When I first tried Arquiste Ella, in a niche boutique in Bordeaux last autumn, I thought, well, at least I can put this one out of my mind. I had been interested in the 1970’s retro marketing drive behind it and its sexy-sleazy disco bomb reputation, but on the skin, it just felt unresolved and murky.
I haven’t been writing about perfume lately – at least in public. I’ve been writing a book on attars, researching raw materials, writing product descriptions for various perfume sites, and hosting an Aftelier Parfums thread over on Basenotes, but in terms of actual perfume reviews, nada. Maybe at some point, I’ll feel like writing about why I stopped, but not right now.
Not publishing reviews doesn’t mean I have stopped writing or wearing perfume, though. Apart from writing a book, I also write product descriptions for sites such as Luckyscent and Essenza Nobile, so I am lucky enough to smell many of the new releases.
But remove the pressure of blogging and something wonderful happens: you simply wear perfume for the pleasure of wearing it rather than holding it at arm’s length. I can feel some of the original joy I felt in perfume flooding back into me, and it feels, tentatively, like a blessing. Wearing a perfume to evaluate it for a review forces you to step outside of your own enjoyment and consider more objection questions such as structure, longevity, and the situation in which you might wear it. Shedding these criteria feels like taking off tight pants at the end of a long day.
Wearing perfume for myself for a few months has taught me a lot about the way I use, collect, and wear perfume. I no longer want to smell all the new releases right now. I don’t feel the same pressing need to own every single violet fragrance ever made, for, you know, “comparison purposes”. I have become immune to the shiny new gobs of faux-luxe seem to hit the perfume scene every week, clogging up my critical drains and obscuring the view of the really, really good perfume.
My collection instinct has also changed, shifting from “I must smell all the perfume in this category” (which, by the way, also made me buy all the perfume in that category) to “I will buy only the ones worth owning.” My wardrobe is stuffed to the brim with good-but-not-exceptional perfumes – bottles and decants – that I mainly bought with the purpose of educating my nose, building a reference library of smells, and ultimately, writing a review for this blog or elsewhere. That doesn’t feel like a good plan to me anymore, because not least because it runs counter to the blog’s original manifesto of paring things down to only the best and buying less schtuff, but because I really can’t afford to smell all the perfume in the world.
In the interests of doing what I originally set up this blog to do, which was to separate the wheat from the chaff, and pare my collection down to only the truly excellent examples in each category, I will tell you about the perfumes I have smelled in the last 4 months of radio silence that have been truly special in some way. I often smell between 50 and 75 perfumes, samples, and attars over the course of any given month, both in the guise of writing the attar book and writing for perfume sites, and over time, these are the ones that floated to the top, like cream.
In the past, I might have dropped in a quick review and then moved on to the next thing, but the absence of blogging pressure has meant that I could simply return to them over and over again at my own leisure. A perfume is judged in the context of all the other perfume you’ve smelled, and these are the ones that, for me, stand out as exceptional.
Bogue MEM: This is the perfume that made me want to write again in public – not to return to blogging, really, but simply to spread the word about how brilliant it is and how everyone who invests in perfume as art should buy a bottle. I got a sample from Luckyscent and spent the next few days struggling to understand it enough to write about it.
My basic description would be dirty lavender marmalade: Jicky dragged through the quinoa section of the health food store, covered in earth, incense, and floor wax, and lifted up into the air with the malty fizz of champagne. All of this nestled in a burned-sugar floral accord that smells a bit like tuberose but isn’t tuberose, a complex series of smoke and mirrors designed to lead your nose out of its depth.
Unusually for a modern perfume – although this isn’t really a modern perfume – MEM reveals its true complexity in the base, where a silty, musky ambergris lights up all the other elements like a blowtorch. Antonio used real animalics for the base, and it shows. The perfume is complex, beautiful, and abstract, far more so than even Maai. By far one of the most exciting perfumes I’ve put on my skin lately.
Notes (deep breath now): petitgrain, mandarin, grapefruit, 4 different types of lavender, ylang ylang, lily of the valley, white champaca, jasmine grandiflorum, rose damascena, bourbon geranium, vanilla, peppermint, laurel, Siam benzoin, rosewood, sandalwood (santalum album), Himalayan cedarwood, labdanum, aldehydes, ethyl maltol, ambergris, musk, castoreum, civet, amber
Naja by Vero Profumo: A creamy, blond tobacco floral sluiced with the iodine-like astringency of melon rind. Naja reminds me of Le Parfum de Therese and Diorella, not in the way it smells, particularly, but because they all take dense, saturated materials and pass them through a sieve of something salty and aqueous, giving them a luminescence that is particularly French. The dense tobacco of Naja is leavened by this salty, wet fruit note, and underpinned by a bitter, doughy suede note fleshed out with the apricot skin of osmanthus flower. Pulled in two directions, sometimes it feels airy and dusty, other times, thick and chewy.
