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

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Contemplation & Enchantment: The House of Oriza L. Legrand &‘Rélique D’Amour’

I love a vintage fragrance house. I mean a real vintage house, with dusty cobwebbed doors, crumbling damp walls, a bloom of mould, reeking of yesteryear, powdered ghosts roaming forgotten boudoirs and chapels reeking of fumy yesteryear. So many Houses either bury their past or fake and embellish the lineage, claiming false descendants, dubious provenance and elaborate reconstructions of past glories. Sometimes this is carried out with consummate brio, but there has to be full transparency and honesty about what it going on and the work being done with formulations and the olfactory genealogy otherwise the undertaking can seem pretentious and contrived.   

I was alerted to the existence of Oriza L. Legrand by a friend and fellow perfume lover, Barry Wa. He has beautiful taste in scent and started a thread on Basenotes (as Prince Barry) about Oriza after finding there was hardly any info on the House out in the electronic ether. This thread grows week by week and really has raised the profile of this exquisite house. So I really have to thank Barry for sharing his love of Oriza with me.

There has been a resurgence in recent years of old fragrances house opening up their creaking vaults and re-launching their vintage style perfumes, soaps, creams and powders. Many old houses have died and taken their olfactory secrets to their powdered graves. Fashion and eras are fickle, taste is a brutal arbiter. In many ways this is how it should be, time moves on. A few truly inspirational and timeless behemoths survive through sheer force of adaptive will, modernisation, money, timing and sometimes luck. Chanel, Dior, Lauder, Guerlain, Caron (perhaps to a lesser degree) have seen off time and countless competitors to be with us today, still creating perfume that stands the test of time. Of course their work is different from originals, nothing is ever quite the same. But arguably the spirit remains.

Over time, smaller more unique Houses all over Europe have decayed into oblivion after years of fashionability, influence and popularity. Some of them, Floris, Creed, Penhaligon’s, Santa Maria Novella have survived into the modern era though, cautiously and not without problems and an erosion of credibilty.

Elisabeth de Feydeau, the French writer, lecturer and fragrance historian is credited by many for the resurgence in fascination with older lost houses, particularly French perfumeries. Elisabeth is an outstanding and illuminating writer, full of wit and charm, her knowledge of perfumery is both extensive and esoteric. Her book A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette's Perfumer, published in France in 2005 - elsewhere in 2006 - was a wonderful portrait of the life of Jean-Louis Fargeon, fiercely loyal perfumer to Marie-Antoinette. The work oozes with astute period detail but most importantly places the production of perfume firmly at the centre of the story. To coincide with the publication of the book, perfumer Francis Kurkdjian created a scent called Sillage de la Reine, inspired as closely as possible by Fargeon’s consultations with the Queen, trying to capture the scent of Trianon for her. Again working with and inspired by Elisabeth’s passion and research, Sillage de la Reine was assembled with notes of rose, iris, cut jasmine, tuberose and orange blossom enhanced with delicate touches of cedar and sandalwood. Tonkin musk and precious ambergris round off a deep and rich formulation. The project was a popular and critical success.

Elisabeth de Feydeau’s research and obsession with this particular period has allowed us to form a more detailed understanding of perfumery and the people whose passions and talents drove the early days of this most ephemeral and sensual of the arts. A good example is The House of Lubin, originally founded in 1798 and resurrected in 2004 by Gilles Thevenin after many years of decline, with the launch of the stunning Idole by Olivia Giacobetti, a dense blend of sugar cane, rum, saffron, cumin, doum palm and leather. By mixing new releases with re-orchestrations of vintage Lubin formulas, the house has successfully revived itself. The English house Atkinson’s re-launched itself recently, re-branding in the process but still retaining its quintessentially stiff upper lip playfulness. Other existing Houses such as Chanel, Dior, Guerlain, YSL plunder their archives and re-release classics, tweaking here and there and in some cases just overhauling the fragrances and creating an homage or variant of the original.          

It is impossible to exactly recreate the original antique perfumes of yesteryear. And even if you could, the chances are, you would fall very foul indeed of IFRA, the body that regularly makes minute yet far-reaching pronouncements on what is to be used in the elaborate construction of the perfumes we choose to wear. We are all aware that exact replication is well nigh on impossible, but perfumery in the spirit of a certain time and place, using atmospheric and timely raw materials can still potentially yield heart-stopping and moving results.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Voodoo Smellin’ Thing…: ‘Mississippi Medicine’ by D.S.& Durga

As this singular formula dries down, I smell ritualistic hoodoo and hex muttered over muddy, pine-crackling fire. You can almost feel smoke in your eyes as prayers roll off tongues to gods and monsters. Underlying the intense verdant smouldering is a pretty obsessive carnivorous hickory note, as if meat were cooking somewhere, animal fats dropped into the fire. It’s a disconcerting effect to say the least, a hint of sacrifice mixed with devout religious observance. Like Norne by Slumberhouse, D.S. & Durga’s Mississippi Medicine is another very different and audacious assault on olfaction. Deeply complex, symbolic and full of archaic wonder. 

