The word pulchritude jumps to mind while wearing Puredistance Warszawa. That’s the word that Akeelah stumbles over in her first training session with Dr. Larabee in the movie Akeelah and the Bee. Dr. Larabee tells her that it means beauty. But by the end of the movie, when Akeelah is given the word to spell as her final test in the National Spelling Bee, each letter in the word is spoken aloud in the voice of someone she loves – her mother, her best friend, her brother, and Dr. Larabee himself. And it’s then that we understand that “pulchritude” means not only beauty, but also pride, character, and an untouched quality very close to innocence.
Above all, pulchritude says virginal. I am not familiar with Polish women, but if they are anything like young women in other areas of Eastern Europe, like Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro, then I can say that I understand the kind of tribute to femininity Antoine Lie is aiming for with Warszawa. Young women in Belgrade and other cities take pride in being as glamorous as possible, displaying a slightly démodé (to Western eyes) idea of femininity that involves perfectly-coiffed hair, full make-up, and a sometimes hyper-sexualized way of dressing. But here’s the thing about young women in Eastern Europe: they may flaunt their femininity, but when you get to the bottom of it, you discover that it’s a curiously innocent, even prim kind of flaunting.
In Eastern Europe – and perhaps Poland too – young women prepare themselves for a night out with great care and they do it together. The pleasure is all in the female camaraderie. There’s clearly a non-competition clause in operation. Once out, they roam in packs, and although they talk to the opposite sex, there is none of that drunken pairing off at the end of the night that occurs in the West. It’s not just that young women in this part of Europe tend to mate young and for life, but that a more traditional societal structure has preserved propriety for longer. The going out, the preparing, the showing off of their feminine wares, is all for the old-fashioned, and completely innocent joy in reveling in one’s own pulchritude.
There is something of the same awkward tug between sensuality and prudishness in Warszawa. On the one hand, there’s the showy sexiness of white flowers – mostly, to my nose, a European-style gardenia, but also jasmine, a luridly peachy tiare (tropical gardenia) and some rubbery frangipani – but the flowers feel oddly pure, even bridal in comparison to some of the more man-eating white florals out there. Picture these most sensuous of flowers forced through a soapy, fruity Galaxolide sieve to arrive at a sunlit, scrubbed-clean version of the Tuvaché Jungle Gardenia women in the Eastern bloc might have worn in the 50’s, had they had access to it.
A dose of murky, grey-green galbanum resin lends the scent a bitterness that almost qualifies this as a chypre, but aside from a glancing association with YSL Yvresse and Arquiste Ella, the chypre sensation does not last long. But what it does accomplish, however, is to give the perfume a deliberately dated feel. There’s a formal, dressed-up feel to the perfume, but also a certain stuffiness that says Sunday best more than Saturday night.
The flowers in Warszawa come heavily slicked with a layer of peach-flavored lipgloss, reminding me of Une Voix Noire’s gardenia, wilting into brownness under its glaze of strawberry jam. But instead of the miasma of cigarette smoke and rum, here the florals shine through a haze of cool, limpid green soap bubbles, like Venus emerging from a bathroom fogged up with the steamy vapors of Garnier Fructis shampoo and Elnett. It smells like an evening toilette thoroughly and pleasurably completed. A touch of iris here and there adds a puff of face powder, but really, Warszawa is all about those old-fashioned, peachy white flowers smeared over a bed of vague, murky greenery. It’s old school glamour, all the way, given a wistful character by way of that old European straining and flexing against propriety.
Warszawa succeeds brilliantly as an atmospheric piece of perfumery. In terms of back story, the perfume both sets the scene and then meets all its own expectations. The playoff between that old-fashioned, 100% feminine glamor and modern fruity shampoo musks is handled perfectly; it’s almost campy in its femaleness. I admit, though, that I find this sort of thing very hard to wear. It smells like Perfume with a capital P, and one needs a life full of Big Occasions in which to wear such a Big Occasion fragrance.
But apart from that, there’s something missing in terms of the final tally of elements. In Une Voix Noire, the luridly bright strawberry-tinted rot of the white flowers is given an attractive roughness by flashes of industrial metals and smoke; here, there is no “rough trade” with which to break up the glassy floral sweetness. A touch more greenery, or bitterness, or chypric roughness would have made this a stunning perfume, but that’s just my personal taste talking. If you love big, fruity soapy throwbacks with a chypre flavor, then Puredistance Warszawa is likely to be an unqualified success.