There is also a sharp spice to Naja that is immensely appealing, something hot, slightly smoky, and carnation-like, but although I can understand the references to Tabac Blond and Habanita, Naja is far stranger and more modern than either – in other words, a creature of its own time.
I sense a dusty, pollen-ish honey texture here too, unsweet and slightly floral, which I conclude is coming from the lime blossom. I don’t know if the effect is deliberate or not, but it is this slightly bitter, dusty honey that links Naja to both Onda and Rozy.
To my nose, there is none of the citric brightness of lime that others seem to be picking up, just the slightly green floral tang of linden honey and that salty, wet fruit note that is too blurry to define as either a melon, an apple, or anything else specific. What I love the most about Naja is its surprising sturdiness, its sense of substance. In each of my wearings, I visualized Naja as a dense square of osmanthus-tobacco lokhoum, striated with saltwater and dusted with an inch-deep layer of green pollen.
Like MEM, Naja is an El Bulli meal full of little trade-offs between texture and taste that will prick your saliva buds and fire up all five of your senses. And like its creator, Naja is as elegant and fierce as a single slash of Russian Red across an otherwise unmade-up face.
Notes: tobacco, osmanthus, lime (linden) blossom, melon
Dryad by Papillon Perfumes: Basically a reworking of vintage Vol de Nuit parfum for modern times, and yes, I understand the impact of my comparison here. To many, Vol de Nuit is the zenith of the art of Guerlain, but to me, it speaks of home. The heart of Dryad reproduces almost exactly the same damp, green narcissus and jonquil accord found in Vol de Nuit (and actually, come to think of it, also the original Miss Dior), and there is a similar support in the form of oakmoss, tarragon, galbanum, and vetiver. But the sage note spins it in a slightly naughty, “witchy” direction. It smells like dark green velvet, with a bluebottle anisic sheen from the tarragon to keep things lively.
Liz Moores calls this a green chypre-oriental, which of course is the same category to which Vol de Nuit belongs. But it diverges in the base. Dryad features none of the sweet, ambery notes found in Vol de Nuit, switching instead to a dry, rubbery galbanum resin that gives off the feel of sage and hay thrown on a bonfire and left to smoke out. It is also not powdery, but it does exhibit the kind of “cut grass” and “lime peel” dustiness that galbanum has.
Supposedly, there’s quite a lot of costus root in this, but thankfully, I can’t smell it. (I’ve never smelled a treatment of costus that didn’t end up smelling like unwashed hair). In fact, I don’t pick up on anything animalic here at all, which is fine with me, because all the focus is kept on those burningly pure green notes. It’s all resin and grass and sage, no soft landing in the form of amber or vanilla. There is something crystalline and focused about it.
Green perfumes are not overly represented in my wardrobe, but I would buy this in a hot second. Dryad has joined the small but exclusive group of green perfumes I truly love, which include Vol de Nuit (Guerlain), Mito (Vero Kern), Romanza (Masque), Vie de Chateau Intense (De Nicolai), Ormonde Jayne Woman, and Sycomore (Chanel).
Notes: narcissus, jonquil, oakmoss, galbanum, labdanum, clary sage, vetiver bourbon, apricot, costus, deer tongue, cedrat, benzoin, tarragon
Vetiver Blanc by Sultan Pasha Attars: I am not a huge fan of vetiver, but wow, Vetiver Blanc is sexy. Straight out of the bottle, it is a creamy emulsion of grass and tropical flowers, with a texture close to coconut cream or butter. The gardenia and tuberose absolutes give up their softer, low-register facets but none of their strident, candied, or rubbery undertones, so the blend stays smoothly earthy, like damp, hummus-rich earth covered with tropical blossoms that have fallen from nearby bushes.
But it’s unmistakably green. The galbanum and the vetiver in Vetiver Blanc run a smoky, rooty thread through the attar, tethering it to the greenery of the jungles and preventing the scent from floating away aimlessly into a pool of pikake island bliss. There is sensuality, but it is reigned in. Which, of course, is what makes this even sexier.
Another welcome surprise: ambergris. The composition of Vetiver Blanc contains 35% real ambergris, procured on the West Coast of Ireland and tinctured by Sultan Pasha himself. It is white ambergris, the highest grade of all, which does not produce much of a scent of its own beyond a certain sweet, sparkling, seawater minerality.
The role that the white ambergris plays in this composition is vital – it causes all the other notes and materials to glow hotly, as if lit by some internal heat source. The effect in this attar is a gauzy halo of buttery white florals and creamy green grasses and resins, all pulsing outwards in concentric circles of scent waves that fill the room and (almost) one’s own mouth.
