Monthly Archives: January 2016
According to the Guerlain website, the eau de parfum version of Heritage – though reformulated, naturally – is still available and in production, so I am already breaking my own rules and cheating in some ways with this post. Unlike other scents we will be discussing, this one is not defunct. And yet I can never find it anywhere: the bottle has changed, along with its contents: so to all intents and purposes it might as well have hit the bucket.
At the time of its launch in 1992, Guerlain, like most perfume houses, released new creations to its roster far, far more sporadically than it does now. While the current perfumer-in-house Thierry Wasser is apparently contracted to formulate ten new perfumes a year (that’s just over a month to create a top-to-bottom successful fragrance formula : no wonder the majority of them fall by the wayside), Jean Paul Guerlain, a superior perfumer in my view, had far more time, in fairness, to get each one right: from what I remember, Guerlain could literally go three or four years without releasing anything new: wasn’t Heritage the first big release that came after Samsara in 1989?
Heritage, only the third masculine perfume for the house after Habit Rouge and Vetiver (Derby having been discontinued) was released to great fanfare and promotion at the beginning of the nineties, and Jean Paul Guerlain had clearly calibrated the blend to perfection. It was almost too perfect, though, for me personally : Heritage eau de toilette (the eau de parfum was released a few years later) was measured, classical, yet sparkling: sensual, tasteful and very gentlemanly; a clever way of introducing the the house signature Guerlinade and ambered, oriental facets – the cedary, tonka bean/ vanilla base a shimmering backdrop – to a fresher, more zinging central theme of contrasting lavender/bergamot and coriander/pepper: there is a tangibly real ‘tingle’ to the blend, from the crisp addition of petitgrain – always a strident and high pitched note – along with drops of juniper, clary sage and violet leaf, fresher and more coruscating elements that assert themselves confidently, like a sharp-suited businessman in a boardroom, over the more hidden floral elements of powdered orris; rose, carnation and geranium : all encompassing and widescreen, these immaculately contrapuntal elements coalescing into a more modern scent for Guerlain, for the time, while quite perceptibly preserving, as advertised, the grand old house’s classical ‘heritage’.
But this was what always bothered me about the fragrance. No matter how many times I smelled it (and they were many) there was something too staid, too patrician and Francophilic ‘bon gout’ about this blend, always so well-groomed and pressed and coiffeured and all the women love him. I remember a friend of a friend in London having the Heritage apres rasage, which he wore quite a lot and stated to be the best fragrance ever made, but on him, though appealing from certain angles, there was still that big, inexorable drop of boredom at the centre somehow (and he wasn’t that interesting to begin with); someone old before their time who was playing at playing by the rules.
Fast forward a few years to Japan, and we find me wandering down a street in Yokohama. It was a time when so many department stores, post-Bubble, were still operational and doing OK (and before the constant current doom and gloom about the declining population and the imminent ‘demographic catastrophe’ as the ageing population continues to age, and when the younger generation loses interest in sex .This really is a crisis, actually, as people neuter themselves in their smartphone insularity and shun physical contact, but nonetheless, I really do believe that positivity and negativity create their own self- perpetuating cycles in societies and I do wish that the media here would sometimes change the Nihon death knell tune but I digress: ) at that time, when there were enough people to shop at these places, it was still possible for me, in my lunchtime, to stray into the perfume department of some old venerable store or other and do a spot of perfume sampling. And it was at this time, that to my surprise, I espied Guerlain’s Heritage Eau De Parfum.
It seems impossible now, with niche, and ‘unisex’, and the vast expansion of gender freedoms that are happening generally, to imagine that an ‘eau de parfum’ for men was something unusual, even slightly offputtingly feminine, but for the time it most definitely was. It felt, almost, like wearing a dress. An ‘eau de parfum’ designed for men? Believe it or not there was something quite transgressive about this, a new direction, and having always quite liked certain elements of the original Heritage (ambery vanilla/tonka I am there, basically – there was just always something too scratchy and herbaceous and complicated at top), I was quite curious about trying it. Could an eau de parfum variation of the scent tilt the balance, deepen the perfume, flesh it out, warm it up (Heritage edt is strangely cold, ultimately, despite its list of ingredients): make it more me?
It could. Vintage Heritage eau de parfum is a very different beast to the original eau de toilette, which is far more lavender/bergamot based and more effervescent, cognac to the former’s light champagne. While the coniferous edge of the blend of both versions – a fir tree element that was explored more fully in the later Winter Delice from 2000 (a beautiful play on fir, frankincense and vanilla that I always wear at Christmas), here, the upper notes are encased as if in an eiderdown of amber: the classic, Shalimar-like edible skin blanket that Guerlainophiles know and love so well, but in a masculine – the oriental facets upped, with the still recognizably Heritage top and heart notes present – but very much retreating and ceding their territory. Rather than a forty eight year old family man from Lyons off to a business conference in the outskirts of Paris, suddenly we are Serge Diaghilev, in fur coat, huddled in the snow, the whisper of illicit, body-taunting ambered deliciousness making us feel self-aroused and blushing; an extra warmth that was, also, quite brilliantly provided in the heart and top notes of the perfume with a truly excellent note of heat-searing singing black pepper up top (the best pepper note I have smelled in any perfume), an addition that added spine to the blend and stopped everything from getting too namely pamby and ‘silk pyjamas’, Jean Paul Guerlain toying provocatively with what was ‘acceptable’ in a fragrance for men, yet not letting the person in question turn into a fully blown, reclining odalisque.
