One Thousand Scents

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Intermission 3: Frederic Malle, Santa Maria Novella, and Yves Rocher

If this keeps up, my intermissions will be longer than the series they are intermitting. But that is how these things go with me.


On my way back from Toronto earlier this month, I stopped in at Holt Renfrew, where they were introducing the Frederic Malle Editions de Parfums. I described to the sprightly salesman what I loved best--orientals and chypres, of course, warm delicious things--and he sprayed a few things that missed the mark so completely I began to wonder if he actually knew the line. Or maybe there was nothing in the line that fit my brief, and he was doing the best he could. But not one of the scents was what I had described to the salesman, nothing I would want to own, none of them especially complex or challenging: perhaps it's just the way the line is, or perhaps it was just the subset that the salesman happened to be choosing for me, but they all felt rather simple and stripped-down in that modern transparent style, which I am pretty much over, if I were ever under it in the first place. People rave about the line, and maybe if I had time to really explore it I would get it, but my first impression was not good.

After smelling half a dozen or so, though, one of them, which I think was either Dans tes Bras ("in your arms") or French Lover, struck me as interesting, something I would like to explore on my skin, because on the blotter it smelled primarily of old bookstores, a wonderful thing, but I didn't really have the time, and it was very expensive: three 10-mL sprays were something like $135, more than I would ever spend on an impulse buy, and it might well be worth it, but the metal travel case for the spray was also $135 or so, which is insane. Of course, I could have just bought the sprays without the case, and the one thing that might well have pushed me over the edge was that they were offering a full set of samples with every purchase, but unfortunately they didn't actually have the samples at the time--they were waiting for them to arrive--and I sort of didn't trust that they would send them to me (or if they did that the samples would arrive intact), and also I had to get back to the bus station to the airport for my trip home, and so I walked away empty-handed.


On our last day in London, this past Wednesday, we were out and about all day--we did so much walking, because London is a city that just cries out to be explored on foot--and we had bought tickets the day before to a movie at 5:30 p.m. Jim proposed that he get the subway back to the hotel for the tickets while I just hung out in the huge 5-storey Waterstones bookstore just past Piccadilly Circus. I agreed, but I never actually made it into the bookstore, because while walking down the other side of the street eating my sandwich--everyone does it in London, everyone--I noticed a Santa Maria Novella, which I had heard of but never experienced. It's a tiny little shop, really just a nook, and the aroma of it is beyond description. I told the chipper salesman what I like (yes, dark warm sexy things) and he immediately grabbed a bottle, sprayed a blotter, and held it out to me: a very nice amber, Ambra, something that I suspect would open up and develop on the skin, but not drastically different at first sniff from several other things I own. Then he did the same with another scent--this one Patchouli--and then another, Sandalo (sandalwood), and then another and another and another, leather and vetiver and musk, bang bang bang. He knew just what he was doing, this one; I think he must have sprayed every dark or warm or sweet scent in the place. The last one was called Tobacca Toscana, or "Tuscan tobacco", and I loved it at first sniff; at last I consented to spray some on my skin. And guess what? He didn't have a single bottle in the shop. I probably would have bought it, even at £85, because it was exceptionally nice on me, like Creed's discontinued Tabarome with its thorns trimmed away. (And it aged gorgeously on my skin, warm and cozy but not too sweet: only about four hours from start to finish, a bit abbreviated for that kind of money, but so nice while it lasted.) There was soap, but it was a crazy £28, around $46. For one bar of soap? Not a chance. And so I walked away empty-handed.

Then I was walking past Fortnum and Mason, which I somehow thought was just a high-end food emporium, but in one of the Christmas display windows I noticed a perfume bottle, and so I figured they sold scents, duh, and walked in, although time was running short, since I was due to meet Jim in the bookstore in about ten minutes. I took the elevator to the fragrance department, and what a department! So many niche scents, Clive Christian, Serge Lutens, Teo Cabanel, M Micallef, Amouage, Bal a Versaille and oh, I can't even remember what-all, there was so much of it. They have the Caron urns, which no longer seem like such a good idea: the urns are gorgeous and I am sure there's a thrill to choosing a bottle and having it filled from a massive crystal dispenser, but they're perpetually exposed to all that harsh bright department-store lighting, which can't be good for the scents in the long run. In the end, I just didn't have time to do it justice, and so I walked away empty-handed.

The movie, by the way, was the sneak preview of Burke and Hare, and we enjoyed it very much, although of course it is not particularly accurate in a historical sense. But we cut all kinds of slack for comedies, don't we?


