Just packing up the suitcase for mine and D’s costumes for tonight’s Marc Almond concert at Billboard Tokyo. The scent is going to be a velenous mix of Vintage Dior Poison and flower of death, Flos Mortis by Rogue. Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.
Just packing up the suitcase for mine and D’s costumes for tonight’s Marc Almond concert at Billboard Tokyo. The scent is going to be a velenous mix of Vintage Dior Poison and flower of death, Flos Mortis by Rogue. Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.
As I work my way prodigiously through Z’s vintage perfume collection I discover new (but old) things. One such essence is Elizabeth Taylor’s legendary White Diamonds, which I smelled in vintage extrait for the first time last night, pouched in its little black felt coochy bag, resplendent as a Fabergé egg. My eyes widened with desire as I carefully
unstoppered the bottle to smell a scintillating liquid containing everything : as though Ysatis were a minted American tourist travelling in Versailles.
The thing is gorgeous.
Full, rounded (‘Egyptian tuberose’, narcissus, jasmine, all the flowers, you name them, over woods and musks and aldehydes and violets and sandalwood and amber and musks),
‘ the fragrance dreams are made of’.
At least initially.
Soon, though still beautifully constructed by Carlos Benaim (Carolina Herrera, Red Door, Flowerbomb); a familiarly smug and soignée presence emerges: that of the self-satisfied woman of a certain age without a glimmer of doubt, not a hair’s breadth, of who she will be voting for come November’s election. You hear her slam her SUV shut; lock the big white gate behind her. Lights out.
AT THIS POINT WHITE DIAMONDS MAKES ME WANT TO SCREAM.
I cannot hear the word Possession and not think of the electrifying film by Andrzej Żuławski from 1981 in which Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill brilliantly out-Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton themselves as a married couple plummeting into psychosis in Cold War Berlin, an extended allegory on the fury of love; an apotheosis. It is a film once seen, never forgotten, the pivotal scene where Adjani torments into full throttled hysteria in a train tunnel jaw-dropping to behold, the conclusion agonizing.
The very idea of possession is terrifying. Not only demonic, but also romantic. Being ‘possessed’ by someone. I always find songs about lovers not wanting to breathe or sleep, or be away from their beloveds for even one second extraordinarily creepy – Aerosmith’s Don’t Want To Miss A Thing being the worst contender : “I Don’t want to close my eyes…….”; the idea of another person staying up all night watching you; people ‘making love’ all night long, wearing each other out, it could almost make you yearn for a Gwyneth unconscious uncoupling (and let’s not begin a conversation about her erotic candle).
Fortunately, Possession the perfume is not excessively possessive nor will require you to dial up the local exorcist, but is rather a very clingy floral aldehyde in the manner of all of those perfumes like Lanvin’s My Sin and any other Ernst Beaux doppelgängers that inherit the earth like zombies somnambulating across the perfumed landscape wide-eyed in search of the original Chanel No 5, which this is quite obviously emulating. Sweet, precious, this perfume is very heartfelt and lovely; musky and floral, but
SORRY I NEED SOME FRESH AIR
A shocking thing happened to me last night. D and a friend of ours, Kevin, were in the dark watching the new TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s brilliant and timely The Handmaiden’s Tale – the first episode surpassing all my expectations (this is one of the best novels I have ever read by far: I could not breathe properly throughout – I have even referenced it explicitly before on here in relation to Byredo’s Tulipe and the subjugation of women in perfume), a date of release that feels somehow perfect and utterly relevant because what is depicted in the story – women being kidnapped, raped and forced to be the fertility concubines of their masters has already happened with the Nigerian women captured by Boko Haram and in many other places; brainwashed, enslaved; baby machines for blood-lusting thugs in the name of religion. With the Christofascist movement in the U.S also a major force in politics, affecting women’s ability to make their own reproductive choices, and backing the dystopian nightmare of Trump being in power – which still, six months on, feels utterly surreal (I can’t actually accept, still, that this dangerous monster is ‘the leader of the free world’, that his catastrophic policies, both in terms of international politics – pushing and provoking adversaries deliberately closer to war; destabilizing efforts to contain global by petulantly pulling out of the Paris climate accord, a man who genuinely seems to be mentally unstable and who has the true potential to wreak destruction not only on his own beleaguered nation but the rest of the world as well); The Handmaiden’s tale just feels so apposite and so quietly condemning of those that fall under the tyrannical spell of organized ‘religion’, no matter what the origins of that religion might actually be; so very far from any of the realities of their central tenets; how the words are twisted and perverted; how ‘Christians’ can be so full of hatred for their fellow man, so lacking in compassion; how ‘Muslims’ can blow themselves up at concerts full of children, or plunge knives into human beings just out and enjoying themselves at Borough Market and London Bridge. While my optimism for humanity ultimately remains undimmed – the reactions and caring shown by people the world over for their fellow human beings is always cheering and wonderful to behold; the fact that the fury against Trump’s deliberately oblivious environmental attack and denial has already resulted in waves of new regulations across US states vowing to adhere to, and even go beyond, the limits set by the Paris accords, shows that the human spirit is very, very strong indeed and refuses to be held hostage by evil and violence, the concert held by Ariana Grande and others in Manchester last night, One Love, being further proof of this, I don’t believe that the world is doomed to disaster. But what is occurring right now certainly is extremely unsettling and desperate. These truly feel like volatile, violent and angry times.
We can say what we want and add to the dialogue, but what can I, personally, do about any of it? I am trapped inside my home. It feels as if the world is marching into madness somewhere on the other side of the rainbow. In one sense, it all has absolutely nothing to do with me.I spend the vast majority of the day on the bed in the kitchen, only hobbling outside, just about, to sit on the chair and read about all of these atrocities and maniacs, powerless to do a single little thing about it (I can’t even vote: neither in my country of origin or the one that I live in: I am truly the dreamy disenfranchised). I am frustrated by my lack of progress, and by not knowing whether it even is a lack of progress. Once you have left the hospital, there is no further contact to ask for advice, there is no physiotherapy. I am not supposed to ring up my former rehabilitation ward (I tried once, and it didn’t go down well; they have other osteotomy patients to deal with now, it’s neverending, they don’t have time). I understand that, but I also feel abandoned in some way, unsure of how to proceed; is the exercise bike I have bought and started using the right thing to be doing? It feels good, but am I overdoing it? Should I be trying to walk outside around the neighbourhood, eleven weeks after the operation? Or should I be resting? Won’t inactivity, though, just lead to the atrophying of my legs? What, exactly, am I supposed to be doing? Several of my kind Japanese neighbours have offered to take me for a walk when Duncan isn’t here, and have done so; I have managed to walk the block, very tentatively, with my cane, about five times now, very nervous about falling over, or tripping, and sometimes it really hurts and I have to grip the wall of someone’s garden before I recommence…….It feels great to be actually doing it, though, to be walking again outside, because I sometimes getquite claustrophobic, always being stuck in one particular room; I feel confined (the neighbour across from us has offered to just take me out in the car twice a week just so I can get a change of scenery, particularly as where I live now is just so beautiful. Perhaps I am doing better than I think. There are plenty of people out there worse off than me, I know: limbs blown off in callous explosions, bodies ripped into with cruel knives by crazed, masked marauders. But still. I am here and they are there….
I really do feel that I want to MOVE. Go out, go to the city. Not just malinger, here, inside. I have done these walks, or finally actually sweated from doing some real exercise on the bike while blasting out music (the endorphins! the clarity of thought and positivity that comes from doing heartbeating exercise, I love it), but then I often find that later on I am as stiff as a board, that my legs contract and won’t move; they ache, they sometimes throb, they buckle under me, and I have no way of knowing if any of it is actually ok (my next appointment at the hospital is June 15th, which will mark about the three month mark since the operations. I will find out then when I am xrayed and examined by the surgeon, and it will be my first exploration of the outside world for an extremely long time. I am nervous, but also strangely excited…)
And Japan, though it is also heading in a very disturbing right wing direction like many other countries – the government under Shinzo Abe seems to be veering defiantly into an increasingly World War II Imperialist agenda- is at least relatively safe. No guns. No terrorists (so far, in any case – we’ll see about the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games). There are large numbers of crazy people lost in their own worlds, yes, and the occasional very psychotic one, but Japan does have the lowest murder rate in the world among the developed nations, you never worry, there is none of that tension and slight, suppressed apprehension of other countries where you have to be aware, and look over your shoulder, and I look forward to just gliding within its super-efficient gleam, and flow.
A person can be engaged with the world, yet still powerless. Interested in it, but divorced. Extricated. Alone. Right now I find myself in a vastly diminished universe that much of the time only revolves around my space, myself, my legs. And the recuperation. The concentrated effort to get stronger and be able to walk again. I immerse myself in documentaries, cinema, reading, writing, music, in sitting outside in the green of the June leaves and the beautiful sunshine. I occasionally have visitors, though contact is far less than I was having when I was a hospital patient. Last night, as I said, Kevin, an American friend of ours, came down to our house from Tokyo to visit me, and we had dinner, and talked, and they danced around the kitchen a little bit (I did so on the bed), and we then settled on The Handmaid’s Tale. I think it is great. Remarkably well done. In fact, I was very leery of seeing it at first, despite many of my friends’ recommendations, because I worry about my mental image of the book being destroyed. Instead, what the makers of the series of done is miraculously preserve the central emotional feeling of the novel, but rather than try to capture the inwardness and singular viewpoint of the central character, June/Offred – the creators have made a convincingly paranomic, widescope version of a story that needs to be told; a world where individuals, and women particularly, are stripped of all power and reduced to second-class citizens, as they are in much of the world in reality: merely housemaids, slaves, and reproductive robots.
