Perfumer Mandy Aftel has a very unique and unusual signature. And it is often also a very carnal one. From the sex-in-vats-of-chocolate of the suggestively edible Cacao; the lust-behind-the-sand dunes nude bacchanalia of Cuir Gardenia; the frank and beautiful filth of Aoud Luban – one of the first perfumes to almost make me blush, in truth – to the hirsute, ungodly Kama Sutra of her disturbing and fantastical Wild Roses – a night garden of essences and physical pleasure that leaves no erotic stone unturned (yet all, cleverly concealed beneath a calm, rosaceous veneer of garden stems and rose flowers), Aftel seems to revel in antagonizing us into realizing, self-consciously, that we are all animals and beasts of the flesh, at heart.
Her scents are rarely simple. Nor, on occasion, even approachable. There is a weirdness: a sharp, tangy, bodiedness to many of her perfumes, wherein flowers and spices and all manner of olfactory materials are boiled down and blended and given a succour of intensity that while giving you a frisson of physical reaction, also can make you feel unhinged: a whole new vocabulary of odours that provokes you into thinking and reassessing what perfume even is (I think of Tango, here, for instance: that deeply perturbing scent of roasted seashells and resins that is unlike anything ever produced in perfumery before, or since).
With Memento Mori, Aftelier’s newest (and perhaps most ‘difficult’) release yet, Mandy Aftel really cuts to the chase. While ostensibly masked, or rather preluded, with some hints of rounded, soft and musky rose accords in the opening, as though they had been stripped of all dew, and green, and leaves, to leave the fig-leafed body beneath in its natural state, this perfume goes too far for me personally in what I consider wearable, even acceptable, in a perfume. In going with the concept of capturing the smell of a lover’s skin, hair, the desire to memorialize the smell of the loved and deceased, the perfumer does quite successfully, once the composition settles in and harmonizes on the skin, definitely get close to that sensation of warm, unwashed, and I have to say dirty, human skin, of a particular human skin, and one perhaps known only to the perfumer, but the important question is: who really who wants to smell of this skin? Is this the olfactive equivalent of The Tooth Fairy, the serial killer who dons other people’s skins in the horrifying Silence Of The Lambs? In transferring another’s epidermis to our own, like the surgeon in Pedro Almodovar’s brilliant La Piel Que Habito/ The Skin I Live in, Aftel is definitely doing something radical and along these sense-shaking lines.
Similar provocations already exist in perfumery: I think of Ombre Fauve by Parfumerie Generale and its strange, haunted smells of sexual obsession: Miller Harris’s alarming (and for me, personally disgusting) L’Air De Rien, in which the singer wanted to embody the perfume with the smell of her brother’s hair; L’Antimatière, by Les Nez, which smells, if you sniff closely enough, of the aura of unwashed sheets and faint, unclean skin, and Serge Lutens’ original, undoctored Muscs Khoublai Khan, which smelled to me quite simply just of sheep, and seminal fluid.
I suppose what is stimulating for me personally about these perfumes – particularly Memento Mori, which goes even further than any of the scents described above in delving into sheer intimacy, is what they might say about me personally. While other reviewers talk of the snug, comforting aspect of such perfumes, of nuzzling into their humming, human embrace as the day wears on and they lose themselves in their calming, skinful realness, in my case I always find that I am basically just repulsed. Though the final notes of this particular perfume do certainly coalesce into a warm, sweet, and intense addiction (the way that real, bodily, smells are sometimes, ones you can’t stop smelling, even when you simultaneously hate them), a base accord here that is almost reminiscent, at times, of ultra-animalic perfumes such as Paco Rabanne’s iconic La Nuit, I find that such smells are, in truth, why I wear perfume – and hope that others will do too – in the first place. To me, perfume is something that combines, that fuses, with the wearer’s skin, not destroying its natural odour, the way that so many unpleasant contemporary chemical perfumes now do, but embellishing it, harmonising it, flattering it, beautifying it : in experiencing that perfume later, it is already a kind of memento mori, a way of remembering that person, even hours after you have initially encountered it. When someone is gone, and you smell the scent that they were wearing, unconsciously you smell their bodily smell along with it, it evokes their physical presence. Perfumes with animalic notes in them, in their base, are particularly adept at giving this reaction, particularly when they remain subliminal, and not at the very fore, or core, of the fragrance.
But here, Mandy Aftel intrepidly eschews such prescribed formulae of perfume making and goes straight for the flesh-and-blood jugular. Beginning with an almost sweet, muttonish oil smell, like sweating, breathing, pecorino cheese encased in roses, soon the civet, and the ambergris, and the aged patchouli come up through the peau like the blood, sweat and tears of essence of a particular human – not one that I know – and whose intimacy I am not sure that I even want to. She/he might indeed be very tender, loving, intelligent, sensual, but having this person’s intensity of smell on my own skin feels almost like an intrusion. Memento Mori thus reveals perhaps more about my own inclinations and phobias than I would perhaps like to reveal, and it is in this regard – that a perfume can make you question your own levels of prudishiness, of fear of mingling with another, of your hatred of the smell of human hair, of your wanting the people around you to be freshly showered but still being utterly fascinated by every single smell that they give off even if they are not (am I in fact the maniac Grenouille, from Patrick Suskind’s ‘Perfume’?) that I find this curious creation most compelling.