Monthly Archives: October 2016


The Black Narcissus


I sometimes find myself craving a particular scent, completely out of the blue. Then, to my amazement, stumble upon the very same perfume almost directly afterwards, for a song, at vastly reduced price in a Japanese ‘recycle’ emporium, almost as though I had been directly wishing it into existence. Or else, as if the scent, abandoned and unwanted by its first owner, were already there, waiting impatiently on the shelf, and knowing I want it, that I need it, it calls to me. This is a delightful phenomenon that magically happened to me again recently as the words ‘Diptyque L’Eau’ popped into my mind out of nowhere, my nose brain suddenly craving the smell of cloves, rose, and cinnamon in that beautiful and precise combination that was achieved in Diptyque’s first scent from 1968, but, which, reaching for my bottle from my shelf that day, I found to my…

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Warm.       Intimate.      Tender.


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But don’t look now………: HABIT ROUGE by GUERLAIN (1965)




Habit Rouge, in my humble view, is one of the most unique and troubling scents of all time. It is one I own but find essentially unwearable   – I use it instead to scent red velvet curtains and the like, once basing a whole party in Tokyo on this theme: all the scarlet velours banquettes sprayed copiously with this decadent and headily enigmatic smell, the guests all clad in dress code red…






A curiously ghostly creation, despite its supposedly manly credentials, this perfume, for me, is rather more like a melancholy, powdered octogenarian traipsing confusedly and crimsonly about his old mansion, down whispering, cobwebbed corridors; in long silk dressing gown and softly pressing pantouffles; in the cold, and spine -tingling, dead of night.



This house is probably haunted. A headspinning, olfactive evocation of long, wintery passages;  old, stuffed, armoires; and crisp, freshly laundered sheets. But still: : : the shadows; over there…….in the corner……




Later, once this astounding and inimitable mirage (a brilliantly creative synergy formed of anti-intuitively oppositional forces of opoponax and benzoin, of orange blossom, carnation, cinnamon, versus a deliciously fresh accord of bergamot, lavender, pimento and lemon) has begun to slowly dissipate, there is then, finally,  the musky, leathery, patchouli/vanilla heart finally more in keeping with the image the name of the scent was originally supposed to evoke: a confident, and elegantly attired  monsieur and his red riding habit, galloping across the French countryside, off down the avenue of trees of lime, over fields and meadows and into the distance…..




It is all strangely beautiful. But as I say, I have always found this perfume very difficult to wear. On me, for whatever reason, it smells far too feminine; too ‘old queen in powdered wig‘ somehow: sad, plumped up and poudré (let there be no doubt that certain perfumes are slimming, while others are quite definitely fattening), even though Vol De Nuit and Shalimar are, conversely and ironically, quite the contrary: warm and enveloping, replete…..



Having said this, there will always be something about Habit Rouge that fascinates me. In my view, Jean Paul Guerlain has always been criminally underrated as a perfumer, seen as being inferior to his illustrious, Parisian forbearers. But though different in the style to the great Grand Dames perfumes of Jacques Guerlain :Mitsouko, L’Heure Bleue, Apres L’Ondee  and all the rest of those museum-ready masterpieces, the brilliantly innovative and always perfectly executed perfumes of the sixties and seventies, such as Vetiver, Habit Rouge, Parure, Chamade, Chant d’Aromes and Nahema are, in my view, quite their equals: complex, full of stories: inspired and inspiring, ambiguously intricate webs of (candle) light; of love, and darkness, and the sensuous, invisible lines of sweet, untraceable mysteries.










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The Black Narcissus




The datura flower, a ‘poisonous vespertine’, is one of nature’s very deadliest. So toxic, in spite of its undulous, alluring odour, that it has been used since antiquity to poison one’s enemies; one’s lovers’ with the most fatal, agonizing death: a psychotic madness ensues; convulsions, heart seizures, oblivion.

I took these pictures of a datura tree on Saturday night in Tokyo, lost along the streets of Ikebukuro trying to find a friend’s house whose party we had been invited to, but the Japanese address system is so hopelessly convoluted and illogical, that after an hour ( our cell phone batteries had died), we just gave up.

Still, I was curious to see those Angel’s, or Devil’s, trumpets hanging there like that at this chilly time of the year (the datura in my neighborhood, which has a bedazzling number of flowers: an obscene amount of poison, I’m pretty sure flowers in…

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Perfumer Mandy Aftel has a very unique and unusual signature. And it is often also a very carnal one. From the sex-in-vats-of-chocolate of the suggestively edible Cacao; the lust-behind-the-sand dunes nude bacchanalia of Cuir Gardenia;  the frank and beautiful filth of Aoud Luban – one of the first perfumes to almost make me blush, in truth –  to the hirsute, ungodly Kama Sutra of her disturbing and fantastical Wild Roses – a night garden of essences and physical pleasure that leaves no erotic stone unturned (yet all, cleverly concealed beneath a calm, rosaceous veneer of garden stems and rose flowers), Aftel seems to revel in antagonizing us into realizing, self-consciously, that we are all animals and beasts of the flesh, at heart.



