Monthly Archives: November 2012

HOT!!! : CUBA by Czech & Speake (2002)

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Decaying, plant-straggled Spanish houses falling into dereliction;  old  banged up cadillacs roaming the streets; rum, cigars; geckos; the music –  I have never been to Havana but would love to, as I imagine I would be in my element…..

 

Sometimes perfumers are given briefs in which they are asked to try to conjure up specific places (YSL’s Paris; Biagiotti’s Roma; Kenzo’s Tokyo, the entire Bond No 9 range, geared to capturing every nook and cranny of New York), and any scent attempting to convey a sense of Cuba will have to incorporate the torrid generalities that the popular imagination associates with the place. For most, Havana is surely all about smoky dance halls and sultry locals; that curious contradiction of control, extroversion and unrepressed repression, that energy  (which, incidentally, dazzled my parents when they went there a few years ago to celebrate my father’s successful operation to have both knees replaced;  the fantastic thing being that despite his recent convalescence, he managed to come second in a dance contest, twirling and sashaying about on metal joints with a Cuban lady in habañera dress, my mother clapping and cheering with great enthusiasm as the crowd voted them for the runner up, all revved  up into wild and generous hilarity…)

 

Cuba, the perfume, captures this sense of Caribbean ease succinctly. It is an intriguing scent from London-based Czech & Speake’s ‘aromatics’ range that is perhaps unfashionable in its sly referencing of 50’s hunk-papa aftershaves, while nevertheless avoiding being overly retro. The blend attains a very sensual, defence-lowering aura that is perfect for an unbuttoned, flamboyant shirt on the dance floor where it really blooms with sweat and heat.

 

A smooth blast of bay, tobacco and some distinctly rude animalics is overlayed in Cuba with a mojito – themed top accord of rum, lime and mint – like sipping an ice-cold cocktail in some tucked-in corner of a Havana bar. This then dries down to a heart of clove, vetiver, cedarwood and frankincense; quite hairy-chested and self-assured, but in a warm, benevolent mode that is charming and irresistible: a million miles away from the priapic abrasion of most men’s contemporary scents (which this is, I suppose; though it is not stated directly on the bottle or box, and I can imagine some offbeat girls smelling pretty dapper in it as well).

 

We were staying in a hotel in Tokyo in September and Duncan sprayed on a few good doses of Cuba before we left for the night. The perfume filled up all the space around us with a full, balmy orchestration that you could smell from top to bottom in its full range of timbres and aromas, from the tingling lime and bergamot-mint head to the overtly sexual base that quite frankly interferes with the rational thought process. It hung in the air before me, fully fledged as a tapestry, and was startling, though I must say  that this bottle, which I bought for him recently,  seems diluted compared to the samples we had when it was first released ten years ago. Perhaps the startling intensity of that first edition – which seemed to have more  humidor clout – was just too off-putting for some people. Even in this version the initial smell is  intoxicating.

 

Cuba is a night scent. It is not something you would (or even could) wear to work unless you want your colleagues panting in the elevator (Duncan was once literally physically accosted – much to my amusement – on the streets of Shinjuku one roasting summer evening by two guys walking past who were shouting out WOW WHAT IS THAT INCREDIBLE SMELL), but to be honest I think a half of that half would be panting from revulsion as well; this is one of those perfumes that probably goes too far for the contemporary nose, and I have read some very disparaging comments on it (to put in mildly) on several blogs and websites, so tread carefully if you are being reeled in by this review.

 

 

To me though, Cuba is simply a natural and very free-smelling composition: uninhibited, lithe, and while subtle in its own surreptitious way (only the initial spray makes a big noise), it lets you stand out from the madding crowd. It works best on weekends, best kept perhaps for dancing and celebrations, when its soft but emphatic tones – savoury, spiced, and  full of self-confidence – will rise up from the body; convince, and melt you.

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Filed under Masculines, Mojito, Perfume Reviews, Spice, Tobacco

The heart, piercing

 

 

I have just smelled the first winter narcissi, walking up the hill

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KEEPING THE FAITH : On signature scents and ROMA by LAURA BIAGIOTTI (1991)

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Do you have a scent that you have worn for years; one that ‘becomes’ you, that truly suits you, that represents you, that is you?

One that everyone you have ever known associates with you; that, if left lingering in a room conjures you up like a living, disembodied phantom?

 

In other words, your ‘signature’?

 

For most perfumistas, perhaps not. Not just one.

