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Francesca Bianchi Lost in Heaven and The Black Knight

30th October 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Mark Frost from Pixabay

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Neela Vermeire Creations Niral: A Review

11th April 2018

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

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Tom Ford Fucking Fabulous: A Review

9th February 2018

 

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.

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Strangelove NYC: silencethesea, meltmyheart, & deadofnight

5th February 2018

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

 

But you’d be wrong.

 

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Belles Rives by La Parfumerie Moderne: A Review

4th February 2018

 

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

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Hiram Green Voyage

2nd February 2016

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.

Green Floral Suede

Histoires de Parfums Olympia Music Hall

30th January 2016

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.

Iris Leather Suede

Serge Lutens Daim Blond

17th January 2016

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.

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