Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Essentially Me - It Souks!

No, this is not an ego-trip gone sour, rather I'd like to share my impressions of the natural perfumes sold under this moniker by Alec Lawless. Lawless runs an essential oils business with his wife as well as creating bespoke perfumes and providing various perfumer`s equipment through Essentially Me.

A group of lucky basenoters will be sampling and reviewing the ready-to-wear perfume line and I'll be conveying my impressions here as I work my way through ten natural fragrances.

I must admit I have become rather turned off by the fragrance industry as a whole and see little hope for any improvement. The mainstream industry is all about pushing low-quality redundancy at whatever the market will bear while establishing ultra-expensive luxury lines selling what would have been considered a proper fragrance, no more, no less, in the 1980s at prices that start at about a month's worth of welfare payments and end somewhere around the price of a small automobile. Niche has widely degenerated into a fashionista racket with endless new style-over-substance editions of design-conscious flacons and silly brand concepts haphazardly concealing boring, primitive or simply more of those prefab industrial smells.

Paranoid IFRA regulations benefiting the aromachemical big players do not help either and it seems that the only pockets of resistance are small, often one-person perfume operations such as those of Andy Tauer, Dominique Dubrana, Mandy Aftel, Liz Zorn or Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, who are dedicated to preserving and enhancing the art and artisanry of perfumery, rather than merely making a living off of it.

This is a wonderful opportunity to delve into the olfactory universe of another such individual, and the first fragrance by Alec Lawless I have treid is called Souk.

Here's what Essentially Me says about it:
"This was inspired by travelling in the Middle East and India where there is much to celebrate from these ancient cultures. The haunting smells of the spice markets, the Arab love affair with the rose, fragrant gardens, precious woods, resins and incense. Sandalwood, frankincense and Cedar of Lebanon are blended with balsams to provide a complex woody heart. Rose Maroc, jasmine, orris and neroli bring floral tributes from surrounding lands. Citrus fruits, herbs and oriental spices bring nuance from the market stalls and the ancient mysterious opoponax suggests incense with help from frankincense and sandalwood. Deep complex and beguiling - the beauty is in the mystery."

My thoughts:
Are you going to Scarborough Souk? Yes that's right, the green-herbal elements in this unisex beauty balance the balsamic-spice so as to create an English oriental, the two fragrant worlds coming together nicely in the rose, which is, after all, so quintessential to both. A pleasing alternative to the French orient smarting under the syrupy heel of that charming despot Serge Lutens.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Guerlain's Gaffe

There's been quite an uproar about Jean-Paul Guerlain's remark in a television interview, that in creating Samsara "Pour une fois, je me suis mis à travailler comme un nègre. Je ne sais pas si les nègres ont toujours tellement travaillé, enfin…"

While I lack an indepth knowledge of French cultural semantics, I'm uncertain whether the translation in the Anglo media of "nègre" as "nigger" is not somewhat misleading, the former having been common public usage through the 1960s and beyond to designate blacks, and thus not dissimilar to the English "negro" or the German "Neger." These terms were used affirmatively by Africans and African-Americans, such as Marcus Garvey (1920s), Leopold Senghore(1930s) Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (1960s), while their use by "white" societies inevitably infused them with the ubiquitous racism of those societies, leading to a (difficult) shift to alternatives (Afro-American, African American, black, noir and others) since the 1960s.

The pejorative quality of the word and the turn of phrase, with the added callousness of questioning whether any black ever worked as hard as Guerlain did, is unquestionably injurious, uncivil and racist in nature. We can safely assume that M. Guerlain's days as a publicity instrument of the Louis-Vuitton-Moet-Hennesy-owned House of Guerlain are numbered. That a number of organizations will be pressing charges against Guerlain seems exaggerated though. We are not talking about Jean Marie Le Pen here, after all, and a legal course will achieve nothing. Vigorous protest and the opportunity to use this gaffe as a starting point for a reasoned discussion of racism issues in French society would seem a more promising path. But then it is not to be expected, that anti-racist organizations are immune to the baneful effects of media hysteria any more than any other institution and perhaps targeting one politically irrelevant old man is providing some psychological compensation for their utter helplessness in the face of the rising tide of European xenophobia as embodied by pathetic fearmongers such as Geert Wilders or the highly questionable policies of the Sarkozy government, for that matter.

