Ah, to be on Spring break…..
Ah, to be on Spring break…..
BUT IT SMELLED TOO CRAP TO BUY
I find wearing Ô de Lancome almost unbearably nostalgic.
This is one of those perfumes that is indivisible from my own life and my family; the walls of our old house in Olton, Solihull. My mother used it, my sister had her own bottles kept proudly on a glass shelf as a pre-teen child, and I would wear it also, sometimes, the scent so appealing with its poignant optimism of late spring and summer; its cool sanctuary of lemon and lemon leaves, petitgrain and orange, and white shaded groves of honeysuckle and jasmine flowers that breathe tangibly – but just indistinct enough – to pluck. Snoozing on the grass, lost in blissfully shallow summer dreams, dusk would gently then approach, and with it, late light sleep in cold white sheets, and that familiarly reassuring, softer, darker and more tenebrous, basil-vetiver finish.
I have referenced this perfume before, in relation to Lancome’s Trophée and another, quite similar citrus scent – the vanished Quiproquo by Grès (also by perfumer Robert Gonnon). They share the same refreshing lemon green leaf top notes and the effortless, balanced finesse. But only Ô de Lancome has that soft, panoramic serenity that seems to contain every aspect of summer, from the joy of intense sunlight as you run and tumble on the flower-edged garden lawns, to the moist, whispering secrets of the darkness of plants when you hide, oblivious and excited, among their leaves. The comfort of cotton blankets as the sun is going down; and the inherent, unavoidable dread that it is all, all of it, going to pass.
A few moments ago I went out to the local shops to get some things for a late breakfast. Unthinkingly I picked out something fresh from the cologne section of my perfume collection (kept downstairs for last-minute ease), sprayed it on the back of my hands, and went on my way out the door. The sensations that this vintage Ô de Lancome – which I have not worn for a very long time – then provoked in me were astonishing: pure emotion and a flood of memories, but not just photographic snapshots of particular parts of our old house and our old childhood bedrooms, but more like complete immersion in them. I could see my younger sister’s dresser and her incipient perfume collection; feel the light in the garden from my parents’ room at the back, the flickering shadows of the white on the walls like trespassing on my own past.
They live in a different house now, a much nicer one. Lighter, more spacious, more dreamy, more tranquil. And with a much, much bigger garden (my mother’s pride and joy). We all enjoy gathering there – it’s a place that you can sprawl, relax, and forget some of the darker times we had at Dovehouse Lane. But that old house from my childhood is still the place I dream about: in my subconscious it’s the place I always go back to, never the new place. And though in the physical, corporal sense I know that I can never return there – and wouldn’t necessarily even want to – I also realize that now, in a different, more profound and spiritual, almost metaphysical olfactory sense, I can.
D’Angelo concert at Yokohama Intercontinental Pacifico tonight.
On Duncan: the virile, stretched out funk of Czech & Speake’s Cuba.
On me : Narcisse Noir Cologne + extrait.
Black Messiah : : : : BlackNarcissus.
My parents in Venice, 1965.
A prunish, stern enigma, Parure sings solitary in the vast Guerlain pantheon as the lone, patchouli chypre. Almost shrewish in her isolation – all saturnine, Mitsouko moss and spiced narcissus, lilac, and crumbling,fusted roses; cypress, styrax and bitter green clary sage wrapped sagely in leather – the deep, plum-rich, savoir faire of this full-bodied and very cultivated perfume is rapt, stately, and simultaneously held tight. While almost dark and gloomy, even foresty and witch-like when viewed from some angles (particularly for a Guerlain, usually the house of more simple and immediate sensualities), this curiously beautiful, but slightly passive-aggressive, perfume nevertheless has a great deal of elegance and detachment. There is a dignity here, a plushness. Parure, never quite ahead enough of her times and secretly lost in romantic daydreams of the past, holds back initially, as she conceitedly displays her conspicuously fine-bred taste that keeps you at a comfortable, amethyst-brooch-clasped distance; but then, once warmed through, lets fly those romantic notions – tender, firm, and gravely sensual – that you can tell have always been embedded at the centre of her being. While the reformulated eau de toilette I have in my collection somehow fails to completely make its ingredients gel in perfect fruition – it is not bad but a touch humourless and dank – the miniature vintage 1ml parfum I once had (found tossed in a box at the Tokyo fleamarket) was a lilting, damascene elixir of deep set roses, patchouli and liquorous, woodland plum that concisely encapsulated the theme set by the perfume’s name – Parure : meaning jewel.
