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.
The composition, as far as I could see, revolved around a slowly rotting plum or rose set against a pondweedish backdrop of jasmine. I didn’t smell anything of the cigarette smoke or the sexy, oiled skin I’d been promised. It also had the immediate misfortune of reminding me of a former lover, a volatile, often violent Palermitano who, thanks to a combination of the original Dolce & Gabbana for Men and Infasil roll-on, smelled at once fresh and sour, with a menacing undertone of powdered tobacco.
But Jesus, did I fall for Ella despite myself. As the day wore on, I found myself sniffing my arms like a dog, drawn to its hot, meaty funk, a smell curiously redolent of leaf mold, overripe fruit, wilting flowers, and Other People’s Perfume. Like many perfume lovers, I thought that Diorella was the most likely match for what Jennifer Lawrence’s character in American Hustle was referring to when she talked about the best perfumes in the world all being “laced with something nasty” and smelling “Sweet and sour…rotten and delicious. Flowers, but with garbage….” But that description describes Ella perfectly too. If Diorella is, according to Tania Sanchez, the Vietnamese beef salad portion of the meal, then Ella is the sweet n’ sour dressing on the kimchi that comes with. Ella means She/Her in Italian, but has anyone considered that it’s also the second half of Diorella?
That’s why, when I smell Ella, with its huge “rotting fruit” opening – either damascone or Prunol-enhanced – I can’t help thinking that it works so well precisely because it plays with the same tripwires between fresh and funky, sweet and sour, and clean and dirty that those old school European-style perfumes do, the ones to which Lawrence was referring. Mostly Roudnitska perfumes, it must be said. Diorella with its lime-green citrus sourness over meaty decay works as a reference, as does Le Parfum de Therese (plum, roses, leather) and even Eau Sauvage (the fresh, aqueous Hedione-enhanced jasmine). But there’s also a link to the ambergrisy, floral funk of old Dioressence and the soapy, aldehyded, champagne brightness of Amouage’s Gold Woman, both of which are Guy Robert creations. A tiny lick of civet enhances the velvety rot of the damascone note to perfection, and I suspect that it’s this note that gives Ella its retro chops.
But on balance, Ella smells more modern than retro to me. Others have mentioned a connection to Jasmin et Cigarette by Etat Libre d’Orange, and while I don’t agree that there’s much similarity in terms of composition or overall aroma, Ella shares something of the ELDO’s quirky, modernist bent. I think it’s the deliberate juxtaposing of airy synthetics and lush naturals – a gust of green Hedione against the darker, damper sambac, for example. Also, despite its complex opening, its structure later is legible and uncluttered, suggesting a more modern way of putting a perfume together.
Ella is a fabulously sexy fragrance, but its appeal is far quieter and more intellectual than its advertizing suggests. The greatest part of its attraction, for me, lies squarely in its opening moments, when that rotting plum-rose is dropped like a bomb into that complex webbing of other notes, creating a riptide effect that causes the other materials to shudder and crack apart. Initially it smells like leaf mold – damp, dirty leaves turned over to reveal the whitish cast of mold, again, with that attractive smell of fruited rot that makes it so compulsively sniffable. This is a perfume that arrives already broken-in when it touches the skin, blooming like the moist, grubby under-shirt aura of skin and 12-hour-old perfume.
All the other notes ripple around the rosy, fruity ground zero of rot. A veil of murky, grey-green galbanum casts long shadows under the fruit and flowers, underlining them with ash but not smoke. A phantom thread of tobacco materializes like flakes of cigarettes strewn across a glass of water, its deliberately “cheap” scent suggestive more of hasty roll-ups behind the school shed than stately humidors or handsome cigars, which only adds, of course, to the scent’s illicit allure. And filtering though everything, that jasmine – a steady pulse of airy, honeyed sourness that’s half-Hedione, half sambac with its under-the-wristwatch aroma.
The sweet and salty parts of the equation come from a beautifully sweet, powdery honey, which when combined with the greener herbal notes comes off as smelling like linden blossom tea, a note that connects Ella, if only tangentially, to both Vero Profumo’s Naja, another perfume I greedily covet, as well as to the vintage, made in Italy version of Dolce & Gabbana for Men. Although I can’t perceive the ambergris as a standalone material in Ella, it is clearly there, working away under its skirts to cast a salty, lived-in skin glow to the composition. It’s not quite the bronzed disco skin the marketing pitches, but it’s undeniably sensual nonetheless.
Ella is, quite unexpectedly, a true love for me. It’s a perfume that I will continue to buy and wear for as long as Arquiste makes it. If a gun were put to my head and I had to give a list of 25 perfumes I could wear happily for the rest of my life, then Ella would make the list. Two reasons: first, it has this weird attraction-repulsion thing going on every time I smell it, which makes it as compelling to me as the garbagey-flowery scent of that European nail polish that Lawrence talks about in American Hustle, and second, it evokes a strong memory or emotion in me. I’ll be perfectly honest – the memory jolt it gives me is not entirely comfortable or pleasant, but I’ve come to the realization that the perfumes that evoke an emotional response are really the only ones worth investing in. Everything else is either performing a function or filling a slot. And I already have plenty of perfumes that do that.
Love is not blind, however. While Ella is maddeningly sexy, evocative, and pulls at my heartstrings, it is far too delicate for what it costs. Its modern construction reveals itself to be threadbare in the drydown, and is put to particular shame when placed alongside a good, well-preserved bottle of Diorella or Diorama. Ella’s richness and the brilliance all occurs in the first hour or two, after which the composition deflates as if someone had punctured it with a small pin, allowing the bold notes to slowly leak away into the air, their molecules too ephemeral to withstand the pressure of the external atmosphere. I have tried to fix this myself by layering Givenchy III underneath, but Ella, while delicate, is also too complex (at least at the start) to play well with other fragrances. I will try again to extend its life with a body oil I recently made that contains real oakmoss absolute and by using my Mitsouko soaps (I have found – oh bliss – another supply!).
However, in the modern fray of complexity versus longevity, I’m entirely grateful to the perfumer, Rodrigo Flores-Roux, and the brand, Arquiste, for refusing to sully Ella’s composition with those grating woody ambers that seem to dog the basenotes of many niche perfumes these days. Give me a beautiful smell, even if it only lasts an hour, over an endless droning on of harsh aromachemicals for twenty-four hours, any day.
Purchasing information: I’m not sure what’s going on with Arquiste’s distribution, but when I finally decided to buy Ella AT FULL RETAIL, I couldn’t find it anywhere to buy online in Europe*. Thank God, Ann of Indigo Perfumery in Cleveland, Ohio, agreed to sell me a bottle and ship to my brother in New York. We both agree that Ella is very sexy in a subtle, non-obvious way. Others must agree too, as Indigo went out of stock quickly after I had purchased my bottle. This is a hopeful sign that Ella may turn out to be an evergreen perfume for the brand, and that people are still liking it enough to buy it even though we are well past the big sales bump it initially got in 2016 when it was released and garnering almost universal praise in the blogosphere.
*That would also ship to Ireland, I mean.