Personally I'm saddened rather than angered by Guerlain's gaffe (then again, I'm white). I simply can't say I'm outraged by this haughty old man's public callousness in the same way that slavery in Mauretania or labor conditions in China co-sponsored by the West's shoddy consumerism outrage me. But you'd wish that a man like Guerlain, capable of such refinement and sensibility in his artful line of work, so well-travelled and cosmopolitan, was simply incapable of harboring a worn-out racist cliché of this sort. Such an insensitive remark from an obviously cultivated mind serves as a sorrowful illustration of how segregated and selective civility may be. Monsieur Guerlain, I regret to inform you that your status as gentleman has been revoked.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Harrod's The Perfume Diaries

Well, I've learned one or two things from the "Evening of European Perfumery" I attended last week at Harrod's Perfume Diaries exhibit. For one, if you invite company reps, even from the top tier, to give talks about perfumery, you're going to get a bland PR presentation on why their house is so great and on the new/upcoming release. That wasn't really surprising, yet nonetheless somewhat disappointing. The other thing I learnt is that Olivia Chantecaille is even better looking in real life than on photographs. She wore a stunning, minimalist dress in orange which looked very haute couture and clashed violently with the dashiki-like Hermès thing Roja Dove was wearing to prove his olfactory asthetics are far superior to his visuals (as Luca Turin once remarked, most Hermès products are hideously ugly marvels of traditional quality and craft). As you may note this post has been made commensurate to the gravity of the reported event. However, I need to point out that the little exhibit put on by Harrods with the help of numerous perfume houses really is worth while seeing, as they have assembled an impressive number of beautiful and interesting flacons, including a fair amount of rare gems, which most of us will at best normally get to see in books. I also liked the idea of providing little smell stations featuring four scents representative of each decade - if you ever needed proof that things have been going downhill since the late 80s, there it was. But there was a silver lining, too. Chantecaille presented its three fragrances Vetyver, Pétales and Kalimantan and they were old-fashioned in a good way. I know what you're thinking, but no, I'm not saying this because I was hypnotized by Olivia's beauty. The ubiquitous claim of high percentages of top-grad naturals was backed up with facts. Vetyver was very traditional, unisex, green-nutty, drawing on some of the classics, very good, but giving me a headache just as Guerlain's and Lubin's renditions do (beyond that, this was far better than Guerlain's male product, but not quite as convincing as Vetyver pour elle). Pétales is a traditional, natural-smelling rich bouquet fragrance, that I'd prefer over all those ghastly fruity-floral synths from hell on a woman any day, though I wouldn't have minded a tad of dioresque dirt in there. Kalimantan, as the name suggests, provides patchouli spice and amber, not too innovative, but on par quality-wise with classic Lutens juices. It is good to see such a commitment to quality in at least some houses and one can only hope that high-end consumers will register and reward this, rather than jumping after the next fragrance gimmick. The olfactory trail of Comme des Garcons certainly indicates that the glory days of anti- or guerilla perfumery are over and it's time to refocus on basics. Call it slow smell, but that's a subject for some future manifesto.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Roses are red...

OK, folks, I'm not a bloggy kind of person which has meant that I've frequently slipped into extended essaying here (not a bad thing per se), with the counterproductive effect of posting only a few times a year. Since I do want to make this space a bit livelier, I will try to be more frequent and brief, albeit without relinquishing occasional attempts at lengthier meditations.

So here, for one is a picture from a beautiful Victorian-style Salon de Thé in Strasbourg aptly called Au Fond du Jardin. This lovely place of respite right next to the Palace Rohan and the awesome, but busily touristy Muenster was bound to remind of perfume, not just because of the divine Madeleines that come in a baffling variety of brilliant variations and will surely burn themselves into your olfactory and gustatory memory as powerfully as the ones Proust smelled, but because the whole place is about the smells of flowers (dried rose leaf infusion, gently floral- scented tea compositions), the tastes of sweets and spice and a plush world of yore which can only evoke classic heady perfumes in ornate flacons.

