Every scent lover has perfumes that conjure back important events in his or her life, perfumes that can make you wince with emotional remembrance, jolts of pain, or pleasure, that stand like monuments to your past, encapsulating whole periods of your existence: an identity you may not now relate to, but which you know still stands stacked inside your soul like a barely concealed nest of experiential Russian dolls, memories that are merely a cerebral membrane away; that with perfume, smelled once more,  can be revived:  re-examined.

Although I don’t think of myself as an especially nostalgic person, though I may be deluding myself in that regard having just reread this, I also know that for me, in some ways, the past has always been more important than the future; by which I mean that I have come to have a philosophy of life that very much lives in the now: a full, sensorial experience that when it does become the past, which it obviously always does, is then a life fully lived. You are what you have done before, I believe: we are those years; your past is your oeuvre. We are all different, but for me, those that spend their entire time consumed with plans, working working working for money for the sake of some unnamable future, blinkered to the beauty of the here and now, sometimes end up, ultimately, with a more hollow form of existence: partially blinded to the present, thinking constantly of finances, of the banal concrete realities of material possession and daily life, they end up in a strange state of nothingness, with neither a fulfilling life in the now, nor decent past experiences to look back on when it is all behind them.


And time is always slipping away.


The future, for me, must always be hazy. I have to have something to be looking forward to, always, and a vague idea of the direction I am going in, a six to twelve month plan, but that is enough. I know I could die tomorrow, as we all could, and I just don’t believe that excessive obsession with future plans is worth it. Not for me in any case. And, in relation to this way of thinking,  it is possible that my cabinets of perfumes in some ways exist on several existential planes: mostly for the immediate pleasure they give me on a daily basis, with no emotive ties or associations (though I am also aware that  some of them will probably be heart-jerkers someday in the future for that very reason: I am very much enjoying this stage in my life and who knows? Perfumes that remind me of my forties could be the ones that kill me the most when I am old, decrepit and on the way out): I am unconsciously making my perfume memories now, all the time, even as we speak…



There are also perfumes that I keep in my collection that remind me of other people but that I would never wear myself; that are almost like a long distance hug, like apparitions momentarily standing before me. Certain family members and friends, and most definitely  Duncan, are almost available to me, thus, in liquid form; their essence, or what my brain perceives as their essence (this is what was so devastating about Solaris: the piercing realization that we can never truly know everything about another person, that our understanding of them is always skewed, biased, un-full…), whatever it is, I reach into the cabinet, unstopper a bottle; breathe in, and my loved ones are there, in unbodied, ghostly form, right with me.


Then there are many other scents, of course, that represent me alone. I am in the middle of writing something, actually, about a very disturbing Japanese scent I bought when I first came here to Japan, and that one is almost unbearable for me to smell now as it just brings back – vividly –  waves of isolation and depression. And yet I would never get rid of it. It is time, bottled – me at 26. I have to be feeling peculiarly masochistic to sit down with that one, though: and yet the very fact that such strong emotions are possible from the mere inhaling of a bouquet of molecules is intensely thrilling to me: it could almost make me believe in eternity.


Others in my collection,  most of my perfumes in fact, merely represent particular episodes in my life as lived thus far. Serge Lutens’ Vitriol D’Oeillet reminds me of certain Christmas a few years ago; my Montales just make me think of a liberating, hot and sexy summer in Berlin. Kouros of me as a young man; Calèche of myself in a particular wistful, Sunday mood; Bal A Versailles parfum as me full stop.



But, strangely, there are two perfumes, not my holy grails, but ones that I love very much nevertheless, that can fit into all the above categories, yet that can transcend thoses boundaries; time and space;  and thus have a unique position in my pantheon: Ysatis and Givenchy Gentleman. These, in vintage, unadulterated form (they have both been unacceptably reformulated as I am sure you can imagine) not only represent extremely important events in my life but also were worn by its key figures: the turning point in terms of sexuality; my mother, my father; but also myself. They are also both scents that I can happily wear now, despite their seemingly gendered disparities – I feel perfectly at ease in both, like them equally. There are days when some Ysatis parfum, layered with a coconut scent like Yves Rocher Noix De Coco, are utterly delightful ( I wore buckets of it for some reason the last time I went to get my visa renewed at Yokohama immigration: I’m surprised they even stamped my passport…)


Gentleman I wear when I want to feel manly, together, hairy and assertive : I have a collection of vintage bottles that I have come across at flea markets, and although it is not a scent I wear that often, I need to always have some in my collection. When I think about it, there aren’t any other scents I own that have this quality, that exist on the level of symbol and representation and strange captivations of youth, gender, and sexuality, but which I can also still wear quite happily now as beautifully made perfumes that suit me even in my current form of more experienced, older existence.








And with that rather portentous opening over with I will now go back to the mid-eighties.




Looking back I can see that there was never a shortage of good perfume in our house. While neither of my parents are particularly interested in fragrance as a topic of conversation, nor especially eager to buy truckloads of it the way I am, like most British people who spray on something or other before going out the door, there were always fragrances standing on bedside tables or dressers that were worn on a daily basis: my dad always wearing ‘aftershave’ for work and particularly when going out anywhere in the evening, my mum exactly the same. Dolled up for her shop assistant job at Jaeger, or for a night out on the town with ‘the girls’, there would never be any doubt that the air on the upstairs landing would be pungent with their combined scent choices, the very atmosphere changed irrevocably by the exotic flowers and animal extracts that happily clogged my senses. They both smelled great, and in retrospect I see that they had very good taste. My dad fortunately eschewed the nightmareishly male, harsh braggadoccio scents like Tsar, Drakkar or Jazz, which I loathe, and loathed, and instead went for the more open-to-interpretation scents such as Chanel Pour Monsieur, which in the après rasage format was so indescribably beautiful; so head-changingly optimistic and elegant, and a scent I would use on a regular basis ( you wouldn’t believe how quickly his collection went down – I used to get into quite a lot of trouble). He also wore Eau Sauvage, Aramis, and Paco Rabanne, all excellent masculines, and a beautiful thing I discovered by the side of his bed one day called Givenchy Gentleman, which in some ways was the most unusual of his collection, and one that I was peculiarly drawn to with its tender lingering of citric freshness, old rose and refined patchouli.


