The perfumes I consider to be my holy grails are quite hard for me to approach in writing. How to do them justice. How to capture their invisible power over me in the right words. I do not want to botch the job, nor drown out their subtleties with my standard, over-enthusiastic, effusions. There is enough hyperbole out there already in perfume; all that hype and purple ‘prose’, most of which becomes so laughable in the face of the actual perfume that it’s an almost constant case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Before I go any further, I should probably also say that this perfume is probably unique for me in that it is a composition I cannot describe in metaphor or with allusions the way that I might usually do, with the visual, the psychological, the literary or the musical (as I have done with Vol De Nuit, Calèche and Arpège, for instance), the reason being that, unlike many others, this perfume does not actively remind me of anything, nor send me into reverie.
Nº I9 is not what it evokes, but what it evinces. It is beautifully functional, a smell. A deceptively simple, beautiful, but mysterious composition of such imaginative and (anti)intuitive technical accomplishment that you wonder just how it could work: how the various elements – all essential – could slot together in such an apparently effortless way; how an exquisite vetiver/leather base could meld so fluidly with a pure and plaintive, iris-filled heart; that orris, which in some batches can be almost heartbreakingly coldly fluid and beautiful (at one point this was apparently the most expensive perfume in production due to the quality of its ingredients); how that cool, sublimely removed green iris rose could yet then be transfused through a more overtly sensual, brighter floral aperture of vivid neroli and sweet, fervent essence of ylang ylang (sheer genius), but then have its iced heart credentials sealed once again, with that taut, difficult, and spine-tingling, galbanum.
So even though I undeniably do have memories and associations – through other people who have worn her, and they have, over the years (my sister, my mother, close friends both male and female) – I have yet conquered this perfume so many times in my own way, in my own lifetime now, that all other connected memories are almost obliterated. It is a living entity for me, this perfume, rather than some short-lived, tearful flashback, and, providing I can still get my hands on it, I can quite easily imagine wearing it until I die.
In parfum, the way I wear Nº I9, this androgynous Chanel masterpiece – created the year I was born – is strong, unapologetic, and virile (at times actually verging on too masculine for me in certain moods; ironic (or perhaps not), given that it was supposedly created for the exclusive personal use of Coco herself – that twentieth century ‘exterminating angel’ of mind over matter and art over people , Gabrielle Chanel, who wanted Henri Robert to create a private, inimitably elegant blend that only she could use (it was released to the public after her death). Like the formidable Chanel herself, this perfume in vintage feels self-assured, supercilious, arrogant even, but there is something quite melancholic and regretful in there also. I remember walking into the apartment of a very beautiful and dignified Italian diplomat, Francesca, in an upscale area of Tokyo, one night, and being amazed by her reaction to this scent; she was beside herself – mama mia che buono, che buon’odore – as she hugged me to her and smelled me up close. I don’t know if her sexuality was relevant, but it did seem that we were both dabbling in unconventional gender conventions, she with her beautiful and expensive dandyish vestments; me in my carefully applied Chanel, and that the poignancy, but seduction, of the perfume I was wearing did seem to transcend some kind of barrier.
Cambridge, far in the past now, was a maelstrom of sensations and exquisitely, indulgently strung out stresses that have been quite stirred up by Nina’s recent visit and our delvings into some of its powerful emotions and recollections during our late night conversations – something that D and I seem to have avoided for quite a few years.
It wasn’t just the overwhelming work load – French translation, Italian language, read Flaubert by Monday, write an essay by Wednesday, it was the cultural shift of going from my background of standard comprehensive school education and suburban, lower middle class’normalcy’ and being caterpulted into the rarified private school world of the rich; the ultra-privileged, the literally aristocratic, and being expected, as a green and innocent eighteen year old, to just somehow be able to take it and absorb it; learn to live alone (in impossibly beautiful surroundings; too yearnful for a stripling like me to even function normally, let alone excel academically); to adapt to this sphere of being I had had no idea existed.
Muddling through the passions of a term or two and making some friends on the fringes, though, I did eventually settle into something like a stride and found myself doing quite well in the Italian department, where I had started anew like all the others and so was at less of an obvious disadvantage, and where I also met a Franco-British, velvet-voiced siren by the name of Kira (who my friends from home just hated: “Is the princess of Paaa-ris still there??” they would inquire sarcastically before coming to see me in my room) but I was still intrigued by our differences, by this new world; would listen patiently to her rich-kid melodramas and ignore her invites to just ‘pop on over to Paris to the weekend’ (er, Kira, not everyone has your kind of money you know…..), but would still sit flagrant, and wide-eyed, and receptive, as she doused herself, as she did constantly, in Chanel NºI9 eau de parfum, the old, rectangular bottle in silver grey and the only perfume she had ever worn – and the only scent she ever intended to ever wear in the forseeable future.
