I originally wrote this jubilantly just after Obama’s re-election in 2012.
Oh the pain now …….
I originally wrote this jubilantly just after Obama’s re-election in 2012.
Oh the pain now …….
Habit Rouge, in my humble view, is one of the most unique and troubling scents of all time. It is one I own but find essentially unwearable – I use it instead to scent red velvet curtains and the like, once basing a whole party in Tokyo on this theme: all the scarlet velours banquettes sprayed copiously with this decadent and headily enigmatic smell, the guests all clad in dress code red…
A curiously ghostly creation, despite its supposedly manly credentials, this perfume, for me, is rather more like a melancholy, powdered octogenarian traipsing confusedly and crimsonly about his old mansion, down whispering, cobwebbed corridors; in long silk dressing gown and softly pressing pantouffles; in the cold, and spine -tingling, dead of night.
This house is probably haunted. A headspinning, olfactive evocation of long, wintery passages; old, stuffed, armoires; and crisp, freshly laundered sheets. But still: : : the shadows; over there…….in the corner……
Later, once this astounding and inimitable mirage (a brilliantly creative synergy formed of anti-intuitively oppositional forces of opoponax and benzoin, of orange blossom, carnation, cinnamon, versus a deliciously fresh accord of bergamot, lavender, pimento and lemon) has begun to slowly dissipate, there is then, finally, the musky, leathery, patchouli/vanilla heart finally more in keeping with the image the name of the scent was originally supposed to evoke: a confident, and elegantly attired monsieur and his red riding habit, galloping across the French countryside, off down the avenue of trees of lime, over fields and meadows and into the distance…..
It is all strangely beautiful. But as I say, I have always found this perfume very difficult to wear. On me, for whatever reason, it smells far too feminine; too ‘old queen in powdered wig‘ somehow: sad, plumped up and poudré (let there be no doubt that certain perfumes are slimming, while others are quite definitely fattening), even though Vol De Nuit and Shalimar are, conversely and ironically, quite the contrary: warm and enveloping, replete…..
Having said this, there will always be something about Habit Rouge that fascinates me. In my view, Jean Paul Guerlain has always been criminally underrated as a perfumer, seen as being inferior to his illustrious, Parisian forbearers. But though different in the style to the great Grand Dames perfumes of Jacques Guerlain :Mitsouko, L’Heure Bleue, Apres L’Ondee and all the rest of those museum-ready masterpieces, the brilliantly innovative and always perfectly executed perfumes of the sixties and seventies, such as Vetiver, Habit Rouge, Parure, Chamade, Chant d’Aromes and Nahema are, in my view, quite their equals: complex, full of stories: inspired and inspiring, ambiguously intricate webs of (candle) light; of love, and darkness, and the sensuous, invisible lines of sweet, untraceable mysteries.
The widening gap between the words and the smell is getting hard to take.
I write The Black Narcissus because I adore the potential of what is written on the screen to evoke the invisible olfactory sense – ungraspable and difficult to communicate linguistically- but a challenge I always enjoy, endlessly.
Yet I am also fully conscious of even my own tendency to be verbose or to reek of hyperbole at times, to want to drench myself and you in Baudelarian decadence and the dying breath of flowers (see I have already started doing it), to arouse the senses in this simultaneously overstimulated, but sensorially flat world that we find ourselves in.
I live for beauty, I understand it. But with the sheer diluvial number of new perfumes available, it seems the purveyors of these scents are not only competing for shelf space, now, but also for the sweet lies of breathiness, PR, and supposedly seductive bullshit.
Venenum Kiss, described as “opulent and poisonous” by this new fashionable niche brand who have set up shop in Paris, is a nice name for a perfume : I am all for Poison (especially if it is by Christian Dior). But if you are going to give a scent that name, you had better deliver the goods.
“Les sillages sont tonitruants..the sillages are thunderous” intones the card inserted neatly in the white, satin bag that the promotional edition of the perfume comes in.
Er, actually they are not, mon petit amour, they are subdued, boring as hell, and thoroughly, thoroughly, typical of practically any oudhish (though that note is never mentioned) modern woody oriental out there on the generally mediocre, and very deeply oversaturated, market.
“Wherever you go at night, you succumb to this same hypnotic smell. The obsessive caress of amber and suede, the velvet breath of rose and saffron…. the strong and intense feel of an electric night in the Orient”….
The lover, here, is all eyes and come to bed with me glances, but I find myself yawning and demurring and thinking about tomorrow’s breakfast.
How will I get out of this…….