I sit, or lounge, on the bed, a rented bed for people in my position, my walking stick hung on a nail on the wall. It is imperative that I don’t fall over. This is crucial. I am not to fall over. I was continually lectured on that point when leaving the hospital. Korobanai yoni; korobanai yoni, don’t fall over, don’t fall over (as if I would try to), emphasised over and over again that I mustn’t fall down and hurt my healing bones which are still in the process of knitting themselves together and vulnerable to breakage or shock; it is this that makes walking anywhere so terrifying and why I must always have somebody with me as I simply can’t risk doing it alone when there is nobody to fall onto or grasp. In the house I am very careful. Yet, sometimes, no matter how much care you take, things really are beyond your control.
I was sat on the bed. So was Duncan. Kevin was on a chair. We had projected The Handmaiden’s Tale onto the wall. Huge. It was a tense, dramatic moment. The music had crescendoed to something sinister and threatening. Our nerves were on edge like taut strings, waiting to see what the sex-prisoner Offred was going to do in a particular, oppressed, situation, breath bated, when suddenly –
‘Oh, Mori’ says Kevin as our cat suddenly ran and lunged into the air from nowhere, released something trapped in her mouth and we were besieged by the beating of wings; flapping, aggressively, throbbing – something, a bird, flittering in the projector light; a hideous, overwhelming fluttering and darting that was petrifying and in that instant, before I knew it, as we all shouted and lurched into reaction and confusion, I found that I had unconsciously, on pure primitive horror and instinct, tried to run from the bed – launched myself towards the floor to escape and my legs had given way and I hit the floor in a contorted position as we realized it wasn’t a bird but a giant moth, vibrating at hideous speed, whirring in the magnifying light, and I was conscious of the fact that oh my god I have fallen, no; no, no no this can’t have happened – kill it, kill it, just kill it! flying around the room dive bombing and me on the floor….I don’t know why it was so foul and unbearable – I don’t usually even hate moths that much – but I was cowering behind Kevin grabbing some clothes on the floor to protect my face and imploring Duncan to get rid of it. Usually we are not the kill the insect type – they have the right to live just as much as we do, and he tried desperately to trap it beneath a mug on the floor as it zigzagged through the air but he was worried about what else might happen to me as I was stuck in the corner on the floor in that twisted position……..there is a rock from the garden we use as a door stopper, and making a swift decision he finally crushed it to death on the floor.
It had happened, though. We had all been drinking red wine. Relaxing. Was this to blame? I don’t think so. We weren’t drunk. I swore, semi-seriously, in my Seventeen Things I Have Realized In Hospital piece that I wouldn’t drink for the foreseeable future as it could endanger my legs too much in case of falling, but in fact, the sheer monotony of always being inside necessitates a change of mental feeling from time to time so at weekends we have indulged a bit (red wine, and you can check for yourself, is actually recommended by the Arthritis foundation for knee pain). When I have had some, I stay on the bed, and am escorted by Duncan, so I wasn’t endangering myself- in fact, it is possible that the relaxed state I was in made my fall softer and protected me. In a totally unalcolized state I might have jumped and fallen even further actually. Everything had flashed by so quickly that I wasn’t even entirely sure what had happened, whether I had actually stood up and my legs had collapsed under me or whether I had somehow just launched myself, flown, if you like, from the bed and somehow landed in the position that I did, which is what Kevin thought happened. Three screaming gay men and a moth: it just seems so pathetic, doesn’t it? I am not even particularly afraid of insects, or birds, but there is just something so primeval and in the human DNA I think about flapping wings near your face – the projector had also made the creature loom much larger, intensifying the experience – we all assumed it was a bat, or a bird – as did the fact that this had happened just at the moment of extreme tension in the drama. We were startled out of our skins and just flew. Fused together it led to this mayhem in the kitchen which we could laugh about later on again in the evening before he went back on the train up to Tokyo, but which actually took me quite a long time to calm down from : my heart was beating quite rapidly not from the moth horror but from the danger it had put my recovery in…..I read somewhere something once about how many people die a year because of their cats than any kind of shootings or terrorist attacks.. (a few years ago at work, something similar happened. I was in the middle of doing a teachers’ English conversation class one morning when I went to the school’s miniscule kitchen, about the size of a large closet, to get a drop of water and wash my hands. Suddenly, and it always seems to happen in these occasions that you simply can’t register what is happening at first – something monstrous; great wings flapping about my head and bouncing and bounding against the window and door and claws…..I was flailing my arms around hysterically shouting (the classroom was at the other end of the school and the teachers had no idea what was taking me so long). A pigeon had somehow got in through the tiny window at the top and I was having a genuine Tippi Hedren moment – Alfred Hitchcock tricking the actress, when making The Birds – incidentally Duncan’s favourite film of all time – into thinking that when she entered the room where one of the pivotal scenes of the drama was to take place, fake birds would be thrown at her by the production crew, when in fact he unleashed real seagulls that thrashed against her face with their wings….she was hospitalized for a week from the shock of it, the trauma; and I can tell you, that even having just one big bird, panicked itself, trying desperately to get out, in hyper reactive survival mode, so close, and both of you trapped in that tiny space, was quite horrific……I eventually managed to get out of there and slam the door shut and went back to the classroom where I couldnt’ speak for a while, and the teachers seemed perturbed at my change of demeanour. When I finally could tell them, we all went down the corridor together, and with various tactics, including broom and mop handles, they managed to guide the poor creature back outside into the air).
Are my legs injured? Has something happened internally? I hope to hell not. Initially I just lay on the floor and they asked me if I had any new or severe pain, and I didn’t. I felt some extra discomfort, perhaps from the way I had landed, but nothing too severe, and they lifted me up onto a chair and then onto the bed where I sat for a while dumbfounded and worried, but slept a long sleep and here I am now, writing this. I think I landed ok and wasn’t hurt. What a shock though.
Today, actually, I find myself clear-headed and happy. Perhaps last night’s real life horror moment was strangely cathartic in some way. I am outside: the birds are singing, the sun is out, I am back to that happily cocooned solitude feeling, happy to write and just bask in the quiet, covered in scent, allaying my senses. I wrote earlier about my immersion in music and the visual to embellish my reality, to make it less stifling and one-dimensional, but I do think that in fact, perfume has an even greater role in many ways, I love it, and I want to ask you: do you ever find your perfume obsession to be trivial in the face of our greater realities? When the world is the way that it is? Are we right to indulge ourselves so much in this way, to be paying so much inward attention to the sense of smell or, as I instinctively feel myself, is this more of a necessity, a vital part of life and happiness for the person for whom this sense is at least as important as the others and which gives so much sensual, cerebral, and physical pleasure? Do the jihadis of the Islamic State deprive themselves of perfume, as they do music, as a frivolous distraction from their god, even though the Islamic, Arab tradition is the finest, most intense and beautiful perfumed culture of all? Do the fundamentalist Christians, like Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, strip themselves of all frippery and wash their Christ-stricken skin only in pure water, as she does, as she prepares to be sacrificed and fertilized, and cleanses herself in a bath of the unscented ‘purity’ to ready herself for insemination? Is this love of the sheer overwhelming beauty of perfume and smell, in their eyes, a ‘sin’? Or is it a gift: yet another beautiful part of this world of sensorial pleasures that I just can’t get enough of while I am here, even when incapacitated and stuck, for the majority of the time, in one room ?
More dextrous and mobile than before, I can get myself in and out of the shower now. When I have sweated on the exercise bike, how I love to just get in there and soap down – right now the dregs of an old Chanel No 19 soap that has lost much of its greenery but still has a beautifully vetiver lactonic edge to it that is the perfect later skin setting for high quality perfumes, especially Guerlain. Shalimar, Vetiver, Ylang Vanille, Terracotta, all together, but in different places, smelling just prickly with powdered luxuriantness and threedimensional splendour; they smell just glorious on me, I feel like living art. I just sit here alone and radiate. I resonate. And Duncan will come home and say wow, you smell amazing, and I do. Is this shallow, and frivolous? Perhaps it is. I don’t know. But it enhances my spirit, it velvet-cushions my well-being, it is a boon. I love it. It is essential. Out there might be madness and chaos, but in here, where I am trapped, I can at least embroider the air around me and my own skin with the spirit of these inspired elixirs that keep me anchored in a world that still believes in beauty.
