When we made our first excited forays onto the streets of Berlin ten years ago this summer, Duncan and I made our way, one rambling evening, to the cafe in Schoenberg where David Bowie and Iggy Pop were said to have spent their days plotting and scheming and smoking and just absconding, for a while, from the rock world of England and America. It was now just a standard place to get a drink, cosy with wide windows, comfortable cushions, and nice views of the road outside and the park across the way, a relaxing eatery, but just knowing that this was once the location where Bowie would hang out when he was here during the dark days of gloom and the continuing existence of the Berlin wall – visible from the Hansa recording studios where he made his masterpieces with Brian Eno during the ice and fog and the depths of the Cold War – was exciting: his ‘Berlin Period’, comprising the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger – all snarling funk, menacing, misery-laden electronica, desolate instrumentals and genuinely interesting experimentation as he struggled with cocaine addiction and the fall out of fame, one of my favourites of his oeuvre: legendary. It is natural, then, that the great changeling and chameleonic innovator should now be synonymous in some people’s minds with the great mysterious and energizing city that is Berlin itself: a place that when we visited that first, delirious and heady summer, when we felt we were rediscovering ourselves, and found an ally: an edgy, conflicted city, fractured down the middle into East and West (a palpable, difference that is intriguing and aesthetically stimulating); a place laden with history and darkness but also thriving, creative, fun, and genuinely artistic, that was like an exhilarating injection of amphetamine in the arm. We loved the feel of it immediately and felt at home.
Parfumerie Vilhelm, a newish niche house from Paris that has poppy and upbeat titles in its collection (Darling Nikki, Morning Chess, A Lilac A Day, Modest Mimosa) has now released Poets Of Berlin, a fragrance that supposedly represents some of the Berlinesque current running through the liquid of its veins and which also explicitly references David Bowie, and his series of brilliant albums made there, as direct influences:
“Named for David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, Poets of Berlin is a subtly sugary confection of blueberry and lemon. But Poets of Berlin isn’t just empty calories: its vetiver undercurrent makes it the perfect perfume metaphor for the serious talent underneath Bowie’s glittery glam.”
Now, David Bowie was no idiot. In fact he was something of a genius. A genuine iconoclast and intuitive musician who spent his artistic public entire life in a constant process of reinvention; cutting himself off dead from his past entities, no matter how popular; attuned to everything related to his image and its effect; an artist who was hyperaware of everything ( I would imagine even smell and perfume too………. ), and I can tell you, that if he were to smell this affront to his memory, right now, I am sure that he would be spinning (or snarling ferociously) in his grave. Because although I am not an out and out Bowie Worshipper – I have plenty of friends that are though – his music has still given me an extreme amount of pleasure during my lifetime, and I do really think that if you are going to make a perfume that purportedly is directly inspired by the great man and his reputation in the city that he lived in, it had better not just be some thick, sweet, and sickly cheap smiling concoction that smells exactly like every other candy floss floriental on the market – Marc Jacobs ‘Decadence’ I am looking at you – (and in truth smells closer to an international airport restroom), with a bogus concept – the simplistic contrasting of blueberry vanilla with vetiver – just obviously placed on the label completely after the fact. Because the fact is that this perfume, quite simply, is an insult. The supposed ‘vetiver’ that allegedly runs under the ‘glittery glam’ (what?) of Bowie’s imagined shallow and empty pop exterior and represents ‘gravity’; the bogus vanilla that runs through the tacky base, which smells actually more like a Club Med poolside orgy with the local beachbums and sunburnt lager louts as cleavages are flashed drunkely in the moonlight than anything involving the real muse; the tagged on and to me cynical ‘poetical’ idea of this perfume – “hey, let’s link this with David Bowie!” – striking me as the most contrived and vacuous PR spin I have possibly ever encountered. The man would be fuming. Or grinning, and smoking, mystically. With a wolf’s glint in his bi-coloured eyes. Laughing at you and your silly, misguided commercialism. Or more probably, would simply come up with a brilliant, caustic and scathing song about it. That I would buy the 12″ mix of. Because, although not entirely disastrous in terms of olfactory makeup – the blueberry note is not so bad, even though it was nailed long ago far better in Britney Spear’s blueberry ur perfume Midnight Fantasy- it is disastrous in terms of its totally fucked up name and mindless, unthinking thoughtlessness. This perfume, I must categorically argue, is not the Poets Of Berlin.
