One of the joys of the Tokyo and Yokohama thrift shops is that you just never know. While you can go into them week after week, month after month and there not be anything worth having – just the usual uninteresting suspects – suddenly there can be a windfall of perfumes; not just vintage beauties but niche: the kind of perfumes you might never consider buying at full price but which presented to you as a cache of vastly reduced bargains you might think why not: go on then: they might help me to upgrade my repertoire.
And the other day, at ‘Crystal’, a very hit and miss place, I came across a cabinet of Goutals and Penhaligons and L’Artisans and Maison Kurkdjian (something I have never seen reduced before: all of these expensive brands are found exclusively in the snazzier Tokyo department stores at inflated prices, what was going on?), snapping up Tea For Two and Opus I860 for Duncan, and APOM Homme and Néroli for me, debating over Mandragore Pourpre (always intriguing – I now regret not buying that one as well), and Vanille Exquise.
I would probably never even have given either of these more than a cursory sniff at Isetan: anything with ‘pour homme’ in the title immediately puts me off as I anticipate gender clichés that don’t fit the image I have of myself (I had definitely liked the feminine equivalent though and was very disappointed it wasn’t that one instead when I first saw the bottle), and in any case colognes, and neroli in particular, are not something I necessarily go for as I don’t think I can really carry off orange blossom.
Although I am drawn to the smell of these flowers in nature and am definitely an acolyte of the essential oil (for skin preservation purposes), in fragrance it doesn’t quite work for me. I was never a fan of the classic cologne formula (the petitgrain, rosemary and musk added to the neroli), and there are very few scents of this type I can imagine wearing on myself. I quite like Divin Enfant, Castile and Dilmun, – all padded, creamily softened nerolis – but they are a bit pampered and cotton woolish for my own tastes. The sharper, more vivid perfumes of the type, Lutens’ Fleurs D’Oranger, Fragile, or Atelier Cologne’s Grand Néroli, are glinting extravagances that I can appreciate but not wear persuasively, and until discovering this rendition by Goutal, I would never have seen myself leaving the house in this flower’s leafy, potent gaze.
Annick Goutal’s Néroli has the green rasp of bitter orange leaves; the snap of a twig and the fresh floral white breath of natural orange blossoms. The full bower; a replenishingly brisk, yet deeply felt neroli that is refreshing in its simplicity yet impressive in its true to lifeness. More than a portrait of orange blossom flowers it is an enactment: a reappearance, almost, of the living flowers on each spray: more true than any other neroli I know, yet simultaneously more pleasing than the neural harshness of the pure essential oil. Although as with all colognes the zinginess inevitably fades, this is still quite lovely throughout its duration: cool, yet warm; removed, yet romantic; enveloping, yet subtle. It is excellent, and I am very glad I bought it.
The almost diametrically opposed APOM by Maison Kurkdijian is woozy and direct, centred on the same smell of orange blossom as the Goutal – if less sharply defined – but where the Néroli is all about nature and the sweet outdoors, APOM (‘A Piece Of Me’), is all about urbanity. Style. Signatures. Where the Annick Goutal delights and uplifts, APOM disturbs; a prowlingly plasticky leather and cedared amber base (erotic); steam-ironed synthetics in the top accord that smell of freshly pressed, expensive clothes in a penthouse city apartment.
Its creator, Francis Kurkdjian is in many ways a modern genius. Unlike the vast majority of niche perfumes I smell, his creations are indelibly created with character. Unlike Bertrand Duchaufour and his (often pointlessly) overegged puddings, brimming with details but difficult to digest, FK seems to pare down his formulae to the essentials, yet avoids the pale minimalism of an Ellena or a Giacobetti, rendering them full-cheeked; replete, and immediately memorable. I often think, in fact, that the best new scents are still somehow familiar and recognizable. Jean Paul Gaultier’s Le Male, a Kurkdjiian creation, had echoes of earlier perfumes but still packed an immediate punch as a zeitgeisty fragrance that became a mass seller. APOM, a perfume I am not sure I entirely like (in fact in some ways I could even say that it repels me; I felt very strange wearing it out in public on the day that I did as it was like being a different person; guised in a costume that was alien and yet also fascinating: I couldn’t stop inhaling myself), is nevertheless hotly distinctive and commercial. This scent is pointed; and blunting. Sexy. As I came out of the cinema, alone (“The Tribe” a Ukranian film acted entirely in sign language without subtitles), feeling stunned and quite dislocated by what was a very singular cinematic experience, the smell that was rising up from my clothes only added to the disorientating feeling of being suspended in dense, thick time, where the outside reality felt uncanny and heightened – a man cycling slowly by a canal; the mist covered waters, the memories of the beautiful but very violent film rising in fragments in my scentless brain. ‘A Piece Of Me’ thus feels like a very apt name for the perfume. A tattoo; a memento of someone left on a trace of the air in a room. Intensely modern, of the times, but fully realized, as though it had willed itself into existence….
Later on in that evening, I met up with Duncan and a group of friends who had just done a ten hour marathon charity walk for Medicins Sans Frontières around the Yamanote Line in Tokyo ( I wasn’t able to take part because of my knee), but in any case, rather than feeling lonely or left out as I might have done at another time, on that particular day I was revelling in that particular kind of solitude when existence feels glassy and double distilled, when you have entered it and are owning it from the inside. And as the pungent, insistent base tones of APOM began to fade on my skin, I then found that the linking note – the orange blossom, the neroli – meant that despite their great differences in conception and execution, I could also spritz on some Goutal – revivifying, natural; fresh, more innocent – just before meeting everyone at the station