mardi 29 décembre 2009

(My) Best Perfumes of 2009 -- and a look at the year gone by

Was 2009 a good year for perfume? Judging by the number of additions to my personal rotation, I’d say it was pretty satisfactory. I’ve fallen in love more than once and been knocked out of my Louboutins often enough to say that not only have I not become blasé, but the more I dig into the workings of perfume composition, the more passionate I get about the art…

2009 was the year a perfumer finally came semi-officially clean about reformulations – Serge Lutens, in a comment given to fragrance historian Elisabeth de Feydeau on her blog, about Féminité du Bois. The year IFRA backed up on a guideline after industry protests about the restriction on the use of the massively popular vanillin.

2009 was the year where two renowned perfumers broke out of the big labs to set up on their own: Christophe Laudamiel quit IFF to found Aeosphere, a “fragrance media” company that clearly won’t restrict its activities to personal fragrance since one of its first endeavors was Green Aria, a “scent opera” in which the characters were olfactory.

Francis Kurkdjian founded his Maison along more traditional lines, with a well thought-out concept of his-and-hers or non-gendered scents with complementary room sprays, candles, incense papers, scented leather bracelets and laundry detergent. Though the compositions themselves stayed well within Francis K.’s known register, the mere fact that a perfumer could become a bankable name demonstrates the shift in the industry brought along, notably, by the online perfume culture and its focus on authors.

2009 was also the year in which fine fragrance got housebroken, with Frédéric Malle recruiting top talent (Dominique Ropion, Carlos Benaïm and Sophia Grosjman) to compose scents specifically for living spaces, applying the same exacting standards as they do to personal scents. Two patented diffusion systems, the “Fleur Mécanique” which continuously sends out the fragrance, and a perfume-impregnated mat resembling a mouse-pad, were added to the more traditional candles. Between the hundreds of yearly launches and growing workplace restrictions on wear, personal perfume seems to have come to a saturation point while house fragrance remains a huge potential market, and it is more than likely that it will develop in quality and variety of offer in the coming years.

2009 saw two fine jewelry houses getting into the “exclusives” game. Price points, limited distribution, the feeling that those houses were merely getting in on the bandwagon and the sheer lassitude of having to wade through multiple simultaneously offerings raised some groans in the online perfume community. Van Cleef & Arpels’ “Collection Extraordinaire” comprised six fragrances, by six different perfumers: while none was groundbreaking and there was at least one dud among them (the oddly unbalanced Lys Carmin), two managed to garner a number of enthusiasts, Bois d’Iris and Gardénia Pétales.

Cartier’s “Les Heures de Parfum” marked the eagerly awaited return of the maverick Mathilde Laurent, acclaimed for her work at Guerlain, who had all but disappeared from the public nose whilst composing bespoke fragrances for Cartier’s clientele. Her cult Guet-Apens/Attrape-coeur for Guerlain, as well as, I’m afraid, my own boundlessly enthusiastic reviews may have raised expectations a little too high for perfume lovers. However, not only do I stand by my initial assessment, but I maintain that Ms Laurent has been quietly inventing her own grammar of perfumery over the past few years to such an extent that it may take a while for her idiosyncratic language to be perceived. Clearly, she will be a voice to contend with.

Another voice that emerged in 2009 came from the distant French territory of Nouvelle Calédonie via Switzerland: with LesNez Manoumalia, Sandrine Videault may have single-handedly invented ethnographic perfumery, though the scent, inspired by the fragrant rituals of the island of Wallis, also meets the standards of the best French perfumery – unsurprisingly, since Sandrine was taught by none other than the great Edmond Roudnitska. I am eagerly awaiting her further olfactory explorations.

2009 is the year in which oud definitely became the new patchouli. In a bid to rope in the still-affluent and perfume-loving Middle-Eastern clientele, By Killian came up with Calice Becker’s gorgeously inky-velvety (but steeply-priced) Pure Oud, while Bertrand Duchaufour composed a gloriously whiffy Al Oudh for L’Artisan Parfumeur: it’s been drawing horrified howls around the perfume blogosphere, especially in the cumin-phobic USA, but it’s been selling so well in the Paris shops they can’t keep in stock.

2009 was the year in which vanilla finally broke free from the pastry shelves and its facile, foody register, subverted by two of the most intelligent perfumers around. With his remarkable Vanille Galante, Jean-Claude Ellena turned the pod back into an orchid/lily/ylang hybrid, then stretched it out into an impalpable mist. Bertrand Duchaufour spliced his with tobacco, drawing out the less-explored animal, medicinal and spicy facets of the pod along with its balsamic aspects, which turned Havana Vanille into a strange beast indeed, shocking to anyone who was expecting a variation, say, on Guerlain’s Spiritueuse Double Vanille. In a word: a vanilla for people whom vanilla bores to tears (count me among them: expect a belated review early next year).

