Wednesday afternoon, the day before the D had to go back to work, we decided to have one last stab at Tokyo and the summer holiday before some relative seriousness takes over, and went up to Shibuya to see Bunkamura’s current Fantastic Art In Belgium exhibition.
It is always strange being thrust from the overwhelming youth fashion hub that is Shibuya – the site of the famous Hachiko crossing, the panoramic, overhead rash of neon screens all flashing together noisily and disorientatingly, insanity inflicting, in town; hordes, throngs of people all moving in all directions, the real Lost In Translation Tokyo that visitors want to lose themselves in and marvel, as they recombine themselves, at the energizing, oriental futuristic – – and then suddenly finding yourself in the dark, air-conditioned tomb of a respectable gallery, five hundred years past, underground, in the brain of Hieronymous Bosch, Reubens, Rops, Magritte, and other, morbid and otherworldly, Belgiana.
It was so cold in there that a small majority of the skinny Japanese women moving about respectfully, wide-eyed, were making use of the gallery’s brown blankets offered at the entrance of the gallery to stave off the chill. D and I were also quite cold, but I was also pleased, from the olfactory point of view, that the canvas preserving temperature had allowed me to properly enjoy my scent of the day – Shiseido’s mythical InouÏ, from 1976 – to perfection.
Leaving the house that afternoon, the air roiling and humid before a downpour, I had wondered. The civet and ambered sweet myrrh in the base of the perfume was troubling me. I have made that error a couple of times this summer, thinking that a scent choice would work because it felt right at home, forgetting that once the heat and the sweat took over it could all go disastrously wrong (animalics and my skin just don’t work very well if I get hot); but it turned out that my intuitions on that day- Inoui immediately came to my mind when I woke up that morning – I have two bottles – precious; very hard to get now – in the doleful, dolorous world of the Belgian exhibition, there was a very dark and melancholy aspect to all of the paintings running through it all despite the disparate nature of the artists in question; black swans at twilight, sad, caverous forests; Flemish landscapes silenced in hushed snow; vulnerable souls prey to satanic attentions; that my perfume, so soft, and enveloping, and mysterious – Inouï is a foresty, androgynous chypre, unusual yet familiar: with cypress fruits, pine needles, thyme and galbanum/oakmoss creating a quiet, woodland canopy to hide yourself in, reflect; while a warmer, jasmine /peach cedarwood heart make you less lonely – it felt like a soundtrack, a being.
An intriguing and perceptible presence in my own backdrop, the perfume worked quite perfectly against the sad pall of the paintings, in which demons and angels grappled with the virtues and the seven deadly sins; decadence wore masks of death, and you wondered what made Belgian, and Flemish, culture in particular, gravitate so strongly towards this crepuscular and life-snuffing melancholia. But this is what art does: it changes you, even if only momentarily, even if you don’t like it (but I did, I felt myself dropping, inexorably, into this world), so that you emerge back into the blinking sunlight of the outside, Orpheus-like, different than you were before, in a differing, darker, synapse-tweaked headspace.
Completing the long forested dreamline, Duncan was wearing Penhaligon’s beautiful Blenheim Bouquet, a perfect suffusion of lemon and coniferous notes that I love on him every time I smell it – so crisp and understated, gentlemanly, yet still up there in the peppery confines of the fir cones, when you scratch them and they exude those primeval nubs of power; of sap; of nature and life. At particular times I do love this genre of perfumery: sylvan yet urbane, the pine needle and the sweat flower; Christian Dior’s Jules has some of this quality, as does Loewe’s beautiful Esencia; perfumes that can be erotic, but that still keep something back. I was very much an admirer, back in the day, of Givenchy’s lamented original Insensé Pour Homme, which I would like to have again, and which I finally realized, after a long bout of brain inquiry, was the perfume that Inouï somewhat kept reminding me of, at least on my skin. A feminine masculine (where Inouï is a masculine feminine), Insensé, a very original composition that was just too ahead of its time, and soon failed, infused a sharp, but slightly sweet, fruity, fir-laden main heart accord with florals – jasmine being prominent – with an aromatic, solar, love-inducing dry down. Though softer, more withdrawn, and more shadowy, Inouï offers a very similar ultimate accord; somewhere in between the male and the female: a perfume of intelligence; not drowning in obviousness, gender clichés or vulgarity, but untenable, pensive: unreached.