My mother, on her side of the bedroom, had a fairly large rotation of perfumes. Working in a department store I suppose she was exposed quite a regular basis to whichever new releases were coming out, and in any case she tended to get bored of her scents quite quickly, preferring to try something new once a bottle got fully used up, which was great for me as an incipient perfume obsessive. The only perfumes I can think of that were bought again and again were First – her signature, and the perfume that suits her best –  and perhaps Rive Gauche. There was Nº19 in eau de toilette (she never had any parfums, preferring to spray), but she didn’t restrict herself to elegant aldehydics: Oscar De La Renta was a favourite, and it suited her perfectly, as did Samsara, though, as on anyone, it was always just that bit too much (that is a perfume that will fill an entire house with just one spray). I never felt that Opium was quite right on my mum (and smelling it on Duncan’s mother Daphne I now realize that you have to be the right person to carry that one off – she smells amazing in it). I remember, also, that Youth Dew also was just a bit too witchy, somehow, particularly when worn with fur coat, but then that was also kind of exhilarating as well, one’s own mother as vamp.



When I think back on all the perfumes that my mother had, however, I don’t think, in truth, that any was ever as exciting as Ysatis, the ‘new perfume by Givenchy’ that she bought the moment it came out and which I swooned over continually, with its tropical flowers, spice, coconut and animalics, a scintillating diamond of a scent that I personally think of even now as something of an overlooked masterpiece.



While I wore all of my dad’s aftershaves on a regular basis to school and sixth form college (the utter joy of being seventeen!! Walking through Brueton park on a spring morning, young, skinny, fresh-complexioned, with Chanel Pour Monsieur or Eau Sauvage emanating from me, a song in my head, and focusing my steps with poetic vigour; the jolly cosiness of Paco Rabanne, a huggable and trustworthy male scent if ever there was one), I would also, of course, surreptiously go upstairs and try on my mother’s, though I would never have entertained the idea of wearing one outside the house – budding sexuality is a delicate, nervous thing, you don’t want to push it- but I can see myself, post-bath in towelling bathrobe, secretly smelling Oscar on the back of my hand –  that alien, creamy American glamour (it didn’t work), or the latter, death-by-sandalwood stages of Samsara. And, of course, Ysatis. But no, I would never have worn Ysatis outside of the house. The mere idea of it at that time would have been unthinkable.



I didn’t need to, anyway, as the perfume soon came to me in the form of a girl. Although I had tried so desperately hard to be turned on sexually by the female of the species, forcing myself at night to have fantasies in a vain attempt to be something that I knew deep down in my DNA I was not, this never, strangely, stopped me from having girlfriends, who I could kiss happily enough at school discos or on the sofa at student parties – though it never went further – and whose character, or prettiness, or yes, sexiness, could induce me to pretend to myself for a while that I wasn’t what I feared I might be. So the girlfriends came and went, anyway, always breaking up fairly amicably, and, finally, at the age of 18 came the last, but most memorable, of my schoolday missies – Natasha. Hilarious, intelligent, free-spirited and gorgeous, we were more like a flirtatious brother and sister, really, but Natasha was always exciting to be with and she always smelled lovely. Really lovely (was I, in fact, dating a perfume?)



Curiously, when we first got together I found that she was wearing Cacharel Pour Homme, a harsh, nutmeg masculine that I love but which was a very eccentric, and actually rather bold choice now I look back on it; she would wear it with a tweed jacket, her long hair falling down her back, and this taut smell of citrus and nutmegs, faintly intimidating, would surround her. It was enigmatic, certainly, but I always found it slightly jarring, somehow, probably because I just loved how fantastic she smelled in her other choice of scent – Ysatis. Sigh. Just to think of it: this perfume needs someone lissome, smooth, sexy, and she had exactly the right skin to pull it off. It is a perfume that glints and swoons from the wearer: the ylang ylang, the tuberose, the coconut, all underlaid with the civet, vanilla and musk; the narcissus, the leather, the citrus top notes, it all just hovers in the air in a sly fantasia of sexual confidence but not boastery: it is rich, it is extravagant, but it never, somehow, goes over the edge. On Tash it was monstrously appealing (her subsequent boyfriend, someone I was in love with as well, would just bury his head in her neck with pleasure he loved how she smelled in it so much). It was as though the perfume had been created specifically for her. Ysatis is Natasha .


It wasn’t to last though, obviously: the girl had adult desires and I wasn’t the one to fulfil them. And in any case, my burgeoning sense of not being able to bear ‘it’ any longer no matter what the consequences, was growing rapidly along with my excited studies of literature and languages; that beautiful rush of brain freshening consciousness you have as a late adolescent when the world is opening up to you and you are joyously leaving childhood behind: that wonderful sense that you are becoming yourself. I often think of seventeen/eighteen as being one of the most wonderful ages, which is why I enjoy teaching kids of that age now; you can see the fervour in their eyes, the excitement that they are finding themselves and learning what they want to be in life, but still with the uncertainty of not being entirely sure of anything. There is a tremulous beauty.  It is an age when you can feel your strength rising, your physical and mental prowess, your independence, your life, and it is emphatically not a time to be pretending to be something that you are not, no matter how dire the results of your potential revelations might be. Essentially, for me that time, exciting though it was, truly felt like do or die.