I find this incredibly beautiful, sexy, and warm; the perfect white floral for white floral avoiders and the perfect vetiver for the vetiver-averse. It rivals both Songes and Manoumalia for their damp, fecund, “tropical island” sensuality, which, if you know those perfumes at all, is really saying something.
Grimoire by Anatole Lebreton: I respect and admire Anatole Lebreton’s work, but Grimoire in particular stands out at being special. Not everyone will like it, and I think it’s fair to say that the perfume has a cool, remote air that means it must select you, not the other way around. Setting out to smell like the thick dust that rises off a book of spells (a grimoire, in French) when closed shut, it combines a set of ashy resin notes with the earthy red-brown dampness of cumin.
It’s a riff on the idea of Gris Clair but better, more successful because the dust tamps down the screech of lavender and makes it feel genuinely restful. It’s also monastically, ascetically dry. But the scent manages to capture dryness without filling the scent with the usual nose-scrapingly dry aromachemicals, for which I’m genuinely grateful.
As a side-note, I’ve recently smelled a couple of perfumes that seek to recreate the feeling or smell of dry, hot dust from a desert. L’Air du Desert Marocain, of course, was the trail blazer in this area, but it’s been followed by two equally costly niche fragrances, namely, Sheiduna by Puredistance and Taklamakan by SHL 777. These two perfumes demonstrate the risk and rewards associated with using the new generation of potently dry, woody-ambery aromachemicals: Sheiduna fails miserably, becoming a white, massively radiant ball of pain to those sensitive to scratchy aromachemicals, and Taklamakan succeeds completely, emitting a low pulse of warm, ambery “sand” and dry patchouli aromas that smell toasted, dry, and yet utterly comfortable to wear and to smell.
In Grimoire, the dryness feels cool and almost ashy. It gains an element of warmth, however, from the rather generous dose of cumin featured in this scent. The cumin adds a nice human touch to the cool dustiness of the lavender and incense, like the sweet, damp, oniony sweat under the arms of an ancient gardener tending a Mediterranean herb garden. The aromatic, simmering heat of the spice and the elemi makes the base of the scent feel hot to the touch, a nice contrast to the cool dryness of the top half. Grimoire is surprisingly easy to wear, and has a natural elegance to it that doesn’t labor any particular point. Have you ever seen the photos of the Italian men coming and going from the Pitti men’s fashion shows in September? This scent is the living embodiment of that.
Notes: bergamot, patchouli, musk, basil, moss, atlas cedar, lavender, elemi, olibanum and cumin
Al’Ghaliyah by Kyara Zen: Al’Ghaliyah, meaning “the most valuable”, is one of the very few rose-oud mukhallats out there that successfully manages to achieve perfect balance between the elements in the blend – a rich, perfumey oud that smells like liquid calf leather, a winey rose with no sourness or sharp corners, and what smells to me like a golden nectar of apricots, peaches, plums, and osmanthus soaking into all the other notes.
It’s important to note that all the elements reach the nose at once, cresting over each over continuously like the swell of a wave. The bright rose has been modulated to run straight through the blend like a piece of thread, so even in the basenotes you can sense its rich, red presence glowing like pulp through the oud and musk. I am unsure whether the succulent fruit notes are wafting out of the oud or the rose, but there is a cornucopia of winey, autumnal fruits to savor here. The fruit notes fade away gently, leaving the rich rose to proceed on its own.
According to Kyara Zen’s Instagram feed, it appears that genuine deer musk grains were macerated and then added to the final blend. If that is true, then it is a clever vehicle to demonstrate to people that natural deer musk does not smell as dirty or as fecal as its recreations sometimes make it out to be. Rather, it is unobtrusively musky, with all the pleasing warmth of a clean, furred animal.
Overall, I am astonished by the richness and depth of this mukhallat, and applaud the skill of the perfumer who managed to corral two or three of the most commonly-used raw materials in attar perfumery and shape them into a form that smells, well, if not new exactly, then at least a 100 times better than other iterations of the same materials. The attar equivalent of a piece of opulent, gold-threaded brocade, Al’Ghaliyah truly one of the most beautiful oils I have smelled on my attar journey. If it ever becomes available again, I will be buying it.
L’Animal Sauvage by Marlou: The minute I smelled this, I had to sit on my hands to stop myself from ordering it. The opening notes contain something of the almost fecal furriness of Serge Lutens Muscs Kublai Khan, but tempered with fresh, sugary orange blossoms, there’s also a thread of milky innocence running through it.
Actually, it straddles the divide between dirty and clean as successfully as Kiehl’s Original Musk, which it somewhat resembles, but the luxe factor is higher in L’Animal Sauvage. I’d add only that, on subsequent wears, I’ve noticed it is even softer and milkier than it at first appeared to me, making it a good contender for a summer musk. I don’t think that I will buy this, not because it’s not gorgeous (it is), but because I’m not buying much perfume these days. Still, it makes me happy indeed that people are still making fragrances like this.
