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.
I’d love to get all worked up about the name, but as someone who says “fuck” rather a lot, I really can’t. I’m not proud of it, but in my defense, I’m Irish. In Ireland, people are so foul-mouthed that English shows such as Come Dine with Me film one season over here and then skedaddle back to the UK, their pearls clutched to their throats in shock at the ease with which everyone – everyone – from the tony middle class housewives in Howth to 4-year-old kindergarteners turn the air blue.
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.
My first impression of Francesca Bianchi’s Under My Skin was that of a milky sandalwood over something vegetal and spicy, like a dish of Chinese greens simmered with lots of black pepper and fenugreek. But like Santal de Mysore, which it resembles in some parts, Under My Skin reads like two different perfumes – one when sniffed closely on the skin, and the other sniffed as an aura or a trail of scent on the air.
Hiram Green Voyage has an opening that is both strange and familiar to me. It features a sour (but also candied) citrus note dusted so thickly with the powder of a saffron-like spice that it doesn’t register as fresh or sharp the way hesperidic notes normally do. The effect is of a golden sun shining through a dust cloud of vanilla and spice, with something bright lurking underneath.
Sometimes I spray this on and I get a hint of the tannic peach skin, moss, and spices from Shangri La, and it’s like unwrapping a tiny sliver of chypre hidden in the folds of a dusty, oriental brocade. Sometimes I get no fruit, but a rubbery suede. It is murky and intimate, like the smell of a moist wrist directly under a rubber watch.
Very beautiful and very familiar. Where do I know this scent from?
Immediately, I race off through the library of smells in my brain to see if I can place it, but it remains frustratingly out of reach. I don’t think it is a perfume that I’m remembering so much as a chord in a larger orchestra of smell. Or maybe it’s the whole orchestra of a smell funneled through one chord, I don’t know.
The best I can do is say that the opening has an interesting dissonance to it that reminds of the older Guerlains – Jicky perhaps most of all, with its stomach-churning clash of cymbals between the fresh, clean lavender and the rich, civet-soaked vanilla crème. But there is also the dark rye bourbon bitterness of Mitsouko’s cooked peach skin. Voyage is much simpler and more direct than these perfumes, of course, but it shares with them the impression of a ribbon of bright gold slicing through plush velvet darkness.
The dry down only confirms the familiarity (and the appeal) of this style of retro perfumery – it is a warm, luscious vanilla-amber, heavily laced with what seems to me to be a heavy dose of heliotrope and perhaps orange blossom, although these notes are not listed. It has something of the spicy, floral vanilla feel of L’Heure Bleue, albeit less pastry-like in tone and more tending towards the more resinous, cinnamon-inflected Tolu or Peru balsams. I have to admit that I do not pick up on much of the patchouli – to my nose, if it’s there, then it is only there to add shade and earth to the vanillic dry down.
In a way, Voyage reminds me of Ciel de Gum, by Maison Francis Kurkdijan, not for any similarity in the way they smell necessarily, but for the retro manner in which they present the vanilla note – not clean or sweet, but fudgy with spice, civet and indolic flowers. There is a close, intimate feel to vanillas like this that recall human skin to skin contact. Voyage, Ciel de Gum, Opus 1144 (UNUM), and even Musc Ravaguer all hark back to that Guerlain-like clash between a bright, aromatic side (lavender, bergamot, cloves, cinnamon) and a dark, velvety side ( vanilla, musks, indolic flowers, and civet).
It’s this clash what makes Jicky, L’Heure Bleue, and Shalimar such masterpieces even today – at first so repellent and odd that wonder what kind of drugs the perfumer was taking, and then everything suddenly “works” in the perfume and you think it’s great – addicting almost. Hiram Green’s Voyage has that clash down nicely, and this is why it works. I love this perfume because it gives me a taste of what I love about the classics but in a stripped-down, more legible format that doesn’t make me feel as if I am wearing an entire history of grand perfume on my back. Which is sometimes what I want.
