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

Thursday 18 December 2014

Simmered Astonishment - 'Ragù' by Gabriella Chieffo

I got home recently after a long and stressful day at work to a quiet chilled apartment and two chatty cats. There was also an envelope from Italy, with the telltale bulk of fragrance samples from a brand I had never heard of called Maison Gabriella Chieffo. (I realised after this had been arranged by my friend Michelyn..). I have been really impressed with fragrances I have tried coming out of Italy recently – the exquisite chemical stylings of Nu_be, Antonio Gardoni’s tenebrous Bogue scents, Blood Concept’s sexy medical minimalism, Masque Milano’s operatic storytelling, Hilde Solini’s witty obsession with Italian sweetness and now these four haunting perfumes from Gabriella.

Collection 14 is a quartet of incredibly detailed and personal fragrances, intimately linked to Gabriella herself, her memories, emotions, impressions and spirituality. Ragù, Lye, Camaheu and Hystera are all quite different from one each but also linked by a compulsive signature that verges on addiction. It smells vanillic, rice-like and resin-sweet. Utterly beguiling. It flows through all four offerings in varying strengths and binds with its subtle epidermal familiarity.

(A few weeks later….)

I am returning to this piece after being unable to resist the epicurean allure of Ragù and added a bottle of it to my collection. It is one of the most intriguing aromas I own. I guess if I had to call it something, it is a savoury gourmand, a scent with salted, herbaceous edges, a perfume that conjures up gustatory delights, a table laden with familiar victuals amid the gathering of laughter and family.

Gabriella’s Collection ‘14 is oddly familiar and yet incredibly strange, the scentscapes scoured and alien with flickering glimmers of memory and recall. Everything about the Chieffo brand is whiteness incarnate; it is Gabriella’s fetish tone, one of delicacy, angelic wing, snow and virtue. White is also the colour of shrouds, bone and ash. These two opposing impressions collide and shatter in a collection of resounding emotional force. There is tenderness and violence is the rendition of memory in this fascinating quartet.

Each of the fragrances: Camaheu, Lye, Ragù and the unsettling Hystera are connected to Gabriella and her emotional memories. One of the things I like about this these passionate scents is their implied femininity. Gender is not something I really pay heed to, but occasionally certain collections are imbued with powerful sexuality and persuasions as to be strikingly different. It is quite hard to avoid Gabriella Chieffo’s powerful blend of matriarchal lineage, motherhood, childbirth, kitchen, gender and nurturing creativity.

 Gabriella Chieffo

Gabriella has placed the focus of her collection firmly on herself in many ways; it is obvious from the passionately extolled text that accompanies the brand that she has spent some careful time nurturing dreams, concepts, loves, failures, pain and olfactory minutiae leading her to a point where she felt ready to mould ideas into a collection of perfumed shards and personal sculpture. It feels as if we are sharing Gabriella’s private thoughts, leafing through bleached out pages of notes left scattered across the floor in an abandoned therapist’s office.

This kind of intimacy and divulging of biography could have gone awry. I have sampled other brands over the years where a deeply personal vision was expounded and mistakenly explored through mediocre perfumery. The difference with Gabriella is the devout attendance on detail and awareness of her materials; how they can be used to reflect, augment and obfuscate her emotional experiences.

Each time I wear one of these very particular aromas; I am struck by how connected Gabriella is to her work, the artistry and flair on show for such a small debut is impressive. The fragrances are personified by elaborately staged portraits of Gabriella herself, posing in a series of Cindy Sherman-esque tableaux, surrounded by the iconography of each perfume.

In Ragù, she channels a braided Monica Bellucci, a provocative kitchen wench dreaming of elsewhere, preparing food, eyes gazing off into past or future. Behind her, tethered owls and winged monkeys cavort and tell of dreams and madness. 

Camaheu is an essay in overflowing whiteness, flowers, lace, weddings, communion, and shroud. A bare shoulder hints at a more wanton nature amid the cornucopia of blondness and offered blooms. In her hand she tenderly holds one giant rose like a beautiful weapon. 

Hystera is protection, Gabriella wrapped in a womb of glassy shelter, blurred nudity against blown-up veins of eyes, trees or rivers. She could be airborne or floating, either way, the image references her own teenage pregnancy and the trauma she endured giving birth at such a young age. 

Lye is the oddest image, Gabriella as strega biancha, the white witch, winnowing ashes on a deserted beach. She is clothed in tones of bone and bride, hair torn by the wind, billowing around white wings. This image is ritual and spell, goodbye and remembrance.

