There is so much I love about Thomas Carlyle Ford, aka Tom Ford. The man himself is sexy, charming, scrupulously chic, gloriously hirsute and a control freak. He oozes a glossy, mini-series style of sensuality, a mix of porno chic and brutal, blatant vintage referencing. He pines for Halston, Studio 54, strutting diaphanous disco and Warhol’s carnival of drugged up glitter and coitus. He has the golden suede touch, an unerring ability to read us, push us, titillate and sometimes shock.
He sails pretty close to the wind on occasion, but damn, he’s so polite and quietly ambitious, we just smile, blush and turn a page. From his wilderness years as a jobbing actor to his meteoric rise through YSL, Gucci, Hollywood to founding his own sexed-up label, Mr Ford is a fabulous gay man. Women adore him, men want be him or fuck him.. (just the once maybe if no one ever found out…..)
There was his directorial debut with a very personal adaptation of Isherwood’s A Single Man, starring Colin Firth as a repository for Ford’s neuroses. Firth bagged an Oscar, but Julianne Moore stole the film, drenched in shades of apricot and beige, an immaculate English accent and nails painted to match her Sobranies. Every molecule of the film was designed by Ford, obsessively so, sometimes to the point of stylistic overdose and yet he managed to fashion a disciplined and melancholy portrait of himself, a man tied to routines with a mania for minutiae. The character of George exercises huge control over every part of his waking hours and yet the only thing he can’t govern with any true certainly is his broken heart. The loss of his lover, being denied access to true closure and mourning, makes George snowbound, locks him down as life ticks on. I wonder sometimes when I watch this beautiful film how much of this august, reaching pain has in common with Ford’s life and past. People who present perfection often hide ordeal and woe.
Ford’s work is about detail, finish and appearance. Nothing is really left to chance. He is a notorious workaholic, preoccupied with all aspects of his multi-layered businesses. Even his predilection for placing himself centre-stage for campaigns; in other designers might seem monstrously egotistical, but with Ford, it just seems normal, something he needs to do. He is married to the writer Richard Buckley whom he met in 1986 when he was 25 and Richard was 38. They now have a child called Alexander and Ford divides his time between the US and London where he has a design office. He likes the pace of life in London and I imagine the eccentricity and balls of London life; the weird collision of commerce, street style, reserve and old-fashioned Savile Row defiance and tradition.
His stints at Gucci, Lauder and YSL all had a huge impact on the Houses’ fragrance divisions. He launched arguably one of the first major commercially created oud fragrances at YSL called M7, using a very controversial (and very sexy…) ad campaign with a hirsute French model/martial arts star in a full frontal nude pose that echoed Yves Saint Laurent’s equally contentious willowy nude shoot for his Y For Men fragrance in the 70s. He also launched Nu in 2001 a strange, incense-laced floral scent by Jacques Cavallier in a unique flat round dark blue bottle that resembled a large old-fashioned make-up compact. Nu sadly flopped, but it was way ahead of its time. If you smell it now, it’s astonishing how modern it seems. At Gucci, there was Rush, one of my favourite porno scents. Like Angel before it this screeching lactonic marvel of hairspray and buzzy florals was utterly divisive. Love. Loathe. The neon red plastic bottle made it both garish and daring. Nothing has ever smelled like Rush. TF apparently took three seconds upon smelling the mod to say yes to the final version. I love its ravishing neon violence, the way everything in the composition is at full volume, garish and sleek, seducing the sense with serious lacquered intent. Scent as Ferrari.
While working with Esteé Lauder, he dared to play with an established classic, Youth Dew, Estée Lauder’s original scented foundation stone, the oriental bath oil that started it all. For a limited edition entitled Youth Dew Amber Nude, he commissioned Christophe Laudmiel to tighten the notes, lighten the deep vanillic plunge and add a warm golden haze of cocoa dust and tolu in the base. It was gorgeous and overtly sensual yet dripping in charm and a little honeyed mystery. The original is a huge scent, with little subtlety and I imagine scars from a little too much scented surgery. Youth Dew Amber Nude somehow managed to maintain the spirit of Estée Lauder’s original groundbreaking scent whilst translating the formula into a new modern idiom.