Histoires de Parfums Olympia Music Hall is such a weird little perfume. I don’t hear much about it, so I’m guessing it’s rather a round-peg-in-a-square-hole kind of fragrance for the line – too abstract to describe in three words or less to rushed customers, but not weird enough for perfumistas to latch onto and champion as an example of the fifth art, or whatever nth art perfumery is supposed to be. I mean, it’s weird, but it’s not M/Mink weird or Humiecki & Graf weird.
They’ve changed it now, but the picture for suede on Fragrantica used to be a pile of three or four suede carpets, folded back so that you could see their rubber backing. I always found that image hilarious in its honesty. My guess is that this image was far too Proletarian for perfumers, who would far rather we imagine the suede notes in their perfumes to look like the softest grey suede cushions in an upmarket hotel on Cap d’Antibes rather than a carpet salesroom in Leeds (I imagine Roja Dove writing in anguish, “Please, mon cher monsieur Knezevic, it hurts my eyes so…..”).
Anyway, Histoires de Parfums Olympia Music Hall makes me laugh because it smells very much like the rubber backing to the suede carpets in the original Fragrantica image – and I like these little moments of intellectual honesty I glimpse in perfumes here and there. Olympia Music Hall is not afraid to call a suede carpet a suede carpet. And I’m sure that it would cause Roja Dove’s nostrils to flare.
Suede perfumes are mostly abstract affairs, for me – kind of like leather, but without the ISQ bitterness, and kind of like cashmere, but without the bonelessness. I suppose if I were to try to define the difference between leather and suede, I’d say there are rubbed out lines to suede that aren’t present in the tougher, clearer leather note. Olympia Music Hall takes the softness of suede and gives it the rubber backing of a suede carpet.
I’m sorry – I’m not adequately describing how sexy this is. I wouldn’t blame you, with all the talk of suede carpets and rubber (unless of course that does sound sexy to you). But Olympia Hall is deeply odd, and therefore strangely sexy. It’s an offbeat little mixture.
That saffron-led rubber and suede accord forms the beating heart of the fragrance, but I’ve left out the sparkling citrus notes at the top and the weird mélange of soapy, almost twee florals (peony, freesia, and lilac) which manage to massage this thing into something both abstract and likeable. Kind of like the soapy, hand wash-like peony note in Dzghonka adds to its sense of mystery rather than making it seem schoolmarmish and old-fashioned.
And there’s a hefty dose of something animalic here too – not just the skin-like suede notes, but a rather sweaty, carnal musk and a dank patchouli, all very suggestive and torrid. The base relies on an opulent frankincense that manages not to smell Church-y or smoky, but rather like the waxy, cold, and rather soapy smell of the unlit, raw resin.
If smelling like rubber, suede, snuffed-out candles, cold wax, handsoap, unlit resins, and the posy of flowers held for too long in the sweaty hands of an Austrian milkmaid sounds good to you, then give the totally odd but not objectionably weird Olympia Music Hall a fighting chance.
Serge Lutens Daim Blond is a simple pleasure done right. It is a dry, dusty suede lightly decorated with the scent of apricots – not the juicy, sweet flesh of ripe apricots but the desiccated husk of skin when shriveled up to almost nothing. Iris provides the bitter, gray powder, and osmanthus the delicate tannin of apricots and black tea.
It is not in the least bit animalic but there is a lightly musky undertone that conjures up a ghostly image of female skin. When I wear Daim Blond, I imagine Newland Archer peeling back the fine-grained Italian leather glove from Countess Olenska’s wrist and pressing his mouth to her quivering flesh. She’s on the cusp of allowing herself to be ruined. It’s a moment of sensuality written on a such a tiny scale so as not to register to anyone but them, but somehow the restrained, pulled-in nature of the moment and its capacity to unleash the hounds of hell is far sexier than anything more explicit.
