vendredi 30 décembre 2016

Scents of the Year: My Top 10 Picks for 2016

All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten the rancid stink that rose up from ballot boxes in 2016. Foul whisp’rings are abroad indeed... The 1930s gave us Shocking, Scandal and Révolte (later renamed Cuir par Lancôme). Let’s just hope that at some point within our lifetime, our Air du Temps will be swept by the springtime vigor of a Vent Vert. Without having to go through a world war in the interval, if at all possible…

On the slightly less gloomy side, there have been lovely things to smell -- as well there should be, considering the year’s 2000+ launches. In particular, I’ve been happily poking my nose into brands founded by seasoned perfumers who got fed up with being asked to tweak their formulas for no good reason. Because the likes of Alberto Morillas, Michel Almairac or Pierre Bourdon have shaped the history of perfumery, exploring their “director’s cut” catalogue is like zipping through wormholes into earlier decades. That said, they’re less self-consciously about past references than niche products like Arquiste’s Ella or indeed, much of niche (the entire genre being founded on nostalgia). They’re just happy to get a breather, hence the sprezzatura of their scents (defined by Castiglione as "an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them").

And now, without further ado, here are my top picks for the Annus Horribilis of 2016. Lots of tenderness -- God (aka Jacques Guerlain) knows we need it. And a bit of the bitch. May their discovery inspire happy thoughts.

Guimauve de Noël (Parle-moi de Parfum)
When I walked into the shop opened by the sons of Michel Almairac (Gucci Rush, Dior Fahrenheit, all of Chloé’s roses…), I never thought I’d get a crush on his gourmand Guimauve de Noël. Almairac explains that as he was working on an orange blossom and vanilla accord, he got a Proustian flash of fougassette, a famous delicacy of his native Grasse. Deceptively simple, Guimauve de Noël spans from fizzy neroli to slightly roasted crust while somehow translating as perfume. This is Séville à l’aube’s Provençal cousin playing Sugar Plum Fairy.

Florentina (Sylvaine Delacourte Paris)
Guerlain’s former olfactory development director was dreaming of starting her own brand: when the right partner showed up, she left the house of the golden bee to found her own. Perhaps the most striking of her first series dedicated to musks, Florentina crosses the angora-kitten softness of L’Instant or Cruel Gardenia with the iris and carnation wistfulness of L’Heure Bleue, her favorite Guerlain. Yet it speaks a language all its own. Who doesn’t need an angora kitten of a scent in these harsh days? 

Sous les Magnolias (Pierre Bourdon)
Pierre Bourdon’s brand, developed by an Austrian company owned by a long-time friend of the perfumer's, is frustatingly difficult to track down (in Paris, it’s just sold at Astier de Villatte on the rue de Tournon). Which is a true pity, as the author of Kouros, Cool Water or Féminité du Bois (with Chris Sheldrake) aligns truly masterful scents here: unsold formulas that he considers his best work. The fresh, gloriously rounded chypre Sous les Magnolias smells like the magnolia fragrance Edmond Roudnitska always dreamed of doing but never managed. La fin d’un été, blending fruity chypre with a tart plum and gingerbread accord, is my next full bottle buy. Will a retailer pick up this brand already ????

L’Ombre du Lys (Mizensir)
I’ve finally gotten around to the brand Alberto Morillas founded with his wife and daughter -- now at nearly 20 scents and still growing, as the author of Pleasures, CK One and Flower by Kenzo, who admits that he initially got cold feet about composing in his own name, says he’s now given in to the urge. A tad less abstract than the Sevillan maestro’s mainstream compositions, L’Ombre d’un Lys hits its lily with a beam of sun through a stained-glass window. Though Morillas at his best is always brilliant, his work for Mizensir has a particular tenderness to it: clearly, it comes from the heart.

L’Air du Temps - Le Crépuscule (Nina Ricci)
I’ve already said why I love Calice Becker’s “twilight” take on L’Air du Temps, which manages to morph the original’s carnation into Mirabilis jalapa, the four o’clock flower more poetically known in France as “Belle de Nuit”. What’s striking is that even if you have no idea what the blossom smells like, you can tell it’s the scent of an actual flower (rather than some floral abstraction). I also love the fact that Becker, who grows Mirabilis jalapa under the windows of her bedroom in her country house in Burgundy, had been wanting to do a perfume based on its scent for years. Hence the very personal, vivid voice of Le Crépuscule. A pity it’s a high-priced limited edition.