In that vintage edp form, quite different from my more secretive and wise parfum, my new acquaintance smelled quite resplendently standoffish and exhilarating…. I used to adore the way she smelled and I can still smell her in my mind’s eye by the river at Trinity; a green, biting, iris-clad nomenclature; callous; dry; acerbic, French, floral and bitchy but also with vivacity – that glorious, dismissive self confidence that came both from her upbringing; a private education; the dreadful and total obliviousness of it all, really, but also from the perfume that, at the heart of its unsweetened and brilliantly constructed fleuri boisé bouquet, was really nothing to be trifled with. And neither, ultimately, was she.
That was probably that, then, for that perfume then, just a memory, a perfume I liked, until one fine day, probably fifteen more or so years later, when I was in Motomachi, Yokohama, here in Japan – hot; sunny; mid summer – a dinkily chichi boutiquey and upscale shopping area near the bayside where the big ships from abroad come in; just moseying about, and walking around, when I came across an expensive-ish but affordable parfum spray of N°I9 in a second hand brand designer clothes shop. Although I would never consider buying the vaporisateur format of the vintage now (don’t do it: there’s some chemical that must have been put into these so-called ‘natural sprays’ that significantly deteriorates the delicate balance within and renders the blend strange, with a white, vegetal note that prevents you experiencing the perfume in full. What you want, ideally, is the parfum in bottle form; wax sealed; box-within-box, in that heavenly, fetishistically matrushka manner; untouched and protected by thick, white, paper ( although I bought one of these recently from somewhere only to find that although unopened, and there had been no trickery; there was nothing inside the expected flacon the contents mysteriously evaporated…).
Still….those unappealing top and middle notes notwithstanding, I soon found as I walked along the streets towards the hill overlooking the bay that the scent had melded with my skin in a way I had never before experienced. I remember walking along upwards, up along the confines of the beautiful Yamate Foreigner’s Cemetery, a place of dappling leaves, weeping angels and Russian crosses, and becoming gradually aware that I was smelling something beautiful.
This, then, was my first experience of what I would never have found if I had not on a whim bought that parfum: that hauntingly sinuous end accord that I now so cherish. The extract of this perfume, so much more concentrated, but so much less effusive and mischievous than the more girlish, vintage edt, has the most insistently withheld but yet affecting iris/ vetiver / leather dry down that I have ever encountered, grave and sonorous as a cello. Pinched and held back by a superb note of citrus, while suspended in blanc nimbuli of delicate, Parisian powder, the scent hovers unhesitantly about your person through the day and long into the night, accompanying you but never intrusive, there, but semi-consciously.
The perfume isn’t always right; it can go too powdery and clogged if I slap it on overzealously like aftershave as I am prone to do when I come across a big vintage bottle here and think to myself why not. This, though, doesn’t ultimately detract from its beauty. If a perfume is so easy and comfortable that it is always suitable- your Dolce Light Blue, your citrussy Jo Malone, then odds are you are probably dealing with a scent that in itself is just fresh and unthreatening, unobtrusive – bland even, which is probably why it can just fade into the background beyond your daily consciousness and you can wear it, day after day, unthinkingly. With vintage Chanel NºI9, however, we are talking instead about an intuitively crafted, deep and abstractly stunning piece of olfactory art that is what it is – serious; profoundly aromatic, and best of all, enigmatic, so austere and supremely elegant that it simply will brook not shallow miscalculations on your part. To wear the parfum on a day to day basis like a mere quotidian toiletry would just be too frivolous.
This perfume, precious now that the supplies of the vintage will be inevitably dwindling (and they really are – I can feel the difference here in Japan where it used to pop up all the time and now only rarely does), wills you to choose the right moment carefully, or otherwise leave it alone. But then, when that moment is right, as it has been these last few days, it just lets you sit back and forget, while just subtlely taking over your aura like a twin, lending a grand yet gently dignified atmosphere that yet hints of sex, and shadows.
I knew I was onto a winner in those first months those twelve years ago or so when I first fell for this perfume on a night out with Duncan. Standing out there on the street in Shinjuku and having ascertained that the skin and the perfume had fused in exactly the right way, I then asked him then to lean in close and smell me.
A person of great understatement, not given to great effusions of praise nor of compliments, Duncan’s one-word reaction,
made me then realize that my instincts about this scent had certainly not been misguided, and many years and bottles later my love affair continues.
I might not wear this perfume all the time, I might go for six months for a time or even a year without putting it on, but Chanel NºI9 vintage parfum, is, in all probability and despite its ‘difficulty’ – for its sheer olfactive precision, and unparalleled atmosphere, my ultimate holy grail.