To be honest, I was desperate. I was lusting after workmen on the roadside coming home from school, lost in hormonal ragings that had no outlet, feeling that I was about to explode. And then I saw Merchant & Ivory’s ‘Maurice’ and that was it. The beauty of Rupert Graves, who played Scudder;  the country estate lovers’ subterfuge, and the whole beautiful Cambridge fantasy meant that I finally had something to strive for, and so I put all my energies into getting into that prestigious institution, even though I had hardly been aware of its existence previously. I wanted the dreaming spires, to be resting in the arms of a floppy haired boy, to be punting down the river with him drinking champagne, the whole shebang, and so I did some work for once, went through the horror of the interview process, and to my great delight (and Natasha’s too – she also got in) passed and began the next, ultra-intense stage of my life (Cambridge was just a beautiful whirl of stress and exquisite yearnings: I have extraordinary memories of that time, and feel very privileged to have been there, but it is a time that I could never bear to go back to: the unhinged breathlessness of that time was very nearly nerve-breaking).




Before all that, however, I had to go through the pain and heartbreak of my first real relationship. It is hard for me to overstate how momentous that first kiss in the park, at night, was for me, how mind-blowing and explosive, as though my life had been dynamited into action and reality : a heart-beating secret; a revelation.  It is also hard for anyone of the current generation, difficult though it still might be, to imagine how illicit it felt for two seventeen year old boys to be kissing out there in the moonlight, how illegal feeling, and thus even more so disorientatingly, headily thrilling.



A love triangle of sorts had emerged between my close friend Sarah, her ex-boyfriend Darren, and myself. Sarah and I had part time jobs working at an Italian restaurant, and it was in the broiling kitchen at Da Corrado, washing dishes one Friday night,  that I finally allowed some words, in carefully ambiguous form in case they were thrown back in my face, to surface from my throat like overladen thieves from a vault, weighed down with guilt, fear, shame, and tension. To my inexpressible relief she understood without stating anything explicitly, and then came the revelation: Darren had told her the same thing, and now apparently had a crush on me. The level of head-spinning euphoria I experienced I will leave to your imagination, but I know I was a different person when I came home that night, going up to my room and staring at the ceiling in the dark, knowing that my parents were downstairs but that they didn’t have a clue what was going on in my head;  that their son, basically, was about to be reborn.



At this time I was wearing Givenchy Gentleman all the time. Although in some ways it is an older man’s scent, a fresh patchouli-rose-leather perfume of great complexity and construction (throwing off beautiful top notes of lemon and tarragon alongside the aromatic vetiver and animalic patchouli), in the after shave format, it was lighter and I felt that it fitted me like a glove. It had an aura about it that dad’s other perfumes didn’t, although I suppose that by this point I may have graduated to my own bottle in any case. I loved it. And it was this scent that I can vividly remember wearing on that night of my first male kiss.  I can see myself, on a warm early summer evening, in white polo shirt and this scent (he smelled of outside and bonfires); that moment, now, that June night of stark starry skies and shadows in shrubs, that is now thus enshrined for me forever in the glorious aroma of Givenchy.








He turned out to be an idiot, full of pretences and academic affectations, and wasn’t very nice to me either. I was besotted however, and though we had become college superstars as the first homosexual couple ever to exist in the entire world and not give a damn what anyone thought, our very chaste liaison, which didn’t really go any further than my previous relationship with Natasha except that the kissing was perhaps rather more passionate, soon ended in tears and melodrama, me famously flinging myself on the floor at the base of an oaktree and literally begging for him not to finish with me on the day that the whole world seemed to go up in flames and the tears were hot and heavy. Oh the joys of young love. The dapper, swaggering fool’s mind was made up though;  he was confused; more bisexual than I was, and in any case was more interested in the world of dungeons and dragons and all that puerile fantasy shit that I myself have never had one iota of interest in, and for whatever dull other reasons, it was just not to be.


God how I pined. How I pored over messages he had written to me on small pieces of paper during lessons while listening to the Pet Shop Boys (it was all about the Pet Shop Boys, the music we had rolled about to upstairs at full volume as I was supposed to be babysitting my sister). Left To My Own Devices was our song, and to this day it gives me fantastically mixed feelings of sadness and joy, as does One More Chance, whose bridge: “You’re so extreme, I want to take you home with me” Darren sang to me and which remains perhaps the most seductive thing anyone has ever said. But I was dying. And because I couldn’t tell my parents what was wrong, fearing horrendous repercussions if I did, they were at their wit’s end trying to work out what was wrong, why their formerly readily communicative son had become so mute and sullen. I was on drugs. I had made my cousin pregnant. I had committed a crime. They were tearing their hair out, but I was still upstairs crying, splashing Givenchy all over myself and dancing around my room in a indulgent stupor of heartbreak and obsession.


It wasn’t until later in the year when another crush began, one that also involved Natasha, incidentally – she ended up marrying him – and the beginning of university, with all its intense changes and overwhelming emotions, that the pain of that first break-up started to abate. In reality, as there had never really been much to it to begin with, it was more the fact of my finally having emerged from my cocoon, tasted the beauty of truth, then having it cruelly taken away from me that was causing the ‘agony’ – it could have been almost anyone, probably.  Soon, other things took over, I practically forgot about Darren (I didn’t, not really, especially whenever I came back home for the holidays), but in any case the mourning and self-pitying subsided; other experiences took over; and it all just became part of my history like anyone else’s.



Except that having had such an intense experience while wearing Givenchy; the severing of my past with my future; between repression and expression; between one seemingly preordained destiny and another, far more natural one, one that made my exhilarated eighteen year old self finally emerge as a real person after all those long, long years of hiding and feeling scared, really did sear that scent’s particular orchestration into my mind, eternally, as the real me: ‘my first kiss’, if you like: cherished; much as Ysatis, if I think about it, in some ways, was my last.


Filed under Flowers

78 responses to “A TALE OF THREE GENDERS: YSATIS (1984) & GENTLEMAN (1974) by GIVENCHY

  1. If you have any similar stories, of perfumes with significance for you personally, I would love to hear them.

  2. carole

    This is a really beautiful post, and I am at a loss for words.Gentlemen is one of the world’s most beautiful scents, and it has some really strong memories for you.