Daim Blond smells like a woman’s wrist and the tipping point of desire.
I have a hankering for La Parfumerie Moderne Cuir X that I just can’t shake. I’m on my third sample of it and the crush is still going strong. But like any crush, ask me to explain it and I can’t.
I mean, if pushed, I’d say it’s a beautiful modulated suede, its hints of rubbery saffraleine perfectly matched by a hint of smoke and a smooth, almost edible note that lands halfway between violet and plum, even though there’s no flowers or fruit in it. It has a modernist structure to it, meaning that it’s been streamlined to survive in space, free of any weighty flowers, powder, amber or resins. If I were to visualize it as a person, it would be Michael Fassbender’s character in Prometheus, David, a sleek android with a ferocious intellect and a perfectly smooth, whip-thin physique. Like David, Cuir X is a dove grey suede glove fitted tightly onto an industrial bone structure.
It’s probably nothing new under the sun. People seem divided into two camps – the “Meh, this is nothing special” camp and the “This is pretty damn special” camp, and neither seem able to articulate their reasons that well. But desire is irrational. I can only tell you that Cuir X wears like a slick of smoked single cream on my skin. It’s sexy. I want to eat myself when I’m wearing it.
But it costs €160. And for that type of investment, it had better be a long-term thing and not just a crush. I wouldn’t buy a horse or marry a man without first looking at his teeth, lifting his forelocks, and doing a thorough inspection of his undercarriage, so I’m going to do the same due diligence with Cuir X.
I mean, who’s to say that my desire for Cuir X isn’t just a flash in the pan? After all, I own many suede or “fine cuir” fragrances and at some point or another, I thought that I couldn’t live without them either. I don’t want to engage in anymore suede bed-hopping. I want a long-term commitment.
So. I’m going to test and re-test all the suede perfumes I own or once tested and wrote off, and if I still love Cuir X above all the others, I will buy it. That is a promise to myself. First of my list is a re-test of Parfum d’Empire’s Cuir Ottoman by the same perfumer (Marc-Antoine Corticchiato) – I had originally written it off, but if so many people say that Cuir X is basically a modernized snippet of Cuir Ottoman, then I owe it to myself and my wallet to give it another try (seeing as it’s about €40 cheaper).
A friend said that it is 96.5% similar to Cuir de Lancome at the top (which, honestly, it is) but then diverges towards the heart. I can confirm this – despite a similar top note, Cuir de Lancome is more floral and has a soft powder to it that Cuir X does not. But there are other suede perfumes. And lots of time. I have patience and an Excel spreadsheet.
Crushes are unreliable and desire can ebb away as quickly as it comes. Let’s see which way this goes.
Recently I had the great experience of testing all four perfumes in the sample kit offered by Anatole Lebreton. You can order the sample set here for €6.50 delivered within Europe (which is a great deal!). Here are my thoughts:
Bois Lumiere begins with a green, slightly wet honey – a bit dirty, as if it’s just passed from the arse-end of a bee onto your skin. But that slightly awkward phase passes quickly, transitioning smoothly into a soft, dry haze of a scent – a sort of paean to lazy summer days spent lying amongst the tall meadow grasses, making daisy chains with your children. Tender and melancholic, Bois Lumiere pairs a sour-ish honey with sun-bleached woods and a dry immortelle note that smells more like dried hay than the usual maple syrup. What is interesting is that these slightly green-gold hay notes get submerged into a thick pool of beeswax, the whole scent turning on a dime from dry grass one moment to molten wax the next.
The notes make it sound like it’s heavy – but it’s not. It’s a luminous, almost transparent wear, with a scent close to the feel and smell of the steam coming off a cup of chamomile tea. In fact, when I sniffed this blind, I thought the immortelle was actually chamomile – there is a dried hay aroma to both. There is a charming rustic feel to Bois Lumiere, a sort of idealized picture of a day out in the country. I find this to be a characteristic of the four Anatole Lebreton perfumes I’ve tested – they all paint a very specific landscape or scene, using childlike brush strokes in the faux-naïve style to bring out primitive emotions and memories in the wearer. They’re real heart-tuggers, these perfumes.
