Category Archives: Spice Orientals

But don’t look now………: HABIT ROUGE by GUERLAIN (1965)

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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…

 

 

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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.

 

 

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SHE’S ALL THAT: : : COCO by CHANEL (1984)

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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.

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DUMBO DUMBO : L’ELEPHANT by KENZO (1996)

 

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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…..)

 

 

 

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It was always hilarious, though, I must say, to be asked

 

‘Wow, what perfume are you wearing?’

 

and be able to answer

 

 

‘Elephant!’

 

 

…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

 

 

 

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….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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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Filed under Liquorice, occasionally sickening scents, Orientals, Patchouli, Perfume Reviews, Spice Orientals, Vanilla, Ylang Ylang

A dependable tonka: Umami by Florascent (2007)

 

 

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‘Umami’ is the fifth taste. Not sweet, sour, salty or bitter, but ‘umami’ –  a Japanese term that translates as ‘savoury pleasure’ or ‘mouthfeel’. And while this perfume by Florascent – a German fragrance house that apparently uses only natural essential oils – is not conspicuously gourmand nor notably edible, there is a certain texture or heft in this scent that is more than liquid; a soothing, binding, moisture-absorbing quality that is very comforting, particularly when it starts to get cold and even you yourself need binding.

The main theme of Umami (which I bought as a new winter perfume recently from Charis, my favourite aromatherapy shop in Fujisawa, the city where I work), is tonka bean (a warm, nutty, coumarin-drenched aroma), fused with black pepper, a dry, unsaturated sandalwood, and a pleasingly gentle, unsweetened vanilla. Chewy all-spice; ginger and a barely discernible osmanthus form the heart, while the all too brief top note of Japanese yuzu gets rapidly subsumed in the self consuming warmth. It has to be said that there is not a great deal of development in this perfume – what you smell in the bottle is pretty much what you get on the skin –  but I was pleased I bought it.

Perhaps the closest comparison I can make to Umami is Guerlain’s Heritage, which in the rare to find eau de parfum used to comprise a stunning and enduring note of black pepper in its blinding initial stages, over a gorgeous, heady,  male blanket of tonka, vanilla and a smooth, delectably oriental base. But while the Guerlain, as you might expect, was luxuriant, fluffed up, recherché, Umami is more…….. huggable (really, very huggable), particularly on a freezing winter’s day. An arran sweater lacking drama, you might say. But somehow that is what I liked about it: it is  a completely dependable, go-to scent that never really raises its voice, so to speak, but stays tucked up and taut – and that’s somehow exactly how you want it to be.

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George Sand (Les Parfums Historiques)

Sometime in the 1850’s, Frédéric Chopin was beginning to make a name for himself in the salons of Paris. Aside from his obvious musical genius, the young man had garnered a reputation for exquisite, almost excessive politesse and gentility, gracious to a fault. He was much in demand. By all accounts ‘fragile, delicate, reserved, somewhat languid’, Chopin was nevertheless frequenting similar circles to a woman he ‘dreaded above all others’, Aurore Dupin, otherwise known as George Sand. Having already ‘conquered’ Franz Liszt, among other luminaries of the nineteenth century, she had written to Liszt that she ‘idolized’ Chopin and was desperate to make his acquaintance. They would shortly be lovers.

To see George Sand as some kind of predatory monster, as many have done,  is, surely to fall prey to the misogynist clichés she herself was railing against. In fact this woman, a hero to women of the day, was unstoppable: fierce, proud, alive, celebrated as much for her reputation as one of the greatest contemporary novelists in France as she was vilified for her uncompromising stance on gender and sexuality. Her conquests were legendary, and though Chopin’s friend the Marquis de Custine lamented that ‘the poor creature does not see that she has the love of a vampire’, Chopin fell, perhaps inevitably, under her spell.

Like the great Colette who was to follow her, George Sand forged her own path in society and remains a fascinating figure of the period. Les Parfums Historiques, a limited edition line from Maître Parfumeur et Gantier, have done something very interesting with their perfume – a celebrity perfume if you like, but for someone long gone; an attempt to recreate, somehow, the ‘essence’ of George Sand in a perfume. The result in my opinion is extremely good, having subtleties and complexities not easily found in a modern release. It is open yet enigmatic, erotic yet refined, a perfume that takes a while to reveal its secrets.

George Sand’s most controversial aspect was perhaps her desire to be unshackled of gender (‘the mind has no sex’), dressing as a man whenever fancy took her, and taking female lovers. She was determined not, at any cost, to be deprived of experiences in society merely because she was a woman. Balzac writes of ‘coming across her in her dressing room, smoking a cigar by her fireside after dinner. She had on some pretty yellow slippers, ornamented with fringe, some fancy stockings, and red trousers.’ (This was, at the time, literally illegal).

Though she was practically accused of having brought about the early demise of Chopin – ‘I was said to have worn him out with my violent sensuality’-  the passion, at least for a time, was surely mutual. The weaker the consumptive composer got, the stronger Sand: she made it her mission therefore to restore him to health, with ill advised trips to southern Europe, and (more congenial to Chopin) lengthy stays at her idyllic country retreat, Nohant, where he is fact said to have produced some of his best work. Perhaps their diametrically opposed personalities were in fact more compatible than has been supposed.

The ‘housebound genius’ would be happily esconced in an apartment off her bedroom, ‘cheerfully decorated with red and blue Chinese wallpaper’, where he could work on his compositions. Some of this orientalist warmth, an elegant drawing room quality, has found its way into the perfume, as well as some of the writer’s exotic dandyism. Sand wore a pendant around her neck containing a particular patchouli she had acquired in Venice and ‘couldn’t live without’: this dark, earthy note then forms the basis of George Sand the perfume: a rich, but very elegant patchouli encased within a warm, spiced, resinous heart that bears a cursory resemblance to orientals such as Opium, through refracted through a more sober, aristocratic lens.

While Chopin was at work on his valses and polonaises, Sand loved to go out into her garden, where she grew herbs and her favourite flowers, roses and lavender. These essences are thus used as an interesting counterpoint to the more sensual notes of the base, with an added invigorating accord of bergamot and orange in the top notes. The scent thus maintains an interesting tension between poise and abandonment, light and dark, vigour and restraint –  all qualities that come through in accounts of the woman.

What drew me to this scent, besides its delightful bottle, was its enigmatic, bisexual aspect, endowed as it is with both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ ingredients (all of good quality), combining  to form a perfume that is unique and outside the mainstream of current fads. It is perfectly suited to a woman or a man and highly recommended.

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Filed under Orientals, Perfume Reviews, Spice Orientals