I communicated as best I could with the gracious host and Anglophile Frédéric Robert (the "stylist") and his partner Laurent (the "creator") and felt naturally compelled to recommend Penhaligon's Hammam Bouquet as a perfect scent for anyone who so lovingly designed such an Ur-British environment in the heart of Alsace. I also had on hand a few scents from my travel coffret which seemed perfect matches: vintage Italian-made Czech & Speake No. 88 and Washington Tremlett's Black Tie, both made by the wonderfully skilled folks at Forester Milano , who have access to some phenomenal floral essences. That brought to mind another of their rose masterpieces, the beautiful, melancholy-masculine Domenico Caraceni with its dark resin and tobacco. Feasting on an Audrey Hepburn Madeleine (spices & Earl Grey), sipping the floral Un ange à Rome (rose and bramble) in their little flower-drenched forecourt, while traces of a fine rose scent sweeten the air is as close as paradise as one will get on earth - to Strasbourg, friends.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Castile to Hampstead, via Milano

The trend towards reviving Eau de Cologne shows no sign of abating, which is a good thing for a classic cologne fogey such as myself. I was graciously gifted with a bottle of Washington Tremlett's Hampstead Water recently (officially a fougere, but to me it's a high-longevity EdC), which I had been most eager to try, as that brand's Black Tie is one of my perennial favorites. Both scents happen to be creations of Shirley Brody's, a key figure in contemporary British perfumery. She was involved in the rebirth of Penhaligon's in the late 70s as well as the conception of Czech & Speake's aromatics line, which, before the recent relaunch of inferior reformulations, constituted the pinnacle of English-style fragrance craft (ironically, Made in Italy). One of her more recent endeavors is the little known XPEC line which manages to combine an excellent perfume with the most horridly misguided branding (both the name and the packaging are incompatible with the classic contents that would seem to appeal to traditionalist, straight-razor-shaving, Savile-Row-clad fragrance aficionados). But she has also been a major force behind the Tremlett brand, thus continuing the cooperation that once existed between Czech and Speake and the fragrance firm of Forester in Milan, who were responsible for such masterpieces as C&S No. 88, Domenico Caraceni and the aforementioned Black Tie, as well as the hard-to-find Gianni Campagna series with gems such as Vento Canale. Perhaps, then it was the through the Brody connection that Hampstead Water immediately reminded me of Penhaligon's Castile. Not that the former is a clone or anything and I doubt Brody was involved with Penhaligon's anymore when Castile was released in 1998. The similarities likely result from the simple fact that both are Eau de Cologne style fragrances, HW featuring bergamot, orange, lavender, water mint, leather and musk, while Castile is built around neroli, petitgrain, bergmot, orange blossom, rose, woods and musk. As the notes suggest, the tops are quite similar, but Hampstead is a good deal fresher via the mint, while Castile is defined by the warm orange and rose interplay. Still, it somehow makes sense to me to see Brody's spirit hovering above all these waters like a fairy godmother of English perfumery. I guess I have a crush on her...Anyway, in the geography of Eau de Cologne, Castile is closer to Hampstead Heath than you may think - just travel via Milan.

Image: "The Writer" at Hampstead Heath with a bottle of Castile

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Of good smells and bad taste

In the 1890s nouveau-riche Americans shocked Old Europe with their unique combination of immense wealth and what appeared to the English, French, German, Italian etc. better classes to be an utter lack of cultivation. Starting in the 1990s it was Russian oligarchs and their entourages who did their best to confirm the platitude that superwealth married to a lack of cultural sensibility will produce the most astounding aesthetic carbunkles. The gaudiness and excess of Moscow's superrich has been amply documented. Needless to say Old Europe's fashion & beauty businesses then and now, large and small, have always used their cultural capital to sell good taste - or bad - to the new money. A small but conspicuous Italian venture called Xerjoff, founded by Italians Sergio Momo and Dominique Salvo in 2004, has specifically targeted, as the name already suggests, the new rich Russians with an extensive and expensive line of perfumes. In fact, they do their best to make Creed and company look like drugstore scents.

Now, at first sight the whole affair could easily be dismissed as a typical hot air balloon. For starters, the English language copy on the website and product is appallingly faulty and vacuous, clearly the result of overly literal translation from the Italian by an amateur. As a former translator I have never understood this slovenly approach to language among international companies for whom image is essential. Is it so difficult to get feedback from competent native speakers? After all, how would you feel about a $300,000 Maserati whose computer system notifies you to "please to be putting on seat belting for driver safeties"?
Secondly, Xerjoff suffers from the industry epidemic that has now fully infected niche firms - throwing way too many products on the market in too little time. Xerjoff already features three distinct lines, the flagship XJ 17/17 (weak name) with four scents, Shooting Stars (twelve scents) and Casamorati (four scents). Such speed inevitably comes at the cost of originality, as even the best noses will be reworking established formulas.
Lastly, the styling of several of the products - particularly the high end Murano flacons of the 17/17 line and the faux retro Casamorati series - is an aesthetic nightmare. Whatever money can buy is thrown together to create costly kitsch that would make designers from Aalto to Wagenfeld rotate in their graves - though Jeff Koons may perhaps squeal with delight, as perhaps will the designated target group in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