Although I am at home alone for most of the day, when D comes back at night he quite often brings me presents. The other day he had gone to Ofuna to a recycle shop called Julien that we sometimes frequent and brought me a perfume I had never even heard of, Ingenue by Kanebo, a scent that must have been from the seventies or eighties but which I can find out no information about but which is fantastic : the Duncan is a truly scent-literate person who knows what smells good and what doesn’t, which means when he comes across things on his thrift shop after work rummages he can come back with not only treasures he knows I will want, but also ones I didn’t even know I wanted until he presented them to me. Ingenue, an exquisitely green, Bulgarian rose chypre in the manner of Armani Pour Femme (1981), it is almost a copy, but with finer ingredients, including a beauteous green seventies top accord – cassis, hyacinth? – sheening with marigold that reminds me of the original Cardin de Cardin and the first perfume by Ralph Lauren, and is possibly the best perfume of this type that I have ever encountered. Not that you will, but if you do, and you love this type of scent, promise me that you will buy it; the powdered rose of the base blooms delicately in the amber of the perfume’s later stages, and I just know that this is something that I will adore to wear out on special occasions when that intricate, baroque rose type of perfume is truly called for. It happens quite a lot to me in winter Check it out on ebay if you can- I guarantee 100% that you won’t be disappointed. Sometimes the Japanese really do imitate things and improve on them, and this is a perfect example.
Friday, though. My god, Friday was a shockingly fantastic windfall of vintage perfume. And I want to share it with you. A couple of days before, as I lay on The Bed with my nose glued to my left arm inhaling the wonders of Ingenue, I lazily asked him as he was going upstairs, ‘so was there anything else there at Julien the other day when you went?’, and he said, ‘no, not really, just the usual crap, Salvatore Ferragamo etc, and some Chant D’Arômes’ …….’some WHAAATTT ? ? ? !I exclaim leaping up into the sitting position, ‘Chant D’AROMES?? ? ? ? ? ?oh my god was it vintage what was the bottle like what the box like was it the gold and black box was it the pink textured packaging of the vintage was it parfum or eau de toilette how much was it when can you go back and get it why didn’t you consider buying it and calling me’ and he said that he couldnt’ remember, but that he would go back and take a look for me some other day this week and send me a picture…..’when, when’ I don’t want anyone else to have it…!
You can see my review for Chant D’Arômes if you just search for it. But trust it to say, I love this delicate and distinctive perfume, one of the far lesser known of the Guerlain classics and would love to have some more, as long as it is not the same version as the one I had after knowing the vintage perfume; a re-issue in Japan that was given free to people who spent enough money at their cosmetics counter, but which had a nasty synthetic smell running through its entire composition and which I wasn’t interested in because I have no time for eviscerated, skeletonized, bullshit.
Friday came. He has been out and about these last few weeks on occasion after work, up in Tokyo ( I sometimes spend morning until night entirely alone), but a man can’t be at home playing carer and shopper the entire time, and he has discovered some fantastic new performance spots and odd, Lynchian dives that we will have to go to as soon as I am better. On this particular occasion he was taking some new friends that he had met recently at the screening of his film, to a place where Tokyo’s diva of rope-tying, kinbaku, the Japanese art of bondage, was holding court. He just about had time, between leaving work and coming home to change to go and check on the Chant d’Arômes before heading out to the silkier universe of Tokyo’s ‘scandalous’, hidden demi-monde.
The picture on the iPhone came. And it looked just like the bottle I had and not liked, as well as being quite expensive for a recycle shop – 6800 yen (about 47 pounds or fifty something dollars), 100ml. I knew I didn’t need another bottle of the cruddy remake but at the same time something about the lettering on the box suggested that this was an older model, still a remake but a decent one, and although I said don’t buy it, a few seconds later I said no I need it, please get it, and thankfully it turned out I was right. YES. This Chant D’Arômes is much closer in spirit to the parfum I tragically spilled – one of my very worst perfume catastrophes and something I don’t want to really dwell on -the gentle, sunny mosses intact, the fruity pear- apple dappling orchard mellowness downing peachily to the beautiful honeysuckle and mirabelles……..DELIGHTFUL, and as I lay there, with the aforementioned ratio of Guerlains already lilting gently, lustfully into their later stages, I found some skin space for the Chant and it blended in perfectly, the warm chypric tenderness of its introverted optimism sidling up perfectly next to some base notes traces of vintage Shalimar eau de toilette. Oh, and he also bought me another, much bigger, bottle of Kanebo Ingenue just for good measure. I might never see it again, it was there, and now I have a stash….
I was happy. Who wouldn’t be. I did of course wish that I could have been out finding out all these new intriguing corners of Tokyo, but I was at home contentedly watching some Netflix drama or other, when suddenly the familiar ringtone of Facetime came on, Duncan saying, ‘I got to Ebisu quite early and… guess what…….THE SHOP is open again!’
Now THE SHOP, is, for perfumistas who have an appreciation of the superiority of classic vintage perfumes, an absolute treasure trove and Aladdin’s Cave of perfume that makes your eyeballs pop out, your throat stop in terror and bewilderment and engender semi-cardiac arrest (if we were all there together, you readers and I, as the cardboard boxes are wearily opened by the strange man that owns the place and NEVER OPENS IT, EVER, there would be shirts ripped off, hair, and wigs, flying, as we tore at each other and grabbed and clawed at this or that vintage Calèche or No 5 selling for the equivalent of a chocolate bar….this is, after all, the place where I found Nombre Noir for next to nothing and all manners of things that are crazily underpriced, sometimes over; it is all a very haphazard arrangement; you grab what you can, as he always says ‘we are closing now’ and looks at you suspiciously, god knows why, and you take it to the counter wondering how much he is going to charge you on this occasion; if the perfumes are current ones, say a Gucci, or something that seems ‘fashionable’ he will charge much more, but I have had beloved vintage parfums of, say, Caron Infini, or No 19 for ten dollars apiece, an old Givenchy Gentleman for virtually nothing – he sometimes seems to just toss things in for free, but as I said, he is NEVER BLOODY OPEN. I have gone there on my days off and it has been shut; I have gone there on the way to engagements in other places in Tokyo hoping he would be open, I have tried several times recently and it was always, always, always shut, so I have given up, essentially. And yet here is Duncan, as I am already losing myself in the pleasures of the perfumes I have received just an hour and a half before, telling me, completely unexpectedly, that it is open. And there is the camera, blurred and swishing from side to side as he surveys the shelves and I say hold on, slow down, what is that, focus in, please get this, can you get that, can you ask him if he has any unopened boxes (where the hell does this loot come from, I wonder, for it to just be loaded into receptacles as though it were trash: who is giving away this stuff, why doesn’t he pay more attention to it? Answer: probably because his main line of business, like most recycle shops in Tokyo, is second hand Louis Vuitton handbags and other designer crap that people are still obsessed with here after all these years and the perfume is just a touch of flotsam in the corner….)
BUT NOT FOR ME.
‘The man’ was in a characteristically even worse mood than ever: apparently, he ‘was closing’, there was a very limited window of opportunity, and he also charged more than he might have usually. 7200 yen. In total. Still, only just over fifty quid, or around 60 dollars, and it was pay day, after all (I am supposed to be trying to be very careful with money seeing as I am not getting paid from now until the end of September you see and have to eke out my money to some extent), but when this place is open, trust me, you just have to.
Slung unceremoniously into a big plastic grocery bag, much later in the evening, around 1am, when he finally got home from some very hilarious shindigs, at a bar in Roppongi, were these, handed out to me like Santa around the Christmas tree, serenaded on The Bed with yet more perfumed treasures:
: Two big 100ml bottles of vintage unopened Lancome Sikkim eau de toilette: a very stylish, delicate and suave green leather chypre that the D took to immediately and which we will definitely enjoy (any comments and further info on this perfume, please do, if there are any Sikkim lovers out there)
: a classic Patou Joy parfum in the black bottle and red cap (it was unopened, but I have a thing where I just can’t resist twisting the hymen of the wax that seals the mouth lid and discovering the true identity of the contents). I am wearing this today. Although the initial smell was like mothballs, the classic rose jasmine of the vintage original, once the perfume was released from its endless imprisonment, is entirely intact. Persolaise, when you and Linda come over to stay in July, I will give you this as I know how much you love it.
: a Courrèges Empreinte pristine parfum. I have reviewed this one before, but it is a curious, peach-leather chypre from the seventies that I find inestimably chic and aloof. I had used up much of my previous bottle so I am very pleased to have it again. Once in a blue moon, in a particular, offbeat mood, only Empreinte will do.
: a beautiful original Nina by Nina Ricci eau de toilette, a perfume I love and which I often keep by the bed as a night scent as I consider it to be one of the best green floral aldehydics of the eighties and a scent that really soothes my spirits- there is something forever pure and happy about this scent, and this was in perfect olfactory condition in the gorgeous original Lalique (is it?) crystal flacon
: a vintage sixties or seventies eau de cologne by Shiseido – More, that I had never properly known before and which is completely and unexpectedly BEAUTIFUL. What initially might just seem like a typical ‘old lady’ Chanel No 5 rip-off – very, very powdery; very, very aldehydic turns out to be extremely cultivated, almost peerless; both fresher and more lively in the top with a gorgeously uplifting fruit note that lasts into the drydown, which in itself is more delicate than a meringue with a note of vanilla that keeps it from the usual musky boredom that I easily tire of. D might find this one unacceptable on me, and I can see why – I probably just smell like an octogenarian transvestite ballerina in it, but there is something in this scent, some real sense of soul, real intelligence and emotion, that I can imagine having a day here just by myself, the doors bolted and locked, and post shower, just dousing myself in the stuff and spending the rest of the day just floating on the tulles of a cloud, happy as Larry, cut off from the horrors of the world like a cut in cotton wool.