I really love this quirky and erudite Brooklyn-based niche brand. Founded by the graceful and modish husband and wife team of David and Kavi Moltz, D.S. & Durga has established themselves as one of the most intriguing and innovative perfume houses in recent years. David is the perfumer and creator of the houses perceptive and atmospheric formulae. Kavi is the architect of the brand’s design, bottles, packaging etc. But you get the impression reading interviews with this gifted couple how symbiotic their relationship is and how much they feed off each other’s artistic and creative processes.  

 David & Kavi Moltz

D.S.& Durga is very much a house steeped in the romance of Americana and the beauty of wordsmithery. I was drawn to the names of the fragrances and the sheer beauty of the brand’s illustrations, bottles and artistic website. So much consideration has been put into how the fragrances are perceived. When you enter the D.S.& Durga world you participate in an lost history, one where cowboys roam lazy dry plains, grass burns in the night, lonely fiddles drawl in the darkness, fur-trappers haul beaver pelts, arrows fly, dresses snag in Siberian snow and ritual incantations are muttered over mud and flame. 

The brand was founded in 2007 making small batches of scented produce for friends and family. Indeed the boxes proudly proclaim small batch handmade olfactory tonics and aromatic formulations. There is something calm and collected about the Moltzs, they have a strong sense of self-belief and have managed to walk that somewhat difficult line between personal indulgence and artistic expression with understated aplomb. The creation of the fragrances involves huge amounts of research in raw materials, influences and I think uniquely – atmosphere. There is a feel of painters and sculptors at work. Images of David Moltz in his leather apron over crisp white shirt, dipping his nose to vials, bottles and beakers against walls covered in sketches, notes, paintings and swatches are more akin to snapshots of painters working in lofts in the 70s and 80s. The scents reek of hidden passions and obsessions. Drops of history and storytelling swirled into grasses, resins, smoke and wild flowers. Names like Bowmakers, Cowboy Grass, Burning Barbershop, Silent Grove, Spent Musket Oil, Boston Ivy, Siberian Snow and Freetrapper instantly conjure up the most evocative scents capes.

I think sometimes fragrance houses forget how powerful a name can be, how much of a psychological pull it can exert on a potential wearer. Of course the juice matters, but romancing and seducing your audience with thought-provoking and cinematic names is something many brands neglect to their cost. David and Kavi Moltz have thought long and hard about how to present their precious brand and it shows. It oozes personality. There is a cool, must-have vibe to it, but not in an irritating hipster way that seems to permeate so many small-scale operations. The roots of the brand lie in 2007 Brooklyn as the US economy struggled with debt and the shadows and collapses of large scale manufacturing processes. In Brooklyn there was a resurgence of interest in all aspects of artisanal work, pushing and developing craft skills to provide a quality product be it skincare, scent, leather, furniture, glass or chocolate.

David Moltz’s deep connection to the bones of fragrance go back to winning a bottle of Pierre Cardin cologne in a summer camp raffle when he was a boy. There is music in his blood and he moved in New York in 2002. Kavi studied architecture in LA and design in Holland, but travelled extensively as a child. She met David after returning to New York to start work as an architect. The brand started privately, concocting formulae for friends, small batches of very precise perfumes and colognes. This artisanal approach, in keeping with the ethos of the time and their milieu was to inform everything they would do. Kavi realised she could utilise her artistic and architectural skills to contain and design the products the couple were producing. The bottles and packaging are very distinctive utilising elegant lines, just the right amount of historical reference and a simple strong clear flacon that highlights the delicate shades of bottled juice.

Monday 11 November 2013

The Brilliance of Snow Night Skin: ‘Moon Bloom’ by Hiram Green

I have grown into an obsessive love of certain glitterball florals; hothouse and carnal, whorish and waxen, petals radiating come-hither danger and corrupted innocence. 

For me, a man wearing white florals is a subversive wonder. I love the indolic strangeness and underpinnings of tuberose, lilies, ylang, gardenia and orange blossom. It is the fleshy conflict between light and dark, beauty and decay, sex and chastity that fascinates me. In many ways these are overtly female blooms, but I adore transgression as many of you know. Boys smell so decadent in florals, so Tennessee Williams, muscular, tense and ambiguous, afraid of inner desires yet reaching out, tentatively, to embrace them.

As with roses, I have come late to my adoring of these most complex and divisive of perfume notes. They scare many people, causing tremors in their olfactive psyches, shudders across timid bodies, flashes in the heart. Some people just can’t handle the white indolic drug.

