There are some cities I love but could not live. Kyoto is one. New Orleans is another. While diametrically opposed in many ways, both of these places are so drenched in their own atmospheres, so full of ghosts and their self-prolonging essences, that when I am asleep they pervade my dreams; insinuate themselves perniciously in my bloodstream, leaving no room for space.
These are places that could possess you.
I only spent four days in New Orleans, but it has made quite an impression. Compared to Miami, Tampa, and Anna Marie Island, with their clear, ocean-kissed florid air (and where I had almost dreamless sleep), walking around the so-called City Of The Dead, built upon the colonial conquests of an all-pervading, palpable Louisana swamp (the city is fading; sinking, it is the Venice of the Americas), the air there is damp, tainted; flourished. There is something inexplicably unsanitary about the place, somehow: not just the large numbers of shuffling, homeless alcoholics who walk through the streets and city parks like zombies, the jazzed up ‘sinfulness’ of Bourbon street and its fleshpot, boozy indulgences, but also entire districts, places that feel a little uncanny despite their tremendously warm and friendly atmospheres, places that thrill the imagination- the glorious Southern Gothic feel of the Cemetery Lafayette with its eerie above-ground tombs vampires, the trailing, succulent plants from the balconies of the French Quarter and its impossibly pretty and mysterious houses; the music – (all pervasive, everywhere, in the very water, it seems, music that at first you think is just there for the tourists to continue the city’s clichés perpetual, but which you then soon begin to see as something real, instinctive, inevitable: the lazed, rangy spontaneity; the true musicality of those jazz musicians scattered throughout who pick up a trombone or clarinet nonchalantly, dismissively almost, as if they were casually about to just blow their noses but then come out with the most fantastic, heart-real music of pure jazz intuition, totally in step with each of their crew,though none are probably looking at each other; pure improvisation that seems to rise up as naturally from their bodies and souls as the vapours and encroaching waters from the levees that flow up from down beneath in the sewers and up to the sidewalks; insidious, and everywhere, from down in the drains).
Yes. I can’t claim to know this place at all really, in such a short space of time, so forgive me if any of this comes across as being presumptuous or excessive. There is no doubt, though, that New Orleans is definitely a place of imagination. It is like a palimpsest, the present traced over what is past, but not succeeding, feelings ascending up through the membranes of actuality, piled on top of one another like the bodies in the cemeteries that lie there altogether in Cemetery St Louis No. 1, tens of thousands of them, stored together in families or anonymously, but shifting and moving with the temperature. Closed shutters. Secret gardens concealing former slave houses. The enticing idea of real Southern Belles, lounging on the terraces of their Antebellum trellised, abodes, fanning themselves slowly in the heat as they sip on an iced drink, sit prettily before the elaborate mirror of their boudoir: glass, ornamental tables of creams and powders, of lotions and perfumes; flower waters for the brow, headier scents come evening. Toiletries, real ones – foam baths to troubling the waters, talcum powders for cooling the skin; the ladies’ signature scents.
For me, this mix of sultry, flowered sensuality and easy Southern elegance is quite present in the lovely Hové Parfumeur on Chartres Street, a sanctuary from the madness on Jackson Square, the cathedral, and a place where the perfume lover can close the door, shut out the world, and pick out something that us unique to the boutique, a native New Orleans Scent. He can then bathe in it top to toe, with those powders, and creams and soaps and solids that stack the shelves neatly, and willingly, in soothing, waitful silence.
Though the shop wasn’t at all crowded when I was in there, people would come in from the street into the hushed, sound absorbing space where there is nothing to do for the real lover of perfume (and these were: I recognized myself in them) except carefully peruse the fragrances, trinkets and quaint little objets that dot the place, many of the antiques, picked up by the owners on their travels actually for sale, one lady saying to me with a slightly haunted look: this is my favorite place, you know, I love it. I always stock up on my perfumes when I come back here. I can’t get enough of it. Have you tried Pirate’s Gold?
I had. In fact, I had just chosen a dram of that very scent, in parfum, as it had been the first one to strike my fancy as I walked into the shop and then smelled it, intrigued, from the scent strip. First impression: Mystère, as in Rochas, shrewdly erotic yet fresh, with a brisk unwashed undertone, perhaps patchouli, castoreum, labdanum, an unusual herbal element (cascarilla ? there is an apothecary just down the street), and a powdery, ambered top facet that when on skin almost brought to mind Bal à Versailles, albeit more transparently. It was damn sexy at any rate, and it was no wonder this attractive, coiffed and soignéed woman of a certain age, hair maintained magnificently, should want it as part of her collection .
