Monthly Archives: April 2013

CONTRADICTIONS: TERRE D’HERMES / HERMES (2006)

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Minimalist perfumer Jean Claude Ellena really shook up the world of men’s fragrance with this innovative, modern masculine that eschewed the aggro-baiting air of many standard ‘aftershaves’ in favour of something far more interesting and persuasive. Leaving its crude, leering competitors in the dust, it has become something of a modern classic. 

This scent is original in many ways. Firstly, it is made without animal by-products or musk, in fact without any bodied components at all: the scent is virile, but transparent; an animist spirit passing invisibly over forests and rivers. Pine, pepper, and a mineralized accord of flint and grapefruit smell like warm sun on rocks, while the ‘earth’ of the name is a sexually enticing, yet contemporary and elegant, dry, sun-baked cedar/vetiver.

Spatially, Terre is also interesting. The scent seems to do a vanishing trick: on first application it is a refreshing and purifying scent that might seem slight, almost imperceptible. In fact, as the scent unfolds it hovers somewhere in the vicinity of the wearer (rather than on him or her), elegant; seductively aromatic; an effect that is fascinating.

My only gripe with Terre D’Hermès is my feeling that it is one of the most invariable scents I know, smelling almost identical on every person I meet. On men especially,  there is that familiar, that deeply overfamiliar, grapefruit and profound, overstrident vetiver that rises up and announces (the projection of this perfume is unbelievable sometimes, as if someone were wearing it in another room at high dosage); emphatically, that you are wearing TERRE. When a scent becomes fashionable, and is as insistent as this, it is rather easy to get sick of. 

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SHE:;:;:;: LA TULIPE (2010) + INFLORESCENCE by BYREDO (2013)

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It is almost time for the tulips.

 

Tulips: fierce, erect : pushing up through the soil… Solid.

 

Odourless……

 

 

Like Kenzo’s Flower, which it reminds me of in some ways, ‘La Tulipe’ is an imaginary rendering of a flower that in fact has almost no smell (Kenzo’s was the poppy), a concept that gives free rein to the perfumers to construct whatever they like – in this case a light, laundry musk with watery notions of cyclamen and freesia that couldn’t be a safer bet if it tried: no one at the office is going to start asking you to wear less perfume if you have spritzed yourself, unimaginatively, in the morning, with a touch of this.

 

 

Except me that is: the profound conservatism lurking at the heart of this plasticky fleur makes me want to scream….

 

 

 

 

No, I do not like this perfume one iota, but I do love the flowers the perfume is purportedly based on: lipped, springtime emergences of joy  that are also in fact an important motif in one of my favourite novels of all time – Margaret Atwood’s terrifying, and brilliantly prescient Handmaid’s Tale (1985),  in which she writes that

 

 

“the tulips are red, a darker crimson towards the stem; as if they had been cut and are beginning to heal there…”

 

 

Sutured, red spring flowers, emblematizing the handmaids in that futuristic dystopia (which always felt more chillingly possible to me, somehow, than it should), imprisoned for purposes of enforced maternity; clad, like Dutch nuns, in their tulip-like cloistered headdresses.

 

 

 

Inflorescence, another unimpeachably conservative floral from Byredo, is to me also like a form of contemporary,urbanite handmaid.

 

 

A luminous snapshot; a computerized Botticelli, that achieves a scary consummation: I can smell intuitively that this perfume is destined to be a hit.

 

 

 

An almost hysterically hygienic floral, it is the apex of the trend that began with Lancôme’s repugnant Miracle (the only perfume I know that made two female friends physically retch when they smelled it); its imprisoning of woman in extraordinarily artificial, spotless, ‘sanctified’ flowers: stripped of sex, grown in test tubes by fascists in white coats, grinning as they crush the heart’s desires and replace them with gender edicts.