Over the years I have embraced Piguet’s Fracas, Lutens’ Tubereuse Criminelle and Malle’s Carnal Flower in my search for sexy whiteness. I do have a place in my heart for the original Michael by Michael Kors, created by the talented Laurent le Guernec. It was genuinely sexy, awash with a creamy suede-like tuberose note, ably supported by orris, incense, tamarind, lily and osmanthus. Skin just loved it. Big and bold but very sophisticated. I have written extensively in the past on my love affairs with lilies and roses but tuberose and I go deep, it feels secretive and a little dirty, as if we share shocking secrets that no-one can ever know.

Hiram Green’s alabaster Moon Bloom is probably one of the finest tuberose soliflores I have tried in many years. This shocked me for several reasons. One, I thought I had probably tried as many permutations of the blooms as I could and two, Hiram’s delicious scent is made exclusively from natural ingredients, a notification that does not generally make my Foxy heart sing. 

Thursday 10 October 2013

A Dram of Smoke & Fire: ‘Aqua Alba’ by Angela Flanders

I recently visited Angela’s second shop in Spitalfields on a work visit to London. The original Columbia Road shop only opens its doors on Sundays for a handful of hours. But the new scented sanctuary operates more normal opening hours and closes on Sundays.

Angela Flanders Perfumer is tucked away down Artillery Passage next to Precious, the clothing boutique run by Angela’s daughter Kate. Precious One, Angela’s heady, luscious floral chypré was created for Kate’s boutique and went on to scoop a much lauded Best New Independent Perfume award at the 2012 FiFi awards, surprising many in the industry. It will have not been a surprise to Angela’s numerous fans, near and far who love her creative and unique fragrances, home scents and skincare. She is very much a name shared amongst friends, softly, secretly, perhaps a little reluctantly. Such is the desire to keep her scents secret.

Spitalfields is hipster central, awash with arty types and bearded men in rolled up trews, girls in vintage rags on basketted bikes and dogs in neckerchiefs. It’s a little too deliberate for my liking. In the evenings the trendier pubs overflow onto the pavements and everyone sits around discussing Guardian articles and the search for the perfect coffee. But the area is gathering some very interesting scented destinations. Oxana Polykova’s wonderful scented niche haven Bloom Perfumery is on Hanbury Street and French perfume provocateurs Etat Libre D’Orange recently opened their first British store a couple of streets away in Redchurch Street. Gorilla Perfume, the fascinating scented house of Lush until recently had the most wonderfully cute and involving pop-up shop in Rivington Street. So Angela’s boutique in Artillery Lane is in a great area for the niche scent lover. She may seem old fashioned and whimsical to some, but she is an instinctual parfumeuse of considerable skill and imagination.

Angela Flanders Perfumer 
Artillery Passage

 The boutique itself is padded and soft. The outside world stops as you step through the door. It does feel a little Parisian and archaic, which I have to say I liked a lot. Most of all I liked the sense of hush and gentility that emanated from the thoughtful and decorative space. The air was tinted just enough with an amber scent I think, and a hint of gilded rose. Gold and gilt are noticeable motifs. The bottles themselves are quite modest rectangular shapes with gold lettering. The shop’s elegant furnishings are elegant and ormolu is style, knocked back gold and wood. There is an air of gentility and calm that befits Angela’s distinctive brand image.

In this day and age of ever changing technology and shock value aesthetics, it is easy to forget that many people are searching for stability and reassurance in their lives. A sense of safety. But, you know what, however elegant and genteel Angela’s fragrances may seem on the surface, I discovered that for every shimmering classic floral, there was something a little different, a little darker. I realised, Angela Flanders is a little like the PD James of perfumery, creating masterly olfactive scene setting, skies, gardens, travel, weddings  - their safety disrupted by touches of darkness. Very British in fact; the body in the library, the shadow in the sun, the potential danger behind a lipsticked smile. Eccentricity and manners, situations solved with decorum and observation.

Friday 20 September 2013

Verdigris Cathedrals: ‘Norne’ & Slumberhouse.

For Douglas Brown... a Portland guy, who's been waiting for me to write this for ages.... Ax. 

I’m still recovering from the shock of Norne. The dirty green stickiness of it on my wrist, the oils settling like a second skin a pungent, visceral gasp of medicinal fog, dawn bark, mulch and a damp bone-touching thrill of poisoned weather. There is an imagining of vaulted green ceilings, moss-covered and ancient, canopies whispering in the dark. In dreams I wear a crown of woven verdigris branches and leaves. All around me is the smell of crushed needles rising from the forest floor like the bitterest smoke. 

Did that grab you? I hope so. I am very taken with Slumberhouse, a small artisan scent house based in Portland, Oregon. I hesitate to call it perfume because I’m not sure it is. Scent design, odiferous abstraction, olfactory drama? The notes create an emotive exploration across skin and senses. There is a feral realism to the scents, constructed with an Impressionist’s eye for effect and detail. When I first smelt them I found it quite hard to imagine who these astonishing creations were aimed at, so personal were the effects.

