On Thursday night we went to a Vietnamese dance and acrobatics show at the Opera House Saigon. Climbing the red carpet behind behind a European couple, I caught their joint sillage. It was exactly like all the duty free perfumes I had lacklusterly sampled at the various airports to and from; the slab of grey blue woody ‘amber’ for him; pink:orange, unthinking ‘floral’ vanilla for her.
While not overtly unpleasant, what struck me the most about their fused scent trail was the absolute absence of nuance or complexity. There was no sense of the perfume beckoning you to find out more; nothing elusive, mysterious, sensuous or daring. Sexual, perhaps, in a hammer and tongs kind of way. But nothing that made you wonder, feel captivated, or aesthetically switched on. With their block-like opacity without light, everything you needed to know was there in an extraordinarily simplistic manner: :
I am man. And I am woman.
The new duo of fragrances by Maison FK, both called Gentle Fluidity ( geddit?) aims to get past this dichotomy of his and her by presenting two different perfumes based on exactly the same 49 ingredients, but blended in different proportions. By not spelling out for you which is ‘for men’ and which is ‘for women’, you yourself make the choice. Prominent notes include nutmeg, coriander, musk, juniper berries, ‘amber woods’ and vanilla (spotlighted more obviously in the more feminine scent) ; you are presumably supposed to gravitate towards whichever of the two (in actual fact quite contrasting perfumes) you feel more ‘comfortable’ with.
Although Francis Kurkdijian is a brilliant perfumer, with quite a few scents in the range I find impressive (though don’t actually wear), I have to say that for me, the concept and execution of these two new fragrances is a dud. Firstly, there is nothing remotely ‘gentle’ about either of them. The men’s one (because let’s be honest, these perfumes are just as strictly gendered as the ones that I smelled on the theatre staircase, they just aren’t physically labelled as such ) is abrasive and very forthright, with the juniper note at the front, and a familiar, Sauvage-ish base (absolutely the order of the day: I noticed that Hermès had gone this route with their ‘vetiver’ remix of Terre D’Hermes, as had Kenzo in variants of their classic Pour Homme- everyone is getting in on the ‘liquid testosterone’ act).
The women’s one is equally unadventurous: the usual, thick and oversweetened woody vanilla. I didn’t try either of the sample bottles I received on my own skin ( because I couldn’t bear to: if there is a real, gentle, or gender, fluidity when it comes to perfumes I already have it and I love the individualistic ambiguity that is the result).
Having said that, one thing I have realized recently is that in perfume criticism you can’t fully know what you are talking about until you have smelled the fragrance on different people and in real life situations. You make your pronouncements and then later have to (somewhat) change your tune. When we were checking in at Vietnam Airlines, as the woman at the counter walked past us to return to her post she left a delicious, modern vanilla with delicately fruited overtones behind her: as she checked our passports and issued our tickets, though slightly embarrassing, I was enjoying smelling her scented aura so much I felt compelled to ask her what she was wearing. ‘Gabrielle, by Chanel’ she replied, a perfume I savaged upon its release for I am sure quite valid reasons but which, in an everyday encounter, smelled highly pleasant indeed.
Another of those ‘vanilla’ ( because is there anything else now for the modern woman, in truth ?) perfumes that I had to ask about was worn by a gorgeous singer in a club we went to: again, it was a perfume I had dismissed as not worth the time of day – Black Opium by Yves Saint Laurent – but on her it was a cafe au lait type affair that she smelled really lovely in. Neither of these perfumes smelled INTERESTING or alluring as such though, if you know what I mean – just cute; embraceable.
Which I cannot do to the two new fragrances by FK. Yes, as the man is a technical wizard, I don’t doubt ( well I do, actually) that both of the perfumes will reveal more as they meld with different skins – presumably, some people, uncowed by the lack of gender specification, will ‘dare’ to try the scent more akin to their real nature and some curious results may occur in the wearing, but for me, this release is ultimately a cynical, and unadventurous attempt to jump on the ‘gender’ wagon ; in giving us merely his n hers but just erasing the name, this isn’t gender fluidity. Gender fluidity to me means just being free to do whatever you want unshackled by predecided cultural cliche. Something that is most definitely not the case with these two, very unfluid and ‘revolutionary’ new fragrances.
