One Thousand Scents

Friday, November 30, 2012

Don't: Etat Libre d'Orange Don't Get Me Wrong Baby

I like to think that I am not unnaturally prudish, and the names and/or images of Etat Libre d'Orange's fragrances don't bother me, for the most part: pubic hair, breasts, whatever, it's part of their image. I don't mind the penis-gun graphic for Je Suis un Homme, because there's a point to it. But I just can't get behind a scent called Don't Get Me Wrong Baby I Don't Swallow, which is vulgarity for its own sake, a cheap shock tactic and nothing more. Maybe all their products are in the end: but that name just seems to be one step over the line. At least they showed a modicum of restraint in their Roy Lichtenstein-style graphic.

Think how much worse it could have been. If they could name a fragrance that, I wouldn't put anything past them.

As for the scent, it's a pleasant little floral in a candy store: bright aldehydes, orange-flower and lily-of-the-valley which eventually give way to marshmallow and cocoa powder, bolstered by sweet amber.

In fact, Don't Get Me Wrong Baby smells uncannily like your choice of chocolate-marshmallow biscuit (I'll take a Tunnock's Tea Cake, please and thank you)

dipped in a glass of Estée Lauder Pleasures.



Friday, November 23, 2012

Dirty Dealings: Montale Black Aoud

I guess I am the wrong person to be writing about Montale Black Aoud, because I can't tell if it's good or bad, if I love it or hate it. I don't know what's going on, in the bottle or in my nose. So let's look at it systematically:

Pro Con
  Lots of fresh and dried roses             Possibly too many roses (there is such a thing)         
  Real patchouli   Real stinky patchouli
  Labdanum   Not enough labdanum
  Oud   Oud
  Can clear your sinuses   Can clear the room
  Attractive bottle   Unattractive contents

It's very simple, almost simplistic: Rose rose rose, rank dirty patchouli that reminds one of insufficient bathing, medicinal oud, and a little dab of labdanum to try (and fail) to take the edge off all of that. It's tremendously interesting, though not entirely pleasant, and in very small doses it's contained, close to the skin, and perversely appealing. In larger quantities? A nightmare. I would hate to have dinner with someone who sprayed this with a heavy hand.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Swayed: Angel Les Parfums de Cuir (eventually)

I'm going to gas on about Japan for a while longer: would that be all right? Usually I'd do it over on my other blog, but I'm trying to let that die a natural death so I can bury it out back. If you're not interested, just scroll down to the pretty bottles.

Now obviously as a middle-aged white guy who spent two weeks in Tokyo, I am extremely well qualified to make all kinds of judgements about the city and its culture, he said while rolling his eyes to an almost audible extent. At any rate, here are a few of the things I have noticed:

Japan is Canada. No, hear me out. Every Canadian knows what it is like to live on the border of an enormous, powerful country with many times the population, with the dual result that 1) Canadians often show some animosity to the idea of America, though not usually to Americans themselves (and it is a mistake for Americans to take that animosity personally) and 2) Canadians are not fond of being mistaken for Americans. I discovered that the same basic facts are true of New Zealanders, who are not Australians. And it seems to me that Japan has a similar sort of relationship with China, which is huge, populous, and right next door. Certainly Chinese tourists have noticeable cultural differences from the Japanese, even to our Western eyes: they're louder and they take up a lot more room in subways and restaurants.

Therefore, Canadians feel at home in Japan. We certainly did. Despite the language barrier, we immediately felt comfortable there, and I hope the Tokyoites felt as comfortable with us: we tried very hard to follow all the rules and not be loud or obnoxious or stand out in any way.

Politeness is awesome. I think that when you live in a city with extremely limited real estate and eight million people, you either force yourself to be polite from the earliest age or you all go mad and start killing one another, so luckily for everyone, Tokyo has taken the first tack. I expect there's a downside to this, that civility is hammered into children and it has a repressive effect, but at least on the surface everyone is nice and polite, and that counts for a lot.* One of the first stereotypes of Japan is that everyone bows, and this turns out to be true, and it is really quite wonderful: Westerners aren't expected to get all the nuances right but they are expected to make the effort, and so you make a transaction at a department store and the clerk makes a little bow to you when you're done and you make a little bow right back and it feels enormously respectful and gratifying, considerably more so than the fake wide-smile friendliness that North American stores cultivate. I like being bowed to, and I like bowing in response, and if I ever go back I am going to try to get it right. Righter, anyway.

