Le Labo Ylang 49 is a scent that gives me some serious cognitive dissonance. I keep wearing it and trying to figure out why, and this is what I’ve been able to come up with:
I hadn’t understood how big a role that cultural misappropriation, or rather the perception of cultural misappropriation, played in the evaluation of attars until I read a comment on a Basenotes interview I did with JK DeLapp of Rising Phoenix Perfumery, which read as follows: “Looking forward to trying it and appreciate the perspective on Attars, but also giving the side-eye to another American appropriating an other’s work and culture and claiming he knows better and can do better.”
Funny gif aside, he is making the point that only people of Eastern culture (Indian, Far East, of the Islamic or Hindi faiths, etc.) truly understand how to make an attar, and that Westerners doing it is either a cynical cash grab or a case of cultural misappropriation.
This comment, whether founded or not, raises the crucial question of how attar perfumery is perceived in the West. I have noticed a certain awestruck tendency towards attars by Westerners, a kind of mass reverence for the genre, as if all attars and oils hitting our shores were uniformly possessed the magic of the Orient simply because they originated there. This is rubbish, of course.
First of all, speaking as someone who has tested hundreds of attars and mukhallats from almost every major brand from Amouage to Surrati, I can tell you that there is as much dreck coming out of the East as there is from the West. I’d estimate the percentage of truly sublime attars or mukhallats at about 5-10% of the mass, which is roughly equal to the hit rate in Western perfumery. Unfortunately, because these oils carry mysterious names, come in a little gold bottle, and are from an exotic-sounding house like Rasasi or Al Haramain, the consumer is psychologically primed to find them amazing even if they’re aren’t. Even Amouage has attars that are dull, nasty, or just plain unimpressive.
Second, it’s not the where (the East) that counts, it’s the who. The best quality attars out there are not being made by the big Gulf or Indian brands in the East but by small-batch artisans with a mostly Western background and upbringing. Sultan Pasha, Ensar of Ensar Oud, JK DeLapp, Al Shareef Oudh, Russian Adam, Dominique Dubrana, and now Andy Tauer – these are all people who, no matter whether they are Muslim or not, are Western by birth, location, or background.
I mention this because although some people seem to think it is the exclusive preserve of Easterners to make attars, these days it is actually mostly Westerners that take the care to distill oils in the old manner, hand-blend and macerate formulas, and source the purest raw materials. I like to think that they are taking a certain Western propensity towards precision, authenticity, and attention to detail to bear on an old tradition of perfumery.
And now Andy Tauer, himself an artisan in the genre of Western perfumery, has joined this elite group. In a way, it’s a natural fit: Tauer already mixes everything for his perfumes by hand (in a similar fashion to blending an attar) and as a longstanding user of resins, sandalwood, and jasmine, he would have all the necessary contacts in the Middle East to source the materials needed for this.
Attar AT is excellent work. It succeeds both as an attar and as an atmospheric set piece in the Tauer manner; it contains exotic raw materials but somehow conjures up more of that tough old Americana (cowboy boots, pilgrims, vast open spaces of the American plains) than it does the East. It opens up as an extract of pure boot leather, with a dense wall of fuel-like jasmine, birch tar, and castoreum-driven leather hitting the nose all at once.
But despite the tarry creosote-like tone and the fact that Tauer has used materials like this before, mainly in Lonestar Memories and L’Air du Desert Marocain, Attar AT does not make me think of his other perfumes. The leather, although smoky, is smooth and dark, and, crucially, completely free of competing notes like amber or citrus. There is no Tauerade. It is powerful and concentrated at first, but soon becomes very quiet and almost linear. A rubbery jasmine appears just past the opening notes, relieving, albeit briefly, the almost matte darkness of the leather accord.
As an aside, it’s funny how noses differ: my husband smelled this and immediately said that there was jasmine in this, as well as a little bit of oud. I, on the other hand, can only smell the jasmine briefly (it is similar to the phenolic jasmine used in the topnotes of Anubis by Papillon, for reference), and the impression of oudiness is only a background one, playing second fiddle to the leather. However, at a distance and at certain points of the attar’s development, it has something of the leathery, fermented smokiness that I associate with oud oil. In general, I think it’s fair to say that Attar AT genuinely has an oud-like tone to it at times, but that it in no way dominates.