For me there was always something quite nineteenth-century about this creation: all bustles, cloaks, and fine, thickly upholstered fabric. And perhaps this is not a coincidence. The perfume’s creator, Jean Paul Guerlain, was consciously revisiting, when making Parure, the classic Mitsouko template (created back in 1918 by his father, Jacques), substituting plum for peach, and a more difficult, guarded heart, but still created quite nostalgically with the same inimitable aura of Parisian refinement. Thus inspired by and created for his mother – Madame Guerlain – who would actually have lived through that era, his ‘new’ Guerlain chypre perfume, though clearly also influenced by other contemporary patchouli-centred creations of the period including Aromatics Elixir and Givenchy III, nevertheless seems to share none of their interests or 1970’s preoccupations. Instead, Parure remains forever an outsider and from another time: the handsome but diffident, velvet-clad duchess, eyes fixed on the past, her perfume – and she would never even consider wearing anything else, not even for a moment – a very real, and quite convincing, Portrait Of A Lady.
I have just been ravished by Caravaggio.
The exhibition at the Tokyo Museum Of Western Art – Caravaggio and his friends, rivals, and enemies – featured some of the baroque painter’s most iconic images, including his Bacchus and Medusa as well as the Narcissus, a murky, shadow-filled painting you could easily get lost in, caught between reality and reflection.
But it was the above painting, Mary Magdalene In Ecstacy, that most transfixed me. A world premiere – it was only recently discovered – this strange, powerfully ambiguous painting ( which the image above does no justice to: in fact shown this picture by Duncan on the train up here it made almost no impression on me ) in actual reality had me rooted to the spot: mesmerized. I could have stood before her, drinking her in, all day.
Is this religious ecstacy? Is it sexual ecstacy? Is she near death? The expression in her eyes and on her lips in the presence of the real painting is beyond description, palpable in the hushed melee of people gathering round it, like me, in stunned contemplation. The life force present in the painting, the force of its energy, were overwhelming. It is the best painting I have ever seen.
This exhibition also took me back to my time in Rome, when I would wander aimlessly around the eternal city, stopping in a church or two to admire the Caravaggio triptychs – so perfect in their rightful context – as they also were at an exhibition of his I went to there ( almost a quarter of a century ago, now) where the lights would be turned off at intervals and his miraculous chiaroscuro effects shown to their best advantage. His world of the high and the low; of saints and sinners; of priests and angels and murderers and street prostitutes, captured exquisitely, and perpetually, in the passionate stroke of a brush.
We emerged from the exhibition, had a cake and coffee in the cafe overlooking the garden as the feelings from that painting almost resonated me to tears ( I love the ABSORPTION of such an exhibition; the transference of centuries; to think that Mary Magdalene has been in that frightening, unearthly, painfully euphoric state for four centuries already and hopefully will be for all eternity; it takes you out of yourself for a time, and lets other souls, from other times, fill you up for a moment instead. Purification. A catharsis) but outside, on sale along with the usual memorabilia, along with an array of all things Italian – wine, olive oil, artisanal crafts and objets d’art ( this exhibition was held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Italy and Japan ( and the Japanese are total Italophiles : I usually go to the packed out Italian film festival in Ginza every year )), was a selection of perfumes ( really room fragrances, though most of them are so good you could wear them as perfumes ) by Dr Vranjes di Firenze, a Florentine purveyor of fine fragrance who has a huge range of perfumes of every olfactory style, from airy and refreshing ( I have also enjoyed the atypically natural smelling Acqua and Aria ), hale and herbaceous – I once had a bottle of Timo Lavanda – a thyme scent I really enjoyed. – through oriental ( the delicious Mandarino Vaniglia ) and the subtly sense- inviting wild fig perfume Fico Selvatico, pictured above .
Only Rosso Nobile, though, the quintessential Dr Vranjes perfume and the most popular, seemed to have a vague olfactory connection to the paintings of Michelangelo Caravaggio: like his flushed, sensual Bacchus slyly holding his glass of vino rosso, this scent is rich, drenched in wine grapes, and like everything else at this exhibition, made me just yearn to jump on a plane back to Rome.