However, Tokyo is noisy. The noisiest city I have ever been in. The Japanese may generally be quiet and polite and self-effacing, but by god Tokyo has got things to sell you and by god you are going to hear about them. Drugstores are Bedlam, with music — the same one song playing over and over — and announcements coming over the loudspeakers, and little video screens in every aisle blaring out their tempting come-ons (in Japanese, of course, so we were not tempted). Electronics stores, and there are a lot of them, have two or three touts with megaphones out front trying to coax customers inside. Enormous trucks papered with banners advertising the latest J-pop sensation drive around blaring the latest J-pop hit, and speaking of which, you have to watch this, the very essence of J-pop, nominally a song called "Wee-Tee-Wee-Tee" but actually an ad for the latest-generation Furby: it played on video screens just about everywhere the Furby was sold and is the single catchiest tune in the history of the human ear.

No, the Japanese do not all look alike. That is just some straight-up racist bullshit right there. There is a lot of variation in the phenotype, just as there is in any large population, and I assume that's grown since Japan opened its borders, because people like to mate with people who are unlike them, so there are skin tones from white (like not Caucasian white but paper white, helped along with cosmetics) to very dark, there are all sort of different facial structures, and there are many different eye shapes (again sometimes helped along with cosmetic aids such as this one)

which, yes, is an actual thing that we were too embarrassed to buy, although we desperately wanted to and doubtless the cash-register jockey wouldn't have cared a lick. Also, despite the reputation of the Japanese for being slim, which mostly is true, there are lots of different body shapes, too: the dumpling-shaped schoolgirl, the pudgy teenager, the thirty-five-year-old office worker with a gut (plenty of those), the grim, defeated fiftyish housewife with an enormous ass. And one woman who was taller than I am. Like, six feet for sure, maybe more.

Oh, and another thing about appearances. That "makes your eyes attractive" subtitle notwithstanding, wanting double eyelids (aka the epicanthic fold, which is what Westerners generally have and Asians generally do not) isn't some admission of inferiority: it's just another product that a company is happy to sell to women, and this is all very complicated and book-length and tied up with the cult of youth but the nicest gloss we can put on it is that women like to do fun things that make themselves look different, changing their hair colour and texture and applying colours and shadows to their faces to change the shape and emphasis of various features and generally just having a ball, and I do know plenty of young women who love playing with their looks with cosmetics. So if nearly all Japanese women have the same eyelids as you do, then you are going to want to do something to make yourself look different, and eyeshadow only goes so far, so you are going to buy some double-sided tape and by god give yourself an epicanthic fold. It can get a lot creepier than that, of course, and if you want an illustration of the cult-of-youth thing that I mentioned then you ought to check out the Japan Trend Shop and prepare to be appalled. Or possible intrigued.

English is the second language of Japan but they're not that good at it, and you can hardly blame them for that but while we were grateful that the signage and packaging had enough English to allow us to get by, it was often baffling or hilarious. This may have been deliberate

(Sadistic Action is a clothing store in trendy-or-die Harajuku, alongside such stores as Hysteric Glamour and Nudy Boy and Store My Ducks) but things like this

get it almost right while missing the mark just enough to be funny (I assume the writer meant "It's best to use this with body shampoo" but didn't get the idiom right), and things like this

are just hilarious. We said "Let's vitamin!" to one another for days after buying this, in the same way someone might say, "Let's go." Also, there is a beverage called Calpis

which sounds horrifying but is actually delicious. Oh, and I swear to you that there is a clothing chain called Titty & Co., which really is a real thing that really exists and sells clothing to young women and everything.

Thierry Mugler knows how to do flankers right. Most companies just chuck some new juice in the same bottle, tweak the colour scheme, and then ride the coattails of the original scent's name, which is certainly what Dior did with its Poison line, five unrelated scents

one of which, Hypnotic Poison, got its own unrelated flanker, Eau Sensuelle.

