Friday, June 1, 2018

Against Power - Brecourt's Contre Pouvoir

Ceci n'est-ce pas une power scent
Contre-Pouvoir means counterforce, but I read the name of Brecourt's 2011 release (which - intentionally? - omits the hyphen) as meaning "against power," the rejection of force, the triumph of subtlety over power. Contre Pouvoir succeeds through what may appear as weakness.
It is true the ad copy relies on stereotypes of male power, the Club, cigars, leather armchairs, but really there is little of this to be found in the scent. It is not so much a powerhouse as a Dandyesque fragrance in the strict Brummelian meaning of that term: not exalted baroque but rather inconspicuously elegant, to the nines. It is from this characteristic that I find Mme. Bouge's creation to be less of a fall or winter scent but quite perfect for hot summer days, when it serves as an effective shield againt sweat and stench, as it gently but persistently radiates its irridescent aura of exotic citrus-spice and sweet woody powder, thus ennobling its wearer in ignoble circumstances. This strategy of a masculine skin scent appears more successful than many an attempt at camouflaging one's heat-induced odors by means of shrill aquatic-citrus-fabric-softener sledgehammers.

It is also a pleasure to observe a perfumer not overdosing on ambrox, for once, but using it as a soft-focus lense and diffuser; in fact, despite the modernity of the notes, this Eau de Toilette's feel harkens back to the classic era  - the interwoven construction rather than blatant singularities, balance rather than a front-loaded firework; though there is only a subtle development in the scent. It aims at linearity, the citrus component proving to be quite persistent, and the most prominent notes, cardamom in the top, licorice in the heart, and a modern vetiver component at the base being deeply embedded and intertwined in the ambrox-diffusiveness noted above. Sweetness and spice, tartness and powder, beautfully entangled. In terms of its general appearance (including price) this fragrance thus appears to me less like your typical algorithm-spawned "niche" of the day, but more like an update of the kind of quality designer scents of the old school; the Van Cleef & Arpels, Cacharels, Jil Sanders and other pour hommes and Mans of my youth and young adulthood.I, for one, found myself pleasantly surprised and quite taken.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Dior Sauvage: The Black Hole of Perfumery

"But anything natural which has not been absorbed into utility by passing through the cleansing channels of conceptual order-the screech of  stylus on slate which sets the teeth on edge, the haut-goût which brings to mind filth and corruption, the sweat which appears on the brow of the diligent - whatever is not quite  assimilated, or infringes the commands in which the progress of centuries has been sedimented, is felt as  intrusive and arouses a compulsive aversion."

"That is why smell, as  both  the  perception  and  the perceived - which  are one  in  the act of olfaction - is more expressive than other senses. When we see we remain who we are, when we smell we are absorbed entirely. In civilization, there­fore, smell  is regarded as a disgrace, a sign of the lower social orders, less­er races, and baser animals. The civilized person is allowed to give way to such desires only if the prohibition is suspended by rationalization in the service of practical purposes, real or apparent. One is allowed to indulge the outlawed drive if acting with the unquestionable aim of expunging it." 

Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, "Elements of Anti-Semitism," Dialectic of Enlightenment. Philosophical Fragments (first published 1949)

"I believe this is a very nice clean soapy scent. It may not conjure images of exotic far off places or rare ingredients from such places but it makes you feel enveloped by a squeaky clean aroma. [...] This is so nice and comforting and not cheap smelling. Great when you're in great looking casual clothing."

"Sauvage is an odd scent; it’s both generic and discordant at the same time. [...] It’s clearly a low-budget affair, yet it’s technically accomplished; it riffs on several mainstream cliches, then smashes them awkwardly together; it’s discordant and somewhat ugly, yet it’s primed for mass-consumption.

Reviews of Dior Sauvage on Basenotes,

Something went unnoticed upon the release of Dior Sauvage in 2015. It marked and absolute end point of creative perfumery, a singularity of algorithm-driven commodification free from human interference, from culture, thus. It transcends aesthetic judgment, because that is not its domain. It smells, but it is not perfume. It is the signature scent of the self-disciplining neoliberal worker-drone, the expunging of smell by smell as described by Adorno and Horkheimer in the Dialectics of the Enlightenment (amusing to think they might have had Moustache by Rochas in mind, that urinous masterpiece worthy of Marcel Duchamp [double pun there]).

