I think am unusual among perfume lovers in having a true olfactory double life. The fact of living in Japan, in a culture where strong-smelling scents tend to be frowned upon, as well as working in an educational establishment where perfume is actually not allowed, has produced a schism: at weekends, and during the long vacations I am fortunate enough to have with this job, the facial hair grows back (also banned in the workplace in case the students find it creepy), and the perfume gets hairier and more intense as well….out comes the Bal A Versailles, Tonka Impériale; the Lorenzo Villoresi Patchouli; Ungaro Pour Homme, the Montale Aouds, the rich vanillas and coconuts; vetivers, all the earthy, sensual scents I tend to favour, naturally, and uncensored, in my native, scent-reeking habitat.
Come the working week though, all that is put behind me. I shower, hard and long with the freshest smelling soaps, shampoos and conditioners, to remove every trace of all that from my body as I shave off the beard and become, again, my smiling, clean-living, English Gentleman alter ego.
I have two separate wardrobes, in different rooms of the house. Work clothes are confined in a kind of olfactive apartheid: unscented, clean-smelling, redolent, hopefully, of nothing more than fabric conditioner, or hints of the other, floral fresh fragrances I sometimes wear to circumvent the unbearable rules. Yes, I do wear perfume ( of course ). Not always, mind you. Recently there have been days when I have left the house completely unperfumed save for the gentle smell of Shiseido shampoo and hair mousse: I have even found it almost liberating in a sense (wow! is that the sky I can smell?!) realizing, suddenly, how the ‘normals’, those who don’t spend almost every moment of the day living through their noses, must feel: just blending, like odourless camouflage, into the backdrop of humdrum life. It is a weird feeling, to be sure, but once in a while to shed the scented mantle for a day or two can be refreshing. I also, then, feel far less paranoid in the workplace. You can’t imagine how stressful it is to have people wrinkling their noses or muttering under their breath, and, conversely, how pleasing it is to just have a bit of smell-security. Phew. Today it seems that I don’t stink.
I have written about this before on The Black Narcissus of course, but I am yet to come across anyone who has this experience to quite the extent that I do. I realize, naturally, that some of you reading this will also have to curtail your inner urges in the workplace so as not to offend your smell-sensitive colleagues, particularly in North America; the olfactively unconventional niche dramas of the perfumista not always readily accepted by one’s ignorant, smell-dunce co-workers. Here in Japan, however, the situation is undoubtedly far more severe. Mistakenly, in the long and distant past, thinking that a bit of citrus couldn’t hurt, surely, I have, on woeful and misguided occasion, worn Armani Pour Homme, Chanel Pour Monsieur, Miller Harris Citron Citron, Hermès Eau D’Orange Verte, among others, thinking I smelled crisp and gentlemanly only to hear the students muttering kusai, kusai (‘he stinks’) underneath their breaths as well as staff in the teachers’ room making straight and direct comments that such perfumes really just weren’t suitable. What I thought was lemon and lime, light; fresh; pleasing, to them is a stenchy old gaijin man of oakmoss, vetiver, and patchouli, the basenotes that inevitably rise up and fill up the space like a piggy, western animal, in the hallowed breath of the Japanese classroom. No, I long ago gave up even attempting to wear anything remotely masculine or classic, and as for orientals, you should have seen the kids when I once wore a bit (well, quite a bit, actually) of Givenchy Pi… literally screaming for the windows to be opened. Horrible, sweat-inducing experiences I have no desire to repeat.
Well, maybe you just do actually smell naturally bad, you say (or just think privately) to yourself. Well who knows, maybe I do. Maybe such a terror is what drives many of us to wear perfume in the first place. And yet I have had the opposite extreme of reaction when I have broken the rules of the company and instead worn light doses of fresh, floral scents designed for women; those unthreatening, exultantly clean perfumes which, worn on clean shirt sleeves and collars on a nice spring day strangely seem to suit me to a ‘t’: Marc Jacobs, Summer by Kenzo, Champs Elysées, Antonia’s Flowers Floret, Pacifica Star Rock Jasmine, and particularly Clinique Happy worn in moderation have had girls following me down the corridors attesting to how gorgeous I smell, which is all rather interesting from a cultural and gender point of view, but also shows you what a weird predicament I find myself in. I would never wear any of these at the weekend, never ever ever it would feel like a peculiar kind of soul transvesticism; but I do think that in some ways I wear them just as well as I wear my orientals and more extreme perfumes – it is just a different side of my character. I like to smell good, basically, and have just had to adapt myself, chameleon-like, to whichever environment I happen to find myself in.
