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

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Rose Essay 3 - Royal Portraiture: ‘Sa Majesté la Rose’ by Serge Lutens

We all have our fragrance passions. Studying the men and women creating niche perfumery is for me akin to obsessing over the work of film auteurs rather than actors; studying the oeuvre of Kazan, Von Trier, Desplechin, Lynch, Ozon, Herzog, Fassbender, Sirk etc. The noses, creators and artists behind so many scents, whether they are commissioned or work in-house are what make niche scent an extraordinary atelier blend of the Avant Garde and the commercial. Because at the end of the day, it has to sell. It may be lauded to the skies for originality and beauty, it may break rules and introduce new notes or tonal effects. But the bottom line is – it must sell. 

I have my favourites. I love the varied and explosive work of Annick Ménardo – Bulgari Black, Le Labo’s Patchouli 23, Bois D’Argent and Hypnotic Poison for Dior, YSL’s Kouros Body, Jaipur Homme for Van Cleef & Arpels and Bois D’Armenie for Guerlain, a much-neglected masterpiece. Her commercial collaborations with other perfumers for Diesel, Gaultier and Armani amongst others are always interesting.

I am also a huge fan of Bertrand Duchaufour. Traverseé de Bosphore, Al Oudh, Vanille Absolument and Patchouli Patch for L’Artisan Parfumeur, his Amaranthine and Orange Blossom for Penhaligon’s, Harissa and Avignon for Comme des Garçons and Baume de Doge for Parfums d’Italie.

Other perfumers I admire include Pierre Guillaume at Parfumerie Générale, Alessandro Gauliter at Nasamotto, Illuminati’s Michael Boadi, Dominique Ropion, Fabrice Penot and Edourd Roschi at Le Labo, Michel Almairac, Karin Vinchon, Celine Ellena, Olivia Giacobetti, Mathilde Laurent, Antoine Masiondieu, Francis Kurkdjian, Aurélien Guichard and of course the mighty work of Christopher Sheldrake. The creative processes behind doors at brands like Le labo, Editions, Frédérick Malle, Byredo and Constant are quietly revolutionising the world of fine fragrance, one bottle at a time.   

Sheldrake’s perfumed collaboration with Serge Lutens (and his occasional Exclusif forays to Chanel….) has produced works of heft and enormous scented magnitude. You cannot underestimate the importance of Sheldrake’s impact on the artistic development of fragrance. His playfulness, vision and oddness, the sinuous and sometimes disturbing translations of desire, sexuality and memory played out in leather, fir, oud, spices, sweat, chocolate, musks, woods, grasses and a dazzling array of floral tones. 

Sometimes it feels like he is re-inventing how we smell, throwing us forward in time, demanding we sample what is come, challenging our senses. Many of the fragrances have titles that would not be out of place in galleries and hushed spotlit spaces. La Filles aux Aguilles, Les Boxeuses, Bas de Soie, Borneo 1834 (a scent that seems to stand behind you, hands over your eyes, whispering your name hotly into the back of your neck), Gris Clair, Femininité de Bois, Jeaux de Peaux, Fourreau Noir, Five O’clock au Gingembre and many others. These evocative and teasing, often punning titles mask complex fragrances. Lutens’s background in photography and film and Sheldrake’s passion for architecture have created a body of work preoccupied with glittering surface, finish, internal structure, composition and of course great olfactory beauty.

Saturday 22 October 2011

A Bouquet of Glass & Fur: ‘Vitriol D’Oeillet’ by Serge Lutens

Dianthus Caryophyllus or carnation is to many people just a pitiful bouquet filler, a garage forecourt or supermarket standby. Maligned and mocked, carnations have drifted from serious consideration as floral heavyweights into a strange world of pseudo-bloom, neither here nor there. Yes they are flowers, but hardly worthy of real attention. But they are also my birth flower, the bloom of January. The white carnation signifying innocence and pure love. They are surrounded by stories and symbolism. Purple carnations represent capriciousness, pink flowers for gratitude. In France they are ominous flowers, cursed, funereal, associated with misfortune and bad luck. Yet Christians believe the original carnations sprang from the soil where Mary’s anguished tears hit the ground as she witnessed her son’s anguished stagger under the weight of the cross toward Golgotha. This transfiguration of pain into beauty is a powerful and sobering image of the mocked carnation.