Gallivant’s more strenuously subtle perfume, ‘Berlin’ comes a bit closer, for me at least, to the place that I have personally experienced and lived in on a number of occasions: a damaged place in many ways, but also a European centre of rebirth, creativity, and with its eye on the future. A clear, unisex, zesty composition based on grapefruit, schinus molle (a kind of conifer) and black pepper over a lightly woody black tea and patchouli, this is an energising, unthreatening, no-nonsense – an attribute I associate with many German people that I know – modern day scent that has a spring in its step (this does smell very urban); the newest trainers on the asphalt, fresh morning clothes; a self-assured keenness that is pleasant and attractive, sly sexy, and gently optimistic. Nothing to scream home about, necessarily, but well-blended, well-conceived, and a scent you would gladly be sat next to on a person riding the all night train system; beer in hand (god the beer in Berlin….it spoiled me forever; nothing has ever tasted good again since, seriously – we loved it); some clubber or other out for another fantastic night in one of the underground clubs there (now that is the smell of Berlin: the sweat smell of natural body odour and t-shirts on the dance floor; of horny young people living for the moment and the collectivity the city seems to inspire); or the aroma of the delicious and ubiquitous Turkish kebabs that we devoured hungrily on our way home practically every other night as we returned to our quarters ; the strong smell of German coffee, and hard black bread, drunk at dawn; the invisible scent of the Altbau stone edifices, and their cooling, yet cosy interiors; sekt; the grass and the elegant fountains of the outstretching parks. No. Perhaps cities, and people, especially, sometimes, are just too complicated, interesting, inspiring, to be ‘encapsulated’ in olfactory confections (especially if you don’t really even make the effort). Perhaps it is their uniqueness, the indefinable – felt emotionally, breathed in through the body in these places – but not tangible, that makes their ‘pinning down’ in perfumery essentially pointless, quite a lot of the time, or at the very least, in the case of the most complex and inspiring of beings, unattainable.
17 responses to “BERLIN by GALLIVANT (2017)+ POETS OF BERLIN by VILHELM PARFUMERIE (2018)”
‘I wish the goblins would take it away – right now!’ It sounds dreadful, thank you for the warning. Warszawa is a much better perfume with a nod to Bowie, though doesn’t conjure him. Doesn’t Creed put it about that he wore Silver Mountain Water?
I’ve only tried Amsterdam of the Gallivant line and was disappointed because I love the city. There’s a weedy, cucumbery note which pops up doing duty for ‘green’ in a lit of modern niche (Beaufort, Zoologist etc) and I really dislike.
Yes, I call that the ‘endocrine’ note, a sort of metallic sweat
On Warszawa, I thought that was quite good (and made the immediate connection with the Low album), though I don’t think that perfume was really intended to be a Bowie tribute in any way – more a nod to old time sophistication. What bothers me so much about this release is its sheer laziness: it is literally just yet another sweet sickly thing you have smelled a million times before, with a 275 dollar unmerited price tag, and it couldn’t be less like the Berlin era Bowie atmosphere if it tried. If they called it ‘unconscious party drunkard in a yellow and purple dress’ it might have been more palatable.
Heh. The Bowie song was cited in the publicity for Warszawa ( eg https://www.fragrantica.com/news/Puredistance-Warszawa-The-First-Perfume-Dedicated-to-the-Polish-Capital-8960.html ) but maybe mainly a useful attention-getter.
I read your linked Bowie article, which I’d missed before – the Life on Mars video is wonderful, isn’t it? I think I need to watch it again today.
The song is just so wonderful and then you get him looking like…..that. It is just so inspiring and brilliant.
I had missed the Puredistance references to the Bowie song actually – thanks for the link. Side two of the Low album is SO miserable and dark – I adore it on hopeless rainy days. I think any perfume that genuinely wants to be reminiscent of that era of Bowie needs to address all of this and create something depressing. I think melancholy, mood depthening perfumes are actually underrated. Sometimes they are just what you want (or what I want, anyway). Sometimes I say hurrah for solemnity and the grave.
Thank you for these words! Hopefully Bowie can stop rolling in his grave now! How I loved him – and that whole era… Nihilistic as it was. There was something fun and early romantic about going to those places and moods with him.
But not ‘fun’ in the way they intend it here…as in ‘glitzy glam’ and all that glitter, which I think is completely and utterly wrong for this particular era of Bowie (or any era of Bowie really). You want something lithe, suave, light, intelligent, androgynous, daring in a scent. Not just a block of sweet and sickly aroma chemicals.
totally agree. And so well said!
Blueberry, lemon, vetiver? None of that is Berlin. What absolute bullshit!
Berlin as you described it 10 years ago, is still there: edgy, cosmopolitan, dreck&glam, high culture galore, snotty, expansive, and so anything-goes queer over-the-top that most visitors would just gasp in disbelieve if they just looked. Yes, like Amsterdam and Barcelona, there are billions of tourists traipsing through the town clutching a latte soya to-go. Still: Blueberry, lemon—
Honestly: I realise that this review was a bit over the top, but it truly did make me indignant. If you smell this you will know exactly what I mean. It’s not even INTERESTING blueberry and lemon! And to link that to the city and Bowie! I had to say something.
I like to have my own associations: that makes a scent more mysterious and volatile and up close personal, like bespoke garments.
When I put on perfume, I like to discover and not to have my route mapped out for me in the naming.
I love names like L’heure bleue for exemple because it beckons to delights in store; it does not define. Vive la liberte!
Goede nacht uit Amsterdam
Good night from Amsterdam
A city I also find extraordinarily beautiful.
Yes. And just one night or day of L’Heure Bleue in any city would cement that place in your heart forever.