I was quite a weird child. The boys would be playing football, play-punching, or moronically shooting each other with invisible karashnikovs. The girls would be playing with dolls and each others’ hair, skipping daintily, bitching, and doing whatever else little girls do.
I was always off somewhere with my odd posse, imagining I was a warlock doing magic with my petalled potions; reading my secret collection of Flower Fairy books, or else pretending to be a black panther (which was my ultimate dream at the time…)
I used to lie in bed seeing myself morphing slowly into that beast, feeling the power of the claws start to surge as I leapt off into the undergrowth…
Might these childhood urges be one of the reasons why I am so drawn to the perfumes that follow; the rose/patchouli/ leather chypres, those taloned, ruminating creatures that come nearer to approximating that black cat in perfume than any other type?
Those perfumes that have been replaced in the contemporary canon by industrial effluent and candyfloss but which when worn correctly, and knowingly, can be quite groanworthingly pointed and erotic?
In Annick Le Guerer’s book ‘Scent’, the panther, long venerated by various cultures for the beautiful perfume of its breath, is described as being historically viewed as ‘prudent, intelligent, and cunning…’, emitting an odour that is ‘agreeable to all other animals’, enabling it to hunt by ‘remaining in hiding and attracting animals to it by its smell…’ And like a beautifully-attired woman sat in a bar wearing Paloma Picasso, in her corner with her trailing cigarette, ‘when the leopard needs food it conceals itself in a dense thicket or in deep foliage and is invisible; it only breathes. And so fawns and gazelles and wild goats and suchlike animals are drawn by the spell, as it were, of its fragrance and come close up…….
Whereat, the leopard springs out and seizes its prey…..’
MON PARFUM by PALOMA PICASSO (1984)
Probably the most successful of perfumes in the chypric rose genre, by contemporary standards Paloma smells hopelessly out of fashion and animalic: just smell the beaver. Less pronounced in the eau de toilette form, which is essentially a different fragrance and far less impressive, in the eau de parfum, the oily, leathery note of castoreum, extracted from the sweat glands of the Canadian beaver – troubling, aphrodisiac - is very apparent in this perfume and verges on shocking. It is, nevertheless, with a flourish of perfumed Spaniard magic, extravagantly cloaked in woods; lashes of patchouli; a spiced lush Spanish floral heart of the deepest rose, jasmine and mimosa; and a sharp, sassy green top note like the click of glinting heels on a Barcelona sidewalk.
The perfume has been around for quite a while now, and despite the fact that the world’s tastes in scent have since changed irrevocably since its release, in a survey done by various global beauty editors and perfume people (and not so long ago, either), Mon Parfum by Paloma Picasso was voted the sexiest perfume on earth.
I don’t know if the perfume can definitively claim this title, but it certainly is damn good on the right person who can carry it off, and it is very hard to resist.
Mon Parfum is just so…….cocksure of itself: an adult woman with experience, sexual confidence and power coursing through her blood. It needs a glammed up, lipsticked predator with attitude to do it full justice and unleash its torrid potential - a woman, or man, who doesn’t mind, in fact loves, its eighties femme fatale clichés.
MAGIE NOIRE by LANCOME (1978)
Paloma’s darker, occultist, more serious elder cousin, Magie Noire has a similarly ensorcelling theme of sharp green notes contrasting with a rich Bulgarian rose heart, patchouli and provocative, animalic/woody finish. But in Lancôme’s finest scent there is very little sweetness (there is a touch in the heart of Paloma) and the sharp green/earth divide (a mesmerizing accord of galbanum, bergamot, raspberry and hyacinth, contrasting with a mossy patchouli note tempered with honey) only grows more potent and disturbing with time, stronger and more scary as the day or night progresses.
It is witchy, truly, but also tender, mysterious, elegant, erotic, and a touch sinister, as you are gradually drawn into the depths of a midnight forest. Or at the very least to a very edgy seventies dinner party hostess in a busy black dress.
EAU DU SOIR by SISLEY (1990)
The unfairly reviled Eau Du Soir (Luca Turin again) is more dormant, and quietly explosive, than either of the above scents, a tasteful and intoxicating brew that, as its name suggests, is the evening perfume par excellence, absolutely made for black and grand occasions.
What I love about the Sisley perfumes is their lack of the saccharine ; where their first perfume, the classic Eau de Campagne (created by Jean Claude Ellena in 1974) is astonishingly green, almost unbearably so, as if you were trapped inside a giant basil or tomato leaf, Eau Du Soir is Campagne’s night counterpart, similarly dry and unsentimental: a ravishing patchouli, rose d’orient, seringa, juniper, and Moroccan rose absolute accord with a centerpiece of the perfume’s star ingredient, Egyptian jasmine absolute (less civilized, rougher, more animalic than its French counterpart), which purrs and insinuates itself beautifully within the radiant, effortless chic of the spicy chypre base. Eau Du Soir is a difficult scent, almost formidable. You would never mess with someone wearing this.
SINAN by JEAN-MARC SINAN (1984)
Sinan, an obscure fragrance not so easy to find these days, is another taut, chypre animalic with a full-bodied, sweetly lingering rose twined with woods and patchouli: another fur-clad siren leading her black-widow victims to their willing fate…
The perfume bears some similarities with Paloma, and also Lauder’s fabulous Knowing (which took this essentially European idea and Americanized it) but where that perfume has a certain seamless infallibility (present in all Lauder’s creations) and is somewhat over the top with its honeyed electric rose, Sinan presents a similarly perfumed face but less emphatically; not a white-gated mansion in the centre of Florida, but a house near the woods, somewhere in the depths of France…
If you are not familiar with these perfumes, please try as hard as you possibly can to find samples or bottles in vintage. Trust me, it is worth the effort. Current versions may be enjoyable, but the richer, plummier, more evil true incarnations of all of these scents is essential.