A shocking thing happened to me last night. D and a friend of ours, Kevin, were in the dark watching the new TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s brilliant and timely The Handmaiden’s Tale – the first episode surpassing all my expectations (this is one of the best novels I have ever read by far: I could not breathe properly throughout – I have even referenced it explicitly before on here in relation to Byredo’s Tulipe and the subjugation of women in perfume), a date of release that feels somehow perfect and utterly relevant because what is depicted in the story – women being kidnapped, raped and forced to be the fertility concubines of their masters has already happened with the Nigerian women captured by Boko Haram and in many other places; brainwashed, enslaved; baby machines for blood-lusting thugs in the name of religion. With the Christofascist movement in the U.S also a major force in politics, affecting women’s ability to make their own reproductive choices, and backing the dystopian nightmare of Trump being in power – which still, six months on, feels utterly surreal (I can’t actually accept, still, that this dangerous monster is ‘the leader of the free world’, that his catastrophic policies, both in terms of international politics – pushing and provoking adversaries deliberately closer to war; destabilizing efforts to contain global by petulantly pulling out of the Paris climate accord, a man who genuinely seems to be mentally unstable and who has the true potential to wreak destruction not only on his own beleaguered nation but the rest of the world as well); The Handmaiden’s tale just feels so apposite and so quietly condemning of those that fall under the tyrannical spell of organized ‘religion’, no matter what the origins of that religion might actually be; so very far from any of the realities of their central tenets; how the words are twisted and perverted; how ‘Christians’ can be so full of hatred for their fellow man, so lacking in compassion; how ‘Muslims’ can blow themselves up at concerts full of children, or plunge knives into human beings just out and enjoying themselves at Borough Market and London Bridge. While my optimism for humanity ultimately remains undimmed – the reactions and caring shown by people the world over for their fellow human beings is always cheering and wonderful to behold; the fact that the fury against Trump’s deliberately oblivious environmental attack and denial has already resulted in waves of new regulations across US states vowing to adhere to, and even go beyond, the limits set by the Paris accords, shows that the human spirit is very, very strong indeed and refuses to be held hostage by evil and violence, the concert held by Ariana Grande and others in Manchester last night, One Love, being further proof of this, I don’t believe that the world is doomed to disaster. But what is occurring right now certainly is extremely unsettling and desperate. These truly feel like volatile, violent and angry times.
We can say what we want and add to the dialogue, but what can I, personally, do about any of it? I am trapped inside my home. It feels as if the world is marching into madness somewhere on the other side of the rainbow. In one sense, it all has absolutely nothing to do with me.I spend the vast majority of the day on the bed in the kitchen, only hobbling outside, just about, to sit on the chair and read about all of these atrocities and maniacs, powerless to do a single little thing about it (I can’t even vote: neither in my country of origin or the one that I live in: I am truly the dreamy disenfranchised). I am frustrated by my lack of progress, and by not knowing whether it even is a lack of progress. Once you have left the hospital, there is no further contact to ask for advice, there is no physiotherapy. I am not supposed to ring up my former rehabilitation ward (I tried once, and it didn’t go down well; they have other osteotomy patients to deal with now, it’s neverending, they don’t have time). I understand that, but I also feel abandoned in some way, unsure of how to proceed; is the exercise bike I have bought and started using the right thing to be doing? It feels good, but am I overdoing it? Should I be trying to walk outside around the neighbourhood, eleven weeks after the operation? Or should I be resting? Won’t inactivity, though, just lead to the atrophying of my legs? What, exactly, am I supposed to be doing? Several of my kind Japanese neighbours have offered to take me for a walk when Duncan isn’t here, and have done so; I have managed to walk the block, very tentatively, with my cane, about five times now, very nervous about falling over, or tripping, and sometimes it really hurts and I have to grip the wall of someone’s garden before I recommence…….It feels great to be actually doing it, though, to be walking again outside, because I sometimes getquite claustrophobic, always being stuck in one particular room; I feel confined (the neighbour across from us has offered to just take me out in the car twice a week just so I can get a change of scenery, particularly as where I live now is just so beautiful. Perhaps I am doing better than I think. There are plenty of people out there worse off than me, I know: limbs blown off in callous explosions, bodies ripped into with cruel knives by crazed, masked marauders. But still. I am here and they are there….
I really do feel that I want to MOVE. Go out, go to the city. Not just malinger, here, inside. I have done these walks, or finally actually sweated from doing some real exercise on the bike while blasting out music (the endorphins! the clarity of thought and positivity that comes from doing heartbeating exercise, I love it), but then I often find that later on I am as stiff as a board, that my legs contract and won’t move; they ache, they sometimes throb, they buckle under me, and I have no way of knowing if any of it is actually ok (my next appointment at the hospital is June 15th, which will mark about the three month mark since the operations. I will find out then when I am xrayed and examined by the surgeon, and it will be my first exploration of the outside world for an extremely long time. I am nervous, but also strangely excited…)
And Japan, though it is also heading in a very disturbing right wing direction like many other countries – the government under Shinzo Abe seems to be veering defiantly into an increasingly World War II Imperialist agenda- is at least relatively safe. No guns. No terrorists (so far, in any case – we’ll see about the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games). There are large numbers of crazy people lost in their own worlds, yes, and the occasional very psychotic one, but Japan does have the lowest murder rate in the world among the developed nations, you never worry, there is none of that tension and slight, suppressed apprehension of other countries where you have to be aware, and look over your shoulder, and I look forward to just gliding within its super-efficient gleam, and flow.
A person can be engaged with the world, yet still powerless. Interested in it, but divorced. Extricated. Alone. Right now I find myself in a vastly diminished universe that much of the time only revolves around my space, myself, my legs. And the recuperation. The concentrated effort to get stronger and be able to walk again. I immerse myself in documentaries, cinema, reading, writing, music, in sitting outside in the green of the June leaves and the beautiful sunshine. I occasionally have visitors, though contact is far less than I was having when I was a hospital patient. Last night, as I said, Kevin, an American friend of ours, came down to our house from Tokyo to visit me, and we had dinner, and talked, and they danced around the kitchen a little bit (I did so on the bed), and we then settled on The Handmaid’s Tale. I think it is great. Remarkably well done. In fact, I was very leery of seeing it at first, despite many of my friends’ recommendations, because I worry about my mental image of the book being destroyed. Instead, what the makers of the series of done is miraculously preserve the central emotional feeling of the novel, but rather than try to capture the inwardness and singular viewpoint of the central character, June/Offred – the creators have made a convincingly paranomic, widescope version of a story that needs to be told; a world where individuals, and women particularly, are stripped of all power and reduced to second-class citizens, as they are in much of the world in reality: merely housemaids, slaves, and reproductive robots.
I sit, or lounge, on the bed, a rented bed for people in my position, my walking stick hung on a nail on the wall. It is imperative that I don’t fall over. This is crucial. I am not to fall over. I was continually lectured on that point when leaving the hospital. Korobanai yoni; korobanai yoni, don’t fall over, don’t fall over (as if I would try to), emphasised over and over again that I mustn’t fall down and hurt my healing bones which are still in the process of knitting themselves together and vulnerable to breakage or shock; it is this that makes walking anywhere so terrifying and why I must always have somebody with me as I simply can’t risk doing it alone when there is nobody to fall onto or grasp. In the house I am very careful. Yet, sometimes, no matter how much care you take, things really are beyond your control.