 

 

Like Miracle, Inflorescence has the freshest, lemonest, top notes of the newest daphne flowers and leaves, but then goes far further in its capturing of a particular, youthful virginity with its delicate, lip-pursed white of muguet, freesia, jasmine, and new rose petals, all stitchlessly wedded to that purest of spring flowers – the magnolia;  its majestic, ivory infallibility as it stands creamily erect for those dwindling days it can remain white; the brown rot that will creep through its magnificent petals only a short, mortal time ahead.

 

 

With Inflorescence, there is no rot. There is only a pristinely, rigorously constructed bouquet of ‘vernal’ flowers that will never die, only fade; reprised and re-reprised ad nauseam as it propagates itself tirelessly throughout the city, a perfume that really does reach a particular state of perfection (you will know what I mean the second you smell it), and one that I must admit that in many ways is quite brilliant.

 

 

I cannot imagine a more stainless floral.

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Cherryade and the fluff: G de ROMEO GIGLI (1994) + DIAMONDS AND RUBIES by ELIZABETH TAYLOR (1993)

The Black Narcissus

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Sometimes I wake up and my brain has already, instinctively, reached out for a particular kind of smell: I know upon opening my eyes that only that smell will do. And yesterday it was cherry. Something sweet, light, and fruity. Reminiscent of freshly plucked cherries, the stalks intact, but also that deliciously cheap and artificial, cerise-coloured drink from my childhood: chip-shop cherryade.

I have two scents in my collection that happened to fit the bill perfectly (…the joy of a large collection and being able to pinpoint the specific in mood by reaching into ones cabinets!):  G by Romeo Gigli, an early nineties concoction that fell by the wayside rather quickly (possibly because of its luridly overdesigned harlequin flacon) and Elizabeth Taylor’s cheerful, fulsome Diamonds and Rubies, which I have in perfume extract and which complements the greener, more bracing Gigli perfectly (wearing the rubies on my wrists and…

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TRAGIC ANDROGYNE: EAU D’IKAR by SISLEY (2011)

The Black Narcissus

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Mastic, or pistacia lentiscus, is a rare ingredient in perfumery, particularly as the most prominent note in a fragrance. A bitter green resin, which forms from the ‘tears’ of liquid mastic when the trees are lacerated (on the Greek island of Chios, the only place the gum is produced), it was used as a remedy for snakebite in ancient Greece and regularly employed as an incense. Legend has it that as St Isodorus cried out in pain during his martyrdom, God blessed the mastic tree, which then began to cry……

 

Such lachrymosal stories are the foundation of Eau d’Ikar, a spiky, sapful scent based on green notes, resins and florals, agreeably poetic in concept and execution, but which I don’t find entirely works. The perfume is described by the company as happy and revitalizing, and while it is certainly stimulating, and very green – almost…

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THE DEEP, HAIRY ARMPIT OF LOVE : UNGARO POUR HOMME by UNGARO (1991)

This post seems to be popular with my readers from Finland.

I thought I would re-share it….

The Black Narcissus

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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…

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BELA LUGOSI’S DEAD: D’HUMEUR A RIEN by L’ARTISAN PARFUMEUR (1994) and BLACK AMBER by AGONIST (2011)

The Black Narcissus

 

 

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It has been raining in the city, and you are standing on the grey wet steps of a cathedral, where the chilling, ghostly incense from the years hangs in the rafters. A cold whiff of death, both religious and nihilistic; fungal in the dark reaches of its damp earthiness, Catholic in its liturgical implications.

You shiver…

 

 

 

L’Humeur A Rien, an obscure, long-gone, once formed part of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s ‘Sautes d’Humeur’, a limited edition set of five fragrances in a red satin-lined box; and it was my first ever introduction to an incense perfume. I remember standing in the King’s Road boutique in West London when it came out; transfixed and bewildered. So along with the satanically green-eyed snake of D’humour Jalouse (one of the most interesting green creations ever made), I decided on the spot that I had to own this…

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FIREFLIES ON THE GRASS: Y by YVES SAINT LAURENT (1964)

 

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A beautiful green chypre-floral quite delightful in spring and early summer, Yves Saint Laurent’s Y was released in 1964 and immediately declared a classic.

