A common complaint about natural perfumes is that they rarely, if ever, transcend their materials. That without the lifting sparkle of aldehydes or the spaciousness of white musk or Iso E Super they take up a dense, muddy form, their back flattened against a wall. To be honest, as much as I love natural perfumes, it’s hard to deny this.
However, a few all-natural perfumes do transcend their raw materials, becoming something so fully-fledged and abstract in expression that one forgets about the individual building blocks that went into making it, and enjoys it simply as a great perfume experience. Aftelier Tango is one of those perfumes.
I first heard of Aftelier while working my way through the brilliant Now Smell This list called 100 Fragrances Every Perfumista Should Try. For ages, I couldn’t find a sample of Mandy’s work because I was in Europe, where opportunities to sample American indies are limited. Years later, I spotted a partial bottle of Tango for sale on Parfumo, and took a leap of faith. Although my connection with Tango was immediate, I have to admit that it would have been too much for me when I was starting out. I’m glad that I got to smell it when I did, because had I smelled it back then, my mind probably would have rebelled against all that strange.
When I sent around vials of Tango to participants in the Great Basenotes Aftelier Sample Pass of 2017 (sorry – but that thing was so massive and so massively fun that I had to capitalize it), I was tickled to read the reactions of other people to the perfume. Almost to a person, participants thought that Tango’s opening was unbelievably raw and animalic. Many pegged this opening as oud, and although I always thought of it as the low harbor funk of ambergris crossed with freshly-cured leather, there is absolutely something of the “soiled barn” murk of oud there too.
Can a leather skin be cured by the sea? Because that’s what Tango smells like to me, at first. There’s a mentholated, charred smell, like sweet black rubber mixed with the salty grime of marine silt, smoke, rocks, and sun-baked minerals. Although I know that there isn’t any ambergris in Tango, it suggests itself as thus to my mind through Mandy’s use of choya nakh, a destructive distillation of sea shells typically used to give traditional Indian attars a smoky, leathery undertone.
A friend of mine on the sample pass made laugh with his experience with Tango in a Lyft ride to work: “I’m pretty sure the fellow passengers must have thought I lived with a ferret.” Yes, Tango is quite gamey and grimy, at least to start with. But there is also a light-strobing note in Tango that smells like one of those fizzy, orange-flavored vitamin tablets dropped into a glass of water after a heavy night out; sugary, viciously upbeat, and with a lime-carnation effervescence that recalls Coca Cola from Mexico. The fizzing orange and champaca florals sift through the oud-like funk, separating it out into bright, shifting layers. Sometimes, I visualize Tango as a coat that Lady Miss Kier of Deee-Lite might have worn in Groove is in the Heart – a thin citroline pleather in bright orange, lined with brown bear fur.
The contrast between the gamey, tarpaulin darkness of the seashell-cured leather and the candied, joyful buzz of the citrus is truly what makes this perfume sing, and yes, transcend its own raw materials. I don’t find myself, for example, picking over the debris of champaca, or ginger, or choya nakh in my mind when I wear it; I’m just thinking that it’s such an unusual and quixotic perfume. That feeling is what elevates Tango to art, rather than just a smell, or a loose grouping together of essential oils and absolutes. Vivid images jump into my brain when I wear it, a synergistic and synesthesiastic experience: sunshine on petrol, milk on dirt, orange fireworks across a dark, starless sky.
Beautiful….and heartbreakingly discontinued.