A number of these images: roses, wings, monkey, owl, amniotic sac and proffered dust are repeated like motifs across the PR material and website, almost like symbols of some personal mythology. In the booklet that accompanies the scents, Gabriella describes (in odd and convoluted wording to be honest..) how by wearing her scents you enter her ‘inner worlds’….and ‘not only breathe through the fragrances, but also through dreams, shapes, memories, words…’. A little outré perhaps but it is heartfelt and reflected in the rapturous way she has assembled her fragrances.

I cannot get over how weird Ragù is, a scent inspired by the eight hour simmering of the classic Neapolitan ragu pasta sauce. Gabriella has captured what she refers to as ..‘A gentle sweetness that tastes of home. A family perfume’.

Odours of home, hearth and return are very powerful. We all harbour smells we recognise as markers of childhood and growth. The kitchen is a crucible of olfaction, odours mingling, crashing and pressing in on our evolving senses. We never lose these formative foodie impressions; in so many cultures (sadly, not so much our own these days..), the preparation of food en famille, sharing knowledge, techniques and love is almost ritualised. I make certain dishes without even thinking about them, so engrained is my mother’s teaching in me. When I make a slow-cooked goulash with smoked paprika and green peppers, the scent of peppery beef and simmering tomatoes always throws me back to my childhood in Africa and this dish served with nutty basmati rice and soured cream.

We need these epicurean references to anchor us; even simple things like beans on toast with melted butter, marmite, freshly made crèpes, bubbling cumin-drenched daal; the pervasive bouquets of memory food can raise shockingly real rooms, people and memories. Even humble Heinz tomato soup can be a visceral olfactive trigger; it is a smell I have never forgotten from cash-strapped student days. When I smell it, I can taste the Jacobs cream crackers I would crumble in as I ploughed through reams of French translation work.

Ragù is the scent of a carefree weekend, a Sunday of women: sisters, mothers, daughters preparing a sauce of elegance and power. Tomatoes, basil, garlic, oregano, thyme. Floured hands rolling perfect small balls of meat to be dropped into pots of bubbling crimson sauce. The secret of the sauce is in the longevity of the cooking, drawn out over soft simmering hours. Tomatoes caramelising, their sugars oozing out into the thickening pulpy mix of aromatic herbs and piquant pepper. The house slowly fills with the aromas of their endeavours, chased through the air by voices and bursts of bawdy mirth. These are the smells that call the soul home.

The fragrance is beautifully rendered, a portrait of that hypnotic Sunday ambience, the diffusive slow-cooked fumes that radiate in mind and home. It opens on a dry, dazzling burst of spicy pink pepper and orange that segues into the complex and important heart of the recipe; a crumbled mix of sweet black pepper, nutmeg, elemi, cloves, saffron and cardamom. Despite the obvious spicy overtone to this section, the blending creates a very odd sensation on the nose of dried rubbed oregano, simmering amid the garlic and sweet tomatoes of the ragu sauce. I personally love the heady aromas of dried herbs – mint, dill, oregano, basil, thyme etc – they take on quite a different character to their more blatant fresh incarnations. There is a touch of woody darkness to desiccated herbs that appeals to me and it's this I can smell in the herbaceous aura of Ragù. The base is loaded with cypriol, woods, patchouli and the wonder of Cashmeran, a disturbing softener of edges, bringer of shimmering translucency.

Ragù smells of cuisine and it doesn’t. It has enough olfactive triggers to provoke our memories to search for reference points. An extraordinary collision of mama, food and odour, exploring the pervasive linger of generational food preparation. The olfactive sleight of hand is admirable; the skin smells just edible enough without the scent becoming a crude parody of itself. There is great delicacy at work here, the notes combined with the finesse and finish of a recipe that has been handed down and made by a hundred hands on a hundred stoves.

It is without a doubt one of the most eccentric and arresting fragrances I have tried in years and I had to have a bottle for my collection. The square cut bottle is just lovely, topped off with a textured stone cap. The other three fragrances are just as fascinating; it was just that Ragù grabbed me and didn’t let go.

Hystera is a massive experience. The vanilla/labdanum pairing in the base is overwhelming, staining skin for hours. This enormous opaque womb of powdered, sweet protection veils the senses in heady drama. Hysteria is a complex and fraught word, weighted with etymological reference from hysterikos, Greek for of the womb. It is always been a slightly pejorative word, applied to women who can’t control their emotions. Symptoms of hysteria at one time were linked to the fluctuations of the menstrual cycle and irrational fear of feminine sexuality.

