I was in Ginza last night, perfume testing. It was an unusually balmy November evening (sometimes you just have to love global warming), and the gleaming neon edifices, and Oz-like boulevards never fail to impress with their jade-like immaculation, stacked close together as they are in their armored solidarity of wealth and snobbery: beautiful, luminescent, gloating.
First to EstNation, just one of many department stores that specialize in exclusivity and trained-to-be icy assistants, for me to survey the Montales: the problem being that, as I have written before, my way of sampling, and the way of sampling, are entirely different. The way of sampling is apparently to stand around in some stiff and starched designer outfit, blinking like a stunned young goat, clueless about perfume, waiting for an assistant to take you through the ordeal, spraying a tiny amount of the scent on a paper strip that you hold gingerly and unknowingly, quivering it up slowly to your nostrils and then inhale, cautiously: your brain unable to form any opinion, smile wanly; nodding reverentially to the ‘expert’ and wait for the next one to be proffered. What we don’t have is a whole fan of scent strips, eight say, sprayed by yourself in unfearing and copious amounts; nor do we spray directly said elixirs onto the skin good god no – one of those exquisitely mascara’d mannequins will then approach and say mouth something a bit arch and ask you whether you are looking for something in particular, with a repressed Japanese insistence. ‘Is it alright if I just try some of these perfumes?’ you answer with slightly too much raised volume and testosterone in your voice. ‘Of course!!’ she answers rather shrilly, but you have already lost interest and are heading for the door.
Montale is a brand I have enjoyed over the years for the perfumes’ strength and boldness, their unfussiness, and for doing the oudh thing years before anyone else did, and yesterday I found myself gravitating again towards White Aoud, soft and vanilla powdery underneath the warm oudh opening ; I could still contemplate getting this one at some point as I can imagine it being delightfully enveloping on a cold and icy day. I am also always attracted to Royal Aoud, as to me it just smells of horses and antiseptic, not a very pretty concept I grant you, but to me it is a strangely compelling amalgamation. I was pleased, also, to see they now stock Jasmin Full, which might come in handy in the summer, but I was less impressed by the newer scents such as Rose Night, a thin typical Montale-ish metallic thing that nobody needs, and Intense Pepper, better constructed and forceful, but the kind of packed-in macho arsenal I personally can’t abide.
So on to Ginza Hankyu – along with Shinjuku Isetan, the Tokyo Mecca of ‘men’s’ fashion – a mausoleum of stupendously costly garments gazed at longingly by pale and gaunt fashion victims who walk about in big-eyed silence, observed carefully by their equally reverent shop assistant counterparts, clad in stiff and unrelenting clothes that only a very small minority, in my humble view, successfully pull off (I think that to wear hyperfashionable, ‘directional’ and extremely modish trends you have to have a certain swagger of confidence, as though you just casually picked them up somewhere, along with your savagely asymmetrical haircut…….the second you look as though the clothes are wearing you instead, that you have invested so much time and money in your ‘look’ that you can hardly move your legs in it, then you look enfeebled and laden).
Downstairs, away from those hushed black sarcophagi of prêt-à-porter miserabilis, we find the perfumery, which stocks a decent selection of brands – from the usual Penhaligons (popular in Japan for its buttoned-up, Igirisu Britishness), Atelier Colognes, Tom Ford, The Different Company and Maison Francis Kurkdijian to Nobile I942 and Rancé (which I internally always refer to as Rancid, as I think they are dreadful), among others, but there wasn’t a great deal that I didn’t know already and anyway, I didn’t like the sensation of mutely blinking assistants standing behind me saying and doing nothing (of course I prefer to be left alone on the whole, and people tend to shy away from me when I walk in the door anyway as though I were the Antichrist), but I do so often miss, say, the sass and humour of a British, or particularly American, shop assistant, who can camp it up a bit, flirt, and weigh you down with samples, which, as anyone who reads this blog will know, you have about as much chance of getting in grievously clammed up Japan as getting blood from a stone buried at the bottom of a lake.
I still have fifteen minutes left before meeting the D (we are here in fact to have dinner at our favourite Chinese restaurant and to buy a new computer from the iconic Apple Ginza store, the biggest in Japan, as the machine that I am writing this on right now is definitively on the blink). I scuttle off across the road quickly to Guerlain, taking in the ambience and the extra police presence, particularly around French luxury companies post-Paris, and hurry to the Guerlain boutique Hibiya, which is a small little place on the first floor of a hotel, a little forbidding to enter as you push open the heavy glass door and face tables of perfumes, but a place I quite like; it’s a bit like a haven.