I was sat on the bed. So was Duncan. Kevin was on a chair. We had projected The Handmaiden’s Tale onto the wall. Huge. It was a tense, dramatic moment. The music had crescendoed to something sinister and threatening. Our nerves were on edge like taut strings, waiting to see what the sex-prisoner Offred was going to do in a particular, oppressed, situation, breath bated, when suddenly –
‘Oh, Mori’ says Kevin as our cat suddenly ran and lunged into the air from nowhere, released something trapped in her mouth and we were besieged by the beating of wings; flapping, aggressively, throbbing – something, a bird, flittering in the projector light; a hideous, overwhelming fluttering and darting that was petrifying and in that instant, before I knew it, as we all shouted and lurched into reaction and confusion, I found that I had unconsciously, on pure primitive horror and instinct, tried to run from the bed – launched myself towards the floor to escape and my legs had given way and I hit the floor in a contorted position as we realized it wasn’t a bird but a giant moth, vibrating at hideous speed, whirring in the magnifying light, and I was conscious of the fact that oh my god I have fallen, no; no, no no this can’t have happened – kill it, kill it, just kill it! flying around the room dive bombing and me on the floor….I don’t know why it was so foul and unbearable – I don’t usually even hate moths that much – but I was cowering behind Kevin grabbing some clothes on the floor to protect my face and imploring Duncan to get rid of it. Usually we are not the kill the insect type – they have the right to live just as much as we do, and he tried desperately to trap it beneath a mug on the floor as it zigzagged through the air but he was worried about what else might happen to me as I was stuck in the corner on the floor in that twisted position……..there is a rock from the garden we use as a door stopper, and making a swift decision he finally crushed it to death on the floor.
It had happened, though. We had all been drinking red wine. Relaxing. Was this to blame? I don’t think so. We weren’t drunk. I swore, semi-seriously, in my Seventeen Things I Have Realized In Hospital piece that I wouldn’t drink for the foreseeable future as it could endanger my legs too much in case of falling, but in fact, the sheer monotony of always being inside necessitates a change of mental feeling from time to time so at weekends we have indulged a bit (red wine, and you can check for yourself, is actually recommended by the Arthritis foundation for knee pain). When I have had some, I stay on the bed, and am escorted by Duncan, so I wasn’t endangering myself- in fact, it is possible that the relaxed state I was in made my fall softer and protected me. In a totally unalcolized state I might have jumped and fallen even further actually. Everything had flashed by so quickly that I wasn’t even entirely sure what had happened, whether I had actually stood up and my legs had collapsed under me or whether I had somehow just launched myself, flown, if you like, from the bed and somehow landed in the position that I did, which is what Kevin thought happened. Three screaming gay men and a moth: it just seems so pathetic, doesn’t it? I am not even particularly afraid of insects, or birds, but there is just something so primeval and in the human DNA I think about flapping wings near your face – the projector had also made the creature loom much larger, intensifying the experience – we all assumed it was a bat, or a bird – as did the fact that this had happened just at the moment of extreme tension in the drama. We were startled out of our skins and just flew. Fused together it led to this mayhem in the kitchen which we could laugh about later on again in the evening before he went back on the train up to Tokyo, but which actually took me quite a long time to calm down from : my heart was beating quite rapidly not from the moth horror but from the danger it had put my recovery in…..I read somewhere something once about how many people die a year because of their cats than any kind of shootings or terrorist attacks.. (a few years ago at work, something similar happened. I was in the middle of doing a teachers’ English conversation class one morning when I went to the school’s miniscule kitchen, about the size of a large closet, to get a drop of water and wash my hands. Suddenly, and it always seems to happen in these occasions that you simply can’t register what is happening at first – something monstrous; great wings flapping about my head and bouncing and bounding against the window and door and claws…..I was flailing my arms around hysterically shouting (the classroom was at the other end of the school and the teachers had no idea what was taking me so long). A pigeon had somehow got in through the tiny window at the top and I was having a genuine Tippi Hedren moment – Alfred Hitchcock tricking the actress, when making The Birds – incidentally Duncan’s favourite film of all time – into thinking that when she entered the room where one of the pivotal scenes of the drama was to take place, fake birds would be thrown at her by the production crew, when in fact he unleashed real seagulls that thrashed against her face with their wings….she was hospitalized for a week from the shock of it, the trauma; and I can tell you, that even having just one big bird, panicked itself, trying desperately to get out, in hyper reactive survival mode, so close, and both of you trapped in that tiny space, was quite horrific……I eventually managed to get out of there and slam the door shut and went back to the classroom where I couldnt’ speak for a while, and the teachers seemed perturbed at my change of demeanour. When I finally could tell them, we all went down the corridor together, and with various tactics, including broom and mop handles, they managed to guide the poor creature back outside into the air).
Are my legs injured? Has something happened internally? I hope to hell not. Initially I just lay on the floor and they asked me if I had any new or severe pain, and I didn’t. I felt some extra discomfort, perhaps from the way I had landed, but nothing too severe, and they lifted me up onto a chair and then onto the bed where I sat for a while dumbfounded and worried, but slept a long sleep and here I am now, writing this. I think I landed ok and wasn’t hurt. What a shock though.
Today, actually, I find myself clear-headed and happy. Perhaps last night’s real life horror moment was strangely cathartic in some way. I am outside: the birds are singing, the sun is out, I am back to that happily cocooned solitude feeling, happy to write and just bask in the quiet, covered in scent, allaying my senses. I wrote earlier about my immersion in music and the visual to embellish my reality, to make it less stifling and one-dimensional, but I do think that in fact, perfume has an even greater role in many ways, I love it, and I want to ask you: do you ever find your perfume obsession to be trivial in the face of our greater realities? When the world is the way that it is? Are we right to indulge ourselves so much in this way, to be paying so much inward attention to the sense of smell or, as I instinctively feel myself, is this more of a necessity, a vital part of life and happiness for the person for whom this sense is at least as important as the others and which gives so much sensual, cerebral, and physical pleasure? Do the jihadis of the Islamic State deprive themselves of perfume, as they do music, as a frivolous distraction from their god, even though the Islamic, Arab tradition is the finest, most intense and beautiful perfumed culture of all? Do the fundamentalist Christians, like Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, strip themselves of all frippery and wash their Christ-stricken skin only in pure water, as she does, as she prepares to be sacrificed and fertilized, and cleanses herself in a bath of the unscented ‘purity’ to ready herself for insemination? Is this love of the sheer overwhelming beauty of perfume and smell, in their eyes, a ‘sin’? Or is it a gift: yet another beautiful part of this world of sensorial pleasures that I just can’t get enough of while I am here, even when incapacitated and stuck, for the majority of the time, in one room ?
