I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Shadows & Smouldering Pleasures: ‘Hedonist’ by Parfums Viktoria Minya

I was contacted by Viktoria Minya, a young Hungarian perfumer, now based in Paris. She asked if she could send me a sample of her debut scent for her eponymous line. I said yes. This is of course no guarantee of a good review, however… the more I read about Ms Minya and her background steeped in the richesse of classical perfumery I had a feeling that Hedonist was going to be something very special indeed. The sample arrived after a worrying postal delay, had it fallen foul of draconian UK postal regulations…? But one morning, there it was. As soon as it melted across my wrist and the heady aromas of peach and smoky blossoms rose into the air I knew I was in love.

Hedonism is a school of thought that advocates the singular pursuit of pleasure or devotion to pleasure of the senses. In other words, pleasure is the only good. It is one of my favourite words (and concepts too if I’m being perfectly honest…)and I’m surprised that no one has thought to name a fragrance this before now. It implies a relinquishing of oneself to sensuality, a letting go of constraints. In an ideal world, all perfumery would do this, but then we would be continually satiated, exhausted by our own desires.

I believe that perfume should crown your day, it should be a source of pure joy, something ceremonial, something exceptional’. Viktoria Minya

Her passion for fragrance and outstanding components is very evident in the expert blending and the instinctual understanding of structure. This glamourous and determined young woman has spent many years preparing herself. She worked in HR for a while, aware that the realisation of her perfumed dream would be costly and she would need different kinds of experiences behind her and financial capital. Spare time was spent sniffing, sampling, categorising families and fragrances and planning how her Viktoria Minya line would evolve. Training at the Grasse Institute of Perfume deepened her knowledge and desire to create something luxurious and personal from the most beautiful raw materials, something alluding to the golden age of perfumery, something hedonistic.

The two notes that strike you as Hedonist rolls across the skin like erotic smoke are the peach and the tobacco. There is a hint of pollen and honeycomb too from the CO2 extracted rum at the top of the perfume. This lingers and drops through the scent like evening sun on a golden wall. It is simply beautiful, not trying to be clever or edgy, no aromachemical tricks or sleight of hand. Like a woman in a room unaware of her true luminosity, Hedonist smoulders like liquid fire.

This smoked jazz peachy opening is sublime. If you can imagine the soft fuzz of ripe peach skin and breaking the tension of this ever so carefully with a nail, letting the juice ooze out and roll down the flesh. This is the realism and shock of Viktoria’s fruit note. This drips into the smoke and ashes of a carefully arranged tobacco effect. I love tobacco in scent; I guess it subliminally fills the space left behind by my abandonment of Marlboro Lights and Camels all those years ago. Usually tobacco notes are moist and dark with treacly hay and leather facets. Hedonist does something a little different. It draws the note back to ashtrays and stubbed out broken cigarettes in late night bars and cafes. A nostalgic smell of my Paris years, overflowing cendriers, sticky Bastille bar tops and flirty nightcaps.  

The rum adds a sweet poignancy, a whiff of blossom honey that leads the senses down to the indolic glowing heart of Hedonist. Indian jasmine, Tunisian orange flower and the delicate tea tones of osmanthus that beautifully counterpoint the sweet ash accord and peach note. It is the jasmine however that rises and softly explodes Hedonist across the skin. It is creamy and green with a drizzle of crème de banane that compliments the vanillic rum note to perfection.

Touches of Haitian vetiver and Indonesian patchouli have been used like background colours to give harmony and depth to the fruit and smoke accords. There is lacquer over these olfactory effects, adding a sheen and antiqued effect as the fragrance settles out. There is just enough patchouli to singe the peach skin. It the careful tiptoeing back and forth of sweet, soft, ashen, juicy and shadowed and sensual that makes Hedonist so interesting to wear.

I have an image of Hedonist as a 20s moll, lost in emotional transit. Beauty on the cusp of exhaustion, swathed in sadness, a perfect face, flawless skin, and lips red like blood. Her perfume is erotically sullen and wanders a midnight bar like an unsettled spirit. Smoke from endless neurotically smoked cigarettes is wreathed into her hair and veil. The cut glass ashtray in front of her glistens with lipstick stained filters. Beauty, bravado and vulnerability. All elements reflected in the stylish and reverential way Viktoria has assembled her influences and materials.   

