Know only this—I suffer, yet I rest;
For all my cares and fears are cast away,
And more than this I know not how to say;
Forgotten though I be, I own it best
And ’mid the lilies lie in perfect rest.
From Forgotten Among the Lilies by Augusta Theodosia Drane (1823-1894)
I am still restlessly searching for a lily soliflore that will arrest my heart. Something white, tainted and morbid, thickly indolic, rising creamily from drowsy skin to mourning senses.
My beloved Lily & Spice, that weird and cherished skin-close, bone-white sheath of Madonna lily, vanilla and saffron was summarily executed by Penhaligon’s for underperforming despite the fact that Mathilde Bijaoui’s campheraceous ghost bloom was one of the House’s most unique and beautiful fragrances. I do revel in Mathilde Laurent’s carnal, giddying Baiser Volé, an architectural portrait of lilies in water and glass; leaves, stems and pistils refracted through glassy expanses of white aroma. The recent flanker, Baiser Volé Essence enriched the original with an enormously seductive rush of golden, honeyed vanilla and was simply intoxicating; a perfume drawing admirers to the woozy floral flame like stunned, drunken moths.
I have tried so many lily scents over the years; loved some (Donna Karan’s Gold, Louanges Profanes by Parfumerie Générale, Un Lys Méditérraneé by Editions Frédéric Malle, Lys Soleia by Guérlain and the ravishing Lys Carmin by Van Cleef & Arpels), loathed a couple (Vierge de Fer and Un Lys, both by Serge Lutens) and been totally indifferent to most.
It’s the chill of the funeral parlour I’m looking for, the stillness of grief and observance. A vague air of antiseptic tightness, underpinning the seeping eroticism of wanton waxen blooms. I admire the mix of straight-laced and suggestive in the same elegantly turned flower; an innocence masking darker dirtier desires. I want them heaped around me, thrown up the walls when I am gone, doors must open on their petals, mourners crushing the alabaster flesh under foot as they stagger and gaze, blinded by blasted ivory expanses. The air will be thick with pollen and the sweet miasma of vanillic decay. Vases of whiteness on every table top and sill, blooms curling and arching like dancers in sun and shifting light. But there must also be stillness in the mix, a sense of detachment, enabling me to walk away, aloof and moved, storing images and emotions in careful rooms where sadness in extremis is permitted.
Creating a lily soliflore with the perfect balance of decaying carnality and cold ceremony seems very difficult. Lily & Spice came close, but was a little tame in the end, lacking the full-blown radiation to burn the grass at grave’s edge. The enigmatic lily in Louanges Profanes lies wilted and sacrificed on a wooden altar, indolic persona blurred a little in ritual smoke. It is an incredible scent, the lily feels like a shadow on the skin, but it is a formula of softness, the elements blending like a murmured prayer. Baiser Volé Essence is a bedroom bloom, crushed and folded as bodies roll in electrifying silence. When I wear this, my skin vibrates with longing. Lys Carmin is a white light in darkness, a prayer for forgiveness as sin beckons. All of these are beautiful in their own ways and I love their facets and effects. But there was still a yearning in me for something.
So a couple of weeks ago I realised I hadn’t really tried Le Labo’s Lys 41 properly apart from a fleeting encounter when it was first released alongside the metallic and strangely powdered Ylang 49. I had forgotten how visceral and meaty the lily effect is as it hits the skin, the sheer fleshiness of the full bloom is quite unnerving. It is this epidermal, creviced sluttiness I had been looking for, the remembrance that scent has form and libidinous curve. Lys 41 stretches every part of itself with languorous calculating intent.
Created with reckless joyous abandon by Daphne Bugey, this sensuous, serpentine lily feels enormously radiant, tugging at the senses and rolling back and forth across the skin like sexy vanillic breakers. The jasmine and tuberose absolutes amplify the white floral aspects of the scent to the blinding, shimmering max. Vanilla (Madagascan) is needed of course to temper the solar excesses of any indolic vagrancy. Bugey’s handing of vanilla is unusually restrained for a floral of this size, but it works, the warm sun-kissed sugared tones settle in quite late, an hour or so after the white flowers have finished jostling for the light.