Now in 2014, Tom Ford perfume has a global turnover in the multi-millions. He has not looked back since the launch of the truffly, all pervasive Black Orchid in 2006 with it ENORMOUS lingering aura. Rumours abounded he wanted Black Orchid to have the whiff of male crotch..a typically Fordian shock tactic that did nothing to dissuade millions of us (myself included)to indulge in this most hedonistic of epicurean florientals. There was a point, maybe six or eight months after it launched, when you could smell it everywhere, on everyone. It became one of the most ubiquitous aromas on the streets. Everybody wanted a small piece of the Fordian dream, to feel for a moment like Julia Roitfeld in the swooning languorous ad. Then came White Patchouli, Tom Ford for Men, Violet Blonde, Grey Vetiver, Noir, Sahara Noir and most recently a new interpretation of his original blockbuster called Velvet Orchid. I’ve worn White Patchouli on and off for years and I love Violet Blonde, blogging on it back in October 2011:
The androgyny of Ford’s female scents is striking. I love the jasmine blonde glistening beneath the platinum violet. Suggestive of alter egos and closeted fragranced lives. Violet Blonde is head-turning drag queen suede and indolic jasmine, a shocking flirt of milky woods and a whiff of homme fatale. It had me sniffing my skin and closing my eyes all day, wondering if I smelt like Jean Harlow laid out on fur. (probably not….)The journey from fuel and hairspray to creamy musks, jasmine and sueded leather is a compelling one. Violet leaf and flower can be mournful, melancholy notes. Mr Ford’s occasionally violent jasmine/violet is a beautiful dip into an inky mauve sea, contemplative and yet enticingly sensual. I love it on my skin. It works magnificently. Harlow, Monroe, Cobain. Suicidal blondes maybe, but oh the fame, the glamour, the frozen Hollywood moment.
The Private Blend Collection debuted in 2007 with twelve fragrances - Amber Absolute, Noir de Noir, Velvet Gardenia, Black Violet, Tobacco Vanille, Oud Wood, Purple Patchouli, Bois Rouge, Moss Brèches, Tuscan Leather, Neroli Portofino and Japan Noir. They were described by Ford as unisex; complex, multi-note fragrances woven around themes or tenets of perfumery such as oriental leathers, mossy fougères, fruit-tinted chyprés, woods and classic soliflore stalwarts such as gardenia, violet and jasmine.
Then in 2012 Ford released an intriguing quartet called Jardin Noir consisting of Café Rose, Ombre de Hyacinth, Jonquille de Nuit and Lys Fumé. They have been among the more creative of the Private Blends, but hardly as Noir as the name implies. Ford does like his noir… noir this… noir that… Perfume addicts love the word though and it has become industry shorthand for darkness, night, sexy, depth, mystery etc. I dislike hyacinth in any form so I avoided the Ombre.. and the Jonquille is a marred and off-kilter attempt to do an abstracted daffodil. There are parts of the Jonquille de Nuit that sort of work, the narcissus and angelica notes are well-played, cool and deliciously retro in their placement with the slightly fussy and spinster-like assemblage of cyclamen, violet and mimosa. But the composition collapses half way through, leaving a bitter, smeared leaf effect I did not like at all. The rose and lily are the two which really caught my attention though.
I love my roses and Café Rose is warm, roasted and chypré-esque in style, lit through with a triptych of Rose de Mai, Bulgarian and Turkish Roses. I like the name oddly, obviously implying coffee in the juice, but also more discreetly suggesting a private, intimate little hideaway, a floral scented snug with wood panelled walls and a soft flickering fire. Saffron and black pepper add heat and texture, the creamy saffron creating a supple suede-like ground for the roses. A very subtle use of incense in the base with woods and a whisper of oakmoss hint at ghostly chypré structures.