I tend to do the olfactory in blocks. Or perhaps you might want to call it seasons, or periods, or phases – weeks where I only want vetiver or patchouli, months where I am desperate for vanilla and opoponax-laden orientals; tropical white flowers, oranges, or lemon. Right now, it is rose. Heavy, brocaded, spiced, velvet-rose-leather, ornamental chypres: grand, sensual, yet mysterious – like weighted winter curtains to shut out the cold and the outside world in a vast, rococco mansion hidden in the country.
We ventured outside today, properly, for a walk : for the first time in a week, and walked around our neighbourhood, the light exquisite and clear, the air full of clarity and the optimism of a brand new year. Call me naive, but I believe in this time. A time to just recoop and relax and regenerate……………. illness sometimes has the positive flip-side of allowing you to cocoon and shelter and not think: right now, also, we are nearing the end of Season Seven of Dynasty, having watched about 180 episodes since starting it at the beginning of 2016. We are entrenched. Of course I know that this 1980’s soap opera is laughable, ridiculous and over the top, but it is also completely mesmerizing for a myriad of reasons, dramatically; aesthetically (we watch it on DVD boxed sets, on a big screen, with a projector, and it is divine); observing the atmospheres and the fashions change, even though the characters are by and large continuously in the same place and trapped in the same entitled, and privileged, locations (though this familiarity of place is also exactly what makes it so addictive. Despite the absolute artifice, it feels real, like lived experience).
I am fascinated by witnessing, through the flamboyance of the clothes and the styles and the heavily, lacquered makeup – in particular the passionately beautiful face of Joan Collins – the real passing of time, and of the gloriously outdated (and really quite gasp-worthily grotesque and sometimes amazingly beautiful) clothes that these women wear every time that they walk into the room; dazzling; outrageous: the quintessence of late seventies, then early to late eighties fashion that is now nothing less than a joke in some quarters, but which nevertheless, for whatever reason, on me exerts a magnetic, and irresistible, grasp.
And then the perfumes. Every dressing table replete with them. De-labelled of course and carefully photographed so as not to reveal what they are, but you know just from from looking at these women that they smell amazing; strong, overpowering, but perhaps this is one of the things – all this luxe and opulence and sartorial and olfactory unafraidness – that is making me crave these particular scents, these seductive temptresses with claws. As I wrote in my piece the other day, or rather last year in fact (so glad that we have left that one behind and are starting on a new period of time, even if today, I am already harking on about the perfumes of the past, sorry), I have been smothered in all my spiced and luminous roses: Krizia Teatro Alla Scala, the original Armani (divine, and surprisingly masculine in its tranquil and elegant in its inimitable way), and I finally drained my last drops of the beautiful Nombre Noir. Oh well, I can only hope that it one day crosses my path once again. But I am always, in any case, drawn to these scents that are compacted and compressed with their multi-tiered complexities, that radiate out the way that the best perfumes should. Not just cheap, vanillic auras that promise easy sex and no secrets, but wry, enigmatic sphinxes with a hint of the inscrutable; come-ons that say yes, but which warn you, simultaneously, to keep a distance.
In my first dealings with what I call The Witchy Chypres (because they are: these scents are like sorceresses: Magie Noire, Paloma Picasso Mon Parfum, Sisley Eau Du Soir and Jean-Marc Sinan, these perfumes really are Alexis Colby Carrington at her most devilish and haughtily delicious), I describe these cool, semi-precious elixirs as being like black panthers – an animal that, as I child, I would lie in bed and fantasize over and over again that I could just turn into, at will, and then transform, at my whim, into a great soaring bird that could escape any danger or threat and just disappear out the window and into the night.
Today’s perfumes, which I believe still fit into this category of dark, alluring, lip-glossed magicians, are perhaps more lithe and cryptically veiled in the concern of their own elegance; less sly ‘man hunter’, more held together, solitary; a preoccupation with the day and its intricacies, but not necessarily with the eyes that are inevitably cast upon.
