Monthly Archives: September 2014

on O S M A N T H U S

It’s early, really early, but the osmanthus is unmistakeably blossoming somewhere, gorgeously, tonight. There are strong balmy winds, the tailblaze of somebody else’s typhoon, and there is a buffeted, cottony slip drift, somewhere, of apricot, floral steaminess.

The Autumn most certainly does have its compensations.

The Black Narcissus

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There is something almost irritatingly predictable in the annual punctuality of Japanese osmanthus. I will be walking along, and will suddenly catch its fresh, early, blooming in the air, unexpectedly, ( I always forget ), and then, ask myself the date. Ah yes, October first. Or, perhaps, sometimes, October the second.  Always one of these. But whatever the date, the flowers, like Japanese trains, come out like clockwork, and for the next two weeks you are drowsed, almost suffocated, in that canned-peach, alluringly autumnal smell of apricots, orange peel, and delicate white flowers.

Two years ago, post-earthquake, we moved to this house, which just happens to have the biggest osmanthus tree in the entire neighbourhood. If you are an osmanthus freak, then, this is the time to come and stay chez nous. Hard to imagine, now, how extraordinarily excited Helen and I were, fifteen years ago or so, smelling it…

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THE EMPRESS OF MOSS: MITSOUKO by GUERLAIN (1919)

THE EMPRESS OF MOSS: MITSOUKO by GUERLAIN (1919).

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ON THE ART OF JAPANESE INCENSE, AND ZEN BY SHISEIDO (2001)

ON THE ART OF JAPANESE INCENSE, AND ZEN BY SHISEIDO (2001).

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THESE DAYS I CRY: : : : : THE ORPHAN by SERGE LUTENS (2014)

 

 

 

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The first words that came to my mind upon smelling this, L’Orpheline, -The Orphan – Serge Lutens’ latest addition to his ever-expanding portfolio of perfumes, were…. ‘meanspirited.’

 

 

 

 

Spiteful, grey; flinty, miserable, a scent that if you were to wear on a dark and rainy day, skulking through jet-black puddles under your November umbrella, might just tip you right over the edge in its haunting, face-reflecting bleakness……………..this perfume, to me, really is bad mood in a bottle.

 

 

 

The second word that came to my mind, I’m afraid, was ‘unoriginal’. The sheer number of peppered, dour incense perfumes that have been released recently in the world of niche perfumery is quite startling, as if the fiscal austerity that has gripped a few parts of Europe over these last few years of economic and societal difficulty had been translated, in grim and unrelenting unsmilingness, into our perfume. For those that consider themselves ‘serious artists’. For the people in the fashion industry; dressed in black, their no- nonsense baby, drip me in incense, feel my cool, metallic exteriors; their no sweetness, no pink; no gourmandise flippancy – please!……These Byredos, Comme Des Garçons, Agonists and Tauers; these taut and unforgiving bleaknesses that sear the nostrils and clad the air around them with their drynesses and armour and that have become an overfamiliar leitmotif of angular self-consciousness; of hair-cut severity, and of a very specifically urban, grave-hungry, and sunken-cheeked, chic.

 

 

 

 

 

L’Orpheline, a perfume I do quite like, actually, despite what I have just written above, still smells incredibly familiar to those that know Lutens well. There is the inky black Japaneseness of the (far more daring and interesting) Serge Noire; a slight touch of the spiced, forest darkness of Fille En Aiguilles (though with none of that perfume’s delicious, caramellized ginger compromises) but there is, also, a new departure of dry, skeletal boniness; of seared and moisture-sucked frankincense resins that does bring us in mind in fact of physical and spiritual emaciation. An orphan, indeed. A matchstick girl, playing alone with tindersticks. A barebranched winter; a mournfulness, the theme making most definite sense. Yes: an orphan.

 

 

 

 

And Lutens has totally gone to town this time with his background story, his imagery, his psychosexual pathways meant to lead us into ‘understanding’ a perfume that is, when all is said and done, rather simple. It is a watery, and melancholic ink painting, effective and atmospheric, well-executed and canny, that nevertheless does smell, as I have said, like scores of other niche perfumes that we have known these past few years; brittle scents that flood the trendier shelves of the outlier boutique perfumeries with their skeins of dead leaves; their deracinated woods, their frowns under fringes; their ‘pain’ and pseudo religious nonsense.

