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

Sunday 29 May 2016

Behind a Mask I Will Wait For You: ‘L’Attesa’ by Masque Milano

‘Nous portons tous un masque, c'est bien connu; et vient un moment où nous ne pouvons l'enlever sans nous arracher la peau.’ André Berthiaume

(‘We all wear masks, this goes without saying but there comes a time when we can’t remove the mask with tearing the skin beneath’)

During copious amounts of nocturnal reading in preparation for this piece on Masque Milano’s startling new iris perfume L’Attesa, I came across a description of orris root as Love Drawing Powder. How wondrous is this strange definition of one of perfumery’s most incomparable and sensitive materials. The idea that you lay a subtle olfactive trail of orris dust and the object of your desire will simply come to you, drawn by the beauty and overwhelming puissance of a rhizome. It is in so many ways a perfect metaphor for this new enigmatic portrait of iris by Italian perfumer Luca Maffei.

It is no secret how much I admire the work of Alessandro Brun and Riccardo Tedeschi at Masque Milano. Ever since I bought and reviewed Russian Tea, created for them by the hugely underrated nose Julien Rasquinet, I have had a kind a fever for their flamboyantly butch oeuvre. There is something about certain really handsome Italian men; so secure in their sexual mores that they can push at the boundaries of their gender with fabulous danger and enticing illusion. Romanza, A Victorian Dandy was the exquisitely rendered, narcotic crystallisation of this dynamic. Created in 2015 by Cristiano Canali, author too of the magnificently abstract Soave-splashed Fundamental for Rubini, Romanza, is finally, beautifully appearing now after the guys deciding to wait and put the gorgeous narcissus-stained juice into the new 30ml heavy-base flacons.  

I reviewed Romanza and picked it as one of my top three fragrances of 2015. It is a profoundly erotic work with a pungent narcissus note that swells like jaundiced rage before completely enveloping the senses. It will always divide wearers and this is good. It is the gorgeous androgyne at the stuffy Victorian ball, dressed in a suit of chartreuse silk. Revellers will stumble, mutter and stare, horrified by the barely veiled deviancy. But there will be those who will dance on, whirling, burning with jealousy and desire within the confines of their own time and conventions.

'L'Attesa' by Masque Milano

L’Attesa is a worthy successor to Romanza, an austere, cryptic portrait of iris by Luca Maffei that wowed folk at Esxence in Milan this year. It is getting excellent reviews from bloggers and perfume lovers. I’ve taken my time with it.. you need to. It is a strange and complex perfume that solicits your attention and then seems to push you away, denying you access to its secrets. Luca Maffei can do no wrong just now, Masque Milano have launched L’Attesa just as Luca garnered another Golden Pear in the Independent category at the 2016 Art & Olfaction awards for Néa, one part of the Les White triptych by Jul et Mad. (He also composed Garuda in the same trio; Nin-Shar was made by Sidonie Lancesseur). I think Maisïa, the charred fig scent he made recently for his frequent collaborator Gabriella Chieffo is an incredible composition, a weird mix of seared concrete, ash, green fig and sweet sad air. His Houbigant Cologne Intense has been lavishly praised too as an expert interpretation of the cologne style scent, his handling of the citrus elements seemed refreshingly realistic and drenched in liquid sunshine.

Alessandro and Riccardo have already worked with a succulent menu of perfumers as they assemble their opera of desire, using these gifted olfactive composers to create scenes of fascinating mise-en-scènes. Cécile Zarokian, Meo Fuscini, Julien Rasquinet, Cristiano Canali and Delphine Thierry have already laid down graceful and complex work for Masque Milano and now Luca lays down his concealed and graceful iris on a stage in near darkness while we marvel at its beauty.

I have a passion for iris scents; their buried silver beauty and rooty powder tug at me always. Despite the huge number of fragrance launches each year, the actual number of truly innovative or beautiful iris/orris perfumes is very small. I am usually underwhelmed and bored by the offerings or I admire the technical detailing, perhaps a decorative flourish and pass on by. Iris is hard to use, but it needs imagination and skill, an understanding of how the various irones, aldehydes and superlative concretes dose and calibrate in compositions. I could wear iris perfumes form morn till night, from birth till death and beyond, never tiring of the insect wing chill and chalky glissando. There is something otherworldly in the delicate settling of iris-scented structures. They have a bruised, haunted aspect that appeals to my increasingly macabre nature, as my mind plays in rooms long abandoned to dust and illness.