I have just used up my final drops of Heritage edp in writing this, and it smells just as good as I remembered. And I suppose the continuing existence of the blend, albeit reformulated, thinner, with less stamina, doesn’t entirely qualify this Guerlain classic as a ‘successful failure’ or beautiful reject, or whatever else you want to call it. Yet I have never seen it on sale, not in London, or anywhere else in England, and certainly not in Tokyo. To be sure, I asked the assistant at Guerlain the other day if they had Heritage, just to check out how the perfume was now smelling (perfect, actually, still very good quality, very taut and aqueous), and asked, by any chance, but knowing full well that they wouldn’t, if they also had the eau de parfum. No, not in Japan, sorry, no we don’t, because who, here, would wear it? Perhaps that under-the-counter bottle of the gleaming and illumined edt was there for company execs and visiting tourists (there was an acknowledgement of this in the woman’s eye as I enquired about the scent), but what man, in reality, is going to bother with an eau de parfum? Who would have need for such a thing? The fuller, more sensually intoxicating experience?
We live in a crass, capitalistic, interconnected world of hype in which we are at the mercy of conglomerates and advertising, an ingenious science that taps into the base needs of human beings – and their vulnerable, self-doubting psyches – and then creates products that they think they want and ‘need’. Thus, what is popular, a best seller, a ‘phenomenon’, relies less on the the intrinsic value of the thing itself then how it is marketed. You need buzz: to ride the wave of the zeitgeist with slick tantalisation and the snippet, a face (or better, a body) to sell your product, to have the media, and tech-savvy cold-eyed people in your department with their eye always on the game, plugged into the matrix, and what is ‘trending’, to make your consensus-built, pre-public tested creation a hit, to slip clues to the nature of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ at least a year before the movie’s release to whip up extra interest, to get Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning smile on board to market Lancome’s best selling perfume, La Vie Est Belle.
It goes without saying that the general public are not stupid (or not entirely, although the rise of Donald Trump perhaps puts paid to that idea). Generally speaking, though, people cannot be seduced by pure garbage, a product with no merit whatsoever. There must be some substance, quality, thrill or cultural hook that makes purchase seem worthwhile, even if it is just an initial sheen or surface that lures you in and leaves you feeling as satisfied as you do when you have just guiltily consumed a Big Mac. From films to music to perfumes to books there is a common denominator that pull the great hordes in, something with ‘mass-appeal’ (have you ever tried to read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? Yes I know the plot was intriguing and all, but I personally couldn’t get past the first paragraph the writing was so appalling: for me literally unreadable). A super-hit, then, while appealing on the surface perhaps and vaguely digestible, can often be, from other angles, and seen in hindsight, a total pile of junk.
Writing this I will probably come across as a total snob. And while it is true that I was definitely born a bit supercilious – possibly because my bullshit-o-meter was working ferociously from quite a young age – in fact my tastes are not as pretentious or hipster-tastic as many self-conciously ‘arty’ or ‘alternative’ types out there who willfully only gravitate to the obscure or ‘difficult’ in order to be cool. Cinematically I can go from pure art – Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Jodorowsky, Kubrick, all the truly visual auteurs – through to the lurid, high octane schlock of Brian De Palma or Scorcese to the latest Hollywood releases quite happily: a film I particularly enjoyed last year, for example, was Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the most viscerally physical films and atmospherically coherent films I have recently seen. Musically I am equally eclectic: in a certain mood I will listen to ‘difficult’ classical music like Messiaen, Stravinsky, or the most severe and abstract electronic ambient sounds, for me the equivalent of iced rain-drops clearing out my brain moss, while at others I am MOR, jazz, Mr Electro-Pop.
That said, despite my openness to the commercially successful ( I too, went to see Avatar in 3D spectacles and quite enjoyed it), to me there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that quantity of units sold is absolutely no guarantee of quality, particularly when we are talking about art. If we look at the top 20 most financially successful movies of all time, for example, we will find such dubious inclusions as Avengers: Age Of Ultron; Transformers: Age Of Extinction, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and Fast and Furious 7. Clearly these are categorically not the greatest films of all time, even if even these I am not entirely immune to the charms of :my students once insisted we watch Transformers and Fast And Furious, and though my brain was quite numb after a certain number of minutes, I could still see the appeal, at least from their eyes : all hard bods, sass, and pumped-up energy alchemized by a hundred-million-dollar special FX, well timed jokes and ironic asides, explosions, adrenalined car chases, and robots. The films were undeniably exciting on one simple level, which is just what the public wants – and they were then put in the hands of ‘creatives’ who knew how to sell them. They then became, as fully expected, mega-hits. And who am I to judge?
