Magie Noire (Lancôme)

I thought to continue the previous post's theme of sorcery with a review of Lancôme's Magie Noire. The review remains, but the theme has faded with the weekend, supplanted by something much closer to hand, and more solid to hold: a book. It isn't often that a fictional character summons to mind a certain perfume so clearly -- or vice versa -- but as this is a special case, I hope you will indulge me the comparison.

The first time Michel Faber presents us with Sugar, the heroine of his Victorian Gothic novel The Crimson Petal and The White, we are asked to imagine "the queasy surprise of seeing what appears to be a tall, gaunt boy wreathed from neck to ankle in women's clothes; then, with the first glimpse of this odd creature's face, the realisation that this boy is female."

Faber continues: one has hair quite as golden-orange as Sugar's or skin quite as luminously pale. Her eyes alone, even if she were wrapped up like an Arabian odalisque with nothing else showing, would be enough to declare her sex. They are naked eyes, fringed with soft hair, glistening like peeled fruits. They are eyes that promise everything (pp. 27-28).
And so they should, for Sugar is a prostitute-- one so disciplined to please her customers that even other prostitutes stand in awe of her.

Yet behind her loveliness, Sugar keeps secrets. One is a fierce morality given to expressing itself in lurid jeremiads scribbled at dawn on reams of hoarded paper. The other is ichthyosis, a genetic skin disorder manifesting as red welt-like stripes which paint Sugar's limbs and torso like the flames of hell itself. The former she hides in her writing table, bringing it out only when alone. The latter she hides under the elaborate fashions of the day-- and Sugar doesn't take off her clothes for just anyone.

On the night that Sugar is introduced to William Rackham -- self-pitying heir to the Rackham Perfumeries fortune -- she is wearing her favorite dress of moss-green peau de soie, intricately bustled and draped. Unfortunately, a violent downpour catches her en route to the rendezvous. When she arrives, her rain-drenched dress appears as black and slick as a selkie's skin. As it dries, it emits "a subtle haze of steam" which surrounds her and her quarry like a veil of enchantment.  Within its intimate confines, William discovers that Sugar smells of rain and -- even more exciting -- fresh female sweat. To his nose, she smells "divine". By the end of the evening, no other perfume will do.

Weeks later, when William has installed her in a secluded house that may as well be an anchorite's cell for all the hours she will spend there alone and idle, Sugar (soon to be a neglected mistress rather than a favorite whore) discovers ominous dustings of mildew in all the folds of her favorite green dress-- a memento of the night she met her fate, and a portent of the days of regret yet to come.

Austerity and ambivalence sit uneasily by the side of ripe and youthful beauty-- or do they? Darkness makes a beam of light seem brighter, purer, more fine-- and so it is with Lancôme's Magie Noire. Severe and sweet, dry and juicy at once, like ripe berries dredged in confectioner's sugar-- or is that powdered arsenic? You can't know until you taste for yourself... if you've courage enough.

Magie Noire (1978) and Missoni Original (1982) share a common formula: cassis, raspberry, honey, hyacinth, civet, oakmoss, patchouli. Together, these make a mighty wall of scent to scale, but while Missoni walks the light and fresh side of the line, Magie Noire topples resolutely into the velvet boudoir that lies beyond the pale. Plainly put, this baby reeks of sex. In concentration, blackcurrant bud and leaf accords have been noted to possess an ammoniac quality which, combined with the odd-yet-unmistakable urinous aspects of both civet and honey, guarantees that the olfactory nerve is in for a pheromonal walloping. Luckily, the beat-down is more Sacher-Masoch than Marquess of Queensbury Rules... and you've been very, very naughty, haven't you?

There seems to be a climatological distinction between the two fragrances, as well. While Missoni seems poised for hot weather in its gauzy veil of aldehydes, Magie Noire -- with its additional layer of animalic castoreum -- is almost a winter version of the basic accord. It is easy to imagine this perfume to be overwhelming in summer heat, too stark for the light of day-- but at night, when its lush and full-figured outline blurs and dissolves into merciful shadow, Magie Noire becomes a thing of grace.