I was pleasantly surprised by this essay of roses, even more so when I discovered it had been made by the niche avant-gardiste Antoine Lie, one of my favourite perfumers. He is normally associated with more experimental and arthouse scentmakers such as Comme des Garçons, Nu_Be, PureDistance and Etat Libre D’Orange. Café Rose doesn’t immediately strike me as overtly Liesque; one of the odd characteristics of many of the Private Blend scents is the relative anonymity of the formulae. They could have been made by anyone; the signatures are barely legible beneath the high gloss shine and shimmering commercialism. However, the more I have worn Café Rose, the more I have noticed blips and shudders of strangeness. Lie’s use of coffee is hardly conventional, it doesn’t really smell of coffee at all in fact. There is just a very warm, roasted creamy effect drifted through the mix allied to a light metallic twist to the base. Lie loves his freaky aroma buzz and I can smell hints of CDG’s Wonderwood and Blood Concept’s Red+MA behind the relatively conventional rose and sweet smoky ensemble. It’s difficult to get perfumers like Lie to create anything close to normal as it were; Café Rose is safe yet rather beautifully rendered. As if Lie has challenged himself to do normal and then couldn’t resist flirting with oddity as the occasion presented itself.
I of course have a massive weakness for lily soliflores so the Lys Fumé caught my Foxy eye. I tried it in passing and liked it sharp, glassy heart of white shattered petals cocooned in rummy vanilla and silky woods. Then I put it aside, distracted by so many other things and once again kinda shell-shocked by the price. I have bumped into it again at my local Tom Ford counter, the Manager Gillian is one of the loveliest people you could want selling you scent, genuine and full of joy and scented exuberance.
Created jointly by Rodrigo Flores-Roux and Shyamala Maisondieu, Lys Fumé doesn’t initially seem to break new floral ground, but that perception shifts with time, as the scent takes hold. It does capture the strange arrogance of lilies, an odour that drives me crazy with self-love. For me it’s all about the dichotomy, the split of light and darkness, purity and wanton desire, demise and annunciation. Lilies journey from bright creamy sensuality to pollen-drop and atrophy. The many varieties of lily share a carnality of form – undulation, curl and crevice.
The scent of lilies is a compulsion, a trembling want. I feel almost sanctified in their unctuous embrace. The odour is like anything else, pungent, invasive, repellent, sexual, desirable and cold. There is no warmth, only vacancy and abstraction. As a bloom it sulks and pouts, maunders and haunts. Growing old disgracefully, one needs a fetish inflorescence and the lily is mine.
My collection will always be haunted by lily soliflores and now I add Lys Fumé. I have written before at length on my lily passion and the scented alarm bells that go off when I see a new lily scent launching. My favourites include the glorious Baiser Volé by Mathilde Laurent for Cartier and her recent Essence version which is bloody gorgeous, the now vanished Lily & Spice by Penhaligon’s, the best floral the house has ever made, created for them by Mathilde Bijaoui and Guerlian’s lush tropical Lys Soleia by Thierry Wasser, the best Aqua Allegoria to date. There’s just something so decadent and fin de siècle about the curvaceous reaching petals and shifting slide into sweet indolic decay.
Tom Ford’s Private Blend is all about the glamour and finish of the juice… the Hollywoodisation of scent if you like. This works on a certain level, the glamorous shimmering of surface and illusion; it allows submersion in an olfactive world of luxurious materials and the occasion to buy into Mr Ford’s saturated world of gloss and effect. I’m not sure if I buy into the concept of scent as accessory which I how I feel Tom Ford sees fragrance to be honest. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but as with jewellery or a clutch, if that is the case the accessory must therefore be extraordinary, unique and head-turning.
Lys Fumé is the olfactory equivalent of a smoky grey opal, a discreet and eerie statement piece. I’ve been wearing it so much, revelling in the unexpected melange of waxen demise and a rather beautiful boozy dried apricot facet that I find incredibly chic. Maisondieu and Flores-Roux have used a complex skein of notes to create their illusion of a smudged, ephemeral lily. The fumé aspect is less smoked, rather blurred, as the lines and form of the bloom were obfuscated in fine mist.
Lilies as they fade and die ooze a claustrophobic campheraceous odour that can smother the air in a room. Perversely, it is this shocking intensity that I love, the autumnal death throes of petal and stamen, the wanton stain of saffron coloured pollen, deadly to cats and malicious to skin and clothing. Such a dramatic bloom, swooning and poisonous, intoxicating and capricious.