 

 

 

 

 

And with good reason. 

 

 

 

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On beds of light, green mosses layered with a fresh, prominent patchouli, sparkling floral essences dance above like fireflies over wet green fields: rose, and jasmine, as you might expect, but, then, also, mirabelle, hyacinth, tuberose and the most delicate, piquant honeysuckle: an exquisite profusion of light, moistured flowers that steers Y on a different, more demure course than the other, more tempestuous chypres in the family such as Scherrer, Givenchy III, and the original Miss Dior. 

 

The initial impression of the vintage eau de toilette I have in my collection is a dazzling display of perfume technique, achieving a lightness and vivacity that is rare with such sweet floral notes, while never straying into the fluttering grasslands of come-thither coy; the gentle, ambery moss base being perhaps the key, tempering this joyful floral ballet with a perfect, anchoring touch of elegant, French sobriety.

 

 

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Crucial note: the current, reformulated, version of ‘Y’, available anywhere, is the olfactive equivalent of the actress Frances Farmer after she emerged, victimized – lobotomized (and upon the urging of her own mother, because of her communist tendencies), from her brutal electro convulsion shock therapy: remade, remodelled for an evil, callous world – her juice, verve and vigour squeezed out of her in a cruel, metallic carapace; plastic surgery that gutted her from within.

 

Don’t even think about it. A pristine, or near pristine, vintage edt is what you must have if you want to experience the poetry of the original composition; to feel what the perfumer intended;  to bring those delightful, flower-brushing dragonflies to your lilypad.

 

 

 

 

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BORING: 1932 by CHANEL (2013)

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There are plenty of reviews out there discussing its jewelled brilliance, its gentle, shimmering jasmineness. So read those for another viewpoint. But no matter how many times I smell this new release from Chanel, I can smell nothing but boredom. And irritation. And even unpleasantness. 

A flat, unaffecting, even somehow slightly farty, modern Duty Free Jasmine, underlaid with…something. Vetiver? Aldehydes? Other ‘flowers’.Who cares. ‘1932’ (stupid name)  is of no consequence. Slightly ugly. Just a calculatingly, substandard Bulgari Jasmin Noir. 

 

Bye Bye. 

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VIOLETS by BERDOUES, BORSARI, PENHALIGONS, BROSSEAU

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“As violets so be I recluse and sweet”

(‘Who hath despised the day of small things?’ Rossetti)

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This is the legacy of violets, in literature as in perfume – the retiring archetype: virginal, breast aflutter. The clasped idealist.

Nestled in their heart-shaped leaves, with heads downturned, these are the flowers that Diane Ackerman, in her passionate sensorial treatise ‘A Natural History Of The Senses describes as ‘burnt sugar cubes ….dipped in lemon and velvet’.

In truth, I can hardly smell them and am definitely slightly violanosmic. Duncan will say wow, violet, and I only get a slight hint of it, which is strange when my sense of smell is usually so sensitive. But since the flowers contain ionone, which we lose the ability to smell after a few minutes, the scent of violets does literally play a kind of hide and seek with our senses. This makes them, then,  the most elusive of flowers, toying with flirtation……………..Now you see me, now you don’t –  which for me only adds to their allure.

The Victorians, of course,  uptight prigs with desire leeching secretly from their tense,  oleaginous pores, loved them. As an antidote to the corrupting dangers lurking among the musks, civets and tuberoses, light violet toilet waters were deemed ‘appropriate’ Victoriana for young women to wear, with their tender, coy privacy.

And although I am not exactly the shy, retiring wallflower type myself ( except sometimes), I do occasionally have a yen for the taste and smell of violette. For personal use, my favourite violet to wear is definitely Caron’s sensational Aimez Moi, although I also, when the mood hits me,  enjoy the ironically chest beating leather of Balmain’s Jolie Madame in vintage extract. Recently in this cold weather in these hard, dizzyingly inexplicable times, I find I am also enjoying Guerlain’s paradoxically soothing, throw-all-caution-to-the-wind  Insolence. , a violet to end all megaviolets.