In truth, Venenum Kiss isn’t at all a bad perfume per se. It is a well-blended scent with its own internal harmony; the apricottish top notes blending neatly into a rose/saffron/wood/ambered structure you have smelled a million times before, but they are well done. Some people, especially those that have never come into contact with a real perfume before, might be beguiled. In terms of texture, it is quite close to the skin and touchable, suave – and modish, certainly – if not directly kissable, but you certainly wouldn’t be poisoned by it, for god’s sake, writhing in paroxysms of agony and ecstasy as she or he derides you dismissively and slams shut the door (and there I go again).
No, you, or at least I in any case, would remain unmoved. Totally. And this has suddenly reminded me of a kiss at dawn, in Rome, I once had and that had almost forgotten.
I was at the age we are at our most (conventionally) attractive. I was twenty one, blonde (‘il biondo inglese’) and living in Testaccio, just down the road from Keats’s final resting place in the beautiful Protestant Cemetery (see my piece on Caron’s Violette Precieuse for more on that), and would be out clubbing on an almost nightly basis. Testaccio is a fascinating part of Rome – such a beautiful city; writing this is making me deeply miss it – but although the well known landmarks are equally astounding – wandering in the Foro Romano at dusk; the exquisite pleasures of the Villa Pamphili, where we would lounge about all day on the grass, drink prosecco and just talk about life, love and death; the beautiful and flower-strewn, winding streets of the ancient Trastevere area (just down the road from my apartment where I was living with three university friends), Testaccio had an appealing, grittier quality, combining ancient Roman graveness – the pyramid that St Paul saw before he was martyred part of the cemetery wall, old villas and churches, fused with the more dangerously erotic realism of night time Roman seediness: married men courting Brazilian transexual prostitutes from their cars, eh bambina, as they trotted about in their high heels and tossed back their synthetic hair, loud and feisty like something from a film by Pedro Almodovar; gay boys lounging about like lizards on the crumbling walls as night turned to day; it was all heady, and exciting, and very, very beautiful.
But I could’t get a break. Not even a kiss. I had been there for six months, and although these people are possibly the most beautiful in the world, or so they say, it just wasn’t happening. This is partly because of my extreme selectiveness: it takes a LOT for me to fall for someone, almost impossible, actually (and smell is a huge contributing factor in all of this: I am so easily turned off!) but it was also a terrible clash of tastes. My friends would try to convince me that this person or that person was gorgeous at some club or restaurant or bar, when I all I would see personally was unoriginal, well-groomed horror (fashion, and neatness is another ultimate turn off for me). Particularly when it was always just so. In that typical, commodified Italian manner: slick; narcissistic; designer. People I did like were unavailable or so shocking to my friends (what, him? Rachel would spit at me, you’ve got to be joking), and so nothing ever actually happened.
But then one night I decided just to go with the flow. Okay, I’ll go out with you, Armani model. Cheek bones, tall (another no-no for me), typically handsome in that bland and beautiful fashion model way, but absolutely what other people like, what is considered attractive (as in all likelihood Venenum Kiss probably will be).
Not me, though. I can’t remember how the evening progressed, but it probably included dancing at the Castello dell’Angelo or just hanging out in the Campo Dei Fiori drinking wine, but I do remember that the inevitable moment came as the sun came up and it was time for this chaste little English boy to go home. There was a tennis court somewhere I think, down near the river, and we were standing against the fence; and then this typical, well-defined, perfectly proportioned face came closer to mine, much to my great indifference (though half the population of the world would probably have been swooning). And, as usual, my instincts were quite right. I felt absolutely nothing.
His kiss just tasted of ashes.
Coco, always Chanel’s most exuberant and joyful creation, to me exudes a conspicuous air of eighties consumption. Blazing gold jewellery and glinting, multifaceted jewels, this woman knowingly struts her real or imaginary red carpet no matter the weather – transforming grey, mundane realities with a brush of the high life.
Though she is loud and a little persistent, this fruity, brassy Miss, you still can’t help somehow inhaling with pleasure her dense, baroque carnival of odorous riches; her compressed, spiced, fusillades of peach, coriander, orange blossom, Spice Island clove; Indian jasmine, mimosa; the heart of Bulgarian rose over an effortlessly shoulder-wrapping base accord of sandalwood, amber, patchouli, leather, and chocolate: that complex, sweet and chewy rapture that is never vulgar (well, maybe slightly ), but still, always, a very likeable scent; fortified internally, forward-looking: the life and soul of the party, and a perfume suffused for me with memories.