Carnations rarely smell of anything any more, often just the cellophane they are wrapped in or the tiniest whisper of a memory of a scent. But I remember being in Athens as a child, smelling a garden, just off a city square, awash with frilled and jagged carnations, the air choked with the sweet rubicund aroma of their perfume. Bees filled the air, thrumming their wings in the oppressive Greek summer heat.

So I do have a soft spot for carnations tucked away in my olfactory memory. I rarely find them replicated truthfully in fragrance. The effect is usually too heavy-handed or suffocatingly powdery. The use of eugenols (the aromachemicals used to conjure up the illusion of carnations) has become so strictly controlled by IFRA that the opportunities of ever really creating anything close to my carefully protected memory of that magical inhalation of spicy floral theatrics seems almost impossible.

The name dianthus roughly translates as flower of the gods, (dios + anthos) which is a world apart from the carnation’s often reviled image as perennial boutonnières, café table decorations and the predictable partner to Baby’s Breath in a million bouquets. The origin of the word carnation is little more complex and weird. Probably originating from carnation-, (stem of carnatio), late Latin for likeness of flesh, referring to the colour that was typical of the earliest flowers. Another theory ties the name to a corruption of the word coronation, referring to the crown-like corolla effect of the petals. Either way I rather like the image of a fleshy corrupted crown, it appeals to the Cronenberg in me.

I have worked in places over the years where the use of them was banned in floral displays as cheap and degrading. I’ve known people go hysterical at the sight of them in bouquets, tearing them out and flinging them to the ground. An extreme reaction to a bloom, that if scented and I mean deeply, richly, clovely powdered and brimming with boudoir carnality is quite simply heart stopping. They can reek of Wildean pomposity and desire; bear witness to deviance and the spilling of erotic ink and blood. In many a buttonhole and nosegay, I imagine the humble, yet haughty and sensual carnation the unblinking chronicler of a bygone era where rules wavered and lines blurred, yet somehow propriety held sway, just.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Rose Essay 2 - Shock and Scented Awe: ‘Nahéma’ by Guerlain

Nahéma means ‘Daughter of Fire’. An appropriate name for a smouldering fragrance forged from a sensual elixir of roses, peach, tonka, benzoin, ylang, sandalwood and of course the mysterious and magical vanillic twist that has transformed so many Guerlain fragrances into lush hypnotic classics.

Created by Jean-Paul Guerlain in 1979, Nahéma is bronzed and golden, a burnished blooming rose, so beautiful as to be almost untouchable, like a movie star, glowing on screen in a darkened auditorium. It inspires shock and awe and no one else has come close to capturing the power and impact of Nahéma’s massive beauty. It seems like every rose ever made and like no real rose at all. I had forgotten its ability to literally stop my world turning, just for a moment as a storm of roses splinters, then coalesces and reforms around you. 

I have been a Guerlain fan for years. Derby, Chamade pour Homme, Spiritueuse Double Vanille, Bois D’Arménie, Shalimar, Sous le Vent. Any trip to Paris incudes a visit to the salon on the Champs Elysées with its glittering golden stairs and specialist consultants who live and breathe Guerlain. I love the reverence of the language they use, the vanillic taste in the air, the chic and eternal way fragrance is revered from mainstays like Mitsouko and Insolence to hidden beauties like Iris Ganache, Cruel Gardenia, Derby Pour Homme and Quand Vient la Pluie.

So in early spring last year I was browsing a Guerlain counter listening to the facile chat of the saleswoman who seemed incredibly shocked I wore anything vaguely feminine and insisted on talking to me about Habit Rouge and Vetiver. I told her I actually disliked both and Guerlain had murdered the Vetiver through pointless tinkering and reformulation. She asked my opinion on Guerlain Homme, Thierry Wasser’s first major work for Guerlain after joining them as in-house perfumer and master in waiting to Jean-Paul G. I paused, recalling the acidic lime/mojito horror that had surfaced under the Guerlain name. It was utterly banal, bereft of any style and seemed to say: look Guerlain can do street. I told the poor woman it was not my thing. I liked my vanillas and balsams, my impact scents: my beloved Jicky and L’Heure Bleue, deep and full of personal history. Dancefloors, kissing older men, and falling into taxis reeking of vanilla, amber, sex and fags. I always wore them too young, but the memories resonate and I wouldn’t change them for the world.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Hollywood Jasmine: ‘Violet Blonde’ by Tom Ford

Sometimes I’m silver blonde. Urbane and aloof. Sometimes platinum. Harlow stark. Sometimes I crave the darkening roots and mucky Cobain style peroxide corolla. The thing is the shift and change in mood the colour brings. I catch myself in the mirror occasionally and stare, wondering who the hell I am.