Violet Moss by SP Parfums: I have been testing all the perfumes by Sven Pritzkoleit, and I think that although few are actually wearable, they are very bold, new, and have something to say. They are all a bit harsh at first, and all of them work more as separate accords just smashed together rather than a real, complete perfume, but some of them just nail it. In particular, Violet Moss, which smells like our family holidays to France when the boat would dock in Cherbourg, the aroma of raw petrol on dank harbor water mingling with the foreignness of the air, and the Grey Flannel-type colognes worn by my father’s French colleagues, his fellow customs officers.
There is a strong waft of cigarette smoke darting through the structure too, calling to mind fond olfactory memories of the near-constant stream of smoke from Gitanes and Gauloises on the dock, which only ever added to the exotic, exciting air of newness that greeted us on the other side of the water. If this smell had a name, it was “freedom” and “not Ireland.” Violet Moss represents such a specific smell memory for me that I can barely judge it as a perfume.
Sunmilkflowers is also interesting, a totally weird, nearly repulsive mixture of bitter, green notes and milky caramel, creating a striking duel of fresh-green and sickly-lactonic notes. Challenging stuff, but again, a perfume I am glad to have smelled.
If I were writing a book on how to make it big in niche perfumery, I’d make Dusita a headlining case study. Even the most casual observer of the niche sector would tell you that Pissara Umavijani, the founder of Parfums Dusita, is probably the most astonishing success story of 2016. The niche sector is thick with the self-taught, entrepreneurs, amateur mixologists, and mainstream brands masquerading as niche, but in 2016, Pissara came out of nowhere, swept them all aside, and went straight to the top end of the market, charging between €300 and €400 for a bottle, and completely getting away with it.
Whether the perfumes themselves are any good is almost beside the point. Truth be told, I am more impressed with Pissara Umavijani’s business strategy than the perfumes themselves, but both are worth looking at.
The first thing that Umavijani did right was to align herself immediately with the right partners. The niche and artisan sector is rife with self-taught perfumers, but results are not typically the high-end, polished luxury perfumes that command Roja Dove prices. In partnering up with a very good team at one of the best fragrance labs in Grasse, she was able to ensure that the product itself was as polished as a Bvlgari jewel. And all credit due here – Umavijani is clearly an excellent creative director, taking the time to push her team to produce perfumes that are not commercially safe as Roja Dove’s perfumes, but important, artistic efforts in their own right*.
*Important correction, dated 13/06/2017: The above paragraph hypothesizes that, due to the extraordinary polish of the first three perfumes, it was the Grasse partner lab that formulated the perfumes. However, Pissara has made it clear to me since then that she is the sole perfumer behind the brand, writes her own formulas, and only uses the Grasse partner, Accords et Parfums, for European & IFRA compliance checks. My apologies if my editorializing implied, or led others to infer, otherwise.
From a commercial point of view – branding, product placement, bottle design, graphic design, copy, distribution, and so on – it is also clear that Umavijani knows what she is doing. Every single detail is haute luxe. But the most important thing that Umavijani seems to have understood is this: people need to smell the product in order to enthuse about it. 90% of success in a crowded market such as niche perfumery is simply access. Umavijani set up a very generous sampling scheme whereby for the price of postage from Paris, you would receive three large deluxe samples of each of the perfumes, housed in simple but luxurious black decant bottles.
The sampling scheme ensured that as many people as possible got to smell the perfumes. Since the perfumes are very good indeed, people enthused about them online, and the word spread – suddenly the name of Dusita was everywhere on the Internet. It was a canny investment, and other niche companies looking to enter the market should look to this example.
Companies always gripe about the expense of sampling schemes. And yes, at first glance, they are loss leaders. But Umavijani (or an advisor) had a clear vision as to the precise dividends such a sampling scheme would eventually pay out in terms of brand recognition and customer valuation. Dusita’s sampling program must have cost thousands and thousands of euros, but it was no after-thought. It was a deliberate part of the strategy to get Dusita perfumes talked about in the community, and I bet a large portion of the operational budget was devoted to it.
The second thing that Umavijani did right was social media marketing. Social media engagement is a very tricky thing for niche and indie perfumers, and few get it entirely right. Too much chatter with perfume fans runs the risk of cheapening a brand, and too little wins you a reputation for standoffishness. You want to be available to answer questions and do post-sales follow-up, but it is also important for a brand in the luxury segment of the niche perfume market to preserve at least a little bit of mystique.
Umavijani is always present on social media, always checking to see if she needs to say thank you for a nice review or answer a comment. She has aligned herself with certain influencers and prominent bloggers to help magnify and grow the brand’s presence, but has managed to make her online presence as charmingly non-commercial as possible. She is there to sell, yes, but she manages to make the seams between social media participation and selling thin enough that you don’t feel aggressively marketed to.