Which brings me to the new collection of perfumes by Aerin Lauder, grand-daughter of Estée and creative director of the gorgeous Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia, which my friend Cath sent me a sample of recently and which I also wore successfully to work, with its neroli-infused, heady but steady white florals nestling most pleasantly, gently tropical but still downily clean, beneath my shirt cuffs. These perfumes have no scary old lady musks; patchouli; or hidden animalics in their bases to frighten the Japanese; no, though often almost entirely synthetic, they seem designed to form perfect extensions of the freshly washed, fabric- softened aura that the modern American woman often seems to want, sometimes desperately it feels, to evince.
You will see, then I come to this new collection by Aerin Lauder from a somewhat twisted perspective: while I genuinely do love the smell of faultless, floral cleanliness, (which you know full well in advance that these perfumes are going to have), they also remind us of the limitations placed upon us: not just on me and the strange perfume Jekyll & Hyde I have become, but also on the perfume wearing public itself: that this flawless patina of airbrushed, fluid-banishing unbodiliness is now almost what is required of the American woman strikes me as disturbing as it is pleasant. Having said that, the new Aerin collection, as we will see, is in fact more human and pleasing than many such offerings, and does sometimes go beyond sheer tuberosed metallica into calmer, almost fleshed, warm and womanly sensuality.
GARDENIA RATTAN Notes: Marine Accord, Tuberose, Gardenia, Tiare, Amber
Smelling this perfume reminded me instantly of last summer in Indonesia when we were caught in a rainstorm in the historical Kota district of Jakarta, by the river, standing under ripening, opening plumeria trees and watching the swollen grey clouds burst as market vendors scrambled to get somewhere under cover. Tropical white flowers and river ozone. If you are a fan of the original Marc Jacobs gardenia (as I am, in limited doses), you will probably like Gardenia Rattan. Like that perfume, this gardenia has a pronounced watery, ozonic top note that cuts through the florals and keeps them from ever getting too buttery and cloying, chiefly a very familiar gardenia/tuberose accord that is similar to the Jacobs though not quite as piquant or sharp: the wet note that clings throughout this perfume’s duration on the skin quite refreshing, I would imagine, on a hot, humid day, one of those commercially attractive perfumes I can see becoming a big hit. You couldn’t possibly get a safer fragrance, with its clean, beachy, feminine vibe, its total skank-annihilating swathes of freshness, though I can imagine that even one spray too much of this in an office environment might be a touch headache-inducing.
IKAT JASMINE Notes: Jasmine sambac, Jasmine Egypt, Tuberose Fleur, Tuberose Infusion, Honeysuckle, Sandalwood
The thing about Ikat Jasmine is that it doesn’t really seem to contain any jasmine. Not in the usual manner we expect, at any rate, with that familiar, white, fleshy, indolic lusciousness. Far more prominent is a light, imaginary air-soaring honeysuckle, which graces the fresh floral accord and soft, shadowy musk-sandalwood base quite beautifully in a blend that I personally can’t help but find rather seductive. Like the jail-baiting Curious by Britney Spears and also Jean Charles Brosseau’s Violette Menthe, this perfume has that flirtatious insouciance of a devastingly sexy young thing, that moment when an inspired combination of ingredients somehow produces an entirely different kettle of fish; in this case, to me at any rate, a classroom scenario in which a dreamily beautiful girl is playing with her hair indolently, knowingly, and the scent that is moving deliberately, slowly, across that very room is driving the teenage boys that secretly love her, but don’t dare to admit it, wild. As I said, to me this is not a jasmine perfume, really, more a pleasingly dusky, abstract floral, but one that I just instinctively know on the right young thing could be the school’s best kept secret:::: What IS that perfume she is wearing? I need to know…..
EVENING ROSE Notes: Blackberry, Cognac, Rose Centifolia, Rose Bulgaria, Incense, Amber.