Violets can smell quite interesting on male skin – a refreshingly ungendered tonic. As a young man I was quite often drenched in Geoffrey Beene’s green violet leaf Grey Flannel as well as Dior’s violet gasoline Fahrenheit, although now in terms of more elegant and gentilhomme-centred violets I think you can’t really beat Guerlain’s Aqua Allegoria Lavande Velours, in which Duncan smells  exquisite.

There are plenty of other violet perfumes out there on the market now that violet has made a (very minor) comeback, such as The Different Company’s garish  I Miss Violet, or Tom Ford’s anemic (and strangely hideous) Violet Blonde, but below are some more traditional, posyish numbers  and a couple of more modern, violet oddballs as well just for the sake of it- violets that smell mainly just like violets (if you can smell them), that go more for the eye-fluttering, classical route, but as usual with this flower, leave you wondering what is beneath.

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VIOLETTES DE TOULOUSE/ BERDOUES (1936)

Violettes de Toulouse, candied violet flowers preserved in egg white and crystallized sugar, have been made in this French city since 1936. The fragrance of the same name, presented in charming old-fashioned atomiseurs, is apparently made from true violet absolute extracted from flowers that grow on the hills outside. Taking 6000 lbs of violet flowers to obtain just 2.2lbs of essence, the scent of freshly picked violets is enhanced with other flowers (lilac, iris, and cyclamen), almond wood, and musk, for the classic, and pretty,  satin-ribboned posy.

VERTE VIOLETTE/ L’ARTISAN PARFUMEUR (200?)

Anne Flipo’s creation for L’Artisan has her trademark fleeting evanescence. Similar to two other of her creations, the beauteous Mimosa Pour Moi and the pale Jacinthe Du Bois, this is a delicate violet with very green top notes. It is perhaps to violet what Hiris (Hermès) is to iris – an alternative to the standard bleeding hearts, powder and musk, if a touch on the precious tip.

VIOLETTA DI PARMA/ BORSARI (1840)

For English people like me, ‘Parma violets’ are a confectioner’s curiosity that you either love or hate. They are essentially like sucking on little sugary, perfumed circles of talc. To say they are an acquired taste would be an understatement, but those of a certain generation remember them with nostalgia (they are still made by Swizzels of Matlow, a Derbyshire company whose ‘Refresher’ chews I developed an almost dangerous addiction to when a teenager, only stopping when my mouth was too sore to go on).

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The sad thing about the existence of these little discs of powdered confectionery though, with their simple, sucrose and synthetic violet flavouring, is that for those who know them, almost any violet perfume of the classical variety will just automatically remind them of the sweets, and thus smell cheap. I can hear the cry ‘Ooh it smells just like ‘Parma violets’ (done in a thick northern accent), as a British person sniffs a perfume such as this, though Violetta (Penhaligons) might still win the Swizzels trophy.

VIOLETTA / PENHALIGONS (1976)

Violetta. With big, purple velvet bows in her hair, she stares out with mourning, indigo eyes…

Emerging in 1976, when such a scent must surely have been deeply unfashionable (or maybe the vogue for Gothic horror, in movies like Carrie, was the inspiration?) this deliciously candied violet has made into her thirties, and is now apparently a cult, secret favourite of the dandyish Penhaligon’s man.

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VIOLETTE MENTHE/ BROSSEAU (2007)

Depressed Debbie Gibson.

This violet-mint is a strange little thing: powdery and fruity, but with a perpetual frown, like a cabbage patch doll with eyebrows drawn in angry felt pen. Amazingly my friend Laurie got the same on me – petulant teenage girl from the 80’s. We both loved it.