Slumberhouse was founded by Josh Lobb and a small group of friends operating as a kind of creative collective. Slumberhouse is now just Josh with the others going their separate ways over time.  Self-taught and obsessive about every detail of his creations, Josh has assembled one of the most enigmatic and forceful collections of scents I have touched to skin in quite some time. His dislike of top notes and singular pursuit of turbulent darkness really strikes a chord. There is beautiful night and decay in the notes, the smell of fallen stones, lichen-covered trees sinking silently into haunted expanses of forests. Shadows flicker with lost souls and spirits call out in the spaces between notes. I smell magic.  Not the elven cringe of Lord of the Rings, but the creeping rise of forest paganism, the sweeping forces portrayed in Princes Mononoke. This may sound a little OTT, but when you first start nosing Slumberhouse fragrances, the impact on the senses is pretty damn forceful.   

I sampled Norne, Jeke, Sova, Ore and Pear & Olive.  The line has been cut over the last year or so due to cost of materials and the rising cost of shipping. Josh has retained a core line of gripping aromas and while some diehard fans have griped about the cost rise and the loss of Vikt, Mur, Rune, Grev and Verg etc; as a hinterland perfumer most people admire the purifying of his processes.

I like the remaining core collection, for me it highlights all that is weird and compulsive chez Slumberhouse – dankness, irregularity, angst, a sense of saga and most of all a tremendous sense of beauty found in dank and murk. There is a signature: smoke…. a sweet chewed tobacco glow that rolls through the range, lending the fragrances a sense of sacrifice, fumes offered up to the skies from willing skin. An echo of the very beginnings of scent and perfume, per fumum.. through smoke.  Even the malleable cocoa glitter of Ore has a passing whiff of jazz age cigarette.

Josh played with synthetics and essential oils in his early creations, searching for a means of olfactive expression to suit his eclectic and curious nature. In several interviews he has mentioned not wearing scent when he was younger. I think in many ways this was a big advantage when it came to re-creating favoured odours and influences the Josh Lobb way. Unencumbered by formal training or the expectations of what he should be achieving and indeed producing, the hard-learned alchemical experimentation has allowed Slumberhouse to grow in secret like a culture in a cracked petri-dish in a forgotten lab. Until suddenly someone says, ‘Damn, this stuff works, it smells like Norwegian Death metal played in darkness under a canopy of shuddering pines’.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Ravishing Jasmine/Indulgent Chai – ‘Untitled #1 & #2’ by Magnetic Scent

I started writing this, propped up in bed, lights dimmed, early autumnal rain morse-coding against my pitifully thin Edinburgh windows. I was warm though, under layers of comforters and a tartan blanket. There was silence, the air radiant with a halo of efflorescent jasmine hum filling the room. If it had a noise it would be crackling softly like the mutter of embers. There is that odour I always get with jasmine of rubbered plasticity, freshly cleaned fridges, and plugs. I love the naughtiness of indoles blurring a murky line between decay and desire. The raw power of jasmine has a compelling sullied undertone, a fragile odour of defilement. This disturbing attraction lies just below the dazzling surfaces of floral luminosity.

I was wearing Untitled#1 by Magnetic Scent, an artisan fragrance house based in Amsterdam. Three fragrances – Untitled#2, Tindrer and Indigo were launched in 2012. Untitled#1 was launched earlier this year. It is one of the most dramatic lung-filling jasmines I have ever put on skin. It has taken Spyros Drosopolous, the nose and artistic visionary behind Magnetic Scent over 300 mods to get his portrait of jasmine just the way he wants it. It is 50% jasmine, with a high dose of real absolutes and the rest painstakingly created from other floral and aromachemical sources. The effect is simply outstanding. The two sides of the jasmine face each like white armoured queens looking deep into mirrors, each knowing the other is there and somehow understanding the tensions held in opposite indolic worlds. For there is an unease between the real and imagined jasmines and this is needed, the slight shuddering and friction creates fire and the perfume ignites across the skin like dawn racing across needy land.

I wasn’t sure at all, smelling Untitled#1 for the first time. And I love my floral odours: roses, lilies, tuberose, jasmine and orange blossom. The counterpointing of purity and decay, indoles and sap, white creamy beauty and the slow decent into bruised collapse. I love the embedded benzyl salicylates and the skin-sullying joy of wearing huge white florals. The problem is always one of quality. Stinting on the quality of the jasmine absolutes or the technologies used to enhance and wrap the core themes and the perfume will cause the juice to collapse in on itself, smelling cheap and starchy, the promised fleshiness fading like so much mist.

