If you like vanilla as much as I do (how can you not?) be sure to have a look at Part IV of my Vanilla Series at Olfactoria’s Travels, coming out today….
Category Archives: Vanilla
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.
In Japan, people like to say whether they overheat (‘atsugari’) or feel the cold (‘samugari‘), a classification of types that can lead to protracted battles over air conditioning and heating. As all my friends know, I am grotesquely samugari, and have a deep-seated fear of the cold, especially living in an old-ish Japanese house where the creeping fingers of chill have already started to press against the wooden panes. Reminding me, despite the relative balminess of this season, when October, November and even December are sunny and calmly autumnal, that the hateful cold IS COMING.
August in this country is laughably hot – a swamp of sweltering humidity and ant-under-a-magnifiying-glass sun, so boiling it can be debilitating. Yet I quite like it. For some reason, I even thrive in it, like a stone-basking reptile solar-panelling for storage. The second this radiation begins to dip at the end of September it alarms me, as though my power-plug were being pulled. I am hypochondriac, as you can probably tell, but my whole system can feel under attack.
One ploy against the incipient cold, a psychological barrier at least, is of course perfume. And there is nothing better for my spiritual insulation than a warm, true vanilla. I have something verging on a vanilla obsession. As I mentioned in my review of Frazer organics and her inspirations from tropical Madagascar, I practically froth at the mouth at the thought of actually being near to the vanilla orchids; of seeing the workers pollinating them by hand; watching the vanillin-specked, dark, glistening pods fermenting their sweet odour in the sun: those tiny flecks of vanilla you see suspended in custards and yoghurts that so entice me …..miniscule dots of aphrodisiacal pungency, flowing out into the cool, lactic, surrounding deliciousness..
My first vanillic epiphany happened at the age of 13 on a French trip at Easter, a feast attended by several branches of the family I was staying with that concluded with a huge vanilla pudding; un pouding à la vanille brought proudly in on a silver tray. When I spooned some into my young mouth it was as though I had ascended to paradise…I’m sure I must have mooned my eyes, groaning in schoolboy delight: a world of savours and almost lascivious pleasure I had never really encountered before in relatively flavourless England, where the only ice cream we ever had was from Quiksave.
This love of vanilla has never crumbled, and as a perfume ingredient or star player it has always been an essential part of my wardrobe. My cravings can be satiated by a good quality vintage Shalimar; Molinard’s icing-sugar perfect Vanille; Yves Rocher’s light orange-musk Vanille Bourbon, Kenzo’s Jungle Eléphant…I have even got through a bottle of Comptoir Sud Pacifique’s Vanille Extrême, which at certain stages in its development is quite simply monstrous in its saccharine artificiality. One of the best pure vanillas I have ever come across is another Italian perfume, I Profumi di Firenze’s golden fleece of vanillas, Vaniglia del Madagascar,a glinting, sweet elixir that you have to grit your (melting) teeth to if you want to survive through to the final, skin-licking stages, where you collapse in devilish, erotic, auto-abandon, and forget all concerns of cold, the wind and the weather. That was a great vanilla, but almost too great. Too sweet. Too concentrated.
The point here is that I get through these scents. The creations I have mentioned above (as well as two bottles of Serge Lutens Un Bois Vanille) are empty. I don’t wear vanillas, I consume them, and as soon as the melancholy breezes start stirring I find myself craving that comforting, drifty aura of sucrée in which to muzzle and refuge.
Which brings to my latest bean pod acquisition, Vaniglia del Madagascar by Farmacia SS Annunziata, a mysterious company I have been reading about on Lucky Scent recently and lusting after. Not having a credit card however, (I’m sure you can imagine why), I had never been able to order any of this perfume. Then, this summer, at the wonderful Roullier White shop in South London which I was visiting for the first time, there it was, at the front of the shop – the first thing I saw when I went in. I bought some on the spot without having properly tried it, partly because I didn’t care – I wanted it, I liked the bottle, and I was having such wonderful lost-in-perfumista ramblings with the intriguing woman working there that it seemed only the right etiquette to buy something. A vanilla for the coming winter struck me as a good place to start.
In the London summer heat the scent was disappointing, somehow – too thin; at once laboured yet underwhelming. The reasons for this I will come to, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time, and I put the bottle back on the shelf again, hoping its itme would come.
It has. And it has been delicious. But this is a perfume that is set to a strict slow motion, and it to took me a while to get it.
The first thing to say about the scent is that it is a parfum, but the bottle is 100ml, which seems like a contradiction in terms when fragrances of this strength traditionally come in 7ml, 14ml, or 30ml if you really have money to burn.
My first reaction to this, like a painting by Magritte, was
ceci n’est pas un parfum
as in terms of sillage it barely seemed to register, at least on hot, sweaty nights in London. But since the Japanese weather has cooled, and I have been spraying myself and my new hoodies with Vaniglia, I have come to realize that the perfume is structured like nuclear fission: compressed atoms of flavour which dilate outwards; slowly, at their own prehistorically ambered pace. This perfume just won’t let you rush it. It is set in thick, glacial, time-spaced layers that cannot be perturbed.
* * * * * * * * *
One of the joys of Japanese culture is the universally loved traditions of sento and onsen – bathing rituals in local bath houses or hot springs where families, couples and individuals go to soap down, switch off and relax in cleansing pools of contemplation. From a therapeutic point of view, onsen, with their volcanically active, sulphurous clouds of mountain water pumped in are the best, but I am happier probably in a sento, for the smells: of steam, active ions, citrus soaps, humanity, and saunas made of hinoki.