‘I wanted my perfume to be an ode to the golden age of perfumery……Hedonist is a celebration of the infinite delight of the senses and it takes you back to the roots of traditional perfumery, it returns the forgotten and majestic nature of applying perfumes.’  Viktoria Minya

It is difficult for me to talk about the peach note in Hedonist without referencing Jacques Guerlain’s masterpiece, Mitsouko from 1919. A classic chypré, Mitsouko has been all but killed by reformulation. It is virtually unrecognisable as one of the most brilliant and original formulations of all time. Akin to the shock of seeing favourite old movie stars step back into the harsh light of day, years kept desperately at bay with repeated surgeries and needles. They seem like different people, personalities lost somewhere along the way with crows feet, laughter lines and self-respect. The often denied re-formulation of fragrances has much the same effect. They may look the same, have the same name but the reality is a shadow of the original, tweaked and stretched, cleansed and pinched. No light behind the eyes, dead scent walking.

Roja Dove in his book The Essence of Perfume wrote: ‘I wore Mitsouko for six months short of 30 years, but stopped wearing it when I could no longer recognize the original scent’.

It has changed so much. This is so sad, it was a truly magisterial perfume to wear. One felt transported. The luscious peach note (a gently handled C14 aldehyde), mingling with luminous jasmine and counterpointed with delicate touches of cinnamon, vetiver and the fabulous oakmoss base. And of course the near mythical Guerlinade in the base, rich and pervasive, the mysterious blend of vanilla, rose de mai, orange blossom, bergamot and whatever other touches of olfactory magic Guerlain add to the mix. When the re-formulation became common knowledge, fragrance lovers started scouring the world for any original stock. Olfactory panic set in. Finding any now is nearly impossible. I used to wear the original as a showy, foul-mouthed club kid, dancing into the early hours and staggering home to collapse into bed, sweaty and reeking of cigarettes, Guerlain and boys. Good times.

Jacques Guerlain was inspired to make Mitsouko by Claude Farrère’s novel La Bataille about the impossible love between the wife of a Japanese admiral and a British officer. Her name is Mitsouko. Desperately in love, but honour bound to hide her feelings deep inside her heart, Mitsouko’s love is silent and dignified as she waits for the outcome of a battle to see which man will return to her.

The jasmine unveils itself slowly in Mitsouko, as if it too is held back in the heart. The peach note is strong, the skin and flesh a homage to the white perfect powdered skin of our heroine. It as if she stands motionless, waiting for her lovers in a trembling wood after spring rain. The oakmoss base was shadowed and strange, adding a sense of unease and tension to the formulation. Sadly the punitive regulations of using oakmoss have cut and slashed Mitsouko and her chypré sisters until their sweet inky raiment are threadbare.

The trick to Mitsouko was the suggestion of sweetness, a tantalising lick of something. The peach added a whisper of flesh. Nowadays, peach notes are generally used as gourmand overload, sloshed in with little attention to effect or outcome.

With Hedonist Viktoria Minya has chosen, however subconsciously, to echo this melancholy peach and jasmine accord but her translation is more sensual and world-weary. The skin is on fire and the voice tells a story of loves lost. This only serves to reinforce the exhausted glamour gangster girl chic that Hedonist exudes as it rolls over the skin like exhaled plumes of cigarette haze. I love the rummy pollen facet that smells tawny and golden. This kiss of clever sweetness reminds you that Hedonist has been created by a woman who really understands how she would like her own skin to be scented. The more I wear it, the more I fall under its spell. I was watching a Dietrich film the other day and realised that the strange and beautiful vision of Drag Dietrich, smoking provocatively in men’s tenue de soirée was a little like Hedonist…the softness inside the rather outrageous and charismatic performance. I watched and sniffed my arm until the two became one.

Let’s talk about the packaging and bottle. I have not actually seen it in the flesh as it were, but Viktoria sent me some crisp hi-res images. She is a sensualist, that much is apparent from the juice. But her preoccupation with the senses extends to the flacon, box and marketing. In an interview with Sandra Raičević Petrović for Fragrantica, Viktoria mentioned creating a private label fragrance for Candori, which involved using crystals in the bottle. She has revisited this idea spectacularly for the Hedonist concept. Generally speaking I am not a huge fan of suspended elements in fragrance or booze for that matter. I think it’s a little tacky and gangsta, something for the cruise ship crowd. However the detail and sheer luxury of execution have swayed me on this one. Hundreds of Bohemian crystals roll and flow inside the scented juice like frozen champagne bubbles. They add a fairytale quality to the finished bottle that looks quite fabulous. The box is wood and finished in a faux-snake effect. This is the only part I am not too keen on, but it is a small detail overall for me and when you look at images of Hedonist nestling in its box, crystals glistening, everything comes together in a multi-sensual whole. You realise how talented Ms Minya is and how hard she has worked to create something this heart-breakingly beautiful and sophisticated. There are times when I despair that glamour is dead. Not true. Her name is Hedonist and she is fabulous.

