Japan is justifiably famed as an ingenious imitator of other cultures’ inventions, while usually adding that perceptibly nipponesque something to the mix to makes them its own – tucked guilelessly under powdered kimono sleeves.
In terms of fragrance, Shiseido, perhaps the most famous cosmetic company here, has a domestic perfume range that is somewhat run-of-the-mill and prestige-free for most Japanese women (while remaining unattainably exotic for some perfumistas overseas), comprised of mainly elegant, if unexciting, japonified versions of western classics: Murasaki (a green iris clearly based on N°19), Koto (any fresh floral 70’s chypre), Concerto (Patou 1000), Memoire (a whiff of L’Interdit) and More (a copy of Nº 5 or Detchema.)
Inouï, though, which presciently signifies ‘extraordinary’ or ‘unprecedented’ in French, seems on this one occasion to have pipped its jealous Paris to the post and been a very clever innovator. A fantastic, green-balsamic chypre that predated Lancôme’s Magie Noire (another masterpiece of this genre) by two years, its reputation in some quarters as ‘the perfect chypre’, which I cannot dispute, has allowed its cachet to grow to the extent that a bottle of this perfume will now regularly go for $1500 at perfume specialists and internet auctions (and aside one tiny mini, it has tellingly never come up at the fleamarkets either….)
Like many, I myself had also only read about this perfume and had assumed that I would never get to smell it, but then was lucky one day to have access to an intact version when a Japanese dressmaker friend of mine happened to go back to her parents’ house one weekend in Kamakura and retrieved an old bottle of the Inoui eau de parfum that she had hidden away, long ago, somewhere in her bedroom closet (she had got rid of it when the boyfriend who had given it to her twenty years ago suddenly finished with her…the scent was still too much of a painful reminder and she had no plans on wearing it any more, holding onto her bottle now more as an investment for the future). Despite this, she generously let me borrow the bottle for a whole weekend.
This really is a compelling and delightful perfume. While the forested, chypre-animalic finish of the scent, played out with a dry, resinous blend of oakmoss, myrrh, cedar, civet and musk, with evergreen tonalities of juniper, thyme and pine needles, is slightly reminiscent of Lancôme’s finest black magic hour (but without all the patchouli), the top notes of Inouï are a different affair altogether: a peerlessly crafted, assured, and very upliftingly green accord of galbanum, lemon, peach and raspberry-breathed freesia that reminds one a little, just briefly, of the dewily sylvan opening of vintage Y (Yves Saint Laurent).
Elegant and mysterious, the final result on the skin, lingering and insistent, is confident, sexy, and inscrutable, with none of the red-nailed and gold more obvious vampishness of other perfumes in the category. It is perfect.