Only time will tell how authentic a voice Umavijani will prove to have on the social media networks and throughout the broader community. Authenticity always rings true: I think of perfumers such as Liz Moores, Sarah McCartney, and Andy Tauer who apart from handling all the onerous, day-to-day tasks of their businesses also engage meaningfully with their customers on social media, openly sharing the intimate details of their personal lives and their perfume business with joe schmoes like me and you. It feels like a privilege to be allowed this kind of access, but I know it can’t be easy for them either. Authenticity of voice on social media is very tough to develop and maintain. There’s a line to be walked, and it’s no joke trying to navigate one’s way to it.
One last word, on pricing. Many bloggers say that the only thing that matters is the perfume itself and that the price shouldn’t come into the equation. I think that price plays a very big role in how we (subconsciously or consciously) value a fragrance. Simply put, if something is cheap, we perceive its materials to be cheap. If a perfume costs almost €400, we assume that the very best materials went into it. It’s just the way our prehensile brains work, sorry.
Perfumers can price their products in two ways – production pricing or market pricing. In production pricing, you work backwards from the cost of the materials and man hours, and price the perfume at what it cost to produce (adding in margins for distributors, marketing, one’s own income, etc.). Andy Tauer recently provided an example of what goes into the costing his perfumes, and Laurie Erickson also published a post about the business costs involved in running an artisan perfumery.
On the one hand, this makes things quite clear – you know you are paying more if a precious or rare ingredient was used. On the flipside, exposing one’s own profit margins to your customers opens the door to discussions over how fairly you’ve priced your own talent.
Market pricing, on the other hand, prices a product at exactly what the market is willing to pay for it. A perfume priced at €400 ignores all the details and simply asks the question “Are you worth it?” If you feel that you deserve the luxury of an expensive bottle of perfume, then you will buy it. You won’t quibble about the perfumer’s margins, you know only that this perfume must be absolutely amazing because it costs almost €400.
People in the fragrance community talk grumpily about luxury pricing, but really, we all know that past the €80-100 mark, you are always paying for the prestige, the boasting rights, and not the actual perfume. No perfume costs more than €10 or so to make, anyway. But perfumes priced at luxury prices sell because they play into the perception that a high price means top quality.
Parfums Dusita didn’t play around – they went straight in at Roja Dove prices. That took some guts. But they held steady because they knew that the perfumes were good enough to stand up to the scrutiny of the few for whom the scent actually matters, and satisfy the desire for the exclusive, the pricey, and the haute luxe for the person also buying the $35,000 Rolex.
But Oudh Infini costs €100 more than Issara, so there’s a strange dash of production pricing mixed in there with the market pricing. The price difference is probably supposed to come across to the customer as the marker of quality for the real oud used in the fragrance. That gaping price differential makes me curious as to what they are actually using as the oud note, whereas had they priced it the same as the others, I wouldn’t have cared. But a €100 price difference? That kind of makes it my business, as a consumer. I could speculate that the oud is an expensive new oud captive developed by a laboratory like IFF or Givaudan, or real oud oil from the plantations in Laos (which I’ve been told is so plentiful and consistent in quality that it is sold in liter jars to perfume companies in France). Either way, I doubt that the cost differential actually amounts to €100 per 50mls of liquid.
From a market pricing perspective, though, pricing an oud-based perfume at this much more suggests to the customer that the raw materials are hellishly expensive. It’s a genius move because with a simple (and probably arbitrary) pricing adjustment, you’ve added value to the customer’s perceptions of your brand’s worth as they open their wallet.
Anyway, on to the perfumes themselves! They are all very good and interesting, although not half as interesting to me personally as the brand’s own stratospheric rise.
Oudh Infini has far more of the animal, furred warmth of a pack animal than a tree or resin, so at first my nose thinks it smells heavy deer musk, not oud oil. But then I’m reminded that there are a couple of pure oud oils out there that mimic the characteristics of deer musk, such as Ensar Oud’s Yunnan 2003 oil, which has a furry thickness to it that makes me think I can just reach out my fingers and touch the warm animal in front of me.
It is a brave act, you know, to launch a commercial perfume that smells like this. Those of you who have grown up on farms will not be shocked – neither will people who wear pure oud. But the rest of you? Prepare your nostrils, for Oudh Infini smells intensely of warm sheep, packed ten deep into a shed in winter, the warm (tallow fat) smell of their oily wool mixing with their shit-smeared backsides and the soiled straw beneath. I pick up a faint hint of roses, faded and sour like the emanation from a vase of roses in a locked room. It is not pleasant, it is not pretty, but it has impact.
