I woke up yesterday feeling macho. And so I went into Kamakura for my twice monthly Japanese lesson wearing Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, a nice, classic, soapy, barber-shop fougère that I use on such occasions, walking along the road feeling broad-shouldered, manly, and hunked (in the nicest possible way).
As luck should have it, after the lesson, in the antique shop I often frequent, down one of the back streets, a place that always stocks a selection of unwanted vintage perfumes, they had just had a new influx of curiosities for me to peruse at my unhurried leisure. While mainly overpriced (yet ultimately, pretty reasonable considering), the proprietors usually give me a discount anyway, and, my eyes immediately startled, I pounced, straight away, upon a full bottle of unused Creed Royal English Leather: a discontinued, unusual beauty that I couldn’t quite resist at the bargain price of 2500 yen with its sense-flushing, powdered rush-plush eiderdown softness of floral, mandarin amber and cuir: a richness, and, indeed royal flounciness, that could almost put one in mind of vintage L’Heure Bleue. It is sitting now, proudly, by my bed. I know its time will come.
What else? Among the haphazardly placed bottles there yesterday was a torridly bitter, straight leather eighties scent I had read about before but never smelled – Morito Or Black (1982) in its original, very decade-specific plastic flacon. I surreptiously sprayed some on the back of my hand as the lady was busying herself doing something in the corner, realizing quite quickly that this was a fine, dark, scent in the taut, no-nonsense, Yatagan mode, and one that might suit Duncan. I might have to go back and get it. Then, also, another bottle that I couldn’t help but tilt onto my wrist ( out of view of the bonneted lady who was sitting among her rose-covered English tea cups, lace, and general daintinesses): Macassar, a scent I have never seen anywhere in the fleamarkets before: a beautifully complex, spiced and ambered men’s scent of rich, classical contours that was co-authored by Nicholas Mamounas, the intricate genius who created the divine Mystère that I was raving about the other day and which I wore to delicious effect all weekend; and Roger Pellegrino, the man who came up with Armani Pour Homme (1984 – my first perfume love). Like all these scents, Macassar feels very much of its time (this is so eighties, taking me vividly back to a Lynx -now Axe – deodorant that I once had called Africa, or something, as a seventeen year old), but as its scent progressed on my wrist, as I took the train the short stop home, I realized that I was rather liking it. Macassar, of course, was the the hair oil worn by Victorian gents, smeared over more parted, formal hair styles to keep the hair stylishly in place and the reason that the ‘antimacassar’ (a piece of cloth put over the back of upholstery to prevent it from getting stained by grease) was invented. This ubiquitous product was composed of coconut and palm oil infused with ylang ylang flowers, spice, bay rum and various other ingredients, and some of this sweet, colonial exotica has made its way into the now largely defunct perfume by Rochas. While the expected fougère ingredients are all in place : cedar, geranium, oakmoss, pine tree needles, artemisia, carnation, patchouli and bergamot, as well as the usual woods, musk and amber in the base, there is also a rather curious dolcezza here that takes the form of coconut, jasmine flowers and a piquant ‘rare fruit’ top accord steering things in a different direction from the usual grunting, gorilla-breasted brutes of that decade. While sensual, and very compelling, in its loveable ‘all-roundedness’, Macassar – like Mystère I think- also manages the feat, which I truly love in all the finest perfumery, of capturing something beyond: an aspect of intrigue you can’t quite put your finger on or pin down: that sense of a person being far more than the sum of their parts, or at least those sides that they have allowed you to view. A simple idea, well-executed, is a great thing in perfume, but for me, far too many perfumes come across as simplistic, even dumb, and an elaborate masculine is a pleasing idea that is not that often successfully achieved. Come to think of it, I might have to go back and investigate further, to see if this is something I need or could wear (would it be too dating? middle-ageing? Would my shoulders, on impact, become even broader; would more wiry, manly hair start growing on my chest and stomach?) For collector’s purposes alone, though, it might be worth the purchase as it is, by all accounts, quite a rare perfume, now, especially in its original, vintage incarnation, and I have been thinking that in any case, I should probably get it merely for a simple sense of completism, to have all three Rochas classic masculines at my occasional disposal.