That so many people like it (in the way you like stuff on facebook, i.e. without any desire for exploration, reflexivity, depth) is no less a commentary on our civilization than the election of Donald Trump. Small fissures and fractures in overlooked places can also be telling.So what to do, when you encounter such an anti-matter miasma, a 21st century version of the plague? You do what they did back then, wear olfactory medicine - I suggest Ma'ai by Bogue.          

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Natural Gourmand for Gourmets: Chocolat Irisé by Annette Neuffer

How you perceive, classify and evaluate scents fundamentally depends your broader socio-cultural and personal biographical scent socialization. There is no doubt my high sensitivity towards monomolecular synthetic aromachemicals is owed to the abscence of most functional perfumery in our household: for decades we have only used unfragranced detergents, cleaners etc. and only naturally fragranced cosmetics and soaps. As a result I perceive much of the world and people around me as regular synth-bombs reeking of dihydromyrcenol, calone, ambroxan, ethylvanillin etc., all of which they seem hardly even to register. At such moments I sympathize with perfume prohibition in the workplace, though that will not eliminate the fascinating phenomenon of long-unwashed clothes still exuding „april-fresh“ wafts of fabric softener scent. Many of my fellow citizens, children and adults alike, seem completely desensitized when it comes to this olfactory overkill, while at the same time finding the natural smell of a body to be completely inacceptable and "unhygienic." I ask myself sometimes: what should be the consequence of the fact that all humans are principally entirely and intuitively capable of differentiating between monomolecular and complex natural scents, between phenethyl alcohol and rose oil? Considering, as a legendary Slow Food experiment showed, that children not exposed to unprocessed foods tended to prefer the synthetic aroma of strawberry yoghurt to the challenging complexity of a real strawberry, a sign of gustatory and olfactory impoverishment, of a brutal sensory limitation to engaging the complexity and sensory reality of the world. This is not so much an immediate health issue, but one of aesthetics and of aisthesis (humans as sensorily perceiving bodies) ; it raises fundamental questions about the nature of our being-in-the-world. Perhaps it is time to consider the question of naturals and synthetics (a difficult differentiation, but if you prefer: complex naturally sourced scents and monomolecules) in perfumery from this vantage point, rather than the misleading debate about allergies (which are just as likely to be caused by natural oils with hundreds of secondary and tertiary components than by synthetics).

Soooo....As Chocolat Irisé has once more proven to me, the fact that I detest with a passion the great majority of gourmand perfumes has nothing at all to do with the genre as such, but with its consistent cultivation of artificiality grounded in massive monomolecular overdosing. A good crème brulée can only be made with real vanilla pods, not vanillin flavouring, and a good gourmand requires a high percentage of natural oils with a complex olfactory spectrum. Sure, Jacques Guerlain's Shalimar contained vanillin, but it also brimmed with tonka, iris, 30% (!) bergamot, as well as jasmine, rose, birch tar, patchouli, sandalwood and more and more and more. The beauty of unobtrusive complexity!

And so we come to Annette Neuffers take on the oriental gourmand, Shalimar naturelle en cacao, so to say. The absence of synthetics and the quality of the natural raw materials means that balance and complexity reign sovereign here; the perfumer's talent ensures that the chocloate-vanilla soufflé does not collapse into olfactory porridge; and the all-natural compositon prevents outré displays of sillage and intensity. It is, in sum, wonderful. The opening is powerfully citric-floral, I get stronger „orangey“ impressions from the tangerine over the tart bergamot and more white-floral aspects than rose (which, however, rises a bit later). Cocoa notes come into play very quickly and prompt associations of old fashioned hot chocolate made from the real thing rather than industrial powder. A wonderful olfactory baldachin of floral notes unfolds supported by the cocoa-vanilla scaffold, with the gentle iris building a bridge between florality and vanilla sweetness. The smokey earthiness of patchouli also gently holds hands with that aspect of the oh so multifaceted vanilla, the rest of the base remains softly at the back. Close to the skin you can cherish the lusciously complex exotic pod that our culture has so unjustly turned into a signifier of blandness. The whole composition settles down after about half an hour to a wonderfully woven skin scent with a gentle aura - gentle in no way connoting feminine here, but really a unisex quality. I actually feel it is the nose-searing loudness of synthetic gourmands tha project a sort of misguided hyper-femininity of the worst sort.