: a full bottle of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s parfum d’ambiance,Mimosa Marin, which is the interior equivalent of the original Mimosa Pour Moi, whose reformulated bottle I have never been happy with ( I used to love the original). This is perfect, and has the drifty baby chick pollen of the first formulation from the nineties – I adore the scent of mimosa – with a slightly oceanic note (but not really….it is delightfully aerated though) and this was the first thing I was saying yes that, definitely, definitely, get the mimosa, get the mimosa, in those closing moments in the shop when the D was desperately trying to hoover everything up into his arms and reach the cashier. I am also wearing it today, and it smells pleasingly airy and light.
Oh yes, a vintage bottle of Diane Von Furstenburg’s Tatiana, a lovely green, beachy white floral in the manner of Alfred Sung’s Sung and Rochas’ Lumière, a seventies/eighties style that I still really admire; all hyacinths and galbanum and gardenia, gorgeous, even if I don’t think I can really get away with it; still, sprayed on a t-shirt on a summer’s day it could be really rather enjoyable, as could something, another perfume that D grabbed for the sake of it called Rêve Voilé by Avon, which smells incredibly good for such a cheap perfume house, beachy and made for Californian sunsets as well.
Oh yes, some Fendi by Fendi, that glorious spiced Italianate classic, which I like on a winter’s day when I am in that more ferocious and uppity state of mind and last, but certainly not least, a very exciting,vintage parfum bottle of
SHOCKING by Elsa Schiaparelli, darling of the surrealists, friend of Dali, and author, or at least originator, of the iconoclastically titled Shocking. Although the top notes have long gone in this bottle, a full 7ml vintage extrait, the body and soul of the perfume remains (unlike a miniature parfum I also once had that had resorted to nothing but mushrooms). This juice, in this bottle, does smell equally fusty, musty and old, but also undeniably erotic. It is still so dark, rich and potent. I don’t know what this says about me, but there is something about say, the unapologetically carnal trio of Dana’s Tabu, Lavin’s My Sin, and Schiaparelli’s Shocking that is just so almost damningly femme fatale and filthy that I feel slightly endangered in some way, as if they are breathing down my neck and coming in for the kill; thrilled, at the thought of long and beautiful fur coats tinged with these perfumes, filled with their nitromusks and civet and the furry anthers of moths and satin underdresses and the newfound freedom of these times when some women said no to dainty white flowers and bathed themselves in the thick, oilpaint tinctures of opulent, dense, unguent-ridden spiced perfumes with balls. I have only just found out, while looking up information about Shocking, that the legendary perfumer Jean Carles, was also the author of Tabu, but that definitely does make sense. Both perfumes have similarities, in the same way that Cabochard, Aromatics Elixir and Aramis do. The perfumer’s signature style underlining them all. In these perfumes’ case, a thick lasciviousness. I do find Tabu unbearable, I will admit. I also, contradictorily,think it is brilliant, with its marron glacés, plum pudding relativity to Caron’s Nuit De Noël – just tripled in strength, and depth, and laden with animalics and a truly fantastic Mysore sandalwood – once, after we had found a bottle of vintage Tabu down the Isezakicho shopping mall, I got Duncan to wear a bit for me as a dare, because it was so utterly out of character and wrong for his self image, and although he did, as expected, absolutely hate it, he loathed it, and couldn’t wait to get it off, the trail of tawdry but beautiful sandalwood that he was giving off behind him as he walked in front of me down the street was so good that I wished I could trick him into wearing again – not that that is ever going to happen. Tabu is so thick and buttery and suggestive to the point of obscenity- it really is the quintessential hooker scent – which I have no objections to whatsover except for the fact that it is so creamily blocked together I find it ashyxiating both physically and mentally, I can’t stand it, really, even though I kind of love it, and it is hard to imagine many people being able to get away with wearing it convincingly now (but if you do beg to differ on this point, please tell me). The Schiaparelli, however, the earlier template, is less filled-in, and less lipidly seamless and splayed out stark naked, there,on the bed. This number is still her in her black, made to measure negligee. Musky, full of patchouli, amber, white honey, sandalwood, civet; a lick of tarragon to twist up the floral absolutes, this is a perfume full of nightime, cigarettes and seduction. You can imagine a woman, beautiful in her way, lying on her bed before going out, touching her inner thighs and intimate places with the stopper from the bottle, laughing to herself at the thought of what might be to come later, the somewhat androgynous but unequivocal sex of it all. A woman in control of herself, between the wars, in that decadent stage just before the fascists took over for a second time, when the balance of decadence and good time debauchery shifted once again, as it is now, towards damning conservatism; the negation of woman as free, public entity; and murderous intolerance.
Still, there she is, right now, in her room, by herself, bathed and tipsy from a glass or two of champagne, negligently applying her perfume to her person, and this woman is perhaps unaware of any of this, of what is about to happen, or whatever as happened before. She is quite simply enjoying her mood, deciding on what she wants to wear, no matter how risqué, quite simply, just because she wants to. Applying her perfume to her own skin, because she desires to: and she loves how the perfume envelopes her, her louche but cleverly constructed and marketed perfume, a liberating dose of accomplice.
She goes out, unattended, unchaperoned; confident in her own body, emanating confidence and sensuality, the traces of stealthy, animal perfume rising up from her occasionally in heavy breathing wisps of anticipation. A woman in control of her own destiny, far from the clutches of the zealots who wish to quell her and bring her to heel to fit their own unreligious, brainwashed and brainwashing dictats. A woman with autonomy and agency, master and mistress of her own body.
Goodness, what a shocking thought.
Continuing with our ‘Wind Series’- we last looked at Balmain’s exquisite Vent Vert – which, translated into English, we find to mean ‘Green Wind’ – a name that might be construed as a colicky baby burped on her mother’s shoulder, the uncomfortable result of too much Vietnamese, or even strong gales recorded around derelict and mouldering building sites in Chernobyl, but which any case, loses all the poetry of the original French when the English speaker comes to understand the proper definition; equally, Ma Robe Sous Le Vent – ‘My Dress In The Wind ‘ sounds, and is, stupid. Is this a humdrum polyester casual maxi just blowin’ on the line, in the breeze, after it comes out from the washing machine? Or could it be that this wan and worthless concoction is designed to be an evocation of Marilyn Monroe’s immortalized sewer moment, as gusts of underground gases come billowing up in and around her underpants?
Whatever Thierry Wasser’s intentions, I am in all honesty quite DELIGHTED that this crap little perfume exists. According to Monsieur Guerlain, a website I very much enjoy for its exhaustive Guerlainophile attention to the tiniest detail, a bottle of the most venerable French house’s most successful contemporary perfume, La Petite Robe Noire, is sold somewhere in the world every three seconds, and this recently rejigged version, a supposed eau de parfum intense, was created by Guerlain’s in-house perfumer to be sweeter for the American market, for those who found the original incredibly uninspiring French version too unsugared. SWEETER? What, the faux-black cherry caramel of the original synthetic dessert just wasn’t quite enough?
Apparently not! So, as a result, this more recent edition of the neverending fruitchouli bandwagon, allowing Guerlain to compete for market share with Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle, Mugler’s Angel, and Lancôme’s abominable La Vie Est Belle, has notes (allegedly: they elude me) of blueberry, Bulgarian rose, candyfloss, patchouli, white musk and vanilla that smell even cheaper, and tackier, than any other perfume I have possibly ever smelled.
Still, if this new version, of what is already a global success for Guerlain, makes major inroads into the North American market ( you can imagine some lady living in the back of beyond, when asked what perfume she is wearing, and answering in full, in god knows what pronunciation, “Oh, it’s just a spritz or two of GUERLAIN LA PETITE ROBE NOIRE MA ROBE SOUS LE VENT EAU DE PARFUM INTENSE ( and someone gunning her down in response ) – becomes a mega-hit, then I am glad.
YES. Keep my beloved perfume house afloat financially. Let the spondoolas from the trash that sells wildly flood the Champs Elysees so that the precious vaults of beauteous perfumes can be properly archived and maintained. If people have no taste, that is FINE. Let Guerlain rake in the coffers from their cheap-as-chips concoctions with disproportionately high prices, so that all the perfumes that we DO love by this house, and there are so many, can be kept alive, nurtured, and preserved; and that new ones, perfumes with imagination, creativity and fine ingredients, are still to be created.
Some perfume houses (Chanel, Guerlain, Caron, Hermès) have a uniformity of style -such that even when you might not take to certain scents in the range personally, at heart you still feel that there is a stability in the stable. A general ease of quality ; a signature, a DNA.
Dior (oh read it and weep…Diorella, Diorling, Diorama, Diorissimo); Givenchy, Balmain, Yves Saint Laurent, all used to also have this quality before their cruel and vile degradations. I can hardly even bear to smell a single perfume at the Christian Dior counter now, knowing how attenuated and chemicalized the once sly, beautiful perfumes have become. The same goes for the dummies – factices! – masquerading as Opium or Rive Gauche.
Givenchy is now a joke – I could never forgive them for the name Véry Irrésistible, particularly when enunciated with a Parisian, or I dare say, a Birmingham accent, and Givenchy Gentleman and Ysatis, two of my favourite perfumes, well, the less said about the new versions the better.