Perception of sweetness seems to be subjective, but I’d peg Attar AT as being un-sweet, which is not to say that it is piercingly dry or sour. It is more a question of lacking sweetness in the form of amber or a syrupy floral note; if you know the sappy, sooty darkness of perfumes such as Heeley’s Phoenicia or Le Labo Patchouli 24, then you will know what I mean – an unsentimental, un-sweet darkness that nonetheless possesses so much texture and energy that it never tires the nose. Dusty, dark woods in the base only confirm this impression. There is no creamy sandalwood or welcoming amber in the drydown to placate the sweet tooth, only a continuation of the main accord of dark, smoky birch tar leather.
As an attar, Attar AT starts off very strong and dense, but soon loosens up into something much softer and quieter. It wears close to the body and doesn’t project much. However, longevity is excellent. So far, so standard for an attar. But people will want to know if there is anything of Tauer’s synthetic signature in Attar AT: my take is that it doesn’t feel synthetic to my nose at all, but be aware that birch tar in high concentration can have a bitter, metallic sharpness to it that some noses may interpret as synthetic. The only hint of something unnatural comes when you try to wash it off, and then (only then) something synthetic does linger on the piece of skin you’ve just washed.
Masculine? Yes. I’d even go so far as to say that this is super-macho, especially during the first couple of hours when the leather is blazing streaks across the sky. Attar AT is more evocative (for me) of the landscapes of the American West than of the deserts of the East; something about it celebrates the good-natured but tough manliness of the men who had to conquer large stretches of the American West on horseback, hungry and alone. This is a theme that seems to course through much of Andy’s work.
Having said that, there are plenty of women who like this sort of dry, unemotional scent, and I count myself as one of them. Overall, this is a great *masculine* attar for a very reasonable price, and also yet another addition to the attar genre that proves that you don’t have to be Muslim or be located in the East to make an attar that smells authentically, genuinely good.
Notes: animalic leather, birch tar, Java vetiver, dark dry woods, sandalwood, hints of Jasmine, cistus, and castoreum
If you’d told me that I’d be considering investing €95+ in a coffret of perfumes from candle maker Cire Trudon, I’d have been skeptical. It’s not that I doubt a company more known for its candles would be capable of producing good perfumes – after all, Diptyque has managed it – but based on personal experience, any time 5 or more niche perfumes are released at the same time by a brand, it usually features one or more of the following problems:
- The perfumes are a paint-by-numbers rundown of popular niche themes – there will be an oud, a leather, a rose, and so on, every single perfume feeling like a retread of a perfume I already own
- There will be one stand-out perfume, the basket into which all the eggs have been placed, which means that you get stuck with 4 or 5 “also rans”, or fillers
- Lack of thought put into the execution or skipping corners on quality in order to rush all perfumes to market at once
But none of these problems appear here. Cire Trudon hired really good perfumers, among them Lyn Harris and Antoine Lie, and obviously told them to take their time. And although the perfumes are not bold or experimental, they are more abstract than the perfumes in the main Diptyque line (Tam Dao et al).
I won’t belabor the Diptyque comparisons too much, because they’ve been in the fragrance game for decades now and that would be unfair; but I will point out that the Cire Trudon exhibits a very Diptyque-ian naturalness of feel (despite being, like Diptyque, mixed media perfumes). I think that last point will be important for people who find modern woody ambers to be too overbearing.
Furthermore, a huge point in Cire Trudon’s favor: they have issued these fragrances both as standalone scents and as a coffret of 5 travel sprays of 10ml each, thus making the range perfumista-friendly. It’s a smart move, and I’m willing to guess that this, coupled with the wave of positive reviews that have been emerging for the perfumes, will give this launch a nice boost in an extremely crowded market. Not many fragrance friends I know would pay full retail on a €180 bottle of scent, especially from a new-to-fragrance company: it’s too much of a risk and we all already own way too much perfume. But 5 bottles of only 10ml each for €95? Now that’s a different proposition. That gives us perfume whores the variety we crave, in quantities we actually have a hope of consuming within our lifetime, and at a price that is not too much to swallow.