 

I am not sure if even I do, to be honest, as we are promiscuous, and it is difficult for us to remain faithful to only one scent when there are so many temptations out there to make us stray from our betrothed. We are compelled to play the field, sample different lovers….

 

I myself have been wearing scent continuously and obsessively for twenty seven years or more, and there have been many, many scents that have come and gone in that time: some that I look back on with disdain, others that I see as cherished memories, and others that I still wear now. I imagine that many other fellow perfume lovers will have had similar experiences.

 

And yet : I think we all do have perhaps ten or so perfumes that more fully represent us, that have hooked us; that, if they were there, standing by the coffin, with testers and paper strips at our funerals, would partially bring us back to life for our family and friends…

 

 

For those who do stick to one perfume ( and I salute you! ) the associations left in people’s minds from your choice of scent will be final and incontrovertible: it will be you, bottled, and suspended in liquid, and people who have known and loved you will SMELL you in that flacon, the person and the scent they are smelling indivisible. Because some  people really do wear one scent for a lifetime (after all, it was once seen as the way to go: you bought a perfume and stuck to it), and Roma, a lovely Italian sweet thing from the late eighties that was very fashionable for a while back then, is my sister encapsulated. She has been wearing it ever since she entered her teens, and of all the people I have known, Deborah has been the most faithful to her scent. Roma is her signature, and has been for almost two decades: – a genial, fresh, minty oriental with a whiff of the confectioner’s (the first time I ever smelled it I immediately thought of those cola cubes that used to be sold in big jars at the sweet shop: concentrated, deep orange-pink; and frosted with sugar).  Rich and complex,  Roma for me is somehow sexy, knowing and ridiculously flirtatious while remaining young, carnally innocent and very cute (or is that just a big brother talking?)

 

The ‘floriental’  in its modern guise is a bane, so brutishly buxom, that tacky, bust out down the bar ‘siren call’ that I find so lacking in tact. The difference between these recent Saturday night floriental wannabes and Roma however, is that, like my sister, it has heart and soul (and guts as well). You would also never think of Roma as overtly animalic (despite the presence of those subtle additions far down in the dry-down: they exist more at the subliminal level), yet with this perfume’s insistent, gorgeous aura, my sister has consistently had compliments from people over the years, from men especially who practically want to devour her.

 

 

**

 

 

On a whim I once bought Deborah the original, boringly discontinued Fendi, that spicy 80’s perfume of broad-shouldered, Milanesque brocade that I have always enjoyed , and she loved it, and wore it for a time, yet kept getting asked by her colleagues if she had just been down the pub (apparently she smelled like soaked beer mats when she wore it, not something a girl wants to hear on a Monday morning at the office). It just didn’t work on her, and this only reinforces my belief that certain perfumes, do, obviously, suit some people, and others don’t, and not only in terms of temperament and atmosphere, but physically, literally. Some very good perfumes clearly smell horrendous on certain people, yet there seems to be a movement among some perfume critics which dictates that the whole ‘skin chemistry’ thing is a myth.

 

I can categorically state that it isn’t. If you sit me and my friend Helen down, for example, and spray us with any perfume, the differences will be immediately striking, often amusingly so.  On Helen’s skin, all orientalia, all muskiness and fattiness disappears, almost immediately. What is left is flowers and leaves; something light, pure and elegant.  On me it is the opposite: all is opoponax, vanilla, patchouli: flowers flown off, torn and mangled in the Sagittarian gusts.

 

Fendi is a great, operatic perfume, just not meant for my sister. Someone will be out there tonight at La Scala in this perfume smelling essential, fabulous, while another will be in some coffee shop stinking as though she has spent the night with her lanky hair sprawling among overturned beer barrels. And that’s just the way it is.

 

 

*****

 

 

 

 

There is a moment when man or woman and a scent meet, and it is love at first sight.

 

Until this point this we have made do with something that works fine, even though deep down we instinctively know that it isn’t quite what we want, that there is something either too much or not enough; that incorrigible something, that particular combination of ingredients or even a void, a lack that is somehow alien to our soul.

 

And then we find it: that scent that, like the lover we click with, feels so right. So natural. In whose presence we can be ourselves. A palpable, beautiful extension of our personality that reels people in, imprinting itself narcissistically on their memories….