Disclosure: Review was based on a sample provided by Parfums Viktoria Minya.

Image of Lana Del Rey by Mariano Vivanco for British GQ, October 2012. Apped & treated by the Silver Fox. 

For more information on Viktoria Minya, please click below:

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Soft like Dreams – ‘Cuir de Nacre’ by Parfum Ann Gerard

This is a magical scent, tender and mysterious. I imagine it carefully transported back from Neverland by Peter Pan, glowing magically, wrapped in mosses, skins and ferns and presented lovingly to Wendy Darling in her room in Bloomsbury.  Her brothers oohing and aahing, jostling for attention, Wendy shocked and smitten by the attention. Peter stands in the shadows, half smiling, half sad. ‘It is made from the blood of pearls,’ he says, mockingly. ‘Oh Peter, don’t say that, it makes me sad,’ says Wendy, smelling her pale wrist, ‘oh, the bottle is so beautiful… the scent…is like looking at candlelight through paper and it smells soft like dreams. I shall wear it tonight when we fly’.

Ann Gerard is an award-winning jeweler based in Paris. She launched a fine jewellery line under her name in 1994 and opened her eponymous boutique in St Germain des Prés before settling into a gallery/studio space in the Bastille in 2006.  She has decided to enhance the lustre of her profile with the addition of three magnificent fragrances created for her by the scholarly and artistic Bertrand Duchaufour. The fragrances reflect Ann’s work as a jeweller and her love of perfume but also stand alone as perfect examples of artistic and innovative collaboration. Cuir de Nacre, Perle de Mousse and Ciel d’Opale are beautifully made expressions of the perfumer’s art, but Bertrand and Ann have thought very carefully about how to mirror back and forth the multi-facetted concept of surface, materials, maker and creation. Perfumery as invisible adornment.

Ann’s work explores the tensions between delicacy and force, often contrasting the glimmer of surface with the strength of simple yet classic forms. Ann often used pearls, opals, quartzes and moonstones in beautiful settings. There is ghostly beauty in her love of opalescence, the manipulation of opals, pearls, moonstones and smoky quartz.

Looking at her work I thought.. she makes it look so easy. Yet each piece is crafted with consummate skill and attention to detail. They have quiet strength, classicism integrated with great beauty.  Jewellery is something I often find hard to judge; there is intrinsic worth, the stones, the raw materials etc. There are thematics, a wearing of narratives if you like, a continuation of the maker’s story. Some people simply wear the name, the bling, and the crass assumption of perceived status. It can be worn as keepsake or memento, charms for protection and symbol demonstrating affiliation and faith. But I think ultimately jewellery is about the skin it lays upon. Like fragrance, beautiful stones, metals and materials need a canvas.

Some people just cannot wear fine jewellery. If you watch red carpet events it is interesting who looks dazzles in Bulgari, Cartier, Chopard, etc. Actresses like Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weiss, Julianne Moore, Monica Bellucci, Anna Mouglalis and Tilda Swinton often wear single pieces of choice stone and metal. They look remarkable. They wear the pieces, not the other way around.  There is subtlety and grace, illumination and coordination. Skin tones to lapidary lustre, metallic glow to eyes and skin. Watches, rings, brooches, pins, cuffs, torques, chokers, studs, parures and piercings. All these things have a decorative role. Wearing jewellery well is an art form in itself. It takes courage and imagination. The finest pieces are those that caress the skin, love it and just for a moment cause the world to pause while the eye admires. The word jewellery can be traced back (via an Anglicised French word jouel to the Latin word jocale, meaning plaything) There is an inherent playfulness in beautiful jewels, drawing attention to the skin and body wearing them. Flirtation dressed up in stones and metals. Look at me, I glitter, I shine.

I have a friend who wears amber, the various tobacco and honey tones of this lovely stone flatter her pale Celtic skin and seem to draw strength from her hazel-flecked eyes. Another male friend loves garnet (my birthstone actually) and has a fabulous set of rings that burn fire from his fine cellist fingers. My friend C got married in vintage pearls, wrapped three times around her very pale throat. A family heirloom, C wore them all the time at university over her trademark cashmere polo neck sweaters. It was an almost sensual shock to see them against her skin. They seemed to burn white in the church. My mother only wears silver now, it suits her skin and temperament. And yet growing up, travelling abroad, always in the sun, her skin a lovely nut-brown hue, she wore nothing but shimmering gold, plunder from our foreign travels…

I have said before how intrigued I am by the quality of fragrances that often come from jewellery houses. The attention to detail inherent in creating intricate and exquisite objets seems to inspire companies like Cartier, Lalique, Chopard, Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron and Bulgari to create some thoughtful and iconic fragrances. Mathilde Laurent’s work at Cartier in particular is quite magical. She created the heavenly Baiser Volé, a white lily soliflore that smells like cold glass, pollen and silvered air. Her series Les Heures de Parfum is a diverse collection of complex fragrances, celebrating precious moments in time. Laurent is on one of the most flexible and consistently surprising perfumers at work today. She shapes and moulds raw materials into fragrances of great beauty, bringing to bear a fierce intelligence and severe sense of style on the work she creates.