More dextrous and mobile than before, I can get myself in and out of the shower now. When I have sweated on the exercise bike, how I love to just get in there and soap down – right now the dregs of an old Chanel No 19 soap that has lost much of its greenery but still has a beautifully vetiver lactonic edge to it that is the perfect later skin setting for high quality perfumes, especially Guerlain. Shalimar, Vetiver, Ylang Vanille, Terracotta, all together, but in different places, smelling just prickly with powdered luxuriantness and threedimensional splendour; they smell just glorious on me, I feel like living art. I just sit here alone and radiate. I resonate. And Duncan will come home and say wow, you smell amazing, and I do. Is this shallow, and frivolous? Perhaps it is. I don’t know. But it enhances my spirit, it velvet-cushions my well-being, it is a boon. I love it. It is essential. Out there might be madness and chaos, but in here, where I am trapped, I can at least embroider the air around me and my own skin with the spirit of these inspired elixirs that keep me anchored in a world that still believes in beauty.
Although I am at home alone for most of the day, when D comes back at night he quite often brings me presents. The other day he had gone to Ofuna to a recycle shop called Julien that we sometimes frequent and brought me a perfume I had never even heard of, Ingenue by Kanebo, a scent that must have been from the seventies or eighties but which I can find out no information about but which is fantastic : the Duncan is a truly scent-literate person who knows what smells good and what doesn’t, which means when he comes across things on his thrift shop after work rummages he can come back with not only treasures he knows I will want, but also ones I didn’t even know I wanted until he presented them to me. Ingenue, an exquisitely green, Bulgarian rose chypre in the manner of Armani Pour Femme (1981), it is almost a copy, but with finer ingredients, including a beauteous green seventies top accord – cassis, hyacinth? – sheening with marigold that reminds me of the original Cardin de Cardin and the first perfume by Ralph Lauren, and is possibly the best perfume of this type that I have ever encountered. Not that you will, but if you do, and you love this type of scent, promise me that you will buy it; the powdered rose of the base blooms delicately in the amber of the perfume’s later stages, and I just know that this is something that I will adore to wear out on special occasions when that intricate, baroque rose type of perfume is truly called for. It happens quite a lot to me in winter Check it out on ebay if you can- I guarantee 100% that you won’t be disappointed. Sometimes the Japanese really do imitate things and improve on them, and this is a perfect example.
Friday, though. My god, Friday was a shockingly fantastic windfall of vintage perfume. And I want to share it with you. A couple of days before, as I lay on The Bed with my nose glued to my left arm inhaling the wonders of Ingenue, I lazily asked him as he was going upstairs, ‘so was there anything else there at Julien the other day when you went?’, and he said, ‘no, not really, just the usual crap, Salvatore Ferragamo etc, and some Chant D’Arômes’ …….’some WHAAATTT ? ? ? !I exclaim leaping up into the sitting position, ‘Chant D’AROMES?? ? ? ? ? ?oh my god was it vintage what was the bottle like what the box like was it the gold and black box was it the pink textured packaging of the vintage was it parfum or eau de toilette how much was it when can you go back and get it why didn’t you consider buying it and calling me’ and he said that he couldnt’ remember, but that he would go back and take a look for me some other day this week and send me a picture…..’when, when’ I don’t want anyone else to have it…!
You can see my review for Chant D’Arômes if you just search for it. But trust it to say, I love this delicate and distinctive perfume, one of the far lesser known of the Guerlain classics and would love to have some more, as long as it is not the same version as the one I had after knowing the vintage perfume; a re-issue in Japan that was given free to people who spent enough money at their cosmetics counter, but which had a nasty synthetic smell running through its entire composition and which I wasn’t interested in because I have no time for eviscerated, skeletonized, bullshit.
Friday came. He has been out and about these last few weeks on occasion after work, up in Tokyo ( I sometimes spend morning until night entirely alone), but a man can’t be at home playing carer and shopper the entire time, and he has discovered some fantastic new performance spots and odd, Lynchian dives that we will have to go to as soon as I am better. On this particular occasion he was taking some new friends that he had met recently at the screening of his film, to a place where Tokyo’s diva of rope-tying, kinbaku, the Japanese art of bondage, was holding court. He just about had time, between leaving work and coming home to change to go and check on the Chant d’Arômes before heading out to the silkier universe of Tokyo’s ‘scandalous’, hidden demi-monde.
The picture on the iPhone came. And it looked just like the bottle I had and not liked, as well as being quite expensive for a recycle shop – 6800 yen (about 47 pounds or fifty something dollars), 100ml. I knew I didn’t need another bottle of the cruddy remake but at the same time something about the lettering on the box suggested that this was an older model, still a remake but a decent one, and although I said don’t buy it, a few seconds later I said no I need it, please get it, and thankfully it turned out I was right. YES. This Chant D’Arômes is much closer in spirit to the parfum I tragically spilled – one of my very worst perfume catastrophes and something I don’t want to really dwell on -the gentle, sunny mosses intact, the fruity pear- apple dappling orchard mellowness downing peachily to the beautiful honeysuckle and mirabelles……..DELIGHTFUL, and as I lay there, with the aforementioned ratio of Guerlains already lilting gently, lustfully into their later stages, I found some skin space for the Chant and it blended in perfectly, the warm chypric tenderness of its introverted optimism sidling up perfectly next to some base notes traces of vintage Shalimar eau de toilette. Oh, and he also bought me another, much bigger, bottle of Kanebo Ingenue just for good measure. I might never see it again, it was there, and now I have a stash….
I was happy. Who wouldn’t be. I did of course wish that I could have been out finding out all these new intriguing corners of Tokyo, but I was at home contentedly watching some Netflix drama or other, when suddenly the familiar ringtone of Facetime came on, Duncan saying, ‘I got to Ebisu quite early and… guess what…….THE SHOP is open again!’
Now THE SHOP, is, for perfumistas who have an appreciation of the superiority of classic vintage perfumes, an absolute treasure trove and Aladdin’s Cave of perfume that makes your eyeballs pop out, your throat stop in terror and bewilderment and engender semi-cardiac arrest (if we were all there together, you readers and I, as the cardboard boxes are wearily opened by the strange man that owns the place and NEVER OPENS IT, EVER, there would be shirts ripped off, hair, and wigs, flying, as we tore at each other and grabbed and clawed at this or that vintage Calèche or No 5 selling for the equivalent of a chocolate bar….this is, after all, the place where I found Nombre Noir for next to nothing and all manners of things that are crazily underpriced, sometimes over; it is all a very haphazard arrangement; you grab what you can, as he always says ‘we are closing now’ and looks at you suspiciously, god knows why, and you take it to the counter wondering how much he is going to charge you on this occasion; if the perfumes are current ones, say a Gucci, or something that seems ‘fashionable’ he will charge much more, but I have had beloved vintage parfums of, say, Caron Infini, or No 19 for ten dollars apiece, an old Givenchy Gentleman for virtually nothing – he sometimes seems to just toss things in for free, but as I said, he is NEVER BLOODY OPEN. I have gone there on my days off and it has been shut; I have gone there on the way to engagements in other places in Tokyo hoping he would be open, I have tried several times recently and it was always, always, always shut, so I have given up, essentially. And yet here is Duncan, as I am already losing myself in the pleasures of the perfumes I have received just an hour and a half before, telling me, completely unexpectedly, that it is open. And there is the camera, blurred and swishing from side to side as he surveys the shelves and I say hold on, slow down, what is that, focus in, please get this, can you get that, can you ask him if he has any unopened boxes (where the hell does this loot come from, I wonder, for it to just be loaded into receptacles as though it were trash: who is giving away this stuff, why doesn’t he pay more attention to it? Answer: probably because his main line of business, like most recycle shops in Tokyo, is second hand Louis Vuitton handbags and other designer crap that people are still obsessed with here after all these years and the perfume is just a touch of flotsam in the corner….)