Friday 16 August 2013

Let the Stone Weep Around Me: ‘Violette Fumée’ by Mona Di Orio

The 19th of July was Mona di Orio’s birthday and bloggers and writers across the electronic ether again reminded us that the perfumed world is a far less interesting place since Mona’s premature death at the end of 2011.

I am the same age and feel the loss oddly. Sitting here in my sun-flooded Edinburgh kitchen, I simply cannot imagine not being here, doing this, creating, writing and I have nowhere near the talent and artistic power that flowed from Mona. The more I wear her creations, the more I realise how close to genius she was in her instinctual understanding of olfactive chiaroscuro.

Her perfumes oscillate between light and dark, illuminating the shadows but at the same time masking and veiling, keeping certain things hidden from us. This tilting of the light away from the face or main theme, of allowing us to see the edges and hinterlands of compositions; this is her legacy. No one understood the nuances of light and shade like Mona, you can smell the tonal shifts, feel the luminescence on your skin and the bruises of night. There are times when we all need drama, majesty and true luxury in our fragrances. This is when we turn to Mona de Orio.

I worry it is early to say this, and you must forgive any offence, but her premature death has also I think deepened an already very powerful sense of connection to Mona’s work. There is an aura of ownership and enhanced familiarity. The people around the world who have worn her scents feel her absence keenly and draw her creations around themselves like protective charms. I am aware of her loss each time I wear one of her beautiful creations. I am sure she would have been troubled by this sense of melancholia as her work was a celebration of life and nature it all its glory. But we sense what we sense. The poems of Plath, Lowell and Brooke, the films of Monroe, Dean and Jean Vigo, the music of Buckley and Morrison, the art of Basquiat and Schiele, the lives of Princesses Diana and Grace – we imbue these with a different colour of memory. Tragedy bestows nostalgia and absence reinforcing our connections to those that have gone before their time.

It is always bittersweet. At the peak or on the cusp of artistic or creative greatness, we can never really know how much was to come, how much glory was to follow. In the case of Mona, a parfumeuse operating at the peak of her powers, the loss is incomparable. Only those closest to her know what she was preparing to do. Jeroen Oude Sogtoen was left not only with the painful task of coping with the loss of a beloved friend and business partner but also the looming issue of continuance. How to carry on with the perfumed work with Mona gone? However he has managed very successfully to keep Mona’s memory alive while at the same time necessitating movement forward. Transition is painful and forces introspection and change, but it is necessary in order to survive.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Delirious Velveteen Rhubarb: ‘Miss Dior Le Parfum’ by Dior

Popcorn dusted in shattered fraise de bois…with a powdery crunch of pavlova. An amber note trailing like peach coloured sun across an evening floor. Roses drifting across honeyed skin. And then a hint of something more louche and trashy - the drift of rolling tobacco in a summer night street; patchouli rolling in bed with vanilla, laughing at the evening stars. These are memories I have of Miss Dior Cherie a twisted sugar-bomb wonder that Dior dropped into the market in 2005.

Now we have Miss Dior Le Parfum. Rhubarb and custard candies… pink and beige. Echoes of the original messed –up shattered wonder but with added grown-up knowingness. And I’m in love again. This is just a delirious, velveteen scent, plush and so indulgent. I go through phases of constantly spraying it over my skin, inhaling and sighing. It’s a sighing kind of scent. Generally, it’s private juice, for that just me time. Dimmed lights, a good book, some writing, rose-streaked night sky just starting to chill down. Silence and the cats roaming the rooms like bored naughty panthers.

I’m kinda late to this I guess. I wore the original Nagel scent and adored the riff on Parisian chic meets bubblegum trash aesthetic. The original was the perfumed personification of that gorgeous French teen girl you see on a bus or metro and think, does she just roll out bed like that? Tough and soft pieces of Lou Doillon, Ludovine Sagnier and Clemence Poesy thrown together with arrogance and youthful ease. Then she blows a fuck-off bubble, cracks up and gives you the finger. That was Miss Dior Cherie. Sweet sexy vulgarity that made you feel alive.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Sweet & Floured Skin: ‘Castaña’ by Cloon Keen Atelier

Castaña is Spanish for chestnut, a familiar nut with a singular smeared and floury taste. Sweet or savoury, chestnuts are very distinctive; an acquired taste like asparagus, anything caprine and pomegranates. I love them candied, cooked with game, ground, distilled, fried or simply roasted in their shiny shells. They smell of the earth, chthonic. Despite growing on trees, they seem more correct on the ground amid leaf litter and the colours of autumn.

I have a very specific memory of roasted chestnuts linked to a miserable night in Paris as a student in the early 90s. I was an early manny and as such, part of a vast network of often unpaid naïve student slave labour, expected to appreciate the glamour of the city and the experiences being somewhat grudgingly extended to us and yet work ridiculous and demanding hours.  

