When I opened the bedroom door yesterday morning, the entirety of the upstairs smelled of leather. Nothing but holographically represented leather air, replete with the smell of expensively manufactured jackets hung up in lines in a Milanese atelier, or lined up in racks at the open-aired market in Florence, where the smell of extensively treated cowhides veers between the smell of la moda and the animalic reality of the material – treated, and stitched, for the timeless suede and polished pelle – bomber jackets, Belstaffs, blousons, bikers, full length leather coats, which, if all the modern gangster films and television series are to believed, are still the expected uniform for almost every dangerous, bearded man with a gun and a knife on the run; or else, perhaps in calf-brown, for the divorced, female detective resolutely solving her grisly cases, hands in her leather jacket pockets rummaging frantically for her last cigarette as she stands smoking in the night air, breath visible in the cold, pondering a lead.
I think I only sprayed the sample vial twice onto the blotting paper. But I swear, when I had done so, ‘The Lover’s Tale’ filled up the room I was sitting in so fully with leather that it was quite difficult to concentrate on whatever I was watching on the screen. I was leathered. It was relentless: but hypnotic. The smell was pure, unadulterated leathery suede , eating up every pore. Yes, there was a dark, very voluptuous Bulgarian rose note to get through initially, slightly uneasily tinged with a brush of thick Egyptian jasmine, but those florals aside, despite a myriad of minor supporting role notes to proudly bolster the subtly smoky supplesse of the softened, heady material (mimosa, peach, iris, heliotrope and labdanum among many others ) into the hologram of the off the peg boutique hanger; the new leather purchase wrapped in fresh paper and placed into a specially designated flashy carrier bag – for me, it was yesterday as if the mind itself were wearing leather. Leather. Leather. Leather.
I am not really a leather man. In any sense. Although I have worn it occasionally in the past, D often dissuedes me from wearing it – a bit too Depeche Mode for him, maybe, a bit too ageing indie kid. I have to say though, that I quite often find the clothing material, and the note in perfume, quite fascinating when worn by other people, as I would this scent. I could never fetishize it, the way some people do ( I am quite boringly unfetishistic about anything, I must confess), but the smell of someone standing next to you in a high quality, beautiful new leather garment can certainly pique the senses (and this perfume would be perfect for enhancing such an effect if you so desired). There are other leather perfumes that also achieve this unavoidably libido-stirring result: Aoud Cuir Arabie by Montale, for example, which, like Tom Ford’s Oud Wood Extreme, is one of those limited in number leather perfections (if it going to be leather I want it as balanced as an exquisite torture) ; those perfumes that might make you do something you regret simply because of the scent of the person standing next to you.
(the last time I wore leather: Mexico City, 2007)
Personally, although I have occasionally worn perfumes with leather notes – Etro Gomma, Fendi Uomo, Cabochard, Kouros, Cuir Mauresque, which I bought at the Palais Royal boutique in Paris but never really understood nor enjoyed, I blame my generally non-committal attitude towards the note on the perfumery diploma I once attempted to do a couple of decades ago as a possible career route in my early years here in Japan. At the time the only distance learning perfume qualification available in the UK (with Plymouth University), both Helen and I applied for the course, paid our money, and received our exciting boxes of aroma materials and smelling strips and pipettes and course assignment work – all fascinating, even exhilarating, initially, and I did enjoy the essay writing and analysis of individual essences very much, studying in minute detail the different facets of each component trusting only my nose; creating ‘scent diagrams/vectors’ based on how spicy, citric, rosy, woody, balsamic, vanillic, each one was and giving it a 0-10 rating on a line with the result that each vial ended up with its own individual diagram based on its ‘smell shape’; yes, that was all interesting, but the chemistry, let’s face it, that was impossible.
There are different kinds of individuals in this world. Some are blind optimists who say ‘yes we can’ to every situation and move mountains and conquer every last challenge without blinking an eye: they have endless motivation and innate self-application and they will stop at nothing until they do what they have set out to do (those for whom the challenge of the conquer is the raison d’ȇtre for completing the mission in the first place), the jaw-clenched I will prevails. And then there are the flaneurs and passionate sybarites such as myself who only do what they want to do, or know that they are good at. I am certainly no coward, but I do know myself very well and so if I feel instinctively that something is unfeasible I won’t even begin to bother doing it. Ever. I knew the first week I was here that I would never be able to read or write Japanese hiragana, katakana, and kanji. I know my intricately semi-dyslexic brain and the way it deals with symbols. Maths, physics, chemistry, – don’t make me laugh. The torturous hieroglyphics of algebra at school. You can remove that heinous textbook from my desk right now and replace it with a Tennessee Williams play or a book of nineteenth century French poetry or a music score. I know my own strengths and weaknesses, how my own peculiar brain works, and there was just not a chance in hell that I was going to be able to even begin to understand either Japanese or chemistry of perfume construction (the third assignment was, to my grand dismay, a detailed academic report on the chemistry of the perfect soap – I looked at it; shed slow, lipid tears of pure glycerine, and then that was that. Both H and I gave up simultanteously and just put away the boxes (I think mine are still here somewhere)). We would never be perfumers at Firmenich or Givaudan, Robertet or Takasago.
