Private Collection is an American classic. Extremely distinctive, there is nothing else quite like it. Green, lush, austere but yearningly romantic, melancholic yet somehow perennially optimistic, this powdery, vetiver-based, ravishingly and sharply green floral is a perfume that pierces the senses and remains lodged in the memory forever.
I should know. Not only did my mother go through a period of wearing this in the eighties, when I was about seventeen (she was never averse to trying new pastures when it came to fragrance, although with many selections, this was limited, like Private Collection, to only one bottle or two), but my high school French teacher would also wear this anomalous perfume in too high profusion in the lessons, creating an odd dichotomy between her dimininutive, dumpy presence, appalling French accent, and the plushly orchestrated delight of fresh flowers and grasses that would fill up the room like a crushed, vernal symphony.
I have talked before of what I see as the ‘rich divorcée’ accord in most Estee Lauder perfumes, a phrase that to me sums up virtually the entire early catalogue, from Youth Dew to Aromatics Elixir, through Cinnabar, Knowing and Spellbound: that familiarly dense, compressedly aldehydic, ‘respectably perfumed’ aspect that forms the base of all this house’s creations (even the green dewiness of a perfume such as Pleasures, that nineties phenomenon, somehow withholds and extends this very ‘acceptable, take her to meet her future mother-in-law’ aspect that is at the heart of most American perfumery). No, it is undeniable. Madame Lauder’s perfumes have never been dirty, or daring (with the exception of Alliage), nor coquettish, licentious, nor filthy – that would be the prerogative, surely, of the French, stereotypical though that last sentence surely is.
I know, though, that real perfume connoisseurs reading this at this moment know exactly what I mean. Lauder’s perfumes always kept you at arms’ length, even while inviting you to inhale their peculiar artistry, to sit admiringly in their undeniably impressive aura, and to feel that the person in question, is, undeniably, ‘all woman’.
Private Collection, like Gabrielle Chanel’s own Nº19, was apparently created originally for Estee Lauder’s private use, and only later released to the public (“every woman should have this in her own private collection”), a canny marketing strategy that would feel glib and empty to me were it not for the fact that Private Collection really does smell, and quite intensely, private.
Perhaps this is what made me feel so….not uncomfortable, exactly, but dislodged and quietly – at the back of my brain as I tried to learn the finer points of French grammar – mesmerized, offput, during the period leading up to the university entrance exams. Where I would have been there in my Chanel Pour Monsieur or Armani Pour Homme or Givenchy Gentleman, and the girls were all wearing Loulou, Poison, Anais Anais, or Lauder’s own new fluffy pink sweater-in-bosoms release, Beautiful, the elevated olfactory countenance of my French teacher’s perfume, which lawnmowered down all others in the room and filled it to every corner, was like watching a funeral casket from behind a privet hedge, your senses heightened, as you smelled the lilies, green roses, but most importantly, the most mournful flowers of them all, piled high on the gleen of the coffin, a glut of white chrysanthemum.
It felt, almost, like intruding. And it is this bitter, doleful and more perspicacious aspect of Private Collection that raises the perfume above all possible banality and, by association, its more slatternly, easy-going peers. It is a classically American grand parfum that was created by Vincent Marcello (who I had never heard of before doing some research for this piece), but who apparently was a perfumer who is credited with only two other creations – Halston Z14 and Caron’s legendary spiced leather, Yatagan.
This is revealing. Where a perfumer’s perfumography is often very extensive, their concoctions and signature style of scent creation lent out to all and sundry who want to use them (think Alberto Morillas or Bertrand Duchaufour), I often think that when a perfumer has only created a handful of perfumes (but classic and enduring ones), this shows us just how much time and effort, inspiration and execution must have gone into the process before the perfume was finally revealed to its eager public; I imagine him or her toiling fervidly behind confidential closed doors in their laboratory, adding and subtracting, sighing and elating, until the exact composition they had had in mind all along reveals itself to them like a slave in a piece of marble by Michaelangelo. The perfume was there, waiting to be exist; it just had to find the right moment to be released.
Like Yatagan and Halston Z14, Private Collection is incredibly complex. Beginning with citric, and very incitingly chlorophylled top notes of leaves and grasses, bergamot and coriander, the mordant sting of chrysanthemum and reseda (a fragrant, herbaceous plant), along with Bulgarian rose, aldehydes, honeysuckle and linden, the perfume – immediately poetic, heart beating firmly beneath its worldly veneer – is on-point and extroverted, ready to show off the beautiful home and quintessential gardens; yet simultaneously, just under the surface, obviously, still, quite defensive and withdrawn. Mr. Marcello quite brilliantly counterpoints the pointed and imperious green notes of the grande facade entrance with a more wistful and emotive heart of powdery rose-kissed heliotrope, and a subtle, but lingering, endgame of vetiver, musk, sandalwood, and amber. With these deep psychological complexities, in the tensions between the dark green of the botanical shadows and the more urbane pleasures of the daylight, Private Collection is, thus, for me, one of the most paradoxical and contradictory perfumes that I know: and therein lies its brilliance.
In his seminal review of Private Collection, The Perfumed Dandy, who adores this perfume, it would seem, as he keeps returning to it, writes of it that is ‘a scent of solitary sorrow, a perfume of private grief and almost immeasurable melancholy, marrying nettles and lawn grass with oak moss and earth to achieve a cool, reserved opening of remarkable detached intensity.’
