One Thousand Scents

Friday, January 25, 2008

Gentlemen's Club

Just as women can wear men's clothing, or clothing that a hundred years ago would have been men-only, they can also wear men's scents with impunity. I was out with a friend and her eighteen-year-old daughter a few nights ago, and after supper we went to a department store and (of course) ended up in the fragrance department. The daughter pointed out a bottle of Davidoff Cool Water and said she wears it and loves it. I said, "The men's version, or the women's?" and showed her the women's bottle, which is light-blue and curvaceous next to the stolid dark rectangle of the men's version. She was mildly appalled to discover that the scent she'd been wearing for a year or two, the one which friends both male and female had told her smells so much better than most women's scents, wasn't.

Naturally, I reassured her that I wear lots of women's scents as well as men's, and that as long as it smells good on you (which obviously this did, on her), then it shouldn't matter what the bottle says.

Having said that, though, the fact is that there are many scents that we think of as irreducibly feminine, and others--a much smaller set--that we think of as purely masculine. Next week, in fact, I'm covering a commercial fragrance that, I think, it would be just about impossible for a woman to carry off.

There's nothing particularly male about the smell of leather: women wear lots of leather clothing, and there are a number of women's scents over the years based on leather: Guerlain's Jicky, Serge Lutens' Daim Blond, Piguet's Bandit, and Chanel's Cuir de Russie, for starters. But as a rule, leather scents are usually the province of men: there are far more leather fragrances for men, because there's something about that rough animal scent makes most people think of testosterone.

Demeter has several leather scents. I haven't tried all of them, but there's Russian Leather, supposedly a sweetish, aged leather smell like an old armchair; Riding Crop, which, I gather, is an outdoorsy, well-worn leather; and finally, just plain old Leather, which smells freshly tanned, like a new leather jacket. It's this third one which I own, and I can vouch for the fact that it smells exactly like new leather. Part of the reason, I expect, is that new leather is scented with a synthetic to make it smell the way people think it ought to smell. The scent of Leather is, just as you would expect, deep and animalic, with a brisk tannic top note followed by that intensely sexualized and familiar smell of black leather.

The wonderment of This Is Not A Pipe is that it doesn't smell like pipe smoke, or pipe tobacco: it smells like the bowl of a pipe, as if you'd stuck your nose in there and taken a big whiff. It's a distinctive smell, imbued with wood and tobacco but not smelling quite like either, with a roasted, not-quite-burnt edge to it. It's got a brightness to it, but it's still got that primal sense of fire and masculinity and hand-made things; there is a dark unsugary burnished sweetness about it. TINAP, wondrously and happily, smells precisely like what it's meant to smell like, and that is delightful. I've been wearing it for years, and that unexpected, curveball preciseness still tickles me every time I put it on.

The two together smell, and there are no two ways about it, like a man. I'm guessing that Russian Leather plus TINAP would smell like a granddad, and Riding Crop plus TINAP would be a cowboy. Leather and TINAP ought to smell like a guy going through a midlife crisis (he's been smoking a pipe for a few years now, but he just bought a Camaro and a leather jacket), but it doesn't; alchemically, it just smells like a guy. It is a very appealing combination.

(The name This Is Not A Pipe comes from surrealist painter Rene Magritte's "Ceci N'Est Pas Une Pipe", which is a pretty good joke--no, it isn't a pipe, it's a picture of a pipe, and doesn't that call into question your entire concept of depictions of reality?)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Licorice Twist: Lempicka Au Masculin

Some of the fragrance blogs I read are written in a very misty, evocative style. Like this:

The vanilla accord is made a little bit more nervous thanks to a dash of enlivening citrus. The Patchouli courses through the scent, adding a metallic, ferrous element and a more masculine note in a little girl's gourmand boudoir atmosphere. Maybe a dream brushes past her of knights in armor warring swords in hands and princesses locked away in towers awaiting their liberation by their paramours.

See, I can't do that. I'm glad someone can, but it's not me. I find a hook to hang my review on, and then I just write what I think; it's all very straightforward.

Shame, really, because the dreamy concoctions of Lolita Lempicka probably ought to be written about in that sort of fairy-tale prose. I just re-read my review of her most recent scent, L Lempicka, and it's exactly as direct and to the point as everything else I write. I am not a fantasist.