Today I was out shopping for a couple of kitchen appliances, neither of which I ended up buying, but on the way I stopped in to the local Yves Rocher, having been alerted that they were launching a couple of limited-edition Christmas scents, Orange & Almond and Orange & Chocolate. The smell of almonds in perfumery is not usually a big selling point for me (my two big exceptions are the amaretto-ish Baiser du Dragon and a vintage bottle of CSP's delicious Vanille Amande), but Orange & Chocolate is so obviously me that I probably would have bought it unsniffed. I didn't, though. I sprayed it into the air, sniffed that, and then bought a bottle for $20, along with a purchase-with-purchase set of hand soap and shower gel (300 mL each) for $6.95. It is enchanting, the exact smell of a Terry's Chocolate Orange. Hardly any lasting power, but it's inexpensive and delightful, and what more can you ask?


Monday, October 25, 2010

Intermission 2: Harrods

Well, what would you do?

On our way home from London in early June, we were bumped from our flight, and in addition to that nice free hotel we got almost $1000 in travel vouchers. We were going to use it next year: fly into Gatwick again (because we had to use the credits in the UK), take the Eurostar over to Paris, and begin a three-week tour of the continent (not a very big tour, obviously, mostly France and Italy and probably bits of Switzerland). But we change our travel plans more often than you change channels on your TV, so the itinerary kept mutating into unrecognizability. Jim did some research and discovered that it was kind of stupid to fly into London just to go to Paris (it would much more sensible to fly into Frankfurt, especially if you were planning to visit parts of Germany, which is one of the things our plans for the continent had grown to include), so one Tuesday evening a couple of months ago he said, "Would you think it was crazy if I said we should just use those travel vouchers to go back to London in October?" I said I thought it was the best idea he had ever had, and within twenty-four hours we had made all the plans, all of them: flights booked, hotels likewise, tickets for a couple of plays paid for, ground transportation awaiting.

Well, really, what would you do? It was the most obvious thing. You get a friend to house-sit (someone has to collect the mail and take care of your plants and animals), book some time off work, and just take off, right?

And so here we are once again in London, my favourite city on Earth, the greatest of all cities. (I even bought a book called London: The Biography.) We are staying in the same hotel we did last time, which we now think of as "our hotel", the Cromwell on (yes) Cromwell Road, the most perfect location, central to everything, with a supermarket, a laundromat, a tube station, a drugstore, and an internet cafe within a few minutes' walk.

And I have managed to refrain from going completely over the top when it comes to all things fragrant, but my co-worker Eeva required that I buy her a bottle of Fille en Aiguilles by Serge Lutens, so that was the perfect excuse to go back to Harrods, my holy shrine in London.

It is holy no longer, alas. I walked in looking for the Lutens counter and could not find it, for two reasons. One is that the dark and hushed and carefully spotlit temple has been turned into a large white overexposed space, and the other is that the Lutens counter isn't in it anyway but is in the cosmetics hall instead, for no apparent reason.

Nevertheless, I did find it, and I found Fille en Aiguilles for Eeva (at £76, or about $122, well below her price maximum of $140). I was sort of not going to buy anything for myself, since I have already bought a shocking eight Lutenses in the past year, but I was also sort of going to buy something if it really spoke to me. The only two that I could see that might have anything to say at all were Cuir Mauresque and Arabie; the former was not any more interesting than it was when I first tried it at the Serge Lutens boutique in Paris, possibly the dullest leather I know of, but Arabie on second try was obviously a Lutens creation and obviously the kind of thing that I adore. So I bought it. Transaction time from start to finish: three minutes, probably, and prolonged by the fact that I said I was paying in Canadian dollars and meant "on my Mastercard" but was interpreted, reasonably enough, as meaning "actual dollar dollars".

The saleswoman didn't have any Lutens samples for me, which is probably just as well, because I think I've tried just about every one in the catalogue, but she gave me a clutch of Annick Goutals: two of Myrrhe Ardente (I wish I had had the sense to ask if she had Ambre Fetiche and Encens Flamboyant), one of Rose Splendide, and one of Duel. New things to try! Yay!

Yesterday I did take a quick poke into Debenhams to see if they had the new 75-mL bottles of the Chanel Exclusifs: I have recently rediscovered my sample of Coromandel, my favourite of the entire line, and decided that even though a 200-mL bottle was insane, a 75-mL was not, and that I would buy it on the spot. Just my luck: Debenhams doesn't sell Les Exclusifs. But they directed me to Selfridges, just down the street. Just my luck: they'll be getting the smaller size in January.

An excuse to come back!

No, just kidding. We'll be saving all our money fot the next big trip, which we've decided to postpone until 2012. I mean, we're not made of money.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Intermission 1: Guerlain

On Thursday, the 7th of October, I spent a few hours in Toronto, and I knew what I wanted to do: I stashed my luggage and headed up Bay Street towards 110 Bloor Street West, the home of the Boutique Guerlain. I knew what I was going to buy, too: more Mitsouko, either the EDP or the extrait, whichever excited me more. I have been wearing and adoring a recent vintage of the EDT, which is rather ferocious, in the best imaginable way, but the EDP is reportedly smoother and the extrait richer and smoother still, so obviously I had to try them. I was undeterred by the general consensus that, despite Guerlain's best intentions, Mitsouko is not what it used to be: how could it be, when its entire raison d'etre is oakmoss, so severely limited these days?

