‘It does have that styraxy thing of Etat Libre d’Orange to it, but with added pastries…’
We inhaled our wrists again.
‘You know those jelly beans..?’ said Mr E.
‘Jelly Belly…? The multi-flavour beans?’ I replied.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it smells like the taste of the popcorn one, the one speckled like a hen’s egg, yellow pink.’
We sniffed again. And it did.
It has been thirteen years since Frédéric Malle launched his Éditions, focusing attention on the skills and artistry of the perfumer. A scrupulous editor, he has published some of the most striking and original scents of recent years by some of the world’s leading perfumers. Arguably some of the perfumes have re-defined the concept of niche perfumery, exemplifying the highest levels of techniques, imagination and materials. Collaborating with noses like Ropion, Giacobetti, Schweiger, Ellena, Fléchier, Roucel and Bourdon has made his capsule collection almost legendary in its brevity, style and ambition. My picks: Schweiger’s smeared and supersexy Lipstick Rose, Ropion’s radiant Vetiver Extraordinaire and trangressive Carnal Flower. I love Roucel’s disturbing Musc Ravageur, it plays sociopathic skin-games, Jean-Claude Ellena’s L’Eau d’Hiver is icy and minimalistic and Pierre Bourdon’s Iris Poudré has the beauty of an indoor snowstorm.
These collaborations have always been dynamic duos, Malle working with the perfumer, inspiration moving back and forth. It has been almost three years since the launch of Dominique Ropion’s Portrait of a Lady, the last addition to the line. News starting circulating last year of a new line of olfactory Portraits, ‘XXX par Frédéric Malle’, an olfactory triumvirate of model/inspiration, perfumer and Malle.
Now we have the first of the new series: Dries Van Noten par Frédéric Malle, a stylised set of olfactive impressions of the cult Antwerp-based designer woven rather brilliantly into a strange and beguiling perfume. The scent is essentially built around a Mysore sandalwood note that is deliciously rendered by the IFF perfumer Bruno Jovanovic. He has enhanced the natural milky nature of a true sandalwood note with the addition of ethyl maltol (the candyfloss/fairground note in Angel), sulfurol, a kiss of jasmine, patchouli and one of the most textured vanilla notes I have breathed off my skin in a while.
Malle’s Éditions de Parfum shone the spotlight on perfumers, showcasing the true beauty of their métier. It was a bold move and allowed perfume lovers the opportunity to see the artistry inherent in the creation of emotive and personal aromas. For those that followed names like Jean-Claude Ellena, Dominique Ropion and Maurice Roucel it was fascinating to compare and analyse their niche work alongside their more controlled creations for big name houses. Olfactory signatures, styles, themes, scented leitmotifs shimmered into view.
This time round Malle has displaced the perfumer off the label in favour of his name and that of the person who has inspired the perfume, in this case iconic Belgian designer Dries Van Noten. Apparently the IFF perfumer, New-York based Bruno Jovanovich did not really spend much time with Van Noten but he was ‘a great listener’ and consulted with Malle who acted as a kind of editor and aromatic translator. I am intrigued by this filtering of impressions. The fragrance is Malle’s personal transcription of the world, work and personality of Van Noten, a designer Malle regards as a ‘hero’. It is like commissioning a portrait and working from a description of the sitter, rather than having them in front of you, an amalgamation of Malle and Van Noten blended into olfactory brush strokes, impressions, notes and accords.
Dries Van Noten is an intriguing first choice as muse. He was a member of the original Antwerp Six who had a seismic impact on fashion after graduating from the Antwerp Royal Academy between 1980-1981. They studied under the influential tutelage of Head of Fashion Linda Loppa. Other members of the six included Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Bikkembergs and Walter Van Bierendonck. They placed quiet mood and a sense of art into fashion, an avant-garde quality of poise and confidence that was softly radical. It was achieved with flickers and nods of things to come, innovative use of fabrics, layering, deconstruction, moody dressing, the blurring of gender, a rejection of the conventional sexed up take on runway presentations. Their work was highly influential and placed the Belgian School and in particular Antwerp Royal Academy at the centre of the fashion world. Today, the school is still closely observed by fashion insiders in case something extraordinary appears.
Van Noten’s work is witty and striking. He does not design couture. The clothes are ready to wear and ready for retail. There is practicality and a streak of puritanical fervor in his denial of the excesses of couture. But as he simply put it when asked, he didn’t see the point in creating clothes that were not going to be sold. His clothes are fluid on the body and move with consummate grace. This often sets him apart from other designers who may be able to design and put together ideas, but neglect the body inside the cloth. First and foremost his clothes are made to be worn. They have a lovely neutrality and softness of line when it comes to gender. He shows womenswear and menswear, but when you look closely at the pieces there is a gentle blurring of boy and girl that is barely discernible yet somehow imbues his work with tremendous grace and vitality. There is always a playful use of fabrics and colour, cleverly harnessed to flatter the skin and movement of the body in motion or repose. And there is the layering. I have tried to resist, but I layer, oh I do; I like nothing more than layers of black, grey and white in my downtime, cut, slashed and worn, frayed edges, holes over my heart. Smart and eccentric for work, a little more Gus van Sant rough trade on days off. I prefer a grungier take on layering, but Dries van Noten’s intelligent use of line and drape has created a distinctive and enviable body of work.
Translating the world of Van Noten into a fragrance would seem complex and fraught with potential pitfalls. Van Noten and Malle are not noses, Jovanovich is not a designer, nor does he have the accrued and connective experience in the world of perfumery that Malle has. The point of this new Portraits collection seems to me to be wonderfully intimate though; impressions and ideas passed like notes in a classroom between a trio of individuals who want to create a harmonious triptych from gathered memories, images, cultural pointers, personal impressions and abstractions of all of the above.
