Monthly Archives: October 2015
‘We both know that it was a girl
back in Bethlehem
And on that fateful day
when she was crucified
She wore Shiseido red
and we drank tea by her side’
sings Tori Amos on Boys For Pele, cementing yet again the iconic status of Shiseido in the western eye, its rarified, aloof and untouchable Franco-Japonicity.
And yet the Shiseido that we know way out west and the one I know here are really quite different. The gleaming, curved beauty of the feline Serge Lutens collaborations such as the groundbreaking and quite brilliant Feminité Du Bois, or the now almost mythical Nombre Noir, have almost nothing in common with the far more homey and almost pedestrian fare that one finds here on your local Shiseido counter. Sweet, and outdated, aldehydic nothings such as More, the original old musty fresh Zen, or Mémoire; or the powdery, green and irisian Chanel N°I9 wannabe, Murasaki. The best of the standard contemporary lineup, available in every high street Shiseido store, is possibly Koto, a fresh floral chypre that has a certain very refined and patchouli-touched atmosphere, though it is nothing compared to the criminally discontinued Inouï (which is perfection) or Kamakura, a beautiful rose perfume whose existence I would probably have doubted ( I can’t find any information about it anywhere), had I not myself physically decanted a little from a Japanese friend’s rare bottle.
The same thing goes for the perfume Concerto. You become inclined to believe that though you are holding a miniature of the scent physically in your hand, that there must be some mistake, that it can’t actually exist, as there seems to be no mention of it anywhere on the netosphere, that if it isn’t written about, somewhere, on the great cosmic spider’s web of information technology that dominates our universe that it is almost as though it had been redacted out of our collective consciousness and cannot be allowed to have ever been there in the first place. But there it is: again, a copy of a western perfume (this time, Jean Patou’s exquisite I000; nice, well crafted, intriguing).
Before I continue with this properly, and illustrate for you my amazing find of a rare, untouched cache of vintage miniature Shiseido extraits, I think I am going to first just pop out now with Duncan’s iphone around the corner and show you my local Shiseido. I think you are going to be surprised. Less than minute’s walk away from my house, the ‘Shiseido Chain Store’ as they are called here, is a zillion, zillion miles away from the glamour of a a Shiseido concession in a department store of Paris or of Tokyo, and is more, in fact, like a Boots or a Walgreens ( except in my local case it is a total endearing shambles: more Sally-Ann, than rigidly covetable cosmetique. The proprietor knits woollen frogs and tunics with ladies from the neighbourhood and puts them in the shop window (and her is the photographic evidence)
oh the glamour
, and you can buy anything there from expensive Shiseido cosmetics and perfumes (so artfully arranged!)
to pens to cellotape, washing powder and glue; cigarettes; magazines; candies, hairclips and medicines .
Let me go now, actually – and I will take along my box of long lost, ‘secret’ Shiseido parfums (one of my truly great ‘recycle’ finds of the last few months, an exhilarating find,) to see exactly what she makes of them.
Just look at the drab dowdiness of ‘my’ Shiseido! Are you not surprised?
As I expected, the lady, whose name I can never remember, was with her Saturday late morning knitting companion. They sit there with the radio on and chew the cud on neighbourhood gossip, as Shiseido perfumes malinger on shelves and the whole feels rather more like somebody’s in-need-of-a-tidy-up kitchen. I got three boxes of laundry detergent, some toilet freshener and some headache pills, and then whipped out my box to see what she made of them. ‘Wow!’ she said, or the Japanese equivalent, and then, ‘natsukashi’i, which is one of my favourite words of the language actually, for its ease of use, and its concise encsapulation of much longer English expressions we use in these situations such as ‘God that takes me back’, or ‘Haven’t seen that for a long time’ or ‘Wow, that really reminds me of the long and drawn out summers of my junior high school days’. As I pulled out the draws with the tips of my nails (though I haven’t really got any in truth as I bite them) – this set certainly isn’t very ergonomic – the ladies broke up their knitting to come and have a peer, and how lovely it is: like a chocolate box with a guide map written to what is within, a selection: mmm………..what perfume shall we wear tonight?