There is no redundancy in the Trudon line at all, no thematic or note overlap that might stall a purchase. My only hesitation comes as a result of a certain tendency towards linearity in the perfumes, as well as slight familial resemblances to other perfumes I already own. However, I’ve smelled enough perfumes to know that many of these similarities are just a happy accident of arranging similar notes or materials together in a composition. Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of niche perfumes that are ghostly (and probably entirely accidental) doppelgangers of others.
In some cases, this accidental similarity works in the perfume’s favor. For example, my favorite of the coffret, Olim, composed by Lyn Harris, is a clear descendant of the Shalimar/Jicky family. I have long accepted that I am the kind of person who buys not only Shalimar but its every relative, including Fate Woman, Angelique Encens, Opus 1144, and Musc Ravageur, regardless of the obnoxious overlapping that this incurs in my modest wardrobe. So, I was always going to love this. And I do.
Olim first most closely resembles Jicky in its clashing, slightly sour combination of fresh lavender and creamy, powdery benzoin. But there is also a distinct resemblance to Opus 1144 in its sparkling, fizzy bergamot sweetened into a lemony sherbet by the elemi resin. Its candied lemon-and-lime opening might take some time to get used to, but lovers of Refresher Bars will find it familiar.
Olim has a beautifully resinous drydown, full of earthy myrrh and fat, powdery benzoin, and is quite hotly spiced with clove. It feels compositionally similar to Jicky, Shalimar, and Opus 1144 in its play of brightness (sherbet, lemon, bergamot, lavender) over darkness (the earthy myrrh and benzoin). In its final blaze of spice on the skin, it strikes me that it is also similar to one of Lyn Harris’ own compositions, Fleur Oriental, which puts its own spin on the golden, balsamic Shalimar model with a spark of dry, hot carnation.
I can see myself slipping Olim quite easily into a “Shalimar” day, where I typically start off with a spritz of Fleur Oriental, then move onto Iris Oriental or Opus 1144, finally finishing off with the PDT or parfum version of Shalimar. I love deliberately blurring of the lines between these perfumes and finishing the day in an expansive aura of glittering benzoin, myrrh, vanilla, bergamot, and herbs, one pasted on top of another. I’m MacGyvering what I have to make an über-Shalimar, and it smells incredible.
Lyn Harris also composed II, pronounced (and sometimes written as) Deux. II is a fresh, green aromatic fragrance that clearly revolves around the use of fig leaf, although it is not listed. Fig leaf in perfumery smells resinous, fresh, and more like freshly-peeled lime peel aspect of galbanum than the milky, sappy smell of cut fig wood: Diptyque’s Philosykos, for example, focuses far more on the milky, coconutty facets of the entire tree rather than just the green leaf itself. Deux far more closely resembles the sharp, citrusy greenness of Annick Goutal’s Ninfeo Mio, a perfume I once owned but quickly swapped away because of the throat-catching sourness of its cassis drydown.
II (Deux) sidesteps the urinous, sharp tones of the cassis problem in Ninfeo Mio, and bolsters the juicy greenness of the fig leaf with a lot of what smells to me like tomato leaf. Either way, II is a perfume that smells pleasantly of a kitchen garden after a gentle shower: dewy, crisp, and green by way of snapped stalks and crushed bean pods. I like II in particular because it is vegetal without being harsh or sour. The base of the scent, mostly Ambroxan, feels like a gust of salty air from outside, and simply aerates the greenery without leaving a bitter chemical aftertaste. Tastefully done.
It’s difficult to make a church incense scent that stands out in a field crowded with giants: Avignon, LAVS, Cardinal, Bois d’Encens, and Casbah tower over the genre, and all newcomers are inevitably measured against them. I am not terribly fond of church incense genre, a lesson learned only after buying a few of those above-listed stalwarts, but then again, I suspect that most Catholics have something of a quixotic relationship with the aroma of lit resin. Having said that, I far prefer Mortel above most in the genre, and it is for these specific reasons:
- It feels completely natural on my skin. Even in the much-lauded Bois d’Encens, the peppery Iso E Super bothers me, and a recent entrant, Mandala by Masque Fragrance, was loaded with such a large dose of a potent woody amber that it defeated my nose in an hour. When I see “meditative” in the description of a fragrance, I equate that with peacefulness and naturalness: unfortunately, many brands equate it with the soaring reach of woody ambers or IES, and thus disturb my sense of peace.