My friend C and I didn’t go home that Christmas and the guy I’d been seeing brushed me off like snow on his shoulder. We lived off Boursin, horribly cheap wine in plastic bottles, baguette and C’s miraculous garlic-laden macaroni cheese she managed to conjure up on a hot plate in her little room. God knows where our money went. We look amazing in the photos, so on clothes, booze and cigarettes I guess.

One evening we were in the Marais, after a few hours of pastis on a chilled terrace, wandering the Place des Vosges, one of our favourite places, vibrant by day, shadowed and eerie at night. It was drizzling and the streets were mobbed with shoppers, bags crashing into us as we moaned to each other, over-dramatising as only petulant, slightly pissed English students could. I was never dressed properly for any weather, thin t-shirts, ripped jeans and a cricket sweater that had seen better days. More rent than tourist. I’m sure it was all horribly deliberate. The photos demonstrate a smug knowingness I hardly recognise now. I always had a fag in my hand no matter what the weather.

Everywhere we wandered, peering in at windows and dodging manic cars and raging klaxons, we could smell roasted chestnuts. It’s a very distinctive smell, unlike anything else, soft and inviting, wrapped in milky smoke. The little Dickensian stands emitted its heat and glow into the saturated evening. I wanted some, badly. The smell made my stomach howl. The marchand des chataignes was from Marseilles, his singsong accent, blurring his vowels like Mireille Matthieu. I remember begging him for two bags as I only had enough for one. Whatever I said worked, he waved his black-smutted hands at me and muttered joyeux noel…smiling through the rain. I shouted joyeux noel back and ran to find C, who was standing in a doorway, angrily trying to light a crooked damp cigarette.

The smell of those sweet hot chestnuts, split and crisp, reeking of the newspaper cones the seller had made himself has stayed with me forever. Ink and floured nuttiness, sugared starch, but most of all, a scent of streets, of lights and rain, traffic fumes and exhaustion. I am very wary about eating roast chestnuts now. I see the vendors, smell the whiff of cracking burnt shell, the ooze of sweet inside. But I’m not sure I want to actually rekindle that particular memory. We walked for miles as we always did, Rue de Rivoli, Louvre, Chatelet, Gare de Lyon, Bastille, back to our rooms. In the morning I remember my fingers smelled of fire and sugar, the smudged newspaper tossed across the floor near my crumpled Gitanes.

I have cooked with chestnuts since, stuffed partridge with them, pan-fried them with sprouts, maple syrup and walnuts, made a sauce with them, mixed with prunes and Armagnac and poured it over venison. And I’m anyone’s pretty much for a quality marron glacé… If you told me I had a rare disorder which meant I had to spend the end of my days living off marrons glacés and honeydew melon, I would be a very happy Fox.       

However as a fragrance note is rare enough to stand out. Strange really, because it is a very distinctive note, warm and sugared, floury and woody-soft. They taste like they look. Snug and golden. There are hints of saffron, patisserie, spiced apple, sweet potato and artichoke. The texture is glutinous and dry, powdered and strangely sherbety. There are a few rather unusual perfumes that have taken chestnuts as a theme and done lovely things with them. Betrand Duchaufour has been creating perfumes for the Sersale Family at the Hotel Sirenuse on the Amalfi coast for a number of years now. I am huge fan of his hot, terracotta-infused Paestum Rose. But his melancholic and comforting Sienne L’Hiver is layered with notes of the earth: truffles, leaves, straw, coal roasted chestnuts, violet, woods and musks. The elements of wandering through forests, of trying to lose oneself, kicking at the ground, all around the odours of autumn descend and infiltrate the senses.

The other one is Aqua di Casta by Testa Maura, created by Corsican perfumer Xavier Torre. These are really beautiful intense fragrances, made with true passion and desire. Carticasi is another one, a profoundly resinous floral with ylang and rose but tempered with the weird brittle snap of mastic. Wonderful. Aqua di Casta is a homage to the chestnut trees of the Castagniccia Corsican highlands. Blended with pepper, wood and ginger it is a dry sun-swept scent, filled with the rustle of leaves and sound of coruscating summer winds.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

The Reek of Truthful Desire: Les Parfums de Vero Profumo

I am not sure how sexual and graphic I will end up being in this piece, but it’s a long time since I have smelt perfumes this visceral and erotic. With me, perfume is a skin thing. Juice on skin. Ink on skin. Flesh as canvas. The body beautiful bores me. The body painted, anointed, dipped, carved, oozing smoke, indoles, musks, sweat, vanilla, hot petals, tears and leather. Now that’s interesting.

The incomparable Vero Kern is inseparable from her wanton and compelling fragrances. Once worn, they own and haunt.