Chocolat Irisé is true to its name, a beautiful, classy, but easily worn pleasure scent recommended to all lovers of Guerlinade and traditional hot chocolate, friends of natural sweetness and spice, and those who have wondered why the can't handle gourmands, even though they love a fine dessert.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Same Company [review of Le 15 by The Different Company]

There's a strange atmosphere at the 15th anniversary event. Canned music metallically wafts through the dingy hall, some kind of royalty free cover versions of "The Greatest Hits of the 2000s." Faded garlands hang limply from the ceiling, revealing barely legible strings of letters - "Com-e -es Gar-ons: I--ense" - somebody in controlling probably got them second hand for a song. There's stale peanuts and crisps - leftovers from JC Ellena's going-away party?  - and too little to drink. Most of the naturals department staff haven't even shown up, just a few indivuals from the citrus project group sitting forlorn on the hard wooden benches, throwing embarassed glances at the main table set up in front of the small stage. That's where Iso E Super and Cashmeran are pulling off their act, duly intoxicated (so that's where the drinks ended up) belting along to the hits of yesteryear with smeary drunken voices, cig in hand, unshaven, in sweaty shirts and spotty suits. "They've really let themselves go in recent years," a pale and somewhat sickly looking Mrs. Vetiver from accounting whispers across the table to Mr. Nutmeg from the PR department, decent fellow, not too smart, but with a perfectly tended suntan. At some point the music is abruptly cut off in the middle of a godawful rendition of Robbie Williams' "Millenium." The Managing Director takes the mic and after seemingly endless moments of amplified crackling and ugly feedback screeches delivers a stammering attempt at a speech patched together with the kind of tired clichés you'd find on a hectic google search twenty minutes before you're on. "Being diff'rent means staying diff'rent," he concludes amidst sputtering coughs. Not that anyone has been listening; and the drunks are still having at millenial rock and pop. At around eleven a merciful fate releases the staff into a greyish-damp night, the smell of a failed party hovers over the deserted scene. The janitor trundles across the hall with a rattling key chain, locking up and turning off the lights. He doesn't notice the two inebriates under the table, though he briefly sniffs and grimaces. He lights a fag and mutters something like "what's the point of all this?" and exits. Curtain.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Varon Dandy Part 2: The Fougère Cousin of Knize Ten

Source of original images: and

The Knize Ten
Shared notes
Varon Dandy
Lemon, Orange, Rosemary
Bergamot, Petitgrain
Lavender, Anise, Clary Sage
Rose, Iris, Cinnamon
Geranium, Cedar, Carnation, Sandalwood
Castoreum, Vanilla
Oakmoss, Amber, Musk

At last we return to Varón Dandy, whose history I discussed back in August. As I suggested then, I find it to be a relative of Knize Ten - they may be from different streets, Chypre Boulevard and Fougère Avenue, but the neighbourhood is the same: 1920s men's fragrance and they share a surprising number of notes that give them both a similar old-time feel of powdery-spicy florality. 

As you can see from the table above, Varón is an old-school barbershop fougère: a citrus-lavender top with green clary sage, very powdery from the get go, a heavily coumarinic heart ornamented with some florals and woods, that has a primarily powdery soapy-carnation feel to it and a sweet-mossy-musky base. It doesn't last too long and generally comes across like an old-fashioned hotel soap (the reason of course being, that these were frequently fragranced with a standard fougère formula). It makes me want to wear a top hat and truly feels like from a different era, one that still lingers on in some increasingly obscure old-boy grooming products (like the Spanish Floid Aftershave) but has all but disappeared from the fashionable perfume world (although it is still echoed in a scent such as Burberry Brit for Men). Clearly it's hanging on in the Spanish and Spanish-speaking nicks of the wood though, just as Tabac Original is north of the Alps.

The leathery chypre Knize Ten is darker and heavier from the outset with its motor oil-floral combo, but the cousins share the dense clovey-woody powderiness of the heart, with a more textured florality in the Viennese scent and the serious sweetness of cinnamon, where Varòn's fern-floral is almost giddy and somewhat flat by direct comparison. The castoreum and leather notes create ever more depth where the Spaniard treads more lightly with sweet musk and amber, with just a smattering of moss, though the combination  does in fact create a suede-like effect. Varón Dandy has been described as a woody, leathery, animalic and oriental fragrance , so perhaps, in previous iterations, it was even closer to Knize than it is in its current state - oh to have a vintage bottle of Parera-made juice, which I suspect might have pulled more punch and contained more facets. As it is, the Spaniard is a paler, slightly anemic cousin to the Austrian Dandy, one whose tails have perhaps been a bit tattered from an awfully long history in the mass market, a fate of so many old timers that Knize Ten has yet miraculously avoided.Still - I like its old world aura and it would probably be considered less obnoxious by many a mainstream nose than Knize Ten. I imagine the infamous L'Air de Panache in Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel as being pretty close to Varón Dandy, even if Mark Buxton decided to render it as a Chypre.              