White Rose is the first one she takes out of its felt indentation (each perfume fits snugly into its own), and in fact this also takes me back a few years or two because I vividly remember when I first moved to this neighbourhood – almost twenty years ago – there being a precious big bottle of the extrait of White Rose, a perfume I had never heard of before and was very excited to be discovering, under the counter: a very expensive, made to order, haute couture number that Princess Michiko, now Empress, apparently as she has just told me, wore on her wedding day. Of the collection, this is the one in fact that stands out, probably : transparent and pure – it is in fact the smell of a white rose , and I really like it. ‘Jasmine’ seems like a weirdity, somehow: ‘Shiseido Jasmine’, but it is also quite nice in a perfumey, aldehydic kind of way, a bit like something by Le Galion. Concerto is there, as is Mémoire, with its bathtime heliotrope softness, and the still available More.
More excitingly, however, there is Sylvia (what a great name), which one immediately of course hopes is an olfactory homage to Plath. It could be, who knows, though it certainly lacks her savage wit. The lady at the shop reckons this collection is probably thirty to forty years old or so though and it smells it: Sylvia is a nondescript, but sweet and pleasing woody aldehydic in the manner of Givenchy’s L’Interdit – but nothing to get your knickers in a twist over- while Prior (pronounced Pree-orr, according to the Japanese katakanization) is a dead ringer for vintage Miss Dior (in truth it does often seem that pre-Lutens, and with the exception of Inouï, blatant plagiarism was the order of the game for the perfumery division of Shiseido). Yet, like Koto, Prior is a very well made green chypre and has reall life to it: I can certainly imagine a I960’s well-kempt secretary clicking her heels along a pavement in Shimbashi, a touch of this latest perfume release by Shiseido gracing her neck and wrists, then when it has faded on her post-work skin, changing later into Tonight, described, if I am reading it correctly, as an enchanting and ‘relaxing muguet’ bouquet over sandalwood, and indeed it is (how nice to smell that genuine sandalwood again; still with integrity after all this time, like a genie from a lamp: you do sense that with a touch of Tonight (“Tonight, Tonight, It all began tonight. I saw you and the world went away”, god I love that song) she will be happy and perhaps let her hair down a bit; yes, you can imagine her going to a production of West Side Story at a theatre in Hibiya, snug in her Shiseido Tonight, happy in the economic brightness of the era she has brimmingly and luckily found herself in.
Primax, which now would be like calling a luxurious extrait Walmart, is yet another classical rose jasmine woody aldehyde (you would think that the only perfume ever invented in the history of humanity were Chanel N°5 sniffing this box), while Jyakko, on the other hand, is a more interesting and heady chypric white floral with slightly more lift.
No. In all honesty, while I was certainly thrilled to find this set, dusting away as it was at the back of a Yokohama antiques shop, because it is rare and probably extremely collectible (and I have already collected it), although I was hoping to torture and tantalize you drippingly with the exclusiveness of my acquisition, in truth the perfumes themselves, though pleasing, could never really be described as exciting. Only Deluxe, the final scent in this collection, has that extra, animalic, almost Bal A Versailles like heft and texture (actually, it is quite similar, though not quite as good (but then, what is?)), hinting, perhaps of that brief spell of gloriousness Shiseido was to have soon in the future, in the eighties, when the wizard from Marrakesh Monsieur Lutens melded the f philosophical chic of his art fashion brain with the grande dame reputability of Japan’s most highly held cosmetic conglomeration, and inspiringly opened the magnificent Les Salons Du Palais Royal Shiseido, that mesmerizing magnet of covetable elixirs that puts this anachronisitic little bunch rather in the shade.
And yet. How beautiful it is, nonetheless, to have found it. And to have had the opportunity to discover its contents, and share them with you here on The Black Narcissus today on this grey and cold October afternoon. A portal into another time; housed secretively and hermetically; in its drawer-like, jewellery collection box.