Past the ferociously animalic, barnyardy opening, creamy sandalwood and vanilla turn the oud into a crottin of goat’s cheese. It’s refined and gentle – as I mentioned once to a friend, like dung strained through a silk stocking.
Oudh Infini does an excellent job of sketching out what one would smell in a real oud oil – evolving slowly from barnyard, feces, pack animals to runny cheese and flowers and herbs. It lacks perhaps only the more complex depth of camphor, smoke, sap, and woods that form the backbone of pure oud oil, but all the other markers are there.
However, and this is a big however, I am having trouble placing Oudh Infini in a hypothetical wardrobe. I love pure oud oil but I also love fragrance compositions that present me with a different, more artistic impression of oud. My trouble with Oudh Infini is that it smells too close to the real oud oil experience for it to succeed purely as an artistic interpretation of the oud theme.
In other words, if I want something that smells like real oud oil, why not (for reasons of cost and others) just go for oud oil? Naturally, personal preferences in terms of how we prefer to wear perfume come into it, but if you are thinking of a real oud oil experience, then there is little else as magical as an essential oil (oud oil) that can give the nose all the complexity of wood, fruit, flowers, dung, soil, and ozone without any help from a fragrance laboratory. If I want to wear a proper perfume based on oud, I’d go for more ambitious, complex perfumes such as Oud Shamash or Oud Osmanthus. They don’t smell as authentic oudy as Oudh Infini but verisimilitude is not what I’m seeking when I wear oud-based perfumes. I want the smoke and mirrors.
Mélodie de L’Amour is, to my nose, a powerful statement on jasmine, the filthy kind that drapes the insides of your nostrils in the matte black ink of pure indole. Very little to differentiate here at first between the flat wall of scatole that rises off a fresh turd and a jasmine decaying right off the vine, which is how all jasmines would be if I had my way. Boy, it fairly pins my ears back. There is the faint breath of rotting fruit to add moistness to the dank, flat tonality here, a peach or pear perhaps, with an undertone of acrylic paint or turps.
Later, it develops a green, rubbery, creamy cheese odor that I assume is gardenia, but it is successfully managed by that wall of jasmine and never approaches the rancid horror of Dame Perfumery’s Gardenia soliflore, which smells like black spots on butter taste in my mouth. Mélodie de L’Amour is the rare instance of a floral that smells more like an animal than a plant, joining the ranks of other bloodsucking florals such as Manoumalia, Rubj, and Une Fleur de Cassie, perfumes I never know if they going to wear me, eat me, or fuck me.
Issara is the most immediately likeable and wearable of the initial Dusita trio. For a fougere, it is surprisingly lush and sweet, deftly side-stepping the beardy, Brut-ish machismo of most of this year’s fougere revivals (I’m looking at you, Le Barbier de Tangers) and aligning itself with softer takes on the theme, such as Chanel’s Boy. The topnotes sparkle like sunlight on fresh snow – friendly, crisp pine mingling with mint and sage, faintly sugared with tonka bean and a starchy white musk. There is a beautifully fresh, green “salt” note here, reminiscent of beach grasses and sand dunes.
I only have two issues here, really – first, that the musky, tonka-ish drydown is rather synthetic in feel, in comparison to the more natural Oudh Infini and Melodie de l’Amour (I suspect a touch too much of either Ambroxan or Iso E Super), and second, fougeres used to be the unpretentious backbone of the male grooming world, so I’m not sure if putting it in extrait form or pricing it at €295 for 50mls isn’t missing the point somewhat. Issara is a very good fougere, but for that type of money I’d rather buy a 200ml vat of Chanel’s Boy and just splash it on with gay abandon.
I’m cheating slightly here, because there are more than ten on my list. I’m a greedy bitch and can’t confine myself to wanting only 10. But since that seems to be the magic number for this list-y thingies, then 10 it is!
This is basically a list of perfumes that made me stop in my tracks. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, more often than not it happens with indie perfumes. That is to say, perfumes produced (mostly in small batches) by independent perfumers, who tend to be one-person outfits with none of the distribution channels or financial backing of big cosmetics companies like most of the big name brands.
The fact that these independent perfumers are able to produce heart-stoppingly good, often brilliant perfumes without the big bucks or sophisticated marketing engines behind them is one of those things that makes my Irish rebel heart happy. It just does.
Here’s the list – click on the links to go to the full review. Just to be clear – I don’t own any of the perfumes on this list…but I really, REALLY want to.
First up is Hiram Green’s Shangri-La. A sexy peach-skin and jasmine chypre with an animal growl operating just under the surface. I see a sexy librarian wearing this – the type you see in Mills and Boon novels with the high-necked blouse and tidy chignon that comes undone with passion behind the shelves with the silent-but-deep cowboy type she hates (but doesn’t really hate).