And yet, there remains to Magie Noire a sharpness, a dryness, an intimation of concealed wit in opposition to all this lush greenery on display.  This more than anything calls Sugar to mind.  The world sees of her only what she wishes for it to see.  She saves all her keen intelligence for her own inner communion, sitting at her escritoire in the hours between gay night and lonely morning, pouring her true self out in black ink onto the most spotless white page that dirty money can buy.

Scent Elements: Cassis, bergamot, hyacinth, raspberry, galbanum, honey, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley, tuberose, narcissus, iris, rose, patchouli, vetiver, oakmoss, castoreum, civet, musk

Mandragore (Annick Goutal)

In the earthy ancient Northlands, the discovery of an anthropo-morphic mandrake root meant the end of the world as you knew it. Even if it didn't kill you with a brain-searing shriek as it left the soil, the magic root became your responsibility the instant you tore it from the earth-- and normal life was as good as over.

Drop all those hobbies and social clubs: once you became the guardian of an alraun (root mannekin), you'd have no time for such frivolities. Enjoying the same general status in the Northern Tradition as the Haitian Vodoun ti-bon-ange, the alraun was a sacred object which required constant, obsessive stewardship as its magical power increased. Custom decreed that it be offered daily servings of food and drink, a spring water bath every Friday night, and a white silk cloth in which to rest.  During an age when most people were lucky to get one meal a day, one bath a month, and one glimpse of silk in their entire lifetimes, the expense of fostering an alraun should be evident.

Unsurprisingly, the quest to get rid of an alraun could become an even greater life goal than learning how to properly use it. It wasn't easy.  The root could either be deeded to a descendant or sold to an outsider (always for a greater sum than one spent to obtain it oneself), but it could never be abandoned, discarded, or destroyed. Terrible things happened to those who tried, stoking Germanic folklore with enough bloody retribution to launch a thousand Tim Burton script treatments.   On the other hand, luck and protection followed those who treated the root right-- which explains the strange affection many people developed for their alraun. Precious time might be spent whittling it a face or forcing grains of barley into its surface to result in a sprouted head of luxurious green "hair". (I think it fair to suspect that these people did not date much.)

Little remains of these heady days of root-worship except a few anachronistic hints of witchiness surrounding the mandrake name. Today we know Mandragora officinarum as just another member of the celebrated nightshade family. As with many of its kin, toxic hallucinogenic alkaloids course through its sap, and it is certainly not recommended for your next insalata mista.

Annick Goutal's Mandragore may be the only mandrake-themed perfume on the market, or indeed in history. This (along with its deep purple bottle adorned with esoteric gold calligraphy) may be enough of a novelty to satisfy the gypsy mystic on your gift list... at least until Fairuza Balk develops her promised line of perfume oils-- a scent-event for whose fulfillment I am personally chanting as we speak. However, for a perfume reputed to contain the magic root of all magic roots (PLUS black pepper, star anise, boxwood, and sage, heavy hitters all), Mandragore is fated to fall short of our demands for dark mystery.  Why?  Because it's an eau de cologne-- the sunniest, happiest, freshest of all the fragrance subgenres, and about as prone to dabbling with the shadow side as Glinda the Good Witch of the North.

Am I complaining? Heck, no. Who would, when faced with such olfactory good cheer?

In aroma, Mandragore compares quite favorably to both Goutal's own Eau d'Hadrien and Guerlain's Eau de Cologne Impériale.  It can't get much sunnier than an intersection between these two fragrances-- a bright citrus sun suspended over a landscape shaded ever so subtly with a cool blue note of spearmint.  If you can accept two facts -- first, that you're heading for a summer day at high noon instead of a witches' sabbat under a full moon; second, that like all eaux, Mandragore has little staying power -- you will make out just fine.

Still, I cannot claim that no magic whatsoever was involved in this perfume's making. Obviously, some kind of grimoire was consulted and appropriate charms spoken-- for Mandragore did, after all, induce some sort of bewitchment in me.  Without even thinking about it, I kept reapplying and reapplying it, smiling dreamily all the while-- until I realized that I had used up an entire sample vial in one afternoon.

Call in the Inquisitors!