Yes, both of us loved Pirate’s Gold, a small bottle of which I got as a new perfume for Duncan, and it was the scent which he then wore for that evening’s New Year’s Celebrations (wild: boisterous shouting and singing in the streets, beaded necklaces being tossed, everywhere, all over the place, by champagne-quaffing, well-dressed people from the city’s most exclusive balconies towards the partying, upstretching crowds; throngs of people: families, couples, mad drunkards and homeless people surging through the streets down by the river front, D’s mother clinging on to me for dear life (genuinely quite afraid, as we sheltered in a door way and tried to not get dragged under by them all), but it did smell fabulous, both tender and delicate, rich, yet sexually disturbing, and it made a very nice entry point into an extensive collection of scents I found to be very well made and appealing.
Ranging from fresh and light-summery, to mossy and old fashioned, there wasn’t really a scent that I didn’t like here. Elan d’Orange was an uplifting citrus orange blossom that would work delightfully in the summer heat, as were all the soliflores: Azalea, Ginger Blanc (a delicate white floral), pleasing sultry flowers like Jasmine, Carnation, Magnolia and Honeysuckle, but also a finely tuned lilac, Lilas D’Avril, that fit my image of a young southern dame accurately, with her frilled and bonneted, ribboned-up accoutrements.
There just wasn’t enough time to smell them all, though. Had I not been on a family holiday with more hours alone to just please myself, I would have spent longer there in the perfumery getting to know all of these perfumes (because, who knows, perhaps I’ll never smell them again). I looked around, smelled, and took some notes, but a cursory experiencing of perfumes is never really enough – we had snuck out before breakfast to be there at opening time (but before the itinerary for the day); I must have spent an hour there at most that time, and much less the second, when I went back excitedly with dollars in my pockets, like a school kid at Christmas, to buy the coveted bottles of Vetivert and Plage D’Eté that I couldn’t quite stop thinking about as we toured the city.
Every scent in this perfumery is available in either cologne or parfum format, and I love this idea. Obviously there are small, subtle differences in the makeup and throw of each fragrance depending on its strength and proportion of ingredients. You could wear them altnernately, one for day, one for night – the very best kind of layering. The house of Hové is chiefly known, though, apparently, in New Orleans, for its best selling and signature fragrances, Vetivert and Tea Olive (a version of the silver osmanthus bushes that I smelled in the air around the city, but which in perfume format I found to be bright and cheering but overly aldehydic and oily). Vetivert, on the other hand, was an immediate winner. Although the use of Haitian vetiver has been a long tradition in the city, with spiritual connections in the rituals of voodoo, Hové grows its own vetiver locally in fields outside the city (available in bunches to buy from the shop – you can scent your linen draw with it, or use it to repel insects, and New Orleans apparently gets a lot of those when the weather heats up). I like this idea very much. Something local, with terroir, rather than the generic niche vetivers we know so well that follow the standard patterns (sharpness: fruitness: wood). This take on vetiver is just vetiver, to be honest, practically just an essential oil suspended in alcohol, but the thing is it is a good one; warm, rich and earthy, real; direct, but not rough and tarry, as some vetiver essential oils can be. Although the perfume format of Vetivert appealed to me immensely as well (green, bitter and strange at first before it settles into a clear and tangible vetiver), the cologne seemed more approachable and balanced, so I bought one of those (already about an eighth or so gone – when I like something I really go for it), a scent I will wear on its own or in cahoots with others as I find the scent of vetiver very versatile. The other scent I bought in full bottle, this time in parfum, was Plage D’Eté, or ‘summer beach’, perhaps the least New Orleansy of the collection in some ways (most of the perfumes have something quavering, tremulous: mossy and spiced, this being the land of Creole and Cajun ( delicious, incidentally: I had a lobster bisque soup at Galatoire’s that was one of the best things I have ever tasted – I found, while I was eating it, that I had drifted off into some sensual, subterranean sea scape. Dreamy. Aphrodisiac. Uncoincidentally, I stopped talking for a while and so did Daphne, who had also chosen the same): scents on these themes are in the shop such as Creole Days, a parfum sample of which I picked up as I thought it made a nice souvenir, lightly spiced and aromatic but with a mellifulous, sing-song heart, like the accent of the people here. Plage D’Eté is a rather