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

Friday 15 July 2016

Exquisite Ceremony: ‘Geisha Noire’ & ‘Geisha Vanilla Hinoki’ by Aroma M Perfume

‘He had never looked forward to the wisdom and other vaunted benefits of old age. Would he be able to die young — and if possible free of all pain? A graceful death — as a richly patterned kimono, thrown carelessly across a polished table, slides unobtrusively down into the darkness of the floor beneath. A death marked by elegance.’

From Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

This piece must begin with a story of a gift and the kindness that accompanied it. In the weeks running up to the gluttonous excess of Esxence in March this year a certain cookie-obsessed Viennese resident asked if she could perhaps look out for a couple of brands on my behalf as she was Milan-bound with friends Dr Fox and creatrix extraordinaire Vero Kern. A very generous offer from Val the Cookie Queen, as many of you know her, a remarkable woman, passionate, forthright and loyal. I say this, as I have no real desire to attend these events and I know how much Val dislikes them, so her offer was not only incredibly kind but also selfless. Val’s awareness of scent is quite forceful, she understands the way it works, turns, convolutes and bullshits but she has beautiful taste in scent. She wears Vero Profumo perfumes mostly, in fact almost exclusively; she and they and Vero have symbiosis.

Foxy's beloved copy of Mishima's
'The Sea of Fertility'

So with Val’s offer in mind, I perused the list of attendees and chose only a handful of brands, some old friends, Mona di Orio, Masque Milano and One of Those (as Nu_be are now calling themselves) and a couple of brands I hadn’t tried before whose wares intrigued me, including UNUM and Homoelgans.
A fortnight later a buff-coloured box arrived from Val with a faint aroma of seared smoky, lavender and caramel, this from a tiny leak of Vero’s beautiful Kiki, her implicit feral echo of Mugler’s Angel, burned, ravaged and laid to rest in the skank of over-ripe passion fruit. I had samples of UNUM’s Ennui Noir and Symphonie-Passion, Curium [Cm 96] by One of Those, Quality of Flesh and Tadzio by Homoelgans, L’Attesa by Masque Milano, the Kiki and an atomiser of Geisha Noire by Aroma M….

Cookie Queen's Box of Olfactory Delights

Now Val had asked me if I had tried Geisha Noire and I said no. If she loved it and she did, it had to be worth trying. The generous decant she sent was the first thing in the box I tried. I was going to bed, exhausted and in the darkness of my hall it filled my senses with Maria McElroy’s sybaritic melange of black amber, sandalwood, tonka bean and vanilla. It seemed to get darker still around me, the air swirled with texture, words and immense savage calm.. I was utterly, bewilderingly hooked.

I knew I’d like Maria McElroy as soon we made contact in the electronic ether, she in Brooklyn, me in Edinburgh, linked by olfactory loves and a passion for all things Japanese. Maria studied to be a painter, obtaining an MFA in Painting at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1986 and then immersed her spirit and senses in the world of aromatherapy in Australia at the Queensland Institute of Aromatherapy. Like lacquer, another layer was added, honed and polished by an impulsive seven year sojourn in Japan with just bravado, intent and a burning desire to learn. Despite not speaking the language, Maria set about learning and experiencing what she could about some of the most revered and complex of the Japanese traditional arts such as Kōdō (the way of incense), Ikebana (the art of stylised floral arranging), Koto (Japanese harp), Shiatsu massage and Zen Buddhism. Now many of these things take a lifetime to master; it takes thirty years to become a true Kōdō master and many purists will argue that westerners will never truly comprehend what are essentially ancient Japanese arts handed down through generations of knowledge with subtle, coded training. But even small doses of exposure can have a huge impact on the western artistic psyche.

I am usually a little suspicious of creative polymaths, particularly in the world of perfumery, where people often feel because they excel in other art forms or even choose to dabble in a multitude of artistic platforms they feel that somehow perfume is suddenly worthy of their attention and they are amazing at it. I find this is rarely the case; talent like meagre nouvelle cuisine spread far too thin on vast white expanses is tedious beyond belief. A general concentration on effect, dazzle, flacon, high-end concept to the detriment of skin-hugging, sense-fucking fumes leads to Emperors in New Perfumes. Few people have the imagination, lack of ego and more importantly control of their various media to produce coherent work.  