I think that this is a perfect way of describing the overall effect of Private Collection, although unlike the Dandy, I could never wear this perfume on myself. Although I do have a few miniature bottles of the vintage parfum picked up at Tokyo fleamarkets that I treasure for memory’s sake, and which I am in fact wearing while writing this on a grey rainy day in Kamakura, much as I love it, ultimately this most arch of American perfumes is a little too recherché, polite, reserved and conservative for a person like me. Its inherent strictures would bring on irritation. Moreover, it made such an enduring impact on my psyche as an adolescent, that it is definitely too firmly rooted, now, in my past.
Which brings us to Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia. Fast forward almost a quarter of a century, and Lauder’s grand daughter Aerin, now at the helm of the formidable U.S cosmetics behemoth, revives the Private Collection name in 2007 with a brand new ‘niche’ perfume set aside from the main commercial lineup, Tuberose Gardenia. The fragrance community go wild at the prospect of a linear, American white floral containing these luscious, white flowers, and once again the canny institution has another commercial hit ….
Although I had smelled it once briefly in Harrods as the concept had piqued my curiosity (and I must say I quite liked the bottle), it wasn’t until recently, when I picked up a small, boxed miniature of this perfume at a recycle shop here in Japan that I got the chance to study this perfume in thorough detail. I was surprised, and not unpleasantly. Readers of The Black Narcissus will know by now that I have quite schizoid tastes, favouring either the grave, dark and unmistakably elegant, or else sweet, wild, flagrant tropicalia, with not very much in between. I love white flower perfumes of the jasmine, frangipani, tuberose and gardenia variety and find that I am wearing them more and more. Current work perfumes, usually worn (for me at least) discreetly at the wrist under white shirt cuff and under a suit jacket, include Dolce and Gabbana’s exquisite Velvet Desire (the perfect jasmine /gardenia – really, you must try it), Reva De Tahiti’s Eau de Tiare, and, perhaps amusingly, Elizabeth Taylor’s peachy delicious, and very Southern American Belle, Gardenia. I don’t quite know how these perfumes smell to other people, but to me, on me, they smell unclichéd, sensuous, and delightful, a drenched and floral riposte to the limitations of gender, nationality and boring limitations on freedom in general. I do feel liberated in flowers.
Given this, it would seem then that Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia would slot perfectly into my scent list for a surreptious scenting on a daily work basis, almost guaranteed in advance to be quite non-threatening, ‘clean’, yet pleasingly alluring, as is the case with most of the perfumes that comes from the ascetic land of the pilgrims and its hysterically deep-seated fear of nudity, dirt, and the flesh. That it is also based on two of my absolute favourite floral notes in existence thus means, surely, that this recent Estee Lauder was destined to be mine.
And it is, in many senses. I like it. But although I had been dreaming of an ideal marriage of white petals; creamy and clean and sun-riven with a delicately aquatic touch of sea breeze – the ideal, soothingly light sillage I would like to give off when passing by the students who are sitting near the blackboard – in fact, Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia turns out to be much darker in essence and impact, more tenebrous and far reaching than I had presumed.
Yes, there are the aforementioned flowers at the fore: pristine and fresh, along with a rather overly insistent note of neroli; and in its crisp, state-of-the-art technology, developed by the fragrance giant Firmenich, this perfume also lasts far, far longer than I would have anticipated, whether on skin or on clothes (despite its being a tiny 4ml vaporisateur, I am thankful that it is one of those spray bottles that allow you to use the fragrance in miniature, infinitesimal spurts that are no more than what you need). Wearing this composition, even if the tiniest doses, I do, I must admit, feel very polished, pleasantly scented, and intriguingly, ‘professionally’ fragranced, throughout my working day.
Yet despite the listing of notes on Fragrantica (lilac, rosewood, carnation and Bourbon vanilla as well as the anticipated florals, none of which were featured in the original creation from 1973), and the sun-filled, white petalled overture, which really does smell of laboratory-approximated tuberose flowers and gardenias done in the California manner, soon, on my skin, this perfume turns into……………………………Private Collection.
There is no denying it. Really. It is unmistakeable. The old, original perfume haunts the new one. And looking, just now, more closely at the various descriptions of Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia, I see that the perfume was in fact created ‘to honor the memory of Aerin’s grandmother, by creating a new perfume which is based on the fragrance Private Collection created at the beginning of the 1970s especially for Estee Lauder’s use’.
We cannot escape her.
We are suddenly enlightened. Private Collection lies at the very heart of Tuberose Gardenia, subtle, and hidden; cleverly concealed within the essential structure: the newer perfume, being, I have thus realized, a form of palimpsest, a piece of paper on which the original writing has been erased, at least superficially, with brand new words inscribed on it anew.
And I think this is a touch of genius. It fascinates me. The full-circle, unintended linkage with my own memories of that first, unforgettable, perfume and the life I am living right now. That having worn Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia in my own classroom, now as the teacher, rather than the student ( I wonder if any of the Japanese teenagers in my class are having their own private cerebral reactions to my smell the way I did with my own language teacher), I can now see the ineffable connections reaching all the way back to my own past history as well that original perfume’s sombre grandiosity; its orthodox traditionalism and inheritance: the dense, dark green of its secret gardens; its strange, American beauty.