Scent Elements: Mandrake root, bergamot, black pepper, ginger, spearmint, star anise, boxwood, sage

La Chasse Aux Papillons (L'Artisan)

At eleven-thirty in the morning, it has already crested eighty degrees here.  A fitful breeze is lifting the leaves so that their pale undersides show, and everyone around me seems restless and edgy. Most living organisms find the approach of storm weather nerve-wracking; cats fret, horses kick, dogs whine, and flocks of birds scatter, their flight formations thrown into chaos. The monarch butterfly is particularly susceptible to the heightened anxiety of oncoming thunder-- hence its nickname, "the storm king". It seems that from large to small, we are all trapped in the atmospheric tension.

Today I'm wearing L'Artisan Parfumeur's La Chasse aux Papillons ("Chasing Butterflies"), gifted to me by Bloody Frida and saved up for a day on the borderline of summer.  It's doing its very best to soothe me, though in my present state of tetchiness, I fear its efforts may be in vain.  (Was that lightning?  I'm sure that was lightning.  Just a fluorescent bulb flickering?  Well, if you say so...)

Climbing the walls has at least one benefit: an elevated vantage point.  From here, La Chasse aux Papillons appears to be a masterpiece of natural engineering, perfectly weighted with ultra-light, lemony hesperidic notes and neroli cancelling out jasmine and tuberose's ballast so that the lovely thing just hovers magically in midair.  Central to its charms is a sweet, fizzy linden-blossom note that I'm certain is equal to the task of talking me down from whatever ledges I may find myself occupying as the afternoon continues.

How will it manage?  Through the power of suggestion.  Though stuck inside my office, with my eyes closed I clearly envision hedgerows of glossy green privet dotted with tiny white flowers above which fleets of bees studiously dart and weave.  It will storm within a day; my vacation is two weeks away, and true summer double that distance, but so long as La Chasse aux Papillons surrounds me, the weather is perpetually fine.
Scent Elements: Citrus, neroli, linden, tuberose, jasmine

Via Lanvin (Lanvin)

This may be an irreverent (and even blasphemous) thing to say about a perfume, but Via Lanvin reminds me of a bathroom.

Wait, wait, hear me out! I'm not talking just any old bathroom, but my DREAM bathroom-- the one that would surely become the island paradise of my daily life, if only I had the disposable cash to make all my fantasies come true. You know how Eliza Doolittle wants "a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air, with one enormous chair..."? Well, I want the same thing-- only my room would come equipped with a full-length claw-foot tub, and the chair would be an overstuffed chaise-longue upholstered in green-and-white striped chintz upon which I would recline breathless when fresh from my bath.

(We have very specific demands, Eliza and I.)

For a room devoted to self-care, cleanliness, and tranquility, too often the bathroom is neglected in the scheme of house designs. Not mine: if and when the opportunity arises, I intend to go all out. The walls of my dream bathroom would be paved in glistening white ceramic with accent tiles in iridescent raku glaze. High-pile flokati bath rugs in deep pthalo green would spread like lily pads across a blue slate floor, interspersed with shallow stone bowls filled with floating candles. Steam from my bath would curl upward toward an embossed-copper ceiling. There would be two pedestal sinks (his and hers), mirrors at various levels, and little tables laden with abalone shells and piles of books.  And the air would smell of.... well, it would smell of Via Lanvin: clean, serene, and revivifying.

I scored my vintage bottle of this grand old green fragrance for a pittance at a local thrift store. A primary factor in its shockingly low cost was its spray mechanism, which was good 'n' stuck. Ironically, this defect may well have preserved the juice within from the ravages of oxygen and oversampling... thus saving it for me, all for me! I alone accepted the challenge of coaxing Via Lanvin out into the open-- a messy job, yes, but someone had to do it. For the sake of the beauty this B&E operation yielded, I have no regrets whatsoever.

Debuting together in 1971, Via Lanvin and Estée Lauder Private Collection can both be termed evergreen chypres for the hearty dose of pineforest they contain. However, it seems to me that a door divides them. Private Collection is 'outside' with the twilight shadows and fireflies; Via Lanvin is 'inside', where pine smells translate to cleanliness and nature is a decorative detail rather than the entire picture.  It smells of all the amenities of a well-appointed spa: hot steam, cold porcelain, wet slate, warm towels, white soap, loose talcum, lit candles. There's a warm, lived-in undertone to this scent -- the human element, smooth-skinned under a layer of dusting powder, hair still slightly damp from the shower -- but predominant is the sense of a shining expanse of tile recently sanitized with pine oil soap and the merest touch of bleach, so clean it squeaks.