Maria McElroy of Aroma M Perfumes

Maria McElroy is very different. Her strong grounding in aromatherapy, fuelled by her love of chromatics from her Fine Art training, her deeply personal Japanese experience mixed with her half Greek, half Irish bloodlines you have quite the formidable and resplendent talent. That she has applied all of these aspects joyfully and modestly to her acclaimed and much loved line of perfumes, oils and skincare is testament I feel to her genuine skill and love of crafting materials and watching them coalesce into ideas that represent a summation of her journey.

Evening. Solstice.

After a languid steam-blurred shower trying to lose my tired mind and frame in the bitter aromatic waters swirling away I stood in my mellow hall, cats wandering like restless children, wondering which Geisha to assume. Writing on scent means wearing them, I mean really wearing them, inhabiting them like a second skin. I profile, wander, make notes, anoint inside elbows, wrists, throat, shoulders, and hair. I wear over and over until I am satisfied I understand how the fragrance works and feels for me. Applying Geisha Noire and Geisha Vanilla Hinoki these past turbulent weeks has been like deciding which heirloom kimono to unfold out on a cinnabar urishi lacquer chest to peruse in roseate light. All is texture, weave, sensuality and mood.

Maria started Aroma M primarily to satisfy a longing to create beautiful things, a simple enough aspiration, but oddly quite hard to sustain with any true sense of innovation and conviction. But for Maria it has come naturally together, her love of colour, an eye for detail, a sense of calm beauty, understanding the serenity and importance of Eastern maquillage and most importantly the rituals of our days – clothing, skin, cleansing, hair and the anointing of skin with oils and perfume.

Foxy's bottles of Geisha Noire &
Geisha Vanilla Hinoki
by Aroma M Perfume

The Geisha range of perfumes reflect Maria’s preoccupation with these iconic women, who to the western eye even now seem strange, alien and somewhat out of time. Yet in Japan their presence radiates a powerful if conflicted symbolism of womanhood and female sexuality. Courtesan, entertainer and companion, the iconic white faces of traditional Geishas etched with blood red lips and crowned in ink black Shimada chignon hairstyles are still potent, erotic and often misunderstood motifs of Japan’s complex relationship to its cultural past. I was obsessed with this world for years during my years working at the National Museums of Scotland with the Far Eastern Collections. They have a very fine collection of Chinese, Korean and Japanese fine art, including fine kimono silks and a unique collection of Ainu artefacts from Hokkaido in Northern Japan, part of a larger collection of over 2000 objects bequeathed by Neil Gordon Munro (1863-1942), a Scottish doctor and anthropologist, resident in Japan for fifty years and one of the first westerners to study the indigenous Ainu ‘Bear Cult’ people in the northerly Japanese outlands of Hokkaido.

Detail from contemporary working
of fan & kimono - ECA 2016

 It was a job I loved even though I was never made to feel wholly welcome or permanent; these institutions protect their own. But while I was there I spent all the time I could just looking at things, handing objects, learning, feeling, sniffing, watching others and of course listening. Jades, temple and ornamental lacquer ware, scrolls, armour, porcelain, celadons, bronzes, raku, ukiyo-e, haniwa objects, tea ceremony pieces and textiles, all studied and absorbed the best I could. The impressions these objects made on me, this has never left me, I can still instantly recall how astonished I was by the sheer weight of embroidery on a vintage kimono someone bequeathed to the collection, it was fabulously still, like starched paper, in shades of pale, green and purple if memory serves. I sat and noted down the colours, tones, symbolic crests, stylised flowers, blossom, trees, patterns, birds, fruits and landscapes that littered the cloth. I can picture it slumbering like pale weather in acid free paper, slipped into a dark cupboard, accessioned and catalogued.