Coriandre, for instance, which I have in vintage parfum (current formulations of the edt are said to be wan and uninteresting) strikes me as having quite a lot of similarities with the great 1000 by Patou, which I am still to review ( well in fact I have, somewhere, a maniacally detailed account of the pleasures of opening the original parfum in its beautiful, beautiful boxes and flacon, and then applying the scent, but I lost the papers that I wrote it on, something that has happened quite frequently, in fact) – but in any case both of these cultivatedly high class fragrances are focuses on roses, violet, and patchouli and a magnanimously complex plethora of flowers and herbs and spices that support and cradle their spirits and create something beguiling and understatedly masterful. Coriandre, of course, as its name would suggest, has a noticeable green aspect in the head notes featuring angelica and coriander, though not in any overly distracting way; more as a side point to accentuate the full-bodied (but slender) form of its more sensuous, woody, base notes that on the right person, and in the right circumstances, might really be quite tempting, erotic ……………..reclining, stretched out, in a room somewhere in your imagination, in the moonlight.
Belle De Rauch is a more obscure perfume than Coriandre (De Rauch being one of those perfume houses that was popular in its day but disappeared a very long time ago), a boxed and immaculate parfum that Duncan picked up for me one day from an antiques shop in the nearby town of Zushi. Rich, oiled, but a precursor of some of the other perfumes mentioned here, this immediately struck me as being really quite ahead of its time. While pretty and ladylike aldehydes were generally the order of the day in 1966, this curious and attractive perfume, in extrait, is intense, emboldened, witchy, in its herbed and spiced roses on a bed of thick, natural Mysore sandalwood essence. It has almost feral, yet simultaneously mannered intimations, of a fierce, intelligent, and marvellous woman, self-satisfied and perfectly put together, who will take no crap from anyone: neither her husband, nor her lover.
Parfum Rare, by Jacomo, or Coeur de Parfum, as it was also known in its original form of release from 1985 – the perfume was later tweaked a little and released in 1987 as Parfum Rare – is another hard to find perfume that all true lovers of deep, incense enriched roses simply need to have in their collections. In parfum, this little nugget of ancient Egyptian Cleopatras is so tightly constructed with all manner of spices and balsams and animalics, so dense with perfumed ingredients for its occultist, brooding femme fatale, that it is verging on gloomy and subterranean………sealed; doomed, even; as though you were an archaeologist stumbling upon the tombstone, and golden, glinting, cursed jewellery, of Queen Nefertiti.
Such perfumes – the witchy chypres – might seem outmoded to some people now, reaching out desperately for an overdone plenitude of intricately embellished and deepily embodied roses and dark ingredients that no longer feels du jour and instant and social media-ish and light; but this is, I think, the whole point: not every perfumed person wants to be a likeable goody goody two shoes smelling friendly, and accessible, and fabric softener trustworthy; more shampoo- fresh and wholesome than a nun or a bar of health food shop cranberry-filled granola. Some people wear their perfume more like an amulet or armour, for protection and carnal self-hypnosis………defences that can come down, certainly; but which remain, at the outset at the very least, like fortresses of rich, indefatigable glamour; of sex that you are probably never going to get; and of a bewitching interiority of dignity, aloofness, and enticement.
I love them.
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.
With powerful cat aromas circulating the house after a stray tom cat got in the house last night, I wondered what more beautiful feline perfume could possibly counteract it (at least silently, in my mind).
This heartless, but rather beautiful scent might be it.
Jean Louis Scherrer was a former ballet dancer turned Dior-trained couturier who designed fabulously expensive dresses for wives of the super-rich in the late seventies and early eighties, known especially for his lavish fur and animal prints and in the perfume world for his signature, eponymous scent – Scherrer. A dense, no-nonsense green chypre, there is something very wide eyed and cruel about this perfume, something that irks you inwardly like a cake with not quite enough sugar.
My own bottle is a vintage edition of the eau de parfum and it it occupies its own contemptuous, disdainful space. While the base of the scent is nonchalantly carnal – deeply so and quite androgynous (cedar, oakmoss – lots of it – civet, vetiver and musk with just a soupcon of vanilla, creating a powerful, almost muscular, feline sexuality), carnation and cassia purr hypnotically over fresh, indolic gardenia in the astringent, floral centre while up top – so green and conceited as to be almost unapproachable – galbanum, crushed leaves, violet, and a sharp, aldehydic hyacinth leap forth from the perfume with a clawed, unrestrained alacrity.
Unlike other green chypres – think Miss Dior, Alliage, Private Collection and the like – there is no vulnerability in Scherrer. This creature is beautiful and sensual, yes – but also insinuating, disturbing.