Finally, 2009 was the year where perfumery went green: organic lines have been sprouting around, Honoré des Prés probably being the most interesting, if only because the scents were composed by Olivia Giacobetti, whom we haven’t been seeing a lot lately (and regrettably).

But green was also one of the “notes du jour”, with a few major mainstream launches reviving (and rewriting, sans oakmoss) the green chypre genre: Chanel's Cristalle’s flanker, Cristalle Eau Verte, Issey Miyake’s A Scent by Daphné Bugey and Estée Lauder’s Private Collection Jasmine White Moss… On the niche side, Linda Pilkington’s heart-stoppingly lovely Tiaré for Ormonde Jayne played the tropical essence in a surprisingly green register as well… A review will follow shortly.

To conclude this far-from-complete retrospective, here are the past year’s launches that actually made it into my collection, the ones I voted for with my skin: my personal best of 2009, in no particular order…

The subverted vanillas:

1) Havana Vanille by Bertrand Duchaufour for L’Artisan Parfumeur

2) Vanille Galante by Jean-Claude Ellena for Hermès “Hermessence”

The carnivorous tropicals:

3) Amaranthine by Bertrand Duchaufour for Penhaligon’s

4) Manoumalia by Sandrine Videault for LesNez

The creamy green florals:

5) Tiaré by Linda Pilkington for Ormonde Jayne

6) Gardénia Pétales by Nathalie Feisthauer for Van Cleef & Arpels « Collection Extraordinaire »

7) Private Collection Jasmine White Moss by Estée Lauder

The smoky potions:

8) Turtle Vetiver by Isabelle Doyen for LesNez

9) XII- L’Heure Mystérieuse by Mathilde Laurent for Cartier « Les Heures de Parfum »

10) XIII - La Treizième Heure by Mathilde Laurent for Cartier « Les Heures de Parfum »

These are only the ones I actually own and wear: otherwise, the list would also certainly include Serge Lutens’ Filles en Aiguilles, Frédéric Malle’s Géranium pour Monsieur by Dominique Ropion, By Kilian’s Pure Oud by Calice Becker, Annick Goutal's Un Matin d'orage by Isabelle Doyen and Parfums DelRae’s Mythique by Yann Vasnier. And I’m sure I’m forgetting several.

For another take on the best perfumes of 2009, see Now Smell This.

And now, on to you: what were your favorite launches of the year?

Image by Irving Penn.

lundi 21 décembre 2009

Guerlain Tonka Impériale: Regal Balsam

Tease out and blow up L’Heure Bleue’s full, almondy notes, tone down the orange blossom and heliotropin, hold the spices and you’ve got Guerlain’s next installment in the L’Art et la Matière collection: Tonka Impériale by Thierry Wasser, to be launched on February 1st 2010. Along with Bois d’Arménie, I find it to be the best of the line, and quite an encouraging sign for Thierry Wasser’s upcoming, less mainstream Guerlain compositions.

Like Wasser’s Iris Ganache and Olivier Polge’s Cuir Beluga (both from L’Art et la Matière), this is a gourmand with restraint, as creamy rich as the finest French chocolat filled with a Tonka bean ganache, yet laced with a hint of the trademark Jacques Guerlain aromatic herbs – in this case, rosemary – to man up the composition.

With its almond, tobacco/honey, balsamic and hay facets, Tonka bean absolute is practically a perfume in itself. In Tonka Impériale, the warm balsamic effect predominates, boosted by vanilla; its caramelized, almost roasted effects give the fragrance a chocolate-like richness without the actual flavor of chocolate. In a word, this is a Guerlain in the grand tradition of the patisserie, its cloyingness kept in check by the sheer feeling of quality: no empty calories here, just I-could-lick-my-arm-raw sensuousness. A gourmand for people who, like me, don’t like to smear themselves with olfactory dessert, and much subtler than, say, its boozy-sweet big sister Spiritueuse Double Vanille, namely because Tonka bean is a little less common as a dessert note… It’s also got considerable radiance and tenacity, so if you try it out on skin, don’t plan for other tests: a couple of spritzes will swallow up any other perfumes, and probably quite a few credit cards.

But don’t complain if you get bitten while wearing it: just bite back.