Friday, November 11, 2016

Trump Wins, Cohen Dies

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul

Leonard Cohen, The Future

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Angela Flanders, Earl Grey, and the English Perfumery Tradition

About two years ago, on a weekday, I stood before the closed doors of Angela Flanders' dainty Victorian perfume store on Columbia Road, after visiting the all-felt cornershop installed by artist Lucy Sparrow in the vicinity. Despite my love of English perfumes I had never heard of this house, but the window looked enticing and I promised myself I would return when the occasion arose.
It did last week, when we spent another family holiday in our favorite city within the European Union and decided to visit the famed Sunday flower market on Columbia Road, when all the little indie stores along the lane pop open. In the meantime I'd read up on Angela Flanders, only to learn with dismay that she had died in April of this year, at the gracious age of 88: an interesting woman who built a career in costume design, went free-lance into interior design and antiques in the 1970s and discovered perfume in her late Sixties, teaching herself the art and launching a perfumery business at an age when most people retire from professional life. I assume she must have been the oldest recipient ever of a FiFi award - at 84, for her 2011 Precious One as best new independent fragrance. Chapeau!

The shop is now tended by her daughter and it was crowded that Sunday with perfume aficionados. I was set on purchasing a fragrance as a souvenir of this London trip and had already laid eyes on Earl Grey, which sounded very British and just like like my cup of tea, if you'll permit the pun. I nosed myself through a dozen or more offerings, some trad, some modern, but in the end, Earl Grey EdP was it (winning out over the attractively dilly Ambre Noir) - and I do believe this early creation of hers (1994) in some ways epitomizes Englishness and English perfumery. The integration of otherness, as Peter Ackroyd noted in his study of English character, Albion, is key to understanding the mentality and history of the scepter'd isle. As in the case of Gin Tonic, Paisley ties, and Earl Grey tea this scent makes something distinctively English of imported goods - bergamot and other citrus notes, oriental spices, rosewood and patchouli.  The zesty bergamot is folded into what I perceive as the sweet green of lime and orangey notes - it is less refined than the gentle clear bergamot of vintage Farina Gegenüber, but not as pungent as sticking your nose into some perfumed tea of the same name. There are no tea notes at all in the fragrance, notably. What pops up besides the citrus immediatly is a spicy melange of mace (the blossom of nutmeg, not the spray), coriander, cardamom and clove (which seem to have been favorites of Ms. Flanders, perhaps harking back to the spicy potpourri tradition) draped upon a bed of quiet bois de rose. Then there's what I perceive as a gentle patchouli, nothing near the earthy pungency of Villoresi's version, Montale's beastly Patchouli Leaves, or even the reference vintage Etro EdT. This is Anglicized patch free of dark foresty dampness, underbrush, humus, it's more Sissinghurst than Sherwood Forest, really. And there we are, this happy blend lingers about for a solid eight hours, with gentle sillage. It is well behaved, not at all sweet, smells natural, (more so, than, say, Cacharel pour homme) but in the slyly mannered fashion of an English garden that celebrates nature as improved by civilization. It lacks both the bodily eroticism and the abstract artfulness as it has defined classic French perfumery since Jicky, but you wouldn't want to wear Jicky to an afternoon tea at the Dowager Countess of Grantham's, now would you? Or even when eating clotted cream off your lover, for that matter. Earl Grey smells good and makes you smell good in a pleasant and unobtrusive manner, striking just the right Victorian balance of good taste, all-the-while coming off as utterly unslick; this is not the work of a Duchaufour or Morillas for Penhaligon's, that self-parodying simulacrum of Englishness wrapping itself around industrial perfumery, but the work of a dilettante as that word was understood in the 18th century: a devoted amateur who delights in a field with no primary pecuniary interest. Earl Grey is a fine fragrance indeed (and I do wonder whether it didn't partly inspire Jo Wood's Usiku, a spicier, ethno-new agier take on the same theme). The only place you can try it and buy it is in the two London stores on Columbia Road and in Spitalfields - a form of exclusivity far preferable to the usual niche approach of charging astronomically high prices in no way justified by commensurate quality. Luckily, orders can be placed through the website, but, needless to say, the full experience is going to the places Angela Flanders so carefully laid out as a little English Gesamtkunstwerk, the memory of which will infuse the fragrances you purchased with an added dimension.