After Kabuki in Ginza the other day, we decided to stroll down Showa-Dori to peruse some perfume.
The forbidding Dior store, a towering glass edifice of the utmost, gleaming luxuriance, is a place that I have never before entered, but a sudden whim ( wanting to reacquaint myself with Patchouli Impérial) led to the flourished opening of the heavy, thick doors by the footman, past the twitching and shifting of the assistants, and to the Dior Collection Privée. Or, at least, a selection from it.
Not finding the patchouli, nor the Vétiver, which I remember liking last time I tried it in Harrods, we decided, anyway, to try some other perfumes from the range. Duncan sprayed on the pleasant, but somewhat nondescript, Gris Montaigne; on myself I tried Ambre Nuit (quite nice, ticks most of the boxes), and, on the other arm, Oud Ispahan, Dior in-house perfumer François Demachy’s supreme recent take on some very familiar, Orientalist, themes.
The perfume is effortless. Vivid, and perfectly constructed. Damascena rose essence; Indonesian patchouli; sandalwood, an intense and endless Laotian oud, and to pad out the gaps between the ingredients, suffusing the whole with a powdered, animalic sensuality, a rich and tactile dose of labdanum absolute.
It is flawless. Strong, proud, and expertly crafted.
But I find it boring. Really boring: it is just there, on the skin, triumphant, fashionable, and rather too pleased with itself. The idealized, and perfected, fusion of Paris and the East, perhaps, but, for me, too staid. It clogs the mental pores. There is no room for personal interpretation here, no air, no quirk – just Ispahan Oud : thick, expansive, and diffusive on your skin: too stubborn and expensive (45,000 yen, or 432 dollars) to budge.
No, I hate it (and so does Duncan). It eventually has to be scrubbed off, as I dart into a toilet in Printemps department store to try and get rid of the smell (it proves an actual impossibility – this perfume is very tenacious, demonstrating the obvious quality of the ingredients used).
Still. Instead, around the corner at the modish department store EstNation, I decide to overlay the remains of the Dior with some Montale Aoud Rose Petals: harsh, maybe – piquant, but a perfume I own myself, know to death (along with Aoud Flowers, Aoud Queen Roses, and the most extreme of them all, the fantastically dark and sharp Aoud Lime), to me, more familiar and pleasing smells with which to lay to rest the Ispahan.
I am much much happier here in Montale’s unpretentious, fierce embrace: its freshness and simplicity, its grand oud obsession unleashed at least a decade before anyone else even started thinking about incorporating this classical Arab aromatic ingredient in Parisian perfume and made us sick to death of smelling it: good value, long-lasting scents with sharp and curious beginnings, but always trailing, and memorably seductive, sillages.
EstNation is in fact the only place that you can get Montale’s perfumes in Japan (including two Japan-only exclusives – Mango Manga and Rose Tea), and although they don’t stock the perfume house’s entire range (which is huge – for that you have to go to the Place Vendôme in Paris), the selection, for Tokyo, is quite impressive.
I pick up Royal Aoud, which I don’t really remember. Wow. The notes for this perfume when I look it up are listed as kumquat, grapefruit, oud, and Indian spices, but to me this just smells like a leather saddle; a stallion’s neck in sunshine; muscular, dense; each hair smooth, fragrant, and lit up by the hot afternoon light. Warm; elegant, lustful. Animal. I am not really a horse person, but here I make an exception. I love this beast, and want it: the smell of the sleek, equable blend making me want to caress, kiss; hold on tight.
Yes. Unlike the Dior, with its overly thick and tasteful, door-locked rendering of oud, Montale’s Royal Aoud has some kind of undeniable life here inside its veins.
Spritely. Feral. Real.
I love a perfume with a good story line, and the powdery, illicit backdrop of Poudre De Riz is a good one. It is a tawdry tale with a double dose of sensorial voyeurism, inspired by the French novel Inferno (1908) by Henri Barbusse: a man spying on a frantic adulterous couple in the boarding room next door through a crack in the wall; witnessing, and smelling their aromas; her bath, the splashes of heavy, sweet perfumes to cover up the scent of heat-coupled flesh; and, then, her last-minute attempts to make up her face with lipstick and powders, a disgruntled varnish to mask her true feelings before the arrival of her husband….
But he does of course notice:
“The air in the room was filled with heavy scents….soap, face powder, and the pungent smell of an eau de cologne…..” and the perfume, proficiently blended by Pierre Guillaume, is thus an attempt to capture this coagulation of emotion: of sex, concealment, passion (guilt?) and of the perfected and more preened face that we must present to the world..