I still can’t put my finger on why exactly, but the beginning stage of Vaniglia Del Madagascar caterpults me exactly into this environment every time I spray it on; the bitter orange top note (the website says lemon) and ambiguous ‘floral’ notes are more like a fresh, misty saltiness which I have never smelled in a vanilla before and which I have really come to appreciate since coming back to Japan this September. Where it felt odd in London, it feels absolutely right in my current context. This ‘sento ‘ stage of the perfume lasts for about an hour or so before the vanilla, essentially hidden from view by some alchemical trick, begins to appear and advance in depth and texture over a period of twelve hours or so, until you completely succumb to its heat-charged fullness and drape in it like a cream-silk blanket.
It is then that you realize ah yes, this is a parfum, it really is, especially when you wake up the next day and the sunlight bathes the golden glow. Vanilla, classical, resonating Bourbon vanilla, surrounds you, is set from your pillow. A sense, almost, of achievement. And for me, this delayed pleasure, the sensation of a whole day for the scent to reach its full, tantric potency, is quite glorious.
I’m still in the early throes of mania with this one, but I think it might actually be my all time favourite vanilla.
Any half-decent release in the dire world of commercial men’s fragrance is cause for celebration. And Noir, the latest Tom Ford release from his mainstream collection (his Private Blends are about four times the price), is really rather nice. The louche, airbrushed seductor has come up with a convincing men’s oriental for the twenty first century that will hopefully catch on with modern males and start a new trend for smells that attract rather than repel, bringing some softening and intelligence to the ghastly, weapon-like woody-citruses that usually dominate this market and club you on the head with their heavy-set, meat-head preposterone. I would happily snuggle up to someone wearing this blend and I am sure that there are many others out there who will feel the same.
Tom Ford is a savvy fashion genius who single-handedly resurrected Gucci from the ashes of irrelevance with his Studio 54 background and modern take on the 1970’s night-orchid aesthetic, transforming the company into a behemoth of urbanite cool and sex, the sheen of his bi-sexual decadence unwaning for nearly two decades. With his own eponymous brand and its extension of this glossy-luxe, the clothes, the perfumes, similarly speak of the night; of the finest clubs and restaurants; of nocturnal A-listers who rarely see the light -vampiric trendsetters living the life and rarely leaving the hotel.
So it is easy to see why the Tom Ford fragrance collection has proven so successful. The perfumes are well-made, rich and provocative blends that scream ‘exclusivity’ and (prescribed) good taste in their simple, sturdy design-perfect flacons. True, I have yet to smell a fragrance in the line that I desperately want to own myself, but they are highly regarded by many and deservedly so. For me, though, when I smell any scent from the range, I feel I am sensing arch, elegant, but artificial fumes rising up from the bottlesrather than notes. I think of his scents as exotic poisons crafted in airless rooms – often hypnotic, undeniably sensual and luxuriant confections that sit on the skin like heavy garments, but not those that I can inhale with ease. It is fashion asphyxiating nature; yet this is possibly the whole point. The Tom Ford fragrances really are for dressing up for nights out in the city, and in this regard they work perfectly.
The list of notes in Noir, particularly those in the base (opoponax, amber, vetiver, patchouli, civet and vanilla) reads like an old Guerlain, and Mr Ford has clearly been spending some time doing his homework with plush masterpieces from the house such as Shalimar and Habit Rouge and deciding to revamp them for the modern market. But despite the appearance of Shalimar’s key natural (opoponax, a sweet resin similar to myrrh), Noir is in fact more like a reworking of that house’s best kept men’s secret – the original eau de parfum of Héritage (1992), an aromatic, peppered oriental that shouted ‘hot man in silk robe’ like no other (the edt was always slicker, thinner, sharper – it was the delicious depth of the sadly discontinued edp with its tonka and animal dry down that I always fell in love with).
Yes, Héritage was powdered suavité, a scent that drew you in to its conceited, self-loving swagger, and Noir manages to capture some of this tactile, soft animality with a gently musked and bearded patchouli dry-down that is very sensual – unusual in the current climes of overdone, plastic banality.
That the scent is based on Héritage becomes even more evident if we look at the first and middle stages of the fragrance . The Guerlain began with a sharp blast of black pepper and bergamot; clary sage, violet, and a pinch of nutmeg, developing to a subtle rose and geranium heart before the lustful orientalia began to make themselves known and you realized you were in the presence of a full-blown male odalisque (this could be a great women’s scent as well, by the way). Noir, which isn’t really dark or black in any sense but is clinging, still, to the dull trend of calling everything and anything noir whether the smell merits that description or not, has all the above ingredients and develops in exactly the same way as Héritage, but has added notes of lemon verbena, caraway seed and pink pepper, all of which I find somewhat superfluous. It is less rich and poudré than the Guerlain, as if the icing sugar had been sucked off from the bonbon, and rather than the swiftly dissipating Guerlain bergamot that begins most of the house’s scents, in Noir there is a citronella-like roof to which the others notes rise and stick, rasping and a touch too synthetic for my comfort, a citric pillar thrust down through the downy ambers to keep the oriental alert and emboldened and prevent it from becoming too vieux beau, too Casanova in silk slippers.
This accord eventually attenuates, however, and it really is the base in this scent that works best, with its classic oriental finish : a retro-sassy take on old themes that is worth the wait. Despite a certain throat-tickling insistency from the verbena-geranium accord in the heart, Noir is a scent that may lack poetry but not romance, and it could prove to be another huge hit in Tom Ford’s annals of seduction.
(‘Sophisticated Boom Boom’ is the title of an early album by Dead Or Alive: a question I often ask myself about fragrances from this house)