 

If you have not yet had this experience then that is one of the joys of perfume; and of this and other perfume books and blogs: the persistent belief deep down inside that it is out there; that it exists, and knows you do too, but is just waiting, impatiently, to be discovered…

 

 

Deborah and Roma met some time in her early teens ( I am nine years older, and the poor girl was assailed with perfume from a very early age, not that she seemed to mind..), and  I can’t remember how this fateful union came to pass, exactly, whether it was me, or her and the school teenage posse, but in any case, it was love at first sight and she has worn it ever since (though in truth I am being slightly disingenuous: there have been occasional other perfumes worn over the years, a few sent by me for Christmas and birthdays, but none has ever stuck, and there always seems to be a bottle of this in her room, full, half-full, or nearing empty. Now that it is no longer available in England (but is, for example, at Amsterdam Schiphol airport – I often fly KLM from Tokyo to Birmingham), everyone on a trip to Europe is always instructed to bring back some Roma. My mum was even talking about it on the phone last night: she had had to go on Amazon to order a bottle, as ‘Deborah is low on Roma’ (as though she were a diabetic dangerously about to be out of insulin). It is a perfume that she always sprays on with abandon after her endless bathing and make-up rituals that always seems to take an eternity but which always result in a gorgeous vamp glamming up wherever she happens to be in her Debroarian splendour.

 

And Roma just finishes it all off to perfection.

 

 

As I have written before, I used to live in Rome, and you could find this everywhere (even the parfum, which must be very rare now), but I used to see it in various gift shops by the colosseum, where I would spend the days lying on the grass reading novels and listening to my walkman, delighting in the facts of being twenty one, and an adventure-ready, English boy in Rome. At the time, Lancôme’s Trésor was all the rage (you cannot imagine how much: I remember going to some rich girl’s house and her bathroom (I am always totally shameless in people’s bathrooms, raiding the closets and cupboards guiltlessly to see what is there), but this girl had everything: the bath foams, shower gels, body creams, deodorants, eau de toilette, parfum…and for a while on the metro it seemed that Trésor (which I do like, by the way) was being pumped from the central ventilation systems. You could practically taste it, and it seemed that almost every woman in Rome was wearing it.

 

My sister wasn’t. It was all about Roma: a fresh-fruity oriental, light and simultaneously licentious, that begins with a spritz of summery innocence (Sicilian bergamot, blackcurrant bud, grapefruit and, crucially, mint) over a cushiony, floral heart bouquet of rose, jasmine, carnation and lily of the valley. From the very start though, you cannot elude the sensuality of that base, which in its original incarnation in any case was  a warm, ambered accord of great complexity – patchouli, oakmoss, and a special accord known as ‘balsamo’: a whirl of North African myrrh, balsamic resins, and vanilla. On top of, or rather beneath, lies  a trio of animalics; civet, castoreum, and Siam ambergris, which smooths out the blend into a lingering, velveteen caress. I personally think it is a great scent, coming from a time when perfumers still made orientals that genuinely seduce. The more recent additions to the genre, such as Dior’s cheap-thrill Addict, and Calvin Klein’s Euphoria, just aren’t in the same league – competitive, hard-faced cows in comparison. An anaemic rip off of Roma (Armani White) was released in 2001 but disappeared quite quickly without trace. Roma is still going strong, in Europe at least. It is a scent of passion, and I’m glad my hot head of a sister found it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MARK BUXTON PERFUMES (2012) + VANILLA FEST AT OLFACTORIA

Yesterday I discussed some perfumes by the ever popular Comme Des Garcons, including the latest (and bizarre) Eau De Parfum. The original, groundbreaking CDG scent was a warm, spicy incense created by British/German perfumer Mark Buxton. I had the good luck to interview him this summer about his work with Rei Kawakubo, the founder of Comme Des Garcons, as well as talking about his own eponymous new line, Mark Buxton Perfumes, which includes some very appealing and inventive perfumes such as Black Angel and Sleeping With Ghosts. You can read the interview here on the Aesop Register.

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Also, the lovely Birgit at Olfactoria’s Travels is giving me a guest post over the next couple of Fridays where I will be discussing my passion for vanilla. On this freezing, rainy cold day I can personally think of nothing better.

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EMBALM ME NOW: I’M READY…. COMME DES GARCONS EAU DE PARFUM (2011) + LUXE: PATCHOULI (2007) + INCENSE SERIES 3: KYOTO (2002)

“A flower that couldn’t exist, in a bottle that shouldn’t exist….”