- Rather than being soapy, cold, or “spiritually elevating”, Mortel is warm and full in feel. The brand calls Mortel “erotic” but I interpret this more as a sort of grounding, animal-like feel that comes from the dusty labdanum that plays the starring role in the scent; it smells like resin combed directly combed out of a goat’s hair. Golden, warm, balsamic, dusty, spicy – these are the words I’d use to describe labdanum, and these words also define the feel of the fragrance.
- Although the fragrance includes frankincense, the topnotes of Mortel do not smells fresh, pine-like, or peppery, as in many frankincense-dominated fragrances. Instead, it plunges straight for the warmer myrrh and labdanum in the heart. I think that many church incenses use frankincense and elemi to impart a certain airy, cathedral-filling brightness to the topnotes, in an attempt to make us feel spiritually elevated. Mortel, lacking this hauteur, is more down to earth and less reverential in tone, which of course makes it far easier to wear for a church-o-phobe like me.
- I have no idea why I’ve taken to bullet-pointing this review, but like they say on Countdown, I’ve started so I’ll finish: Mortel pleases me because it gives me the smokiness of resin without the stone coldness of a church pew. If you like the idea of a very warm, natural-smelling incense fragrance that will make you feel meditative and restful without making you feel like you’re in church, then do give Mortel a try.
I love a good smoky fragrance, but it’s hard to get right. Le Labo Patchouli 24 satisfies me on almost every level, but its marshy, vetiver-led drydown sometimes turns to runner’s sweat on my skin, so I have to think carefully before putting it on. I love the sweet, glazed-ham smokiness of Fireside Intense by Sonoma Scent Studio, but sometimes I think I can taste a rather nasty aromachemical up front, like a shot of liquid smoke one puts in BBQ sauce (I can live with it, though). Bois d’Ascese by Naomi Goodsir is too much for me, an unrelenting plume of opacity.
Revolution really gets the smoke right, and as far as I can tell, it’s because there’s a clever balance between black, dry smoke (licorice root, charcoal, soot), green, herbal smoke (cade oil, papyrus, pine), and white, creamy smoke (mainly elemi). Creamy might sound like an odd word to use, but it really does strike me that way. Elemi smells lemony and bright, but also creamy and vaguely floral, in some compositions. It also smells like the white ash that’s left after a piece of resin burns away completely.
This balance of elements means that while Revolution smells green and coniferous, it also smells like ash rubbed into butter. I can see where the gunsmoke reference comes in – a bright, dry pepper note fizzes on top, giving the composition a sense of excitement and movement, but it’s quite subtle (not unlike the way pepper is used in L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Amour Nocturne to suggest gunpowder). I appreciate Revolution because it’s both atmospheric and wearable, which is not as easy as it sounds. Consider the set piece that is Memo’s Russian Leather for a more heavy-handed treatment of the same theme.
Bruma is perhaps my least favorite of the bunch, but I’m struggling to say why. Perhaps it’s because of the dissonance between the ad copy the brand provides and my actual experience of the scent. It’s worth noting the original brand copy here, so as to be as clear as possible:
“Bruma contains a distinguished, almost animal-like sensuality. In the night, a feminine rider draws inner strength from the elements that surround her: her horse and the depth of the forest at night seem to give her a magnetic and carnal aura. Bruma (“solstice” in Latin) is intrinsically tied to the sun. And to royalty. An icy solstice, Bruma feeds on the moon and the forest to evoke the inner metamorphosis of a character in contact with the nature surrounding her.” (Source: Fragrantica)
To me, that kind of language implies something more dramatic and forceful than what actually transpires. Bruma is a very pretty violet and iris cosmetic powder scent layered over a fruity apple suede base, not a million miles removed from what you’d get if you were to spray Chanel’s Misia on top of I Miss Violet by The Different Company or even Traversee du Bosphore by L’Artisan Parfumeur. They all share a delicious “I could drink this as liqueur” quality.
There is, however, an oddly ashy, peppery core to Bruma that does not appear in the other fragrances I mentioned, and for a time, I was close to defining this as Tuscan Leather-lite (there is a similarly sawdusty texture that links the two). But this ashen portion of the scent melts away quite quickly, leaving the deliciously fruity violet suede in its place. The drydown has a nutty, chewy lokhoum flavor to it that I truly enjoy: picture a violet lozenge of Turkish delight dusted in powdered sugar.
