Wednesday, August 27, 2008

if cuba had been a crown colony...

Cuba, like the rest of the Western hemisphere, was traditionally considered by the USA as its back yard. In fact, as far back as the Early Republic, Thomas Jefferson could assert that Cuba was "the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States" and after "liberating" the island from Spanish rule in the "splendid little war" of 1898 , the so-called Platt Amendment added to the Cuban constitution transfered essential aspects of the nation's sovereignty to the US. A playground for gambling US tourists and mobsters after WWII, Cuban suffered under the ruthless dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, a long time darling of Washington. As so often in Central and South America, the US failed to support democratic alternatives and its seriously incompetent policy ultimately lead to Fidel Castro's triumph, his turn towards hard-line Marxism-Leninism, JFK's Bay of Pigs misadventure and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In popular culture, however, the romantic image of mid-century Cuba, and especially Havana, has prevailed, aided by the economic stagnation under the Castro regime which has ironically preserved the city in picturesque (for visitors) poverty. The Buena Vista Social Club clearly trumps the more limited visibility of independent Cuban film makers or critical reportage and the imagery of fine cigars, rum-soaked nights, hot tropical rhythms and rusty pastel-colored vintage cars will probably be with us forever.

Considering the above history it is fitting that a US company would have produced a perfume called Havana , aiming to evoke precisely this kind of atmosphere. A heady mixture of bay rum, citrus, spices, florals, woods, resins and, naturally, tobacco - just about everything the perfumers had lying around, really - it is the quintessential machismo fragrance. Though released in 1994, it is very much in the style of 1980s male powerhouses and considered a classic by many fragrance lovers. All the more surprising that it was discontinued and now only seems easily available in South Africa, though a small minority, including yours truly, has indeed always complained that it is too much of too many good things. The public seemed to agree.

Since 2002, there has been an alternative to the American Havana . It is British luxury aromatics house Czech & Speake's Cuba, which works the iconic images of the island into a completely different olfactory story - one in which Cuba became a British colony in 1850 or so. In marked contrast to the excessive density of Aramis Havana, C&S Cuba blends the cool refinement typical of traditional English fragrances with the exotic smells of the old capital (the slightly modified coat of arms of which you can see above). The opening is an amazing feat, in which a strong civet note's fecal aspects are perfectly balanced out by a refreshing mint note, which in turn is kept from going all gaudy by the animalic element; all this is perfectly framed by unobtusive citrus and a subtle rum note. It's a mojito on a colonial-style porch, with the smell of the street wafting up from below. Masculine, but not chest haired and rugged - the panama hat is pristine and the white dinner suit was cut on Savile Row. There follows a wonderful, present, yet subtle blend of green tobacco, clove, bay and restrained florals and a warm base said to contain tonka, cedar, vetiver, and, this is very evident, frankincense.
This is what the British governor of Cuba smelled like around 1955, in some strange parallel universe not necessarily worse than ours. The fact that the bottle bears a red star represents the kind of British/niche humor which would not have worked too well for a US corporation such as Estée Lauder, who chose a tropical feather theme for Havana (no less ironic, though, considering how heavy that perfume is). Then again, holding Socialist ideas while running an empire was precisley what Britons were doing at midcentury, so the pieces of our alternative history actually fit together quite nicely.

Cuba is a worthy, in my opinion even superior, successor to Havana, as it manages to take the concept of a rich Caribean-style fragrance into the 21st century by reaching back to English perfume traditions. The result is, in fact, suitable for both men and women.
Now, is there anything missing in this story? Indeed, there is: Santa Maria Novella's Acqua di Cuba, for starters. But we will entertain the fantasy of Cuba as an Italian colony at some other time.

Monday, August 25, 2008

narcotic venus, narcotic adonis?