Lys Fumé is a burnished, low-key take on the lily soliflore, using rum, styrax and shadowy labdanum to provide a flickering warm backdrop for the bloom to display its quietly opulent gifts. I think the unexpected dried fruit effect I keep smelling is due to the nutmeg and Davana; it’s a strange sensation, the interplay of air-dried fruit, broken stem and the mothball ardour of the generous liliform opening. Turmeric is listed in the notes; a spice we all know as a deep yellow powder, used extensively in Indian cuisine. But it starts life as a rhizome (like ginger and galangal) with one of the most unusual odours in the spice world. It’s earthy, bitter with an odd whiff of dried orange peel. You don’t come across it in scent much, but as with food, a tiny amount goes a looooooong way. So it’s interesting to see it nestled amongst the lily, mandarin and ylang ylang. But if you sniff your skin carefully you can sense the heat and warmth this unique note has brought to the floral elements, a kind of hot dust. It’s a delicious touch of barely there magic.
The lily note does fade as the scent works through its delightful evaporation curve, but not perhaps in the way I expected. Of course the full indolic glow wanes, but it does so with grace and discretion as if the grey smoky opal were polished carefully and retired into a soft black velvet bag. There is no bitterness, no regret, just a delicious smooth floral signature left floating above the skin. The dying of the light, the fall of the base is perhaps a little generic, Madagascan vanilla providing a familiar haven for the preceding impressions. But this doesn’t really matter because your senses have been imprinted by that dove grey opalescent floral heart, wreathed in cinematic ambiguity and for a while that is all you can really remember.
The original Private Blend collection had no real sense of gender attached to it, allowing us to pick and choose from a wide-ranging if somewhat reigned in palette of aromas. Some were more masculine and others more feminine, but I think women just admired the high-octane possibilities of Tom Ford offering them leather, tobacco, moss and all varieties of noir. The embedded sexuality of his perfumery, the lacquering of skin with perfume was brilliantly exploited by the desirability of the bottles, luxurious packaging and ad campaigns. Skincare and make-up followed, all of it exquisitely made and presented. High price points, rather than putting people off, encouraged indulgence.
More and more fragrances have joined the Private Blend family, decreasing in quality in my Foxy opinion, but still they sell. Santal Blush and Jasmin Rouge were terribly mediocre; the names sound like porn stars… ‘Hi y’all… my name is Santal Blush… I was REAL big in the 80s…’…
Oud Wood from the original disciples was repackaged and re-launched alongside two more generic and very similar interpretations of oud – Tobacco Oud and Oud Fleur. The 2013 Atelier d’Orient collection of Shanghai Lily, Plum Japonais, Fleur de Chine and Rive D’Ambre were again weak and unfocused, the olfactive equivalent of those patronising old garish Hollywood Technicolor movies about the orient with western stars playing Japanese or Chinese characters. A weird, unsubtle idealised Orient, untainted by reality.
Ford’s brash Aqua di Parma wannabe Neroli Portofino is a handsome bastard, I’ll give it that. Two more Italian studs joined him by the pool in their tight white budgie smugglers and perma tans: Mandarino di Amalfi and Costa Azzura. Oooooo, Mr Ford so wants these to be ice cool and white linen sophisticate, mysterious and elegant. They are well-executed citrus scents exploding with vigour and freshness, but hardly original. But lordy they are selling well as once again Ford’s uncanny ability to make you desire something, wear it and convince you that your skin and life need it bears itself out.
I know there are die-hard fans of Tom Ford fragrances out there and that is just fine. His fragrances are a passionate mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, paying homage to his clubbing druggy climes of disco glaze and a resolute attempt to introduce a sense of luxury and glamour back into a jaded and bitter mainstream beauty industry. Ford gives us what we want, he charges for it and we buy. We want a piece, however small of his sexually charged and slickly managed world, even it’s just a veil of coffee-tinted rose, funereal lily or a fabulous slash of dazzling carmine lipstick. Sanctity and gloss are heady lovers. Tom Ford has always understood this.
Lys Fumé is a compelling eerie scent, more lover than scent, clinging to the senses like sweet clouded weather. It stands out so much from the other scents, I worry for its safety. I’m so thrilled to have fallen in love again with this grey, fixated bloom. I cant quite decide if its armour or weapon. I shall play dress up and we shall see.
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