Image: Benjamin Constant, Empress Theodora at the Coliseum.

Tonka Impériale de Guerlain: Fève enfiévrée

Prélevez et amplifiez les notes pleines et amandées de L’Heure Bleue, mettez la fleur d’oranger et l’héliotropine en sourdine, faites l’impasse sur les épices, et vous obtiendrez le prochain L’Art et la Matière de Guerlain, Tonka Impériale de Thierry Wasser, qui sortira le 1er février prochain et qui est à mon avis (comme à celui de mon confrère d’Olfactorum) l’un des meilleurs de la collection avec Bois d’Arménie. Ce qui augure bien des propositions futures de Thierry Wasser, lorsqu’il travaille dans un registre plus intimiste.

Comme Iris Ganache , également de Thierry Wasser, ou Cuir Beluga d’Olivier Polge, cette nouvelle Tonka Impériale est gourmande, mais avec mesure, aussi onctueuse que la meilleure bouchée fourrée à la ganache de fève Tonka, mais parcourue d’une courant aromatique – la touche d’herbe de Provence chère à Jacques Guerlain – qui donne un brin de nervosité à la richesse de la composition et l’équilibre.

Avec ses facettes amande, tabac/miel, foin et baume, l’absolue de fève Tonka est pratiquement un parfum à elle toute seule. Dans Tonka Impériale, c’est l’aspect chaud et baumé qui prédomine, accentué par la vanille ; des effets caramélisés, presque torréfiés, donnent au parfum la sensation brûlante en bouche du chocolat, sans sa saveur. Autrement dit, ce Guerlain-ci joue sur la grande tradition de pâtisserie de la maison ; mais la qualité des matières en fait l’une de ces friandises auxquelles on s’abandonne avec l’impression de se faire du bien plutôt que de suicider aux calories…

Tonka Impériale est un oriental gourmand pour ceux qui ne succombent pas en général aux sucreries olfactives, notamment parce que sa note principale est moins souvent visitée que la vanille. Assez délicieux pour donner envie de se lécher le bras jusqu’à le faire rougir – et pendant longtemps, car il est d’une ténacité et d’une intensité appréciables. Lorsque du test sur peau, ne prévoyez pas d’autre essai : il avale tout. Y compris les cartes bancaires, qui risque de léviter toutes seules de bien des portefeuilles…

Mais ne vous plaignez pas si vous vous faites mordre par le méchant loup quand vous le porterez. Vous l’aurez bien cherché.

Image: Edmond Aman-Jean, L'Amour de soi

dimanche 20 décembre 2009

My perfume course at the London College of Fashion: the (very partial) de-brief

The fifteen students of my intensive course for the London College of Fashion, “Decoding Fragrance”, had a single point in common: their love of perfume. Other than that, the sheer diversity was bewildering.

They came from all over the world: the UK, obviously, but also France, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Germany, Jordan, Belgium, Spain by way of the Netherlands or Brazil by way of South Africa… Their level ranged from hardcore perfume aficionados to people taking their first steps in the world of fragrance. They worked in finance, communication, marketing, perfumery and the media; there was a Pilates instructor, a nurse, an architect, an artist, a few students. Their ages ranged from 20 to 55, and a few of them had travelled thousands of miles to attend the course.

Daunting doesn’t even begin to cover it. I was delighted to have people of such varied origins since their range of olfactory references would be extremely diverse. But to engage so many different levels and ages seemed like quite a challenge… until I realized or rather, until my students made me realize that at any level, smells can speak to you, and with a bit of vocabulary provided, you can speak about smells.

Vocabulary was exactly where I started out. The first day was dedicated to the words of perfume: not only the verbal ones, but also “smell-words”, the raw materials being nouns with a trail of adjectives, their facets. We “blind-smelled” real things to activate the link between smells, memories and words; we linked those real things to materials that smell of them. We created olfactory illusions with two or three materials; we “decomposed” jasmine into its most salient molecules. Then we linked materials together by their common facets in an olfactory daisy chain that provided the first notions of the syntax perfumers use to organize their smell-words. Finally, we explored an array of perfumes in which we could find bits of the daisy chain.

The second day was also about words, but this time the words were stories and history. Rather than zip through over a century of perfume history, I’d decided to focus on the decades when most templates were conceived, the 10s and 20s, and on a parallel between François Coty and Jacques Guerlain, as well as a case study of Chanel N°5. To help the students envision the context in which those great classics were composed and worn, I also provided elements of the social, sartorial and artistic trends of the time. In our last exercise, we studied the fruity chypre across the decades, from its birth with Mitsouko to its latest iterations in the 21st century.