What is full of illegal substances and makes great PR for repressive regimes? Of course, the presently concluded Olympic Games. Once again the public has been fed, and has eagerly gulped down, its two-week concentrate of reality soap athletic drama full of heroes, tragic losers and villains (though one can never be quite sure who is who), framed by two spectacular variety pieces that succinctly expressed what's at stake here: manipulating masses of bodies to generate profits and flex political muscle. China wins the gold medal count, the US has the most total medals, even Togo and Kirgisistan have their heros for a day. and we can all feel these Games have 'opened China towards the world' and at least the folks in Tibet are not worse off. Never mind the dregs whose appartments were bulldozed away to build a stadium by party decree. All of which leads me to present my fragrant choice for the 2008 olympics - anti-climactically after the fact, just to make sure you don't think I'm buying into the hype or crave membership on the IOC gravytrain. And the winner is: Nasomatto's Narcotic Venus.
Nasomatto fragrances have something quite Olympian about them. The company is as secretive about ingredients as the IOC is about its backroom dealings. They are as expensive as advertising time on US television during a Michael Phelps final. And they are as powerful as the latest dope cocktail that will make anyone's grandfather run the 100 meters in 9.5. It's as if Nasomatto wanted to cut through the ever-thickening jungle of niche fragrance competition to release an olfactory scream straight into your face, like those Ur-Schreis belted out by javelin throwers. The choice as an olympic scent came naturally, for the Nasomatto manifesto, obviously written by the same guy who composes Olympic communiqués, states "I give advantage to people longing to distinguish themselves" as well as "I take advantage of drugs and food." Now if that doesn't capture the spirit of the Games...
Narcotic Venus is supposedly about "the overwhelming addictive intensity of female sexual power.” That may sound more like the Kama Sutra Olympics and raises fears of another Sécrétions Magnifiques. Thankfully, what we get instead is - not white punks - but white florals on dope. This is a bouquet of summer flowers, green gardenia, jasmine and prominently tuberose, on anabolic steroids, akin to a 300-pound ballet dancer, or to stay in the Olympic frame of reference: what is this heavy weight boxer doing among 14-, er...16-year old slender-bodied gymnasts and why is she wearing mascara?
For all that initial power, nothing much happens here anymore. Sexuality? Ah, you know what happens to the libido with all those pharmaceuticals. No, there are no naughty indoles here at all, no lusty notes of groins in motion, no spice of life. It's all kept squeaky clean, a bird's nest filled with 10,000 white blossoms, smelling in unison. An impressive image, for a while, professionally executed, but whether that spells out beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To me it's a demonstration of power and skill, but it falls short on aesthetic daring. There is quality and abundance, but not enough soul or inventiveness. Thankfully we find that in other places. The true, undiluted spirit of sportsmanship can be observed, e.g. among players of Tipp-Kick, undisturbed by political functionaries, corporation cash or the need to dope.

hidden cost(e)s

Costes by Hotel Costes is a favorite perfume of mine. As a fragrance bearing the name of a luxurious design-hotel, its aesthetic is not based on irritation or challenging conventions, but on conveying the sheer comfort and unrestrained pleasure of a hedonistic weekend in Paris.

Olivia Giacobetti created a spicy-sweet incense, with a slightly soapy and floral heart that avoids the ecclesiastical starkness of Comme des Garcon's Avignon, the olfactory antics of Etro's Messe de Minuit and the sartorial demands (Savile Row suit) of Czech & Speake's Frankincense & Myrrh, each a unique and brilliant variation on the incense theme. With her accustomed sleight of hand she managed to bottle a message of carefree leisure and casual luxury that makes Costes a joy to wear.

We can rest assured that Olivia G., though a hired hand of foreign extraction, was compensated handsomely for her labor of luxury. The same did not apply to a group of illegal immigrants working as cooks and kitchen helpers at one of the stylish eateries of the Costes group, the brasserie La Grande Armée. Working with forged papers, of which their employer was fully aware, and paying full taxes while denied equal pay and the benefits of the French social system, nine Africans decided they had had enough and occupied the restaurant on Valentine's day this year, demanding to be legalized before they would return to kitchen duty. They embody the economic logic of Paris gastronomy, where 60% of employees are without legal papers, increasing profits for operators and revealing to what extent high living standards and high life are intertwined with systematic exploitation in the heart of Europe. Supported by the French union CGT, seven of the rebels succeeded in their struggle, but there is little doubt that things will remain unchanged for many invisible cooks, maids, and other service personell at the Hotel Costes and elsewhere.

It has just become a little bit harder to suspend disbelief and plunge into Giacobetti's cozy fantasy. Somewhere beneath the incense lurks an off-note of hypocrisy and injustice.

perfume, politics, and everything else?

a blog, if it is to be more than a collection of personal expressions, requires a thematic anchor, and this blog's anchor is perfume, something i am very interested in and spend far too much money on :-). but a blog is also a flexible means of publicly expressing one's views (if anyone is listening - question: do blogs exist, if nobody reads them :-) ?). so why not also talk about matters of possible public interest, the political, when the opportunity arises? perhaps even linking them to perfume in some material or allegorical way or another. and, ocassionally, everything else, i.e. my personal interests and reflections beyond perfume (yes, they exist). whether this will come to anything remains to be seen, but for now: the doors are open, welcome.