Iris 39 is an unusual iris perfume. Eschewing the usual  pleasantries, it plunges us straight into sour, bitter-lipped, patchouli-driven angles laced with searing ginger, lime, and cardamom.  With none of the preimagined light, downy play between powdery orris butter and other florals, this is forceful and pungent.


Like people, though, with their inevitable character flaws, there is something missing here, a hole:  it has been left raw, wild; un-airbrushed. We sense the stark architecture, relish no warmth; no soft, bone-protecting furnishings.



Iris perfumes magnetize me with their coolness, even when I cannot always give myself to them in my entirety. To do so would be somehow to surrender myself to their snobbery and imperious gaze; become sucked right down into their roots and their morbidity: the petals; grand papery matrons, crinkling our touch – the Virginia Woolfs of the marshes, watching in the English garden; arch-duchesses, knowing death but perennial; the dust of tomed libraries and dead angels swirl in earth-bound; violet-doomed time tunnels.Those sweated, dried out and pulverized bulbs, with their silken, water-sodden shimmer. Aerated; beautiful, porcelain faces turned away; the unfurled flowerheads of their melancholia; argent, moon-coddled powder……



It is all right here in Iris 39, in that opening salvo of cool, vegetal iris, leached entirely of all serotonin. No sweetness, no compromise: a sighing breath of Après L’Ondée as the iris juice expires its last; and then a cold, twisting witch’s mouth of patchouli licked with spice: emotions sucked right, right in; a chic, deathly submergence.




I am quite transfixed by this perfume, even while sensing its privations, its sense of not being quite coloured in, and wearing it on my arm one evening I find that arm being raised to the nose quite regularly: it felt familiar; cold comfort; an iris with subcutaneously cruel intentions.



On my sweater the next morning, the scent had clung, maleficently, stubbornly, and it was then that I realized the source of déja vu: Clinique Aromatics Elixir. Yes, that was it most definitely, the aromatic, powdered patchouli of Elixir, a perfume I know very intimately as it is the signature scent of my great-aunt Jean, who has worn it for decades, from the height of her glamourous phase as a wartime showgirl to her current, miserable existence as a sad and moribund ninety two year old in a Birmingham nursing home. Her Elixir still gets a spray now and again though. You can smell it in her room. Every time my mother visits her she just talks about how much she wants to die, as the scent of her past clings, tauntingly, to those sad, lonely, walls.



Iris 39 has that same smell; the same intensity of sillage (stylish, distant; complete) but with a far deeper indifference. Elixir has a chamomile-touched, powdered magnanimity, an American generosity. This Parisian take is more dark-hearted; callous.  Absorbing; desolate.


























Filed under Flowers

27 responses to “IN THE BLEAK MID WINTER: IRIS 39 by LE LABO (2006)

  1. Le Labo Iris 39 — one of my all time favorite perfumes! The black & white photos are so appropriate to depict this perfume. I also get some fizzy saltiness as well. Have you tried the shower gel? It was love at first use for me (and I don’t usually go for perfumed shower gels); this is also probably the most expensive shower gel I had ever bought. Some people are bothered by the medicine bottle-like bottle but I personally like its simplicity and the burnished silver chunky top!

    • I like it enough to buy both, though for me, ultimately, it is a downer. You don’t find it a somewhat dark scent?

      • Not a dark scent on me at all…I actually get a bright salty fizziness. The white of the black & white photographs are dominant for me when it comes to equating Iris 39 with the pictures. I’ve actually heard that because the perfumes are actually mixed in-store, each bottle could actually have a slightly different concentration of the perfume oil and perhaps, mine actually has more of the oils!

      • The saltiness I can definitely see.

        Perhaps I am overly influenced by the associations with Elixir (to me, the dry down is extremely similar), and also the Morrissey biography I have just finished.

        Full of death, that book.

    • And I do like their bottles. I have their Patchouli, which I never wear as it now smells to me like roast ham, but I enjoy owning and sniffing it once in a while.

      The iris is better: I wish I had bought that one instead. It could be strangely empowering to wear .

  2. I used to love Le Labo Iris 39 but in recent years I am getting the same feeling with it as you. Also, for a while I was in love with Santal 33 and now that one is turning me off as well…not to mention every single time I spritz it before going to work, I get negative feedback from my boss and co-workers. My favorite one from that line now is Rose 31 and also Tubereuse 40 of which I purchased a very small (and expensive) vial of the last time I was in New York City and which is the New York City scent. I don’t want to like that one too much because I believe you can only purchase it in NYC.

    • The Tubereuse is lovely; not sure if I can remember the Santal 33, but negative comments from more than even one person are totally horrifying for a smell-obsessed perfume freak – I feel your pain.

      There is definitely a lack in this perfume; something stark and weird, but that is perversely part of why I really like it. I find it strong, yet poetic, and that combination doesn’t come along all that often.