Jovanovich is an odd choice as perfumer for this project on paper, his CV includes CKIN2Us, Beyonce’s Pulse, the dull Onde Extase for Armani, the genocidal Lady Million for Paco Rabanne and the truly poisonous Fierce for Abercrombie & Fitch, the scent that pollutes their heinous heaving stores. This scent for Malle is a massive progression in terms of style and imagination. He seems to have suddenly learned how to slow down and take note of things around him, listen, smell and then translate these things into something different from the brash commercialism of his other work. He still uses his commercial nose though; it comes through in the vanilla, ethyl maltol and strident patchouli. These notes smell resolutely mainstream to me. But working with Malle has taught him reserve and tact. He has added a harmonious delicacy to his handling of more volatile notes, blending the Sulfurol and Peru balsam with an expert nose for rigour and detail.
Dries Van Noten par Frédéric Malle is essentially a gourmand hymn to sandalwood. Sandalwood has been almost virtually wiped out in real perfumery terms. Sandalwood stocks were brought to the brink of destruction 20-25 years ago, therefore dramatically pushing up costs and perfumery had to look to synthetics for help in creating this most vital of notes. Aromachemicals such as Polysantol, Ebanol, Firsantol and Levosandol have been used to capture the trademark creaminess associated with Indian Sandalwood. Some of these molecules are exceptional, (like Javanol, used so well in Comme des Garçon’s dry and airy Wonderwood) and very real in their interpretation of aspects of the wood. But the presence of real Mysore sandalwood in unmistakable. A good case point is the re-formulation of Samsara, Jean-Paul Guerlain’s love letter to sandalwood and rose. Samsara used to glow like a lantern in a winter window; the woods were so damn radiant. Then the synthetics slowly crept in, almost criminally, under cover of denial. All of sudden Samsara dimmed, the light faded and one of Guerlain’s most charismatic fragrances became a little more ordinary.
The sandalwood Jovanovic has used to illuminating and patisserie effect is actually santalum album, real Mysore Sandalwood from a sustainable source in Australia. You can smell the difference; it is deep and expansive with a glowing roundness that only comes from the real wood. Around this glorious woody note are an expert arrangement of delicious and carefully calibrated notes including lemon, vanilla, jasmine, guaiac wood, tonka bean, Cashmeran, musks, saffron, patchouli, Sulfurol, nutmeg, bergamot and Peru Balsam. The fragrance feels like a luxurious hushed party, discreet and velveteen, the notes mingling like guests, lit with delicacy and vanillic radiance.
I get no real sense of a classic triangle when I wear the fragrance. Yes it’s stronger obviously when it goes on. It does shed notes as it dries down, they fall away like veils, but it is pretty linear in design. The notes all seem to envelop you at once, woody, vanillic, honeyed, spicy, biscuity and petrolic. Then it moves and settles in a variety of directions depending on your perception.
I smell popcorn jellybeans. I smell waffles dusted in vanilla sugar, fresh and washed down with milky tea. I smell biscuits, that weird air-filling beige aroma that fills the car as you drive by biscuit factories. Mr E smells the pinkified clove spice of dental rinse and I can catch a whiff of Dentyne cinnamon gum. A few reviews have mentioned Speculoos, a cookie traditionally eaten in the Festive period in parts of Belgium, northern France and the Netherlands. The biscuits are flavoured with spices such as ginger, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. The classic Speculoos have scenes relevant to the life of St Nicholas (Euro Santa.) on one side. Equally popular is a cookie butter version in a jar version of the same flavour. I’ve eaten it a couple of times, I used to be able to buy it in Lidl oddly, then in a local deli. It’s very sweet and quite sinful, with a Christmassy caramalised taste. It does smell amazing, nostalgic and instantly comforting. Opening the jar and sniffing is probably the best part of eating it! One of my new coveted brands, L’Antichambre, set up by Anne Pascale Mathy-Devalck in Brussels has a gorgeous sounding scent solely devoted to this moreish biscuit. Called quite simply Le Speculoos, it is vanilla-rich with brown sugar, cardamom, biscuit accord, cinnamon, clove, ginger and nutmeg. Perfume extract strength, this has gone onto my Most Desired list..
But underpinning this sweet nostalgic whiff in the Dries Van Noten is something altogether more substantial. Under the frivolity of surface and effect is a meatier more uncomfortable facet that rises and falls through the patisserie kindness. This is the Sulfurol, often used in food flavourings; it adds an off-kilter gamy note. Combined with a huge burst of plummy patchouli and a squeeze of bergamot, these three notes lend Dries Van Noten a profundity and initial ferocity that might otherwise have been swamped by the undeniably wonderful wood & biscuit aromas.
Oddly I realised after the first few times of wearing Dries van Noten I kept raking through my olfactory memory for something. It was Kenzo Jungle from 1996, a papal blast of patchouli and licquorice, ylang, mango, heliotrope and vanilla. I wore it so much I made myself ill. I can smell a molecule of it at 100 paces. But something about the combination of patchouli, Sulfurol and touches of saffron in the Dries Van Noten brings Jungle roaring back into my memory.
Like Dries Van Noten’s clothing, there is immense simplicity and invisible complexity to his collaborative scent. The layers shift and float as you move through the air. Van Noten is well known for colour and pattern in his work and it is interesting that the fragrance that bears his name should be so creamily monochromatic. The more I wear it, the more it exerts its power over me. I am using a generous sample kindly sourced from Liberty for me by a friend. And despite the substantial price tag (£110 for 50ml, £155 for 100ml) I now have to have this fragrance I realise...
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