This weird and transformative new take on violet by Mr Ford is barely a violet at all, more a luscious lick of jasmine sambac rolled in a Hollywood glaze of powdered mauve dream. It is an unpredictable blonde and rather magnificent.     

Violet Blonde was created for Ford by Antoine Lie at Givaudan. It is enigmatic and mercurial and for me, superior to the latest additions to his over-hyped and underwhelming Private Blend. I must admit their success puzzles me. Some are good. Some are okay. Some are dreadful (Neroli Portofino is a blandly metallic and bloodless attempt to out-citrus Acqua di Parma). Tuscan Leather and Tobacco Vanille are rather arrestingly 70s in execution and body, but the notes have been done better elsewhere: Aramis, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Amouage, Stetson...

The two latest Private Blend offerings, Santal Blush and Jasmin Rouge are a little mediocre. As always, well presented, glossily smug, if a little porny. The whimper of captive jasmine struggling to breathe in Jasmin Rouge amid a cacophony of musks and woods is rather sad. I wanted so much to love the Santal Blush. The name is great (Hi…! My name is Santal Blush, I used to be big in the 80s….) and I love rich creamy sandalwood. But it dies away to a synthetic whisper, like someone shouting for help in the dark and no one comes. A beautiful voice fades to a scratch in the night.

As usual, the campaigns and shine of everything is inextricably linked to the hirsute Texan himself and it’s hard to see past the lacquered Halstonesque vibe Tom Ford loves so much. I have always preferred his mainline scents. I wore Black Orchid to death, long before it became the Giorgio Beverly Hills of our times, sweeping in on crashing waves through every room in every bar, every night, in every town, on any over-tanned, slapped up skin. I loved the mysterious truffly dirt of the perfume, the danger, the transgression of dark plummy florals on masculine skin; all this was killed by relentless ubiquity.  

I was a passionate fan of White Patchouli too, Ford’s divisive follow up to Black Orchid. Great hot white plastic smell, freshly turned earth, new copy paper, indoles and spices. Loved it. It had a sweet, nutty drydown, crisp and clean with a tenacity that could stun horses. It didn’t get the recognition it deserved. It had tremendous verve and personality, again, that touch of seventies glam Tom Ford loves so much, the echo of Studio 54. The scent of Bianca Jagger on her white birthday horse. A Helmut Newton woman in a white tux, cigarette ash tumbling onto a wet Parisian street.

His mainline men’s scents have bored me. Nothing particularly original. Both Black Orchid and White Patchouli were awesome on guys, trangressively sexual. Grey Vetiver was dull and insipid. A washed out paper-thin scent with a barely discernable semblance of vetiver. His signature men’s scent was spices, sweat and tobacco by numbers. Only the distilled extracted version came anywhere near originality, but even then it just echoed classic Aramis and Azzaro.

Rose Essay 1 - Thunderstruck: ‘Voleur de Roses’ by L’Artisan Parfumeur

I’m wearing this as I write. I woke up this morning with a craving for it. It rises off my wrists like smoke. Pungent and druggy, I adore the black earthy rub of rose and patchouli (more patchouli I guess, but it loves the rose to death…). Melancholy and mulchy, like drops of fairytale blood split in an enchanted garden. It has a burnt electrified aroma as it seeps into the skin. Like waking one morning to find your rose garden has been savaged by an electrical storm, leaves and petals torn asunder, crushed to the ground. The air still feels dangerous, alive somehow, perfumed with green sweet power. You kneel down and push your hands into the mix of leaves, shattered petals and wet earth. This is Voleur Des Roses.

Created in 1999 by Michel Almairac for L’Artisan Parfumeur, this wild and pungent scent packs quite a punch. The rose & patchouli accord seems commonplace now, but Voleur des Roses still dazzles. The sillage is painterly, a cloak of autumnal plum and bruise coloured leaves dragging softly behind, occasionally picked up and lashed by a passing breeze.

As you look around the savaged garden, still inhaling the electrified air, it easy to imagine the vengeful storm tearing through the roses, shredding leaves and petals in glee, pulling electrical charges from the sky and scorching the earth and shaken roses just for the sheer joy of it. This drama embeds in the scent. The truffly almost bitter chocolate note that rises from the plunging drydown. There is darkness. Like a finding a dead robin amid the leaves, redbreast glowing poignantly against the cigar tones of autumn. I love the shiver of darkness in Voleur, the trembling sense of something wrong. It is a very strange fragrance. Classified as a masculine scent, but troublingly feminine too. A questioning of tone and emotion that makes it so exciting to wear and smell on others.