I have five beloved repeatedly worn iris fragrances. I’m not going to say they are the best ever… but they are my best. Cuir de Nacre is Bertrand Duchaufour’s ambrette-flickered iris for Parisian jeweller Ann Gérard who over the years has specialised in work with lustrous reflective intent, mother of pearl, opals and moonstone. The beauty of Cuir de Nacre as the name suggests is the nacreous cocoon of white suede that beds the iris. I would argue that Bertrand’s quartet for Ann, especially Rose Cut, Cuir de Nacre and Perle de Mousse, his delicate moist lily of the valley are among his finest work. The quality and feel of the work is beautiful.

I fell badly for Ralf Schweiger’s Iris Nazerena he composed for Aedes Perfumery; it has a powerful sensation of aching, period velvet bordello grey, worn down by endless waiting skin. It is plush, smells of loss and sadness and is a work of great olfactive art.

David Moltz of D.S.& Durga created a mesmerising peach-stained glassy iris scent for his spin off line HYLNDS called Foxglove. I chose it as my scent of the year in 2014; it just moved me immeasurably, inspired as it was by the concept of a single foxglove flower growing in vigil on the grave of Irish warrior poet Oisìn. The mixing of wild carrot, peach skin and a quixotic Champaca over David’s mournful iris make it a scent I find myself all too easily obsessed with.

The fourth one is a recent addition to my collection, iri_del by Nomenclature, an exhilarating assembly of synthetic exploration by perfumers Patricia Choux of Takasago and Frank Voelkl of Firmenich. The brainchild of Aedes Boutique co-founder Karl Bradl and designer Carlos Quintana, Nomenclature showcases the cyborg brilliance of certain key synthetic molecules, including Paradisone, Helvetolide, Orbitone and iris aldehyde. The beautiful handiwork of Patricia Choux, I described in a recent essay on the quartet:

.. ‘The showcase iris aldehyde imparts an oddly damp shiver of cucumber or bitter gourd under its initial generosity of vegetal welcome. This is counterbalanced by some of the waxier, fattier elements the material exudes as it sinks through the bright bergamot and sublime rooty, fine-spun ambrette.’

Sitting in my study this evening, surrounded by my collection I rediscovered an iris scent I had forgotten, Moulin Rouge by Histoires de Parfums, Gérald Ghislain’s stylish array of evocative richesse. The sumptuous heart of iris in Moulin Rouge is the slutty, silvered drag of midnight fur, fattened with cinnamon and sugared plum to suggest the blooded lipstick of the night’s glamourous denizens pouring out of an evening’s extravaganza. I had forgotten how sexual the iris is in Moulin Rouge, how suggestive and carnal, roaring into the darkness, drunk on musks and cavernous patchouli.

All of these portraits have chromatic reflections and nuances; it is something I find particularly resonant in iris scents.  Iris Nazerena is a poignant oyster pink of faded velvets and brocade. iri_del a more chilled, vestal white, with an aura of bruise-blue. Cuir de Nacre is dove grey, a bolt of habit cloth laid on marble. The ethereal Foxglove is a blush of aurous peach on verdant white and Moulin Rouge so lascivious, the iris burgundy plush and brazen with fatty violaceous smear.  

Penelope Tree lensed
by Richard Avedon
at Truman Capote's Black & White Ball

Luca’s L’Attesa for Masque Milano is none of these things, despite its urgent champagne overture, for me this is an austere monochrome iris, a black and white Avedon portrait of a 60’s ingénue caught in masked flashlight glare. The tonal contrast is not one of starkness or brutal difference between light and shade, but one of veiled grain and wash. It is the first time I have really experienced an iris like this, normally I inhale the composition and play the chords and facets and sense glimmers of aromatic colour, but L’Attesa is very different, achromatic and mysteriously withheld. There is an unsettling dissonance between Luca’s iris triptych and the more carnal aspirations of his Madagascan ylang and stealthy tuberose. But all of these things make for a mesmerising experience.