For the third day, I skipped over 80 years of perfumery, straight into the past decade, with a study of recent concepts, mainly “anti-perfumes”, the use of strange or ugly notes and perfumes as evocations of times or places rather than as an extension of personality… This was followed by a spotlight on three authors, Jean-Claude Ellena, Bertrand Duchaufour and Mathilde Laurent, all of whom have generously contributed their time to help me understand their creative process, their aesthetics and the structure of their compositions, as well as generous samples. Jean-Claude Ellena also graciously authorized the reproduction of his classification of aromatic materials, from his book Que Sais-je? Le Parfum, in the hand-out…

There's no way to sum up everything that happened during that course: the insights, the olfactory epiphanies, the beautiful things that people said about perfumes. In that scent-laden atmosphere, I could see eyes light up, lips moves as though someone was about to speak – but she was just formulating a thought to herself; the excited hum as scent strips were passed around and discussed; the crowding around the table were my samples were spread out when, at the end of the day, I’d allow everyone to spray themselves to their heart’s content.

The last hour was a round-up of everyone’s top five of the scents studied over those three days. Vintage Emeraude, Shocking and Mitsouko got votes; Le Parfum de Thérèse came up a winner; L’Eau Serge Lutens and Comme des Garçons Series 6 Synthetic: Soda were quoted by South-East Asian students, the first for its clean magnolia note, the other for its perky citrus fizziness. If I’d had bottles of Penhaligon’s Amaranthine for sale, I’d have moved at least half a dozen. Christophe Laudamiel and Della Chuang’s Kyoteau, an olfactory evocation of the city, won enough suffrages for me to hope it gets commercialized soon in the full-sized bottles designed by Della. Osmanthe Yunan and Vetiver Tonka from the Hermessences collection, La Treizième Heure from Cartier’s Heures de Parfum also gathered several votes.

But the real surprise came from L’Artisan Parfumeur’s cumin and civet-laden Al Oudh: the two men of the course, a Thai and a Frenchman, both said they’d get it for themselves; three young women, two Chinese and one Vietnamese, said they’d get it for their boyfriends… And there we were, thinking the Asian market was all about fruity florals! They got positively frisky about the dirty notes. Mind you, they had the right teacher… It’s all about pedagogy, isn’t it? One participant, who’d basically come along to keep her sister-in-law company, walked away saying: “You’ve completely turned round the way I think about perfume”.

I consider my mission accomplished.

Now that the pressure’s over and I’m rewinding the film, I can’t even begin to say how much I enjoyed doing this course, thanks to the active and generous way everyone engaged – and lent me a hand when I had technical glitches, such as running out of scent strips into day two… Some of them actually fanned out into the neighboring stores and stoles great wads of them; others cut them up into smaller strips, while others yet counted them out in piles of 16.

My deepest thanks to all of you: Dala, Yuanyuan, Winni, Naomi, Sultana, Kayla, Olga, Antje, Katia, Jacqui, Selina, Isabella, “Ali Baba” and Litwine. I mean it about Paris!

And a special mention for Florian Pedemanaud, whom most perfume aficionados in London have met at Les Senteurs, the city’s premier multi-brand niche shop: he is setting up as a scent stylist. Should anyone need advice on putting together a fragrance wardrobe or finding a new signature perfume, he’s the man to ask. Just email me at graindemusc at gmail dot com and I’ll give you his contact, or seek him out at the Frédéric Malle corner at Liberty’s.

I’d also like to thank the following people and companies.

For their support, advice and precious time: Mathilde Laurent, Bertrand Duchaufour, Isabelle Doyen and Céline Ellena.

For donating raw materials: Francis Thibaudeau of Robertet for the natural essences and absolutes; Angela Stavrevska of CPL Aromas UK for the synthetic materials; Julien Lévy of for the Les Coulisses du Parfum coffrets.

For donating perfumes: Guerlain, Hermès, Chanel, Cartier and L’Artisan Parfumeur.

For authorizing the reproduction of a portion of his book: Jean-Claude Ellena.

Above all, I have a debt of gratitude to my favourite teacher, the perfumer and perfume historian Octavian Coifan (1000fragrances) and to Basia Szutnicka, Study Abroad Director at the London College of Fashion: she had the idea for this course and made it happen.

At the London College of Fashion, I would also like to thank Reid Aiton, Hannah Svensson McLeod and Karin Johansson for all their time and efforts! Hannah, I will return the scissors next time!