'Geisha' by Liza Dalby

A book I read and re-read is Liza Dalby’s Geisha; she is an anthropologist and one of only very few western women to fully train as a professional Geisha. It is a fascinating insight into a closed society. An outsider’s point of view into a world that is arguably struggling against the relentless encroachment of modernity and the all-consuming desires of social media. I revisited it again as I immersed myself in Maria’s Geisha world of olfactive allurement. The minutiae of detail on offer is beautiful, it is a very human journey set against a vivid rendering of Japanese social, moral and historical histories. Find a copy if you can and lose yourself in it. Preferably whilst wearing something Geisha by Maria. Something you will notice in the book is the intensive rigour of the Geisha beauty regimen, a near obsessive part of presentation and erotic suggestion.

Foxy raku sake cups

Both Geisha Noire and Geisha Vanilla Hinoki exert a powerful pull when worn, the effect is intoxicating, they drag their effects through the senses like courtly silks across throne rooms of the mind. Both eaux de parfums have density of spirit woven through them; Maria has worked hard to make complex seem simple. Maria points out her fragrances are also concerned with lifting spirits, and working on moods as well as sensualising body and seducing the limbic system.

The artistry of Maria’s work at Aroma M is evident in the taction of her work, exemplified I think in the Geisha series and her oils which have earned her somewhat of a cult reputation even beyond the boundaries of the usual niche and artisanal devotee fanbase. I have banged on about it before and while I often admire abstraction, pornographic and the avant-garde cinematographic approach to olfactive craft, the bottom line for most people is that is should simply smell bloody beautiful and make them want to lick and inhale their own skin all day long. It’s not really a lot to ask of a perfumer to create something that astounds the air around you. It seems a simple ask, yet so many houses and brands get tied up in esoteric marketing babble, demographics, briefs, money and greed. I’m obviously aware that fragrance is a mega-bucks business but there is still integrity, imagination and care out there in both large and small sides of the industry, you just have to take your time and look around.

Geisha Vert (TSF)

On the face of it Maria McElroy has a relatively simple brand, an elegant and genuine idea of Japanese themed work channelled through her vibrant and undeniably charming and dynamic personality. The alluring aromatic devil is in her details and these are wonderful. The personal touch can be a tricky thing to pull off, balancing quirky embellishments and one’s own particular signatures with promoting and selling a product to a wider audience and hoping they buy into your vision. Sometimes it just does not work, creators are too close or too arrogant to see that while an idiosyncratic vision is all well and good, it can be just that, a singular proposition, quality of juice aside that speaks more of ego than connection. There’s a lot of this around in niche scent sadly. Yet when it works, it can be wonderful, look at Stefania Squeglia and her highly personal catalogue of work at Menditterosa Odori d’Anima, spiritually inspired scents, enraptured with elements of tarot, galactic loneliness, land, sea sand volcano presented safely in their own travelling crates, tied securely with charms to be worn. It could have been uncomfortably twee, but the elements feed into one another because Stefania and her collaborators have courage of conviction in their line and are able to communicate this to wearers of the Mendittorosa juice. 

Geisha Blanche (TSF)

Maria uses her love of Japan, fine art and particularly colour to do the same. The Geisha series of roll on oils and rich eaux de parfums consists of Noire, Marron, Green, Rouge, Amber Rouge, Violet, Blanche, Pink, Blue and now the Vanilla Hinoki as well as the beautifully named O-cha, Hana-cha and Nobara-cha, three scents centred around the poise and delicacy of the Japanese tea ceremony or chanoyu. This range is suffused through and through with a palpable sense of the floating world, the rarefied and the ritualised skein of belonging that binds geishas to our parallel existence. Out of time, yet glowing carefully and strangely within it, they serve as a reminder of a culture that steadfastly refuses to fade away in the face of relentless modernity.