At least visually, however, even if the juices inside are fake news, there is still usually with most houses some kind of cohesion. Van Cleef & Arpels, on the other hand, has always struck me as a real hodgepodge smorgasbord of ephemeral, whoreish opportunism. The perfumes and bottles just come and go. They look horrible together on the counter. There is nothing that really binds them. And that goes for the smell of them, as well.
Yes, there are the seminal, enduring creations from the house: the beautiful First (1976), and Tsar (1989), which I despise from the depths of my heart but still grudgingly respect in that patrician, Blake Carrington kind of manner; and then, of course, the more recent Collection Extraordinaire, featuring highly wearable, smooth and classy (if quite pricey) creations such as Orchidée Vanille, Lys Carmin, and California Rȇverie that I would quite happily have in my own collection if someone were just to give them to me for free.
The main line, nevertheless, I find to be, on the whole, repugnant – Féerie (bleuurrrgh!), Oriens, Midnight In Paris and all their flankers just the standard, thin, trumped up chemical crap I can’t abide. There is just no relation to the other Van Cleef & Arpels perfumes, no family tree lineage or any particularly Parisian, Van Cleevian recognizability.
That said, what of the forgotten perfumes, never blockbuster hits back in the day; ones you might not even have been aware of at the time, but were still there, the ones standing doggedly at their given places on the department store perfumery shelves (remember the days when that was virtually all the perfume that there was available?)
– – This makes me quite nostalgic, actually, the way certain perfumes – Après L’Ondée, say, or Alliage, would be kept under the counter at their respective concessions by their sales representatives, but it didn’t matter because those perfume lovers that wanted those particular scents specifically knew they could make a beeline for them whenever they wanted. They were wanted, which is why they were in constant production. The perfumes were all solid quality; you could trust in them not to be changed to sickening, pale impostors overnight – they were your beloved, signature fragrance.
Both Gem (discontinued) and Van Cleef (also, but depending on your information sources, still possibly available), are perfumes – real perfumes, from this valued, and cherished time, before the psycho, millennial split into toilet cleaners in fancy flacons (high street perfumery) and the vastly priced, decentish perfumes presented to us as the Exclusives, the Extraordinaries, the Private, and Privé Collections and all the rest; the two-tiered approach that every perfume house seems to have adopted now.
Although I knew neither at the time, these two deleted Van Cleefs are both clearly sturdy, well-made perfumes, rich with essence. Gem, which I have no recollection of, and which I experienced for the first time only very recently when I found it for around ten dollars at a Tokyo ‘recycle’ store a couple of weeks ago, had just been tossed into a wicker basket somewhere among the general jumble of the store alongside a whole load of perfumes into the general perfumed bargain bin, and I initially walked (actually limped, like John Merrick) away from the shop deciding to not waste my money………I don’t know, the jewellers – Cartier, Chopard, Van Cleef, Boucheron – never really appealed to me as much as the couturiers…..the matching of a Balenciaga gown with Le Dix, or Worth with Je Reviens – there is a romance there, a duet between scent and silk, fabric and fragrance, that seems more inherently harmonious that the diamond hard surfaces of precious stones that clash like teeth.
Somehow, though, I did a double turn. I was curious. Having smelled the nozzle briefly though (spice?! not what I was expecting) I then, despite myself, found that I was going back to get it.
As it turns out, Gem is now quite a sought after cult item, going for hundreds of dollars on ebay with delirious references to Guerlain Mitsouko and Rochas Femme, a ‘perfume of perfumes’, almost, and it in fact does have some of those classically rich, spiced chypre facets, although in truth to me it is more like a cross perhaps between vintage Opium parfum, and the fruitier, more orange laden KL, by Karl Lagerfeld, just with an extra, mesmerizing aspect of rich (and quite naughtily) animalic jasmine.
With its complexity, depth, opulence and spiciness, this is quite the scintillating perfume, actually, (the plum-filled Kenzo L’Elephant and even Yves Saint Laurent’s classic Kouros even came briefly to my mind for a moment when I was analyzing it later) – a real eighties ‘bitch in furs’ scent – quite dated for its time of release (Duncan guessed 1964 when I gave it him to smell!) and yet perfectly, eminently, full of that classic powerhouse, lip-glossed Dynasty attitude (though I still can’t quite decide whether Alexis or Sable Colby would wear it better). My bottle doesn’t feel at its optimum state – it hasn’t ‘turned’ as such, it just feels a little bit self-marinated, but I know that I will be definitely wheeling this one out again at some point in the future, either to gift to the right person (someone with the real panache and gall to properly carry it off), or else as an adjunct to costume.
There is a used ‘brand’ (the Japanese word for ‘designer’ – there is even a shop devoted to old Louis Vuitton and Chanel handbags and jewellery in Kamakura called Brand Panic) emporium in Ofuna, about twenty minutes from where we live, that sells perfume – Chanel Chance and Coco Mademoiselle extraits at overpriced rates – but when they first started out they used to also have plastic shopping bags out the back that they would bring out for me; loot made of perfume that had seemingly just been thrown out in the trash but which they would allow a crazed foreign scum queen like myself to happily rootle through – full, or almost full, bottles of L’Interdit eau de toilette and the like – I once also got yet another Van Cleef & Arpels perfume, Miss Arpels (ever heard of it? I didn’t think so), in a weirdly shaped, off-centered octagonal bottle with an unintelligible olfactory message; something a bit green tea-ish, melon, magnolia, and peonied – an unfinished oddity by Jean Claude Ellena – who also created First – that I didn’t really like in all honesty and gave to my Japanese teacher (who wore it quite well, in a tediously inoffensive, green floral kind of fashion.)
Van Cleef, though, another scent from that trash bag that had remained hidden from my radar for some unknown reason, was different.
This is an odd one: familiar, but at the same time quite original, created by a perfumer I have never heard of before, Pascal Girout, who seemingly only made this. I sometimes like that idea, though – of a perfumer labouring over one perfectionized fragrance every single day until it is perfect : then never trying again…
Classed as an oriental by Fragrantica (tonka bean, musk, vanilla and cedar; with orange blossom, geranium and sandalwood in the centre), this is nevertheless, like Gem, considerably spicy and cloved, flawless in its construction (it is impossible to discern any seams or any edges between any of the notes), yet fresh and tingly also – all marigold, raspberry, neroli and a touch of galbanum: a curiosity, pebble-smooth, caressingly soft (in that original Kenzo Le Monde Est Beau kind of way), yet to me, quite obviously androgynous. Actually wearing Gem in public would feel quite self-consciously camp to me and hard to imagine, whereas this, more savory, less sugared, is almost Brut by Fabergé or Ambush by Dana: a freshly shaven face eating Kola Kube sweets on a dappling Autumnal day (last summer, when Olivia was showing me the fantastically opulent treasures of her perfume collection, all of which I wanted to steal, she proffered up a small bottle of Van Cleef to me and said have you ever tried this? It’s gorgeous……………very unsurprising, in truth, this synchronicity, given that we are both equally drawn to the delicious and warm in perfumery; more, in general, than the cool, the calm and the collected…)
After I had picked up that first bottle of Van Cleef and smelled it – I have since come into possession of the treasured parfum for a song as well – delightfully dense and close – as I recognized immediately that it was something I would like, I sprayed it all over my freshly washed grey and white lined hoodie as we prepared to cycle back to our house. The scent melded perfectly with the cotton, in that neat, cuddling refuge kind of way (very much a scent to stay in with at the weekend and just escape from the world outside), but, impulsively, on that particular Saturday, for some strange reason, rather than cycle back the usual route, which until that moment we had never deviated from as it was flatter, and generally more scenic – a ride past the temples – I suddenly had a whim to go the much longer back route with its much steeper inclines ; hell on the knees, but good for the heart; and then, inexplicably (she must have been calling), to go into the woods, even though it was completely impassable and impractical on a bike. Perhaps I just wanted to see the lake, where the koi carp swim and which is rumored to be haunted. It’s a lovely place, though, and a good place to rest.
Still, we weren’t expecting – because they were hidden, or at least hiding themselves under a wooden litter bin just by a sharp drop into the forest (there are poisonous snakes in that part of the woods as well, mamushi that bite, with pictorial explanations of what to do if that happens) – four tiny kittens to come suddenly mewling in desperation from under their temporary cover, so wet and bedraggled and in quite a wretched state from their abandonment and night in the forest and running towards us; one of them, with an injured leg, but the fiercest and dazzling newly born blue eyes, making her way straight towards me, crawling up and refusing to let go: this, then, her first ever taste of perfumery, as she nuzzled under my hood…
The park keeper in his hut over the lakeside became aware of all the commotion as we were surrounded by tiny fur balls meowing, and came out and said that he would have to take, or ‘confiscate’ the rest of the kittens – so I have no idea what later became of her siblings, but Mori (‘forest’ in Japanese, the first name that came), clung on to me so fiercely and was so ridiculously cute that I instinctively refused to let go, and we took her home, cycling with her in the shopping basket, where she still is lording and queening it up, in our eccentric, perfumed nest, eight or nine or so years later.
The perfume still reminds me of that day, too, and it always will. I like knowing that it is just there in my collection; enjoy its robust, nerve-soothing predictability. Van Cleef, a scent I probably would never have discovered if it hadn’t been for that strange, lucky Saturday, is thus forever immortalized for me now: in a fun, and life-changing, sweetly perfumed memory tinged with fur.