Mugler, on the other hand, takes one or more scents from his line — Angel, A*Men, Alien, and Womanity — and gives them a spin, tinkering with the balance (as in the various Angel extraits) or adding new elements. A*Men was masculinized and improved with, in order, coffee in 2008, whiskey a year later, and tobacco in 2011. As well, the entire lineup was given a dose of food elements in late 2011: Angel got a dusting of bitter cocoa, Alien a dollop of salted butter caramel, Womanity a spoonful of fig chutney, and A*Men a jolt of red pepper. (I smelled Angel and A*Men and didn't think them different enough to be worth buying.)

This year, the theme is leather: they were bound to do it sooner or later with the men's scent, but it's a bit of a surprise that they added leather to all four.

A*Men is apparently very hard to come by: I haven't seen it anywhere. But the other three are pretty much everywhere in Canada, and so I ended up buying a bottle of the Angel, which is an excellent twist on the original. How excellent? I wore some to work the other day and a customer I was helping with some heavy objects said, "My GOD you smell good!" So there you have it.

If you know Angel — she didn't, it turns out, which amazed me, because I forget how insulated our little scentaholic world can be but honestly not having heard of Angel is kind of like someone never having heard of not only the new James Bond movie but James Bond in general — then you know the basic structure: lots of complex sugary foody things layered over lots of patchouli with not an identifiable flower in sight, the gourmand scent that twenty years ago sparked a revolution and launched a thousand other gourmand scents. Angel Cuir (I suppose I can call it that) tweaks the formula by floating apricot jam on top and adding a smudge of iris, not enough to bother me but also probably not enough if you really love iris.

And all that perplexingly masculine patchouli is now joined by leather — not leather exactly but creamy-plush suede. If you are thinking, "Apricot? Iris? Suede? That's Serge Lutens' Daim Blond", then you are not far off, because this does sort of smell like someone tipped a bottle of the Lutens into a vat of Angel.

You can't tell from the photo, or in fact from any photo of the bottles that I've seen, but that chromed-plastic structure around the bottle is actually a peaked, five-pointed star, and here's my own (dreadful) photo to prove it:

The bottle is a perfect little handful, like a faceted gem in a claw setting, and it comes packaged in a leather drawstring pouch (the strings are baby-blue satin to go with the original's packaging colours) which is nestled inside a sort of jewellery box. Mugler does amazing presentations, and this one is no exception. Since the three women's Parfums de Cuir scents are packaged in the same bottle, they all have a leatherette tag to identify them.

If you already have Angel, you might not need this, although I do have two of the A*Men flankers and I'd probably have more if I'd ever had a chance to smell them, because Mugler knows how to do flankers, dammit. If you can find a tester, and you like the idea of Angel, then you ought to give this a shot, because it might seduce you the way it seduced me.

* A black American co-worker once told me she figured Canadians were every bit as racist as Americans, but Americans were at least willing to tell you to your face, whereas Canadians hid their behind a veil of niceness, which I can't convince myself is a bad thing: it might look like hypocrisy to some, but concealing whatever is roiling around in your mind and being polite on the surface seems like basic civility to me.

One day in Toronto — we spent a week there to decompress following our two weeks in Tokyo — we passed a bunch of students on their lunch break, and black teenaged girl was saying, "I'm not racist against white people. I mean, I hate some white people, but I don't hate them because they're white: I hate them because they're assholes." Words to live by!

Friday, November 09, 2012

Long Distance Love Affair: Serge Lutens Feminité du Bois (eventually)

You are going to have to scroll a very long way down if you want to read about Feminité du Bois. Just so you know.

All my posts for the last month were written in advance and auto-scheduled to appear on Fridays. I wasn't able to post because I WAS IN TOKYO. Seriously. I HAVE BEEN TO TOKYO AND I CAN PROVE IT.

That's a receipt from the Apple Store in Shibuya, Tokyo, dated October 17th, 2012. I bought an iPod nano, this tasty little morsel right here:

My old one was on its last legs: it was a second-generation nano, six years old and very much the worse for wear. This new one had been on the shelves for less than a week, and it seduced me with its vividness: it is SO RED! (You can also get an iPod touch in the same colour, but that one, to my surprise, is too red: there's just too much surface area and it's kind of overwhelming. This one is just exactly right.)