    Have you ever read John Banville’s novel The Untouchable? It’s about an Irish man, who attends Cambridge. It’s one of the best things i have ever read, and I think you might really enjoy it (I know I don’t know you well enough to judge what you might or might not like-this is just a friendly suggestion from someone who derives a lot of enjoyment from your blog). The protagonist could also have sported Gentlemen-it would have suited his character very well.

    Maurice is a wonderful novel. I wish i could have seen the film version too. Foster’s works are very moving-I think Howard’s End was my favorite. I did see the film of it, and when Samuel West’s character is grinning as he stands by the mantlepiece, describing his midnight advenures-well, it’s one of my favorite films images ever.

    Thank you for this elegant, moving post-

    • I have had a weird evening, actually.

      As you will have seen, I reblogged two random vetiver posts to cover up this piece, which no one seemed to be responding to (I think when you write something truly personal, you get a bit more needy and require immediate reaction), and then I use my jukebox tendencies to just repost things.

      So thank you for responding: I feel like a fool, actually. The whole post feels rather self-indulgent.

      Although I am not a fan of period/costume dramas per se (unless they are done REALLY well, or done just really enjoyably/soapish a la Downton Abbey), I do think that Merchant Ivory were geniuses. Such total perfection that has never been surpassed.

      A Room With A View was of course perfection, as was Howard’s End, as was The Remains Of The Day, which I found almost unbearably moving.

      However, Maurice touched such a nerve in me, for obvious reasons, and is done in the same manner as the other films; with such an immaculate attention to detail that you don’t’ even think about the detail or the period, you just ARE in it. And because of the subject matter (Maurice was considered quite risqué and forbidden for much of the eighties as though it were a porn film), the fact that they gave the same intuitive, well though out touch to it meant that it was essentially A Room With A View, just that the lovers were two men. It really is beautiful. It changed my life. I think the whole thing you can just see easily on Youtube. Put the kettle on in a quiet moment and watch it if you can. I doubt you will be disappointed.

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. What a beautiful soulfully written post!

    • Thank you. I think I had to get it out of my system. It is a little too earnest for my liking, but it is what it is, and relates to things very important for me. And I do like the doubled associations of both of the perfumes in this post, not that I have explored them fully.

  4. emmawoolf

    Neil, thank you so much for this. xxx

  5. Nancysg

    For years I have wished that my Mother had worn fragrance. For years, she supported my junior high and high school perfume purchases. But she never wore scent herself. She died when I was rather young and now I wish that there was a bottle I could open on certain days and smell her. Perhaps my daughters will have their favorite Mom scent to think of as me.

    • A very poignant thing to say. My own bottle of vintage First which I have upstairs feels almost unbearably significant, for what I already know now it will mean to me in the future.

  6. Katy

    My Dear Friend, I cannot help but think of you as anything else but dear, I find this post very moving. Smell is the most evocative of the senses. Fragrance in your life and the lives of those who comment here, is an emotional keystone. The way we were scented, the way our early loves were scented, becomes as much a part of the emotional hardware as how we felt or what was said. My Husband found me a beautiful little coffret of vintage Dior Miss Dior, Poison, Dune(she has suffered rather less than her siblings in modern formulary), and Fahrenheit. One small drop of Poison and I was instantly whisked back to the desperately unhappy but relentlessly persuing abandon through sex, drugs and drink young woman that I was. Was there any other kind of young adulthood in America in the 1980’s? That is a perfume with power and I still really like it. Would I wear it again? Probably not.

    • But how glorious just to have it there so you can slip into that persona, however briefly; shudder if necessary, and then put it back into the coffret, close the box.

      Vintage Fahrenheit also has the same quality for me, as I wore it by the litre when I was living in Rome at 21. That smell IS me on the dance podium in the clubs.

      It’s interesting how the brain just doesn’t respond in the same way to reformulations: although my mother wears current formulation First, it is the vintage bottle that stirs things up, as it must be the same as the one she wore back in the day. The clever re-shuffling of smell molecules just can’t fool the memory smell brain.

  7. Martha

    This is a wonderful post, and beautifully written as usual. It is amazing to me that we are able to act like who we are supposed to be, instead of who we are for as long as we do, until finally we figure out how to present our (mostly) true selves to the world.

    There is really no fragrance that
    I associate strongly with an era or time of my life except for Je Reviens parfum. You know, the little blue and round bottle, the one that came in its own black felt envelope. This was my mother’s favorite, and I greatly admired it even while wearing Love’s Fresh Lemon or Chantilly or whatever I wore as a girl. It is a fragrance that I have known since childhood. Once, as a very small girl, I sipped at mom’s bottle because I reasoned that anything that smelled divine must also taste the same. I was surprised and aggrieved to discover that it tasted awful. I have a small half-filled bottle of Je Reviens parfum that I sniff at just to remind me of my mom. Yesterday I dabbed it on, thoroughly, and went very happily about my work day because I smelled fantastic and was filled with good memories of mom.

    • It’s funny: Je Reviens is a perfume in my view that is intrinsically nostalgic and heartrending. It pulls at my emotions even though I have never known anyone who has worn it. I can’t imagine, therefore, the strength of feeling and association it must conjure up in connection with someone you have known and loved. An absolute heart, soul piercer, surely!

  8. Katherine

    I love that you have created this place that feels so safe and so honest, through the tenderest and most wistful of things, perfume. I felt so on edge reading this, maybe partly because I’d just been listening to the most amazing doo wop music, so there was a timely feeling. I too feel strongly that we are what’s happened and that’s what soul is. And sometimes we have moments where something true can hit us and run through us and I feel like my whole life is so visible, like flashing before your eyes I guess, and life is so heartbreaking sometimes. Anyway I felt a bit like this reading this, an eerie heartbreak, real and hard-hitting like the world turning on it’s axis and a feeling of encapsulating which I suppose is right there in the perfumes! Not that this story is a sad story, but emotional, and time passing is scary!

    • carole

      I totally agree with what Katherine has written-I dont have a great ability to put my feelings into words, so please let me second what she’s written.
      And I too have been listening to the pet shop boys since yesterday. And Dusty Springfield.