Though I sometimes bore myself to tears with my own predictability (tiare monoï oil; coconut; vanilla, benzoin…..surely I am bound to like this perfume?) I really do: it is quite gorgeous and I just can’t help myself, the ‘rice powder’ of the name a pearlescent dust of sheen wavering over a sensual, but controlled and delicate, effluvium of aphrodisia that has none of the stinginess or bitter, ‘avant-garde’ snarl of some niche scents.
Poudre De Riz in fact immediately reminded me of a number of sweet, oriental perfumes that I have worn over the years, while remaining individual enough to merit a full bottle. The beautiful note of Damascena roses shining through slews of animalic, almonded musks comes straight from Louve; the soft, linty, vellutinous white powder Teint De Neige; and the ambered, cinnamony goodness a throw-back to my beloved Obsession For Men before it got spayed by reformulation; (the tolu over cedar and sandalwood note in the base also strangely took me back to that ribald old tropico-classic, Nuits Indiennes by Louis Scherrer…)
Still, the perfume works on its own terms, and all the notes are blended in such a way that despite the story and gourmand overdose, the perfume is never claustrophobic: my own skin always brings out the heavier, vanillic angle of a scent, but I can imagine on certain women that this could smell almost angelic….
We have been talking recently about signature scents, whether of Hollywood stars or just ourselves, and this excessive treat by Kenzo, which is still going strong, was definitely one of mine.
It is a milestone of sorts: the first ‘women’s’ scent I wore with pride, and also a marker of the first years of my time in Japan, when everything was new, exciting and disorientating and I would return to England periodically laden with incense and stories of my experiences, reeking (no, reeking, really) of L’Eléphant. If there is any scent my friends associate with me, it is probably this flamboyant creation, which somehow, for a while, suited me perfectly.
I even wore it to work all the time, unaware at that point of the suffering I was probably causing……
One of my nicknames growing up, which I never liked, was Nelly The Elephant (along with Neil, Neil orange peel, or lemon peel, or whatever peel you like, any chantable derivative of my name) : yet, ironically, for a time I then eventually end up being synonymous with a perfume actually called elephant, a scent I would wear in unbearably huge amounts, and even deliberately spray on people’s walls when I was staying for the night at their houses, taking the perfume association thing to ludicrous levels of self-importance (you WILL smell me and remember me even when I am not there: I will haunt you with the presence of my long, vanilla-kissed trunk…..)
It was always hilarious, though, I must say, to be asked
‘Wow, what perfume are you wearing?’
and be able to answer
…a perfume so intense it actually burns human skin (mine in any case……I always had red patches from the absurd concentration of sensitizing spices and ylang.. and Japanese Parisian aroma chemicals…….maybe it would suit the skin of the great pachyderm itself better: : : : : : : : great runs of cardamom-scented elephants charging across the savannahs and plains, scaring off the yelping cheetahs and lions with gigantic clouds of ylang ylang and patchouli
….a perfume that, quite understandably, still has a small posse of enthusiasts across the world who keep it in production (Le tigre, which I also loved, is now unfortunately extinct)…..
No. The Elephanters truly love its plummy, Christmas cake excesses: its spiced, inspiriting intensity, but more importantly the fact that it elicits such positive, even wild reactions from others (especially in its closing stages). I have practically caused stampedes, wearing this perfume; I distinctly remember the first time I debuted the perfume in a bar in Yokohama, and people were all over me, women especially, sniffing my neck wantonly, excited by its effluvium of everything in the poacher’s kitchen sink.
With a great, bellowing, fanfare, the sweetest ylang ylang flowers; cumin, cardamom and mandarins trumpet savagely from the skin, a perilous stage you have to endure before you begin to wade through the massive, uninhabitable jungle to reach that delicious main theme, which is a rich, buttery accord of vanilla, patchouli and a huge dollop of liquorice.
Gorgeous and grotesque in equal measure, this really is a fun scent to wear out once in a while, but only in cold weather lest you be cloyed to death.
On the wrong, sweaty, hot and greasy day, Elephant is nothing short of an atrocity.
I have had friends who have absolutely loved the scent on me (the closing stages) and then tried it on themselves, only to screech in distress at the initial toxic shock and run like crazy to the nearest source of water and soap. My current big bottle comes from a friend who bought it based on how I smelled, was appalled when he tried it on himself, and immediately handed it over to my willing, grabbing hands.