Flying to Tokyo from Toronto, unless you do it first class, is a real slog: twelve hours of sitting upright and being completely unable to sleep. (I watched five movies on the in-flight entertainment system. What did people do before those things? I really want to know, because without it I would have gone mad.) They do feed you every couple of hours, to distract you from the awful slogginess of the voyage and also to give the flight attendants something to do.

And then when you get there, you're twelve hours ahead in time zones, which means that 1) you haven't slept in quite a while, even though you're exhausted, and 2) you left at 5 in the afternoon and it's still 5 in the afternoon, but 3) your brain thinks it's 5 in the morning. AND YOU STILL CAN'T SLEEP. It took us a solid week to shake off the jet lag, and I am not kidding. (And then we had to do the whole thing again in the other direction, so there's another week that it took to shake off another bout of killer jet lag. And we both caught colds, too: a twelve-hour airplane trip, as it turns out, is a great incubator.)

Japan is years ahead of us in vending-machine technology. Everything you may have heard about that is true. Vending machines are everywhere, and most of them serve cold beverages in cans, hundreds of different brands and flavours, which is why I became addicted to Suntory Boss Café au Lait (milky, barely sweetened, and absolutely perfect): some of them also vend hot beverages, also in cans. From the same machine! You pay with change or bills: some of them also allow you to pay with a transit card called a Suica. Less commonly you might find machines that vend frozen ice-cream treats, snacks like Pocky, and children's toys. In Japan, one doesn't walk around eating and drinking and smoking (in fact, quite a few Tokyo sidewalks have something like this spray-painted onto or set into them):

(That's a sidewalk and not a wall.) So the custom is to buy a drink from one of these ubiquitous vending machines, stand there while you consume it, and then toss the empty can or bottle into a recycling container attached to it.

Those are outdoors. Most of the vending machines are. (The recycling slot is over to the left of the photo.) We never saw a single machine that had been damaged or vandalized in any way except very rarely a graffitied sticker or two slapped on the side. Can you even imagine anything like that in North America? They'd be spray-painted and kicked to death within days. Hours, maybe.

Japan is also years ahead of us in toilet technology. This is the control panel for the toilet in our hotel room:

Yeah, a toilet with a control panel. The leftmost button is to stop the water from spraying. The next one is labelled "Shower", and it cleans the back passage with a continuous jet of warm water. The next one is labelled "Bidet" and since it has a picture of a lady with her undercarriage being sprayed, you can rightly surmise that it moves the spray a little closer to the front. (I guess a man could use it too.) Over on the right is the dial for choosing the strength of the spray. Sitting on the commode was a slightly disconcerting experience, because as soon as you do, a pressure sensor detects that you're there and begins heating up some water for you: this trickles into the toilet and makes it sound as if you're peeing.

It is impossible to drop the toilet seat or lid: they hydraulically lower themselves, which is nice. More advanced toilets than this one — and we saw these in public places like malls and subway stations — also have a deodorizer spray button and a sound-generator button, which makes the sound of a flush (not very convincing, actually, but loud enough) to cover up any unfortunate sounds you yourself might be making. Apparently, Japanese women used to flush the toilet continuously to cover up sounds — walls in Japan tend to be pretty thin — and these devices help them stop wasting water.

The Japanese have a reputation for cleanliness and discretion, and I guess their toilets are a pretty good indicator of that, but I would like to note that twice during our stay, a young Japanese woman (not the same one each time) got onto an elevator absolutely stinking of body odour, so clearly not everybody knows how to use soap. I would also like to note that whatever the fragrance people say about differing Asian versus Western tastes in applied scents, we smelled a fair number of young men wearing loud, modern fragrances like Calvin Klein or Axe (aka douchewater).

You will be disappointed to learn that I promised Jim I would not be doing any fragrance shopping while I was there (not because he doesn't want me to try them but because he usually ends up standing in some public place waiting for me), and I didn't, either. Okay, one tiny exception. We were in Ginza (more about that below) and there was a Shiseido boutique which I figured would have the newest Serge Lutens, Santal Majuscule, so Jim graciously consented to wait around the corner by a vending machine and have a quick sip while I popped inside. And they did have Santal Majuscule, but there were two problems: 1) at first sniff it didn't seem all that different from Santal de Mysore except with a chocolatey note, and 2) it was like ¥13,600, which is almost $170, and I just couldn't. So I left. And other than that, no scent shopping until the very very end.