It’s a good fragrance, but I feel like I am missing a trick when I compare my experience with the brand copy. I felt the same way about Times Square by Masque Fragranze, which I enjoy as a syrupy apricot and lipstick scent, but completely fail to grasp the more exciting garbagey or sinful hooker stuff referenced in the descriptions. Both are kind of less than advertized, like when you see a trailer for a movie that looks great, and then you go and see the movies and realize that the trailer had all the exciting bits.
That’s a minor gripe, though, because there’s not a bad one in the bunch. A very well-thought-out debut by Cire Trudon, therefore, and its wallet-friendly coffret deserves to be very popular at Christmas or for gifting to oneself as a little treat. I personally find many occasions for rewarding myself, like, say, finishing a review or an article, so having finished this blog piece, excuse me while I go hover my cursor over the buy button on that nifty little coffret. Yes, I have too much perfume. But no, I can never have enough perfume.
I read somewhere that Sarah Jessica Parker wanted her new perfume to smell like contraband, hence the name Stash. But the first image that jumped to mind when I heard it was the abbreviation of “mustache” and the association has stuck. The mustache association turns out to suit the perfume perfectly – it’s as sexy and androgynous as a pretty girl dressed in drag for the night, fake mustache included.
Stash starts off as dry as a bone, with a bitter, peppery cedar dressed up with a sinus-clearing sage note. There’s a faintly watery-milky green note floating around in there that reminds me somewhat of the green violets in Santal 33 and the minty fig leaf in Santal Massoia, but the green note doesn’t direct any of the focus away from the dry, masculine woods. Add in some frankincense and what emerges is a creature in the same mold as Kyoto by Comme des Garcons – a stripped-down, minimalist cedar-incense with a tinge of something green and resinous.
My feelings about this are mixed. On the one hand, I think that Sarah Jessica Parker has succeeded in making a fragrance that is as anonymous and androgynous as Santal 33 and Kyoto – perfect for that low-key sexy vibe that Manhattanites go nuts for. It shares that same intimate, but at the same time oddly room-filling woody radiance that makes people wonder if you’re wearing perfume or if it’s just your skin and clothes that smell so good. The sage note, in particular, gives that witchy impression of a good, cleansing smoke-out to drive away djinns.
But the flip side of that premise is that Stash is a perfume that smells better at a distance than up close, on the skin. It’s a more of a scent of an ambiance – a gift to other people in your vicinity – than a pleasure for your own nose. None of the elements here truly work for me – I am unenthused about the bitterish cedar (mostly because in recent years, cedar has come to be synonymous with Iso E Super and Cedramber, even when the real stuff has been used, as here) and the dry sage, vetiver, and pepper make me think of dreary generic masculines.
I will give it this: somewhere in Stash’s development, all the dry, woody elements coalesce into a sweet, creamy finish that reads – at a distance – as sandalwood. Sometimes, days later, I catch a whiff of it on my sweaters and I fall in love with it. So I spray it again and am disgruntled, all over again, by the weak, bitter cedar and watery green notes that I find so bony and unsatisfying. Fast forward a few hours, and I am entranced by the creamy cloud that now surrounds my person. I smell warm, approachable, and ready for a hug.
In the end, I also struggle a bit with how to evaluate Stash fairly. It’s like talking about the smart kid who’s eons ahead of his classmates in Grade 1, but bump him ahead to Grade 3, and he struggles a bit. Stash is clearly head and shoulders above other celebrity perfumes – it is cool, sexy, androgynous, and not at all sugary or dumb. Bumping it up into the niche category, among whose brethren Stash really should be evaluated, and I find that it still holds up pretty nicely against similar stuff like Santal 33, Santal Massoia, Kyoto, and Tam Dao. It doesn’t stand out in that company. But it doesn’t fall too far behind either.
I’ve been wearing it a lot. It’s a perfect little thing for autumn – slip it on, forget all about it, and go kick over some leaves.