    • Thanks for not making me feel like a total fool.

      I was standing at the sink thinking ‘nah, don’t think I will write anything new today’: I have so many half finished reviews in notebooks and in various places, but was feeling too knackered to get them out, and then I remembered that I had at one point in my mind put 2+ 2 together regarding Givenchy Gentleman and Ysatis, and found the relations between everyone who had worn them; my father, my mother, myself, my girlfriend, and although I didn’t analyze what it all means (too Oedipal?) I just suddenly had to sit down and write it all down.

      But then you press ‘publish’ and you feel a bit giddy.

  9. katherinec

    I guess I don’t really have definite perfume memories yet, except maybe stuff like Imperial Leather soap, which I associate with my Dad and other non-perfume specific smells. Just thinking though, when I was growing up, my brother and sister and I would get out my Dad’s records from the Fifties and sit around playing them, mostly Rock n Roll, Skiffle and sickly sweet pop and novelty stuff but that was all amazing and we had so much fun (especially as my Mum hated them and would force us to listen to Classical and we had to campaign to watch Top of the Pops, which we’d then push back all the furniture to and go crazy). But there’s something about the singles format of the Fifties and early Sixties and the aura of vinyl that is magic in a way to me similar to perfume. It’s not the same listening on the Internet, I’m gonna get a record player again!

    • Oh god yes. I mean I spend most of the time listening to music on my iTunes on the computer these days, but we also have this fantastic portable plastic record player, which you can even take to the beach (VERY cool to see bossanova spinning there; people walk by and do a double take), and for certain records, especially jazz and piano music, there is a certain timbre that just fills the whole room. the music itself feels more bodied (did you find any of those mixes tolerable to your tastes, incidentally?)

      As for perfumes, when one speaks to you, as I hope some of those vintage numbers will, surely those memories have already been created. I am betting that you will, down the line, associate Chamade with feeling cocooned with an old movie, and it will already be a perfume of comfort. I love how it all works, how the films and the music and the scents become intertwined.

      I once scented a Neneh Cherry LP with Fendi Uomo, and the combination was just a gloriously heightened reality of Cambridge, October 1989, and that has been captured forever in my mind and I can just SMELL the youthfulness. I can almost smell that time from listening to Raw Like Sushi again as they are inextricably linked. When I go all out with compilations and have the time to do the proper covers, I usually scent them as well for the full experience.

      • Katherine

        Oh wow I can think of nothing better right now than being on a beach playing records on a plastic record player! I want a long holiday discovering a strange place with hidden old places and plenty of time to just explore. It’s just a dream though, I need to make some money :(. Probably inspired by the new Jim Jarmusche film I went to see last night Only Lovers Left Alive, which was fun, about vampires who come across as a kind of international hedonist elite and who, being immortal have this vast perspective on things and are very learned and can really appreciate beauty. I cannot wait for my next day off when I can ‘potter’ and put some of your surprise music on! I’ve had no time at all lately, it’s been spotify on the ipad at work for me.

        You’re totally right i’m sure in a year’s time even I will have strong associations of this year and what has been my first year of perfume loving. I’m going to get back to you further on Chamade, pure joy,

      • We saw Only Lovers Left Alive on Christmas Eve in Kyoto.

        Duncan hated it, and had a massive, poisonous, nuclear-level full of hatred argument afterwards, the bile coming principally from me.

        I really enjoyed it. It is the first Jim Jarmusch film I have actually liked and would consider re-watching.

      • katherinec

        Oh and it’s got Tom Hiddleston (have you seen any Joanna Hogg films? He was in her first two Unrelated and Archipelago, cringingly tense and very enjoyable) reminding one intensely of Gary Oldman (swoon!) but he’s then very good and so is Tilda Swinton.

      • I found him sexually repulsive personally, but enjoyed their screen tension. Never even heard of Joanna Hogg. Looking forward to perusing video shops in England very soon.

      • katherinec

        No not swoon at Hiddleston! Oldman!

      • In Bram Stoker’s Dracula I could understand it. I really love that film, even though I seem to be the only one on earth. And there comes back Winona.

        Incidentally, re your dream: I watched this thing called Still Of The Night the other evening, which I really enjoyed, but now I can’t remember why I am writing this. Maybe the rooms, and the dreams….

        As for Winona, I watched a film called The Letter the other night, and actually rather enjoyed it. Pretentious twaddle in some ways, you might say, about her as a theatre director who is losing the plot, but there was a softness to it….I was so fascinated by her in Black Swan: I adore Heathers, and Dracula, and even Beetlejuice….Perhaps I am a Ryder fan without even realizing it.

        I am tired.

        I can’t even remember why we are talking about Winona Ryder, but it does seem strange that you are mentioning here as she has definitely also been lingering in my consciousness…

        I love all this.

      • katherinec

        Yes I don’t think I’ve made it through some of his films before for some reason, I guess they’re quite heavy-handed, but I found this one enjoyable and totally inoffensive, I guess it wouldn’t have worked at all if it had been more serious. Joanna Hogg I found really different, worth seeking out! Guess the only comparison with Gary Oldman is the hair and open shirt and vampire thing.. And I don’t know why Tilda Swinton has dreads in so many films.

      • katherinec

        Hmmm, Winona as a confused young person I think was the best (like in Mermaids she was really sweet). I don’t know why she was in my dream either.

      • katherinec

        Yes it’s definitely the Dracula thing, and also Sirius in Harty Potter! I had a friend who saw him once in the street and literally didn’t know what she was going to do (she was a bit unhinged in general)

  10. David

    While reading your marvelous post, I realized I don’t have many scented memories. No one in my family has a signature scent. Maybe Ivory or Irish Spring soap! My Mom has a boxful of 3/4- filled perfume bottles that she was going to throw out. Thank God I stopped her in time before vintage Lanvin and Chanel went to the landfill! I only became interested in fragrance 2 years ago. Now, for me, fragrance is all about the present or the future. I have 12 leather scents that I will wear on 12 naughty nights out in Sao Paulo, one for each month. (Yes, I only go out once a month these days….the nightlife is just TOO intense down here). I prepare for my trips with fragrance in mind. (When I went back to Tokyo in December to pay my past-due local taxes, wearing Caron’s Nuit de Noel and Shiseido’s White Rose gave me the comfort I needed during such a emotionally-charged return visit). I get through difficult days thinking about what I am going to spray on my pillow to soothe me to sleep.