BUT - VERY BIG BUT - setting aside the aesthetic repulsion and instant-niche skepticism, one delightedly discovers that the gaudy canisters do not contain some nameless industry swill of the "who cares what it smells like as long as it costs thousands" variety, but very high quality essences, some of them stunninghly beautiful and worthy to be smelled and worn by fragrance aficionados(few of whom will ever be able to afford them) rather than superficial millionaires. As I was told by someone who knows the numbers, Xerjoff, contrary to many supposedly high-end niche firms, actually invests unually high amounts of money into the best essences and is, in this respect, on par with quality-obsessed one-man houses like Tauer.

You can read numerous perfumista impressions on an extensive basenotes Xerjoff testing thread based on a sample extravaganza aimed at introducing/hyping the brand to/in the US, but I'll limit myself to three cases in point here:
XXY from the 17/17 line is an overly sweet, rather uninspired unisex (?) scent, so generic in its combination of fruit, floral and amber that you may just as well buy some $40 mainstream product, if you're in it for the perfume rather than the exclusivity experience. A 3/10 on the perfumery scale, but a 10 for nouveau-riche-silliness here.
Much more impressive is the 17/17 lines Xerjoff homme, a bow to the grand Knize Ten - equal, perhaps even superior in quality and a bit more rounded and creamy to suit contemporary tastes. Imagine K10 pushed in the direction of Creed's Royal English Leather and Lutens Cuir Mauresque. So, here we have a truly top-notch, if not highly original scent of deep, rich leather, suitably dark, but without excessive harshness. An 8 on the perfume scale for an excellent variation of tradition that may well become the personal preference of many a perfumista and will introduce nouveau-newbies to good rather than merely expensive perfume.
The big winner in this trio, though, is Kobe from the Shooting Stars collection (€ 384 for 50ml) - the best and most interesting men's neroli scent I have ever tried. Superb essence, supplied with unusual longevity, free of the unpleasant off-notes marring, e.g. Czech & Speake's (reformulated) or Norma Kamali's Neroli, and creatively blending citrus (bergamot and orange notes supporting the neroli) with resinous notes of labdanum, rosewood, styrax, benzoe and restrained oud. This is innovative, intelligent, beautiful and I want to know who did it. As to the price: considering that Creed was asking $ 405 for 50ml of a pretty synthetic-smellingAND short-lived green floral (i.e. Windsor) I'd say you're almost getting Kobe at a bargain. Ah, but let's not get snotty. If we leave all the hoollaballo aside, what we have here is a small house producing many good and several great perfumes for too small an audience. I hope those rich Russians appreciate just how fine these smells are, before the next luxury hype vies for their attention.