 

 

 

 

I still can’t help being slightly drawn in, though. I like these linkings of creative psychobabble and autobiography being segued into scent, the passion involved in someone’s innermost sanctums being candidly and liquidly immortalized (if you just allow yourself to suspend some disbelief for a moment and become willingly immersed).

 

 

“Yes, if you believe that she is the abandoned part of me. I have cut the world in two”, the ‘master’ writes in his (quite incomprehensible) commentary, alluding quite openly to his traumatized childhood; his hatred of the father, his splintering off into a girl child alter ego that he is releasing, here, from incarceration……(so is this perfume, in fact the first ever Transgender Fragrance?)

 

 

 

L’Orpheline is a perfume, apparently, come from ‘dust’, from the ‘wake of his life’: a darkened duality of almost Gothic gloom and speckled soil (unmoistened frankincense; black pepper, myrrrh and woods, with patchouli) that is severe; mineralic, moody and very deflective in these initial, love-fearing stages. We do sense quite strongly that this person, damaged and sensitized, most definitely does, when we first come across her, want to be left alone.

 

 

 

And this is perhaps the key to L’Orpheline. Perhaps the least fleshed and voluptuous of the Serge Lutens creations, it is more like a fragile, self-protecting shroud, with only the crows nesting in the trees keeping a watchful eye on your progress as you talk to them, solitary, making your way, out of necessity, to some destination beyond those blackened, psychic trees that line the pathways.

 

 

 

 

No doubt. There is a doleful blanket of wintriness that encircles the air about The Orphan as she walks along, in timidity, keeping the frays of tears – always, when visible, in her eyes – (because she wants you all to see them) but I must reiterate again that there also is a thinness: a musty, old font of church ozonic wateriness (the base notes do, I have to say, remind me somewhat of Demeter’s rather tongue-in-cheek Holy Water) that grates, and nerves me as it lingers in my mind.

 

 

 

She cannot keep this up, though, this pitiful charade. Perhaps the orphan is a Sagittarian, like myself, and, you know, that unavoidable unbridled optimism will always inevitably, eventually at some point just lay some more full-bodied stakes, some warmth in the proceedings. Soon, soft musks, modern, familiar cashmeran, and a more anchored, tonka bean wilfulness come into play, and she is one of us, again, now – more playful, eased, and smooth. She evinces a happier (if more banal) aura at this point: a soft and comforting stole that makes quite an enveloping contrast with the cold, wind-chipped bitterness of those initial, more painstaking overtures.

 

 

 

In between, during her more satisfying middle act (the most successful stage of this perfume), there is a very nice morphing that occurs between the two contrasting facets in the scent, where a blanket of sandalwood-like warmth begins to hover above, and the more balsamic and gentle undertones begin to coalesce quite happily with the damp and evil peppercorns persisting in the scent’s thorny outer layers (the ‘forgiveness’ that Lutens is talking about, his way out of the emotional labyrinth?). Whatever it is, the base notes of L’Orpheline, as they make themselves known, are soft, smoothed over, and certainly, for many people I would imagine, quite potentially soothing.

 

 

 

 

For me, though, they are also uninspiring. While wearing and smelling this scent throughout the day today has been intriguing (and I think it could actually smell quite beguiling on the right, wide-eyed person who can carry it off), the gauntness at the heart of this perfume’s composition, though in some ways linking quite convincingly to the spindly-limbed images we have of little, undernourished orphans, make me yearn, nevertheless, for the original, unreformulated Serge Lutens perfumes from back in the day when he first unleashed himself on us all with those rash, impassioned Moroccan oil paintings that were anything at all but wan, miserabilist and tear-flecked. They were bold. They were thick, they were quite uncompromising and exotic. Outrageous, even. So though the pathos inherent in the concept behind the L’Orpheline is admittedly quite interesting to me (and I love the fact that the emotional palette of the Lutens collection is gradually widening) I also think, ultimately, that I do definitely prefer something more generous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cranky floral chypre: FAROUCHE by NINA RICCI (1974)