Olfactoria’s Travels was one of the perfume blogs I was always instinctively attracted to. There was humour; there was intimacy, and there was immediate, and beautiful writing. And the writer, a person I knew nothing about, named Birgit from Vienna, was not even writing in her first language (which I always found SICKENING, because to be honest, although I can ‘speak’ some foreign languages, myself, I will never even come close to being able to express myself so naturally, and so exquisitely, in any foreign tongue the way that she so effortlessly does; nowhere near).
When I started The Black Narcissus, and no one was reading it, and I was somewhat despondent, as I couldn’t quite see the point in continuing it otherwise, because in that case you are just addressing a void, for some reason I intuitively one night decided to write to this mysterious woman in the land of Freud before I contacted anybody else, and asked her ( rather desperately, and dramatically, I have to say), for advice. She responded immediately, and very sweetly, suggested I do some guest posts for her (and I did, a whole Vanilla Series), and as a result, I started to finally receive some visitors on the blog (and before you know it was invited to do the Perfume Lovers London talk on vanilla, a still from which you can see here in this picture taken two summers ago, if I am correct, though it feels more in truth like it was a lifetime).
We met; we looked each other in the eye, and it was, I have to say, a bit like Vertigo. I was somewhat awed, even quite bashful, that she had come all the way from Vienna just to meet me (and had decided to give me a vintage Shalimar extrait as a ‘souvenir’); that she was so self-deprecating, while contradictorily bathing all the same in her own inimitable golden glow. In the pub around the corner afterwards, where I think I bought her some prosecco or something sparkling (though I could of course be quite wrong as there had been gin, and beers and the whole thing was getting rather boozy during the evening beforehand), I know that we were talking about psychology, and perfume and various other aspects of our lives, both quite strangely intimately dark and light; there was a depth (and dare I say it, Birgit, even almost mystical – for such a brief encounter – connection). Of course I was projecting my own Hitchcock Blonde obsessions onto you, probably (no: definitely), but I do have to say that I felt that you had a presence that can only truly be described as shimmering. So dignified, and Mysterious. A touch sad, perhaps. Gilded; intelligent; and beautiful.
This is a picture of us both here, meeting for the first time. At the end of the evening, a I began to properly recover from my nerves ( I had been hySTERICAL, as anyone who was there will gladly testify) and when I was able to finally enjoy and gloat in the truly pleasurable feeling of recovering from the trauma of my first dose of real public speaking; meeting new friends; bonding over scent, and truly delighting in the late summer London moment. In this photograph here I was definitely properly starting to unwind a little. We had just met. But I definitely felt that there was some connection.
Birgit, thank you for everything, and the very best of luck for the future.
And if I am ever in Vienna, I hope that we can go out for coffee and Viennese swirls; spray the perfumes at Hermes; and continue our conversations in some wintry, dream-laden, statued; snow laced; and out-of-the-way city park.
One of the weirdest, but most intriguing, florals I have ever smelled, Santa Maria Novella’s enviable status as apothecary as much as perfumery certainly comes into focus in their most unusual offering.
With a dense, medicinal, almost creepy take on a tropical flower – herbal, smoky, heady and unlike anything else – it is hard to imagine what the monks were quite thinking of as they checked the macerations in their cellars; nodded ‘si’, and sagely began to pour the tarry liquid into bottles.
With its almost perverse combination of sanctity and putridity, I think that Frangipane is probably one of my favourites from SMN (along with the thyme-laden Sandalo, Tuberosa, Pot Pourri, Garofano, and their emotive, inimitably rarified patchouli), although I have yet to actually take the plunge and buy some. Surprisingly, I have also heard that Frangipane is popular with certain, in-the-know swathes of Tokyo dandies, who…
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THE SARACEN AND THE COSSACK: TWO CHEST-BEATING LEATHERS – YATAGAN by CARON (1976) & CUIR DE RUSSIE by PIVER (1939)
YES. Finally found Yatagan at the flea market yesterday, very vintage, leathery and silvestrian, for three dollars.
Duncan smells spectacular in it.