Artemisia, galbanum, lavender, bergamot, black pepper
Sage, jasmine, cyclamen, basil, rose, cumin
Leather, costus, tonka bean, oakmoss, amber, civet, musk
The last time I was in Paris you could still buy Jules. That was almost a decade ago, though, and even in reformulation I doubt that it was destined to remain very popular. Jules is just too intimate, too husky and sensual, to appeal to the fashionable common man.
The gravest mistake in contemporary men’s perfumery is the conflation of masculine and macho. Almost any scent released onto the market these days that is targeted at homo erectus is fuelled with clichés. Granite-jawed, gym-locker hardness: wooden aggressions with slim concessions to ‘freshness’ (immaculate, GQ grooming); the latest spice; ozone; citrus. And though these perfumes can occasionally work on a subcellular level as Pavlovian lust-flaggers (the heterosexual woman, the homosexual man responding with their pituitary gland in a spike of involuntary sexual arousal), on the aesthetic, and more importantly on the spiritual level, they surely evoke emotions more akin to disdain .
I was at Helen’s house in Birmingham a couple of weeks ago, sitting with the kids and looking out into the garden and the park beyond, the big trees that stretch their arms out across the wide, March skies. We were there for a while, talking, catching up and relaxing, when Helen’s partner Steve arrived back from his studio in the city centre after a bike ride in the evening air.
As he passed by us through the kitchen, Steve left the most troubling, imperceptibly resonant scent in the air around him: part fresh, clean sweat; part vintage Jules. A scent I recognized immediately because I own a small bottle myself, but mostly because it has, along with Loewe’s darkly coniferous Esencia, over the years, become his own signature. It suits him perfectly.
In scent terms, Steve and I are opposites, as we are in several other ways. He is cautious: I am a car crash. He loves comedy: I can’t stand it. He is meticulous: I am a slob. And while he would smell ludicrously wrong in anything even remotely vanillic, sweet or balsamic ( I am personally not convinced he can even carry off the bottle of vintage Guerlain Vetiver they have hidden upstairs in their bathroom – though that is partly because I want to get my hands on it myself), it is equally true that I myself just smell indelibly wrong in any scent that is even slightly redolent of a forest. Pine, fir, myrtle, juniper are of course all beautifully spruce, natural essences that I like aromatherapeutically (though I will admit that I do find them slightly depressing), but for some reason, on the skin, they remain to me too morbidly sylvan, too starkly prickly, rough and alive.
While Duncan is also drawn to these herbaceous, fir tree formulas and smells good, if a touch tightrope, in Christian Dior’s most animalic scent (and I smell horrible in it, like someone’s sweaty crotch), Steve’s skin chemistry – pale skin, black hair – works with this subtle yet penetrating scent in completeness. I hadn’t smelled this scent in a very long time, but my sensors were immediately prickled ( I would say he had sprayed some on just a few minutes before), the air in the room suddenly tingling for me almost on the genetic level; imbued with an ionized, sensating clarity of the veins (the outside air; the body chemistry; the sage, cyclamen, artemisia laden, sour herbaceousness over finely calibrated animalics), all of which essentially summed up for me what I love so much about perfume: that a scent can speak for you, enhance you, enlarge you, and, most importantly, affect another person in a way that can only be described as psychotropic. This smell was, in the most elegant and understated way, pure sex.
There is a blooded, bodily, leg-haired, at-ease-with-himself aura that surrounds Jules. Interestingly, the perfume was created by Jean Martel, whose only other creation seems to have been Paco Rabanne Pour Homme, another easy-going, indefatigable classic that I wear myself sometimes as I love its warmth and aromatic balminess. While I don’t often go for ‘pour homme’ type scents these days, there is something special, real, lovable, about Paco Rabanne, as there is about Jules, a scent that doesn’t feel that it needs to brag. Steve, a brilliant portrait painter incidentally, is kempt, handsome, but not overtly ‘sexual’ in that boring, eyebrow-raised, current manner. He knows who he is, takes care of his appearance, but isn’t in any way a peacock (though it has to be said that anyone who wears Jules may have such strutting tendencies subcutaneously….)