I bought Lempicka's first men's scent, Au Masculin, without even smelling it. In fact, I asked Jim to hunt it down for me when he spent the day in Montreal not long after the scent's launch in 2000. I made him go into the fragrance department of a store and ask for it, and he did it (in fact, the first store didn't have it, so he had to go to another), and if that's not true love then I don't know what is. I knew Au Masculin would suit me perfectly; I had smelled the women's version, and this one promised to be even better, less sweet, more bracing, but still with that Lempicka romanticism intact, and saturated with anise, which I adore. The official notes:

Top: Green ivy, aniseed, absinthe, rum.
Middle: Aniseed, praline, violet.
Base: Cedar, vanilla, rock rose, barley water.

(This is very like the women's version, which starts with ivy and aniseed, segues to violet and licorice in the middle, and ends with the oriental warmth of tonka bean and vanilla. If you smell them side by side, you can instantly detect the family resemblance.)

Au Masculin clearly sounds like the sort of thing I would love, and I did love it, too. The opening is a brittle blast of dry greenery and anise, with the promise of something sweeter lying just beneath the surface, and this emerges very quickly. You're not drowning in sugared aniseed and vanilla candy, which is usually the sensation I get from the women's version: the lingering sharp notes add a thorniness that something this sweet desperately needs. It is, as you ought to expect from an oriental scent, very long-lasting; it's good for at least six hours, and the drydown is gorgeous, a cocoon of dense warmth. (Rock rose, one of the base notes, isn't a floral note at all: it's a balsam related to labdanum.)

The trouble is...well, this is a problem that maybe most people have with their favourite scents over time. Au Masculin just doesn't suit me any more. I'm pretty sure the contents of the bottle haven't changed: it doesn't smell as if it's gone off. But I just don't like it the way I used to. I used to find the middle notes rich and dreamlike, but more recently they've struck me as as a little cloying. The drydown is still a thing of beauty, but now I find the middle just too much in a way I didn't when the scent was new to me, and I can't wait for a few hours for that gorgeous finish. I still wear it every now and then, but it's always the same thing: I regret having put it on, and life is too short for that sort of thing.

I'm extremely fickle with scents, and one of the reasons is that this sort of thing happens over and over (often, as it turns out, with sweet oriental scents: exactly the same course of events followed my purchases of Mugler A*Men and Rochas Man and, many eons ago, Lagerfeld). I fall in love with a scent, and of course experience many other scents as well over the years, and eventually discover that what I thought was love has turned into something more closely resembling a nose-wrinkling disdain. Usually I don't much care, because I have so many and there are so many more out there, but for something as nice as Au Masculin, I'm really sorry to have lost it.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Fame Whores: Intimately Beckham for Him and for Her

So let's try this for a while: I'm posting every Friday. Time may come when I post more often than that, but for now, we'll make it a regular weekly thing. I think I can manage that, and it'll be better than three posts in one week and then nothing for a month, or whatever.


It's so easy to bash celebrity fragrances, that ceaseless, unstemmable flood of tedious, overdone, redone cheapness masquerading as class. It's so easy, in fact, that I'm going to have a go at it.

Intimately Beckham for Him, according to the official list of notes, smells of bergamot, grapefruit zest, cardamom, violet, nutmeg, star anise, sandalwood, patchouli and amber. Intimately Beckham for Her is made of bergamot, rose petals, Casablanca lily, tuberose, orange blossom, vanilla, sandalwood and musk.

And honestly, they're hardly even there. They smell like something; they're not non-existent. But they don't make any kind of effect; they're what you wear when you don't actually want to wear a fragrance. They're place-holders, like people hired to fill seats at the Academy Awards. You couldn't possibly know what to write about them; it's like discussing your immediate experience of nitrogen or radio waves. In one of her comic strips, here's what the brilliant Lynda Barry has to say about a schoolteacher's nondescript hair:

"What color it is, I can't hardly even say." I love that.

If hair can be not any particular colour at all but just hair-coloured, then both versions of Intimately Beckham are fragrance-scented. They're the most generic, obvious, of-the-moment eaux you can possibly imagine. There's not one single thing to set either of them apart from anything else in the pack, except that the men's version isn't the usual fresh scent (which was already done, boringly, by Beckham's first scent, Instinct) but a soft oriental. Otherwise, they're as neutral as can be. Hers is a sweet puddle of flowers, and his is a sweet puddle of patchouli and ambergris. You could put them in any old bottle and call them any old thing, with any old celebrity attached to them, and there'd be no way to tell them apart from anything else currently on the market. They have no self. Are these fragrances some sort of joke about the cult of celebrity, about that old definition of a television personality as "something less than a person, blown up to look like something more"?