BUT NOT FOR ME.
‘The man’ was in a characteristically even worse mood than ever: apparently, he ‘was closing’, there was a very limited window of opportunity, and he also charged more than he might have usually. 7200 yen. In total. Still, only just over fifty quid, or around 60 dollars, and it was pay day, after all (I am supposed to be trying to be very careful with money seeing as I am not getting paid from now until the end of September you see and have to eke out my money to some extent), but when this place is open, trust me, you just have to.
Slung unceremoniously into a big plastic grocery bag, much later in the evening, around 1am, when he finally got home from some very hilarious shindigs, at a bar in Roppongi, were these, handed out to me like Santa around the Christmas tree, serenaded on The Bed with yet more perfumed treasures:
: Two big 100ml bottles of vintage unopened Lancome Sikkim eau de toilette: a very stylish, delicate and suave green leather chypre that the D took to immediately and which we will definitely enjoy (any comments and further info on this perfume, please do, if there are any Sikkim lovers out there)
: a classic Patou Joy parfum in the black bottle and red cap (it was unopened, but I have a thing where I just can’t resist twisting the hymen of the wax that seals the mouth lid and discovering the true identity of the contents). I am wearing this today. Although the initial smell was like mothballs, the classic rose jasmine of the vintage original, once the perfume was released from its endless imprisonment, is entirely intact. Persolaise, when you and Linda come over to stay in July, I will give you this as I know how much you love it.
: a Courrèges Empreinte pristine parfum. I have reviewed this one before, but it is a curious, peach-leather chypre from the seventies that I find inestimably chic and aloof. I had used up much of my previous bottle so I am very pleased to have it again. Once in a blue moon, in a particular, offbeat mood, only Empreinte will do.
: a beautiful original Nina by Nina Ricci eau de toilette, a perfume I love and which I often keep by the bed as a night scent as I consider it to be one of the best green floral aldehydics of the eighties and a scent that really soothes my spirits- there is something forever pure and happy about this scent, and this was in perfect olfactory condition in the gorgeous original Lalique (is it?) crystal flacon
: a vintage sixties or seventies eau de cologne by Shiseido – More, that I had never properly known before and which is completely and unexpectedly BEAUTIFUL. What initially might just seem like a typical ‘old lady’ Chanel No 5 rip-off – very, very powdery; very, very aldehydic turns out to be extremely cultivated, almost peerless; both fresher and more lively in the top with a gorgeously uplifting fruit note that lasts into the drydown, which in itself is more delicate than a meringue with a note of vanilla that keeps it from the usual musky boredom that I easily tire of. D might find this one unacceptable on me, and I can see why – I probably just smell like an octogenarian transvestite ballerina in it, but there is something in this scent, some real sense of soul, real intelligence and emotion, that I can imagine having a day here just by myself, the doors bolted and locked, and post shower, just dousing myself in the stuff and spending the rest of the day just floating on the tulles of a cloud, happy as Larry, cut off from the horrors of the world like a cut in cotton wool.
: a full bottle of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s parfum d’ambiance,Mimosa Marin, which is the interior equivalent of the original Mimosa Pour Moi, whose reformulated bottle I have never been happy with ( I used to love the original). This is perfect, and has the drifty baby chick pollen of the first formulation from the nineties – I adore the scent of mimosa – with a slightly oceanic note (but not really….it is delightfully aerated though) and this was the first thing I was saying yes that, definitely, definitely, get the mimosa, get the mimosa, in those closing moments in the shop when the D was desperately trying to hoover everything up into his arms and reach the cashier. I am also wearing it today, and it smells pleasingly airy and light.
Oh yes, a vintage bottle of Diane Von Furstenburg’s Tatiana, a lovely green, beachy white floral in the manner of Alfred Sung’s Sung and Rochas’ Lumière, a seventies/eighties style that I still really admire; all hyacinths and galbanum and gardenia, gorgeous, even if I don’t think I can really get away with it; still, sprayed on a t-shirt on a summer’s day it could be really rather enjoyable, as could something, another perfume that D grabbed for the sake of it called Rêve Voilé by Avon, which smells incredibly good for such a cheap perfume house, beachy and made for Californian sunsets as well.
Oh yes, some Fendi by Fendi, that glorious spiced Italianate classic, which I like on a winter’s day when I am in that more ferocious and uppity state of mind and last, but certainly not least, a very exciting,vintage parfum bottle of
SHOCKING by Elsa Schiaparelli, darling of the surrealists, friend of Dali, and author, or at least originator, of the iconoclastically titled Shocking. Although the top notes have long gone in this bottle, a full 7ml vintage extrait, the body and soul of the perfume remains (unlike a miniature parfum I also once had that had resorted to nothing but mushrooms). This juice, in this bottle, does smell equally fusty, musty and old, but also undeniably erotic. It is still so dark, rich and potent. I don’t know what this says about me, but there is something about say, the unapologetically carnal trio of Dana’s Tabu, Lavin’s My Sin, and Schiaparelli’s Shocking that is just so almost damningly femme fatale and filthy that I feel slightly endangered in some way, as if they are breathing down my neck and coming in for the kill; thrilled, at the thought of long and beautiful fur coats tinged with these perfumes, filled with their nitromusks and civet and the furry anthers of moths and satin underdresses and the newfound freedom of these times when some women said no to dainty white flowers and bathed themselves in the thick, oilpaint tinctures of opulent, dense, unguent-ridden spiced perfumes with balls. I have only just found out, while looking up information about Shocking, that the legendary perfumer Jean Carles, was also the author of Tabu, but that definitely does make sense. Both perfumes have similarities, in the same way that Cabochard, Aromatics Elixir and Aramis do. The perfumer’s signature style underlining them all. In these perfumes’ case, a thick lasciviousness. I do find Tabu unbearable, I will admit. I also, contradictorily,think it is brilliant, with its marron glacés, plum pudding relativity to Caron’s Nuit De Noël – just tripled in strength, and depth, and laden with animalics and a truly fantastic Mysore sandalwood – once, after we had found a bottle of vintage Tabu down the Isezakicho shopping mall, I got Duncan to wear a bit for me as a dare, because it was so utterly out of character and wrong for his self image, and although he did, as expected, absolutely hate it, he loathed it, and couldn’t wait to get it off, the trail of tawdry but beautiful sandalwood that he was giving off behind him as he walked in front of me down the street was so good that I wished I could trick him into wearing again – not that that is ever going to happen. Tabu is so thick and buttery and suggestive to the point of obscenity- it really is the quintessential hooker scent – which I have no objections to whatsover except for the fact that it is so creamily blocked together I find it ashyxiating both physically and mentally, I can’t stand it, really, even though I kind of love it, and it is hard to imagine many people being able to get away with wearing it convincingly now (but if you do beg to differ on this point, please tell me). The Schiaparelli, however, the earlier template, is less filled-in, and less lipidly seamless and splayed out stark naked, there,on the bed. This number is still her in her black, made to measure negligee. Musky, full of patchouli, amber, white honey, sandalwood, civet; a lick of tarragon to twist up the floral absolutes, this is a perfume full of nightime, cigarettes and seduction. You can imagine a woman, beautiful in her way, lying on her bed before going out, touching her inner thighs and intimate places with the stopper from the bottle, laughing to herself at the thought of what might be to come later, the somewhat androgynous but unequivocal sex of it all. A woman in control of herself, between the wars, in that decadent stage just before the fascists took over for a second time, when the balance of decadence and good time debauchery shifted once again, as it is now, towards damning conservatism; the negation of woman as free, public entity; and murderous intolerance.