I did, however, go ink shopping. Boy howdy did I ever go ink shopping!

Tokyo has the most amazing stationery stores possible. A chain of stores called Tokyu Hands always has a stationery department and some of them are HUGE, with literally hundreds and hundreds of different makes of pens (I didn't count). There's a store in Ginza called Ito-Ya, nine stories of every single thing you can possibly imagine a stationery store ought to have: an entire floor of Japanese paper and calligraphy supplies, another consisting entirely of 2013 calendars and journals and diaries. We went to Ito-Ya on Day 2, still jet-lagged but in a shopping mood, and what I ended up buying there was not ink but a clutch of these little beauties:

That is a disposable fountain pen called a Pilot Petit1. It's tiny, but when you put the cap on the end it's almost as long as a standard pen. There's an ink cartridge inside in a colour that matches the pen: you impale it on the post inside the pen and the ink passes through the feed and into the nib, which is amazingly smooth for a pen that cost less than $2.50. The ink, though, is not particularly good, nothing special (you don't expect much at that price, I guess), except for the blue-black, which is really nice. You can buy replacement cartridges, but I had something else in mind: I got a syringe from a 100-yen store (like North American dollar stores, but much much better, sometimes four or five stories of wonderful things) to empty out the ink, flush the cartridge with water, and refill it with better ink. Specifically, Iroshizuku.

Remember Iroshizuku? I knew that they would be cheaper in Japan so I made up a list of 9 colours (out of 21) that I thought might be interesting, and figured I would choose a couple of them if I could find a source in Tokyo. The retail price in North America is $35, though you can buy it online for $28 a bottle. (After the trip we spent a week in Toronto to decompress, and the owner of Laywine's told me that after taxes and duties and so forth, he would have to sell Iroshizuku inks at $50 a bottle to make any money from them.) In Japan, you can buy it for 1500 yen, which is like $18 a bottle. So I bought eleven.

Not all at once! I was the very model of self-control at first, picking up only two (Fuyu-syogun, a cloud grey, and Syo-ro, a dark teal, in case you were wondering). But those inks are everywhere. A couple of days later I ended up buying three more (Asa-gao, pure blue; Yama-budo, dark magenta that I thought was more like burgundy; and Tsuki-yo, tealish blue-black). And then four days later another (Shin-ryoko, pine green). And then the next three more (Chiku-rin, bright bamboo green; Ku-jaku, bright peacock blue; and Fuyu-gaki, bright persimmon orange). And I really thought I was done with ink, but then the day before we left I found myself at one last Tokyu Hands location and by god didn't I buy two last Iroshizukus (Kon-Peki, bright sky blue, and that one up there, Murasaki-shikibu, killer purple)? And I loaded them all up into Petit1 pens (I ended up buying seriously about twenty-five of those things at various stationery stores all over Tokyo) and I just wrote and wrote and wrote (filling up almost two thirds of a Rhodia staple-bound journal in just over two weeks) and it is the most colourful thing you ever saw — it looks like a clown exploded all over the pages. But I got every single colour on my list and two more besides (the persimmon and the purple), and I am writing writing writing and it is wonderful.

So that is kind of a lot of shopping (there's more besides that could not possibly interest anyone), but when am I ever going to get back to Tokyo?

Before we went through the security gate at Narita airport, I went into a little drugstore/convenience store to get something to drink and maybe use up some of smaller change: I had a whole lot of it and too much was ¥5 and ¥1 coins, which vending machines won't take. And they had this:

Breath Palette, little 25-mL tubes of toothpaste in the most insane flavours, 31 of them. Yes, you can see Grapefruit and Pumpkin Pudding on those tubes, and that's just the start of it. I thought I had read about them before but I wasn't 100% sure that they were even toothpaste, so I asked the very nice clerk, "Toothpaste?" And she spoke no English, so I mimed brushing my teeth, and she responded by laughing and fake-brushing her own wide smile. (You can get by in Tokyo without much Japanese if you are willing to act things out, point a lot, and say "arigato" (thank you) and "sumimasen" (excuse me) a lot. And you bow a lot, too, and you will get the bowing wrong because there are different depths and durations of the bow depending on you and on them and your status and age and so forth, but they cut foreigners a whole lot of slack, and so it is all very civilized and polite and wonderful.)