While a perfume might not shift as many units as an album by Adele, whose semi-sincerity, vocal prowess, and natural beauty I can definitely see the appeal of, even though I might not listen to her myself (“Hello”, on the radio, though is finally getting through to me); it is, ultimately, still a part of the same game. A blockbuster perfume is still a cultural product that becomes part of the world around us even if it is invisible, and it makes a lot of money for its parent company (which probably gains most of its income through toilet products in so called ‘functional perfumery’ – but is there really any difference half the time?), and, like Disney and its franchises, becomes its cash cow.
To reach so many people, though, you have to compromise (surely the enemy of true art), or else you create, once in a while, a masterpiece that is not compromised at all but just so good of and in itself that something in the heart of the public can’t resist it (Shalimar, Black Swan, The Corrections): perfumes, films, or books that come from founts of genuine inspiration. These are very much the exceptions, though. More often than not, the products that become popular with the populace as a whole have been smoothed out, traded-off and accommodated to the point that they become thick, easily comprehended banalities with the skins of a rhinoceros; sturdy as steel; impregnanted and infallible. Successful. A movie like Iron Man 3 cannot fail: the people at Paramount Pictures will have seen to that, in advance. Likewise, La Vie Est Belle, a perfume I detest, will have been tried and tested beforehand, and tweaked and redirected on the poor unsuspecting public – whose reactions to what they are smelling will in large part be based on the general scent in the air (ie. crude fruitchouli gourmands, the perfumes that all women seem to wear now): ground zero to which this ‘new’ fragrance release will smell quite similar. And thus the faceless tick the boxes, and the ‘new perfume’ gets released, and the never-ending, vicious cycle of humdrum mediocrity gets perpetuated. Ad Nauseam.
In truth, Angel (Thierry Mugler) is largely to blame. It changed everything when it was released in 1992, an absolute and utter game changer. And we are still going through its repercussions, as its iconclasms reverberate through the decades in perfumery, just as Chanel No 5 was the progenitor of the majority of copycat perfumes that were released in its brilliant, groundbreaking aftermath (much as I adore my selective vintage collection, it is interesting just how many more obscure old perfumes you come across at flea markets and the like are just so boring: yet another rose jasmine woody musk aldehyde, yawn: : plus ca change), and they invariably pale next to the real thing anyway. Angel, a perfume I myself enjoy to wear in small doses, though I thoroughly understand its detractors (my sister might actually try to kill you if you wear too much of its cloying patchouli white chocolate in her presence), is great for its pared down intensity and shocking originality (at the time, at least: now it just smells a little bit tired). Like a sculpture by Brancusi, though, all was compact and rounded; essential, leaving no extraneous essence. Angel was the sum of its parts: the refracted, commercialized patchouli; the sharp fruit; the fuzzy, skin-kissing white chocolate, its hinting of the smell of sexual spentness in its final stages on the skin, its inhuman tenacity.
Since then, in ‘women’s perfumery (‘men’s’ hardly bears even mentioning and is in general to be considered quite beneath contempt, as there is usually only one concept – MACHO – though in recent years daring new additions to what can be considered masculine such as Dior Homme have attempted to create new tropes ); almost everything we smell now seems to have been built on the foundations of Angel’s tooth-wrecking and infantilizing reign – the descent into comfort and gourmand, into the mood-boosting sweetness of sugar and the slightly ‘daring’ combination of ‘patchouli’ (lab-leached variants of the real thing with some of its earthiness and woodiness but none of the soul). And thus we have such worldwide mega-hits as Flowerbomb – well constructed and faultless in its way if a little unpoetic to say the least – La Petite Robe Noire, another cheap smelling gourmand in the best sellers, and, possibly the most currently popular perfume in the world, Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle, a cleverly constructed sharp, more floral metallic Angel, and a fragrance that I personally find abhorrent. A perfume that sucks the air out from it around it. A perfume that is the smell of the headache-inducing pollution of the department store and duty free, of chemicals, and popularity.
Yes, the ‘smell of popularity’, I like that expression, as that is exactly what we are talking about here. Either the endless fruitchouli variants, or else the desexualized floral (Happy, Romance, J’Adore etc) or the pallid, laundry musk safety of a Kenzo Flower or a Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. All very competent, cunningly commercial fragrances that probably deserve to be the hits that they are because they hit some kind of olfactory mark that smells familiar and easy, that fits in with the mainstream of what is considered perfumery – the Sam Smiths and Kelly Clarksons of the perfumery department – yet which still will make the discerning perfumist, who knows real perfumery, shake his or her in vexed apathy and disgruntled irritation.