    Well, I do have one memory of fragrance, also involving my first time with a man. It was the 90s. I was living in Chicago. I fell deeply for a Mexican boy. We worked together at a hotel. We were changing in the employee locker room. He, by mistake, had left his locker unlocked and he said “Oh, no! Someone stole my Eternity cologne!” I went to Saks the next day and I bought a replacement bottle for him. I asked the sales lady to recommend a sexy cologne for me. She said forget the Paco Rabanne and the Polo. She sprayed Ungaro II on my wrist. I just remember thinking it smelled like velvet. That evening after work I gave him the bottle. He started crying. He told me to go out with him that night. He took me to my first gay club. Vortex. I remember the song that we first danced to–it was the time of Chicago house music and it was all about Robert Owens’ “I’ll Be Your Friend”. That night, he told me that nothing would ever be the same. He was so right.

  11. Lilybelle

    What a great post. I loved reading it. You write so beautifully. I feel ancient but Givenchy Gentleman takes me back to my teen years, so many lifetimes ago I barely recognize myself. A boyfriend wore GG, and after we went our separate ways I had my own bottle. I love that fragrance.

    • What a beautiful coincidence. I have always wondered what it might smell like on a woman: quite beautiful, I would imagine.

      • Lilybelle

        GG has a strong presence, as you know, but it’s nice to wear a spritz or two under my clothes when the mood strikes me. I love the woodsiness of GG. I’ve been meaning to try a rose fragrance over it, maybe Joy, to see what that’s like, maybe femme it up a little. But it’s perfect on its own. Another masculine I like is Grey Flannel. I treasure my husband’s old bottle, especially as the more bracing top notes have mellowed (gone). I love to catch patchouli sillage on someone walking by, especially a man. It makes me feel momentarily dazed and prone to follow. 🙂

  12. efemmeral

    All beautiful coincidences!

    It happens that I read this post, I commented something dumbfounded because I was wearing Givenchy Gentleman at the time. I’d been wanting the perfection of that patchouli, but had forgotten how intensely sexy a scent it is. What pinpoint construction it has, exquisite tension of all the earthiness against the clean barbershop thread of it… So reading I was also dumbfounded by you, having *such* a scent amplifying the raw passions at such a time. How did you not explode?

    I thought I did not have a scent to mark my own teenage tumult.

    But then another coincidence, after reading, and commenting (although that comment I now realise disappeared somehow), I visited a scented friend.

    So many things we smelled and tested and decanted for sharing, but as I departed she sprayed my glove with Bill Blass Nude. Released 10 years too late to be *the* scent, it nonetheless has the exact tenacious dry down of a fragrance sprayed on a tie of a boy who had the sort of feelings for me that I was having for girls and I tried to will those kinds of feelings into being for the *right* kind of person, who might as well have been him, if feelings could be willed.

    But they could not.

    So, I had a tie. And an intoxicating fragrance. And I had my feelings that wouldn’t redirect any further than that yearning mossy sagey musky fragrance held for *months* in that tie.

    A scent I have not sensed at any other time until this past weekend coinciding with your post containing all its similar confusion of feelings and Oh! the scent that lingers even now on my hand because I wore those gloves again today.

  13. Tejas

    Such a great post. I received a small mini of Ysatis this weekend. It’s really pretty. Thank you so much for taking the time to write.

  14. Lilybelle

    Ysatis was one I remember from the 80s but I had no interest in it then. I remember a girlfriend who was dating an “older man” was given a bottle of the parfum, and I was like…”meh” and “ew”. Just not ready I guess. Fast forward a couple of years ago and I tried the current version in a department store and fell in love. Everyone says the reformulation is horrible compared to the original, but not having known the original I thought the current version was nice. I kept the sprayed mouillette on my desk for a couple of weeks and couldn’t get enough of sniffing its honeyed woodsiness.

  15. Allyson

    I started reading your blog a few months ago, and wanted to stop by and let you know how profoundly moved I was by this piece. I rediscovered perfume about a year and half ago, in the midst of a family crisis. Isn’t it it strange and wonderful how scent captures the immediacy of a loved one, or a particular place or moment in time that we can choose or be forced to revisit in a way that is so much more visceral than looking at any photograph or watching a video? Thank you for your beautiful, evocative writing and your willingness to share yourself through this medium.

    • And thank you for reading and giving feedback on a piece that has made me feel uneasy, much as I needed to write it. If it even speaks to one person, I am delighted.

      A perfume association is it in terms of emotiveness I think. But it can be a killer!

  16. empliau

    I am late to the party, but I also wanted to say how wonderfully you write about such a painful time. I remember adolescence, and first and second and third loves, and the terrible danger of vulnerability that seemed worth it for the vertiginous ecstasy, and the inevitable heartbreak – I am so glad Maurice was there for you. I wish I had such powerful perfume memories, but I’ve only a few: my mother’s Arpege and Chanel No. 5 (available even in smaller towns), my grandmother’s Evening in Paris (she had a tiny black bottle of Joy parfum, but the stopper had broken the first time she tried to open it, so it was a symbol for her rather than a scent) and my great-aunt’s White Shoulders. Oh, and the Roger and Gallet Rose The and Oeillet Mignardise soaps that I had in my drawer, that seemed to me the pinnacle of sophistication!

    I have always wanted to go to Japan – I buy kimonos and yukata, and am longing for a boxwood comb and camellia oil. Now I am dreaming of vintage perfume in odd places, treasures for the finding …Thank you for sharing your experiences!