Still, there she is, right now, in her room, by herself, bathed and tipsy from a glass or two of champagne, negligently applying her perfume to her person, and this woman is perhaps unaware of any of this, of what is about to happen, or whatever as happened before. She is quite simply enjoying her mood, deciding on what she wants to wear, no matter how risqué, quite simply, just because she wants to. Applying her perfume to her own skin, because she desires to: and she loves how the perfume envelopes her, her louche but cleverly constructed and marketed perfume, a liberating dose of accomplice.
She goes out, unattended, unchaperoned; confident in her own body, emanating confidence and sensuality, the traces of stealthy, animal perfume rising up from her occasionally in heavy breathing wisps of anticipation. A woman in control of her own destiny, far from the clutches of the zealots who wish to quell her and bring her to heel to fit their own unreligious, brainwashed and brainwashing dictats. A woman with autonomy and agency, master and mistress of her own body.
Goodness, what a shocking thought.
Alfonso de Portage, race car driver, and one of the inspirations for ‘Monsieur’.
Gianni Agnelli, industralist, another.
Mark Birley, playboy billionaire: and yet another.
‘Manly and elegant… the formula, both simple and essential, has evoked, since its genesis, remorseless seducers who would playfully flit from women’s embraces to social merrymaking’.
Indeed. On smelling Editions De Parfums’ latest release, Monsieur, these are exactly the feelings that are conjured up in your mind’s eye: of a man who means business. The ad, featuring a tailored, bespoke suit sleeve just covering a very obviously expensive Swiss made watch, is very Bond: every detail just so; sleek, jaw-clenched; very narcissistically self-aware.
Much has been made of this new perfume’s extragavant usage of patchouli – Monsieur is supposedly to patchouli what Carnal Flower is to tuberose – which the promotional materials claim has not been used at such a high dosage (50% of the formula) since the 1970’s: presumably a reference to the patchouliest of classic masculines – Givenchy Gentleman (one of my favourite perfumes of all time, incidentally – a delightfully hirsute, but effortlessly elegant patchouli leather) on which which this modern competitor is apparently doing an exclusive penthouse riff.
And it is quite effective. Opening with an almost disconcertingly sharp mandarin note bathed in rum , the clear, refractionated patchouli essence of the perfume soon makes its sensual presence felt: very taut, and very polished, while presently, more trouser-heavy, carnal notes of musk, amber, amber and vanilla make their presence in the base as our protagonist begins to feel a bit restless and horny at the end of his long and impeccable business day . You can almost smell his later conquests here, with a bodily, more intimate aspect laid bare under the overall patchouli frame: yet another successfully accomplished seduction at some private members’ club, the creme de la creme of his upper echelon, socially stratospheric, quiet brutality (think Michael Fassbender in Steve Mcqueen’s tale of passionless sex addiction, ‘Shame’).
I can imagine this fragrance being quite a big hit for Frederic Malle. Though apparently boasting more patchouli in its construction, this is used more thoughtfully and judiciously than the trowel-it- on, bucketload indigestibility of the hodgepodge patchoulis by Tom Ford or Christan Dior, which plug themselves up ungraciously with synthetic ambers and everything in-the-kitchen-sink to create real nose bombs that I personally cannot at all abide: too brash, sweet, and unharmonious (at least to my own very oversensitive nose). Monsieur is undoubtedly more ‘classy’ and has a definite quiet stealth in its overall construction, which the remorseless seducer that the perfume is intended for will undoubtedly use to his advantage.
The inherent problem with this perfume for me though is that is has little soul. If androids ever become a reality in the future, a few spritzes of Monsieur on the Italian bespoke suit and about the crotch area would certainly make the artificial intelligence seem more humanistic (and undeniably masculine). But that’s about as far as it goes, and I think the source of this sense of something amiss lies in the kind of basic materials that are being used: the perfumer, Bruno Jovanovic, like many perfumers using patchouli in a modern context, uses a particular form of the essence obtained by molecular distillation (‘to purify it in the extreme to turn it into the key link in the evaporation chain’) in order to make a smoother and less fuzzy variant. And I can definitely see how this would work: patchouli is known to have perhaps the lowest evaporation rate of all the essential oils in aromatherapy, which is precisely why it is so insistent, persistent, and long enduring (and why so many people hate the stuff). It thus makes sense, from the perfumer’s point of view, to use a more purified, streamlined version of the smell that will blend more effortlessly with the other notes and give the composition lift and clarity. For me, though, as I have written before, the very earthiness and complexity of patchouli oil, its soil like darkness, is where its beauty lies. These neutered patchoulis are missing the point in my view: it is like draining the indoles and disturbingly erotic elements in white flowers such as jasmine, gardenia lilies and tuberose, or syphoning off the dirty-skin velvetness of other basenotes such as labdanum, benzoin or costus; the hairshirt compromised pleasures of decaffeinated coffee, or dealcoholized wine.
There is, of course, a place for experimentation with aroma materials, to contemporize them and make them feel newer and fresher in the latest contexts. But for a bitter orange/ mandarin patchouli accord you are so much better off going with Micallef’s under-discussed, but very beautiful Patchouli, with its intimations of Campari and late night trysts, or for a really classical but very masculine, pulsating hard-on patchouli, Lorenzo Villoresi’s brilliant version of natural patchouli leaves: a midnight-dense, beautifully composed creation that, rather than setting out on a day or an evening of seductions and conquests, doesn’t even have to try.
A strange thing has happened to me. I have gone off vanilla. And although I think I can trace the moment this happened (and some of you were there with me), it still kind of shocks me, having spent the most beautiful holiday of my life two summer ago on a vanilla plantation in Java, swooning with vanilla suffocation in the upstairs drying room as the beans gave off their woozy, heady smell, gazing at awe at the vines; and more than half a lifetime of being swathed in vanilla-based, sweet and orientalic perfumes. (me sneaking out at dawn with a shaky iPhone, to take a short video of the exquisite environs of our little cabin (Duncan is curled up asleep inside) : Durian fruit, coffee trees, and papaya – which you can’t see – but most of all snaking vanilla vines climbing up trees; workers in fields, and me in a state of in-the-moment bliss)
I think that the Vanilla Talk I gave at Perfume Lovers London last spring just probably took me (and the collected audience) somehow over the edge (“I’m in a vanilla coma” said one attendee”), like a heroin user blowing his synapses with his final hit, or an alcoholic teetering over his own mental brink with his final bottle of Dewars. There was so much vanilla, what with my preparations and selections leading up to the event, to sampling and appraising various different parfums vanillés ad nauseam, to reading up on tons of vanillic historical and agricultural facts, that by the time the night was over and the air was replete, claustrophobed, and stinking with sweet, sticky perfumes that were being sprayed left right and centre during the talk itself (along with the savouring and appreciation of different vanilla bean varietals: Tongan, Tahitian, Indonesian, Indian…) and all the spraying of samples into little vials for people to take their vanilla fix home, that the sheer sensory overload, not to mention the volume of nervous terror that had preceded my first ever public speaking (I think it is probably more this, actually: that connection, in my subconscious: although I really got into my stride and eventually enjoyed it, meeting people and letting my passions show, my natural extrovert coming to the fore, before everyone arrived I was possibly more nervous than I ever have been in my entire life and was practically ready to hurl myself from the window. If Helen hadn’t been there to sort me out I think I might have). Perhaps this sheer adrenaline overdrive, anxiety, all compressed within the potent, deep brown sweetness of vanilla, was the catalyst that took my feelings for this beautiful substance from love and ease to quease.