Her Onda was the subversive and palpable hit of my poetry and perfume event at Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens on a late May evening of sun and sensuality. Séville à L’Aube by L’Artisan Parfumeur and Gorilla’s The Smell of Weather Turning also caused considerable ripples. But it was Onda as it name suggests that caused the biggest wave. I chose it as my scent of the evening to wear. I knew I would as soon as I smelt it in Bloom Perfumery in London moths ago. My flesh and garments were doused in the bitter-sexy tarantella of ylang, bergamot, honey, passion fruit, musk and woods. This was just the eau de parfum. I then anointed my pulse points and laced my throat with Vero’s skeletal extrait Onda companion. Pared down it may be - mace, vetiver, ginger and coriander – but it packs quite a salacious punch.

So on the night I radiated Onda with the subtlety of an erotic dirty bomb and smelt bloody gorgeous. Everyone I greeted wanted to know what I was wearing, leaning in like olfactory vampires to inhale, tempted in several cases to even lick me.

What I’m calling the sensual reek of Onda is something mainstream perfumery has been fleeing from for years. Skin, real skin, flushed and handled, lit with libido and longing, a blush of coition or just the promise of all the above to come. The French have always embraced this reek, the skank beneath the vanillic bouquet. Exploring in classical delicious formulae, the hint of something unsavoury yet intensely moreish lurking under jasmine, roses, iris, lavender and exotic balms. Animalic notes bringing the skin to the edge of disrepute.

Sadly the rise of clean scents, white musks and the weird crossover of detergent and towel notes into mainstream perfumery have caused a massive backlash against reek and skank. The world of ozonic and deadly locker room sport scents have laid waste to the decadent beauties that once sashayed their lascivious wares through international perfumery. The US mainstream market is obsessed with these clean smelling scents and the stickier neon end of the gourmand trade. (Although some fascinating small niche houses like DS & Durga, Slumberhouse and Kerosene are doing innovative and fascinating olfactory things in the US). Far Eastern tastes are generally more floral, the weather and cultural desires dictate a more feminine and accessible approach to scent. Another huge market is Brazil, where it is all about the fruit, in everything, shower gels, home scents, detergents and of course fragrance. The humidity and weather patterns often mean multiple showering, cleansing and therefore Brazilians love love love their fruit. It’s a tough market to break. No coconut, papaya, banana, kiwi, passion fruit, local specialties, it ain’t gonna happen.

I think however a secret yearning for reek and skank explains the ubiquitous rise in the use of Oud (agarwood) by nearly every major player, mainstream or artisan across the global market in recent years. Few have resisted its sweaty allure. Essentially Oud wood is the infected heartwood of Aquilaria or Gyrings trees. A form of mould, it parasitises the heart of its host and the result is both prohibitively expensive and well nigh on irresistible.

There is no denying the underlying armpitty and unwashed corporeal headiness that Oud brings to scent. But it requires quality and the right aromatic partners to reveal its true beauty. I love it with rose and iris, sometimes a dusting of chocolate. L’Artisan Parfumeur's Al Oudh is my favourite, followed closely by Francis Kurkdjian’s original Oud (which just burns out my synapses…), the fabulously foul Musc Koublai Khan by Serge Lutens and then Amber Oud by By Kilian which I am reluctant to like because as a brand they so blatantly signal all the exotic clichés of Oud I have come to hate. But hey ho, the skin likes what it likes.

Like many of us I would imagine, my first real introduction to mainstream Oud was through Tom Ford’s hirsute M7 for YSL in 2007. It was quite a revelation, created by the power pairing of Alberto Morillas and Jacques Cavallier, it really shook up the world and had so many people asking: what is agarwood? The rebooted 2011 version M7 Oud Absolu however is ghastly, a namby pamby pretender to the Burt Reynolds Cosmo Centrefold original. I liked the coldly burnished way M7 vibrated off the skin like varnished cello notes. It was oddly medicinal too, feral in its search for purpose.

The campaign reeked of sex too, shot as a full frontal of French martial arts champion Samuel Le Clubber; the guy was as hairy as hell and had his bits out. Not everywhere mind, some countries (well most actually) panicked and cropped him. The image was composed as an echo of the Yves Saint Laurent’s daring bespectacled nude campaign for Homme, his first men’s fragrance in 1971, taken by Jeanloup Sieff. 

But anyone who has ever worn Kouros by Pierre Bourdon, launched in 1981, will know that YSL is no strangers to skank. Kouros still divides, despite signs of obvious tinkering. The graphic civetty bathroom odour of aldehydes, wormwood, musks and lemon blended so outrageously with carnation, orris, leather and jasmine tipped a fougère into a piss-stained, backroom work of art.