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It was a cold, clear day on Monday when I headed out to Tokyo to buy Kyoto. Junko and I have a tradition now of exchanging presents each year – I buy her a perfume, she gets me films – and though last year’s offering, the exotic and pungent Powder Flowers by Montale, had gone down quite well, I decided to try something different this time and go for incense,  something more contemplative and grounded. I love the challenge of trying to instinctively nose out what someone might like, to edge closer and closer towards their holy grail, and this time my inklings turned out to be right.

She loved it. We met last night at a bar in Fujisawa, where I presented birthday present 2012, and the look on her face as she kept on smelling it incessantly from her wrist was precious: she had obviously never smelled anything like this (at least not bottled). The cypress, cedar, teak wood, incense and patchouli scent was a very new departure for her fragrance-wise, and one that obviously hit the mark (‘think of it as the hinoki-avenued walk up to Toshogu temple in Nikko’ I said), and she seemed simultaneously emotionally enraptured and turned-on by the smouldering, auto-erotically charged smells of timber and spice emanating from her skin. It certainly suits her, especially sprayed onto the cuffs of her biker jacket.

The perverse thing is that I don’t really like ‘Kyoto’ myself. I love the city the perfume is named after, but personally don’t relate to its dry, simplistic olfactory rendering in Bertrand Duchaufour’s re-creation. To me it is just a typical, unmysterious blend of flat, modish, contemporary WOODs (direct, obvious) with no beauty or space between the rings of  bark. It is well made, yes, and effective as a basic beginner incense scent – but at most 10% successful in capturing the deeply austere spirituality of the real place, which is steeped in the indescribable.

No. Instead, take one incense stick from its paper box, purchased from the centuries old Kyukodo or Shoyeido incense emporia in the heart of the city, and light it in the entrance of your home. Soft smoke, exquisitely tendered and balanced – aloeswood, sandalwood, cloves, camphor, rose –  will rise, gradually, into the air, slowly changing your consciousness. This is Kyoto.

 

 

 

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I had taken the Shonan-Shinjuku line from Kamakura, getting off at Shibuya station around rush hour  (not recommended for the claustrophobic or agoraphobic), changed to the Yamanote and walked up from Harajuku station, down the twinkling illuminated boulevard of Omotesando, and then up to Aoyama, where the  Comme Des Garcons boutique nestles between a little temple and gleaming, futuristic architecture. While the requisitely hypertrended assistants fastidiously wrapped up my Kyoto I sampled and resampled the main CDG line, which is housed in one of many nooks of a giant white tardis.

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It was here that I came across a perfume I had somehow overlooked: the fascinating ‘Eau de Parfum’, a self-oxidising flower exhaling its last breaths somewhere in the stratosphere circa 2064. Given that the first CDG perfume, the one that launched Rei Kawakubo’s avant-garde perfumery into our consciousness (one of the spiciest clove scents ever made) is also called Eau de Parfum, it seemed strange that they would want us to confuse the two scents (which are completely different), by giving them the same title.  Nevertheless, there it lay, ruined in its tortured, self-imploded bottle that can’t even stand up, on one of the lower shelves, almost out of sight. Having no idea what to expect, I sprayed a couple of cards with copious amounts and to my surprise found that I liked it, though in theory I shouldn’t.

Comme Des Garcons is well know for its twisting and subverting of what is considered beautiful (or acceptable) in fragrance with wilfully abstruse concepts such as those found in the Synthetic Series and the industrialized abstractions of Odeur 53:  (notes of ‘flaming rock; nail polish; fire energy; washing drying in the wind; sand dunes; burnt rubber, the freshness of oxygen and pure air of the high mountains’); and Odeur 71 (xerox machine; washing fresh from the dryer; lettuce juice; electricity, dust on a hot lightbulb….)

I delight in the fact that such border-pushing exists in perfumery. And I don’t particularly mind if the person sitting next to me in the office smells of a pulsating photo-copier, an eraser, or a lightly-dusted lightbulb, but on me, on my own human skin, these mutated ozones and man-made chemical novelties simply make me feel sick. I would never.

Eau de Parfum is different. Here the human, the natural, and synthetic are fused in a blinding medley of white; a futuristic flower in bondage, wrapped in glue and masking tape and  sputnicked-off into ether. And it is strangely beautiful. Where with the Odeurs I have always found that the notes elbow and jostle with each other to outdo each other in weirdness (‘look, there’s an incinerated paper clip!), in Eau de Parfum they glide together, amassing whiteness; the more conventional hawthorn/lilac aromas a solidly pretty foundation upon which to layer the swathes of safraleine (a synthetic that mimicks the scent of saffron and suede simultaneously), ‘flower oxides’ and circumscribing it all, the familiarly toxic smell of freshly opened glue and packing tape.