Trying to break the mould in practically any sphere of creativity is difficult, and a risk. This is why the big movie studios are apparently less and less willing to try something new, and stick instead to their blockbuster franchise sequels and, on the side, just to win some accolades, their yearly release of ‘quality’ Hollywood Oscar-bait (actually my least favourite kind of film, for their strict, conservative adherence to preconceived notions of what constitutes ‘good taste’ and ‘quality’: in acting, in set design, in screenplay- you couldn’t get me to watch Eddy Redmayne, in The Danish Girl, for example, if you paid me). Other than these two types of films – action blockbusters based on superheroes saving the world (why, oh why, why why why do people – ‘adults’ – like superhero movies so much? I will never, ever, understand it), and ‘issue’ based, show-your-acting-chops dramas like The Imitation Game (yes, Cumberbatch was brilliant, in a way (though I personally didn’t believe a word of it), and the story was uplifting, and then crushing, and I cried a bit, where I was supposed to, so it was good, stolid entertainment even if it was, ultimately, for me, just an obvious ploy to try and get Academy Awards): other than these, the studios are simply too afraid to try and do something original, to go out on a limb.
In truth, despite the rave reviews these kinds of films receive on Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes (critical consensus is always something to beware of for me) I often find that the slated films, or those with very low scores, the ones that are vilified and scorned and hated by the Quality Police, the ones that failed at the box office, are actually more enjoyable. They take more risks. They don’t care. They say what they want to say. They are fun. A bit weird. More liberated, and free of conventions or expectations. And by far most importantly, they try something new.
So we come to the commercial failures. The films, or books or music or perfume that no one buys – the ‘flops’. And in the cruel and ruthless world of dollar-based evaluation, something that doesn’t immediately bring home the bacon is usually considered a failure, on every level ( I don’t think this is quite the case in somewhere like France, however, where art is more respected and where a film can win the Palme D’Or at Cannes and still not make any money). In perfume terms, though, I think it is even more difficult to branch out, as the public in general is less equipped to analyze the olfactive than they are with other creative media – we live in a largely visual arena and so know how to process the memes of the constant visual media – whereas commercial perfume tends to be a more enveloping bank of conformity that becomes the air in the bar, pub or club that we are accustomed to and are thus more unwilling to break away from for the simple fear of smelling wrong.
As a result, when perfumers do dare to try to follow their instinctive muse and a head designer comes on board and says yes, sometimes interesting scents are released into the world that nevertheless come crashing down and are quickly discontinued. I am not really talking about niche, where word-of-mouth and willingness to be different is much stronger, and thus the perfumes are judged more on their olfactory worth than on their image (although the sheer number of perfumes released now, with each new niche house always beginning with a whole phalanx of scents, an entire olfactory spectrum of fragrances all in one go, means necessarily that a fair few of the creations will fall by the wayside as an inevitable result of natural selection), but more about the bigger investments by the more well known fashion houses that require much more of an initial investment in terms of product design and promotion, perfumes that are then withdrawn in a silence of embarrassment and never heard of again while the ‘creative department’ goes back to their ‘directives’, their ‘mood boards’, and square one.
These are the perfumes, then, that Olivia, my co-contributor, and I will be looking in this new series: “ Successful Failures”, perfumes that came and went, but that managed to gain some die-hard fans in the short time that they lived. Discontinued perfumes that disappeared but that can still be found if you look ( at discount online perfumeries, T.J Maxx and the like): a far better fate than reformulation, at any rate, which is a disgrace, and an indignity that any quality perfume should never be subjected to. Rather a perfume be in hiding, surely – unknown and waiting to be re-recognized in its original form, as it was intended – than be a shadow of its former self, an imitator, a brain-scooped, cheaper, more synthetic, doppelganger.
And so, ‘without further ado’, to the Successful Failures, the Good That Died Young. The Beautiful Rejects. And the first in this series today we will be starting with (sporadically, when we feel like it), is Theorema (incidentally, one of my favourite films – Teorema or Theorem, by Pasolini, an exquisite Italian masterpiece), released by Fendi in 1998, and now, like the film, for those in the know, something of a cult favourite.
Take it away Olivia.
Fendi Theorema (1998)
Theorem. There is something in that keystone of pure mathematics that hints at astral beauty and the awe of the unknown: the study of space and structure, of change and motion, the meshing of abstraction and logic. The tracing of patterns in an unfathomable chaos.
In a sense, there is a reflection of this in Fendi’s defunct perfume from 1998, Theorema. A wonderful balancing act of legible complexity, it is a harmony of disquiet and languid lean whose soft, diaphanous features drape over a garnet bone structure. Both supine and regal, the abstraction of the composition seems perfectly logical when worn on skin: comfortable and eclectic. Like those algebraic abstractions, there is a sense of something ethereal and outside of ourselves and yet, at the same time enveloping us.
A spiced, woody oriental with a gourmandish character (but whose sweetness is light years from the ethyl maltol caked sugar vats of many current launches), this perfume shares a bloodline with those fiery powerhouses of the 80s – Opium, Cinnibar and Fendi’s own Asja – by way of the mellow cedar fruits of Lutens. However while the fingerprint of those Lutensian spiced compotes can definitely be felt throughout Theorema, here it’s as if that leitmotif has been sketched on rice paper: hefty notes of spice and woods, of vanilla pods, fleshy florals and fruits are made diaphanous and wear like gossamer. Opening with a dusky orange bolstered by nutmeg, cardamom, pepper and rosewood and making it’s way through a floral heart – jasmine, rose, leathery osmanthus, ylang all freckled by cinnamon – to a sumptuously teaky base of benzoin, guaiac, sandalwood, amber and patchouli, this perfume is a stunning drape between disquiet and extreme comfort. Theorema is sunshine and earth: puffs of silk and fire.