In my old review of Guerlain’s Insolence, I describe my first, initial memories of experiencing this pink ultraviolet vanilla with bemusement.
I can still see myself outside Yokohama’s Takashimaya on a cold winter’s night and actually laughing, so over the top, harsh, swirling and unwearable I found it to be.
And yet the other day, a beautiful, sun filled afternoon I spent by myself in glorious solitude scouring the junk shops in downtown Tokyo (heaven on earth when you are in the right mood and have been stuck down in the sticks teaching pre-examination classes for a solid month), I came across a full bottle of this luscious Guerlain little treat for just 1,400 yen (about twelve dollars, under ten pounds), smelled it again, and just knew on the spot that had to have it.
I now kind of think that I maybe do actually love it. Spraying it onto the back of my hand as the wind blew around me at Asagaya station – the train delayed for thirty minutes by yet another suicide – this sweet, irisian violet with lashings of hair spray and fruit formed a bunny pink halo of comfort around me like the softest, most succoring blanket.
Dryer sheets; felt, fabric-softened baby grows, orange blossomed-vanilla; love.
Like tiger lilies under fluorescent tube lighting.
We live in a crass, capitalistic, interconnected world of hype in which we are at the mercy of conglomerates and advertising, an ingenious science that taps into the base needs of human beings – and their vulnerable, self-doubting psyches – and then creates products that they think they want and ‘need’. Thus, what is popular, a best seller, a ‘phenomenon’, relies less on the the intrinsic value of the thing itself then how it is marketed. You need buzz: to ride the wave of the zeitgeist with slick tantalisation and the snippet, a face (or better, a body) to sell your product, to have the media, and tech-savvy cold-eyed people in your department with their eye always on the game, plugged into the matrix, and what is ‘trending’, to make your consensus-built, pre-public tested creation a hit, to slip clues to the nature of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ at least a year before the movie’s release to whip up extra interest, to get Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning smile on board to market Lancome’s best selling perfume, La Vie Est Belle.
It goes without saying that the general public are not stupid (or not entirely, although the rise of Donald Trump perhaps puts paid to that idea). Generally speaking, though, people cannot be seduced by pure garbage, a product with no merit whatsoever. There must be some substance, quality, thrill or cultural hook that makes purchase seem worthwhile, even if it is just an initial sheen or surface that lures you in and leaves you feeling as satisfied as you do when you have just guiltily consumed a Big Mac. From films to music to perfumes to books there is a common denominator that pull the great hordes in, something with ‘mass-appeal’ (have you ever tried to read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? Yes I know the plot was intriguing and all, but I personally couldn’t get past the first paragraph the writing was so appalling: for me literally unreadable). A super-hit, then, while appealing on the surface perhaps and vaguely digestible, can often be, from other angles, and seen in hindsight, a total pile of junk.
Writing this I will probably come across as a total snob. And while it is true that I was definitely born a bit supercilious – possibly because my bullshit-o-meter was working ferociously from quite a young age – in fact my tastes are not as pretentious or hipster-tastic as many self-conciously ‘arty’ or ‘alternative’ types out there who willfully only gravitate to the obscure or ‘difficult’ in order to be cool. Cinematically I can go from pure art – Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Jodorowsky, Kubrick, all the truly visual auteurs – through to the lurid, high octane schlock of Brian De Palma or Scorcese to the latest Hollywood releases quite happily: a film I particularly enjoyed last year, for example, was Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the most viscerally physical films and atmospherically coherent films I have recently seen. Musically I am equally eclectic: in a certain mood I will listen to ‘difficult’ classical music like Messiaen, Stravinsky, or the most severe and abstract electronic ambient sounds, for me the equivalent of iced rain-drops clearing out my brain moss, while at others I am MOR, jazz, Mr Electro-Pop.
That said, despite my openness to the commercially successful ( I too, went to see Avatar in 3D spectacles and quite enjoyed it), to me there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that quantity of units sold is absolutely no guarantee of quality, particularly when we are talking about art. If we look at the top 20 most financially successful movies of all time, for example, we will find such dubious inclusions as Avengers: Age Of Ultron; Transformers: Age Of Extinction, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and Fast and Furious 7. Clearly these are categorically not the greatest films of all time, even if even these I am not entirely immune to the charms of :my students once insisted we watch Transformers and Fast And Furious, and though my brain was quite numb after a certain number of minutes, I could still see the appeal, at least from their eyes : all hard bods, sass, and pumped-up energy alchemized by a hundred-million-dollar special FX, well timed jokes and ironic asides, explosions, adrenalined car chases, and robots. The films were undeniably exciting on one simple level, which is just what the public wants – and they were then put in the hands of ‘creatives’ who knew how to sell them. They then became, as fully expected, mega-hits. And who am I to judge?
While a perfume might not shift as many units as an album by Adele, whose semi-sincerity, vocal prowess, and natural beauty I can definitely see the appeal of, even though I might not listen to her myself (“Hello”, on the radio, though is finally getting through to me); it is, ultimately, still a part of the same game. A blockbuster perfume is still a cultural product that becomes part of the world around us even if it is invisible, and it makes a lot of money for its parent company (which probably gains most of its income through toilet products in so called ‘functional perfumery’ – but is there really any difference half the time?), and, like Disney and its franchises, becomes its cash cow.
To reach so many people, though, you have to compromise (surely the enemy of true art), or else you create, once in a while, a masterpiece that is not compromised at all but just so good of and in itself that something in the heart of the public can’t resist it (Shalimar, Black Swan, The Corrections): perfumes, films, or books that come from founts of genuine inspiration. These are very much the exceptions, though. More often than not, the products that become popular with the populace as a whole have been smoothed out, traded-off and accommodated to the point that they become thick, easily comprehended banalities with the skins of a rhinoceros; sturdy as steel; impregnanted and infallible. Successful. A movie like Iron Man 3 cannot fail: the people at Paramount Pictures will have seen to that, in advance. Likewise, La Vie Est Belle, a perfume I detest, will have been tried and tested beforehand, and tweaked and redirected on the poor unsuspecting public – whose reactions to what they are smelling will in large part be based on the general scent in the air (ie. crude fruitchouli gourmands, the perfumes that all women seem to wear now): ground zero to which this ‘new’ fragrance release will smell quite similar. And thus the faceless tick the boxes, and the ‘new perfume’ gets released, and the never-ending, vicious cycle of humdrum mediocrity gets perpetuated. Ad Nauseam.
In truth, Angel (Thierry Mugler) is largely to blame. It changed everything when it was released in 1992, an absolute and utter game changer. And we are still going through its repercussions, as its iconclasms reverberate through the decades in perfumery, just as Chanel No 5 was the progenitor of the majority of copycat perfumes that were released in its brilliant, groundbreaking aftermath (much as I adore my selective vintage collection, it is interesting just how many more obscure old perfumes you come across at flea markets and the like are just so boring: yet another rose jasmine woody musk aldehyde, yawn: : plus ca change), and they invariably pale next to the real thing anyway. Angel, a perfume I myself enjoy to wear in small doses, though I thoroughly understand its detractors (my sister might actually try to kill you if you wear too much of its cloying patchouli white chocolate in her presence), is great for its pared down intensity and shocking originality (at the time, at least: now it just smells a little bit tired). Like a sculpture by Brancusi, though, all was compact and rounded; essential, leaving no extraneous essence. Angel was the sum of its parts: the refracted, commercialized patchouli; the sharp fruit; the fuzzy, skin-kissing white chocolate, its hinting of the smell of sexual spentness in its final stages on the skin, its inhuman tenacity.
Since then, in ‘women’s perfumery (‘men’s’ hardly bears even mentioning and is in general to be considered quite beneath contempt, as there is usually only one concept – MACHO – though in recent years daring new additions to what can be considered masculine such as Dior Homme have attempted to create new tropes ); almost everything we smell now seems to have been built on the foundations of Angel’s tooth-wrecking and infantilizing reign – the descent into comfort and gourmand, into the mood-boosting sweetness of sugar and the slightly ‘daring’ combination of ‘patchouli’ (lab-leached variants of the real thing with some of its earthiness and woodiness but none of the soul). And thus we have such worldwide mega-hits as Flowerbomb – well constructed and faultless in its way if a little unpoetic to say the least – La Petite Robe Noire, another cheap smelling gourmand in the best sellers, and, possibly the most currently popular perfume in the world, Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle, a cleverly constructed sharp, more floral metallic Angel, and a fragrance that I personally find abhorrent. A perfume that sucks the air out from it around it. A perfume that is the smell of the headache-inducing pollution of the department store and duty free, of chemicals, and popularity.
Yes, the ‘smell of popularity’, I like that expression, as that is exactly what we are talking about here. Either the endless fruitchouli variants, or else the desexualized floral (Happy, Romance, J’Adore etc) or the pallid, laundry musk safety of a Kenzo Flower or a Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. All very competent, cunningly commercial fragrances that probably deserve to be the hits that they are because they hit some kind of olfactory mark that smells familiar and easy, that fits in with the mainstream of what is considered perfumery – the Sam Smiths and Kelly Clarksons of the perfumery department – yet which still will make the discerning perfumist, who knows real perfumery, shake his or her in vexed apathy and disgruntled irritation.