‘..Blending fragrance in a bottle is like mixing colours on a palate; the scent becomes pigment, the body becomes the canvas. The nose responds to scent like the eye to colour.’ Maria McElroy

One of the most recognisble features of Aroma M is the exquisitely tactile yuzen paper Maria wraps her industry standard bottles and roll-ons in. I like a bespoke bottle, but I also love the personalising of basics, after all, the juice is what matters. But these rich vibrant paper tapestries of birds, symbols, crests and blooms fairly explode with hue and luminosity. It makes her brand hum with light and life. Yuzen patterns have their origin in textile designs, especially in the Kyoto, the heart of Japan’s textile industry. Yuzen is an intricate technique using multiple patterns and gold thread. These patterns became linked to chiyogami, a specific design technique applied to Edo era Japanese paper, originally manufactured using woodblock to achieve the intricate effects and now made using silkscreen printing techniques. The immense flexibility of printed intermingled yuzen and chiyogami designs on handmade washi paper led to some of the most meticulous and elegant of Japanese traditional paper arts.

Washi paper is made from the inner bark of three types of mulberry, Kozo, Mitsumata and Gampi depending on the texture and flexibility of end paper required. The fibres pounded are soaked, then added to a bizarre and frankly rather odd material called tororo-aoi (a hibiscus/mallow root) used as mucilage to bind the fibres. The fibres are then caught and spread evenly on a su or bamboo screen and left to dry to form sheets of the recognisably distinctive washi paper.  

The flexibility and varying textures of washi means it can used for origami, doll-making, jewellery, making umbrellas, bookbinding, printing, wall coverings, lighting, even armour in the past days of samurai traditions. Maria uses bespoke yuzen papers in dazzling tones of cinnabar, blood, gold, amber, cobalt, azure, snow, salmon, grass, ink and lavender to decorate her bottles, created especially for her in Kyoto and they are electrifying, radiant with colour and alive with a palpable sense of Japanese artisan craft and joy. It is this personal touch and her delicious incense style blending I find so beautiful.

Geisha Vanilla Hinoki 

My bottle of Geisha Vanilla Hinoki is embraced in a rich textured yuzen paper of red and gold blossoms on a ground of black, white and gold. The patterns include classical stylised motifs of plum blossom, matsu (a pine bark diamond design), take (bamboo), gentian leaves and seigeki, a wave pattern that represents the ebb and flow of life. The paper has a particular quality under the finger and you pick up the bottle to spray it seems to add an extra layer of meaning and intent to the experience.

The two fragrances I bought, Geisha Noire and Geisha Vanilla Hinoki are very persuasive and persistent perfumes. I find them very beautiful. They suit my skin and senses perfectly; the black amber in Geisha Noire seems on the face of it relatively simple, but oh my it is anything but. It broods, swells, soaks in deep and lingers on the body for hours, drifting in and out of the mind. The longevity of both eaux de parfums is impressive; it is something Maria is known for, but still, I was delightfully surprised to find myself catching shards, tendrils, smuts and whispers of formulae long after application.

Now, I need to get my Guerlain thing out of the way. I can’t help the sudden dramatic rush of beauty that rolls across me when I wear these two Aroma M works. This is testament to Maria’s skill at blending and her understanding of sex and sensuality that I can close my eyes and smell traces of genuinely vintage Guerlain in her mix of vanilla, amber, bergamot and citrus. Geisha Noire has reverberations of molten, shadowed Shalimar in the black amber, tonka overdose and spiced boudoir vanilla; it’s a bottle left to fade to gummy residue, clinging to the inside of forgotten flacon, top and heart notes long banished, just the ghost of a base left to linger darkly. Geisha Vanilla Hinoki recalls initially a wetter cleaner Jicky, the bergamot and spices, clove and nutmeg over patchouli, amyris, woods and a wondrous singular dry vanilla, animalic and strange. These subtle echoes are mine, my legacy recollections, but they only serve to further enhance the strength of Maria’s balanced, careful work, where the emphasis is on how we feel as her scents unfold on our skin, the materials unfurling their quality and effect.