Iris Pallida

There are three facets of iris used in L’Attesa, an Italian iris absolute, Italian iris root butter and French iris root butter, each of these particular materials have a slightly different personality, adding intricacy and gradation to the already rather elusive effects resting under that buzzy, yeasty champagne top. 

Iris Germanica
The French, Grasse-grown iris smells more fruity with a glowing chocolate mouth-feel tonality to it, noticeably more malleable and gourmand in tone, whereas the Italian (Pallida) iris is drier, greener, cooler somehow, chalky and distant.

the precious iris rhizome.. 

It is the rhizome or root of the iris that is used in perfumery; it is such a precious trembling commodity in the business and so damn expensive to use. The best is acknowledged as Iris Pallida from Italy. I think the Iris Germanica from Morocco is sublime too, diaphanous and steely at the same time, the powder that of ground stars. The roots of the iris are harvested traditionally between the months of July and September, approximately one ton of dried rhizomes will eventually produce four and half pounds of orris butter. The fresh roots are peeled to speed up the promotion of oxygenation, vital to the production of irones, a liquid ketone responsible for the valuable iris aroma. A period of four years is the ideal for hanging or maturation of the rhizomes.

A distillation stage of the dried root produces a pure oil that solidifies at room temperature; this is orris concrete or orris butter as it sometimes known due to the pale creamy yellow colour it can have. The solidifying of the material is due to the high (85%) content of myristic acid in the mix. The process from harvest, through drying of the rhizome to orris butter and iris absolute is both labour intensive and costly; patience, skill and commitment to this utterly remarkable raw material are required in order to achieve an end product of silken, sensual drama.

The perfume guys...(l-r) Riccardo, Luca & Alessandro 

The triumvirate of Alessandro, Riccardo and Luca could so easily have gone down a relatively conventional, albeit lovely dusted road, the iris note sueded and cool, powdered motes of louche playfulness caught in sunlight like summer pollen. It could have smelled of silver fur and cold pearls on warm aristocratic skin like Bertrand Duchaufour’s misunderstood but skeletal sexy Mon Numéro 8 for L’Artisan Parfumeur, his sublime homage to ghosts of Chanel past. But thankfully for us they did not. They went austere and formal, an iris masked, presenting itself with solemn sensuality and a sense of freedom that somehow you will be the talk of your senses for weeks to come.

Now, as soon as I inhaled L’Attesa off the tattoos on the inside of my arm I had a very clear image in my mind, of a particular person captured arrestingly in a particular extraordinary moment of social history. I have no definitive answer to the very strong associations I made between perfume and moment, but now I cannot shake it.

Kay Graham & Truman Capote
arriving at the Plaza Hotel

On the evening on November 28th 1966, anyone who was anyone in American high society was making their to the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in New York City for Truman Copote’s feverishly anticipated Black and White Ball held in honour of Katherine (Kay) Graham, the then Editor of the Washington Post, who had bravely and somewhat reluctantly assumed the position after the suicide of her husband Philip in 1963.

 Penelope Tree arriving at the 
Black & White  Ball in 1966.

An image taken by Richard Avedon of a young sixteen-year-old ingénue called Penelope Tree arriving at the party in a slashed black tunic dress and baleful mask caused a sensation. With her strange half-open mouth and penetrating eyes staring out of her mask, long hair and exquisite bangs she brought a sense of elfin malevolence and modernity to the gathering. Despite her parents’ vociferous objections (they really didn’t want her to be a model..), she was the talk of the press and fashion world after the ball. Avedon’s image is partly surreal and partly reportage, Penelope enters the melée almost prepared for war, her mask, and protection against what is to come. A cat-masked man to her right seems louche and controlled, gazing out at us whilst at the back a woman in a oddly macabre white rabbit mask is caught mid-conversation in Avedon’s headlight.

The invite read:

“In honor of Mrs. Katherine Graham / Mr Truman Capote / requests the pleasure of your company / at a Black and White Dance / on Monday, the twenty-eighth of November / at ten o’clock / Grand Ballroom, The Plaza / DRESS Gentlemen: Black Tie; Black mask. Ladies: Black or White dress; White mask; fan. R.S.V.P Miss Elizabeth David, 465 Park Avenue, New York.”

