The first time I encountered it I was twenty and not quite ready. And neither was the public apparently, as Ungaro came and went very quickly, becoming just another discontinued, but highly sought after, cult scent. Yet even back then I knew. Something murky, and sweatily, dangerously seductive smouldered on that department store counter. It was almost too obviously manly, an attempt to combine a seventies barechested medallion aesthetic with the new decade. So macho. So not of the times, yet also not quite like anything I had ever smelled before, with its dark-pitched, absinthe, underarm intensity. I remember shrinking back – but then returning – to this rich stew of scent that touched some primal sex nerve yet also seemed so hopelessly outdated when the world of CK-depilated sport-skinniness was just around the corner.
There was never anything androgynous – or slender for that matter – about Ungaro.
This is a middle-aged, well-built businessman, after a long day at work; his smell beneath his suit; coiled, taut – waiting to emerge. He has neglected to apply his deodorant, many hours earlier, (out of forgetfulness or fetish we don’t know), but the blend is emphatically not fresh: it is a scent that harnesses a certain brute and rough, even dirty, masculinity.Yet it also fuses this frank eroticism with style and an attractive elegance in a manner only the French could master: we are not talking here about a clichéd, covertly aggressive chat-up line by Hugo Boss.
Essentially based on brooding patchouli; dark, bitter wormwood, and lavender, this trio of ingredients is freshened with greener notes of geranium, pine and bergamot, drying down to honey-tinged, musky animalics. Rough, and very Italo-French in its womanizing, boozy, and measured self-confidence, it may seem to skirt with parody to the contemporary nose, but to me the perfume feels lovingly drawn by its creator, not just a throwaway commission, as it exhibits a sense of laid-back intelligence and humour beyond its core message of overt sexual prowess.
For me, Ungaro I is perhaps the ultimate masculine fougère.
A Japanese dressmaker friend, Rumi, came to my house one evening. We drank red wine, watched Almodovar, had dinner, and then got to the perfume collection.
Once I had realized her tastes, I went in a patchouli direction (Givenchy Gentleman, Paloma Picasso, Magie Noire), all of which had her coiled like a cat with pleasure.
The pièce de resistance, however, was Ungaro Pour Homme, which I saved til last, but which she said was like sexual torture.