If Ikat Jasmine is best kept for your niece or daughter as a coming-of-age birthday present, then Evening Rose will do very nicely for the more sexually experienced woman of the family. Here, Aerin veers from the starched, Caucasian ideal for a moment and audaciously (gasp!) embraces the Arab-American daringness of an attenuated rose-oudh, tackling the recent wave of oudh perfumes à la Kilian by reining in the more swoony, ambered and middle-eastern aspects of the perfume with a beautiful rose top note of quality, almost Elizabethan in its classicism, and light, fruited sensations of blackberry. It is an expertly blended perfume; warm, suggestive, rich, yet still gentle and unthreatening. While I personally like my oudhs and roses more full-on, this perfume treads the middle ground successfully, the kind of scent that could weave sensual webs of intrigue around the right wearer, garnering compliments from her more mainstream friends who will undoubtedly lean in closer and say ” I like your perfume. It’s unusual. ”
LILAC PATH Notes: Lilac Flowers, Galbanum, ‘Creamy Jasmine Lactones’, Angelica Seed Oil, Orange Blossom
The problem with perfumes that smell like air-fresheners (and they are increasing in number by the day), is the sense of what they are concealing. While the British woman will ‘nip to the loo’, or even just simply tell you that she is ‘going to the toilet’, her US counterpart is not supposed to do such things. She slips off euphemistically to the ‘restroom’, to the ‘powder room’, obfuscating the biological realities of every human being and their requisite toilet function. All such realities are usually deleted with Lauder perfumes, which create the illusion of odorous sanctity, of laser-beamed, angelic unbodiedness. Lilac Path goes too far, however. There is a great unspoken elephant with this perfume, and it is sitting right there in the toilet bowl…
I used to really hate cheap floral airfresheners as a child. In fact I used to scream sometimes as grotesque wafts of cheap Glade lilac would assail me from the family bathroom and reach me in my bedroom mixed with unmentionables: at any rate I almost preferred the disgusting, raw emissions of the human body to the blend that would instead meet my nose. And while there is nothing remotely dirty about Lilac Path (although I do think that lilacs are some of the very dirtiest smelling flowers, even when they have just bloomed), with its grassy, green tones gracing the neutered lilac blooms, the disturbing connotations of covering up are just personally way too strong for me.
Testing these perfumes for a third time last night, Duncan also thought this was as foul as I did – way too strong, for a start, and entirely unsuited for the skin of a human being. Though it eventually does die down to quite a nice, delicately polished lilac skin-scent, if you are after lilacs, if you must have lilacs, then I would recommend After My Own Heart by Ineke, which treats those flowers in a similar manner (but with better execution ); the original Pleasures by Estée Lauder with its wet, clear, feminine, lilacy insistence, or Olivia Giacobetti’s delicately poetic En Passant, (which I reviewed the other day); or, if you actually want to embrace what lilacs in fact really are, and are unafraid, then go for the full on, tongue-thwacking f***fest under the lilac bushes that is Fior Di Lilla by Borsari.
AMBER MUSK Notes: Ambrox, Magnolia, Rose, Coconut Water, Benzoin, Musk
There There. That’s better.
Amber Musk, a gold-leafed, shimmering off-the-shoulder-perfume for a night of anniversary celebrations of champagne, top restaurants and ‘intimacy’ (that other euphemism; what are Americans afraid of?) is, in its own way, sheer perfection. Though for me this perfume is perhaps too tame, too balanced, too ‘just so’ (one and a half glasses of champagne, never the whole bottle), the skilful blending of this perfume manages to encompass, quite effortessly, and silkily, the essence of the ‘American Woman’ we see wheeled-out yearly at the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Clean yet sexy; not a hair out of place; so well put together; smooth-skinned, toned…..a modern amber perfume that makes all the right noises, folding in on itself and then unfolding lightly; tastefully, blossomingly and eminently, seductive. Amber Musk has the potential to be a big hit because it ticks all the right boxes for a certain kind of woman, who may or may not exist in reality: one who is managing to ‘do it all’; have a lucrative, and fulfilling professional life; raise a family; exercise regularly; take care of her appearance; smell good; love her man; and smile, always, or as much as she can, with those ever-enviable, orthodontically immaculate, sparkling white teeth.