I have skin favourites and I know it breaks with conventional perfume orthodoxy, but this is the time of the year for scent on cloth; collars, scarves, sleeves. Some fragrances become so ephemeral on fabric, developing a transparency that is sometimes lost in the turmoil of skin. So here are some of my seasonal favourites; some stone, smoke and fire.
A friend kindly bought me a gift of La Fumée by Miller Harris. I have worn Lyn Harris’ fragrances for years developing a particularly obsessive passion for the skanky and wondrous L’Air de Rien a couple of years ago, the scent she created for Jane Birkin. I also adored Fleurs de Sel, a limited edition I bought for my French man to remind him of his Breton home. That was a sharp and salt-brushed homage to Batz-sur-Mer in Brittany where Lyn spent childhood holidays. Her perfumed work is often very moving. La Fumée is swirling with the end of flames, that beautiful moment at the end of night when the room is heady with smudged spiced smoke. Your clothes exude a soft amber sootiness as you stare sleepily into the glowering embers. Sleep calls and you dream of Avalon.
Penhaligon’s Sartorial was inspired by the cutting rooms of Saville Row and created by Bertrand Duchaufour, so it seems fitting that this heft of beeswax and violet smells so incredible on cloth. A modern fougère, Sartorial combines natural notes like beeswax, leather, vetiver, patchouli, tonka bean and oakmoss with edgy aromachemical effects echoing paper patterns, tobacco, steam and dust. The overall effect is intensely nostalgic and atmospheric yet industrial and manmade at the same time. I wandered home one night last year wearing this after a long days work, my tweed jacket drenched in it, the fuzzy haunting aldehydes roaming around my senses. Muted and grey it lulled and comforted me under the glow of leaf-whipped streetlights. I have never forgotten how it made me feel that night.
I want to mention Elixir by Penhaligon’s too. Created by Olivia Giacobetti, this riff on her beloved incense theme is rather strange. Not for everyone, it wraps the cold church ambience in a huge inhalation of eucalyptus and tempers the smoke with vanilla, orange and a soft pomander touch of spices. This is not the ritualistic smoke and bells of Etros’ Messe de Minuit or indeed Giacobetti’s own Passage d’Enfer for L’Artisan Parfumeur, but instead it shows us the morning after mass; spilt wax, snuffed out candles, the cold cathedral stone. And as such it is quite compelling. I love it layered with Shalimar…….the mix is like petrol thrown onto fire.
Marc-Antoine Corticchiato’s Ambre Russe for Parfums D’Empire is a boozy, room thrashing delight. I was given a sample by a friend and fell in love with it. It has vodka and champagne top notes, which give it an unsettling sideways tilt as it goes on the skin. The Russian tea pours through beautifully to the lashing leather, amber and Orthodox incense base notes. The Gregorian thrum of passionate harmonies radiates from top to drydown. I imagine my very own debauched Russian aristo back from campaigns, flinging fur and battered boots across a gilded azure room. I shiver and anticipate a different kind of leather game, lit by soft smoke and sacred oil rolling off heated skins. I smell Ambre Russe in the echo of footsteps across a conquered city and smile.
I am not a big patchouli fan; it turns muddy on my skin. Then I tried Patchouli Patch by L’Artisan Parfumeur. Nothing else has ever come close. It explodes out of the bottle like one of Francis Bacon’s screaming popes, confrontational and full of papal, regal rage. I wore it on a holiday to the Cairngorms, surrounded by snow, the hotel lit with fires and strangely quiet. For me, the contrast of my ecclesiastical skin, licked with musk, anise, incense and the softest osmanthus note with the silent frozen exteriors was the most striking memory of the holiday. I wore it the other day on a walk through the Botanic Gardens, as mist dropped over the city. It is a remarkable and persuasive scent that moves with you, rising and falling. I couldn’t tell my skin from the smoke, mist and woods.
Eau Noire by Dior is an autumnal standby. I have written about this in my blog. But I want to mention it again as it an important fragrance, acerbic, intensely melancholy and shockingly beautiful. I have to be wrapped in layers of wool and cashmere, barely happy to wear it. It reeks of Proustian abstractions, splinters of so many memories. It vibrates with grey sadness. It is my Parisian scent. If I wear it, I am suddenly in a Paris night in a Paris street. The illusion holds as the aniseed and licquorice mingle with lavender and vanilla and spin a spell of sugared darkness. A very unique and twisted brew. I have to be careful when I wear it, it can cause my emotions to overflow.
Eau d’Hiver from the Malle library of scents, created by the obsessive and finicky Jean Claude Ellena is a chilled and isolating masterpiece. Brave and sheer, it wears like mist, clinging to the skin like a powdered dream. Angelica, iris and hawthorn lend a silvered whiteness to the scent, while honey, heliotrope and caramel sweeten the scent. But like ghosts in the mist, this sweetness is fleeting, as clouds rolls in with the promise of snow and rain. It is a remarkable achievement, one of Ellena’s finest. Pared down and skeletal, but glittering like diamond dust.
Mandragore eau de parfum by Annick Goutal is minty oddness and strange cocooning warmth. I go through phases with it, loving and loathing. But even loathing brings fire. The transparent woodiness and beautiful boxwood and sage are lovely. I admit I love the myth of mandrake, pulled from the ground screaming creates a disturbing impression in the mind. The forked root looks like a man and has associations with witchcraft and sorcery. I always think of Pans Labryinth and the squirming homunculus beneath the bed, supping on milk and squealing with disturbing yet fascinating life. Mandragore is considered a summer scent, but I love it when it’s cold outside. Isabelle Doyen’s work with Camille Goutal is so balanced and textured. The eau de parfum smells more foresty, alchemical, and medicinal. Perefct for chilled, bitter nights.
My final suggestion is something I am wearing tonight as I finish this piece. Chocolat Amère by Il Profumo, for me the one and only chocolate scent worth a damn. When I first started wearing it I was still smoking cigarillos occasionally, sweet little Cuban things that tasted of bitter chocolate and spice. The balance in Chocolat Amère of floral notes, cocoa and ginger with the heavier notes of sandalwood and incense is thick and waxen, like an artisan ganache. The use of galbanum is key; its mulchy earthiness deepens the chocolate note and emphasis the sensuality of raw cocoa. I love the lack of sweetness, the smoky, tobacco-like drydown. Sprayed liberally on the inside of jackets it radiates a hypnotic Aztec charm. I doused a favourite cashmere sweater as I sat down to write. I can smell chocolate and the memory of a hundred cigarillos around me.
The rain is starting up now, petulantly beating against the windows. I started in Russian leather and ended in bittersweet Italian chocolate. These melancholy fragrances of smoke, stone and fire are my music, a perfumed soundtrack to my beloved city. If I ever leave, all I will ever have to do is open a bottle or two, spray some skin, shake out some scarves, pull on one of my many black John Smedley sweaters for a cityscape of notes and memories to unfold and drown me in images and voices. I’m glad I’ve worn so many perfumes; it makes the remembering so much more fragrant.