Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Perfume Update

Here's a little update on recent fragrance purchases. Early in December I took a trip down to Harrods, which is undoubtedly the best place in the UK for rarer and higher-end perfumery. As I walked through the crush into the perfume hall, I kept making little yelps of delight: they simply had EVERYTHING. Here was Guerlain's exclusive 'Bois d'Armenie', a styrax/benzoin number that isn't a million miles from L'Artisan Parfumeur's great 'Timbuktu', but for the fact that the benzoin has been nastily extended with vanilla; the whole is as a result too sweet. I sampled some of the vastly expensive frankincense knockouts from the Omani firm Amouage, and tried on Jo Malone's 'Oud and Bergamot Colonge', which is excellent apart from the fact that (like a long brocade dress in the rain) it seems to continue to grow heavier after you put it on. Oud is an odd smell---a kind of noble rot that eats up the heartwood of certain trees, it has a sweet rosy woodiness with a touch of melancholy to it. I'd wear this, but at c.£80 it's too expensive.

On to Dior. I smelled the miraculous lily-of-the-valley 'Diorissimo', one of the most purely beautiful women's perfumes ever made and a staggering achievement, as lily-of-the-valley produces no natural oil; all such fragrances are therefore reconstructions of great artfulness. 'Diorissimo' smells rather like Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago looked: radiantly lovely in snowy furs. Next came 'Diorella', which is interesting to compare with the Dior men's fragrance (a great classic) 'Eau Sauvage'. They are essentially different takes on the same idea---a citrus, hedione, pine, fines herbes accord, similar to a classic eau de cologne but somehow more silvery and resinous. 'Eau Sauvage' is a little loud but still remarkably tasteful (I was unsurprised to notice that a very handsome half-Italian colleague in his early forties wears it), whereas Diorella 'reads' as a more delicate and polished version: they are like two pictures of a bowl of bright yellow lemons and aromatic herbes de Provence sitting on a table, one executed in the saturated colours of gouache, one in washes of watercolour. 'Diorella', incidentally, makes a lovely masculine.

On the fifth floor at Harrods is the bonkers niche perfumery cave of Roja Dove, who was for some time professeur des parfums at Guerlain. Dove composes his own perfumes, some of which are absolutely classically beautiful---the wonderful, limited edition chypre 'Diaghilev' for the V&A, for example, which is superlative homage to Guerlain's 'Mitsouko' and Rochas's 'Femme'. I find his style a little heavy, personally---there's something busy and over-saturate about them, edging towards camp in the filled-to-the-edges manner of a Moreau painting:



The niche perfumery room is in rather this vein. Curlicued, gilded and beswagged, it is a monstrously kitsch space containing some very, very beautiful things. I couldn't help myself wandering around it snapping open an invisible fan and imagining what life would be like as a grande horizontale---it's that kind of atmosphere:



The first stop, guided by the cute, flirtatious fragrance gopher, was Profumum Roma's 'Fumidus', or if we're going to follow their cod-classical branding style, Profvmvm Roma's 'FVMIDVS'. I'd had a 5ml sample of this which I had adored, but I wanted to smell it on me in a decent dose. When I asked for it, gopher-boy said nervously, 'Er, well, not many people like that one.' I, however, do: a brutally phenolic pong of ancient vetiver, it smells of the top-notes of a really good single malt without the alcohol. You get an extraordinary, inky swirl of peat, woodsmoke, turned soil, frost, and rotting leaves, like Tauer's creosotey 'Lonestar Memories' without the engine oil. I love it, as it reminds me of many evenings spent out in autumn woods by firelight and candlelight with my friend Justine---but it is seriously butch. It's also seriously expensive: I won't tell you how much it cost, but suffice it to say it was somewhere between the full price of an academic monograph and your average monthly mortgage payment. I came away from the till reeling with the heady vapours of conspicuous consumption.

That was then. Yesterday I took a second perfume trip to London, this time to the Comme des Garcons store on Dover St. It's a hilarious space, with a look that's one third-shop, one third-gallery, one third-Lagos slum thanks to GdG's characteristic distressed, half-finished objets trouvés aesthetic. I like the shop especially for the laughably misnamed 'assistants'. These always seem to come in two types: a) Japanese pensioner, approximately the size of a largish soda siphon, wearing a black housedress and green Doc Martens; or b), lanky effeminate who clearly possesses a degree in poststructuralist theory and an attitude problem. It's these little quirks one must treasure about having an upmarket shopping experience.

The perfumes are right in front of you as you come in, in elegantly minimal colour-coded bottles. I wanted to try the rest of their superb 'Incense' series, having got the wonderful cathedral-in-a-bottle 'Avignon', a kind of wet-stone/church incense number to which I am devoted. In the end I settled on 'Jaisalmer', though the arid, hot-pepper 'Ouazarzate' and gloomy pine-resin and tobacco 'Zagorsk' are also excellent, albeit that the latter made me feel like I was being packed off to a Lithuanian sanatorium in 1973. (I didn't think much of 'Kyoto', which smelled of hot hi-fi.)

'Jaisalmer' is a thing of beauty: the sweetened camphor smell of clove is the central note, rounded out with a powdery pepper quality which moves the clove in the direction of dried bayleaves being burned. There's also a cardamom note hovering in the background, with a sufficiently dry, dusty resinous angle (frankincense? colophony?) to stop the whole thing smelling like Indian rice pudding. It's an excellent winter fragrance, and given that it will last years, fairly sensibly priced at £43.

GdG also have a clever series called 'Leaves', which are interesting attempts at 'green' fragrances---in other words, perfumes using notes which evoke cut grass, sap and crushed leaves. Green notes are terribly difficult, and all too often can take on a mean, narrow-eyed quality (see Chanel No 19). If paired with citrus they can seem spiteful, and can also come across as cold and a little funereal if given a white floral topnote. I didn't like either 'Lily' or 'Tea' in the series, but the third was the Whitmanian 'Calamus', composed by the marvellous Bertrand Duchaufour. Like all his work it privileges radiance and transparency (an aesthetic exactly opposite to Roja Dove's voluptuary fugs), and indeed it seemed so quiet when I tried it on that I wondered if I might be anosmic to something in the formula. The basic impression is of green sap and chilly cut grass, the smell of the first lawnmowing of spring. Utterly non-herbal, it has a wet, milky odour rather like you get on your hands after pulling up chickweed and goosegrass, but without any of the earthy, soily tang you get after weeding. It's cunningly done, and I will be wearing it a lot comes the thaw.

So that's me for you. In a related note, I must also pop down to the Aesop store in Mayfair next time I'm down, because I need to replace my bottle of their wonderful green-resinous Byzantine fragrance 'Mystra'. Just before Christmas, I stillied over on the ice in Ealing, fell on my manbag, and smashed the bottle. Bugger. My first thought was for my iPhone, but the bag was of course full of broken glass---which I wish I'd thought about BEFORE I stuck my drunken paw in there and had a good old rummage about. 'I see it bloody, I see it red!', as the prophetess Fedelm says in the Táin...

Happy New Year to you all.

1 comment:

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