    • Thanks for this. It is all very evocative ( I love Evening In Paris).

      Glad I am drawing you further to the possibility of coming to Japan. It is a maddening place, to be sure, especially if you live here, but also utterly fascinating and enveloping: an addiction. And you would certainly be set for vintage kimonos and perfumes!

  17. Please do not ever think of what you write as being anything but wonderful! How incredibly poignant, heartfelt, and human! Your post made me think of love in my own late teens and early twenties. Oh, the things I did. Am I embarrassed to think of some of my drama? Yes, but those dramas are mine and they have made me who I am today.

    Keep writing!

    • I know exactly what you mean, and thanks for the encouragement.

      Definitely better to have thrown oneself on the ground than to have never done anything and remained CONTAINED. Anyway, I was born to express myself: it is as if I have some gene missing that can keep a lid on things. I can be no other way!

  18. joshnien

    Hi Neil:

    So where do I even begin? I have been feeling the urge to put down some words ,and now I finally overcame my laziness and registered an account while waiting for laundry to be done.
    First of all I would like to say your blog is an absolute joy to read and thank you for such an exquisite experience.

    Now as I am thinking about it, I am indeed a very lucky person. Being in a design course feeds my visual stimulus, my partner David who is a singing performer enriches my ears, while perfumes stimulates my olfactory sense like nothing else.
    And your words trigger them all. They make me think – or more precisely: reflect and remember.
    People are so afraid to miss anything now. Scrolling through Facebook, Twitter and 6 seconds videos. It seems hard to read. Anyway enough rambling. I am really glad there are still people out there putting time and effort into curating their blogs – not for commercial purpose, but for pure passion (although I certainly did order Givenchy Xeryus after seeing your earlier post… that’s another problem of mine).

    David and I, together we own around 30 perfumes, which is a lot more than average number but probably significantly less than serious perfume collector.
    Interestingly, there are no more than five I would really wear (no matter what occasion). Tom Ford Grey Vetiver is my favourite so far and it’s through this one I luckily found your blog.

    The first perfume I ever bought for myself is CK One. When I was in junior high I was crazy for this celebrity back in Taiwan. He basically shares his perfume collection and mentioned the first one he bought was CK One. As a 15 year old without income I bought a miniature version.
    At the time perfume was so foreign and new for me. There was no one wearing perfume in my class although a few did have deodorant with them all the time (I don’t blame them). Many people genuinely thought perfume is for smelly people, and the first thing my classmates always said was “Can you smell that? That stinks!”.

    So one day I decided to put few dabs of CK One on me and went to the school. I thought it was pleasant enough. But the reaction I got from people I am sure you would know.

    For few years before I left Taiwan for Australia I used to buy designer perfumes online, not knowing what they smell like, just judging from the brand, bottle design and the price. Now I do regret a little to have some I genuinely dislike (such as Nautica Voyage).
    After 6 years of owning CK One 5ml. It’s still half full. It has probably expired but the thrill I experienced one the first day I wore it hasn’t, and perhaps won’t.

    Time forwarding—–

    We had agreed to meet on Lygon St after my class. I was so nervous to meet this guy after chatting online for just few days. There came a man in white shirts, black slack and a pair of sun glasses (which didn’t really suit him). He smelled nice, I thought. Later that day he told me it was Versace Pour Homme.
    He gave me the most gentle and warm hug that afternoon, and he still does today. I bought a bigger bottle of CK One in Melbourne while left the 5ml one in Taiwan. It smells amazing on him. It’s really interesting how one scent encapsulates two periods of my life.

    The laundry has finished the cycle 30 minutes ago. I had so much to say but words have fled…

    I really appreciate your blog and will keep following your adventure and stories. I am also impressed by how frequently you update the blog!
    Thanks again and be well!

    It was
    David was wearing a

    • I loved reading this, Josh, and wish you would tell me more. Keep talking!

      That anyone who reads this self-indulgent blog enjoys it the way you say you do is extremely gratifying to me and makes it all worthwhile. I am an extremely instinctual person and just write it according to my instincts, as that is the only way I can do it. And I love that you also intuitively started wearing perfume even though it was not the thing to do and that it has had such a profound affect on you ( I do, think, that you MUST stray away from just wearing men’s scents. Honestly, that is so BORING. Please get into the idea that any scent is wearable if you like the smell of it. That is the path in which true freedom lies….)

      • joshnien

        Thanks for your reply Neil. I agree with you on that fragrances for women are far more interesting.
        Years ago I went to Sasa after cram school (You might know this ‘study culture’ as it is quite common in Japan as well), smelling scents as one usually does.
        I was consciously keeping away from female’s section because there were so many people in the store and nothing was worse than getting looks for a 17 years old.
        Female fragrances (or any floral scents) were somehow strongly associated with homosexuality when worn by a guy. Being a young gay in Narnia isn’t easy in Taiwan (as my friend said: everything happens in the closet) let alone under direct sunlight.

        I couldn’t help but walk over to pick up this beautiful bottle – seen on a perfume ad I absolutely loved – Gucci Flora. I could almost imagine the scent through the screen; the wind, the flower and the young girl in that fluid dress just blew my mind.
        I sprayed some onto the paper strip and it was exactly what I thought I would smell like!
        “Can I help you?” a lady ran to me and said, as if it was a big problem I sprayed more than once. I had to say something along the line of “No thanks, I’m after a gift for my GIRLFRIEND!” And left the shop immediately.

        Flora doesn’t have many layers to it but the simplicity and purity it conveys are incredible. I could just see flowers blossoming around me and that silky dress caressing my cheeks. I haven’t smelled the scent for years, maybe it’s time I have one more sniff.


        I have ordered few decants of “classic” perfumes (yeah what’s a better way to start?). Hopefully I will discover further on each scent and possibly spark new thoughts from there.

        Just a quick question, what is your preferred method to testing a fragrance?