The ‘flower in bondage’ idea has done before in Serge Lutens’ underrated Nuit de Cellophane, but that perfume was more a fetishized pneumatic tuberose/osmanthus babe à la Helmut Newton, wrapped in cling-film and emerging from her little Berlin S+ M photography session to a glass or two of champagne (and whatever else) with the fetishistic maestro of kink. Aside an acrylic top note like the cellophane that wraps a bouquet of midnight yellow roses, Serge Lutens’ creation was surprisingly conventional.

The Comme Des Garcons is different, more ferociously futurist. But although Eau de Parfum can shock with its plasticity, as with Cellophane, the natural components in the blend, such as the vanillic resin styrax lurking down in the base, do steady these tender flowers and make them relatable, as do the gentle laundry musks that while equally synthetic, we have come to equate with clean humanity.

Like the gleaming unperturbable blanc of the Comme Des Garcons store’s permaglass surfaces, Eau de Parfum is an essay in white.   A space-age lilac; its flower narcotized by the safraleine, as though these sussurating flowers, with gentle May hawthorn for company, were sent off into outerspace – lain down on suede and nudged into polystrene –  while equipment, pristine from the production line, awaits in boxes; adhesive-sealed and bubble-wrapped. The note of baby powder that lies like a memory within the liquid is like the gargantuan foetus suspended in its galactic amniotic sac in Kubrick’s 2001, a memory of something tender several centuries before….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Still in a trance from these science fictional musings I unthinkingly reached for another perfume in another outrageous bottle: Luxe: Patchouli, which I knew I didn’t like (on paper) but which I thought I would give another chance (a big, unctuously drippy spray) on the back of my hand.  Oh Lord I wish I hadn’t. If any perfume could make me puke it is this. And nowhere to wash it off…..

Any regular readers of The Black Narcissus will know that I am a big patchouli wearer, but this is only nominally a member of that illustriously earthy family that I love so much. No: this is is a troll. A foul, tepidly warm bowl of celery cream soup, steeped and fermenting in fenugreek, curry, lovage and simmering leaves of Javan patchouli.

I HATE this. Celery is one of my favourite foods, but this celeriac, salted celery-seed note in such a thick, creamy alliance (opoponax, vanilla, oak) gives me a powerful, nauseated, punch in the bowels.

I do try and remain objective as far as possible when reviewing perfumes, and the dry down (six hours later, when I woke up in the middle of the night, sweating)  has that warm, aromatic edginess that would go well on a studied, Comme Des Garcons freak. I mean this unfacetiously. The brand truly ‘pushes the envelope’ in fashion, and this perfume could match certain of the bizarre, origamied ensembles perfectly. It is original, I will give it that. But I honestly think that if for some reason I were forced to wear this monstrosity on a daily basis, I would contemplate suicide.

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Better, if need be, to wear Eau de Parfum, much as it would eventually pain me to constantly be in its clinical embrace. To be wrapped in acrylics; suffocated in industrial chemicals and leather, and sent out, supine, embalmed in lilac, into the forever…

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THE SPIRIT OF PARIS: FOUR PERFUMES BY CARON / French Can Can (1936): Montaigne (1986): Farnésiana (1947): Tabac Blond (1919)

 

 

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What could be more French than Caron?

 

 

The creator of a string of inimitable perfumes from the 1910s onwards (Poivre, Narcisse Noir, Fleurs de Rocaille, Nuit de Noël….) may not exactly be a household name – at least not in England, and the friends that I know – yet in scent circles, and among the mad perfumistas searching for old extraits of these bygone classics at jumble sales, flea markets and stubborn old perfumeries – the house is truly up there in the stratospheric heights (equalled or surpassed only by Chanel or Guerlain). The perfumes of Caron, around for almost a century and still available, in various stages of degraded formulae, at their gloriously old-world boutiques in Paris and in concessions in quality perfumeries worldwide (such as the perfumery floor at Fortumn and Masons which nobody seems to know about or go to) exist on a fuller sphere of consciousness to most others. To me they are drier; darker, mossier, more bodied. Secret entities, historical undercurrents bind these creations, together with a leathered smoothness not often found elsewhere. Never wholly ‘clean’, yet laden with the finest components and a certain fox-eyed virtuosic precision ( less fuzzy, powdery and splayed than the greatest works of Guerlain), the perfumes will undoubtedly be seen by the fust-loathing pinky floss dunderheads as being ‘too old’, but who cares. So are Manet and Picasso.