Trying to break the mould in practically any sphere of creativity is difficult, and a risk. This is why the big movie studios are apparently less and less willing to try something new, and stick instead to their blockbuster franchise sequels and, on the side, just to win some accolades, their yearly release of ‘quality’ Hollywood Oscar-bait (actually my least favourite kind of film, for their strict, conservative adherence to preconceived notions of what constitutes ‘good taste’ and ‘quality’: in acting, in set design, in screenplay- you couldn’t get me to watch Eddy Redmayne, in The Danish Girl, for example, if you paid me). Other than these two types of films – action blockbusters based on superheroes saving the world (why, oh why, why why why do people – ‘adults’ – like superhero movies so much? I will never, ever, understand it), and ‘issue’ based, show-your-acting-chops dramas like The Imitation Game (yes, Cumberbatch was brilliant, in a way (though I personally didn’t believe a word of it), and the story was uplifting, and then crushing, and I cried a bit, where I was supposed to, so it was good, stolid entertainment even if it was, ultimately, for me, just an obvious ploy to try and get Academy Awards): other than these, the studios are simply too afraid to try and do something original, to go out on a limb.
In truth, despite the rave reviews these kinds of films receive on Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes (critical consensus is always something to beware of for me) I often find that the slated films, or those with very low scores, the ones that are vilified and scorned and hated by the Quality Police, the ones that failed at the box office, are actually more enjoyable. They take more risks. They don’t care. They say what they want to say. They are fun. A bit weird. More liberated, and free of conventions or expectations. And by far most importantly, they try something new.
So we come to the commercial failures. The films, or books or music or perfume that no one buys – the ‘flops’. And in the cruel and ruthless world of dollar-based evaluation, something that doesn’t immediately bring home the bacon is usually considered a failure, on every level ( I don’t think this is quite the case in somewhere like France, however, where art is more respected and where a film can win the Palme D’Or at Cannes and still not make any money). In perfume terms, though, I think it is even more difficult to branch out, as the public in general is less equipped to analyze the olfactive than they are with other creative media – we live in a largely visual arena and so know how to process the memes of the constant visual media – whereas commercial perfume tends to be a more enveloping bank of conformity that becomes the air in the bar, pub or club that we are accustomed to and are thus more unwilling to break away from for the simple fear of smelling wrong.
As a result, when perfumers do dare to try to follow their instinctive muse and a head designer comes on board and says yes, sometimes interesting scents are released into the world that nevertheless come crashing down and are quickly discontinued. I am not really talking about niche, where word-of-mouth and willingness to be different is much stronger, and thus the perfumes are judged more on their olfactory worth than on their image (although the sheer number of perfumes released now, with each new niche house always beginning with a whole phalanx of scents, an entire olfactory spectrum of fragrances all in one go, means necessarily that a fair few of the creations will fall by the wayside as an inevitable result of natural selection), but more about the bigger investments by the more well known fashion houses that require much more of an initial investment in terms of product design and promotion, perfumes that are then withdrawn in a silence of embarrassment and never heard of again while the ‘creative department’ goes back to their ‘directives’, their ‘mood boards’, and square one.
These are the perfumes, then, that Olivia, my co-contributor, and I will be looking in this new series: “ Successful Failures”, perfumes that came and went, but that managed to gain some die-hard fans in the short time that they lived. Discontinued perfumes that disappeared but that can still be found if you look ( at discount online perfumeries, T.J Maxx and the like): a far better fate than reformulation, at any rate, which is a disgrace, and an indignity that any quality perfume should never be subjected to. Rather a perfume be in hiding, surely – unknown and waiting to be re-recognized in its original form, as it was intended – than be a shadow of its former self, an imitator, a brain-scooped, cheaper, more synthetic, doppelganger.
And so, ‘without further ado’, to the Successful Failures, the Good That Died Young. The Beautiful Rejects. And the first in this series today we will be starting with (sporadically, when we feel like it), is Theorema (incidentally, one of my favourite films – Teorema or Theorem, by Pasolini, an exquisite Italian masterpiece), released by Fendi in 1998, and now, like the film, for those in the know, something of a cult favourite.
Take it away Olivia.
Fendi Theorema (1998)
Theorem. There is something in that keystone of pure mathematics that hints at astral beauty and the awe of the unknown: the study of space and structure, of change and motion, the meshing of abstraction and logic. The tracing of patterns in an unfathomable chaos.
In a sense, there is a reflection of this in Fendi’s defunct perfume from 1998, Theorema. A wonderful balancing act of legible complexity, it is a harmony of disquiet and languid lean whose soft, diaphanous features drape over a garnet bone structure. Both supine and regal, the abstraction of the composition seems perfectly logical when worn on skin: comfortable and eclectic. Like those algebraic abstractions, there is a sense of something ethereal and outside of ourselves and yet, at the same time enveloping us.
A spiced, woody oriental with a gourmandish character (but whose sweetness is light years from the ethyl maltol caked sugar vats of many current launches), this perfume shares a bloodline with those fiery powerhouses of the 80s – Opium, Cinnibar and Fendi’s own Asja – by way of the mellow cedar fruits of Lutens. However while the fingerprint of those Lutensian spiced compotes can definitely be felt throughout Theorema, here it’s as if that leitmotif has been sketched on rice paper: hefty notes of spice and woods, of vanilla pods, fleshy florals and fruits are made diaphanous and wear like gossamer. Opening with a dusky orange bolstered by nutmeg, cardamom, pepper and rosewood and making it’s way through a floral heart – jasmine, rose, leathery osmanthus, ylang all freckled by cinnamon – to a sumptuously teaky base of benzoin, guaiac, sandalwood, amber and patchouli, this perfume is a stunning drape between disquiet and extreme comfort. Theorema is sunshine and earth: puffs of silk and fire.
The orange note, delectable and almost russet coloured, coupled with the chocolatey benzoin and patchouli makes for a much lauded mirage of confectionary. Specifically, for a time, it radiates a giddying apparition of Terry’s Chocolate Orange scooped out greedily from the woolly toe of a Christmas stocking. I must emphasise though that this is a very grown up version of a bonbon: there is no refined sugar here, nothing cloying in the least and it is instead toasty and cosseting, delicious and entirely of an adult palate.
The white florals in the heart, so often fleshy and lush, here take on an almost carnation like zing – the baseline of the spices buffs them with gauzy shades of chestnut and hazel, rich and piquant with their innate abundance peaking through as if glinting with caramel tones in lamplight. The rose, washed over by the milkiness of sandalwood seems baked by a late autumnal sun. Instead of buxom and bold petals, this is more a milky, spiced pomander of dried burgundy rose petals and cloves.
But while this perfume retains a lush and womanly aura, the woods and spices lend it a very slightly dirty (but not animalic) edge. There is a wonderful tension poised between delicate notes and heavy ones, a leathery laced and tangy hem that hints at secrets and misadventure. It is a perfume midway between the woolen snug of a cuddle and the sticky, sweet trace of nectarous booze on lips, a mingling of incense with gingerbread. It is all welcoming and warm smiles in that broad Italian way; confident and complex, restrained enough for elegance but hinting through fogged windows at delicious kinks. The sum total is sensuous and knowing, comfortable and self-assured but with a quite intoxicating hint of something more disarming: just underneath the coze and spiced panettone is a frisson, the whisper of cat-flick liner and a nightcap Gauloise.
Truly this is a beautiful, intelligent fragrance but despite all the virtues I’ve written about above, it flopped horribly. Its surprising lack of tenacity perhaps was a factor – a downside of the admirable transparency of the composition is that is does wear lightly (although the parfum – a true unicorn! – is richer and more unctuous as you’d expect.) But released as it was in 1998, it shared shelf space with the likes of Baby Doll, J’Adore and Rush and perhaps this auburn elixir was just too out of step with broader commercial tastes at the time. Truth be told this, while not a difficult perfume is perhaps not universally appealing especially to noses less accustomed than they likely would be now to the smoky, disarming qualities of ingredients such as oud.
If it were released now, under a swishy niche label and with a stratospheric price, I have no doubt it would be a sensation. There are however alternatives, perfumes with a kinship to Theorema that could quench a yen. Perfumer Christine Nagel did in fact resurrect the concept of her earlier composition in her 2004 release for Armani Prive, Ambre Soie – a similarly atmospheric perfume reminiscent of smoked ginger and the darkest cocoa powder. Givenchy Organza Indecence, released only a year after Theorema (and similarly discontinued but still easier to find) rifts on the same idea but extends the vanillic aspects and fleshes out the fruit with rich plummy swathes.
Etat Libre d’Orange Like This is a more distant descendant – drier, edgier but with the same russetty palate and evocation of warmth and home comforts. The brand new fragrance from Parfums MDCI, Les Indes Galantes, however is much closer to the bone. Rich, complex and Christmassy its interplay of winey fruits and spiced woods are throatier than Theorema, but there is enough smoky speckled vanilla pod and burnished tickly fruits to wrap you up with the same interwoven tendrils of goodwill and allure to satisfy the craving – it’s gorgeous and very much worth checking out.
You can’t beat Guerlain. The sheer number of perfumes, both current and lost, the gorgeousness. Sometimes I spend a morning dipping into the Monsieur Guerlain website just to delve into the archives and ogle what I don’t have, to suck up trivia about the house and imagine what it must be like to have free access to those vaults full of old recipes and beautiful bottles of rich and ravishing perfumes that I would love get my hands on.
