“Conversely: contrariwise: the order or meaning reversed…”
Vice Versa, a limited edition released by Yves Saint Laurent in 1999, was a fragrance that was said to play on two sets of contradictions: a heads or tails role-reversing of sweet notes and savoury; and of simplicity vs sophistication.
“It’s not very sophisticated, though, is it?” were in fact Duncan’s exact words the other night when I asked him to smell this perfume on me, putting paid to the idea that this scent is in any way sophistiqué (and I agree). He did, however say that it was “very nice”, and this is key: Vice Versa is in fact so easy, and pleasing, that I have been wearing it a lot over the last few days, loving every minute of it. Sometimes I just need something easy and upholding, an unmoody background into which I can just nuzzle.
When this perfume came out I remember seeing a rare sight: a Japanese woman, on the train one evening, engrossed in her shopping bags, really excitedly inhaling and smelling, and constantly resmelling, the bottle of Vice Versa she had just bought, exclaiming : “kore wa sugoii ii nioi, sugoi ii nioi – this just smells amazing, amazing”, quite delighting herself with her purchase ; I remember smiling to myself at the rarity of such overt public perfume love in Japan and also because I had just sampled it myself in a department store and thought it was rather good with its appealing, mandarine goodness. So, when I saw a sharply discounted bottle at a ‘recycle’ shop here recently, I didn’t hesitate for a moment in buying it. I enjoy collecting these moments in time; these disappeared, uncool curiosities from the turning point of a decade that are no longer manufactured, like unloved CDs, or books that have gone out of print. They seem to encapsulate, in physical (though evanescent) form, actual temporal shifts, even (especially) when they are housed in such gauche and clumsy bottles as this one. Such items, these unwanted throwbacks, in fact form a substantial part of my collection and are handy as olfactory gap-fillers: you can hardly spend your time entirely in the perfumed presence of legends.
Vice Versa, if your interest is in anyway piqued, is essentially an almost contemptuously familiar kind of scent (trust me, you have smelled this before). A vanillic, cedary, blandly generic base layered, convincingly but predictably, with that tuberosey/orange blossom ‘Saturday night heart’ that features in so many a sensual floriental (anything from Byzance and Fleur De Rocaille back in the day to the more recent Elie Saab or the (underrated, in my view) Serge Lutens Nuit De Cellophane): those vervy, shimmering scents with their honeyed light and silken bedspreads that glam up their surroundings with a light, intrinsic sensuality. Psychologically uncomplex, these perfumes are designed perhaps for quiet nights in with a movie, or else relaxed nights out on the town with the girls: everyone likes how this woman smells, even if they themselves are barely conscious of that fact: she just eases herself nicely into whichever scented space she happens to find herself in and gets on with the conversation. Though possibly outdated in some ways, I still vastly prefer this kind of scent on a woman to the prim-lipped neo-rose trend of the new Chloé(s), Paul Smith Rose, Valentina etc, those decorously demure ‘l’eau roses’ that seem to hold in, almost ceramicize a woman’s sexuality into an unrealistic, porcelain corset of ‘refined’, dubious, integrity. I must admit that I personally find that kind of scent repulsive. At least with this (admittedly more vulgar) genre of perfumes, the ‘Saturday Night Florals’, you have a sense of skin, of a pulse beating beneath.
What makes Vice Versa stand apart somewhat from the many other fruity floral woodies of this ilk you have smelled so many times before is the airy, luscious freshness of its opening: a nose-tingling dance duet of Chinese mandarin and fruity tomato, whose molecules pirouette enticingly into the atmosphere when you spray the perfume on (to an equally appealingly green, sparkling backup troupe of peony flowers and raspberries). It is the combination of these elements, the seesawing (but perfectly married) mandarin and tomato, that gives this perfume its quirk.
The tomato vine has been inspiration for several classic scents, including Sisley’s brilliant basil-green Eau de Campagne from 1977 and Christopher Brosius’s legendary tomato ‘solifruit’ Memory Of Kindness of 2006 (the adorable concept of a wayward child emerging timidly from a bower of tomato vines expecting a harsh punishment, but instead simply meeting the tender and forgiving eyes of his grandparents). This, like Demeter’s Tomato and Green Tomato, are based on nothing but notes from the leaves and flesh (and earth surrounding) this climbing, delicious vine fruit. The note can also be used effectively, however, with flowers and other green notes: an appreciable note of tomato leaves was to be found in Nina Ricci’s Liberty Fizz (from Les Belles De Ricci series -the one in the green bottle), also a very big hit in Japan when it came out in 1996, paving the way for the clear commercial appeal later here of Vice Versa. Tomato notes have become more absorbed perhaps into mainstream perfumes I would say, but are still perhaps considered a touch wacky.
Any intimations of Through The Looking Glass mayhem or surreality intimated by the clunky and chunky Queen Of Hearts cap on the top of this bottle are unfortunately unfounded, though. This is categorically middle ground stuff. It almost worryingly takes me back to my hometown, Solihull, in the West Midlands of England, with its deep-rooted conventionality, its beige furnishings, its refurbished ‘wine bars’: a scent to cuddle up to with TV and the latest Michale Bublé. But this is also (my own vice versa?) why I like it. It is unpretentious, reequilibrating. A place to just go back to: the parental home – comforting; easy; uncerebral. She is no poetess, this Vice Versa, her tastes probably ranging from Mariah Carey to Whitney Houston: her penchant for female romantic comedies boxed in pink DVD cases starring Kate Hudson or Reese Witherspoon hardly qualifying her as a ‘buff’. She has lived but is unphilosophical: no political consciousness to speak of, few dilemmas. But she is lovely also: direct, disarming, her sensually, red, orange pink, and perfectly balanced scent a tactile, warm-breasted arrow in her archery.
I was planning to finish this post by saying that if you like the sound of Vice Versa, it can be bought for almost nothing from Amazon and e-bay, one of those ‘fall back on’ bargains you can just spray on when can’t think what else to wear (a friend came to stay recently and LOVED the smell of this, even if she would have to probably hide the bottle away somewhere at the back of her closet). It seems, however, that it has a bit of a cult status now, and you can’t seem to get it for under a hundred dollars. I am obviously not alone in thinking that this perfume is nice. One to watch out for, anyway.