Even the bottles are horrible: these squat, low-slung blocks of glass that seem deliberately designed to be hard to handle. (Another joke?) It's nearly impossible to pick one up and spray it with one hand. Wouldn't you think that these two lean people would have equally slender, striking bottles for their namesake scents?

For what it's worth, I sampled the new limited-edition versions of these scents today, both subtitled Night, and there's nothing more to be said about them, either, except that the women's bottle is at least a beautiful shade of purple.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

As The Strength of Ten: Roget et Gallet Carnation Soap

One of the problems with moving house is that you get rid of stuff, forget you got rid of it, and can't find it when you go look for it. Did I sell it? Is it still in a box somewhere that I forgot to unpack (three years ago)? Is it just in a place I haven't looked yet?

I was going to scan a completely apropos page from a charming and now out-of-print book called "Hey Skinny! Great Advertisements from the Golden Age of Comic Books", but I can't find the damned thing anywhere (and it really isn't the kind of thing I would usually part with, but it's nowhere to be found), so I'll just have to describe the page to you. Obviously from one of those kissy-faced girls' romance comics from the 1950s like these

the ad was a full page, divided into ten or twelve rectangles, of perfume ads from the same low-rent company. Each perfume was a variation on the same thing; a gypsy concoction, a magical potion from New Orleans, a love philtre that would get you any man you desired. The perfumes were never described in any real detail, certainly nothing as prosaic as their notes; you couldn't tell if one or another smelled of rose or gardenia. No, the two things they all had in common was that they would bring back your man, or bind him to you forever if he hadn't left yet for some floozy, or get you one if you didn't have one already, and that they were strong. "This is the STRONGEST perfume you have ever owned!", an ad might say.

I can only think that this is because, to the young women who were buying these comic books, scent was a luxury and a rarity and a fairly lightweight one at that when you could get it--a watery EDT concoction of apple blossom or violets or whatnot. Real perfume, the kind that could make you a man-trap (I think one of the perfumes in the ad was even called Man-Trap), had to be strong.

Anybody who lived through the eighties knows what strong perfume is all about. The economy was enormous, and to fit into it, you had to take up as much space as possible. Clothing was big (look at those padded shoulders on women's business jackets, and the huge Perry Ellis bubble sweater, and such massive Japanese fashion objects as this

which fit the times perfectly), and so was fragrance, a succession of room-filling scents such as Obsession and Diva.

Super-strong scents have fallen out of favour, and good thing, too. But sometimes you come across something that's unapologetically strong but which works anyway. When it's a soap, that's a good thing indeed, because soap is meant to be washed down the drain; if it's strong in the right way, it stays with you.

Roger et Gallet Carnation is extraordinarily potent. As soon as you remove the wrapper from the box, before you even open it, the air is curled and laced with a distinct carnation scent; there's no doubt about what's inside. Each circular bar of soap is wrapped in a tightly pleated paper, surrounded with a colourful paper collar; it looks like a little gift.

The scent of the soap is dazzling, almost dizzying. It's a very clear, pure carnation scent; it doesn't have that striking greenness that fresh carnations have (except for a mere suggestion which doesn't stick around), but otherwise it's everything you could hope for: spicy, lightly floral, vibrant. (Why isn't there an EDT version of this?) The scent that remains on the skin is much lighter, but it stays with you for a while; it's good for an hour, at least.

As a soap, it's a five-star winner, too. The box contains three 100-gram (3.5-ounce) soaps (you can also buy a single cake of soap in a plastic travel dish), and they feel heavy and dense in the hand. They're milled very hard, but as soon as water touches them, the surface melts into a slick, creamy lather. Even if it didn't smell extraordinary, this would be a soap you'd want to use. (Roger et Gallet makes other soaps as well; I've never tried any of them, because this one is perfect--I've used it on and off for almost ten years--but people seem to love those, too, as you will see if you read the reviews at Makeup Alley: virtually everyone says they'd buy the product again, which is a sure sign of a great product.)

The French name for the carnation, by the way, right there on the box, is Oeillet Mignardise. "Oeillet" means, literally, "eyelet", and "mignardise" is the noun form of "mignon", "cute"; it means, literally, "cuteness". Eyelet cuteness!