Price-wise, Stash is a much better deal than any of those androgynous, woody-incense perfumes in the niche category, and so I recommend it thoroughly to people who are into this type of scent but who want to achieve the same effect with less money. I paid €32 for a 30ml bottle, shipped over to me free from the UK Superdrug. I just found out that you can buy it in Boots, but you pay €45 for 30ml. God, people in the Republic of Ireland get completely shafted on price – better buy direct from the UK, if you can.
I left Ireland for Bosnia when I was 22, without so much as a backwards glance. Over the following 16 years when people asked me if I missed home, I would always be startled and say yes – automatically – but it wasn’t quite true. I just never thought of home as being anywhere other than wherever I was right then.
I never realized that the gene for “home” was carried deep within my DNA until one dark night when I stepped out of a snow-stalled car into the deserted crossroads of a tiny village in Bosnia and was hit in the solar plexus by a waft of smoke from a coal fire.
Not just one – dozens of coal fires. All sending plumes of sweet-smelling smoke into the black, starless sky. In my mind’s eye, I could see walls covered with centuries of soot, men huddling round the heart smoking cigarettes, and the fingers of women putting more coal on the fire.
My mother’s fingers, black with soot. In that moment, every cell in my body ached to be back home, watching the familiar sight of her white fingers gingerly placing another coal on the flames, egged on by her always-cold children. Was she sitting beside her fire now, thinking of her first child, wondering if she was cold?
Comme des Garcons Black is the smell of home to me. It smells of coal dust, sweet woodsmoke, frankincense, dry cedar logs, licorice, and finally, in its dying moments, a salt-encrusted leather belt. Not of these things directly but of these things burned on a fire and sent out into the crisp, cold air of a Northern night sky as a single curl of smoke. Every time I spray it on, I experience a joy like that of launching into a sudden run.
If I were being picky, I’d say that the projection and longevity and projection of Black leave much to be desired. But I’m content with this in a quasi eau de cologne format. I’d be afraid that any attempt to make Black stronger would compress all the air out of its airy weightlessness. I like that Black takes the form of coal dust mites, shifting as you move; acting as your own personal force field.
I’ve long been looking for a smoky, woodsy birch tar fragrance that hits this exact spot – the coal-fire-in-Bosnia spot. I love Le Labo Patchouli 24 for coming close, but the vanilla syrup makes me pause, and Bois d’Ascese is far too dense and acrid. Memoir Man does smoky, charred woods and Frankincense beautifully, but it has a somber, sulky feel that might prove difficult. Black, to me, is what you might get if you were to put all these perfumes through a Photoshop filter and apply a filter to reduce the density by 70%. Black does indeed smell truly “black” but it’s more a sheer wash of color rather than a thick daub of oil.
I love it. It’s the first Comme des Garcons perfume for which I’ve been able to locate a heartbeat. I admire their modernist approach but something in their stripped-down aesthetic usually leaves me cold. Here there’s both an emotional core and a minimalism that’s entirely in keeping with the house signature. Maybe the heart bit is all me, but I do feel there’s something warm and human about Black.
Maurice Roucel, you old roué! I think I’ve figured out your game. You made a beautiful musk-vanilla-amber template in the lab one day, and you thought to yourself, “Maurice, old boy, this ain’t half bad! I can get at least three good fragrances out of this.” You dialed up the rude bits on the template to arrive at Musc Ravageur, and you sanitized it with cotton and heliotrope and doll’s head plastic to come up with Helmut Lang EDP.
Le Labo comes a knocking, and you decide, you know what – let’s see if we can’t wring a last drop of juice from this old sponge. We’ll name it after an ingredient that isn’t noticeably in it, let’s say labdanum, so as to give those contrary hipster mofos at Le Labo their jollies. Add a pinch of cinnamon, a touch of powder, and my standard musky-ambery-vanilla, and BAM! Everybody’s happy.
Well, not me, Maurice, not me. The last imprint of the well-used template is too faint to leave much of an impression. It’s a midget in a hall of giants. Civet, leather – castoreum? Pfff, please. Shalimar has more underpantsy funk than this. The trouble is, of course, that Le Labo Labdanum 18 can only cower in the shadow of its more outgoing big brother, Musc Ravageur, and its more distinctive, characterful little sister, Helmut Lang EDP. And if I want a powdery musk-amber-patchouli scent that smells like skin, I always have the soured-fur delights of L’Ombre Fauve to fall back on. Desolee.