In recent times though there has been an exponential, narcissistic, looks-obsessed gym culture in which males – no matter their gender or sexual persuasion – are expected to be gazing constantly; defiantly, into the void of beauty. With their slender, calorie-counted, machine-toned musculature, assiduously cared for facial hair and coiff, theoretically I suppose I should probably be lusting after them now that I have entered my middle age (or so I am told), while in truth such paragons of manhood leave me completely, and utterly, sexually cold.
Actually, come to think of it, this has nothing to do with age – I have probably always been that way. When I lived in Rome, I was pursued by a couple of classically beautiful Armani models who, much to the great consternation and disbelief of my friends, I just didn’t fancy, no matter how hard I tried to. Immense regularity of feature; straightness of leg, neatness of garment…….. er, no grazie. Give me unselfawareness, a natural body, let the testosterone flow more surreptiously, uninhibitedly, in the veins.
And going even further than the prissy, coutured preeningness that turns off all sexuality in my body, there is even, currently, particularly among gay men – and thus probably in the straight male population as the unstoppable metrosexualisation of the male goes unabated – a very big trend for shaving and depilation that makes me just want to take the first flight to Iraq. In this world of hard, trained, orange crustaceans and fresh, mascara’d young chickens, one must keep one’s nether regions trimmed, neat and plucked – despite the ubiquitous hipster facial beards that also bore me to death – (creating the visual illusion of size, supposedly), but to me, these prim, men’s-magazine-influenced approximations of maleness couldn’t be physically less attractive. I personally like hair, softness, snuggling animalness, not this diamond-cut, gleaming sculpture of white-teethed vacuousness. Add a scent, be it your high street Armanis, your Dolces, your Adidas, whatever sports scent to go on top, or else your Monocle-approved prickly, ‘directional’ oud or glistening high quality citrus, and you then have a pore-closed fortress of a person, preened and ready for the selfie: infallible, no remove for manoeuvre: the direct, chemical, all-at-once scent (which, unfortunately has no real basis), suturing the whole image up so damn neat and tidily (I have a horrifying image, actually, of meeting, if I were single, one of these unimpeachably turned out individuals, self-approvingly grinning on a blind date in some bar, dressed up in Vétiver Extraordinaire or some other nifty niche men’s choice, and me there choking to death claustrophobically in the perfection of our smiling, android mate calls; desperately wondering, eyes darting about the environs, how I could possibly make an exit….)
Because, you know, in truth, many, or probably most of these crisp, sharp nothingnesses that we are exposed to these days as ‘scents for men’, despite their puffed male credentials, have no balls. It’s all flash, synthetic woods, industrial lime, and easy, friendsome, laundry musks.
Scents like Jules , while somewhat outdated I suppose in some regards I will admit – unless you happen to be lucky enough to be able to meld with them perfectly and carry them off winkingly (but not too ironically), treat sexuality in a far more erotic, genuine, gently manipulative manner. Their subliminal urinousness (which needs to be kept subliminal in order for the perfume to obtain its mysterious power), derived from the clever infusion of animalics with piquant plant essences, creates an intriguing aura of warm stealth: tentative yet resolute, attractive yet a touch dangerous, that hovers, flirtatiously but good humouredly – and this is the key – about the person.
I am very sensitive to these internal machinations within perfumes, and on Steve the other day there was a definite, immediate change of atmosphere seconds after he had entered the room: a hunted fox; some predatory, shallow-breathing maleness that I experienced personally in my own body physically. Just a sniff: hanging on the air, but libidinously…..deep rooted, carnal : : : the smell of a man.