What we understand when we smell the new release by Maison Kurkdjian, Acqua Vitae Forte, is twofold: First we realize that urban, contemporary, clean, perfumery can still smell lovely; (as this really does: like angel’s breath, and pink-lemon meringues; laundry musks and the modern sublime): and second, that to achieve this, to have an even half decent, fashionable and futuristic release, it must cost the earth.
In a way it is quite a poignant thing to realize. When I was growing up, perfumes were affordable but still high quality. I am talking about the high street, big name releases. They literally contained essential oils. And artistry. And genuine will power. They had character. And poise. And something memorable; indelible; and even if you hated them, which you quite often did (because why wouldn’t you? They were take me or leave me, love me or leave me, fuck you or love me, and that’s why you were taken); you plonked down your money and went with the show; you took the scent on board and gave her a run for her money; there were less of them but enough to go round; enough for some of them to still remain unidentifiable, at least to that bloke in the bar who had no clue about such things but still liked how you smelled, and that was kind of what it was all about , in the first place, anyway.
Acqua Vitae Forte is a new release from Francis Kurkdijian that is possibly my favourite from this line so far. I will admit that I find the perfumes in the range quite difficult: they are so straight and unconsensual and unforgiving in a way, in their rigid, almost android-like, robotic, perfections, yet they are also, as I wrote in my review of APOM, possessed of a kind of strange genius. Like Mozart or Salieri tossing off sonatas or fugues, there is a kind of inconsolable airlocked immaculateness in the Kurkdijian universive that leaves no stone unturned. Not for this perfumer jagged edges and extraneous puffs of hideous aromachemicals (that cheap, and nasty, pink-bitch shit that wrecks your day and makes you wish you had never even picked up the bottle), no: even if your tastes lie in the more classical, verbatim constructions or along the lines of the shaggy and the aromatherapeutical, you can’t quite deny, upon smelling one of this perfumer’s creations, that there is an exquisite efficacy there, a deal that is nailed, with no airholes; and no compunction.
You have to pay almost three hundred dollars though, now, for a twenty first century creation that smells current, and new, and in the moment. And to be honest, I did consider this one today on my way to work in Yokohama as I do quite like, sometimes, my laundry musk angelics, when worn in the correct contextual situation (like teaching in a suit in front of seventeen year olds, and eighteen year olds); this is exactly the kind of smell that I would like to evince: a CK One redux: expensive, embellished, cast beautifully and peachily and stratospherically into the future, but more soulfful than Acqua Universalis (which struck me as even more of a CK One contender-rejoinder), or the pristine, if in some ways disturbingly piercing, work that the perfumer did for his Absolue Pour Le Matin.
Acqua Vitae Forte, a ‘meeting between sun, and the sea’, takes these quality, almost movingly and ice-hearted citrics, and fuses them, ingeniously, with more sensual, floral notes of ylang ylang and orange blossom (and even cinnamon, and ‘Guatemalan cardamom). The effect, for me at least, as I went up the escalator into the department store while wasting some time before I had to be at school for the beginning of my evening lessons, was a kind of fateful mmm, or perhaps an ooh, or maybe just a vague sigh of pleasure to myself that a new release wasn’t utterly vile (like Sauvage; JESUS, things are getting rough out there, people), or the lamentably mediocre Miu Miu, which isn’t entirely bad, when it kind of gets going, but doesn’t exactly blow your socks off either, and you know now that perfumers are working with quite ludicrously limited budgets so you can’t entirely blame them, as all the money is getting spent on crafting trendily coloured plastic flacons, and cats, and the girl from Lars Von Triers’ brilliant Nymphomaniac, but again, I digress: given the flotsam and jetsam levels of plasticky, mind-bending shit, when something has a charge that even vaguely hits the olfactory button and has been released in the years of 20I5; you somehow can’t quite help having a smile to yourself. This one might not quite be a modern masterpiece, but I do know that I will be going back to smell it again in Takashimaya Yokohama with a view to a potential work-buy; and in the context of the holocausts of dross that we currently find ourselves in, you know that really does not amount to nothing.