Couteau de Poche means pocket knife in French, a name you’d think has little connection to an American niche perfume brand until you realize they’re based in Brooklyn and suddenly it all makes sense. The brand’s first perfume, Fumabat, costs a hefty $160 for 50mls, which I’m only paying if it’s served to me in a mason jar by a trustafarian with a man bun.
No, no, forgive my good-natured joshing: I’ve only recently let go of my outrage, you see, of having to pay $18 for a spinach frittata the size of an ash tray in Williamsburg earlier this month – it’s not that I don’t understand that the price is the new normal, for both the area and the artisanal side of the niche perfume market.
Regular fragrance fans would find that expensive, but for the trendy young hipster with a job, Fumabat is probably justified as a one-off investment into something that will make them feel unique and offbeat. What we in the fragrance community tend to forget is that while we often buy more than one fragrance per month, there’s a whole market of people out there who don’t buy more than one fragrance per year. And since we’re talking about a high value segment of the market – young professionals with a strong need for differentiation and individuality – as a brand it makes sense to hit them up hard on that one transaction.
Working through on that logic, does it follow that because Fumabat is not aimed at me, I won’t find it special or noteworthy?
Actually, I think Fumabat is pretty striking, although probably not in the way the brand intended. You can read the notes list at the end of this short review if you like, but despite everything pointing to a smoky incense oriental along the same lines as Black Afgano or Sombre Negra, Fumabat actually smells like vintage Opium, specifically the last droplets of vintage parfum that’s evaporated over time until only a smear of brown sludge is left in the vial. Now, what on earth could be going on in this modern, urban, hipster-y perfume to give off such a pronounced retro flavor?
Well, let’s break it down. When first applied, the topnotes smells pleasantly of stale but minty furniture lacquer on old furniture or decorative Chinese fans that have been left to fester in a damp, closed-up room for decades. The slightly airless, varnishy smell make me think of certain aged oud oils at first, but then I realize that the notes are triggering a scent memory that goes further back, to my childhood. It takes me a while to pick apart the associations: there is the handsome smell of soap bars kept in clothing drawers, incense sticks, little sandalwood elephants, patchouli oil, and winter coats with last year’s woodsmoke still embedded in the wool.
Slowly, I follow the train of thought to my stepmother, a half-Danish, half-Macedonian woman with a gypsy spirit and a talent for making every abode smell like her within minutes of arriving. Her name is Snežana, or Snow White, and for me, the smell of vintage Opium is the closest thing in perfume form that matches the exotic-but-homely maelstrom of aroma that accompanies her. She smells of sandalwood, soap, colorful wool, and incense sticks, and so does Opium.
In Fumabat, the direct link is found in its soapy pine and varnishy incense notes, but also quite strongly in the spicy, powdery carnation note that gives Fumabat (and Opium) its balsamic warmth. Actually, from a technical standpoint, it’s possible that the heavy patchouli and oakmoss in the drydown places Fumabat closer to scents such as Paloma Picasso or Norma Kamali Perfume (original) than Opium, but let’s not quibble. The fact is that the strangely vintage “grande dame” perfume vibe will surely strike a familiar chord for anyone that wears or collects the classic patch or spicy sandalwood bombs of the 1970’s.
Oddly, as the perfume hits the base, it shakes off the corduroy-brown glaze of the 1970’s, and stepping out from behind its bushy sideburns, reveals itself to be the smoky frankincense scent I thought it was always going to be, based on the notes. With a dry, sooty Somalian frankincense as matte as charcoal, it reminds me very much of Comme des Garcons’ Black, right down to the licorice twist. Lovely, smoky, satisfying stuff….albeit with zero connection to anything that had gone before.
On a more basic level, Fumabat is a great WTF perfume. You know, one of those madcap, slightly screwy perfumes that play mind games with you, making you wonder if you’ve got your frame of reference right. As a writer, these moments of self-doubt and “lost-ness” are essential to stop myself from crawling too far up my own arse. It’s possible that I return to this a few months down the line and realize that it’s not even that interesting, let alone good, but at least this review will be here to remind me that Fumabat got me going today.
Either way, Fumabat hit right at my emotional gut and connected, which was unexpected, considering the source. I’ll be back in Brooklyn in January, hopefully, so perhaps I’ll swallow the awful indignity of being awkward and un-cool in achingly hip Brooklyn and head round to their place to see them in situ. Let’s just hope they don’t read this poor excuse of a review and block the door.
Notes: green tea, galbanum, mint absolute, Bulgarian black pine, carnation, Somalian frankincense, vetiver root, leather, oakmoss, patchouli