The release of Guerlain’s Samsara in I989 will forever be one of those utterly unforgettable perfume experiences. I remember it vividly. We had never smelled anything like it before. Nobody had. A perfume that rich; robust; strong, and eighties: its faux-oriental red canister, its ‘spiritual’ longeurs of thick, never ending sandalwood and jasmine, its shoulder-loving base tones that ate the air. This was a perfume that achieved a feat I have never quite come across since, almost a Marvel Comics-like power: the perfume, once sprayed, or even dabbed, to literally appear in the room, full-bodied and busted, dripping with lusciousness and redness, long before you ever did. You would have just emerged from your bedroom; about to come down the stairs, but before you had even put one foot forward your perfume (god what a perfume) would already be waiting for you impatiently, corporeal, present, at the front door. The whole house would smell of it: your tongue might even taste of it. This was an EVENT.
To an eighteen year old boy, enamoured with perfume, enamoured with life, and what it all might mean, this plush, bombastic bombshell of a scent was magnanimous, replete: shining with ‘exoticism’ and fulsome female sexuality, but even then before I had even left my bedroom, my hometown and experienced anything of the world I could tell that it was vulgar: really vulgar, its edges blunted and forceful despite its ostensibly Parisian credentials. Opulent, as full throttled as an opera singer; gorgeous, frightening even, but most definitely vulgar. It was that sandalwood, real Mysore sandalwood when it first came out and so much of it: as heavy as velvet curtains soaked in roses and tonka and amber, and musk: the gallery of the opera house glinting with lemons and bergamots, narcissus chandeliers dripping ylang ylang and iris: glorious, yes, but somehow still a diva-ish blockhead; an over coloured painting, pores painted and suffocated over like the femme fatale in Goldfinger, no room to breathe, an assault.
I did love it, though, and still do. I am not exactly Mr Subtle myself. And in my collection I have treasured bottles of the vintage eau de parfum and parfum, which I take out occasionally and spray just to relive, remember (but how could I forget) and reassess. The parfum is more subtle, strangely, and I like it more; less brash and trumpeting than the edp which I find tactless in its more-is-more of sandalwood, florals and citrus that are anything but seamless, harsh, even, and herein lies the rub. Despite the genial originality of Jean Paul Guerlain’s most effusive and red-blooded scent ( read Monsieur Guerlain’s comprehensive review for a fuller appreciation of its virtues), when I smell it now, I find Samsara almost maladroit and gauche in its packing in of all those ingredients at once, little calibration; each addition pushed to the max and gilded to the point of no return: I sense bony elbows sticking out like kids fighting inside a duvet, some glinting, chemical edges that make my nose wrinkle. I know that the bottles might have aged (though I don’t really think they have), but I wonder sometimes if it almost might be a case of my memory wearing rose-tinted spectacles, traversing those corridors of time back to my younger days and making Samsara seem more beautiful than it actually is.
Which brings me to Alizée.
We had had a wonderful, sunny day out in Harajuku, a couple of weeks ago, and were just wandering from Yoyogi Park to Shibuya, exploring unexplored Sunday streets on the way to Ebisu, and by chance took a wrong turning, ending up instead in one of those sleepy back alleys of Daikanyama, the trendy bijou youth quarter with its vintage clothes shops and chichi little boutiques and the highest proliferation of fashionable, avant garde hair salons per capita in the world. Yellow pots, colourful flowers, plastic doll heads perched daintily on their niche, balustraded steps, tempting passersby in for their next, modish cut; young things wandering around in their provocatively out-there fashions, supping slowly and delicately on ice creams.
Walking past, I thought I had caught perfume bottles in the entrance of one place – always a reason to snap to attention – and indeed, as we went back on ourselves, mounted the stairs and peered in, I saw to my delight that there was an entire row of perfumes by a French house I had never even heard before. Parfums Détaille. Vintage in look and vintage in smell: but good ones. One sniff told me that these were not some cheap, ersatz rubbish but the real deal: quality, well composed scents redolent of old Paris. Properly made and complex, nuanced, perfumes. Redolent, though, of other scents as well.
Shéliane (which I will have to go back and smell again) struck me as a beautifully complex and richly constructed patchouli chypre floral along the lines of Aromatics Elixir and Parure, but fresher and more elusive; Alizée, another scent placed next to it, unloved, on the shelf – I don’t imagine anyone actually ever buying these, somehow: they are the antithesis of what a jeune Daikanyama-ite would wear, probably just there for Francophilic decoration – I lifted up, smelled, and sprayed a whole load on the back of my hand and on a mass of scent strips, stuffing them in my jeans back pocket as we carried on our way to Ebisu. And quickly, as the familiarly pleasingly sharp and fresh green and citrus notes wove over, I found myself swooning, in the spring afternoon light, over the scent of erotic, living jasmine flowers flowing over old-school sandalwood and narcissus; ylang; iris, all the Samsara ingredients (this really is a copy, or to be kind, an hommage), but I have to say, better: the perfume breathing and suffusing through itself at will: the jasmine and sandalwood more successfully fused, or infused: the whole lighter; more Bohemian. Samsara as she should have been, really; how you would dream her up if you had to recreate her again: idealized.