The house certainly is prolific. And while that is no guarantee of quality (think: Tutti Kiwi, Grosselina, ‘L’Homme Ideal’, to name but a few recent disappointments), it is always interesting to either reacquaint yourself with some of the the more interesting relatively recent olfactory successes – Metallica is divine, as is Attrape Coeur – although both have been moronically discontinued in favour of such mucoid banalites as the Idylle range – or else access now forgotten scents by Guerlain that you had, somehow, never even heard of.
Belle Epoque is one such scent, a sample of which I noticed the other day and which I never even realized I had; sent, I think, by Brielle (who used to work for the company – I have never shoplifted in my life but I can’t guarantee that I would have been entirely well behaved in the stock room on a Friday afternoon had I been in the same position; some soaps, or bain moussant at the very least, surely, would have slipped their way into my pockets).
For me, any strongly scented jasmine/tuberose sandalwood combination has a certain, unavoidable vulgarity. Creed’s Jasmin Eugenie Imperatrice is the perfect example of this effect; plush, thick, dense, and sexual – a touch rogueish and strong-willed, not shy at all, even rude – which is why I like it in some ways even as it overwhelms and clobbers you over the head. I admire its don’t-give-a-shitness. Its aspect of I am in the room, so deal with it. Samsara also, obviously has this quality, in buckets (a love/hate relationship, always, with me) – so……bosoming, thick-thighed, in ya face.
Belle Epoque, while certainly more subtle than either of the above (though also less characterful), belongs to the same family of perfumes. Founded on a solid base of vanilla, musk, sandalwood, vetiver and tonka, the oil-painted florals up top (an orange and apricot-tinged jasmine, ylang and low octave tuberose) sink into the full body of the perfume, which, if you squint long enough, could indeed be reminiscent of saucy c. 19 dames chuckling in the boudoir; a whiff of ribald, satined corpulence ; bra-popping jokes.
Libidinous and suave though it is, Belle Epoque nevertheless doesn’t quite hit the mark, not having quite enough inner poetry somehow (even of the erotic kind) to make it especially memorable, though in low doses I can imagine the scent having a definite, if undefinable, presence. It is a scent that lends heft and confidence, if not mystery. Jean Paul Guerlain must have quite liked it though, as the perfume clearly was the template for the big, mainstream (and financial catastrophe) that the house released the following year: MAHORA, a name that had a touch too much of ‘whore’ in it to hit the big time, perhaps (particularly in more conservative America). Just add some tiare, some sunscreen, and some and coconut to Belle Epoque, though, and you have Guerlain’s big-hipped foray into tropicalia (now called Mayotte in a slimmed-down re-edition in the Parisiennes collection, and losing something in the process).
I myself quite like Mahora. I can remember when it was released in Japan, my friend Denise and I completely dousing ourselves in the new parfum at a Tokyo department store. We stunk out the train. I sprayed cards and cards of perfume blotters with the scent in all its forms as well during this period, and my Madonna ‘Music’ album still smells strongly of it all these years later as that was where I secreted them. I like such perfumes. They bolster and amuse, when there is so much anorexic negation about in current climes: the stick-thin, desexualized creatures walking around in bone-dry woods and synthetic, futuristic flowers, or otherwise completely ‘unscented’ (or so they like to believe) ; the big trend in Japan right now being for non-alcoholic alcoholic drinks that contain no sugar, no alcohol, no this, no that (and no taste). Zero this, zero that: Zero, zero, zero. Slim down to pre-pubescence. Deny yourself pleasure. Lose weight or die. Or else, it all goes completely the other way on a Saturday night in England or America : overkill on-a plate; all about that ‘bass’, the ass: booty, rack, whatever, all coated in nasty vanillic tack, oversweetened and come-here-baby and with no room to breathe; those currently popular scents that you smell everywhere, be they duty free or high street, that really are vulgar. They bore and annoy. They suggest thick-headedness and stupidity. Perfume as porn. As a free ride. And in comparison, a scent like Belle Epoque – well made and sturdy; rich and curvaceous – even while winking coquettishly in the direction of licentiousness – is pure class.
The release of Guerlain’s Samsara in I989 will forever be one of those utterly unforgettable perfume experiences. I remember it vividly. We had never smelled anything like it before. Nobody had. A perfume that rich; robust; strong, and eighties: its faux-oriental red canister, its ‘spiritual’ longeurs of thick, never ending sandalwood and jasmine, its shoulder-loving base tones that ate the air. This was a perfume that achieved a feat I have never quite come across since, almost a Marvel Comics-like power: the perfume, once sprayed, or even dabbed, to literally appear in the room, full-bodied and busted, dripping with lusciousness and redness, long before you ever did. You would have just emerged from your bedroom; about to come down the stairs, but before you had even put one foot forward your perfume (god what a perfume) would already be waiting for you impatiently, corporeal, present, at the front door. The whole house would smell of it: your tongue might even taste of it. This was an EVENT.
To an eighteen year old boy, enamoured with perfume, enamoured with life, and what it all might mean, this plush, bombastic bombshell of a scent was magnanimous, replete: shining with ‘exoticism’ and fulsome female sexuality, but even then before I had even left my bedroom, my hometown and experienced anything of the world I could tell that it was vulgar: really vulgar, its edges blunted and forceful despite its ostensibly Parisian credentials. Opulent, as full throttled as an opera singer; gorgeous, frightening even, but most definitely vulgar. It was that sandalwood, real Mysore sandalwood when it first came out and so much of it: as heavy as velvet curtains soaked in roses and tonka and amber, and musk: the gallery of the opera house glinting with lemons and bergamots, narcissus chandeliers dripping ylang ylang and iris: glorious, yes, but somehow still a diva-ish blockhead; an over coloured painting, pores painted and suffocated over like the femme fatale in Goldfinger, no room to breathe, an assault.
I did love it, though, and still do. I am not exactly Mr Subtle myself. And in my collection I have treasured bottles of the vintage eau de parfum and parfum, which I take out occasionally and spray just to relive, remember (but how could I forget) and reassess. The parfum is more subtle, strangely, and I like it more; less brash and trumpeting than the edp which I find tactless in its more-is-more of sandalwood, florals and citrus that are anything but seamless, harsh, even, and herein lies the rub. Despite the genial originality of Jean Paul Guerlain’s most effusive and red-blooded scent ( read Monsieur Guerlain’s comprehensive review for a fuller appreciation of its virtues), when I smell it now, I find Samsara almost maladroit and gauche in its packing in of all those ingredients at once, little calibration; each addition pushed to the max and gilded to the point of no return: I sense bony elbows sticking out like kids fighting inside a duvet, some glinting, chemical edges that make my nose wrinkle. I know that the bottles might have aged (though I don’t really think they have), but I wonder sometimes if it almost might be a case of my memory wearing rose-tinted spectacles, traversing those corridors of time back to my younger days and making Samsara seem more beautiful than it actually is.
Which brings me to Alizée.
We had had a wonderful, sunny day out in Harajuku, a couple of weeks ago, and were just wandering from Yoyogi Park to Shibuya, exploring unexplored Sunday streets on the way to Ebisu, and by chance took a wrong turning, ending up instead in one of those sleepy back alleys of Daikanyama, the trendy bijou youth quarter with its vintage clothes shops and chichi little boutiques and the highest proliferation of fashionable, avant garde hair salons per capita in the world. Yellow pots, colourful flowers, plastic doll heads perched daintily on their niche, balustraded steps, tempting passersby in for their next, modish cut; young things wandering around in their provocatively out-there fashions, supping slowly and delicately on ice creams.
Walking past, I thought I had caught perfume bottles in the entrance of one place – always a reason to snap to attention – and indeed, as we went back on ourselves, mounted the stairs and peered in, I saw to my delight that there was an entire row of perfumes by a French house I had never even heard before. Parfums Détaille. Vintage in look and vintage in smell: but good ones. One sniff told me that these were not some cheap, ersatz rubbish but the real deal: quality, well composed scents redolent of old Paris. Properly made and complex, nuanced, perfumes. Redolent, though, of other scents as well.
Shéliane (which I will have to go back and smell again) struck me as a beautifully complex and richly constructed patchouli chypre floral along the lines of Aromatics Elixir and Parure, but fresher and more elusive; Alizée, another scent placed next to it, unloved, on the shelf – I don’t imagine anyone actually ever buying these, somehow: they are the antithesis of what a jeune Daikanyama-ite would wear, probably just there for Francophilic decoration – I lifted up, smelled, and sprayed a whole load on the back of my hand and on a mass of scent strips, stuffing them in my jeans back pocket as we carried on our way to Ebisu. And quickly, as the familiarly pleasingly sharp and fresh green and citrus notes wove over, I found myself swooning, in the spring afternoon light, over the scent of erotic, living jasmine flowers flowing over old-school sandalwood and narcissus; ylang; iris, all the Samsara ingredients (this really is a copy, or to be kind, an hommage), but I have to say, better: the perfume breathing and suffusing through itself at will: the jasmine and sandalwood more successfully fused, or infused: the whole lighter; more Bohemian. Samsara as she should have been, really; how you would dream her up if you had to recreate her again: idealized.