I was the only customer in the boutique, so the charming saleswoman--whom I shall not name, though I have her card, for reasons I'll get to soon enough--was apparently only too happy to give me her undivided attention. I told her what I had come for, and she pulled out a spray bottle of the parfum, which was a massive disappointment: wan, unenthusiastic, nothing like what I had come to associate with Mitsouko. The EDP was not any better, and I knew that whatever I might buy, it wouldn't be those: I would make do with my delirious EDT (which is really very good) and maybe some day hunt down or stumble across some true vintage.

We then moved on to the newest Shalimar incarnation, Ode a la Vanille, which puts the vanilla base front and centre. It is lush and heady, but much easier to take than the original; the only thing that stopped me from buying it was the knowledge that I already have an insane quantity of vanilla scents, and I could in no way justify adding another to the collection. Isn't the bottle gorgeous, though? It's the original Shalimar bottle reconceived by Jade Jagger, daughter of Mick.

We careened through nearly a dozen more scents (I tell you, my nose is tireless). I tried Habit Rouge Sport (not an improvement on the original), La Petite Robe Noire (unworthy of the Guerlain name), Chypre Fatal (not a chypre, not fatal, no better than the other Elixirs Charnels), Les Secrets de Sophie (the same scent in three different bottles, and I don't remember which, so it was not memorable), Philtre d'Amour (beloved of my friend Eeva--I don't get it myself), and a couple of those L'Art et la Matiere scents in the tall bottles. None of it was really leaving much of an impression, a lot of it was far too modern and not nearly interesting enough, and I was beginning to think ruefully that Guerlain had somehow squandered their inheritance.*

We finally came to a couple of re-issues of very old scents, Sous le Vent from 1933 and Vega from 1936. Sous le Vent I thought was lovely, presumably a fair distance from its eighty-year-old progenitor but a worthy thing nonetheless, grassy at the top, spicy with the promise of a (modern-ish) chypre underneath. Vega, though, made me gasp.

It is a huge, mad aldehydic floral, all fury and stinging nettles, a whiplash rendition of Chanel No. 5 and Wrappings and Rive Gauche and god alone knows how many other things, a ferocious bluster of indefinable flowers and greenery protecting a little orb of warm sweet wood. Reader, I put it on my skin!

But I did not buy it, because it is $350 and I cannot possibly justify such a thing. If a scent is life-altering, I will pay $150 for it and not bat an eye, because how often do you get to own something life-altering? $150 is a bargain. But I have my limits, and $350 is well beyond them.

The enchanting saleswoman told me about their mail-order service in case I should change my mind, which is not impossible (if I suddenly were to become rich, or if I worked out a split arrangement), and then sotto voce--although we were still the only people in the store--asked me if I knew about the upcoming pair of men's scents, Arsene Lupin Dandy and Voyou, masculine florals representing two sides of the gentleman thief ("voyou" means "crook" or "lout", Arsene Lupin being a fictional version popular in France). I did not. As if engaged in the sale of classified documents, she reached into a cabinet, pulled out two small spray bottles, no more than an ounce each, one part-full of violet liquid and the other amber: she sprayed them onto touches, and said, "Everybody loves one of them." I sniffed them both at length.

"I like this one," I said, waving Voyou. She beamed, and if I hadn't passed a test before, I had now. "Everyone prefers Dandy!"

She reached into the same cabinet and came up with a long sample vial, probably 5 mL, which she proceeded to half-fill with Voyou, and then tucked it into a little antique-gold envelope on which she wrote the name of the scent. She had just given me maybe a quarter of her entire supply of it. But she wasn't finished: she picked up the bottle of Vega and with an eyedropper filled another sample vial with it. Completely filled it, right to the stopper. $15 worth, for sure.

"I feel terrible!" I said. "I didn't even buy anything!"

She waved the thought away. "You will," she said. "Next time."

I wore Arsene Lupin Voyou a few times and enjoyed it more than I suspected I should: despite its old-fashioned image, it is very modern, so much so that I began to think I had smelled it before, and recently. And then this morning it finally came to me: Voyou is Lacoste Pour Homme. The ingredients are slightly different--that licorice-candy note is not present in Voyou, the top of the Lacoste is fruitier, Voyou is spicier--but the structure is the same. To prove it to myself, I wore the Lacoste this morning, and yep, they're fraternal twins.