Even though I had never worn, nor even smelled them properly until last night when I retrieved the bottles from the back of one of my perfume cabinets to spray on and sleep with, also in my dusty old collection I realized that I do have the original incarnations of Moustache and Monsieur Rochas, both picked up at fleamarkets – obviously – and both also virile and elegant creations by this house, very different in execution but equally effective and seductive in their delicately constructed auras.
Of the three, the one I am probably most naturally drawn to is Monsieur Rochas, a sharp, nutmeg-laden, citric fougère that smells very similar to the gorgeous Equipage by Hermès (a complex, deeply aromatic and benevolent autumnal scent that I save for October afternoons to be worn in thick arran jumpers after going for a walk in the woods, or just for sitting at home reading the newspapers in the leisure of my dotage…..)
Equipage is a classic, quintessential Sunday perfume if ever there were one, but the similarities between the essential framework of these two scents are not co-incidental, as both were created by Guy Robert, the brilliantly skilled perfumer behind such timeless and seminal creations as Calèche, Doblis, Dioressence and Madame Rochas, both these masculine creations containing similar levels of refinement as well as intelligence. Equipage, the more famous of the two, was released one year after Monsieur Rochas, and it is perhaps more mellow and rounded in its floral, mace-touched tobacco and carnation/jasmine top notes, in some ways an advancement over its Rochas counterpart, but there is also a lemon freshness in the Monsieur that renders it more vibrant and fast-paced, quick-thinking, brow-knitted, pensive: a citric, matinal briskness that is combined with lavender, clary sage, bergamot and cardamom over the usual geranium/carnation, vetiver, patchouli, oakmoss masculine tropes of tobacco-stained, artfully rough hands. I find it to be expertly composed, and sexy in a self-knowing, understated way.
Yet another scent in the classic Rochas male stable (all either discontinued or reformulated, incidentally, but easily found for good prices at online discounters) is Moustache, which was also composed by a well-celebrated olfactory genius, Edmond Roudnitska, a man who needs no introduction for perfume aficionados as the ardent inspirator behind such well-loved classics as Diorissimo, Diorella, Eau Sauvage, Eau d’Hermès, and Rochas Femme, each an epitome of the French style of citric or floral freshness in the top notes, and a carnal, almost decaying animality lying underneath in the base notes, achieved, mischievously, with the use of civet, musks, honey and other ingredients that hint at overt sexuality from the moment they are sprayed on the skin, even as the exquisitely orchestrated bouquets scintillating in the droplets above speak of elegance, flowers, and an exclusively Parisian, demure, chic.
Moustache is no different to this deliberately calibrated French technique, and with a name like that, how could it be? From the very first moment that you smell it, this scent is frank and upfront in its intentions: the clipped and well-tended facial hair in question may not be confined to brushing your mouth but is surely destined to reach down further: a citrus/animalic contradiction explored in a similar emphatic, pulsating vein in Guerlain’s Jicky and Mouchoir De Monsieur, Yves Saint Laurent’s YSL Pour Homme, and Monsieur De Givenchy, all lemon scents that explore the tensions between filth and fraîcheur, polite, witty and flirtatious conversation and the wordless, sweating physicality of what is quite likely to follow. In Moustache, we can sense the template of what was to come later in Roudnitska’s work in Eau Sauvage (the bergamot, lemon, lavender, basil, carnation and jasmine over more sensual woody and amber notes), but Moustache is, ironically, much more savage: while the addition of verbena and petitgrain make the beginning of this scent more immediately citrus-focused, aided flirtatiously by the urinous lick of basil and lavender, its civet and honey-musk finality make it, ultimately, more rude, in the best, Frenchest, most possible way.
I was thinking last night: how interesting it would be to be at a lively and enjoyable party talking to three attractive, captivating but very idiosyncratically different people that you were meeting for the first time, each of them fully realized as people, totally themselves, dressed-up instinctively in one of these unfaded Rochas scents, allowing the scent to speak for them as much as the words they were letting escape from their mouths: a double approach, if you like, as their eyes met yours ; an invisible touch. And I was wondering which one I would be likely to find more seductive………… Moustache, with its poetic, forthright heart; its impassioned soul (there is something of the starving artist in the garret about this perfume: a desperation, a purity); Monsieur, with its sharp, muscled, keen-eyed, but softly-dressed suavity; or Macassar, and its full-bodied, hot-blooded, man-of-the-world knowingness.
I honestly don’t know.