Geisha Noire 

The pungency and bravura varnished sensuality of Geisha Noire’s composition is divine. Transportation, intoxication, transformation; have at me. The bitterness of vintage fugues and linger of brothel denizens is pulled through time to resonate with poignant and erotic force. I love the odour of antiqued French polish and sun-warmed lacquer from Maria’s sublime sandalwood, a lovely feminine boudoir sandalwood reminiscent of evening rays striking cluttered éscritoires and dressing tables, beds awash with silks in shades of ink, blood, gold and boozy plum. The tonka, oh how I love tonka, one of the most astonishing materials in perfumery, not just a multifarious aromatic of sweet hay, blond tobacco, honeyed smoke and vanilla but also an effect, smoothing edges, mollifying accords hypnotising the senses, tugging you gently into bases and places as cocooned notes work their magic. In Geisha Noire it swirls like a black dove around the persistent amber, Caronesque, Guerlainesque, whatever but ultimately its own thing, a smooth, moreish thing that demands your attention, tugging at the senses until the very final fade.

Maria’s work is very much her own despite flashes of heritage echo. There is nothing truly new in scent to be honest and I have sampled and worn so much, I will inevitably be reminded of something else at sometime. Geisha Noire feels plush and privately expectant; it is a perfume of indulgence and intimate pleasure, safety and sanctuary that perhaps suggests a wanting of intimacy or maybe the abandonment to the luxury loneliness suffused with the aroma of vanilla-licked black amber and that whispering, dripping tonka.

Geisha Vanilla Hinoki is the latest Geisha to join Maria’s collection and it is glorious, a dry druggy offbeat Moroccan vanilla at the heart of a spiky, architectural citrus effect. It feels more complex and woven with mood and meaning than Geisha Noire; the comfort and sensuality of the latter’s ambered fire has been replaced with fickle weather and umbrageous effect. I sense Maria’s Kōdō experiences at play in Geisha Vanilla Hinoki, the elevated art of monkou or listening to incense. Using ritualised tools and burners, specific pieces of aromatic woods are burned in censers or cups carefully prepared with ash and charcoal. The incense is placed on a small mica plate; those participating hold their fingers in particular positions over the cup to permit inhalation thus identifying the woods. This is just a part of the ceremonial heritage of incense burning that has passed down and ossified into a rigid set of aesthetics used for pleasure and to sharpen the mind and open the senses. 

Foxy incense burning.. 

This acquaintance with the Kōdō aesthetic fumes through Maria’s slow-burn Geisha work, particularly Geishas Rouge, Noire, Blue, Vert and Vanilla Hinoki, the gradual unfurling of effects, smoke-like, rising softly from skin to senses. I started my notes on Geisha Vanilla Hinoki the day after summer solstice; the weather was convoluted, determined to upset my head. I woke to chilled air roaming through the apartment and throughout the night I had been woken from time to time by urgent showers of rain. The morning skies seemed anxious somehow. I’ve been wearing Geisha Vanilla Hinoki for weeks ever since my purchases arrived from Maria in the US alternating it with Geisha Noire and listening to it, rolling words and thoughts around in my head. 

One of the most striking first impressions of Geisha Vanilla Hinoki is the lemon and bergamot duet at the top of the scent and the way it has been integrated into the opening as a mood not just as an enticement or amuse-gueule. Lemon as a scent for me is like pink on a redhead, just something I find all wrong. Yes I known it’s clean and fresh, but it’s also (to my nose anyway, dull, scrubby and always reminiscent of the foil-tear hand wipes my mother was forever pulling from her bag on flights as we travelled to the Middle East and Africa, expunging her terror of germs. It rarely smells of the real thing, a bright spiked and xanthous explosion of sensation, more a recoil and reaction than scent. Maria has chosen deliberately to counterpoint her chypré-style notes of lavender, amyris (an oleo resin), patchouli (to echo the oakmoss now brutally censored by IRFA) and vanilla with warm, mellow citrus notes, waxen and sharded with a woody, spiced bouquet. They have a kind of hot toddy warmth to them. Factor in the clove, slight skank of cardamom and creamy latte nutmeg effect you have a framework for the two key components, that arid, muscular Moroccan vanilla and hinoki.

Hinoki Cypress 

Such a curious wood, Hinoki, much revered in Japanese culture imbued with a pinkish lemongrass scent and flecked with terpenic evergreen facets. It is this exquisite wood that lends Maria’s new composition its sense of hidden arboreal sanctuary as it settles on skin; inhaling and exhaling spiced woody breath in hushed decisive tones.

Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) is a tree intricately woven into the fabric of Japanese cultural life. The rot and water resistant timber has always been used in the construction of temples, palaces, shrines, onsen (traditional Japanese baths) and Noh theatres. The classic square masu saké cup has always been made from hinoki, the piquant odour of the wood very much part of the drinking ritual. The wood was burned too in Shinto rituals and during the Kōdō ceremonies I described above. Remnants of hinoki wood have been dating back to the Yayoi period (BC 1000 – AD 200). The main aromachemical compound of hinoki is hinokitol, a monoterpenoid; you can really smell this quiet medicinal tang jade-toned woodiness as the sun burst shock of that lemon/bergamot opening drops off.

Masu sake cups
made from hinoki

I adore the worn, worshipped quality of the woody materials in Geisha Vanilla Hinoki; they only serve to enhance the beguiling desiccated vanilla and misty leather accord that Maria generously draws through the mix. The first few occasions of wearing, I’ll be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to the patchouli; I saw it listed in the notes but didn’t feel I really noticed it amid the brightness of lemon and forested lull of hinoki-vanilla. But when you sit in silence and take time to concentrate on your skin (yes…this is something I do…) you can appreciate how refined and russet it is, a taste of autumn, a flicker of gold and titian on the forest leaves. That early explosion of lemon and bergamot never truly disappears, yes it fades, but occasionally it has a disconcerting habit of rising up and reminding you that sunlight still touches the forest floor, warming the damp atmospherics of the hinoki retreat.

I’ve sampled a few other hinoki scents before, but it’s a rare enough note in perfumery and often buried amid other more boastful effects. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s Hinoki is warm and brave as always with Dawn’s sensitive work, a blend of hinoki, hiba sandalwood, incense, rosewood, oakwood and amber. It has a dense, winter texture to it and you can smell the hinoki, clean and linctus-like amid the meld of woods. MiN New York’s Onsen, part of their ambitious and fascinating Scent Stories was one of the collection I initially struggled with when I reviewed them in April 2015. A homage to the singular Japanese bathing houses and rituals, Onsen has notes of sulphur, hinoki cypress, pine needles, marine notes, herbs and the cold sting of absinthe. I felt at the time the collection had one two many aquatic/marine splashed scents (Dune Road and Long Board already used strong marine notes) and Onsen just didn’t sit right with me at all. Re-visiting it for this piece, I’ll grudgingly admit the composition is more intriguing than perhaps I gave it credit for. The slightly slippery algae-feel of the marine accord now smells to my nose more coherent and I see how it connects to the woods and scent of steamed fragrant herbs. There is a real sense of damp warm wood and acidic chemical water. So I’m pleased I got to revise my opinion of it. (Note: A lot of people mentioned I should try the Comme des Garçons X Monocle Hinoki cologne made by Antoine Masiondieu as a good example of a hinoki scent. I already did. I disliked it intensely, which was a annoyance as I adore CdG fragrances normally but it was a vapid, vanishing thing that reeked of polluted paper, timid wood, posturing and synthetic juice from one those plastic Jif lemons.)

Geisha Rouge (TSF)

Maria is very clear about the non-gender specifics of her perfumery and it’s not just a throwaway selling point; to create gender fluid sensuality of this comfort and calibre is quite an achievement. I generally have very little time for unisex or shared scents; they aim for two targets and fall feebly somewhere in the middle. I have always believed in transgression olfactory speaking, men cloaked in women’s perfumes and vice sexy versa. The Geisha series of oils and perfumes are about finding fumes, textures and personal palettes. There is no denying the compulsive joyful sensuality of Geisha Noire and Geisha Vanilla Hinoki; each time I wear them and that is frequently and with foxy abandon, I revel in the throaty ambers, sylvan vanilla, spices and aromatic sacred sense of resolute space that Maria’s handsome, light-pierced work brings me. There is something immensely beautiful in knowing you have perfumes like this in your collection, stored safely, just for your own selfish pleasure that will bring such immediate and lascivious pleasure when applied liberally to flesh and senses.

For more information on Maria & Aroma M Perfumes, please click on the link below:

©The Silver Fox 15 July 2016

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