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DANS TES BRAS/ EDITIONS DE PARFUMS (2008)

A skunk pissing in a violet, this bizarre salt-floral-musk is seemingly an intellectual exercise from master perfumer Maurice Roucel (creator of Musc Ravageur) and like that fragrance it is a fusion of traditional, romantic ingredients and notes of sweaty warm skin. Dans Tes Bras (‘In Your Arms’) smells extremely synthetic, odd, but riveting: once the sour, mushroomy endocrines of the ‘violets’ fade, you are left with a very personal smell that is unforgettable.

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MUGUET, MUGUET: : : : : : : :: : THE SWEET, VICIOUS PURITY OF LILY OF THE VALLEY: : : : : : : : Diorissimo (Dior) :: Muguet de Bonheur (Caron) :: Le Muguet (Annick Goutal): Lily Of The Valley (Penhaligons): and others

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In Natsume Soseki’s 1909 novel Sore Kara (‘And then…’) the main protagonist Daisuke – a pretence-addled, fraught, yet indolent aesthete whose descent into madness forms the core of the novel – has a predilection for sleeping in the aroma of delicate flowers to negate life’s sordid realities. Being affected by the ordinary physical world with ‘inordinate severity’, this neurasthenic book collector ‘employed a faint, lightly sweet floral scent as part of this strategy to reduce contacts to a minimum; the flowers beside his pillow would gradually lure his restless consciousness into the world of dreams.”

The flowers: “snowy white lilies-of-the-valley, their stems still uncut.”

These form an important motif in the novel, but not merely for their pristine beauty and virgin whiteness: they come almost to be seen as a metaphor for repression. We learn that in his youth Daisuke had instead loved lilies, when his natural self, now asphyxiating under layers of intellectualization, had a happier, sensual abandon. If the smell of a lily is crass, the anaphrodisiac ‘purity’ of the lilies-of-the-valley is like a foil to his deeper libidinal urges, signalling a more civilized, sober view of the world.

He falls in love with his best friend’s wife (or rather he has always been in love with her, since long before their marriage, but has been too cowardly to act on it until this moment of crisis), another hypersensitive creature called Michiyo. She one day brings him a bouquet of lilies in a passionate gesture to renew their old friendship. But Daisuke, now, ‘could not bear to keep the oppressively heavy smell, which permeated the space between the two’.

In perfumery, some may feel the same about the stargazing pungency of lilies, their perfumed stench. In contrast, muguet, or lily-or-the-valley (also known as ‘Our Lady’s Tears’, since the sorrowful tears that Mary shed at the cross are said to have turned to lilies-of-the-valley) has probably the most unblemished purity of all the floral scents – at least on the surface.

They are not merely chaste. A muguet perfume has flesh under its perfect green/white veneer, which is why on the right girl this genre of scent can be tantalizing. In an exquisite passage in the novel, Michiyo, having come to the house, weak and thirsty on a hot summer’s afternoon, requests a glass of water. The doomed lovers talk a while, but once he is out of sight, she can hold herself no longer and drinks from the flower bowl: a gesture that seems to almost deflower the blooms, yet restores her. He returns and stands aghast as she smiles:

‘Thank you. I’ve had plenty. I drank some of that….it was so beautiful..’

 

 

 

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DIORISSIMO / CHRISTIAN DIOR (1956)

The porcelain flowers – little white bells, with gentle crenellations – hang vulnerably from their stems, yet a sense of prim entitlement pervades the whole. There is probably no flower more vernal, nor infuriatingly perfect, than the lily-of-the-valley, the scent so angelical and sweet it seems almost not of this world.

The flowers retain this brilliance to the last, taking their little cups of nectar to the grave (they will not yield their scent). The idea then, of master perfumer Edmond Roudnitska in his rooms overlooking a garden he had planted full of muguet to study (to render their bouquet as true to life as humanly possible), is inspiring – the painstaking painting of a flower in perfume.