Her scents are rarely simple. Nor, on occasion, even approachable. There is a weirdness: a sharp, tangy, bodiedness to many of her perfumes, wherein flowers and spices and all manner of olfactory materials are boiled down and blended and given a succour of intensity that while giving you a frisson of physical reaction, also can make you feel  unhinged: a whole new vocabulary of odours that provokes you into thinking and reassessing what perfume even is (I think of Tango, here, for instance: that deeply perturbing scent of roasted seashells and resins that is unlike anything ever produced in perfumery before, or since).



With Memento Mori, Aftelier’s newest (and perhaps most ‘difficult’) release yet, Mandy Aftel really cuts to the chase. While ostensibly masked, or rather preluded, with some hints of rounded, soft and musky rose accords in the opening, as though they had been stripped of all dew, and green, and leaves, to leave the fig-leafed body beneath in its natural state, this perfume goes too far for me personally in what I consider wearable, even acceptable, in a perfume. In going with the concept of capturing the smell of a lover’s skin, hair, the desire to memorialize the smell of the loved and deceased, the perfumer does quite successfully, once the composition settles in and harmonizes on the skin, definitely get close to that sensation of warm, unwashed, and I have to say dirty, human skin, of a particular human skin, and one perhaps known only to the perfumer, but the important  question is: who really who wants to smell of this skin? Is this the olfactive equivalent of The Tooth Fairy, the serial killer who dons other people’s skins in the horrifying Silence Of The Lambs? In transferring another’s epidermis to our own, like the surgeon in Pedro Almodovar’s brilliant La Piel Que Habito/ The Skin I Live in, Aftel is definitely doing something radical and along these sense-shaking lines.




Similar provocations already exist in perfumery: I think of Ombre Fauve by Parfumerie Generale and its strange, haunted smells of sexual obsession: Miller Harris’s alarming (and for me, personally disgusting) L’Air De Rien, in which the singer wanted to embody the perfume with the smell of her brother’s hair; L’Antimatière, by Les Nez, which smells, if you sniff closely enough, of the aura of unwashed sheets and faint, unclean skin, and Serge Lutens’ original, undoctored Muscs Khoublai Khan, which smelled to me quite simply just of sheep, and seminal fluid.



I suppose what is stimulating for me personally about these perfumes –  particularly Memento Mori, which goes even further than any of the scents described above in delving into sheer intimacy, is what they might say about me personally. While other reviewers talk of the snug, comforting aspect of such perfumes, of nuzzling into their humming, human embrace as the day wears on and they lose themselves in their calming, skinful realness, in my case I always find that I am basically just repulsed. Though the final notes of this particular perfume do certainly coalesce into a warm, sweet, and intense addiction (the way that real, bodily, smells are sometimes, ones you can’t stop smelling, even when you simultaneously hate them), a base accord here that is almost reminiscent, at times, of ultra-animalic perfumes such as Paco Rabanne’s iconic La Nuit, I find that such smells are, in truth, why I wear perfume – and hope that others will do too – in the first place. To me, perfume is something that combines, that fuses, with the wearer’s skin, not destroying its natural odour, the way that so many unpleasant contemporary chemical perfumes now do, but embellishing it, harmonising it, flattering it, beautifying it : in experiencing that perfume later, it is already a kind of memento mori, a way of remembering that person, even hours after you have initially encountered it. When someone is gone, and you smell the scent that they were wearing, unconsciously you smell their bodily smell along with it, it evokes their physical presence. Perfumes with animalic notes in them, in their base, are particularly adept at giving this reaction, particularly when they remain subliminal,  and not at the very fore, or core, of the fragrance.




But here, Mandy Aftel intrepidly eschews such prescribed formulae of perfume making and goes straight for the flesh-and-blood jugular. Beginning with an almost sweet, muttonish oil smell, like sweating, breathing, pecorino cheese encased in roses, soon the civet, and the ambergris, and the aged patchouli come up through the peau like the blood, sweat and tears of essence of a particular human – not one that I know – and whose intimacy I am not sure that I even want to. She/he might indeed be very tender, loving, intelligent, sensual, but having this person’s intensity of smell on my own skin feels almost like an intrusion. Memento Mori thus reveals perhaps more about my own inclinations and phobias than I would perhaps like to reveal, and it is in this regard – that a perfume can make you question your own levels of prudishiness, of fear of mingling with another, of your hatred of the smell of human hair, of your wanting the people around you to be freshly showered but still being utterly fascinated by every single smell that they give off even if they are not (am I in fact the maniac Grenouille, from Patrick Suskind’s ‘Perfume’?) that I find this curious creation most compelling.





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