Looking through my archives I realize that I have virtually nothing written on amber. This is strange, since theoretically, as a lover or orientals and heavy, decadent perfumes such as Bal A Versailles, there should be more. In reality, though I love an ambered finish to a scent, be it Parfum d’Hermes, Guerlain’s Heritage EDP, or the spectacular drydown of Metalys/Metallica (exactly my kind of subtle, ambered texture once the carnations have vanished); L’Artisan Parfumeur’s L’Eau Du Navigateur – all diaphanous incense, coffee and sand-kissed amber fade-down , or the strange cassis-ambered conclusion of Caron’s under appreciated Montaigne, an unalloyed, pure, heaving amber often suffocates me, as though I were being dragged down, silk-gagged, in a heavy, camel- hair coat (with a dense, cashmere lining), on a humid and sweltering August afternoon.
Don’t get me wrong. I see an amber, I smell it. Such perfumes luxuriate in their sweet thickness and westerner-alluring orientalism. They glow with deep smell and the prospect of aggressive blankets of sillage that sink on air and stay richly in the brain. I gravitate towards these perfumes, in many ways, and sometimes briefly consider buying them, but virtually never then end up reaching for my wallet. Ultimately it can often seem to me as if the thickest and richest ambers own and then work you, as though you had been tantalized by, but were then drowning in, a giant, bristling vat of overcooked, throat-stopping toffee.
The prototype of the classical amber scent for me is probably Jean Claude Ellena’s L’Eau d’Ambre by L’Artisan Parfumeur, ground zero of the pure amber perfume, just labdanum, patchouli, some rose, and probably some vanilla, but it doesn’t matter because all you get is that caramellized, sweet insistent ambered smell that is so French (the popular Reminiscence Paris Ambre also smells quite similar). In a sense this, and its more robust younger sibling, Ambre Extrême, are the sina qua non of classical ambers, clinging like velvet – autumnal, even melancholic – but even though I can imagine the odd spritz here or there on a cold winter’s day there is something, still, at the heart of this formula, that slightly repels me. As I wrote in my review of Parfumerie Generale’s Ombre Fauve (an unclean, animalic amber), there is still that dirty, unmade bed aspect of encroaching mental illness in L’Eau de l’Ambre – of unwashed hair, of a certain musked obsessiveness – that makes me yearn for open windows.
Ambre Sultan: When the first Serge Lutens perfumes came out at the beginning of the 1990’s they were iconic. Unprecedented. Fiercely strong, crafted with integrity and self-excitement, these perfumes seemed to open up new possibilities in what fragrance could be (and we didn’t even have the word ‘niche’ to categorize the perfumes then – they were just new). And although Ambre Sultan perturbed me at the time with its sheer potency and by these exotic and unfamiliar accords I had never before experienced (not only the impressively voluptuous amber, vanilla and resins themselves but also the peculiar bay leaf, myrtle, and oregano spice market swirl of the top notes, most odd), I enjoyed wearing the samples and could dream of a more exciting perfumed future. It lingered, it professed, it was Ambre Sultan, now an oriental legend. Fast forward a decade or so, though, and the bottle I then got as a Christmas present that year was a pale shadow of its former self (as are most of the Serge Lutens now in my opinion). It was alright, and it still had the evocative, dusty herbs at the spice souk aspect that made it so distinctive, but the base was no way near as impressive, and now more generically wan and vanillic. I used up my bottle, of course, and enjoyed it mixed with other things when the occasion was right, but in truth it was never a perfect match for me anyway, and I certainly wouldn’t invest in another.
While I have long enjoyed wearing Calvin Klein’s Obsession (another amber perfume and my first ever perfume love) as well as Cartier Must Parfum – amber, vanilla, florals, and an unusual top note of green galbanum- together with L’Othantique’s ghostly, powdery Fleurs D’Ambre, other ambers I have tried on occasion in my rich, ludicrously perfumed life include Ambre Fetiche by Annick Goutal (ok, but too angled, rasping and smoky for me personally), and Ambre Precieux by Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier, which I consider perfect – a very beautifully austere, deep and shadowy ambered perfume that has a gentlemantly dignity about it that I am not quite sure I can carry off convincingly but which I can imagine falling in love with on another person. If I were wearing Ambre Precieux myself I think I might keep making too many jokes in whoever’s presence I happened to be just to introduce a light touch of offsetting levity. Or else I might just get depressed. It is beautiful, but for an amber, this perfume has a surprisingly high level of gravitas.