Other great reek and skank perfumes I would mention include Schiaparelli’s gussety Shocking, the original Jicky by Guerlain, Germaine Cellier’s original knife-wielding Bandit and Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, which must have been achingly beautiful before being gutted of its animalic roar and gossipy sexuality. I consider all of these prime examples of fragrances that once allowed us to truly explore the concept of the brothel beneath the skin. We all have a hankering for carnality; only some of us choose to embrace it as the blue hour approaches.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Poetry & Perfume IX- ‘Vita Nova’ by Louise Gluck & ‘The Smell of Weather Turning’ by Gorilla Perfume

Vita Nova

By Louise Gluck

You saved me, you should remember me.

The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the
Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.

When I woke up, I realized I was capable of the same 

I remember sounds like that from my childhood,   
laughter for no cause, simply because the world is 
something like that.

Lugano. Tables under the apple trees.
Deckhands raising and lowering the colored flags.
And by the lake’s edge, a young man throws his hat into 
  the water;
perhaps his sweetheart has accepted him.

sounds or gestures like
a track laid down before the larger themes

and then unused, buried.

Islands in the distance. My mother   
holding out a plate of little cakes—

as far as I remember, changed
in no detail, the moment
vivid, intact, having never been
exposed to light, so that I woke elated, at my age   
hungry for life, utterly confident—

By the tables, patches of new grass, the pale green   
pieced into the dark existing ground.

Surely spring has been returned to me, this time   
not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet   
it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.

It is the final verse of this poem that haunts me.

Vita Nova, (new life) was published in 1999. The eponymous poem, Vita Nova for me, looks at loss and memory. A lover gone. Childhood recollections surfacing as gestures and minutiae unfurl scenes and elemental images in the poet’s fertile, wandering mind. It is a poem that seems fragranced; sun, apple blossom, cakes, grass, tables and the promise of spring, the hint perhaps of rebirth, shift and change.

You saved me, you should remember me.

I find intense melancholia and uncertainty in Gluck’s airy depiction of a European childhood. Echoes of things vanished. It is a painterly scent, depicted in poetic small strokes laid down over a larger more resonant canvas. A little like Impressionism, the details shift, merge and finally coalesce into sharper focus if you step back and allow distance to settle between you and the language.

The Smell of Weather Turning is still the best piece of scented work from Gorilla in my opinion. I know Breath of God is highly regarded and quite rightly so, but The Smell of Weather Turning marked the beginning I think of a beautifully mined set of perfumed beliefs in English pagan and folkloric past. This obsession of Mark and Simon Constantine’s became apparent in the last set of new releases from Gorilla, or Volume 2 as Gorilla like to refer to them. With influences and inspirations as diverse as smugglers, Kerouac, Sikkim, English folklore, jazz, electronic surveillance and ancient barrows, Gorilla produced a startling and highly original selection of deeply wrought formulae. New packaging and a marked difference in olfactory style really set these new releases apart. They have depth and resonance beyond the bottle, that is rare in perfumery. Each scent is wrapped up in an olfactory mythology of its own. They are singular and divisive as all truly interesting things should be. 

I have blogged on The Smell of Weather Turning, it was a scent that really caught me unawares, causing huge emotions and memories to well up and overwhelm me. The scent is made form ingredients only available 5000 years ago: oakwood, beeswax, roman chamomile, English peppermint, nettle, mint and hay. This weird astringent smeared blend transported me back to my African childhood, standing in a dusty yard, watching a column of ants as the sky tilted and the air ran dry. The storm that followed was both utterly terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Debris everywhere, and the most extraordinary smells. Loamy odours of smashed earth and shattered marigolds, drowned acidic insects and steaming soil.

The fragrance has druidic origins and is supposed to represent the scent of a landscape after a thunderstorm, the sudden scudding of clouds across the sky, rain fleeing. The sun appears and everything is warm again, safe.

My reading has always been deeply personal, influenced as we all are by our upbringings and olfactive influences as we grow, love and experience life. In my blog piece I mentioned Hardy’s Tess (one of my favourite novels) and the appallingly calm moment they come for her at Stonehenge in the early morning. This scene would reek of The Smell of Weather Turning hanging in the damp Wessex air as the police and Angel wait for Tess to wake, to take her away to face her terrible inevitable fate.

This strange poignancy is why I thought of it for Vita Nova. At once, green and medicinal, a sharp and inclusive promise of things to come and yet pervasive, forcing memories to rise and fall. A suggestion of spring, but a reminder too that things die and the heart stays forever broken in places. A scent that conjures landscape and elemental forces for a poem about emotions lost amid the delicacy of shattered memory. Both concern the emergence into light from darkness.

A new life. Can we truly ever really do that? Memories haunt and follow us. It is in their nature to do so. But we should embrace this. The Smell of Weather Turning is a profoundly elemental scent, tied to landscape and memory, notes that have purpose and resonance, possess reason. At first glance poem and scent seem worlds apart, but the almost claustrophobic blend of notes, cast across ancient skies and Gluck’s litany of rose-tinted obsessive recollections echo and blur across each other meeting finally in the final skin-shaking lines.