Were I to spend a day in the gritty city, sidestepping murky sidewalk puddles or languishing on grimy subway platforms, this is the fragrance I would want in my purse. Indeed, one spray has the power to leave me feeling spruced up from top to bottom, restored to an orderly starting point.

Scent Elements: Galbanum, bergamot, aldehydes, violet, lemon, lily-of-the-valley, jasmine, iris, carnation, rose, ylang-ylang, narcissus, oakmoss, vetiver, cedar, sandalwood, amber, musk

Fendi (Fendi)

It is the fate of all overblown things to encounter, at last, a deflating pinprick. Looking back, people love to mock the 1980's, a decade filled to bursting with silicone, steroids, and hubris. But during those days, size really did matter-- to a great many people in all walks of life.

The world at that time was run by titanic egos with equally titanic insecurities; we the people could only watch helplessly as these giants roared. From them, we took our cue: if you didn't stand your ground and shout, you risked being lost in the shuffle. We learned to look squarely in the funhouse mirror and imagine ourselves larger than life.

Our surroundings reflected the lesson: everything from politics to architecture to fashion to the human body itself seemed redesigned for maximum one-upmanship. With a quick trip to the mall, you could inflate your silhouette with linebacker-sized shoulder pads, Hammer pants, towers of spiky, geometric hair and lots of pointy metal jewelry. 

Finally, you had fragrance to round off the threat display-- and some of these perfumes were all you really needed. If the DSM-IV applied to fragrance, '80's mega-hits like Giorgio, Poison, Obsession, and Drakkar Noir would be classified as either sociopaths (blunt, aggressive, insensitive) or narcissists (grandiose, attention-seeking, crass). The message broadcast by these olfactory bullies was simple: I am powerful. You do not want to fuck with me. 

But once the decade turned, all this sturm-und-drang seemed faintly silly.  We then spent the 90's disposing of the evidence in various Goodwill stores and rehab centers, stripping away the ammo belts and aggression and cocaine habits and bad memories.

Will it ever be safe to view power as a positive again?

5STARS Small

I entered the new millenium thinking of myself as a peaceable person.  Like many of my age cohort, I'd recoiled from the militaristic Reagan era by embracing what I thought was its antithesis: nonviolent conflict resolution, organic farmers' markets, Bono.  Yet the first time I saw Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, I leapt out of my chair shouting "FUCKYEAH!"  

Fifteen years earlier, I'd scoffed at the notion of male audience erupting into cheers at screenings of First Blood or Commando or Predator-- now here I was, mild manners tossed abruptly aside, completely galvanized by a bloody, turbo-charged revenge saga starring the most steely antihero I'd ever encountered.  Only this time it wasn't Stallone or Schwarzenegger, but a chick-- namely, Uma Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo.  Not since Sigourney Weaver played Ripley in Aliens had there been such an uncompromising warrior-woman on celluloid.

Give that girl all the Hattori Hanzō steel she wants and send me the bill!

And what of the director? Though he launched his career in the '90s making films that paid homage to the '70s, Quentin Tarantino is in many ways a child of that decade inbetween, which shaped both his oversized personality and outré style of cinema. Yet of all indelible marks a filmmaker could make on popular culture, Tarantino's portrayal of women has been the most remarkable.  He clearly respects and admires us and shows it by consistently placing strong, highly independent female characters at the eye of each narrative storm, where they hold forth with calm, courage, and self-contained style. Even unarmed, they wield power. And when they're happy, they kick off their shoes, put on a little music, and sing. Ever seen Rambo do that?

5STARS Small

Fendi by Fendi probably would have ended up reminding me of Beatrix Kiddo whether I wanted it to or not. For one thing, that black-and-yellow packaging is a hue-perfect match to the famous tracksuit she wore in Vol. 1. But more-- Fendi encapsulates all of Kiddo's strength, stillness, and (yes) sweetness in an accord of concentrated feminine force.