I haven’t been able to wear it since.
A perfume such as Maria Candida Gentile’s Noir Tropical, then, which I discovered at a trendy Shibuya shop along with four or five of the Arquiste range yesterday as we walked in a sun-filled daze after a hedonistic night in Shinjuku, just isn’t quite right for my current sickly-averse mindset, even if a deeper part of my brain stem is still instinctly drawn towards anything with the word ‘tropical’ in it (I was imagining some kind of dark, pineapple-permeated fug). In fact, this is a very well made, natural-bean scent with a pronounced sweet and tipsy rum and sugar cane note running underneath a sublimated almond interior, wafting for hours on the skin, with some vague similarities to Vanille Absolument/Havana Vanille by L’Artisan Parfumeur only more organic; rich; densely packed. There is definitely a sweating, hidden- histories-of-the-southern-seas aspect to this scent I can imagine enjoying this on someone else, but for the reasons I have already explained above, I just can’t go there at the moment.
Some perfumes, particularly of the classical, ‘Golden Age’ school, are complex, gradated and layered, almost like symphonies or chamber works with different movements and emotions concealed within themselves only to be released, delicately, at a later hour. The modern niche aesthetic is often more of an ‘instant hit’ – what you see is what you get- even when the ingredients are of the highest quality. A Rothko block of dense colour rather than an dappling Impressionist painting: a potion or elixir, an accomplice. And although I sometimes miss the great pointillist balance of classical perfumery (the pure genius involved in controlling such a panoply in a way to make it sing), I also just enjoy a really good smell, if you know what you mean; a dot of deeply concentrated scent that you can just put on your skin, live with , and enjoy as it accompanies you throughout your day.
Loree Rodkin’s Gothic II and Farmacia Annunziata’s Cara are of this breed – rich, pleasing smells that will work if you like unadorned gourmand simplicity. Though the word gothic usually signifies something shadowed, sinister, vehement, Gothic II is anything but: it is homely, comforting, trustworthy, and easy. A deep patchouli heart (with both Indian and Tunisian essences,) is fused with rich Madagascar vanilla in the familiar, blocked, manner, although the addition of nag champa, incense and cloves produces a more overall effect of honey, an effect that continues for a long time on the skin until the patchouli and vanilla again come to the fore. What is good about this scent is that there are no rough or unpleasant edges detracting from the core theme, which, though a touch unimaginative and simplistic for me, is nerve-numbing, consoling, and potentially addictive.
Cara is much lighter: a mere trifle, really, but if you like your almond and vanilla mixed together in one blend, this works nicely as a very light and airy-sweet mood enhancer, with a talcum caramel heart and fresher, almost sport-fragrance top notes that give the perfume an ethereal edge. It is hard to imagine a more unthreatening perfume (which isn’t necessarily a recommendation), but there is also a reassuring familiarity about it, a play-doh, vanillic halo that I can imagine swirling around someone in a clean eddy of light, veiled, childlike innocence (which is).
L’Histoire Charnelle (‘a carnal history’) is another sweetened patchouli perfume, albeit with an unusual twist: a fruited, spiced, coconut aureole up top that to me on first smell smelled as though it had been buried in turmeric. There is an extremely dusty quality about this perfume (something I always associate with that spice), possibly the combination of nutmeg and cinnamon (and pear, of all things), alongside the tangerine and bergamot that, all combined, I find slightly offputting, even as I am tempted to smell deeper. Eventually, as the fizzy bristle of the top accord subsides, the coconut/vanilla/tonka theme then becomes more apparent and solidified, with the very lingering, resonant patchouli beneath consistenly making itself known and apparent. This is quite a sexy, unusual scent I would say, and it could make a good signature scent for a woman or man who wants to remains outside the loop, though I am not ultimately sure whether the perfumer, Hubert Maes himself, has all the disparate notes within the blend sufficiently sewn together.
The same cannot be said of Anima Dulcis, a perfume that caused quite a stir when it came out three years ago when the new perfume house of Arquiste was launched by founder Carlos Huber. I immediately liked the range when I smelled them then in London at the Harrods Haute Parfumerie, particularly Fleur De Louis and Flor Y Canto as I just love well made, entrancing florals, but Anima Dulcis (‘soul of sweetness’) is also a very well-executed scent that quite appeals to me- a rich, deep, but appealing spice-chocolate perfume with a curious and unusual concept attached: a seventeenth century convent in Mexico (The Royal Convent Of Jesus Maria), the nuns absorbed in the preparation of of chilli-infused chocolate drink in the hallowed halls, strirring and chatting amongs themselves as they wait for the head sister, the only nun who can finish it (the recipe is secret). Like all the perfumes I am discussing today, this is another vanilla-centred scent with a strong patchouli facet, but here, there is much more heft, the main theme being a very brooding and hypnotic natural cocoa absolute, infused with cinnamon and chililes a la Mexicana ( I also always drink strong, thick,hot chocolate with vanilla bean and red chillies – I love it on a hot winter’s night). This idea is translated here very well into perfumery – everything is harmony. Though not as distinctive or odd as I was perhaps expecting it to be given the chilli idea – this is an eminently wearable perfume – Anima Dulcis strikes me almost as being a kind of next generation Opium: tightened, no way as leopard-printed and satin-scarved as that seventies classic, but still, sultry, dense and magnetic, and with floral orientalized reverberations of that orange-licked spice (It also quite reminded me of Histoire De Parfums George Sand).
I found myself going back to my wrist again and again as we headed home towards the station, the spot where I had applied the perfume a source of continuing dark, exotic scent: the level of sweetness just right, the vanilla – that beauteous, brain-altering substance – not dominating, here, lolling somewhere softly condensed down deep side within the blend, undulating, but still kept quite comfortably in check.
Winter. The antisocial, deep pull of it.The malingering invasiveness. How it clings to you; piercing your bloodstream.Patchouli, reminding you of where you came from, and where you are going.The earth. Black, deep, wet: beyond the depths of the subconscious.
I adore patchouli, with reservations. For my Serge Luten’s classic Borneo 1834, my personal favourite, see my other piece on patchouli, Patchouli Patchouly. For a more recent and dressed up Dior take on the patchouli note, look here. For Madonna’s intriguing linkage to patchouli oil look here, but for a simple, more comprehensive look at a selection of the bona fide classics of the patchouli genre, go no further.