 

One of the lesser known perfumes from this formerly illustrious Parisian stable is French Can Can, a derivative of En Avion that was made especially for the American Market for a bit of imported ooh la la: a strange, naughty, and now rather anachronistic perfume that treads the line, brilliantly I think, between coquettish and coarse,  without ever descending to banality. Can Can is of very similar construction to the classic En Avion (a cool, spicy, violet leather) but overlaid with more garish, extravagant bloom: rose, jasmine and orange blossom kicking out from the layers of tulle that support the flowers. Behind faded, musty curtains lies a decadent heart of lilac, patchouli, iris, and musc ambré.

 

Thinking of a candidate for this perfume (who wears tiers of fluffy petticoats that I know?) I hit upon my friend Laurie, who is never afraid to dress up in extravagant numbers – I can even see her actually doing the can can, to be truthful – and with the slogan ‘dancers: powder, dusty lace’ I presented her with the scent. She came back to me later (after I had sprayed her bag with the stuff)….

 

 

‘No: graying crinoline’.

 

 

If the girl of the above story has a past, and love for sale, then the owner of this fine establishment might be wearing Montaigne. Where Can Can maintains a certain faux-demure grace throughout its development, Montaigne, on first impression, is suggestive; lewd even: a voluptuous figure forever telling dirty jokes. Many of the early Caron scents have a similar base accord: that murky, dark, dry signature with which Ernst Daltroff marked his classics. But Caron had to enter the modern world to survive, and Montaigne embarked on new climes. The result of this caterpulting into the eighties was a glowing, ambered potage of sandalwood, orange blossom, vanilla; very contrasting top notes –  a layer of glinting fruits and herbs: mandarin, bitter orange, coriander, blackcurrant….all is voluptuous, sueded, medicinal, mysterious. You keep sniffing to find out more (what was the perfumer thinking of?)

 

Montaigne, then, one of Caron’s most ‘up front and sassy’ perfumes, is well worth exploring for its complexity,warmth and glamour, but also for a certain impenetrability. There isn’t really anything else like it on the market. Hermetically mesmerizing, even, and a perfume I have become strangely obsessed with.

 

Though obviously a Caron, the vanilla-mimosa themed Farnésiana couldn’t be more different. This obscure scent is a sweet, emotive, maternal refuge from all harshness and vulgarity (because she does sometimes needs a day off); a sugared, unusual perfume to nuzzle, cradle; regress with, even. The blend gets its name from the latin name for mimosa (Acasiosa Farnesiana), the flower at the heart of  this scent. But place just a drop of this elixir on your skin and the heart-rending, powdery mimosa note smiles only briefly before being subsumed in a very edible, gourmand note of almonds and the roundest, gentlest vanilla. Not unlike a slice of the finest cherry bakewell in fact.

This is not a ‘foodie’ though, it is far too eccentric: somehow Farnésiana is not in the least seductive – you are not supposed to be ‘nibbled on’ by another. It is rather a lovely, melancholic escape from all that; the self as confection – a perfume to wear when alone.

 

 

 

” ……The troubling sensuality of a woman in a dinner jacket…..’

……negligently to take those ivory and mother-of-pearl cigarette holders to their lips, and swathe their femininity in a typically masculine veil, became the height of Parisian elegance……..To mark this dawn of female liberation, in 1919 Caron dared to dedicate the deliberately provocative Tabac Blond to these beautiful androgynes.’

 

(Caron website)

 

 

Here we have then the official story of Caron’s legendary Tabac Blond,  Dietrich’s most favoured perfume. If ever there were a ‘holy grail’ of perfumes, it might be this: people are mad for it, obsessed. It is one of the world’s cult perfumes, deliberately aimed at a small contingent in society, ‘scandalous’ at the time of its launch (just six years after Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring) into the fey little lamp-lit worlds of lilacs and violets, of powder and of  rose. A unique creation that has kept its reputation to this day (strictly in its vintage versions, mind), Tabac Blond is a resinous, deep, heart-locking perfume that unfolds in space and time. Flowers – carnation, linden, ylang, and iris (giving the perfume, as critic Jan Moran says, ‘a powdery floral heart meant to transcend a smoky environment’) feature in the scent, but only subtlely. They are hidden, masked for the most part, by a stunning note of undried blond tobacco, animalic leather, and tobacco leaf, made drier still with a sun-powdered note of cedarwood and vetiver. This exquisite whole is suspended in a liquid gold of tenuous, refined amber that only takes on its full character in the perfume’s conclusion, later, much later, at night.