Almairac’s ability to conjure up atmosphere is magical. His new heritage leather floral for Bottega is divine. Gucci Rush (1999) still thrills me into sticky, naughty dreams of neon-scented weaponry. His Ambrette 9 (2006) for Le Labo is simply staggering. You literally need to sit down after you’ve tried it, it’s that intoxicating. I have worn his Fire Island (Bond No 9, 2006) for a while now. It continually amazes me every time I wear it, how succulent the suntan lotion note is, how golden and how heroic it is. How close the composition is to standing with my eyes closed on a Brittany beach, sun dappling over my eyelids, listening to waves and the crack of windsurfers. 

Almairac was also the creator of one my other more sentimental favourites: Minotaure, by Paloma Picasso. Dating back to 1992, a wonderfully atmospheric blend of citrus, jasmine and sweet leather. I was probably too young at 19 to be gadding about in such a ambiguous scent. But I remember clubbing to death in it, long floppy hair, slutty eyed and drugged up moves. God it smelt good on fired up skin. I haven’t smelt it in years. I’m not sure I want to. Sometimes, certain memories are better left untouched.  

Voleur des Roses may be nearly 20 years old, but sitting here with both wrists blooded with patchouli, rose and plum I realise it’s a masterpiece of counterpointing. Like swirling the lees of an aged burgundy in a warmed glass by the glow of a winter fire as snow and rain rage in the corner of the room. Romance meets brutality. Caress meets abduction. Kiss and strike. Quite the contrary rose.

Sunday 2 October 2011

The Scent of Heirloom Grace: Eau de Parfum by Bottega Veneta

I had wanted to this to be a whip crack. A brutal Drag Marlene, sneering and soft at the same time, Destry riding again, putting out for the boys in the backroom.  So at first I was a little disappointed. Bottega Veneta’s first foray into scent just plain puzzled me.

I adore leather in my scents. Knize 10. Bandit. Tom of Finland. Azzaro. Cuir de Russie. Diorling. Cuir Beluga. Traversée de Bosphore. Dzing! Jolie Madame. Cuir Ambre by Prada and recently L’Oiseau de Nuit by Parfumerie Générale and three weeks ago I rekindled my love affair with Cuir Mauresque by Serge Lutens.

The Bottega Veneta campaign is beautiful. The tremulous Grecian beauty of Nine D’Urso the shockingly beautiful daughter of style icon Ines de la Fressange, photographed by Bruce Weber. The fit is divine.  Weber has produced a pared down campaign that Cecil Beaton would be proud of. I just wasn’t sure about the juice. The scent seemed transparent and fleeting; an exercise in over-precise ingredients and attention to effect rather than overall mood and actual drydown and bloom on the skin. But in fact I was very wrong. It is an exquisite and intricate exploration of subtlety. The subtlety of wealth in fact, the kind of access to certain kinds of gardens, books, fabrics, skincare; maintenance, that only money can buy. Not fast and vulgar money, but old money, flowing through years of bloodlines, glimpsed in details: shoes, watches, seams, cuffs, the soft curve of a expensive manicure, the cut of a collar, the scent of a expensive throat. This secretive wealth of the privately acquired; the ordered and ultrafine is encapsulated in Bottega Veneta’s new fragrance, an understated statement of luxurious intent.    

There was a lot of expectation for this fragrance. There have been scented products before, a graceful candle range, with notes of leather, wood and freshly mown hay, in collaboration with Olivia Giacobetti and L’Artisan Parfumeur. The brand has come of age recently after years of languishing on the sidelines as other leather accessories brands stormed the citadels of taste and occasional vulgarity.  Some rose, some fell. Some sold out, others remained quietly luxurious and discreetly covetable. Bottega waited and watched. The name itself means Venetian Atelier and was founded in 1966.  It was briefly a hugely influential jet set brand when the jet set was actually something exciting and fun to be part of. Andy Warhol famously created a small film for Bottega in the giddy 1980s. The Gucci Group took control of the brand in 2002 and invited German designer Tomas Maier to head up the company. It was Maier who reinvigorated and honed Bottega, making the trademark woven leather technique known as intrecciato the central motif of the brand.