predictable choice for me as it is based on coconut, but as I found out on the voodoo tour that we attended on New Year’s Eve, coconut is also the usually proffered gift to one of the particular voodoo lua, or spirit guides: Papa Legba, which seemed in keeping with the specifically Louisiana theme but in any case, being the native coconut freak that I am, I just inevitably gravitated towards it anyway (in a past life I am sure I swayed from a branch). Rather than the standard creamy and milk-fleshed noix de coco scents we know so well, however, Plage d’Eté takes a fresh and clear-smelling coconut heart – pure, simple, and pairs it with glinting fruit and citrus essences, creating a scent that reminds me a little of Lutens Un Bois Vanille before it bit the dust, or perhaps Chopard Casmir, and its mango fruitbowl lusciousness. Unlike those two perfumes though, Plage d’Eté has none of the molar-melting heaviness or sweetness that can mar your enjoyment – I liked this Hové take for its unfussiness. Also the idea of a coconut parfum : the cologne was lovely, but the extrait was tighter, more precious, and it reminded me, almost, of a purified, more intense concentration of Malibu rum, something we got very drunk on last night as we danced our way through various clubs in Tampa, a memorable evening that has nevertheless left us like feeling like brain-dead husks as we cross the state in sleeper car on our way back to Miami for our final night here in the States).
Husks. Yes, husks. Hové’s Patchouli is a husk. A very good scent indeed that one. A bit unclean, somehow, as the lovely assistant Ashleigh explained to me : ” Yes, our patchouli is dirty “. With obvious similarities to Pirate’s Gold (they clearly share some accords), this is a smoky, dusky patchouli troublant that would not be out of place in the niche collections of Parfumerie Generale and the like, only looser, more bodied, with suggestive qualities that make it much more natural and at ease with itself. I had put some of this perfume on my left wrist on my initial visit, and as the day wore on, its strange and souled character traits rose up in a ghostly and perturbing fashion: very characterful, very impressive, even if I don’t think I could wear it myself. Like Le Labo’s Patchouli (though with none of the meatiness) this spreads itself out tantalizingly into the air around it and won’t let go. It is inescapable: perhaps too musky and disturbing for me, personally, but undoubtedly one of the highlights of the shop. For patchouli heads who need something different, this is a must.
As for the other perfumes, well I didn’t have the skin space or nose space to try them all. There was a gorgeous rose, Bulgarian, resplendent and honeyed, that may or may not have been Radiance or Serenade I got confused. A Kiss In The Dark was a little like a less complicated Shalimar, quite nice; Louis Quartorze sensual, powdered and beautiful, and Fascinator a sexy, androgynous aldehyde. As I said, because of time restrictions I didn’t get to smell everything properly, to my great frustration, though I did do my best, as Duncan went round the shop taking the photos you see here from every nook and corner and I chatted to Ashleigh, who really seemed to enjoy working there(apologies if that is spelled incorrectly). I love the idea of small, independent perfumeries with character, perfumeries that chime with their surroundings and give you something distinctive. Overall, in terms of scent design and aesthetic, Hové strikes me as being a bit like the Angela Flanders of the South. While many of the perfumes do have a powdery, nostalgic sensibility, there is also a streak of something quite modern and innovative running through them as well. Where Parfums French Bourbon, on Rue Royal (which I will discuss in another post) go for a more sweet-rouged, Caron approach, Hové strikes a more limpid, almost contemporary balance. Like the city itself, which is a living, modern city, a functioning, hedonistic place full of friendly, courteous and people with a flair for the humourous and the dramatic (so nice, warm, and genuinely polite – the British and Japanese could learn a lot from them, I tell you), the perfumes do also seem relevant to the current.
At the same time, though, you cannot escape the deeper sensation that the whole place, despite its volatile, still, voluptuous beauty, is essentially decaying : moribund, caught between two worlds (there is definitely something quite surreal about New Orleans; something heightened, touched). The perfumes, and the shop itself, consequently do, unavoidably, also look firmly in the always fascinated direction of The Past. They seem to embody that romantic yearning, the stories, the desire to not relinquish those essences that make New Orleans New Orleans. And this city, ‘The City Of The Dead’, is a place so palpably steeped in history, in blood, slavery, disease, and a beautiful, half-winking decadence, that in truth it would be probably futile to attempt to do otherwise.