The toothpastes, as it turns out, are extremely peculiar: don't have any detergent to make them foam, and they don't actually taste like their namesakes (which include Indian Curry, Yogurt Freshness, and Lavender). They sure as hell do smell like them, though, and they don't actually make your breath smell like chocolate or green tea or whatever: it's an evanescent experience. At ¥200 each, almost $2.50 Canadian, they're expensive for toothpaste but cheap for novelties. And so I added up my change and bought ten: Monkey Banana (!), Tropical Pineapple, Rose, Honey, Café au Lait, L'Espresso, Caramel, Cola, Blueberry, and Darjeeling Tea. If you're used to a toothpaste foaming up and making your breath severely minty, then these are a weird, counterintuitive experience, but they're fun as hell.

After the security gate at the Narita airport there is of course duty-free shopping, and so I decided that since I had been unexpectedly restrained and virtuous in Tokyo, I was going to see what they had. And the answer was, not much. I am mostly over commercial fragrances, and there were lots of those, of course, and some travel exclusives and sets of miniatures, but not one single thing grabbed my fancy. There was, however, a Serge Lutens display, complete with a very aggressive saleswoman (possibly on commission) who decided that I was going to sample, and buy, Daim Blond, which is nice enough but nothing I'd own. A quick skim of the contents — there were maybe a dozen scents there — revealed either things I already owned or things I wouldn't ever want to own, with one possible exception: Feminité du Bois.
When it was first launched in 1992, the bottle looked like this

and I really did not like it: I didn't think much of the scent, either, and even if I had liked it, I wouldn't have bought it, because of the bottle and also because of that name. In what I now know to be typical Lutens fashion, the scent itself isn't feminine or gendered in any way: but it was part of the Shiseido line, and the scent was so woody, so dominated by cedar, that the company had to take the curse off it and assure women that yes, it was a wood scent meant for them, that it wasn't masculine at all.

At Narita I sprayed some on a blotter and then wandered off to think about it. It didn't take me long to circle back and buy a bottle. Bois et Fruits is one of a series of variations on Feminité du Bois, and the family relationship is immediately clear: cedar and dried fruit, but in very different proportions.

Feminité du Bois opens with the briefest flash of soap, for some reason, and then it's immediately off to the main feature: a little dried fruit (mostly peaches and plums, lightly spicy, plus some orange peel) and lots and lots and lots of wood, mostly cedar but also sandalwood. It leaps off the skin at first, but once it settles down (which it does quickly) it's mostly a cozy, intimate scent: people are going to have to lean in to smell it on you.

Despite that name, there is nothing remotely feminine about it, at least not now: Lutens might as well have called it Un Bois Unisexe. It's been reformulated since its launch: that's no secret. (In fact, Lutens has said that all scents are reformulated repeatedly, sometimes every couple of years, and his are no exception.) Some people who know both say that the wood is considerably attenuated in this newer version: I have nothing to compare it to. I am willing to bet that if I could go back in time and smell the original Shiseido version, knowing what I know now, I would adore it. But the Lutens reformulation is what I have, and luckily for me, I adore that, too.

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Friday, November 02, 2012

Fall in Love: November by CB I Hate Perfume

Three things:

1) I think the name of Christopher Brosius' line, I Hate Perfume, is pretty awful. It's like a filmmaker saying he hates movies. I mean, I guess I get it: he hates perfume, perfuminess, but he loves scents, and what he makes and sells isn't perfume but something better. Isn't that kind of pretentious, though?

2) The website is an atrocity, a lot of pseudo-artistic rubbish by a designer who is more invested in having the site look interesting than in allowing people to find what they're looking for.

3) November (#403 on this hideous navigation page) is gorgeous, a slab of spicy pumpkin pie and a yardful of crunchy dried orange leaves. So simple, so evocative of autumn, pretty much a perfect fall scent, right up there with my favourites, the earthy Yves Rocher Nature Millénaire Pour Homme (sadly long discontinued) and the baked-apple Brandy.