The Black Narcissus

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Politics and fashion obviously influence all fragrance houses, so while the fifties perfumes tended to scream ‘madam’; the sixties ‘young and beautiful’ and the eighties ‘sex and power’, the seventies, in general, to me at least, shout ‘depressed.’ Yes, there was disco and emancipation, but the dark, masculine chypres that abounded for women in that difficult decade were just that: dark. If they had a colour it would be brown. This was fine for houses like Givenchy, whose Gentleman and Givenchy III were convincingly hairy, animalic and horny, ready to get out the velours and groove.  Nina Ricci, however, whose lady-like fragrances of the prettiest porcelain pink and yellow are some of the lightest and most feminine scents ever made, could never be described as brown (incidentally my most hated colour).

It is fascinating, then, to look at the scent that Ricci released into this velvety seventies environment, ‘Farouche’ (which…

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must all good things come to an end?

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Just just off on my way to an afternoon dinner party in Tokyo, and thought I would have a sneaky quick peek at my beloved Shinagawa fleamarket on the way.

Except for for the holiday on January 1st, I have never known for it to be ever closed.

But closed it was today, and where there would usually be mats and rugs with people selling all manner of things, including, on occasion, the most brain-searing vintage perfume bargains, things like Cuir De Russie parfum, or Nuit De Noel extrait, rarities like Diorling, or perfumes I have never even heard of before, today there were coffee tables and chairs instead, just a few stray people wandering about.

Although there are other vintage fleamarkets around in Tokyo on weekends, they are usually focused on furniture, paintings and antiques. Bric-a-brac, kimonos, dolls.

I WANT VINTAGE PERFUME.

TELL ME IT HASN’T CLOSED FOR GOOD.

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REVOLUTION A VERSAILLES by JEAN DESPREZ (1989)

The Black Narcissus

 

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It’s strange. Despite the reams that pour out of me on perfume, there are certain scents that I find myself almost unable to write about for fear of not doing them justice. The scents I am talking about are so complex, so ingeniously put together that they rise above the usual analysis and enter into the realm of poetry; beyond the obvious striations of most perfumes and into something tender and eternal.

 

These perfume ‘reviews’, which I plan to tackle at some point, but will not  publish unless I feel they have captured, at least a little, of that scent’s essence, will include some of the genius perfumes by Guerlain; Chamade, Apres L’Ondée, and particularly Vol De Nuit; N° 19 by Chanel; some Carons, and, undoubtedly, Jean Desprez’s seminal Bal A Versailles, the richest, most decadent floral amber I have ever…

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ESSENCES INSENSEES by DIPTYQUE (2014)

 

 

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I might be wrong but this smelled to me, on first sniff, like a lamb chop, topped with mimosa, and tossed, forlornly, in a field of grass.

 

 

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BULGARI BLACK

 

 

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Back then, even with warning the first experience of Black was disarming. Hot asphalt, engine oil on roughened hands, leached pools of purplish petrol on pavement, acrid smoke hanging around a turning engine on a winter morning. I remember finding it interesting, arresting even, but not remotely wearable – it was too confrontational, too aggressive – too masculine, mostly.

 

As is the way with anything, or anyone possessing a striking quality you can neither quite place nor put down, it replayed itself to me over and over. The first perfume I wanted to extend beyond a simple yes/no – I wanted to understand it; it teased me into time with it. For quite a long time, I didn’t see more than an academic appeal to it (expressive olfactory idea, technically brilliant.) And then late one summer’s night, I was sitting out the last gasps of a party. I’d gone inside at some point, snuck upstairs to find someone or something, and along the way I’d found a bottle of Black. I popped a bit on my hand for old times, and headed back outside to sit under the stars and let the warm night and the wine pack me off to oblivion.

 

Not long after that, I must have brushed my hand up against my face and then – it just hit me, all of a sudden. This thing.. God, this thing is amazing – exactly what I’d been looking for. In that moment it all clicked into place as if some missing component suddenly sparked up. Maybe I needed time to come around to the scent itself, or perhaps it was a little step in self-awareness and I’d abruptly recognised some part of myself within it (I think a big part of developing your sense of smell, and exploring your taste in fragrance goes hand in hand with self discovery, actually. It’s an elongated, luxuriant process in feeling out facets of your character, getting to know yourself and crucially, being honest too. It is after all, about learning how to be comfortable within your own skin.)