Bond-T by Sammarco is a dark, dry “sort of” gourmand perfume that smells like the best dark chocolate, leather, and black tea you’ve ever smelled. Hot damn, this is some sexy stuff right here. Great on a woman, but hubba-hubba on a man. Apply this to a man and you will be clubbing him over the head and dragging him back to your, um, cave.
Peety by O’Driu is an unusual tobacco perfume – not at all comfortable like others in the category (Tobacco Vanille, Pure Havane, etc.). Instead it goes for an unsettling combination of pissy honey, medicinal cloves and herbs, and a paper-dry tobacco. Weird and gorgeous. And totally wearable. You’re supposed to add a drop of your own pee to experience Peety in its full, er, splendor. Click through to see if I did or not….
Mito by Vero Profumo is an Italian garden’s worth of green leaves and citrus fruit squeezed into one little bottle. There is something about this that says “Diorella-on-Steroids” but I love it far more than Diorella. If you want classical greenery and anti-classical rotting underbelly, Mito has you covered. I can’t believe I don’t own this. Yet.
Lampblack by Bruno Fazzolari is the first vetiver fragrance I have ever enjoyed enough to want to own a bottle of (if you don’t count Timbuktu and Shaal Nur as vetiver fragrances, which oddly some people do not….freaks). A sour spray of grapefruit rind against a matt, black background – that’s what this smells like. Deep, crisp, and unforgettable.
Odoon by Pekji is my platonic ideal of a woods fragrance. Dry, pure wood with little pockets of sweetness like droplets of maple syrup caught inside the wood going pop, pop, pop when the log is put on the fire to burn. My sample broke and the contents shrank to an attar-like sludge, making it even better. In fact, if I ever get a bottle of this, I plan to crack it on the kitchen counter like opening a bottle of champers and then leave it on the window sill to concentrate.
Le Maroc Pour Elle by Andy Tauer is a heady, sumptuous rose and jasmine perfume that is refined and naughty in that classically French tradition, but also has a side that hangs out in the local head shop huffing Indian incense and cheap patchouli oil. Rather marvelous…can’t get this one out of my head (cue Kylie).
Cimabue by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is Safran Troublant to the power of Opium. Or Theorema. Like a golden, fruit-studded Pain d’Epices or Pannetone, it writes Christmas in big letters across the sky. An oriental you can almost, but not quite eat. Right now with the weather drawing in, it’s all I want.
Christopher Street by Charenton Macerations is a turbo-charged version of an eau de cologne that twists the form in bewildering ways. The opening notes come at you like a huge wall of sound, fizzing and snapping at you like electrical wires cut loose in a storm. It’s explosively sour, like those lemon and lime sweets you bought as a kid and sucked until they corroded the lining of your mouth. Truly exciting stuff.
Winter Woods by Sonoma Scent Studio is a big ole angora sweater of a scent, with dark amber, smoky incense, tree resins, and animalic leather all twisting together like strands of wool until you can’t tell where one strand ends and the next begins. Comfortable and edgy at the same time, like hearing the howl of a wolf deep in the forest from the safety of your cabin fireside.
Au Dela by Bruno Fazzolari is an ode to citrus, sun-baked hay, and a green jasmine that floats above a dark, salted amber like a layer of silk. It triggers a scent memory to do with my father and his Eau Savauge, but I’m not sure that explains my fascination with this. It feels like I am remembering a glorious past, but in a quiet, unemotional way.
Jeke by Slumberhouse….I love you, I hate you, I love you again. I think I was always a Slumberhouse ho from the get go (yo!), but it’s only recently I got into smoke-monster fragrances. Le Labo Patchouli 24 was my gateway drug and from there I found my way into Jeke, which I had originally despised. Now, it’s my down-country Tribute.
Molinard Habanita is a giant in a field of gnats.
But man, it took me ages to understand it, let alone enjoy it. At first, I was repulsed. It smelled harsh to me. Indistinct and muddy – like a fistful of wet, mulched leaves. There was a sticky grey -brown cast to it that lent it a slightly glum feel. Who the hell wants to smell like this, I thought to myself.
But something kept making me want to wear it, and now, with time, I’ve come to love it. And I don’t mean love it from a distance. No, I actually wear Habanita once a week. Coming from a gal with as many perfumes as I have, that should tell you something.
I think I’ve got a handle on what makes Habanita tick now.
At the heart of Habanita lies a soft, worn leather note that recalls the smell of the inside lapel of a well-loved leather jacket. It is an intimate smell, a beat-up leather mixed with twenty years of human skin rubbing up against it. It’s not a leather with aspirations to luxury, like Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, or leaning towards unbearably animalic, like Montale’s Aoud Cuir d’Arabie. It’s just a low-down, rough-copy leather, a smell with history, and aware of its humble beginnings as a liquid used to perfume cigarettes.