 

Chandler Burr says of Tabac Blond that there is something ‘dykey and angular’ about  this perfume;  Luca Turin, that it is for those of a melancholy bent, who like Autumn, old manuscripts; libraries; Egypt.

 

Whatever the image it conjures, this is certainly a beautiful perfume; absurdly refined on the right skin, conferring on the wearer an air of restrained, rich elegance…………… pure Caron.

 

 

 

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O sweet fig : FLAGRANT DELICE by TERRY DE GUNZBURG (2012) (+ miniature figathon for Nina: L’Artisan Parfumeur Premier Figuier; Diptyque Philosokos; Miller Harris Figue Amere; Angela Flanders Figue Noire; Sonoma Scent Studio Fig Tree; Carthusia Io Capri )

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The pantheon of figs is dominated by two classic creations by Olivia Giacobetti –  lover of the ficus carica and of transparent, fresh fragrances in general – and the very talented perfumer who did Premier Figuier (‘the first fig tree’) for L’Artisan Parfumeur in 1991 and Philosokos ( ‘fig lover’ inGreek) for Diptyque in 1996. Both of these scents capture the cool, lactic, dark-green essence of the tree’s lobed rough leaves.

The Diptyque creation is the stricter fig of the two; more spartan and verdant, the leaves of the tree forming the centre of the composition. A tiny hint of coconut adds a hint of sweetness, although this is soon undercut by a fresh (almost harsh), woody note of white cedar that lasts for hours on the skin. Philosokos is refreshing and headclearing, a ‘calm in the storm’ kind of fragrance that allows you to re-equilibrate yourself in hot situations. I have the parfum solide, which is probably the most discreet and gentle scent I own in my collection.

Premier Figuier is a milkier, more pregnant fig. I  fell for this around 1993 as it seemed to represent a new beginning in my post-university life and was probably my first ever niche purchase. I remember excitedly stepping out onto the King’s Road from the L’Artisan boutique (which felt so secret back then, tucked somewhere behind a little side street, veiled in black, a real showroom of unusual treasures for those in the know) where I had been instantly seduced by the gorgeously leafy beginning of this perfume (parasol lime, galbanum, fig leaf), but even more by the entwining, in the heart, of fig and woozy coconut  (one of my very favourite notes in perfumery), a fusion that seemed to hover from my skin in a dream-like aura. It was addicting and compelling to me, and it now occupies a special position in the taxonomy of my mental fragranced library  – me at twenty two. But the perfume also has another dimension- a persistent, almost sweat-like aspect, which comes from the addition of sandalwood and a note of dried fruit. This stage of the fragrance was always a bit precarious on me ( I don’t wear sandalwood well) – and probably what caused this fig, for me eventually, to lose its lustre.

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Following these very original olfactive innovations by Giacobetti there was a time for a while in the nineties when fig was the note du jour, much as iris, rose, and oudh have been recently, and notes of the fruit or its leaves were injected into various small perfumeries’ new creations, as well as in mainstream releases such as Dior Dune Pour Homme (1997) and Marc Jacobs For Men (2002), both of which are quite nice, if less poetic. Most figsimiles kept that insistent green note in the foreground, though, and the genre was at one point in danger of becoming tired.

Miller Harris’ Figue Amère was a very different affair. I am an admirer of this English perfumer’s work in general : there is a real integrity and quality to it, a lack of cheap sweetness and the whole curdling sexual package – her scents unfurl and go off in skillful and self assured new directions. While most Harris compositions tend towards the tastefully floral, incense, or citric, Harris does let her hair down (the hilariously pink disco Noix de Tubéreuse comes immediately to mind, as well as the literally unwashed hair smell of the Jane Birkin collaboration L’Air de Rien), and Figue Amère belongs to this more strongly colour-blocked territory. To me, this perfume is all purple; flamboyantly dressed fairground people, big wheels, and Black Love joss sticks. The scent is so lush in its heart and base (narcissus; angelica; sweet moss, cedar and amber) that the violet/fig/bergamot top notes soon get swallowed up in all this velvet crush : it is a rich blend that is warm and charismatic. For me, Figue Amère occupies its own special tassled turf of fig territory.

