Gardenia has staked its symbolic ground in the tragic genres of film noir and the blues. Exhibit N°1: Billie Holiday first wore her emblematic flower when she burned herself bald on one side of the head with a hot curling iron, or so the legend goes: the hair grew back, the gardenia stayed on. Exhibit N°2: when a skirt-chaser gives it to lovelorn telephone operator Ann Baxter in Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia (1953), it incriminates her in the murder of her attempted rapist.
This vexing flower refuses to yield its odour to extraction. This has never stopped perfumers, since there have been over 150 gardenia fragrances since 1900, and that’s just the ones that are actually called “Gardenia” something. In its natural state, its sweet, heady smell is underlined by a somewhat noxious raw mushroom smell (American noses read it as “blue cheese”). Not something classical perfumery usually tries to reproduce.
All in all, gardenia in perfumery is mainly a theoretical view: as its composition isn’t dictated by a natural extract, it is even more susceptible to olfactory trends than other floral themes. Styrallyl acetate, a molecule with green, floral and fruity facets (it has nuances of jasmine, mimosa, apple, apricot and raspberry), has long been the main compound used to reproduce it, along with white flower extracts. It is the main player in the 1920s gardenias, like Chanel’s, allegedly launched because it resemble Mademoiselle’s fetish camellia (which doesn’t have a smell at all), as well as in Carven’s Ma Griffe.
The old-school glamour of this diva flower has recently come back into fashion. Yves Rocher did a headspace reproduction; Estée Lauder paired it off with its tuberose sister in an opulent, yet exquisitely well-bred tropical floral, Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia; Guerlain did an aldehydic powdery version with Cruel Gardénia in its L’Art et la Matière line. All of these are clean gardenias –the Guerlain particularly. Tom Ford’s Velvet Gardenia takes the opposite course.
Launched along with 11 other fragrances in 2007, Velvet Gardenia flirts with stink to a degree rarely seen in perfumery. An expensive, mushroom-smelling molecule called (e) benzyl tiglate is probably responsible for the earthy, ripe, slightly rotten whiff that emanates from gardenia bushes.
Tom Ford’s Private Blends – which, I must admit, I haven’t thoroughly explored yet – seem to be mostly fragments of classic perfumes, in accordance with the current, short-formula trend in exclusive lines (Hermessence, Guerlain’s L’Art et la Matière, Chanel’s Exclusives, Armani Privé). Thus, when you put together strips of Tuscan Leather and Moss Breches, you get the bitter aromatic top notes of Bandit. It is said that the fragrances for this collection were developed when Tom Ford decided to launch Black Orchid and Tom Ford for Men. David Apel, who composed Velvet Gardenia, also did Black Orchid as well as three other Private Blends (Bois Rouge, Japon Noir and Purple Patchouli).
Velvet Gardenia does have a lot in common with Black Orchid, especially the slightly upsetting truffle top note of the latter which translates, in the former, as mushroom/blue cheese. There is the same will to shock at the outset. But while Black Orchid aims at a classic orchestral feel, Velvet Gardenia sticks to its initial intent: the flower, in all its ripeness. Both compositions share a carnal density, a saturation which brings to mind the big arrogant florals of the 80s, like Poison and Amarige.
But Velvet Gardenia carries this flamboyant attitude into another, more decadent territory. In keeping with Tom Ford’s “more is more” neo-porn aesthetics, the flower flaunts artificially enhanced charms – silicone breasts, oiled skin and outrageous make-up. It seems to reproduce nature, but it is actually a simulation. This is a vegetal-animal hybrid spouted by a perverse geneticist’s lab, dripping with honey and beeswax. Wear it but be warned: this blossom has claws.
Image: German poster for Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia (1953).