The orange note, delectable and almost russet coloured, coupled with the chocolatey benzoin and patchouli makes for a much lauded mirage of confectionary. Specifically, for a time, it radiates a giddying apparition of Terry’s Chocolate Orange scooped out greedily from the woolly toe of a Christmas stocking. I must emphasise though that this is a very grown up version of a bonbon: there is no refined sugar here, nothing cloying in the least and it is instead toasty and cosseting, delicious and entirely of an adult palate.
The white florals in the heart, so often fleshy and lush, here take on an almost carnation like zing – the baseline of the spices buffs them with gauzy shades of chestnut and hazel, rich and piquant with their innate abundance peaking through as if glinting with caramel tones in lamplight. The rose, washed over by the milkiness of sandalwood seems baked by a late autumnal sun. Instead of buxom and bold petals, this is more a milky, spiced pomander of dried burgundy rose petals and cloves.
But while this perfume retains a lush and womanly aura, the woods and spices lend it a very slightly dirty (but not animalic) edge. There is a wonderful tension poised between delicate notes and heavy ones, a leathery laced and tangy hem that hints at secrets and misadventure. It is a perfume midway between the woolen snug of a cuddle and the sticky, sweet trace of nectarous booze on lips, a mingling of incense with gingerbread. It is all welcoming and warm smiles in that broad Italian way; confident and complex, restrained enough for elegance but hinting through fogged windows at delicious kinks. The sum total is sensuous and knowing, comfortable and self-assured but with a quite intoxicating hint of something more disarming: just underneath the coze and spiced panettone is a frisson, the whisper of cat-flick liner and a nightcap Gauloise.
Truly this is a beautiful, intelligent fragrance but despite all the virtues I’ve written about above, it flopped horribly. Its surprising lack of tenacity perhaps was a factor – a downside of the admirable transparency of the composition is that is does wear lightly (although the parfum – a true unicorn! – is richer and more unctuous as you’d expect.) But released as it was in 1998, it shared shelf space with the likes of Baby Doll, J’Adore and Rush and perhaps this auburn elixir was just too out of step with broader commercial tastes at the time. Truth be told this, while not a difficult perfume is perhaps not universally appealing especially to noses less accustomed than they likely would be now to the smoky, disarming qualities of ingredients such as oud.
If it were released now, under a swishy niche label and with a stratospheric price, I have no doubt it would be a sensation. There are however alternatives, perfumes with a kinship to Theorema that could quench a yen. Perfumer Christine Nagel did in fact resurrect the concept of her earlier composition in her 2004 release for Armani Prive, Ambre Soie – a similarly atmospheric perfume reminiscent of smoked ginger and the darkest cocoa powder. Givenchy Organza Indecence, released only a year after Theorema (and similarly discontinued but still easier to find) rifts on the same idea but extends the vanillic aspects and fleshes out the fruit with rich plummy swathes.
Etat Libre d’Orange Like This is a more distant descendant – drier, edgier but with the same russetty palate and evocation of warmth and home comforts. The brand new fragrance from Parfums MDCI, Les Indes Galantes, however is much closer to the bone. Rich, complex and Christmassy its interplay of winey fruits and spiced woods are throatier than Theorema, but there is enough smoky speckled vanilla pod and burnished tickly fruits to wrap you up with the same interwoven tendrils of goodwill and allure to satisfy the craving – it’s gorgeous and very much worth checking out.
It happens every time. Every extended holiday, although I am here in Japan, physically, in other ways, I am not. I enter my own, specifically, edited version of it, where I keep it outside of me and observe its cold beauty, its out-of-reachness (a foreigner, ultimately, can never, never become part of this place; and perversely, much as I find that detestable as a concept, part of me likes that fact. I came here impulsively for no reason other than escape and a desire to discover something different, both within and without, am no Japanophile despite my deep-seated, always ambivalent addiction.) The country – gleaming, dream-like, with a level of safety unattainable anywhere else that lets you just glide through it like a fish in water, is my playground. I immerse myself in it like neon in a pool of rain. I breathe in the sacred air of Nikko, feel the history enter me; the ice green breath of the avenue of ancient trees (it was literally snow falling on cedars when we were there), the spiced, heliotrope camphor of the Rinnoji temple’s self-crafted incense.
And yet whenever I go back to work after the break, I feel that I can’t breathe. When I am free ( and I do really feel free at these times, and there is nothing more important to me in this world than that ), atmospherically, aesthetically, intellectually, Nippon fascinates me, rarely leaving me indifferent to its annihilatingly frustrating contradictions. Yet I can pick and choose, work within it. And then come back to the nest, our cinematheque, the New York Times, endless films and conversations in English, novels in the same, the far more expressed and uninhibited and selfishly me me me of western culture, in which we put ourselves first and our idiosyncracies and wants and needs and individualism, screaming to be heard over the hordes in our desire to be ‘someone’ (always my most despised aspect of American culture, that one; the separations into somebodies and nobodies, of people who have managed to ‘live the dream’ and the rest who have been fucked over by it).