To move further along from the leaves of the tree – along its branches, its stems, and up to the curving inflorescence of those pulpy, seed-lined fruit and their heady pink flesh, we come to Figue Noir (2006) by Angela Flanders, a perfumer with a lovely little boutique just by the Columbia Road flower market in London. I spent a whole afternoon with Ms Flanders a couple of years ago, interviewing her over tea and cake as she told me the story of her life and perfumes. What I liked especially about her is her passion for her craft but also her nonchalance – she has a mischievous side to her as well – which is inspiring to see in someone who has been around so long. She is not jaded in the least, and her fig – nominated for a FIFI award – is a rebellious shocker: it smells like swelling, overripe figs falling apart in your hands; a hilarious, sticky mess. No, that is not it: Figue Noir isn’t as natural as that. It is more like a tongue-searing mouthful of glinting, hardboiled sweets: if you could buy them at the confectioners they would be pear drops. Great big fig drops.

The scent is almost mind-bendingly headachey in its synthetic overdoses but also actually somehow brilliant, its psychotropic examination of this fruit from within opening brand new and exciting figgy vistas in our giddy heads.

A warmer, more expansive and suffusive fig scent is the natural- smelling, tranquillizing, yet engrossing Fig Tree by Sonoma Scent Studio; an inspiriting, woody fig with rich balsamic undertones that draws you into its allaying, shaded spaces and allows you to stop what you are doing and breathe. While the beginning stages of extraordinarily verdant, harsh green fig leaves are almost unsettling, quite soon, richer, denser notes of cedar, tonka, patchouli and vanilla begin to be sucked up, drop by drop, up through the bark of this confidently imperious fig tree, and the scent, imbued with nutritioning sunlight, comes fully into its own.  A love-filled perfume to collect your thoughts; coalesce; regroup.

Completely on the opposite end of the ficus spectrum is the fascinating Io Capri by Italian perfumery Carthusia, a transfixing scent that I only discovered recently at a shop in Tokyo, but which transported me anywhere but: I was in Rome, in the cold, marbled atrium of an otherworldly, ancient palazzo on some hot September afternoon. I could smell the fresh, cool sheets of a hotel room; of a huge, beautiful, shining white bath and inviolable, hard, triple-milled soaps waiting, timelessly, on its sides. Strange, aqueous depths. Blue caves; Roman dolphins; the underworld. Weird. In fact, though I couldn’t stop myself from sniffing this odd creation, I had no ability mentally to break down this scent into its olfactory constituents; it remained a scented conundrum, incredibly fresh and clean in a way that made me just want to lie down and sleep. Deeply. In those sheets: the Foro Romano, the place I used to walk on cold days alone in the rain, out there somewhere – dogged, discordant – in the distance. It was only when I looked up the notes in the scent did it start to jigsaw into sense: a green, herbaceous fig with wildly discordant notes of mint, eucalyptus and tea fused with fig leaves that takes you to watery grottoes of Botticelli, of clifftop villas and lagoons. Gorgeously strange, Io Capri doesn’t suit me in the least but I might buy it nonetheless as it touches me in a way I can’t quite understand.

Which brings us to the present day, and Ms Gunzburg’s latest addition to this world of figs. This new perfume is called Flagrant Délice, obviously a play on in flagrante delicto, or being caught in the act – a criminal caught with his hand in the caramellized fig jar?  – or more simply a pun on the sense of flagrant, blatant deliciousness. Fortunately the scent does pretty much live up to its name, and I am enjoying this perfume at the moment as we get into the Christmas season.

This is a sparkly, gourmand fig, with a delicious base of tonka bean, almond milk and white musk, the fig main theme complemented with bergamot, mandarin, and surprisingly, a scintillating note of red currant that dances above it all like a sweet Yuletide posy. The warm richness of the scent – which in its entirety smells a little like licorice – is vaguely reminiscent of Hermès Vétiver Tonka, while the overall feeling is of a fig, fully realized, and happy. This is not something I could wear every day –  it is quite ‘thick’ – but if you think of it as Premier Figuier and Philosokos’ older, fruitier cousin, dressed up and festive in a Santa costume under the Christmas tree, it is a very attractive and welcome new addition to the fig club.

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