore forest.
A friend (and fellow blogger) often teases me for not being clear in my review about whether I like the scent or not, and that’s fair: I tend to get bogged down in analysis and forget to tell you whether or not a scent connected with me at a personal level. So, let me be clear – I absolutely loved Tyrannosaurus Rex. The opening is too powerful for my taste, but for the most part, I loved the warmth and ‘bigness’ of this perfume. It’s smoky, it’s complex, and it keeps you guessing without taxing your brain cells to oblivion. In other words, although there’s a certain amount of head-scratching and puzzling over notes to be done here (which will please bored fragheads), it’s also very easy to step away from the analysis and simply enjoy wearing the thing itself. And you know, apart from the over-fueled opening, I do.
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?
A common complaint about natural perfumes is that they rarely, if ever, transcend their materials. That without the lifting sparkle of aldehydes or the spaciousness of white musk or Iso E Super they take up a dense, muddy form, their back flattened against a wall. To be honest, as much as I love natural perfumes, it’s hard to deny this.