According to the house of Caron, the yatagan was a Turkish saber once used by the fierce, proud horsemen of the Ottoman empire, with a ‘curved and finely sharpened blade’, its very name hinting unambiguously at the unmerciful, sheath-laden phallus and its inexorable, compulsory conquests.
A virile journey: a battle in the sour-thighed, chest-rugged stakes with a similarly resolute fragrance, Piver’s classic Cuir de Russie. Both flowerless, dry, rugged creatures, expertly constructed to throw up jaw-clenched, fist ready accents as the accords develop within their worn, leathery hearts and they prepare to slay their (knee-buckling, pliant, and often extraordinarily willing), victims.
Yatagan is severe: dry, spicy, with precious woods, artemisia, styrax, and a good, healthy dose of sweaty leather. It is a pine forest: our frowning Saracen alone, in battle garb, listening to the trees and the smell of the soil.
In the distance are snow-capped mountains.
The Turk, growling, quite sure of himself, is a more ferocious stalwart than his Russian counterpart, and we watch him prowl his terrain; alert, ever-ready to wield his not inconsiderable weapon.
Later, when finally reaching home, exhausted, there is a lingering of smoke and incense as his wife pulls off his damp clothes by the fiery light of the hearth and she administers, lovingly, a sweet and sincere kiss to his rough and weathered cheeks.
Cuir de Russie is the smell of a proud cossack’s boots: animalic, manly, and polished, as he rides out across the steppes in his attempt to slay the Turk. While similar in theme, the cossack is more swarthy, rugged and sour, has more tobacco, a wide, salacious splendour of dry leather. More convivial too: there is humour in this vodka-swigging man: refinement even, though never ostentation….
Decaying, plant-straggled Spanish houses falling into dereliction; old banged up cadillacs roaming the streets; rum, cigars; geckos; the music – I have never been to Havana but would love to, as I imagine I would be in my element…..
Sometimes perfumers are given briefs in which they are asked to try to conjure up specific places (YSL’s Paris; Biagiotti’s Roma; Kenzo’s Tokyo, the entire Bond No 9 range, geared to capturing every nook and cranny of New York), and any scent attempting to convey a sense of Cuba will have to incorporate the torrid generalities that the popular imagination associates with the place. For most, Havana is surely all about smoky dance halls and sultry locals; that curious contradiction of control, extroversion and unrepressed repression, that energy (which, incidentally, dazzled my parents when they went there a few years ago to celebrate my father’s successful operation to have both knees replaced; the fantastic thing being that despite his recent convalescence, he managed to come second in a dance contest, twirling and sashaying about on metal joints with a Cuban lady in habañera dress, my mother clapping and cheering with great enthusiasm as the crowd voted them for the runner up, all revved up into wild and generous hilarity…)
Cuba, the perfume, captures this sense of Caribbean ease succinctly. It is an intriguing scent from London-based Czech & Speake’s ‘aromatics’ range that is perhaps unfashionable in its sly referencing of 50’s hunk-papa aftershaves, while nevertheless avoiding being overly retro. The blend attains a very sensual, defence-lowering aura that is perfect for an unbuttoned, flamboyant shirt on the dance floor where it really blooms with sweat and heat.
A smooth blast of bay, tobacco and some distinctly rude animalics is overlayed in Cuba with a mojito – themed top accord of rum, lime and mint – like sipping an ice-cold cocktail in some tucked-in corner of a Havana bar. This then dries down to a heart of clove, vetiver, cedarwood and frankincense; quite hairy-chested and self-assured, but in a warm, benevolent mode that is charming and irresistible: a million miles away from the priapic abrasion of most men’s contemporary scents (which this is, I suppose; though it is not stated directly on the bottle or box, and I can imagine some offbeat girls smelling pretty dapper in it as well).
We were staying in a hotel in Tokyo in September and Duncan sprayed on a few good doses of Cuba before we left for the night. The perfume filled up all the space around us with a full, balmy orchestration that you could smell from top to bottom in its full range of timbres and aromas, from the tingling lime and bergamot-mint head to the overtly sexual base that quite frankly interferes with the rational thought process. It hung in the air before me, fully fledged as a tapestry, and was startling, though I must say that this bottle, which I bought for him recently, seems diluted compared to the samples we had when it was first released ten years ago. Perhaps the startling intensity of that first edition – which seemed to have more humidor clout – was just too off-putting for some people. Even in this version the initial smell is intoxicating.