Since it is a honey scent, is it animalistic? Well, yes, but only in the sense that the honey we eat at breakfast still has the heavy scent of the bee about it. Bois Lumiere is suggestive in the same way as the rose-honey-wax notes in Cologne Pour Le Soir are: not smelling of either urine or sex, but of the sweet and sour aroma of silk stockings slowly peeled from heated flesh, complete with the enticing scent of clean female fur at the end of a long day. That Bois Lumiere ends up in the same flurry of the warm vanillic resin of benzoin is another line drawn to the wonderful Cologne Pour Le Soir. Is there room for another slightly sour, slightly animalic honey-beeswax-benzoin perfume in my life? Maybe, just maybe…..
L’Eau de Merzhin
L’Eau de Merzhin is the standout of the Lebreton line, in my opinion. The opening has all the dewy, wet, greenness of real-life plants and grasses, as well as the unpretentious cheerfulness of meadow flowers like daffodils, mimosa, and wood violets. It is an opening thick with pollen and crawling with life.
It also strikes me that this could be the inverse of Bois Lumiere, in that L’Eau de Merzhin starts off in the damp undergrowth of a meadow at dawn and Bois Lumiere is the same meadow at high noon, complete with the honeyed smell of sun-baked hay. The opening is almost hallucinogenic in its dripping-wet, juicy ripeness, and I’m reminded of the breath-taking beauty of other famous floral openings, such as De Profundis and Ostara. Despite myself, I am moved, oh, I am moved! I am such a sap for openings like this.
L’Eau de Merzhin loses most of this stemmy verdancy when it transitions into the heart, which seems (to me) to share a common accord with Bois Lumiere, specifically that steamy chamomile tea or sun-baked hay aspect. But where the hay in Bois Lumiere is wrapped up in a sweet, molten beeswax and syrupy, grassy immortelle, giving it a sort of golden, lazy afternoon sort of atmosphere, the hay or chamomile tea aspect here is greener and more herbal. I sense the juicy, snapped-stalk touch of angelica here. Heading off into the drydown, the galbanum adds its pine-like coolness, as well as a touch of lime peel.
It’s great. Something about the midsection gives me pause for thought, though, as it reminds me strongly of the mossy, slightly soapy neroli-inflected musk in the dry down of Acqua di Parma’s Colonia Assoluta, even though there don’t seem to be any notes connecting the two. Perhaps there is some unlisted white musk in this, or even some neroli, who knows? Anyway, the mind association, however tenuously or incorrectly made, happens to be a pleasant one, as I’ve owned and loved Colonia Assoluta in the past. I would actually consider getting a bottle of L’Eau de Merzhin in the summer as a replacement for my Assoluta – I think it would work brilliantly, me horsing around with the kids on the beach, and smelling like salty hay, wet green grasses, and moss.
Despite what I’ve said about the greenness of this fragrance, though, the prevailing feel in the dry down is that of a sweet, grassy creaminess – there’s no sharp green sting in the tail here, just an utterly comfortable wear that happens to evoke a dew-wet meadow and the shadows of a forest edging it.
Incarnata is supposed to evoke the scent of a vintage lipstick, and for a few moments it does, with the quasi-stale mien of cosmetic wax created by that clash of sweet violet (or rose) and stern, grey orris root we’ve seen before in every cosmetic scent from Misia to Lipstick Rose. The only difference is that Incarnata ramps this lipstick accord to the nth degree, and it’s rather fun feeling like you’re being pressed up against a wall by a giant tube seething with violet ionones and iris rhizomes. It’s a lipstick on steroids, yo.