Friday, April 30, 2010

BONDage & Dominance

Bond No. 9 is one of those perfume firms which have succesfully commodified the concept of "niche perfumery," which, from an aesthetic angle, was initially meant to embody a vision of perfumery as a craft based on the integrity and artistic control of an inspired creator and which now represents a streamlined pseudo-exclusivity based on imaging and PR rather than the actual quality or originality of the product (read more about niche degeneration here). Its founder Laurice Rahme, who was called "an industry bête noire, combative and obstinate" in the NY Times, somewhat modelled the Bond approach upon Creed perfumes which she had distributed in the US before breaking with them, transforming that brand's largely invented Old World pomp & circumstance narrative into a Big Apple story feeding on the well-established global attraction of New York as the capital of glitz, urbanity, cosmopolitanism and diversity. Perhaps not surprisingly, some early Bonds are rather uninspired copycats of Creed's succesful Green Irish Tweed (Chez Bond) and Silver Mountain Water (Hamptons). As a matter of fact, the staggering number of 43 releases in the 8-year period of the company's existence pretty much precludes any true dedication to originality and creativity. Naturally, the scents are created by external noses working for the big aroma & scent giants. Out of the 36 Bonds reviewed by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, 22 are judged "awful" and "disappointing."
Perhaps it is amateur psychology to assume that Bond No. 9's guilt over its little plagiarisms and general creative redundancy (hardly uncommmon in the business) has pathologized into a damaging case of paranoia about evil forces threatening the company's identity. It does seem like the firm is projecting its own attitude towards perfume onto strangers which are then accused of haunting poor little Bond No. 9 (there's a David Lynch movie somewhere in here). It was only a rumour that Rahme was pivotal in effecting the ban of decant sales on ebay (a concerted effort by numerous perfume houses). What created major repercussions in the blogosphere was Bond's threat of suing a one-woman perfume operation for trademark infringement over using the word "peace" in the name of her perfume "Peace on Earth" - a term Bond seemed to believe was its own in the world of beauty products after having released the 9/11-inspired "Scent of Peace" (a generic fruity floral more deserving of the name "Scent of Wuss"). While it may be understandable that companies are particularly eager to protect their brands in this fluid virtual age (though it's quite obvious Bond did not have a case by a mile in this particular instance) the arrogant attitude that shone through Bond's undiplomatic handling of the matter left a bad impression among a major part of the perfumista community - but not bad enough apparently for history not to repeat itself. It has been reported that Bond No. 9 has warned the decanting service The Perfumed Court, via twitter of all things, to desist from decanting Bond No. 9 fragrances as this supposedly represents a trademark infringement. This is nonsense of course, as anybody has the right to dispose of their legally acquired property as they see fit, but the question is: doesn't Bond realize that TPC, known as a reliable and trustworthy source of decants to the perfumista community, is providing free marketing for their brand and bringing in new customers for them from all over the world? That should be considered an asset rather than a threat, especially in these times of recession and after an obvious miscalculation on the potential of the German market, which was seriously oversaturated with Bond No. 9 (half-price was a common site, it was going on the grey market for 60 Euros). If I had ever been interested in this line, which I was not, this heavy-handed approach would have cured me once and for all. It's time someone told this outit to stop pestering the perfume world with its mean-spirited corporate antics and mediocre wares and to desist from infringing upon his trademark rights. I mean Mr. Bond. James Bond.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mecca or Monaco?

La Via del Profumo is the natural perfume studio of Dominique Dubrana, who crafts fragrance under the name of Abdes Salam Attar and is inspired by the mystic Islamic branch of Sufism. His fragrances have been hailed widely as transcending the traditional shortcomings of natural perfumes such as lack of structure, complexity and longevity. Even Luca Turin, who used to be quite skeptical about natural perfume, has given very high marks to Dubrana's compositions.

His latest "scent of the soul" was inspired by his trip to Mecca and is accordingly called Mecca Balsam. As part of the sampling/discussion group on basenotes for MB, I received a generous sample of the essence which I have studied over the last months. And I admit, understanding Mecca Balsam was itself something of a pilgrimage. I've revisited it again and again, as my sample permitted and from an initial discomfort and skepticism I have come to deeply appreciate it. I am, I suppose, a convert . To me Mecca Balsam is not soothing in the sense of providing complacent tranquility. It carries within it the whole spectrum of a pilgrim's path. Dusty, forlorn roads, rocky, forbidding terrain (the austerity and dustiness of dry resinous labdanum), the pleasure of being hosted by a gracious stranger (dry, but rich tobacco, sweet enticing tonka) the deep, sweet satisfaction of reaching the sacred destination and finding there: yourself (the divine licqourous wine of those amazing florals, soft, meditative frankincense interacting with the dry resins & the tobacco). The sum, thus, is greater even than its magnificent parts: rich, complex, distinct and yet with the typical subtlety of a natural perfume, or as Octavian Coiffan so aptly put it in his review, an archetypal oriental freed of excessive ornamentation.

The effect, surprisingly, is somewhat two-faced. Mecca Balsam does exude a spiritual quality worthy of its name and its creator's intentions. But make no mistake, it could just as well be employed to seduce those around the wearer in very worldly ways - like a subtler, more genteel Domenico Caraceni for, indeed, men of the world. The abscence within it - of the stereotpyical loud synthetic amber, of screechy metallic florals, of frankincense on ISO-e-Super-steroids - imparts it with a serenity and exclusivity that would make it grace a plain white pilgrim's tunic no less than the bespoke-tailored, gold-buttoned navy blazer and crisp white shirt of a yaughting millionaire. One can thus choose what sort of wealth one wishes Mecca Balsam to display - that of the pure spirit or that of the art of fine living. The latter may not have been part of Dubrana's vision, but it makes Mecca Balsam even more impressive and enticing as a work of fragrant art.