I have no real regrets in this regard – I took to writing about perfume instead and love nothing more, but the problem is that I do sometimes wonder whether a deep analysis of something is ultimately beneficial in helping us appreciate a work of art. If you intend to master a particular craft or profession, it goes without saying that you need to know about all the fundaments. But studying music in detail at school, as a ‘lay person’, breaking down a Schubert quintet or Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet into thematic sections and seeing how he achieved his emotional ‘tricks’; trying to take apart Wuthering Heights (no!) , or dissect a Giotto painting or a Rossellini film in the Italian department at university, I found that in disassembling it tended to detract from my pleasure of the work in question, rather than adding to it. It broke it apart, destroyed the illusion. I prefer the overall impression, the sum of its parts, the work as the artist intended you to experience it personally, with its mystery intact (which is why David Lynch and many other creators of pure cinema refuse to ever answer banal questions on meaning and intent – it is up to you, the recipient, to make your own mind up). It is the reason I gave up the thought of an MA or PHD in literary criticism. I would have gone insane.
In terms of studying perfumery, I also found with analyzing the materials in detail, one by one, that I became too unpleasantly attuned to them. And I could never smell them in exactly the same way again. I am ultrasensitive by nature: if you thrust a vial of castoreum – the extracted animalic essence from the glands of a beaver, a cruel and yet vital note in perfumery for leather accords along with birch tar – under my nose it will loom up in my brain and take permanent residence. It irks at my amygdala, lodges itself in my parietal lobe, becomes outsized. Forever. Separated out of its harmony from a perfume like Balmain Jolie Madame or Givenchy Gentleman, I will begin to hone in neurotically on that note : castoreum, now – if it ever appears in a perfume in a way I find too intense, or castoreum-heavy, where the leather note feels out of sync with other notes (as in modern Shalimar edp, where the bergamot and castoreum equilibrium feels completely wrong to me) I am quite put off, which is why I find quite a lot of niche, fresh, even quite innovative leather-based perfumes quite difficult, even repulsive (say, Rhinoceros by Zoologist, Cartier L’Heure Defendue, which I suspect it might be lurking in, or even something fresh and innocuous like Hermes Kelly Calèche). For me, to like a leather, it has to be smooth, infallible – with a proper leathered integrity, like a real leather jacket itself. To inhale greedily from, when the object of affection is no longer in the room. A Lover’s Tale most certainly meets these criteria. As an extrait de parfum, this perfume is truly intense, as I have said (two days after spraying, all of upstairs still smells like a luxury pellicceria – transforming my living space into an attic worked in by leather artisans – a most curious synaesthetic sensation); if it were me, and I were in love with this perfume, I would spray just a little of this scent on fabric, or tuck this scent card inside an inner pocket of an actual leather jacket to enhance the natural smell if it had faded – or to replace it with an even more refined and sensual one if the original scent didn’t entirely please. To cut a long story short, if you are looking for a perfume that veers between leather and suede, between masculine and feminine, that is insistent and sensuous and made of high quality materials, this might definitely be the perfect leather/cuir/cuoio for you. It is excellent.
On smelling Etruschan water, another extrait de parfum from Bianchi, also with monster sillage, both D and I were thrust back eighteen years down through memory tunnels to a suffocatingly musty hotel room in Beverly Hills. Travel. The smell of America. The arrival. Our first moment in Los Angeles – a thick-carpeted room that was obfuscated with all kinds of smells that were not England, Europe, nor Japan; I experienced this denseness also at the Lalique boutique on Rodeo Drive, which had no natural light; just lamps, and curtains, and sculpture under glass. Ladies disappearing into the back. A throwback to the pre#METOO Weinsteinian mogul in his silk bathrobe, beckoning you to come further into the darkness, to acquiesce or face the consequences ; an expertly constructed, if very old school, aromatic masculine that sucked me in like a black hole. All kinds of memories; my father’s associates; babysitting as a teenager and furtively smelling all the aftershaves in the stranger’s bathroom closet, all those Puigs, the hairy come-ons; the pissy/musk ambivalence and conceitedness of Christian Dior’s Jules and all the other tsarist perfumes of that ilk ; the scent so dense and lightless and dark (oakmoss, vetiver, labdanum, ambergris, all pungently knotted with basil, immortelle, cumin and caraway among a plethora of citrus) : you just can’t help being drawn in to the cunning, manipulative trail that it leaves in its wake. We smelled it. Duncan sprayed some on. We both nodded in approval. We went out, and locked the door. While I am not 100% certain that the base accord of Etruschan water quite lives up to the strategized stock market seductions of its beginning, this is certainly a very memorably macho modern/neo-classic masculine that verges on parody, but keeps a straight face.
I am seeing a pattern here. Francesca Bianchi, an Italian perfumer currently based in Amsterdam, clearly likes to create fragrances that are like a sucker punch: thick, dense with aromatic oils, passionate but unvulgar. Just. While some of the fragrances in the range are slightly too potent, like The Dark Side (the name of which makes me remember sitting wideeyed in the blackness of the cinema the first time I ever saw Star Wars, alongside my father and brother in 1977, Chewbacca and the magnetic pull toward Darth Vader and The Death Star)……..a honeyed styrax oudh incense vanilla that is pulsating and committed but would be too much for me personally in my socially distanced space; too much unhindered indulgence), I do like the strong sense of this perfumer layering a multitude of conflicting and combining ingredients in the old maximalist way to create multitiered fragrances you are supposed to wear like an event. To own. Lost In Heaven is one such perfume: if he is wearing Etruscan Water, she is wearing this – an oriental, spiced, animalic floral that pits musk, ciste absolute, ambergris, castoreum, beeswax, and cumin/ cinnamon/coriander resinousness against a ylang-extra dominated orange blossom flower/jasmine floral heart and a generous top note of grapefruit and green tangerine; too opaque and unyielding, perhaps, to feel like a literal paradise for me, but if you miss the old Opium style of perfumes; addictive and obsessional, potent, unavoidable (and particularly if you loved the old Karl Lagerfeld KL extrait, which this slightly reminds me of) – you will definitely enjoy this uplifting, contemporary twist.