Annick Ménardo’s Bulgari Black and Jean-Claude Ellena’s Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, both at Bulgari are wildly different but again classic fragrances and decorative and sensual on skin.  Lalique’s Eau Noire and Perles de Lalique are offbeat and wildly odd perfumes, exceptional in their constructions and sillage. I loved the original Boucheron pour Femme by Francis Deleamont and Jean-Pierre Bethouart, although smelling it recently I fear reformulation has destroyed its warm bustling heart. I worked as a manny in Paris for a while many moons ago and the busy woman I worked for was always drenched in Boucheron pour Femme, it rolled off her as she burst chaotically home through the doors in the evenings. Her scarves, fur coats, hats and gloves reeked of tuberose, civet, tonka and benzoin, hanging off the wall like scented game.

The trend for softness and tactility in perfume is something I welcome. Scent as texture, sheen and finish; a surface to be admired, touched and worshipped. Bertrand Duchaufour is well known for his olfactory sketches such as his travel-infused work for L’Artisan Parfumeur, Neela Vermeire and Eau D’Italie. Yet in recent years, he has produced glamorous and profound work for niche brands as diverse as Madja Bekkali, The Vagabond Prince (Fragrantica) and Marc Atlan. The perfume that really stood out for me was his Mon Numéro 8 for L’Artisan Parfumeur; a seemingly simple scent built around a trio of notes: iris, jasmine and musks.  This was the best of the Mon Numéro series and smelt ridiculously cinematic on the skin. The closest incarnation of gold-dusted fur I have ever smelt.  It drapes over the skin with the lightest, most erotic of Catherine Deneuve touches. It reeks of luxury and seems to pay subtle homage to every great French perfume every made while somehow remaining utterly original.  Deneuve is always Deneuve in her films, yet somehow this doesn’t matter, she is mesmerising, a force of nature, versatile, iconic and symbolic.  The same can be said of Bertrand’s use of iris, one of perfumery’s most heartbreaking raw materials. Iris is always iris, however, it takes a true master perfumer to illuminate its innate magnificence. Prada prattle on about their use of iris, and yet their fragrances are rather dull, the much-hyped iris awash with a fizzy, fuzzy skein of notes that corrodes the natural beauty of the powdered bruised note.  I am always left a little frustrated by their chemical undertone and garish sillage.

The only other iris fragrances that have impressed me in recent years are Bourdon’s arctic love poem Iris Poudré for Éditions Frédéric Malle and the Iris Nobile Sublime for Acqua di Parma, created by Daniela Andrier. And of course one must never forget the dark alien beauty of Dior Homme Intense, the revved up, bleaker sci-fi re-boot of the original iris-cocoa combo, still probably one of the best men’s scents in the last twenty years. 

The iris in Mon Numéro 8 glows like a candle in a gilded room.  I noticed the same effect and sensation the first time I smelt Cuir de Nacre. But whereas Mon Numéro 8 has a very fresh almost lychee style note in the top, Cuir de Nacre is much more subdued, more angora and chinchilla under the brush of a hand. The candle is burning closer to the floor, shadows flicker and dust rises subtly in the low flickering light.  Ann Gerard originally made this fragrance for her clients as a boutique exclusive under the name Pleine Lune.  She then commissioned Bertrand to create two more fragrances, Perle de Mousse and Ciel d’Opale to sit alongside it and released them as a collection. Each of the fragrances glitters in its own way, catching fire in certain atmospheres. Cuir de Nacre is still the standout fragrance of the trio for me, mainly because of my love for the iris/leather accord.

It is a marriage I adore in scent. It works because of the affinity for skin. The yearning for warmth and blood beating close to the surface. Leather notes and iris seems opposite in tone; iris chilled and mournful, pulled from the ground and aloof; leather warm and soft, sensual and animalic. But there is harmony in their polarity, plushness and comfort. Texture is vital. Smelling iris can seem like touching the softest of all leathers, creamy to the touch, warm and pliable as fingers move across the surfaces. Petals can feel like leather, malleable and finely turned. Leather of course is skin and smells instinctively right, close to us. The leather in Cuir de Nacre is so soft as to feel like spun suede, barely there, but anointed with styrax and Ambrette to further enhance the skin tones of this perfectly conjured facet.