Gabriella has re-claimed this challenging word to represent her own perfumed experience of motherhood at an early age, when she struggled to reconcile the dichotomy of love and pain that childbirth brought about. Hystera is a whisper to a rising scream of aromatic oddness; sleepy sage and bergamot notes are bedded down in a distinctly off-tone iris, the colour of bandage. Then that crescendo of vanilla, powered by ghostly patchouli and the plasticised force of labdanum. It is a claustrophobic scent but also irrevocably beautiful, the vanilla ebbing and flowing like moody tides. In the image for Hystera, Gabriella is curled, foetus-like and naked in a fluttering amniotic bag, seemingly protected from the outside world, perhaps using scent as talisman. But the veil seems fragile and if it tears, the world will blind and burn. I loved the power of Hystera on my skin; it smelled magnificent as time amplified its expansive vanillic canvas.        

Camaheu was my least favourite, only because it was the scent my skin puzzled over and rejected. On paper, the concept of scent as cameo carving, layers revealing themselves as notes evolved was rather lovely, if a tad laboured, linked as it was to the concept of puberty, adolescence and the emergence and formation of our personas. Again, Gabriella trails powder though Camaheu’s floral, jasmine, rosy backdrop, mixing this with a harder, more bracing top of grapefruit and damp ivy. I can’t really smell the amber in the base; this seems lost amid the musky swirl of dust and petals as the scent fades. I may have to re-visit this odd scent, it’s not that’s its bad at all and Gabriella’s trademark whiteness is rather lovely in the mid-floral section as the rose, for a moment reveals achromatic petals to the sun.

Lye is the fourth part of the quartet and in many ways the oddest scent in the collection. I returned to this one over and over, puzzled by the ashen drift of Gabriella’s formula. Actual lye is Sodium Hydroxide, a compound obtained by leaching wood ash. Now produced on an industrial scale for use in curing, soap and cleaning products, lye was originally obtained in a much more labour intensive aromatic way. Ashes from household fires were chilled and packed down into barrels with holes drilled into the bottom. The ashes sat on a bed of stones and hay to allow slow drainage. Water was poured over the top of the ashes and allowed to soak for at least three to four days. The resulting fluid would be caustic and concentrated, a brutal alkali used for centuries to bind, clean, bleach, strip and dissolve.

In the Bible, book of Genesis (3:19b) it says, "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." The graveside committal of ashes to ashes, dust to dust is freely adapted from this and echoes throughout this delicate, albino scent. It is a scent of whiteness, purity and luminous haze. Just as lye was used to bleach, there is a sense in this arrangement of cold linen and starched cotton, fresh from sky-billowing. Bergamot and a peculiar milky lemon note light up the top of the scent, slipping into a delicious touch of iris which in many ways resembles the image of Gabriella in the Lye image, letting ashes slip through her lovely hands. The iris is that ephemeral, dusted across the composition like memory. The trademark vanillic opacity lies in the base with a nicely rounded and amandine smelling oppoponax note; mixed with a supple rub of what smells like chalked gloves makes Lye a very strange olfactory experience. It doesn’t quite hang together as an actual scent to be honest; I didn’t like the airiness of the ingredients over the aridity of a rather indistinct incense facet. But these are minor cavils, Lye still smells unique and each time I sample it, I interpret different things, so perhaps it’s just a question of time. I wore it a couple of days ago and really noticed the sense of washed out skies and hazy calm as the cold smoke flattered and seduced the drifting iris. So we will see.

So, Gabriella Cheiffo from Lecce in southern Italy, with Collection ’14, you have managed to completely surprise me with four very singular and beautiful perfumes. It is rare for me to be interested by the entirety of a collection, but with a few reservations, this quartet seduced me. Ragù has spirit and emotion, style and above all: heart. I cannot wear it without imagining a thousand homes, walls damp with steam, knives flecked green with basil and garlic, scattered tomato pulp on work surfaces as sauces simmer, bubble and reduce across the world. Everyone has their own ragu sauce recipe I guess, little tweaks here and there, secret additions passed on down from mom, but the secret is in the preparation, the sharing, the savouring of accumulated knowledge and tradition. Ragù is just extraordinary scent making, from a woman who has given herself over, body, soul and biography to the creation of emotional olfaction.

For more information on Gabriella Chieffo, please click on the link below:

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