Cuba is a night scent. It is not something you would (or even could) wear to work unless you want your colleagues panting in the elevator (Duncan was once literally physically accosted – much to my amusement – on the streets of Shinjuku one roasting summer evening by two guys walking past who were shouting out WOW WHAT IS THAT INCREDIBLE SMELL), but to be honest I think a half of that half would be panting from revulsion as well; this is one of those perfumes that probably goes too far for the contemporary nose, and I have read some very disparaging comments on it (to put in mildly) on several blogs and websites, so tread carefully if you are being reeled in by this review.
To me though, Cuba is simply a natural and very free-smelling composition: uninhibited, lithe, and while subtle in its own surreptitious way (only the initial spray makes a big noise), it lets you stand out from the madding crowd. It works best on weekends, best kept perhaps for dancing and celebrations, when its soft but emphatic tones – savoury, spiced, and full of self-confidence – will rise up from the body; convince, and melt you.
The first time I encountered it I was twenty and not quite ready. And neither was the public apparently, as Ungaro came and went very quickly, becoming just another discontinued, but highly sought after, cult scent. Yet even back then I knew. Something murky, and sweatily, dangerously seductive smouldered on that department store counter. It was almost too obviously manly, an attempt to combine a seventies barechested medallion aesthetic with the new decade. So macho. So not of the times, yet also not quite like anything I had ever smelled before, with its dark-pitched, absinthe, underarm intensity. I remember shrinking back – but then returning – to this rich stew of scent that touched some primal sex nerve yet also seemed so hopelessly outdated when the world of CK-depilated sport-skinniness was just around the corner.
There was never anything androgynous – or slender for that matter – about Ungaro.
This is a middle-aged, well-built businessman, after a long day at work; his smell beneath his suit; coiled, taut – waiting to emerge. He has neglected to apply his deodorant, many hours earlier, (out of forgetfulness or fetish we don’t know), but the blend is emphatically not fresh: it is a scent that harnesses a certain brute and rough, even dirty, masculinity.Yet it also fuses this frank eroticism with style and an attractive elegance in a manner only the French could master: we are not talking here about a clichéd, covertly aggressive chat-up line by Hugo Boss.
Essentially based on brooding patchouli; dark, bitter wormwood, and lavender, this trio of ingredients is freshened with greener notes of geranium, pine and bergamot, drying down to honey-tinged, musky animalics. Rough, and very Italo-French in its womanizing, boozy, and measured self-confidence, it may seem to skirt with parody to the contemporary nose, but to me the perfume feels lovingly drawn by its creator, not just a throwaway commission, as it exhibits a sense of laid-back intelligence and humour beyond its core message of overt sexual prowess.
For me, Ungaro I is perhaps the ultimate masculine fougère.
A Japanese dressmaker friend, Rumi, came to my house one evening. We drank red wine, watched Almodovar, had dinner, and then got to the perfume collection.
Once I had realized her tastes, I went in a patchouli direction (Givenchy Gentleman, Paloma Picasso, Magie Noire), all of which had her coiled like a cat with pleasure.
The pièce de resistance, however, was Ungaro Pour Homme, which I saved til last, but which she said was like sexual torture.
Any half-decent release in the dire world of commercial men’s fragrance is cause for celebration. And Noir, the latest Tom Ford release from his mainstream collection (his Private Blends are about four times the price), is really rather nice. The louche, airbrushed seductor has come up with a convincing men’s oriental for the twenty first century that will hopefully catch on with modern males and start a new trend for smells that attract rather than repel, bringing some softening and intelligence to the ghastly, weapon-like woody-citruses that usually dominate this market and club you on the head with their heavy-set, meat-head preposterone. I would happily snuggle up to someone wearing this blend and I am sure that there are many others out there who will feel the same.