      • Both on a paper scent strip, and on the back of a (clean) hand for comparison. You need both, I think.

      • joshnien

        That’s great. Thanks!

  19. Beautiful post from an equally beautiful soul. Thanks for sharing and baring it in such an elegant and captivating way. I am enthralled by your thoughts and find great pleasure in your writing. We all do.

  20. Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:

    Wearing Gentleman tonight…….it feels completely perfect.

  21. emmawoolf

    Wonderful. I have enjoyed reading this post over breakfast this morning, just as much as I did when you posted it originally nine months ago. Such an evocative, intensely personal description of those formative years. Although I came to know you at that “prestigious institution”, there is most definitely something incredible about the time of which you write: 17-18, or The Sixth Form Years. This was the age in which I also first fell in love (or thought I did, looking back) and first started wearing perfume every day, with a combination of my half-inched maternal collection, and thankfully, my own scents (although, living in the middle of nowhere, with no money, and not a lot of confidence in my own beliefs or even wishes, I believe they were always purchased “blind” for me: Ma Griffe, Eau de Gucci, and Rive Gauche, supplemented with mum’s No 5 when she wasn’t looking, but never the Opiums, Cocos and yes, Ysatis, and other spicy numbers she frequented). I could go on, but of course you mention EM Forster, and yes those wonderful Merchant Ivory films. I know every line in a Room with a View off by heart, and it was the very reason why I chose to study Italian in the first place. I’d never been to the country, or indeed stepped on a plane, before studying the language. But hey, it all worked out in the end. And finally (I’ve rambled too much and have no idea where this is going) I agree with the poster who about Joanna Hogg films. You’d like them. Happy Valentine’s Day x

  22. emmawoolf

    Forgot the main point…my first sixth form crush, who caused me and my two best friends to fight over constantly (we all went out with him at one stage, sometimes overlapping) was a Scottish would-poet, in the year above at school, who would come over and sit next to me in the school library and read me Blake or whatever, is now fat and bald and living in America, as I still catch glimpses of him through friends of friends in facebook..and he wore, on our first date and thereafter…..Givenchy Gentleman! x

    • I’d forgotten that this is Valentine’s day but I love your own musings about this period. I am re-reading this now, and I think it is one of my favourite pieces. I remember it had been kind of brewing up within me and I found that one day I just had to sit down and write it all out. It strikes me as being the absolute truth written down in words and enveloped in perfume, and thus quite important in a way.

      Glad that you went through similar experiences as me, and that you are also enjoying this other, later, period in life.


      • emmawoolf

        “The absolute truth written down in words and enveloped in perfume”. A most excellent way of putting it.

  23. Neil, I will keep this brief because everything has been said but your post was beautifully written…and you should not feel like a fool.

    • I actually don’t now at all, a year on.

      I am even proud of this one, and that is not something I would usually say. It feels as if I have captured my own life. I will continue to look back at this post I think from time to time, as it makes me feel nostalgic but cleansed, if that makes any sense. I can see my younger self and that whole world, as we all can for our childhoods and younger years, and feel a certain smarting of the heart for it all, and yet be glad that I am here and not there.

      That ridiculous thing I wrote the other day about absconding from school in order to find vintage perfume, breathless and rushed though it was, did make me realize though that I am lucky in some senses, despite my melodramatic hyperbole simply because I CAN, and do, still have the capacity for genuine excitement. On a regular basis. I think a lot of people become dulled around the edges as they get older; calcified; ‘adult’, overly affected by society and lacking in instinct and spontaneity. Me; ‘overweight’; ‘middle-aged’, schlepping down the street like Mr Bean most definitely isn’t that polo shirt wearing seventeen year old (even though it really did smell perfect tonight, even now, a quarter of a century on), and yet it is, really. It is me. And the perfume is like some beautiful link. In the blood. I think it is utterly important to maintain that connection with yourself, and not be polluted by all the commercially orientated bullshit that surrounds us. They ‘trends’ and the conglomerate -led evil .You have to keep analyzing; rejecting and maintaining your integrity, and not sell yourself out. These precious scents are like balms in that regard. Elixirs of experience and love.

  24. Robin

    This is beautiful. It makes my heart ache. Thank you.

  25. Happy Birthday! Still as beautiful and powerful as the first time I read this.

  26. I had the same emotions after reading this again as I did the first time. It was an extraordinary post and brought back memories of my past scent memories. To me nothing is as memorable as a scent memory. My mom has been gone for year but every time I smell L’Heure Bleu she is living once again.

  27. jennyredhen

    Happy Birthday Saggitarian Boy.

  28. jennyredhen

    My brother wears Givenchy Gentleman..It smells divine and to use your word a bit ambiguous I dont know how vintage his bottle is but Patchouli really features .. has the modern version got much patchouli??? your description of Ysatis makes me want it again.. is the modern version worth spending money on???

    • I don’t reckon. But you can get the old one online I am sure. It ties in with your likes and is one of the sexiest perfumes on earth. To know which is which, just avoid the new purple box and go for the old black one with the psychedelic edges.

      As for Gentleman…I have smelled the current version and it was ok but I think the original is hoarier and has more patchouli for sure. It’s really beautiful, isn’t it? As you will have gathered, I don’t really wear ‘men’s’ perfumes any more because they just smell stupid to me, like cavemen. But this one, though in some ways ‘macho’, has a real elegance and depth to it and I hope to always have some in my collection.

  29. fuckyouelegance

    Impeccably narrated. I love your story and of course, your venerations for Ysatis is not unfounded.

    • Goodness me no. On a woman, one of the most sexually gorgeous perfumes of all time

      • fuckyouelegance

        Have you watched the indie film, Call Me By Your Name? I think your story so much is like that. It’s a wonderful film.

      • No, I really want to see it actually, but films take an ETERNITY to come to Japan – it is always the last country to get them. I could stream it I suppose, but fancy the full cinematic experience. I liked the director’s other films, I am love (which I wrote about on here, if you want to take a look), and A Bigger Splash.

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