Bertrand has used an ozonic steam accord in the top of Cuir de Nacre; aldehydic and opulent, it sets quite the scene for the notes to come. He used this note to tremendous effect in Sartorial, the fougère he created for Penhaligon’s in 2010. There he used it to suggest scent of pressed tweed in the workshops of Savile Row. I found it overpowering in Sartorial, although my friend Mr E transmutes this note into the most wonderful Berlin warm leatherette effect. Mixed with the occasional drift of his trademark black Sobranies, it smells amazing. (I think to be honest it’s just a bit too butch for me…).  In Cuir de Nacre, the ozonics herald a beautiful arrival of angelica and ambrette, two notes that add piquancy and a powdered anisic flutter to the central theme that slowly emerges from the steam. The iris concrete is married to cassie absolute. This works so joyfully, cassie can have an animal boudoir roar if left unchecked, but the sure hand of Bertrand blends it perfectly to the cool chic chill of iris. The leather accord smells white, blindingly so, like the mother of pearl in the name. A nacreous lather, reflective of light, catching tones of grey, silver and mauve. Beautiful bruises. Bedded down in white musks, sandalwood and an icy blast of styrax, the composition for a moment resembles a watercolor sky, bleeding out across bone white paper. Then the leather and iris rise through and assert themselves, gently, but with enough soft passion as to cause the skin to say a whispered prayer of thanks.

Cuir de Nacre is a thing of beauty. It is no secret how much I love the work of Bertrand Duchaufour, but this glittering, burnished gem has really captured my heart. I have chosen it as one of my fragrances for my Silver Fox poetry event in May this year. I have been invited by the Scottish Poetry Library to talk about my life in scent and poetry and choose up to nine poems and corresponding scents. It has been an illuminating project that has made me examine my passion for words and fragrance all over again. In most cases I chose the poems first and then imagined the perfume that matched the mood and temperament of the piece. But in two or three cases, the fragrance came first. Cuir de Nacre was one of these. I knew I wanted to use and share it, but I had to choose a poem and words that would do the fragrance justice. Wearing the scent one snowy day in the New Year, I was sitting at the window looking out at ashen skies. I could smell the creamy sensuality of the leather and the sadness of the iris. I knew suddenly which poem I wanted: ‘A Marriage’ by R.S. Thomas, addressed to his dead wife, one of the most moving evocations of love, life together and parting.

A Marriage

We met
under a shower
of bird-notes.
Fifty years passed,
love's moment
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
`Come,' said death,
choosing her as his
partner for
the last dance, And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird's grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.

The poem captures the transient and shimmering beauty of lives lived and loved. I cannot read it without feeling tears threaten my day. Cuir de Nacre is no heavier than a feather, a fragrance of degrees of lightness echoing the slow accretion of exquisite layers that the oyster builds to showcase its pearl.

‘Fifty years passed,
love’s moment
in a world in
servitude to time’

This haunting quote parallels the sense I have in the perfume of magic and suspension of time. That rare stumbling upon a scent that transports and moves you. If you wear Cuir de Nacre, live in the delicate strata of effects and emotions that Bertrand has woven into this moody, shimmering jewel, try reading these the poem, inhale the iris, the soft fruity leather, the aerial aldehydes…and try not to weep.

As Wendy Darling flies across the night sky, her skin smells like pearls. There is moon glow and magic. The city glitters. Skin becomes adornment and catches fire like opals and moonstone. There are bird-notes and beauty. Everyone should wear this, it is singularly precious.

For more info on Ann Gerard, please click below:

Link to 'My Life In Poetry Event',hosted by the Scottish Poetry Library (I'm on page 5...)

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Popcorn Candy & Radiant Waffles – ‘Dries Van Noten par Frédéric Malle’

‘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...

Reviews have been mixed so far. Frédéric Malle set himself very high standards with his original Éditions and I think people expected him to follow a similar olfactory template. But Dries Van Noten par Frédéric Malle is very different, a marked shift in mood and intent. It feels like a drawing in, a more private commitment. I sense Malle is more involved. This fragrance somehow feels more personal, a project that will allow him to explore some of his own quirks, passions and desires as he works with perfumers to create a portrait of someone or something. For now I am in lust with this observant and subtle take on popcorn candy, woods and yeasty waffles. It has everything I like in a scent, style, charm, aloofness and just enough cookie dough eccentricity to turn a head in a room. What more could you want?

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