Tom Ford is a savvy fashion genius who single-handedly resurrected Gucci from the ashes of irrelevance with his Studio 54 background and modern take on the 1970’s night-orchid aesthetic, transforming the company into a behemoth of urbanite cool and sex, the sheen of his bi-sexual decadence unwaning for nearly two decades. With his own eponymous brand and its extension of this glossy-luxe, the clothes, the perfumes, similarly speak of the night; of the finest clubs and restaurants; of nocturnal A-listers who rarely see the light -vampiric trendsetters living the life and rarely leaving the hotel.
So it is easy to see why the Tom Ford fragrance collection has proven so successful. The perfumes are well-made, rich and provocative blends that scream ‘exclusivity’ and (prescribed) good taste in their simple, sturdy design-perfect flacons. True, I have yet to smell a fragrance in the line that I desperately want to own myself, but they are highly regarded by many and deservedly so. For me, though, when I smell any scent from the range, I feel I am sensing arch, elegant, but artificial fumes rising up from the bottlesrather than notes. I think of his scents as exotic poisons crafted in airless rooms – often hypnotic, undeniably sensual and luxuriant confections that sit on the skin like heavy garments, but not those that I can inhale with ease. It is fashion asphyxiating nature; yet this is possibly the whole point. The Tom Ford fragrances really are for dressing up for nights out in the city, and in this regard they work perfectly.
The list of notes in Noir, particularly those in the base (opoponax, amber, vetiver, patchouli, civet and vanilla) reads like an old Guerlain, and Mr Ford has clearly been spending some time doing his homework with plush masterpieces from the house such as Shalimar and Habit Rouge and deciding to revamp them for the modern market. But despite the appearance of Shalimar’s key natural (opoponax, a sweet resin similar to myrrh), Noir is in fact more like a reworking of that house’s best kept men’s secret – the original eau de parfum of Héritage (1992), an aromatic, peppered oriental that shouted ‘hot man in silk robe’ like no other (the edt was always slicker, thinner, sharper – it was the delicious depth of the sadly discontinued edp with its tonka and animal dry down that I always fell in love with).
Yes, Héritage was powdered suavité, a scent that drew you in to its conceited, self-loving swagger, and Noir manages to capture some of this tactile, soft animality with a gently musked and bearded patchouli dry-down that is very sensual – unusual in the current climes of overdone, plastic banality.
That the scent is based on Héritage becomes even more evident if we look at the first and middle stages of the fragrance . The Guerlain began with a sharp blast of black pepper and bergamot; clary sage, violet, and a pinch of nutmeg, developing to a subtle rose and geranium heart before the lustful orientalia began to make themselves known and you realized you were in the presence of a full-blown male odalisque (this could be a great women’s scent as well, by the way). Noir, which isn’t really dark or black in any sense but is clinging, still, to the dull trend of calling everything and anything noir whether the smell merits that description or not, has all the above ingredients and develops in exactly the same way as Héritage, but has added notes of lemon verbena, caraway seed and pink pepper, all of which I find somewhat superfluous. It is less rich and poudré than the Guerlain, as if the icing sugar had been sucked off from the bonbon, and rather than the swiftly dissipating Guerlain bergamot that begins most of the house’s scents, in Noir there is a citronella-like roof to which the others notes rise and stick, rasping and a touch too synthetic for my comfort, a citric pillar thrust down through the downy ambers to keep the oriental alert and emboldened and prevent it from becoming too vieux beau, too Casanova in silk slippers.
This accord eventually attenuates, however, and it really is the base in this scent that works best, with its classic oriental finish : a retro-sassy take on old themes that is worth the wait. Despite a certain throat-tickling insistency from the verbena-geranium accord in the heart, Noir is a scent that may lack poetry but not romance, and it could prove to be another huge hit in Tom Ford’s annals of seduction.
(‘Sophisticated Boom Boom’ is the title of an early album by Dead Or Alive: a question I often ask myself about fragrances from this house)