In, Japan nobody is a nobody. There is a fundamental sense, here, that people should be afforded respect on some level. A cleaning lady here has a different aura to one back home, not at the bottom of the trash heap, just doing her job, and I like this. But it all comes at a cost, one I know full well and have accepted at the conceptual level, but still find utterly suffocating. Coming back to the office after a month of being off (I know, I know, hideously spoilt – why do you think I took the job in the first place? Paid holidays are like mirages here now for foreign workers in the current clime of exploitation), after spending time with Duncan’s parents and slouching into the warm, Christmas and New Year spirit, I got used to being myself, of saying what I wanted whenever I wanted (sometimes too much; my self-repression valve wore out decades ago) but that is the point: I CAN’T BEAR REPRESSION. And I have chosen to live in the most self-repressed country on earth.
And at the moment I just can’t stand it, as if my diaphragm were being pressed down by unseen forces. But in actual fact they are seen, because Japan is a country of eyes. Eyes that look, all the time, but don’t register that they are doing so: infinitesimally quick glimpses that there is a foreigner, then invisibly render them void, not there. Or in the workplace, where unlike in offices chez nous (wherever that is) there is a wall, or a divider, or a private space you can call your own, here you are constantly within the gaze of others, facing people (who often ignore you) in work spaces that are designed to be communal, cooperative, working together, no secrets (yet always secrets, because no one actually says anything they really feel), never being able to extricate yourself from your dog-worn, exhausted colleagues because you are constantly facing them. The desks are positioned that way.
But it is so exhausting for me, spiritually, even after all these years, to be positioned in such a space: my foreignness an extra barrier, my innate ‘weirdness’ yet another. When you arrive in the teachers’ room, no one ever asks how you are, how your weekend was, or anything else, because that is not the time nor the place (conversation of a more personal level can happen while you are cleaning the classrooms later on, or at work parties, under the influence of sake). You come in, utter the required aisatsu, or greeting, like a robot, and get a robot greeting in return, and then you get down to your lesson preparation with the atmosphere as heavy as a fishtank filled with mould and bitter algae, desperately trying to breathe.
It is not always like this, by any means. As the term progresses, and when spring comes, it will be different. But right now is the ‘exam hell’ season (for more on the unbelievable, slave-like conditions during this time, read my ‘Narcissus You Stink’ piece – I lack the energy to reiterate it all here), and the teachers, not having any days off for two months, or they won’t have by the time the exams are finished anyway, are understandably not exactly feeling communicative. They have to get through it. And I understand that. But it doesn’t make the daily fact of being trapped in such an environment any easier.
The classroom is an entirely different proposition altogether. There, it is my world and theirs; fantastically upbeat – this year – and positive, funny, intelligent students who I love teaching, where I can ‘perform’, if you like (and teaching is definitely a performance: every day I wake up thinking nooo like an actor before a nightly play, yet once I get going I am in my element, usually, though it always takes time for me to gradually get my spirit tamed enough to actually give a shit about what I am doing, and I am still very much in that defiant, hate this, can’t be arsed stage at present, recalcitrant, unwilling, and unable. At some point something clicks and the other more conservative and ‘proper’ side of myself kicks in and I start to get into it but oh! the lazy Sagittarian just doesn’t want to be there at all at the moment (and this piece might have to be a limited edition, come to think of it – I don’t want anyone there reading it: good jobs are much harder to find these days in Japan, especially in a place so bloody ageist (and sexist, and racist, but don’t get me started; wow, this really is a Japan-basher this one isn’t it)
This world I am working in is so colourless, so odourless; (so colorless, so odorless). The greys and beiges of the halls and the classroom, plastic walls. The ban on perfume. The drab, black, fraying suits. The surgical masks that most of the students wear to protect themselves from colds (now they really are not odourless but don’t let me go there). It all brings a chill to my soul. The pointlessness of it all. The arbitrariness of any given culture, and how the people mindlessly stick to it.
And the same thing happens every year. I begin, at first, by heeding the rules. I don’t wear perfume. I don’t wear scent. Yes, I am shampooed and fresh: yes there are lip-balms and hand creams, ah so we are already circumventing those fascistic fragrance rules aren’t we, but in essence (and I can tell from the smell of the classroom if I leave it and come back), the overall vibe is sweet and pleasant, at least I hope so; salutary and amiable, if damn boring, but then, after a couple of weeks or so something within me starts to ache, terribly, for some colour, be it visual or olfactory. I bought a new pink DVD player to use with one class, and it is quite pitiful really how much pleasure it now gives me. Against the black of the TV screen we now have some colour, for christ’s sakes, and it’s like a chink of light for a prisoner in solitary confinement. A decant spray of La Traversee du Bosphore, L’Artisan Parfumeur’s sweet, Turkish delight scent of almonds and roses, and leather and apples, has also somehow found its way into my coat pockets, this week, and the other night after work, I found myself thinking fuck it, fuck this, and spray, spray, spray, went I as I walked along the platform coming back into Kitakamakura, in my coat pockets, on my scarves, all things that can be removed once I get back to work and hung up on the malingering coat rack but which nevertheless, this week, have been wafting nonetheless (“ I smell some exotic aroma coming from you” said my right-wing, Russian literature major colleague yesterday evening, a person as averse to perfume as I am to his nationalism, whose pallor and nervous palpitations are definitely affected quite badly by this stinking queen from England but “too right, baby” thought I, and thank the heavens for it). It’s like colouring in a colouring book; reaccentuating the monochrome, the constant repression of the self that a Japanese person is forced to perform in order to fit into the society.