PATCHOULI / SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
A must-have patchouli: rich, stinging and pure, the workers at the monastic, Florentine profumeria allegedly having done their patient and diligent work for you with these sour and pungent leaves. A dark, formal preparation, an elixir: root-coloured, viscous, in the classic gold embossed bottiglia.
While Santa Maria Novella’s patchouli doesn’t show off (there are no ‘twists’ or ‘facets’ here to undermine the harmony), the Santa Maria Novella rendition of that darkest of perfumed notes is perfect for those who simply want a well balanced, elegant patchouli. Backed up with the subtle, warm, yet stern and stringent base notes typical of the house, it lingers, sumptuously, all day: a beautiful Italian equilibrium of darkness and light.
PATCHOULI LEAVES/ MONTALE
Already of legendary status among patchouli lovers, this is one of the best ‘straight’ patchoulis. If there is a problem with pure patchouli oil (which, I ultimately think is the best if you can find the right one), it is that it is sometimes much too rough and unwearable in it freshest state. You would have to stay in at home twelve hours before venturing out to get the exact stage of patchouli you were after (and this only with a good oil, they vary so much). And though not the precise balance of dry, musty and earthy I have long been after – I like it really, really earthy – this excellent blend by Montale saves you the bother of sequestering yourself in a patchouli dungeon waiting for the right moment to emerge by instead giving you an instant, fully formed, patchouli hit.
All of Montale’s perfumes are good, especially for those not interested in pale evanescence but who want their perfumes strong, erotic and proud. Patchouli Leaves is exactly that; the leaves of the patchouli plant, macerated for two years in oak tree bark. Under this fulsome melange is an ambered layer of vanilla, musk and Cystus Ladaniferous from Tibet that warms the blend (for me perhaps too much so), but rounds it, smooths it into a full fledged perfume that is sweet, replete and exotic.
PATCHOULI NOIR/ IL PROFUMO
Il Profumo is an interesting Italian niche brand which has what it claims to be a unique method of ‘osmosing’ its ingredients together: a ‘slow evaporation curve which allows a very intimate and sophisticated use of the perfume.’ All their perfumes are apparently given psychological directives; Patchouli Noir, according to the website, is ‘pervasive, decisive, antidepressant, tonic’, and it is, in fact, a peculiarly bodied, warming, musky, bodily patchouli that I find very emotive and enveloping. A chocolatey, vanillic base underlines the title note (with cedarwood and poppy), and it lasts, and lasts, and lasts, forever, on its wearer’s receiving skin.
PATCHOULI 24 / LE LABO
It’s rare to encounter a scent that hits the gut like the end of a love affair, but that’s exactly what this brilliantly original scent did to me the first time I smelled it in Paris. Once in a while a perfumer hits the jackpot with a collection of notes that cut straight to the emotional jugular, and this is it; the poignant smell of a lover gone, an ache of perfume, the perfumer taking the dark timbre of patchouli (very little – this can scarcely be called a patchouli in fact) a hint of cloves, and fused it with a beguiling, almost meaty, smoky-forest note of bonfires; Russian silver birch tar – a poignant, cruel smell, like smoked, Lapsong tea in a freezing wintery room. Fused to this strange and alluring smel is a sex-charged vanillic musk, for a very original, disturbing, and emotive patchouli of a totally different nature.
A hint of this on a lost lover’s shirt would be unendurable.
The Grasseois house of Molinard has been producing classical, impeccably made yet reasonably priced colognes and perfumes since 1849 in the old tradition, with its own flower fields, distilleries – the original artisanal methods of Provence that the town of Grasse still holds dear. And this is a very French patchouli, very much in the eau-de-cologne tradition of citrus, neroli, lavender, musk; at first glance merely delicate, refreshing, old fashioned.
Shortly though, as the day wears on, the pure, clinging scent of a very dry and well aged patchouli comes through the scent with an impeccable strength of character; staying fresh and close to the skin in a very loveable manner. Molinard’s Patchouli is an unusual scent, at once clean and conservative, mannered, yet eerily seductive.
PATCHOULI/ LORENZO VILLORESI
The great thing about the scents of Lorenzo Villoresi is their passion; fine quality materials blended in generous proportions with a deft, self assured and snarling distaste for the banal. This perfumer does, however, sometimes tend to pack quite a large number of essences into his perfumes and he is famous for his quite startling openings, his lunging preparatory overtures. His Patchouli, I find, on some days that I try it, seems smudged, perhaps, with a few too many ingredients: herbs and spices; a preponderance of dry, herbaceous lavender; vetiver; sandalwood; and warming fixatives of oakmoss and benzoin.
The resulting scent is thick, rich and strange; it disturbs with a dark, sexual power: an under-arm, animal muskiness that is very potent. A friend of mine likened this to the smell of a sweaty mechanic after a day in the garage, and I have to say it is true. This will be, for some, though, not an entirely bad thing – myself included, and I must admit I am actually thinking of buying this at some point.
There are plenty of patchoulis out there that do the typical patchouli/musk/vanilla combo for that loose-limbed, oofy, splayed-on-the-sofa thing, and these are rarely my favourites. Etro’s Patchouly is quite an original take on the theme, recognisably an oriental patchouli, but not slack, molly-coddled, or doe-eyed; rather it is a tight, airtight blend; persistent, dry, balsamic, under an arid and beautifully persistent patchouli from Java. Recommended.
PATCHOULISSIME/ KEIKO MECHERI
In Japan’s traditional folk medicine, the leaves of the patchouli plant are the best known antidote to the bite of the mamushi; a poisonous snake that lurks in the grass in mountainous zones (and in the woods near my house). But in perfumery, the Japanese are known for quiet, transparent scents, and like all Keiko Mecheri Eau de Parfums, this does not graze the feral.
Mecheri, Japanese in name but a very New York based perfumer, makes urban, stylish scents that don’t demand too much on the wearer or her public, the appeal of the brand being an instant, colourful and rich likeability. Patchoulissime (a misleading name – there is nothing extreme here) is a light, floral scent with light ambered undertones: the patchouli hazes in and out when it feels like it with a certain clean grace. This patchouli is fresh and wearable, with a restraint that will appeal to some, but not too exciting if you are, like me, a true patchouli fiend.
PATCHOULI / L’ARTISAN PARFUMEUR
If you find this somewhere, on the internet, at a fleamarket, anywhere, anywhere and you love patchouli, then please, please snap it up. Usurped by the much more compromising, less interesting (and far more commerical) Patchouli Patch that came many years later, the powers that be at L’Artisan misguidedly decided to let this haunting classic go.
L’Artisan’s patchouli was beautiful, and the best ever: earth-full, but not earth-bound. A clarified, and purified beautifully brittle vine of dry, sinuosity that trailed behind you like a a stark winter sky viewed through thick bottled glass.
Aerian, light; a dry, holy spirit.
Cabochard, Bernard Chant’s classic patchouli chypre from 1959, looms large and elegantly in the Parisian canon as an archetype, and it is not surprising therefore that the house of Madame Grès should have wanted to capitalize on its success with a perfume that was the same, essentially, but different: a Cabochard re-made for a new generation.