Octavian at 1000fragrances (no relation) gave Dandy a big thumbs-up and Voyou the cold shoulder: based on Octavian's description, I think perhaps in retrospect I might prefer Dandy as well, if I had time to experience it from start to finish. My reaction was honest, though: Voyou spoke to me immediately. And why mightn't he? I already knew his brother.

* I know, of course, that Guerlain, like most every other perfume house, has to market what's going to sell, and if the public disdains complex, interesting scents as "old-fashioned" or "old lady perfume" and demands bright, fresh, cheap, fruity things, then that is what the houses are going to have to sell, or go bankrupt. (Even my adored Serge Lutens has begun to go down this road.) And yet it is dispiriting to see a perfumer as illustrious as Guerlain reduced to vending such tat as Gourmand Coquin and the wretched Cherry Blossom line, charging premium prices for it all, and pretending they're as grand as they used to be.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Intoxicated: 1985, Part 2

The "brief intermission" I mentioned two weeks ago--two weeks ago!--was supposed to an actual thing, a piece of writing unrelated to my nostalgic eighties lovefest, but life kind of got in the way: I visited my mother and stepfather, and he was laid low (very low) by a case of pneumonia which hospitalized him for five-plus days, which meant that my mom spent a lot of time at the hospital and I spent a lot of time house-sitting, doing chores and taking care of the animals and such. And not writing.

At any rate, my stepfather is improved, life is more or less back to normal, and I'm back home, with stories to tell about my few hours in Toronto on the way home (Boutique Guerlain! Frederic Malle's line at Holt Renfrew!). The intermission is coming. Just not today.


The other huge, unavoidable scent launch in 1985 was Dior's Poison, which along with so many other launches of that era was a colossal, dark-hued oriental that made lavish use of the new and interesting synthetics that were increasingly available. At that point, even though I had bought Obsession, I still wasn't absolutely comfortable with the idea of wearing a women's scent, and Poison seemed more feminine to me than I thought I could manage. I didn't actually buy any until a year or so later, when I discovered that 1) it wasn't feminine at all, and 2) I didn't really care that much anyway.

The Poison you will smell nowadays--I bought some a few years ago--is not quite what it was in 1985. The top has, in the modern style, been freshened somewhat, and the florals in the core are more aggressive, certainly with a higher proportion of synthetics, both changes bringing it more in line with the ever-popular and inescapable fruity-floral category. It's still pretty good, though; still strange and thought-provoking. If you had never smelled it when it was launched, or if you haven't ever had a chance to smell the vintage, you wouldn't compare it to anything else on the market: but believe me, when it was new, it was completely unlike anything else out there, utterly new, radically modern and different. And genuinely great, too. Even the name generated shock waves. How innocent we were then!

I had a chance to smell some vintage Poison Esprit de Parfum (Dior's formulation, somewhere between eau de parfum and extrait--they also made Dune in that strength) while visiting my mom: I have naturally enough given her a great many scents over the years, from samples up to full-sized bottles, and she still has a mini of the EdP, which obviously I had to uncork and sniff. It hasn't aged flawlessly: the top is muddied, almost unrecognizable. But the core of the scent is the same as it ever was, and it is astonishing--and astonishingly strong. I didn't even put any on, but the mere act of unstoppering the bottle must have gotten a tiny amount on my skin, because fifteen minutes later my mother furrowed her brow and said, "Did you put on some perfume?" I told her I had uncorked the Poison, just pulled the stopper out, and she nodded, because she knows: that stuff is potent.

One of the writers over at the Perfume Posse made a reference to its potency when she wrote, "I had, at one point, a dot of Poison Esprit on my thumb I had applied with a toothpick, and the clerk at our corner store looked at me with an expression between suspicion and horror and correctly identified the scent." A toothpick-point dot of Poison is about right. One of the saleswomen in the fragrance boutique where I discovered Poison told me a horror story: a woman came into the shop regularly and doused herself with it--here the saleswoman would mime a big pinwheeling circle of the arm around the head and torso, with her finger pressing an imaginary button, "pss pss pss pss pss!"--while saying, "I just love this stuff!"

I have actually written about Poison rather intensively before: first when I bought a bottle of Midnight Poison in October of 2007, then a couple of times when I underwent a baffling case of dysosmia in December of that same year. (I got better.) So you might want to go ahead and read those: I'm not going to repeat myself too much. Just this: the two greatest versions of Poison, Esprit de Parfum (denser, more eroticized) and Cologne (fresher, less assaultive), are long gone, but if you ever find them, along with Obsession, as vintage, buy them. Buy them! Their modern incarnations are not the same: they've been updated to better suit modern sensibilities, but it's not until you have smelled them as they were that you can get an idea of just what it was about mainstream eighties perfumery: it was big, it was sexy, and it was hypermodern in the best possible way.