In contrast, I have no time really for the fancy boutique hotel lobby ‘luxurious’ brand ambers such as Tom Ford Amber Absolute (solid and good but overwhelming; the recent Rive D’Ambre precisely the opposite, making so little impression on my consciousness that I couldn’t recall it at all, just a few minutes of deeply inhaling it), or the ritzy metallic slick of a perfume like Dior’s overly style-prescribed Ambre Nuit – the perfect example of an overloaded niche level perfume that is just too much bother and contains little beauty, in my view, although I have lingered several times in the past over Parfums D’Empire’s sturdy and convincing Ambre Russe, partly because I do have an attraction to all things Russian, but mostly because I like the no nonsense style of perfumer Marc-Antoine Corticchiato who usually creates quite unpretentious but full, bodied, upliftingly rich perfumes that quite simply please the senses. While I had considered buying this gilded, glinting perfume for its punchy, masculine blast of ambered richness, I was always slightly troubled by a certain saltiness, the champagne and vodka notes in the top notes of the perfume that remind me, now, of the horrifying Womanity by Thierry Mugler, possibly not only the worst perfume I have ever smelled in my life, but also the worst olfactory experience (I once had the misfortune to be on a plane on my way from Japan back to England near a woman who had just drenched herself in this fig, metal, vodka, and caviar monstrosity at Duty Free, while then quite openly proceeding to change her baby’s diapers – who seemed to have come down with a case of gastro enteritis -just a little way down the aisle from where I was sitting (yes, actually in her seat). I can tell you quite bluntly this was an olfactory combination that I never want to re-experience: I was shouting and becoming unruly, thrashing about in my seat -we were in ‘fasten your seatbelt mode’ at the time – in nasal and mental pain as the combined miasma of smells assailed me, deeply embarrassing Duncan who couldn’t believe my crazed reaction and was trying desperately to shut me up). In reality there are no similarities between Ambre Russe – an amber perfume I respect – and the chemical, piscine foulness of the Mugler – but somehow in my smell brain some notes have now become inextricably interlinked after this scent trauma, so I suppose that does mean dosvidaniya.
To expand on the ambers in this impulsively written piece I have just been looking through my perfumed drawers of samples looking for Mona Di Orio’s Ambre, which I remember being typically different and rebellious (she always revised the templates of any given perfume category): light, and emotionally relevant, but I can’t find it – please remind me of its character if you do know this one. Instead, I came across a vial of Guerlain’s Bois D’Armenie which I consider to be an amber – balsamic, resinous, quite dirty yet dark and soft and mysterious, not as sharp as Tonka Imperiale from the same Les Matieres collection ( also a rich and glinting amber I once had a bottle of), as well as Armani Prive’s Ambre d’Orient, a straight-down-the-line rich, middle Eastern amber a la Ambre Sultan but less eccentric, more….. Armani. Effective though – it delivers the goods, stays beautifully on the skin, and I can imagine wearing it one day in combination with something else if the right mood – extrovert, sociable, big-hearted, I will envelop you- suddenly catches me.
Speaking of which, I have, actually, been wearing, rather than just pontificating on, an amber these last couple of weeks, the most recent release of all the perfumes here. While you wouldn’t catch me dead in a chemically purified ‘amber’ of the Prada variety, this new scent – Amber Molecule, by a perfumer I had never heard of before until I received a sample bottle in the post- is smooth and ambered but full of light. A dose of ‘vanilla musk’ and ‘French powder’ combine with floral tones (tuberose absolute and orris) and lift the ambered notes up top, while as the perfume settles, it has the familiarly oriental, ambered facets that amber lovers love while managing to hover just above the curve of the skin without asphyxiating it. The problem I think for me with heavily concentrated classic ambers is the fact of constant awareness. Although I like to be conscious of the scent I am projecting – because perfume is ultimately more about personal pleasure than anything else – at the same time I like for that knowing to sometimes fade into oblivion and then for the sentience of the perfume to unexpectedly resurface at differing points during the day – an mmmmmm I am loving myself in this, I wonder if anyone else is: for the scent to then disappear, intermittently, as I think about other things happening within and without me as I get on with whatever I am doing. With the relentless, clobbering caramel of an overly persistent amber you don’t get this – for me it starts to feel like something of a liability. An intrusion. And while Amber Molecule might not hit all my buttons completely (perhaps it is a little bit sweet ; shallow?) it nevertheless, in a most pleasant manner, at least allows the light-headed, ambery goodness working its magic on your skin and encircling you – soft, uninhibited, approachable, sensual – to properly breathe.