Capote was on a high, Cold Blood, his magnum opus non-fiction masterpiece has been published earlier that year to huge critical acclaim. His chilling, minutiae soaked account of the slaying of the Clutter family in rural Kansas by Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock had taken him five painstaking years and to the hinterlands of his often fragile mind to complete. Fascinated, some say a little too much by Perry Smith, Capote’s reconstruction of the crime, aftermath, trials and his friendship with Alvin Dewey, the chief prosecutor of the killings was lauded as a huge innovation in true crime fiction. It was in many ways a vindication for years of people wondering if Truman Capote would be anything any other than another waspish precocious antebellum prodigy. But In Cold Blood had taken quite a toll on Truman Capote, more than anyone realised.  He would never write anything as good again and would destroy himself and his enormous talent in a maelstrom of bitterness, self-loathing, booze and biting of hands that feed.

The Invite

However in 1966 he was the acerbic, puckish talk of the town, gleefully planning his ball in a series of black and white notebooks with the intensity of a novelist preparing to knuckle down and write the next big thing. Truman being Truman could not resist the teasing of who might be on the list as it were, he enjoyed those kinds of games. In the end his guest list exceeded its 480 to about 540 and was a mixture of people that Truman felt needed to be assembled in that place at that particular time. Yes, the room glittered with the beautiful and the damned, but also his Kansas associates from the Clutter investigation, PA’s, extended members of his lover’s family, writers, artists and of course the gilded rich of society’s elite.

Sergeant Shriver & Eunice Kennedy

He saw himself as a sort of wicked puppeteer, orchestrating and tugging at silken strings.  Lauren Bacall, Jerome Robbins, Sinatra, Mia Farrow, Princess Radziwill, Oscar de la Renta, Jacqueline de Ribes, the Agnellis, Sergeant and Eunice Shriver, Candice Bergen, Gloria Guinness, and Tallulah Bankhead are just a handful of the people that graced the Plaza Ballroom that night.   

Candice Bergen with her
Halston designed rabbit mask

Truman’s insistence on a monochrome theme was partly inspired by Cecil Beaton’s dazzling Ascot scene from My Fair Lady and partly because the colour coding was a leveller, allowing a sense of consistency across an eclectic guest list. And while attendees might try and outdo one another sartorially, it would all become one in the overall black and white thematics of the throng. 

Princess Luciana Pignatelli (L) wearing a Harry Winston
diamond on her forehead instead of a mask

The masks would come off at midnight, but until then, they introduced a sort of social frisson, a perturbing barrier, the essence of classical anonymous masquerade. The room would be mostly full of the rich, famous and notorious but the masks at least for a while permitted an illusion of safety, remove and abandonment. A fleeting fantasy that all were one monochrome existence.

Avedon’s image of Penelope Tree and other images of her at the ball show her to be a strangely avant-garde creature, correctly attired in the dress code, yet somehow alien, a precursor to the wide-eyed moon faced 70’s waif. Capote’s extravagant ball was also the truly last great gasp of society’s gilded closed-door age, social barriers were beginning to crumble and new money, pop stars, industry, political savvy were all mingling with the society’s long cherished blue bloodline. 

Frank Sinatra & Mia Farrow

The symbolism of Penelope Tree’s hypnotic entrance to the Black and White Ball is undeniable; Truman himself seemed unable to resist biting the gilded hands that had fed and caressed his coruscating ego for so long. By inviting symbols of the future and colliding them with the old guard may have seemed like fun in his devious notebooks, but in the cold light of day it was the mischievous denizens of 70’s pop art, music and cinema that would hold sway and the traditional structures of old style mannered society soaked in etiquette and brutal rules of birth right would begin to fade. His later unfinished book Unanswered Prayers, with it’s barely veiled (and often unflattering) portraits of many of his society friends, secret spilling and roman-clef tactics destroyed him and many of his former friends and supporters felt betrayed and abandoned him.