Then something odd occurs, Lys 41 grows bleak and serious, shedding frivolity and the intense sensuality. The luminescence pares the bloom to the virginal bone as the odour shifts through a campheraceous vintage familiarity and heady summer tableau to an intense and piercing melancholy. Like a novitiate taking final vows, there is a sudden cutting away of the distractions of the world, the reality of purity suddenly held tightly in white, tense hands. It is a most disconcerting scent, most large-scale floral scents endeavour to amplify and radiate their wares, open their petals and dazzle you. The nature of the notes, the constructions and modifications required to create many of todays modern floral effects are exceedingly complex; resembling the aromachemical equivalent of cinematic CGI. To achieve subtlety, quietude in the gentle drift of bloom is rare and beautiful. Each time I wear Lys 41, this startling shift from excess to minimal never fails to move me. The perfume feels like a mood poem, drawing you through stanzas of increasingly opaque effects until there is nothing left but silence.
To find both the concepts of dazzle and quietude side by side in the same fragrance is pretty unique, but then Le Labo are a somewhat singular scent house. I dip in and out of their wares; they are quite hard to locate outside of major cities. Their Rose 31 fragrance is quite rightly lauded by fans and critics alike and one of the few rose scents that truly transcends gender. The other Le Labo I adore is Patchouli 24 made by the eccentric Annick Ménardo, the nose behind some of my favourite scents including Bois d’Argent and Hypnotic Poison by Dior, Lolita Lempicka Le Parfum, Body Kouros by YSL and Bois d’Arménie by Guerlain.
Patchouli 24 doesn’t really smell of patchouli at all, well it does eventually, whispering it into the finale of a grandiose bitumen drydown. It is more the scent of decay, mould eating into old leather-bounds books in deserted rooms. The cellulose in the paper breaking down into the mysterious burnt yeast and dark-honeyed tones of lignin, a chemical present in wood-based paper. As it dies, it exudes a sweet, furtive vanillic scent. Along with other recognised elements such as furfural, rosin and acetic acid, the complexity of Ménardo’s extraordinary composition is boundless. Less a portrait of patchouli, rather an essay in the decomposition and claustrophobia of intensive bibiophilia. Every time I wear it, I am flung back to winterdamp, labyrinthine university studytime and relentless prowling for weird books and beautiful boys.
Le Labo have an unerring ability with certain fragrances to arrest the senses, shaking up the memory with jolts and sparks of reminiscence. What I wanted from Lys 41 was salvation, white calm and observance, a perfume I could wear and feel both soothed by and eerie as I wandered the apartment, earphones in, listening to Kreisler’s soaring divine violin pieces. As I hear the bow hover and hum over the most tremulous and echoing of notes I want a perfume that lies still in the air like a miraculous vision, waiting for a believer. As the vanilla and musks lie down to rest on the skin, tuberose and tiare move gently, like wraiths to occupy the air with persistent yet subdued intent. It is such a strange scent, exploding with hedonistic alert before plunging with deadly calm into a poised and cryptic witness of its own consolation.
The sparkling carnality of the opening is exhilarating and like so many things in life, so very seductive. But the true worth of anything worth loving and believing in lies in longevity and perseverance. I will always be true to a scent that loves me back. Wearing this seemingly carefree and melodic white floral seemed easy, but the Le Labo binding of notes and technical skill used to push the lily through dramatically different stages makes Lys 41 rather exceptional. In my search for lily scents I am looking for the balance of light and dark, the dichotomy of virgin and whore, purity and corruption, life and death. Such a divisive bloom, so aloof and overexposed, yet the twisted, folded waxen petals hide so much sexuality and secrecy.
All day long, I can smell the flowers rising and falling on my wrists. The renowned campheraceous indolic tone that can sometimes sabotage the pure intentions of lily soliflores is strangely absent; its dirty slur can be felt across the opening of the scent, in the high green contralto note of jasmine. But this is tempered over the hours by the tuberose, lily and intimate restful vanilla. I want my final rooms to overflow with this scent, vases, bowls and bottles stuffed with sensuous twisted lilies, radiating their knowing grace and sublimated carnality into the air as I lie alone in darkness waiting to know where my soul will find sanctuary. These pale and waxen forms will curve their flesh in shadows and hold vigil as I dream. All will smell alabaster, bone and analgesic.
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