The portrait he created – Diorissimo – is still, in the perfumer’s world, the muguet. Christian Dior’s beloved flower was the emblem of the house and the fragrance a sensation – women the world over reaching for their sprays of perpetual spring. Streams of cool, diaphanous lily-of-the-valley emerge from the bottle in a sparkling floral bouquet that is startlingly lifelike and fresh, while more fleshy, skin-like tones (a gently indolic jasmine) lie beneath to create a fully three-dimensional flower girl.

The classic muguet may not be such a fashionable note now, but Diorissimo’s timelessness and cruel beauty (it smells so much better on the young) should ensure this perfume’s survival through this century and beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

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MUGUET DE BONHEUR/ CARON (1952)

Despite all the praise (justifiably) heaped on Diorissimo, it is probably one of the last perfumes on earth I would wear. It is often said, among the perfume cognoscenti, that men can wear almost anything except tuberose. Wrong: I carry off that flower with aplomb. But I would never wear a muguet – unless it were Caron’s lovely Muguet de Bonheur. Though many fragrance lovers don’t rate it as highly as others of the type (this is not a straight rendition of the flowers, and probably why I like it more), this creamy, savon muguet, with its lightly done strokes of lilac and rose, is a polished escape, light as breeze.

Fantastic on warm spring days by the sea (along the promenade, in Yokohama’s Yamashita park).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LILY OF THE VALLEY/ PENHALIGONS (1976)

‘The Age of innocence’, Edith Wharton’s tale of repressed love and stifling manners in turn of the century New York, opens on an opera performance. May Welland, the dull, conventional girl that Newland Archer is set to marry, is sat at her box, clutching a large bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley. It is a detail that encapsulates perfectly the nubile respectability of this young creature, in telling contrast with the sultry Countess Elenska (and her rooms that smell of strange exotic incense and decaying roses). In her dress, new for the occasion, I imagine May would have smelled like this English muguet: fresh and verdant; smiling, hands clasped, as Newland, relishing his prize, looks on:

“She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly. He drew a breath of satisfied vanity, and his eyes returned to the stage.”

 

 

 

 

 

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DON’T GET ME WRONG, BABY, I DON’T SWALLOW/ ETAT LIBRE D’ORANGE (2007)

 

 

‘It all starts with a hand on the nape of a neck. The hand of a man familiar with the practice of attracting young women, accustomed to crumpling their sleek hair and to getting the better of their well behaved manners.’

 

Supposedly the story of the woman who resists, but finally ‘relents’ to giving head, the beginning of this scent is similar to Diorissimo, but with guts (there’s something there, in the back…) And what we find that to be is a chocolatey, lascivious marshmallow (the swirl of her tongue, the ‘rousing sensation of her back and forth.’)

 

But is it worth wearing? Without gimmickry (the Lichtenstein pastiche of the artwork, the salacious spiel of ‘the American kiss’), would we wear this sperm-laden muguet?

 

If you like the classic type, yes. But like all the Libre d’Oranges, you sense something icky in the backdrop, like a waitress, spitting in a salad.

 

 

LE MUGUET / ANNICK GOUTAL (2001)

Three dimensional, gorgeously breathy lily-of-the-valley which doesn’t hold back on lyrical romanticism. Makes many of the type look thin and tight-fisted in comparison with its rosy-appled cheeks, but possibly goes overboard in its true-life depiction of every aspect of the flower. For muguet purists and starry-eyed brides.

 

 

LILY OF THE VALLEY/ FLORIS (200*/ 1847, original formula)

A fine yet timid rendition by Floris, in the best hotel bath-towel tradition. Pure, crisp lily-of-the-valley flowers make a cool, youthful and beautifully English scent that is respectable – resolutely so – yet somewhat melancholic.

Other possibilities:

 

 

MUGUET DES BOIS/ COTY (1942) Inexpensive, yet classically rendered muguet with a tremendous reputation. Unfortunately discontinued now but easy to find online.

LILY/ COMME DES GARCONS (2000) Another attempt to make muguet fashionable for the younger set, this is a pure, green muguet/ white lily fragrance that is impressively vivid and new smelling, if a touch holier-than-thou.

 

 

 

 

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