The Fox, masked,
party end, 2010

L’Attesa is this odd, singular party guest, a monochromatic iris, arrestingly captured at a Masque of melancholy quiescence. The utter aridity of the Italian iris is extraordinary, intensifying as the perfume beds down onto skin. The more gourmand facets of the French orris are sublime, performing like a halo, with the cold, white luminescence of LED lighting.  One of the main taking points surrounding the launch of L’Attesa was Luca Maffei’s use of a champagne effect in the top of the composition, something that really shocks as the scents overtures from the bottle. It is one thing reading about and imagining how it might smell, but actually experiencing it is something else altogther. Perfumers often use witty aldehydes or generous bursts of pink pepper and cabreuva to suggest sparkle but Luca has used a stunningly weird Beer CO2 material (botanical name: Humulus lupulus) from Charabot. According to Luca it is a supercritical extraction from certain hops and fermented cereals. I asked him why he chose to use this and he said:

‘..the Italian orris absolute has a very intense top note due to the high percentage of irones it contains. I was delighted by the idea of using the Beer CO2 to reinforce the powdery note and give the bitter powder note of the yeast to open the door the orris in the fragrance.’

Throughout the developmental process of L’Attesa Luca, Alessandro and Riccardo discussed the importance of a real champagne opening, a yeasty, fermented facet as opposed to a lip service special effect. In this Luca has more than succeeded. As you apply the scent, it’s like someone has smashed a bottle of ebullient fizz at your feet as you enter a ballroom and the air is debauched with enzymes and spume. The Charabot Beer CO2 will have a naturally aldehydic glitter anyway from the hoppy, bitter blondness lending the perfume the throaty laughter of bubbles a champagne scent should rightly have. The juxtaposition of this odd addictive yeastiness and the couture sophistication of the irises are at once veiled and playful.

Shattered grand cru....

The three iris notes are illuminated by the force and bravado of this beery/yeasty opening. But it succeeds beautifully. The base notes of Mysore sandalwood, oakmoss and the whispered leather accord are ghostly, the ylang and tuberose hold their own, jarring a little, purposefully and a little arrogantly, their petals and waxen beauty refusing to bend under the monochrome powder of so much iris. Luca Maffei has an innate understanding of how to blend and counterpoise materials; each composition he creates has a sense of something immediate that you feel your skin desires. By using arguably traditional perfumery tropes, paying homage to grand florals, spices and resins Luca twists an eloquent spirit of aromatic sexuality into works of undeniable classic reference and modernistic yearning.

It is hard I think to make an iris perfume this aloof and enigmatic. They usually have a certain boudoir charm, a lipsticky glory, memories of fur and night. Others have rooty gourmand oddness, whiffs of ganache and grass. L’Attesa is about abeyance, distraction, waiting behind a veil of this most unusual construct of iris for the external world to somehow touch you. A party may be gathering momentum around you, voices and skin colliding, conversing; but you are poised on a cusp of awareness. Like most of Masque Milano perfumes L’Attesa has a sense of the narcotic and dangerous, it is something that Alessandro and Riccardo seem to filter through their operatic line.  It is the stillness of L’Attesa that makes it so beguiling, an eye of the storm beauty as chaos rages at its environmental edges. Behind the mask, something rarefied and perceptive awaits.

Each new launch from Masque Milano as they inscribe their interlocking acts and scenes lays down deepening layers of intensity and sensuality. Among them, Montecristo, Delphine Thierry’s smoky porno hum of ambered hyraceum and Cécile Zarokian’s essay of molten tonka rose and resinous mucky spice Tango is unbearably good. I adore Julien Rasquinet’s atmospheric Dr Zhivago-esque minted raspberry Russian Tea scent; my senses thrill to its snow, steam and shadows. Meo Fuscini’s Luci ed Ombre is a quieter more contemplative work, no less striking for its calm powerful white floral stance and hazy leaded skies. And Romanza, by quiet man, Cristiano Canali, the swooning drug of bittersweet narcissus, lush and violently beautiful, so shockingly sensual on skin as to stop time itself.

L’Attesa now joins this provocative gathering of perfumed moments and moods, but feels in some ways like an outsider, its true nature and intentions disguised or concealed. It is not the easiest perfume in the Masque Milano repertoire, but I am in love with its dignified and seemingly distant persona only just hidden behind that astonishing mask of multiple monochrome irises and once the bready sparkle of champagne moistens the air the wait is over.

For more information on Masque Milano, please follow the link below:

TheSilverFox 29 May 2016

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