Queen of the Night (Grandiflora)
From twilight to nightfall… Bertrand Duchaufour’s take on the night-blooming flower of the Selenicereus grandiflorus cactus for the Australian brand is pretty much the polar opposite of his Nuit de Tubéreuse for L’Artisan: instead of deconstructing the scent of a flower done by perfumers a thousand times, he’s gone and invented what the cactus blossom ought to smell like. Which is an indole-wafting diva sprouting sticky black berries. Pretty much what Mozart’s Queen of the Night would spritz on in a Cronenberg staging of The Magic Flute. Ok, why isn’t that a thing yet?

Night Flower (Eris Parfums)
If Shalimar tripped into a vat of tonka absolute on its way to party with Poison, their love child would probably smell like Antoine Lie’s Night Flower. The Animalis-driven Ma Bête has been getting most of the love, but Barbara Herman’s spicy, musky leather-petaled blossom has been creeping up on me. The night is dark and full of terrors, isn’t it?

Ella (Arquiste)
My first snootful of Rodrigo Flores-Roux’s “animal chypre” wasn’t so much a Proustian buzz as a full-on, “decade of my life flashing by” experience. I’ve been howling my love for it ever since. How can this palimpsest of olfactory references still come off as a perfume rather than an industrial accident? This is actually one of the few scents I’ve had the time to review this year, so for more, click here.

Peau d’Ailleurs (Philippe Starck)
If the fragrances sold by Philip Starck’s mother gave him an excuse to touch women when he was a boy, his first collection sticks to the immaterial. The designer gives no indication of notes for his first collection. Just oxymoronic intentions : « capture the intangible », « the perfume of happy nostalgie », « the cosmic smell of the void ». The ballsy author of Bulgari Black didn’t flinch. Annick Menardo found the olfactory wormhole connecting « happy nostalgia » and « cosmic void »: a whiff of dusty, musty cellar and beetroot out of which a planet-sized aprium (the hybrid of plum and apricots) comes barrelling. A fruity chypre for the Interstellar era. And most definitely habitable.

Galop d’Hermès (Hermès)
True to its name, Christine Nagel’s first major feminine fragrance for Hermès, a rose and leather « animal floral », swiftly moves from a limpid overture to liqueur-smooth richness. Straight out the gate it’s tempting to see a segue from Ellena’s trademark grapefruit in the sulfurous cassis bud that dominate the top notes. But the plush powdery rose that blooms almost immediately seems to channel the hug-me, powdery-musky jamminess of 90s classics. In Galop d’Hermès, it melds with leather to yield a velvety, petal-and-peach-skin texture. A very modern, gender-fluid rose, bearing both a whip and a cleavage.

For more 2016 round-ups, please visit:

Illustration: Louise Brooks, sourced from The Nitrate Diva's Twitter account.

lundi 12 décembre 2016

"Right, but you're an expert"

Though it doesn’t seem likely that the worlds of politics and perfume could cross over much, there's something in the air that's seeped through from one to the other. Almost nothing really. A vibe. A couple of dog whistles. For instance, a few days ago, at a press presentation, I remarked that a sea-spray and single-malt scented fragrance called "cuir something" didn't smell much like leather at all. The press officer smilingly dismissed the comment with “Well, right, but you’re an expert”.

I don’t suppose she meant that her brand's customers couldn’t tell the smell of boots from a whiff of brine. But given the current context, I couldn't help but feel that her comment resonated, however faintly, with the expert-bashing of Brexit campaigners and their ilk. As did a phrase I read yesterday in a French industry magazine, where a journalist remarked that gourmands should now be acknowledged as a full-fledged fragrance family, adding that the genre, though “disliked by a perfumistic elite, […] has been embraced by the public”.

Now, “elite” is a loaded word. These days it is often meant as a slur. As the French translator of Fifty Shades of Grey, I know what it’s like to put one’s name (albeit in a tiny font) to a blockbuster that's bashed by the media. So I can understand that the perfumers and marketing execs behind glucose-laden concoctions can get a little annoyed at bloggers, editors or other industry professionals looking down their noses at gourmands. Isn't that "elitist", when the whole world seems to love them?

Granted, given current events, I might have become hyperosmic to populist anti-intellectualism, just as I am to spiky-wood molecules. But I can't help feeling that the rancid fumes rising up from the ballot boxes are trickling into our sweet-scented haven -- after all, “rancid” comes from the same Latin verb, rancere, “to stink”, than “rancor”, i.e. bitterness, resentment. Ultimately, it all comes down to smell. It suffuses everything. Even our seemingly innocent desire to think through perfume. As they used to say in May 68: "Everything is political".