      • Yes, I guess I like stark and weird as well and most of the people I work with do not like perfume at all. The few that do only like department store brands. Most of my perfumes are of the stark and weird variety but I do own some Prada and L’Artisan and Hermes’ scents which I probably should wear to work.

      • Yes, save the more poetic contraptions for yourself or for others who can appreciate them.

  3. luxcat

    I’m sitting in a Paris hotel room. I really wanted to find a perfumer to buy a scent that would mark my birthday. I happened upon Le Labo and was utterly charmed by the girls who worked there who knowledgeably went through all the perfumes. I narrowed it down to Rose and Iris, left and right wrist, and promised to return, deep down thinking I’d probably end up in Artisan Parfumer or similar. But something rather marvellous and intoxicating happened..the rose took on a peppery and less appealing character but the Iris had me secreting whiffs like an addict all day. I had to have it. I am now obsessed and I couldn’t put my finger on the ‘way, way back’ association until I found this post…it’s aromatics elixir.. And yet this is very different…but it’s that same dark, intoxicating and seductive thing minus the Birmingham nursing home. One of my other obsessions is Jo malone’s French lime blossom and until I read this I just couldn’t work out what it was about iris 39 that sent me gaga..and I think it’s the lime….your description is absolutely spot on. Absorbing, desolate. It’s the kind of scent that makes you need to get up close. A lot. Your post is a beautifully evocative description of this scent. Nailed it.

    • Thank you so much. I totally agree about the absorbing, desolate idea, and also that this perfume grows in intensity during the day and has you constantly sniffing .It also lingers really beautifully on clothes.

      When I wrote this review I was pleased with it but then felt embarrassed by it for some reason (too earnest and ‘poetic’ or something) but I did just write what I felt and am really glad it chimes with someone. It’s a gorgeous scent.

  4. I have a bottle but haven’t worn it in forever! Time to pull it out again. I do have to say that on me, it makes me smell like… Well … A French professor. Which I guess is what I am 🙂

  5. SH

    Hi. I love Iris 39, but I had a crappy customer service experience while I was in the store in NYC in March, and the response I received from one of the founders about the whole thing really makes me not want to support them. However, old habits are hard to break and I still love the scent- I have a little left and find myself rationing it out. I was wondering if anyone could suggest a similar scent without the pretense and smugness? It would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!!!!

    • Pretense and smugness… horrible.

      I mean I am not a massive fan of the brand, even though I also met one founders when he came to Tokyo and he seemed nice enough.

      I personally can’t think of an alternative; there is nothing else quite that sour and melancholy.

  6. Nelleke Oepkes aka Booknose

    Dear mr G
    Tears after reading this beautiful, haunting story. And prosaic goosebumps. I have to find, try and taste this perfume and feel quite the Miss Havisham avant la lettre.
    Perfect images. Chapeau d’Amsterdam!

  7. Robin

    N., I hope your great-aunt Jean has shuffled off that mortal coil since you wrote the piece. That image of suffering was so poignant.

  8. I feel for your Aunt Jean, hopefully she is still getting a little joy from her perfume.

  9. Nelleke Oepkes aka Booknose

    I switched my icon quite without intention for a picture of one of our dogs eating a strawberry. She really had a go at it!

  10. Such poetic descriptions! I haven’t tried it myself, but love iris – everything from Chanel 19 in parfum and La Pausa to Heeley’s Iris de Nuit and Prada’s Infusion d’Iris. I wasn’t so keen on Silver Iris by Lutens or Iris Poudre but quite like Hiris by Hermes on rare occasions. Sometimes it feels uptight and mean, then other times it’s restful, simple and quiet. Do you reckon I’d enjoyIris 39?

  11. Jenn

    Thank you for this amazing review! I’m dabbling with Le Labo. I’m finding I like Santal 26 on my clothes (I choose coconut over pickles). And I like Rose. ish. I bought a decant of Iris since I never think of Iris as my “thing.” I love a blast of waxy white florals (never met a great Jasmine I didn’t have to have). Or, give me a woody vetiver. I’m not much for everything in between. But this is one of LL’s overlooked scents and reviews like this one made me curious.

    I must say, an hr in, it’s love. This is special. It’s different and ownable unlike santal 33 that you smell everywhere. You’re bang on with the dusty emptiness. I’m 34 and not French, but I don’t mind playing the role you described.

    There is an emptiness I love. My early higher end fragrance love was Jo Malone mostly because it always feels like something is missing. This is a very grown up dark version of a classic JM to me.

    Fragrance fits and marks a time in your life. I’ve had a couple of personally challenging years. Nothing tragic. But nothing easy. Maybe there’s some part of me that knows nothing is forever and things will evolve – so let’s mark this time with a scent that will allow you to access this time since the train is moving on. Not to dwell on the past but a way to respect it. I think Iris 39 will be that for me. I won’t wear it everyday (the ladies I work with are not perfume lovers, and this gal projects). But I will wear it regularly, as someone mentioned, as a way to feel empowered.

    Thanks again for this review!

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