 

Beneath that veneer of puncture repair kit, Black is a neo-classical fragrance. Dynamic but understated, edgy but poised. It’s undeniably urban but in that tarry translucency it harbours a wink to the heritage leathers like Bandit and Tabac Blond. Full of space and crepuscular spectra, it softens from its initial nip through layers of instrumental texture – bitter-powdery, sooty and soft with a tannic edge that hangs transparent in the air around the wearer in a gently flexing, hooping arch. A fluid evolution from overlaid crackling, reedy (record-like) qualities to a velveteen expanse of shade rising up like the slowly surfacing ripples of a depth charge. It evokes rain and the London sky at night, the blinking ostinato of city lights from a train. It’s the muffled pulse of baselines throbbing out from nightclub walls into chilly halogen backstreets and ‘driving fast on empty roads with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested.’ (Hunter S. Thompson)

 

While it has a distinctive edginess, even an avant-garde quality, it’s not an angular scent (in a way, it should feel lonelier than it does.) Instead it ultimately yields into something intimate and clandestine, a slightly salty, warm trail on the skin reminiscent of cigarettes, city air and night walks. Of unfamiliar and dimly lit hotel rooms, that charged frisson of part-time lovers and the lovely urgency of stolen hours together. A reminder that ambiguity is wedded to allure: Black is something that doesn’t purport to romance, but succeeds in it nonetheless. I love it.

 

 

 

 

 

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DAMAGE / REGRET

 

 

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I have spent the day reading ‘Damage’, Josephine Hart’s intense, almost harrowing, potboiler about a wealthy, middle class family whose lives are on the verge, at the point that I am at in the novel, of being completely destroyed when the patriarch of the family, a respected doctor and politician, falls quite maniacally in love with his daughter’s fiancée. The two embark on a brutal, strange, but compellingly realistic affair that is all consuming and sadomasochistic (the storm – thunder and lightning that we have just had outside – it is now passing – has most certainly done nothing to detract from the bruising intensity of this book, which I am two thirds of the way through, and must finish by the end of the evening.) Things are building; suspicions are being voiced, and this is one denouement I definitely need to witness: it is building up, unravelling, all rather beautifully.

 

 

I reach out for perfume. I have been tired this week, very – the first week back at work, and could hardly move today. Duncan is with me in the room, we have been in here all day just listening to old compilations in the background while he types away on the computer, the cat in and out, competing for his affections, the sunshine turning to heavy rain. When reading, I love to also survey my collection, see those gorgeous perfumes in their beautiful boxes – their unvoiced pleasures; the dense, scented liquids that await me like museum treasures from an olfactory palace :  rich, exterior comforts. I reach out, instinctively, for Rochas Femme, a vintage eau de toilette : it seems in keeping reading this story of a dark, and secretive woman who has a father and son both in her thrall; damaged, deeply, by an incestuous secret in her past, but so vital and essential for them both that she is pulling these people, the whole family, deep into a black, erotic vortex of something bleak, destructive, and inescapable.

 

 

Femme does not smell like Anna Barton. This perfume is probably more suited to the doctor’s wife, the delicate, but forceful, Ingrid (though she would more likely wear Caleche).  Yet it is so rounded, so fruited, so beautiful and spiced, so full of itself and generous : so much better than Mitsouko – its obvious inspiration – that I suddenly felt great pangs of regret.

 

 

There was once a woman at the flea market in Tokyo that I saw there only once. On that day, in one of the corners, she had a whole chest of vintage perfumes that she was getting rid of at quite ridiculous prices –  I remember crouching down with other eager and scrabbling onlookers and panicking about what I should buy up. I know I bought quite a few of them, I can’t remember it all in detail, but I know that she had a whole stack of Femmes,  and I though I contemplated buying them all up at the time, I refrained. I didn’t know how much I was going to like the stuff at the time, but tonight this perfume smells grand, gorgeous: deep, plush; refined. A soundtrack: sweepingly, damningly, erotic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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