The leather note at the center reminds me somewhat of Onda by Vero Profumo. They don’t smell alike, really, when taken as a whole. But the more I wear Habanita, the more I understand that Onda is the core of Habanita extracted, shaken clean of the powder, tonka, and the flowers, and reshaped as a gaspingly harsh leather chypre. The core accord in both is a grainy, grimy leather with a slightly unclean, carnal feel – a half-urinous, half-honeyed tobacco-like smell. There is also a whiff of floor disinfectant. Whereas this is what had repulsed me to begin with, I now find this very sexy. It’s a lived-in, intimate kind of smell. This combination of honey and tobacco or vetiver that works for me in a few of my other favorite fragrances as well, such as Serge Lutens’ Fumerie Turque and Jardins D’Ecrivains’ George.
There’s a lot more going on in Habanita than in Onda, though. Whereas Onda is all about that fierce, dry honey-vetiver-leather, Habanita wraps it all up in a thick blanket of baby-powder florals (rose, heliotrope, and jasmine) and submerges it in a base of sandalwood and vanilla. I also get a buttery almond-like smell akin to the cherry tobacco smell of an unlit pipe, so perhaps there is tonka in there too (I’m convinced there is).
But despite the complex list of notes, I have to say that Habanita maintains its rather singular identity all the way through. It never smells overtly floral (although there are tons of flowers) or incense-y (although it has resins). Even the vanilla and the vetiver don’t smell like vanilla and vetiver – they meld so completely with the honey, flowers, woods, and resins that their separate identities are completely consumed. What they give birth to is a new form – that nutty, dry leather core of Habanita.
I own three versions of it – the modern Eau de Parfum (inexpensive), the vintage Eau de Toilette (costs a fortune and is increasingly difficult to find), and the vintage-ish pure parfum (discontinued, I believe). They are all three essentially the same when it comes to the core accord that makes Habanita Habanita, although there are some slight differences.
The modern EDP is plush, deep, and more intensely powdered than the vintage EDT, and has a gummy, lemon-green mastic note at the start that is missing from the other versions. The vintage EDT has a sharp petigrain note at the start and more of a spicy, clove-y character, but it dries down to the basic scent profile as is found in the EDP.
The pure parfum goes straight to the leather-tobacco core of Habanita without any of the harsh, wild green opening notes of the other two versions – it is altogether quieter and more buttery. It is also the version with the most smoke, which I enjoy very much. All three versions last on my skin for an eternity. But I wouldn’t necessarily feel that you have to hunt down the pure parfum or the vintage EDT unless you were really a hardcore Habanita whore like me. The modern EDP is a rare instance where a beloved classic was not only preserved but also maybe a little improved. Plus – and when do you ever get to say this about a favorite perfume – it is democratically priced.
Addictively green! Actually, green and acid yellow, because along with the garden’s worth of green leaves and a tree’s worth of dry, resinous galbanum shoe-horned into the opening notes of Vero Profumo’s Mito Voile d’Extrait, there is also a hyper-lemon or bergamot accord in there that feels like a million citruses pressed into action all at once. The bitter rind, the juice, the pulp – it’s all here, upfront.
And immediately, in the midst of all this green-and-yellow madness, a creamy white flower starts unfolding its petals, explosively, in a hurry to show off its pushy beauty. Magnolia? Maybe jasmine. Surely, at first it is magnolia – a creamy, non-indolic smell that smells like a magnolia freshly plucked from the tree, complete with the slightly poisonous smell of the green juice of the just-ripped leaves and stems.
It’s beautiful and heady, and yes, supremely botanical in feel. Mito feels like a dense, packed green thing at first, but it has development. It unfurls. The green, citrus ‘roid-rage’ opening unfurls to reveal a magnolia, and the magnolia parts its petals to reveal a very Diorella-esque note of overripe peach or melon. No fruit is listed, but I smell a sticky fruit of some sort.
This ‘rotting fruit’ core is the part of Mito that takes it from a merely botanical wonder of citrus and greens that might have been done by Annick Goutal (only 100 times stronger) to something more complicated, something closer to the slightly decaying, salt-grass-and-fruit chypres that form the bedrock of French summer-chic perfumery, specifically Le Parfum de Therese, Diorella, Cristalle, and even Femme.
Wearing Mito is an all-in experience. You get the lush grandeur of an Italian garden, the resinous greens, the citrus, and creamy white flowers. But you also get the gassy fruit and underlying decay. The extreme dry down of Mito is a surprise – on my skin, it’s all jasmine, with nothing green or botanical or chypre left to provide ballast. I find myself re-spraying to re-live the amazing opening and heart. That’s the part that I find exciting. I’ve gone through two samples, though, and am currently Mito-less. Damn it.
This makes the “maybe” list. Does the joy I feel in the opening notes justify the expense? Hmmmm. We will see.