All photos of our own cat, Mori – which means ‘forest’ in Japanese – because that’s where we discovered her as a two week old kitten, emerging wet and frightened and with a badly injured leg from the woodland undergrowth….
In these times of brash crassness, not only politically and culturally, but also within perfume, it is nice to come across a new line of scents with a sense of detachment. A fullness of essence, but also an undeniable, quiet dignity.
The initial five fragrances in Lyn Harris’s new collection comprise two light hearted and exuberant creations (Heliotrope, which I reviewed recently, and the zingingly and refreshingly green Cologne, which I am definitely going to wear soon when Spring fully awakens), and three others – Rose, Leather, and Velvet, that all vibrate at lower, more reflective – even depressive – oscillations.
I must confess that I am tired of rose. This is not the fault of the flower or the aroma itself, but of the sheer avalanche of chemical, synthetic pink pepper ‘peony’ bouquets over the last few years that sicken me to my stomach. They have ruined one of my favourite essential oils, very nearly ( I can still enjoy the scent of a good rose otto, just about ), but it has been a two pronged assault: either the Salvatore Ferragamo Stella Mcartney Paul Smith Valentino plastic bride horror, or on the other, the fake oudh/ rose pseudo oriental harem that provokes equal levels of olfactory lassitude.
Perfumer H’s rose is not a scent I would personally wear either, but I do like it. Rather than a shrill soprano, this is a fulsome contralto: liquid and aromatic, the rose at the heart and within the perfume calling to you with magnetically soft fougere accents beneath – gentle, uncliched patchouli; black pepper, carrot seed and smooth, delicate musk – a beautiful woman in a trench coat, perhaps, at twilight, on some secret assignation.
Again, Perfumer H takes the route less travelled with Leather, avoiding the standard bitter hide quinoline of most cuirs or leathers and giving us in its stead a melancholically grey suede – frowning but good hearted – on a bleak, winter afternoon. Smelling this scent I was immediately reminded of the Arab perfumery I visited many years ago in Kuala Lumpur’s China Town, years before the whole oudh craze began, when I experienced so many new kinds of smells that it was as if I had landed on a new planet.
Besides the Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese oudhs that were so pungent and animalic I could hardly comprehend my nostrils, there were also other incensed, medicinal, clay-like scents on display in that fascinating purveyor of perfumes that transfixed me completely even though I didn’t quite know how to process or make sense of them. Perfumer H’s leather is no way near as ‘difficult’ from a western perspective, but it does very much remind of some of those perfumes, with their tendrils of Catholicism woven into the Islamic textures. There is a very cool (in all senses) aspect in this perfume, with iris, and Earl Grey tea accents layering the soft kid leather of the heart. It is a sophisticated scent, suave and seductive, but with just the right level of disengagement to make you want to find out more.
Duncan was wearing Velvet when we spent an afternoon in Jimbocho two Sundays ago – the place you can see in these non sequitur photos. This scent has a quite classical feel to it – masculine but refined, a woody aromatic chypre with an orris/spice and oakmoss, frankincense/ patchouli undertow, that leaves a nuzzling, prickly sillage in its wake – more like the tangible rasp of tweed to me than the smoothness of velvet, but it is certainly an excellent modern update of a bygone format. Gentlemanly – letting you read between the lines and slowly feel out its personality. Thoughtful. Sensual. But prudent.
Mitsouko is not my favourite perfume. It is not even my favourite Guerlain.
But there is a I4ml vintage parfum by my bed, like the bottle in this picture, and I keep finding that I unstopper that stopper, budged though it is in that bottle, and, recently, keep wearing it while I sleep.
It is a doctored edition, I will confess (and I know that that is outrageous.)
There are several different vintage parfums in there: a touch of parfum de toilette, one drop of ylang ylang oil cause you know I do that, and a significant amount of added bergamot.
But last night I got it to exactly how I want it.
Remixed her up a treat, to the proportions that I think I remember.
Yes, she can be witchy, damp and sour-tempered; yes she can be musty.
But when you get that golden ray effect, that Chinese empress pillow of velvet, the rueful, gustatory glow of the citrus and the mosses, then I suppose it makes sense why this is currently my night-time companion.
Duncan is always asleep. The cat is in the other room at the moment.
This glides me quite nicely to the next zone.