Quickly dismissing the newest Shalimar variants (Shalimar Cologne and Shalimar Soufflé de Parfum or whatever it’s called – people, the original is perfect; leave it alone – Thierry, just come up with something new and exciting instead, won’t you, because that’s your job) I survey the room to see what I didnt’ know. ‘What’s new?’ I ask the lady in waiting, who, though of perfected presentation and manners, was older, sexier, and had much more ‘class’ than the stick-people in the other stores, happy to spray whatever I wanted to sample onto cards and put them into vinyl envelopes to keep their integrity intact (she also told me, interestingly, when I asked what was popular at the moment……..Nahéma parfum, would you believe, as it is being discontinued on January 3Ist next year and its afficionados are buying it in bulk so they have a lifetime supply. I must say that something about this thrills me. The idea of these Ginza ladies (this area really is rich) in their hidden penthouses, with a secret penchant for Nahéma, that delicious rose scent that nevertheless always reminds me of Marks & Spencer’s Peach Talc, but at any rate, just the fact that there ARE Japanese people out there that love perfume that much. If only I were to encounter them, in the air surrounding the people who walk along though…..these streets are barren for a perfume lover)…
‘Floral Romantique’, a scent I have somehow overlooked, strikes me as a rubbish name in some ways, in the sense that it tells us exactly what we are supposed to be smelling before we have even smelled it. I don’t know about you, but there is something slightly too simplistic and demystifying about a perfume’s being named in this way. What’s next on the release list ? ‘Sweet, But A Bit Powdery’? ‘Very Spicy, And Quite Leathery?’? No, I like my perfumes, where possible, to have a name that is a bit more impenetrable, that draws me in with the promise of its story, an enigmatic jewel of a name if possible, that makes me want to smell more.
Which I probably won’t want to do with this one. Although I can imagine that this tea-ish white floral might smell quite nice on the right woman, this kind of uppity chemical white slick of ‘flowers’ belongs to that family of modern bouquets that I can never enjoy; overpacked and synthetic in that ‘Idylle’ style, ‘prettiness’ as a dictum, an order. THOU SHALL BE PRETTY. I smell green tea, citruses and jasmine and other things, and it’s alright, but because of its artificiality (in so many different senses) I can’t say I like it.
From another ‘Les Exclusives’ collection (because ooh I DO love to be ‘exclusive‘, don’t you?) I then decided to revisit Chypre Fatal, whose name isn’t quite as bad as Floral Romantique but which I still find, again, slightly retarded: ‘Ladies, this perfume will make you smell dead sexy, you’ll be a femme fataaaaaale’ it seems to claim unsubtley, although in this perfume’s case, the message is probably right. I had discounted Chypre Fatal on first sniff a while back as smelling a bit cheap and Shibuya girl, which it kind of does (that shampoo peach note over clarified patchouli, nothing like the chypres véritables of yore), but who cares: though it certainly isn’t worth the money they want for it (a fortune in Japanese money), Chypre Fatal actually is damn sexy in a way. I hadn’t made the connection until yesterday, but this curious anomaly in the Guerlain collection, where patchouli is never a main feature ( I can only think of Parure as a patchouli-centred scent in their lineup) is like a revamped, slightly more pearlescent Gucci Rush, a scent I like very much in the right circumstances, though here fleshed-out and made somewhat more ambiguous with the white-pear and rose-vanilla backdrop. It is come-thither but watch-your-step, and on a young woman, backed with the goods and the attitude, this little concoction could be rather devastating.
To finish, and to take the ‘biscuit’, let’s take a look at Guerlain’s newest perfume release, Mon Exclusif. Now that really is a rubbish name, a desert of non-ideas that I find slightly embarrassing for a perfume house as majestic as Guerlain. Could they not have come with something better? ‘Neige de Guerlain’ or something; or ‘Macaron’ or ‘Petite Amie’? This morning I look the perfume up and see that in fact, you are supposed to name the scent yourself…..HA!!, and that in the box the perfume comes in there is some kind of Letraset provided, so you can stick your own name on the front of the bottle like a twelve year old girl (which I personally think is a gimmicky, dumb idea, but perhaps some people will like it) but even so, ‘Mon Exclusif’ sounds as though you are a bit overly chuffed with yourself for buying an expensive scent that is just a bit above the high street level of current fragrance and has a nicely shaped bottle, and if loads of other people also have it, doesn’t that render the name of the scent totally redundant, in the first place?
The smell itself? Quite nice, if not particularly memorable. Allegedly an update of Jicky, this is in fact a meringue-fresh, light, angelic gourmand, with fern and lavender facets, but essentially, when all is said and done, a toffee vanilla: fluffy, soft, gentle, and in a way, the zenith of this type of sweet, child-like perfume; I would far, far rather smell this than La Vie Est Belle or BonBon for example, as it has some restraint, doesn’t quite clobber your nose with so much sugar, and, as it sinks into the right person’s skin, I can imagine that skin in fact smelling quite soft, macaroonish and delectable.