On Wednesday night I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Even in the classroom. And with two, lovely, sweet, unusually innocent seventeen year old students, a boy and girl, as we were doing an entrance exam reading comprehension on the spice trade, and the history of cinnamon, and cloves, and cardamon and black pepper, I asked them, as I had just bought an essential blend from Muji, Winter Spice, if they would like to smell the real thing. Yes! they said, enthusiastically, and genuinely, and so out came the tissue paper onto which I shed copious drops of the oil, the aforementioned blended with orange and benzoin, and handed it to each of them quite happily as they inhaled the smells and the classroom suddenly came to life, taking on a richness, and three dimensionality and realness that it had previously been lacking. The oils will also help to keep colds at bay I told them, they kill bacteria: and would you by any chance – I know it is our last lesson before the exams (and these exams, in this strictly hierarchial society, really do determine how the rest of their lives will pan out) – would you like me to bring in some perfumes next week? We can do it in the break time, it might be fun, I can bring a selection (in truth, when the boy was absent one time I had already starting talking about scent with Manami, and given her a perfume by Ex Idolo). YES, they said emphatically, visibly excited. And so next week, we are doing perfume. Big time. I am going to take in a whole selection, and possibly give them some, though it is totally against the rules, as well. Because they need to know that these strictures within which they find themselves, these stiff, societal pressures, are not the only way forward. Yes, I know that Japan is the master of imaginative escape and curious invention (why do you think they create such brilliant animation?), but they need to also realize the sensuality and sensuousness of existence as well; that pleasure can come in the inwardly, bodily form of scent, the sheer physicality and joy it can bring. And to learn that smell is a connector, and a language all of its own, quite apart from the cutaneous mie of Japanese society, where everything is done for appearances, and to maintain, and not fuck with, the precious wa, or societal harmony that is always the goal, and the reason, practically, for existence here and what makes the country, in many ways, so superlative. But there are limits. And sometimes you just have to let go, or attack, even, to free yourself from the asphyxiating insularity, inwardness, and monstrous obedience to all the rules and the regulations. To just burst through that membrane of cold respectability and meaningless societal approval with a spray; an inhalation; that hot, sensual shiver of appreciation that marks the pleasure of true olfactory retribution.
You can’t beat Guerlain. The sheer number of perfumes, both current and lost, the gorgeousness. Sometimes I spend a morning dipping into the Monsieur Guerlain website just to delve into the archives and ogle what I don’t have, to suck up trivia about the house and imagine what it must be like to have free access to those vaults full of old recipes and beautiful bottles of rich and ravishing perfumes that I would love get my hands on.
The house certainly is prolific. And while that is no guarantee of quality (think: Tutti Kiwi, Grosselina, ‘L’Homme Ideal’, to name but a few recent disappointments), it is always interesting to either reacquaint yourself with some of the the more interesting relatively recent olfactory successes – Metallica is divine, as is Attrape Coeur – although both have been moronically discontinued in favour of such mucoid banalites as the Idylle range – or else access now forgotten scents by Guerlain that you had, somehow, never even heard of.
Belle Epoque is one such scent, a sample of which I noticed the other day and which I never even realized I had; sent, I think, by Brielle (who used to work for the company – I have never shoplifted in my life but I can’t guarantee that I would have been entirely well behaved in the stock room on a Friday afternoon had I been in the same position; some soaps, or bain moussant at the very least, surely, would have slipped their way into my pockets).
For me, any strongly scented jasmine/tuberose sandalwood combination has a certain, unavoidable vulgarity. Creed’s Jasmin Eugenie Imperatrice is the perfect example of this effect; plush, thick, dense, and sexual – a touch rogueish and strong-willed, not shy at all, even rude – which is why I like it in some ways even as it overwhelms and clobbers you over the head. I admire its don’t-give-a-shitness. Its aspect of I am in the room, so deal with it. Samsara also, obviously has this quality, in buckets (a love/hate relationship, always, with me) – so……bosoming, thick-thighed, in ya face.
Belle Epoque, while certainly more subtle than either of the above (though also less characterful), belongs to the same family of perfumes. Founded on a solid base of vanilla, musk, sandalwood, vetiver and tonka, the oil-painted florals up top (an orange and apricot-tinged jasmine, ylang and low octave tuberose) sink into the full body of the perfume, which, if you squint long enough, could indeed be reminiscent of saucy c. 19 dames chuckling in the boudoir; a whiff of ribald, satined corpulence ; bra-popping jokes.