The heart is something I’m not so keen on. If this lipstick was a person, the middle section would be that awkward teen phase, complete with angry outbursts and the occasional bout of violence. Basically, Incarnata sidesteps the pillow-soft landing normally used in lipstick scents and instead pairs a rather black, aggressive myrrh with a sharp raspberry leaf note and a green-ish amber, fusing them into a sharp, almost mint-like green resinousness that slices through the cloud of lipstick prettiness like a shark fin.
The resin adds vigour and backbone to what might otherwise be (eventually) a very bland cosmetics accord. It’s bright and fresh, which is not something you can normally say about myrrh or amber. But on the other hand, the slight mint and vetiver undertones are simply unpleasant to my nose – there is something too jutting about the combination. I am left feeling like I am wearing a smear of old lipstick, cut with the brackish, stale vase water from a bunch of mint that someone left out on the kitchen windowsill for too long. I feel a bit cheated – I came into this expecting lipstick and a bed stuffed with rose petals and white musk with which to break my fall, but instead I’ve cut my foot on a broken bottle.
The drydown is a return to the lipsticky waxiness of the start, but now dialed down to a hush and supported by a very fine, iris-tinted suede (or suedois) base. It is creamy and slightly sweet, with only trace amounts of the green amber, resinous myrrh, and sharp raspberry notes still apparent here and there.
Still, though – that awkward midsection…hmmmm. Given my fondness for lipstick fragrances, it’s possible that I could train myself away from my aversion to the heart notes. But it gives me pause for thought. I think Incarnata is a scary, massive lipstick up front, which is what I like about it, but it loses the plot after the topnotes fade away. Half the point about lipstick fragrances is that they’re supposed to be taken at face value – they are fun, beautiful in a simple, girlish way, and we are not supposed to try and make a more worthy scent out of them. Incarnata tries to inject a dose of salt and resin and beardy intellectualism into my beloved lipstick wax and it just ain’t happening. It’s a good fragrance alright, maybe too ambitious for the genre it’s shooting for. Ultimately, it’s just not to my personal taste.
Wow – what a massive opening! L’Eau Scandaleuse barrels out of the bottle like an enraged bull, all gasoline-soaked tarpaulins and leather chaps a la Knize Ten, its power coming from a turbo-charged tuberose that smells like smoked, charred rubber. Fuel, rubber, leather, smoke – it’s all there, upfront, ready to knock you off your feet. It’s an impressive opening, making me think briefly of the opening to Lonestar Memories with its orangey creosote note and rubber-tire-on-a-fire accord.
But like with Lonestar Memories, L’Eau Scandaleuse loses all its interesting, smoky, ugly rubber bits – the bits that make it interesting – very quickly, collapsing into a pleasant orange blossom-driven leather with a musky tuberose support. I want more drama! More smoke! And for longer! Maybe I should just bite the bullet and buy Knize Ten or Lonestar Memories.
Later on, L’Eau Scandaleuse reminds me strongly of Tubereuse 3 by Histoires de Parfums, which I own and like, but have to be in the mood for. The rubbery leather chypre under-dressing continues to be interesting to me, because the rubber cuts the creaminess of the tuberose and the soapiness of the orange flower. To me, this small kernel of leather smells very much like the stiff brown coat leather (with mossy, coriander-leaf undertones) in my vintage Jolie Madame and Miss Balmain – that leaf-mulchy, murky brown-grey-green type of leather accord that feels stout and old-fashioned. It’s very 1970’s actually, and I like it. But – ack! Do you spot a common refrain here? L’Eau Scandaleuse reminds me too much of perfume that I already know and love. It’s beautiful but lacks the stinging slap of the new.
All in all, four very solid, even beautiful perfumes by Anatole Lebreton, with a classicizing bent and a respect for quality materials that is very evident. Everyone should test these, especially if you are someone who has seen what other non-classically trained perfumers have had to say in the past few years, such as Liz Moores of Papillon, and Hiram Green, and are excited to see what another talented, passionate perfume maker can add to that conversation.