Quiproquo, one of the rarest of my vintage finds in Tokyo antique shops, is a reworking of the powdery patchouli of its exquisitely tailored predecessor, in the sportier, eau fraîche style of Ô de Lancome (an in-house restitching in those more seventies, tennis-white contours), and a quick internet search has confirmed my instincts: both were created by the same perfumer, Robert Gonnon (who was obviously something of a genius – he also made Métal, Anaïs Anaïs, and Empreinte among others; all delicate, yet shadowed, creatures that I adore…)
Less floral and vetivered than Ô, whose pre-reformulation was one of the greatest, cold-creamy citruses ever made, Quiproquo has the imprint of her older sister but with smoother brow, a more relaxed, upbeat scent overlaid with the brightest, most perfect lemon-leaf head-notes: like pinching the leaves from the trees, ripping them apart and letting their essence ravish your hands as you raise them up to smell on a cool, summer’s day. This gorgeous opening then subdues to a more refined, citrus-powdery chypre note as QPQ, having made her point on this dramatic family reunion, settles down for a game of scrabble with flinty Cabochard: : French windows open, siblings easing into familiarity (their strikingly similar younger brother, Monsieur Grès (1982) has also made it up to the house for the weekend), mineral water sparkling in glasses, breeze from the gardens and tennis lawns, this Saturday late in May, drifting in gently.
A dark, brooding, and very three-dimensional scent of greys, purples and black that hovers, tantalizing as velvet, above the skin, Cabochard (French for ‘obstinate’ or ‘pig-headed’) amazes with its complexity, the devious integrity of its construction. Its suggestiveness; the citrus, the hyacinth, geranium and sharp flowers: its strong woody tang of patchouli, tobacco, amber, and leather, alluring facets that all seem to develop on different levels simultaneously, right up to its last shadowy, chypric, powdered exhalations.
It is a perfume that was once described by one eminent critic as illuminating the secret life of a woman in Paris, her tweed suit tossed onto the bed after a hard day at work in a moment, perhaps, of clandestine liaison. And it is true that Cabochard is reminiscent of lipstick, perfume and powder compacts falling from a well loved leather purse in the late light of afternoon. There is a nonchalance, a madamish insouciance. But the piquancy of the citrus oils and tobacco also make it in today’s context rather masculine, androgynous at best. It is a gorgeous, intriguing scent, especially in its final, powdery, patchouli earth notes, and in vintage parfum, essential.
With so many perfume houses releasing limited editions that are released, fanfared and then disappeared without trace, it becomes easy to equate their brevity on the market with similar levels of imagination. Neverthless, occasionally, the spontaneity and lack of expectation placed on limited editions can produce bursts of creativity that lead to more singular, less market-tested and common-denominator fragrances; scents that pop up unexpectedly like crocus-bulbs in spring and enchant you with their fresh-breathed joie de vivre.
For a while at the beginning of the 2000’s, Guerlain would release limited perfumes that were not flankers to their main-line-up perfumes, but separate work, released in a prolific spirit of productivity that yielded such well-regarded treasures as Guet Apens and Gentiana.
In a spirit of mercy to these more inspired saplings that were culled before their prime, some of them were given a reprieve, a chance to star again, however briefly, on the billboard of ‘Les Parisiennes’, a kind of Guerlain Golden Hall of Fame for discontinued classics and limited releases that stubbornly refused to die a death, and Philtre D’Amour, a wonderful, moody citrus, is one of them.
I found my bottle at the flea market and bought it unsniffed, expecting, as the name would suggest, something sultry and floral. Spraying the scent was thus a total shock. Philtre D’Amour is a sour, concentrated, and very natural accord of verbena, myrtle and lemon-leaves layered delicately over a sharp, fantastically dark patchouli: a mysterious and lovely, almost powdery citrus chypre that leaves an intriguing and surprisingly nuanced trail in its wake.
She is a delicate thing, this Philtre; treat her carefully, don’t rub her up the wrong way or step on her emotions, and she will yield; show you through the ivy-covered doors of her secret garden to the other side: her neroli’d, fresh air garden petals of jasmine diced with petitgrain: gentle walks around the topiaries, the April skies opening up and bestowing newness, vitality and Spring as the lemons shine youthfully and you sigh gratefully that someone out there still knows how to make a modern, yet classically structured, perfume.
Vistas and groves open up when I smell Philtre D’Amour: it is slight, it is curious, but it is something I would wear all the time if I had more of it: the delicate, little 30ml cylinder you see in the picture is kept for special, precious use.
Yesterday we looked at gardenias; those gorgeous, perturbing flowers I am somewhat obsessed with (though I don’t know quite why I am writing about them at the moment when their blooming is so far off…outside the snow is still melting from the huge snowfall of Monday….)
While the Chanel Gardenia template is one direction that perfumers can go in; nipping it in the bud and giving it propriety, taming a flower which is something of an animal when all is said and done as it stands there, immobile, feverish and lurid under cold moonlight, other perfumers embrace this disconcerting angle of gardenias and fill their scents with it ( the carnal flower by Santa Maria Novella comes to mind in particular). A certain Madonna/whore dichotomy exists then with this flower: few perfumers take the gardenia out of these traditional moulds and inject it with modern verve.
Whether or not I can convincingly talk of Rush by Gucci as a gardenia I am not sure, but the flower is certainly there in the fore and back ground of this scent, sucked out violently from its clandestine lunar hedgerows and thrust, almost uncomfortably, into the twenty first century sass of the urban mall where teenagers strut, chew gum, and toss back their hair, to the easy, friendly bitchiness of this fragrance’s jeans-and-t-shirt vibe. I am not sure if Rush is still popular, as 1999 is quite a long time ago in modern perfumery terms, though my guess is that it still would be. Although the majority of recent mainstream releases lack a hook, a chorus you can sing along to and remember, certain perfumes do succeed in locking into their DNA a refrain, a simple accord that rings true. Perfumes like Beautiful, which I am fond of, still sell by the bucketload for this very reason……you can remember them.
So once in a while a product arrives in the vastly overcrowded fragrance market that is new yet somehow familiar, striking a nerve like a characterful person you’ve not met before, yet immediately take to: Gucci’s Rush, in its iconoclastic plastic red oblong bottle, was one such perfume. It was the Obsession of the early 2000’s – a legible perfume with a message – a sexy, unpretentious, direct hit. As soon as Tom Ford was given the scent strip by his perfumer he apparently said yes, immediately, without second thought, not even bothering to sample the other applications for the brief. He knew a money-winner when he smelled one.
The perfume is simple and streamlined with four main features: a fresh, leaf-green note with hints of coriander; a lactonic apricot with the touch of white chocolate; a lingering skin-musk patchouli that lasts all day: and draped over this, with its holographic petals, a sexy modern gardenia (a concept of the flower rather than a botanical reconstruction), with Bulgarian rose and a hint of vanilla.
This accord in Rush is both immediate and effective; odd, with its mix of cream and green, and it certainly doesn’t smell expensive. Yet it is very memorable, and smelling it again recently brought back vivid memories of a trip to Taiwan, where my friend, a Ms Katherine Ng, used to drench herself in the stuff. Fourteen years later it is still very appealing.
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.