Libidinous and suave though it is, Belle Epoque nevertheless doesn’t quite hit the mark, not having quite enough inner poetry somehow (even of the erotic kind) to make it especially memorable, though in low doses I can imagine the scent having a definite, if undefinable, presence. It is a scent that lends heft and confidence, if not mystery. Jean Paul Guerlain must have quite liked it though, as the perfume clearly was the template for the big, mainstream (and financial catastrophe) that the house released the following year: MAHORA, a name that had a touch too much of ‘whore’ in it to hit the big time, perhaps (particularly in more conservative America). Just add some tiare, some sunscreen, and some and coconut to Belle Epoque, though, and you have Guerlain’s big-hipped foray into tropicalia (now called Mayotte in a slimmed-down re-edition in the Parisiennes collection, and losing something in the process).
I myself quite like Mahora. I can remember when it was released in Japan, my friend Denise and I completely dousing ourselves in the new parfum at a Tokyo department store. We stunk out the train. I sprayed cards and cards of perfume blotters with the scent in all its forms as well during this period, and my Madonna ‘Music’ album still smells strongly of it all these years later as that was where I secreted them. I like such perfumes. They bolster and amuse, when there is so much anorexic negation about in current climes: the stick-thin, desexualized creatures walking around in bone-dry woods and synthetic, futuristic flowers, or otherwise completely ‘unscented’ (or so they like to believe) ; the big trend in Japan right now being for non-alcoholic alcoholic drinks that contain no sugar, no alcohol, no this, no that (and no taste). Zero this, zero that: Zero, zero, zero. Slim down to pre-pubescence. Deny yourself pleasure. Lose weight or die. Or else, it all goes completely the other way on a Saturday night in England or America : overkill on-a plate; all about that ‘bass’, the ass: booty, rack, whatever, all coated in nasty vanillic tack, oversweetened and come-here-baby and with no room to breathe; those currently popular scents that you smell everywhere, be they duty free or high street, that really are vulgar. They bore and annoy. They suggest thick-headedness and stupidity. Perfume as porn. As a free ride. And in comparison, a scent like Belle Epoque – well made and sturdy; rich and curvaceous – even while winking coquettishly in the direction of licentiousness – is pure class.
The perfumes of Oriza L. Legrand, originally from 1720, but recently revived and in new hands, are very classique. From the labels and packaging to the liquid inside, the wide range of fin de siecle-style eaux de toilette smell grand and very Parisien, yet unlike, say, the similar project by Grossmith perfumes London – another resurrected defunct perfumery of yore – not quite so ossified that you feel your skull chattering beneath your lace. While some of the scents from the line I have sampled are a touch too old-fashioned for me ( I know I am know as the ‘vintage man’ but I am not, in actual fact, into ‘zombie’perfumes, where disinterred, powdery, oak-mossed chambers of the past choke with dust), they are nevertheless impressive in their well-builtness and powdery heft, yet still with whiffs of relic (there is even actually a musty crypt scent called Relique D’Amour, which sums it all up rather perfectly). Some of the perfumes, though, are for me, are just really too grande dame, like the ‘new’ Royal Oeillet – a very old-school, musked carnation – or Marions Nous, which brings to mind Catherine Deneuve’s collection of bridal attic skeletons in Tony Scott’s The Hunger, crumbling like sand in their coffins yet still crying out, pitifully, to be loved.
Despite this, I think I will still probably go back and explore these scents further – rather a touch of anachronicity than be bored to death by Jo Malone. And yesterday at Isetan Shinjuku, as I surveyed all the pristine and polished department shelves loaded with niche, I did take quite a liking to the Oriza L. Legrand’s most recent release – Vetiver Royal Bourbon, though the sheer concentration of nothing-to-do sales assistants hovering about my every move (I literally counted twenty three of them to about six customers in that relatively small perfume hall – a space say twice as big as Liberty London and no more – a ratio that makes me start to contract inwardly with irritation when I am there to explore) dissuaded me from lingering there too long. I stayed long enough to know that this is my kind of scent though – my kind of vetiver, and I have not got any such creations in my collection at the moment. My New Orleans vetiver from last year I used up in no time; my reformulated Guerlain just doesn’t cut it (how I long to find a vintage bottle somewhere of Guerlain’s original Vetiver, god it was great – so deep, and smoky and endless and the new version just doesn’t deliver the pleasure), and as I have written before, I am not into these ‘refined’, purified, sinew- synthetic vetivers of the Frederic Malle Vetiver Extraordinaire model: they are too clean, and perfect, and overly persistent. Royal Bourbon was clearly a classical vetivert: natural, earthy, grassy and green, citric and bracingly herbaceous, but also with some curious twists up top like additions of thyme, mint, orris and juniper to give the blend a touch of audacity. Although I don’t wear vetiver in winter ( I have shocked myself recently at quite how traditionally, seasonally-inclined I am when it comes to perfumery – in August, smelling my vanillas and orientals I swore that I could never wear such perfumes again they seemed so sickly yet now they are all that I want), but I can definitely imagine getting this come May or June. For me, this strikes me as having just the right balance. Classic, and based on a certain tradition of quality, yet not at all fusty or mired in the past.