Spotting a bottle of Le Feu D’Issey last week sat unobtrusively on the shelf at a closing down sale in a shop in Kamakura, I remembered that it has become a cult collector’s item since its discontinuation and now goes for $300-400 on eBay. At $17 dollars I thought it was a steal.
Part of the scent’s legendary status, now of course, is the fact that is has had the stamp of approval by Luca Turin, who has this to say :
“The surprise effect of Le Feu D’Issey is total. Smelling it is like pressing the play button on a frantic video clip of unconnected objects that fly past one’s nose at warp speed: fresh baguette, lime peel, clean wet linen, shower soap, hot stone, salty skin, even a fleeting touch of vitamin B pill, and no doubt a few other UFOS that this reviewer failed to catch the first few times. Whoever did this has that rarest of qualities in perfumery, a sense of humour. Bravo to those who did not recoil in horror at something so original and agreed to bottle it and sell it, but shame also, since they lost their nerve and discontinued it before it caught on. Whether you wear it or not, if you can find it, it should be in your collection as a reminder that perfume is, among other things, the most portable form of intelligence”.
I don’t personally find the scent intellectual as such, but the beginning (coriander, mahogany, anise, bergamot, sichuan pepper and raw coconut milk) is certainly odd, and D, as my guinea pig, was a little uneased by this top accord when I sprayed it on his arm sitting down in an empty Chinese restaurant (‘what is it supposed to be? a tit?’ he said with uncharacteristic vulgarity when taking the bottle out from the box). However, within minutes we were both quite warming to it, particularly when the restaurant itself became much warmer: we were discussing yet again the other day the issue of windows in the pandemic, and one uninteresting thing for you but completely vital thing for me is the issue of heating and cooling here; as the ultimate service culture, things must always be just one step beyond the call of duty, so that if the temperature drops a little then the heating comes on, and vice versa: it was a lovely spring day with a chill in the shadows that decisively did not merit putting the air conditioning on. I could have cried with despair when we first sat down in the cavernous restaurant down Kamakura’s main boulevard and felt the synthetic cold breeze. Asking the waiter if he could turn it off in our area, he then proceeded, naturally, to switch it from ice to fire (26º on air con is so different to 26º on heat even though they are theoretically the same): with the spicy dishes replete with chilli oil we were soon burning up. On the skin, at this point however, Le Feu was starting to smell quite stunning on the D, the woody guaiac and cedar/rose sandalwood vanilla not a thousand miles from the likes of Féminité Du Bois and Eau de Dolce Vita (by the same perfumer); sweet enough to be considered feminine, but deep, épicé and red enough for anyone.
Mark Behnke at Colognoisseur has written a fascinating piece on why he believes that Le Feu D’Issey was a colossal commercial failure. Namely, that it was ahead of its time, and that like the director Michael Cimino and the Deerhunter being given complete creative freedom for his legendary follow-up flop Heaven’s Gate, perfumer Jacques Cavallier committed the cardinal sin of going too far. Too experimental (should he have given the idea instead to Comme Des Garçons? This would surely have fit perfectly into their edgier oeuvre and with its sulphurous mandarin hot spring aroma would probably still be going strong with the Tokyo crowd and beyond as once it settles into the skin it feels memorably right). A perfume you could almost fall in love to, at the time it nevertheless wasn’t quite what the public were expecting.
What they were expecting was probably something along the lines of the ultra-successful, and phenomenally innovative, L’Eau D’Issey, a perfume I personally detest. Once I was standing in an airport duty free area wasting some time before boarding a London/Tokyo flight. I was suddenly and unexpectedly rinsed in salty citric raw oyster juice when an oblivious passenger started spraying a tester of Issey Bloody Miyake over herself with the nozzle in the wrong place, instead coating me in nauseating tiny droplets of chemical ‘water’. I could have killed her. My flight was subsequently an abomination as the ‘lotus’ and ozone and ‘melon’ had got all over my clothes ( I was standing right next to her), ruining whatever I had chosen carefully beforehand to make the long haul as comfortable as possible. I never liked this scent, even when fully conscious of its total shock of the new: My friend Ally wore L’Eau D’Issey when it first came out and we were all living together in North London post-university, and although it felt razor-fresh and ‘clean’, lacerating all perfumery that had come before it with its lancing florals and artificial zen, I far preferred her in another aquatic she also wore, L’Eau Par Kenzo, which suited her more gently and succinctly (but then again, I am more of a Kenzo boy all round).
The pour Homme version, a potent ozonic ginger/yuzu that came out a few years later, again masterfully original, and also extremely popular, I have a vendetta against for other reasons aside the fact that I feel it has no place being on human skin. I hesitate to mention this but Issey Miyake was the scent that D’s Norwegian lover wore when I first came to Japan in 1996 and 1997 when I was was being all hurtfully ‘let’s play it by ear’ and confused by what I wanted. You don’t piss around with D, and when, understandably, theory became practice, on his part, left alone in London by me suddenly flying off to the other side of the world, here at the top of the hill, I was insanely jealous and was taught a lesson I will never forget.
In the intervening years, although I have been to the Issey Miyake Pleats Please store a couple of times in Aoyama, Tokyo, on the way to Prada or CdG, or Kenzo, I have never really had much thought about this house in truth: Le Feu d’Issey is the first scent from Miyake I have ever bought. I am pretty sure it will get used as well: D really likes the middle section – on him it smells benevolently fiery and suitable. Quite smart, if possibly, when all is said and done, a little sweet. In general, though, I have to say am not drawn to the house, while still admiring its founder’s originality and artistry, in textiles and geometry, in resourcing new materials such as suits made of paper: a situation that is not likely to change with the latest fragrance addition to the line, A Drop D’Issey, which continues the sensation of whiteness and purity long associated with Miyake, but with an almost castigating wholesomeness and prettiness that I would definitely appreciate on others, male or female (a beautiful almond milk/ lilac sheer floral with a well-equilibrated internal harmony); but which I know would never work on me personally, not even sprayed on a T-shirt.