I first saw my bottle three months ago in (of course) a secondhand shop, still in its box and nearly full. One sniff made my eyes widen-- this couldn't have borne less of a resemblance to its male counterpart had it come from some alternate dimension.  I've since figured it out: all those perfume forum contributors who call Fendi Uomo a "monster" are sniffing the wrong juice. It's a simple mistake, really; those spare, geometric bottles look so much alike. But when it comes to assertive, world-beating 1980's power fragrances, Fendi by Fendi -- the women's perfume -- is the one that commands respect. Vive la différence!

I stood with my nose parked over that bottle for ten whole minutes, convinced that its previous owner must have been plumb loco to give up such a beauty. Sadly, not all the mad money in my pocket was enough to cover the $40 price tag, so I reluctantly left it behind. Several weeks ago, however, I revisited the shop to find that the price had dropped to a more reasonable $15. This time I didn't hesitate-- I even wore it home.

And yes... I kicked off my shoes, put on a little music, and sang.

Straight out of the bottle, Fendi's clove-heavy spice symphony packs serious firepower. For those familiar with Uomo -- a reticent carnation leather with a hazy vetiver note -- you might expect cultured, modulated tones. But la femme is a big, balls-out fragrance that rings like a temple bell, one glorious heart-swelling note after another with no concerns whatsoever about volume.

Like Yves Saint Laurent's Opium, Estée Lauder's Cinnabar and Youth Dew, and other museum-replica pieces of chinoiserie, Fendi sacrifices subtlety for potency, delicacy for exoticism-- but mitigating features abound. Seldom (or at least not since Andy Tauer's L'air du Désert Marocain) does one get to see cedar -- normally so austere a scent element -- given such a voluptuous outline. Sweetened with tangerine and mellowed by an autumnal note reminiscent of Ginestet Botrytis, it makes me hunger for a dessert of kumquats in syrup and sweet rice wine served beneath the boughs of a flame-red maple... katanas optional. The drydown is honey all the way: can it get more feminine than the delicious drip of nectar from a yielding honeycomb? (Answer that question after you're stung).

For any who have learned to cringe from '80's fragrances as if from a slap in the face, try some Fendi when you come by it... and take back your power.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, rose, ylang-ylang, pepper, iris, jasmine, clove, myrrh, nutmeg, cedarwood, patchouli, vetiver, amber

Tubéreuse Capricieuse & Tubéreuse Virginale (Histoires de Parfums)

This critique must needs be a quick one. Please know that this in no way reflects on the two perfumes being reviewed. But time's a-crunchin', and I'd rather write than not. Does that make sense? Yes? Good. Onward!

Tubéreuse Capricieuse
By any chance does capricieuse mean "passive-aggressive" en français? Because this fragrance started playing major head games on me straight out of the sample vial. The moment I pried the cap loose, a flood of pent-up perfume dribbled down the lovely matte-gold label, dissolving the pigment and leaving metallic streaks all over my hands. Seriously, it was like a scene from Goldfinger. Now, you would think that a perfume capable of guerilla tactics such as these would be a card-carrying baby- slapper, but Tubéreuse Capricieuse turned out to be just the quietest little thing. At first I suspected that its shyness was some kind of ploy, the way that a delinquent teenager acts all polite when he's really planning to sneak out of a window later and toilet-paper all the neighbors' front yards. But no, thrilling as those first paint-melting moments may be, Tubéreuse Capricieuse has no additional tricks up its sleeve. It's prim, dry, whispery, work-safe, perfectly pleasant, and not in the slightest bit capricious. So you can stop waiting for the other shoe to drop-- there isn't any, thank goodness.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, bergamot, saffron, iris, ylang-ylang, tuberose, cacao, white musk, suede

Tubéreuse Virginale
Now this is what I like in a tuberose! So often this flower seems funereal to me, cool and waxen, a little on the ghoulish side. The trick seems to be to heat up the surrounding atmosphere to tropical temperatures so that tuberose's innate coolness reads as refreshing rather than unnerving. Gérald Ghislain fine-tunes the climate with creamy Tahitian tiare blossoms, and a surprise guest: the sweet fruit of the cherry, which lends a certain childlike, optimistic bounce to the formula. Against this riot of equatorial color, tuberose's pale flesh glows like a white opal. I have never seen her looking (or smelling) so radiant. While it has terrific longevity and balance, however, I would not say that Tubéreuse Virginale is ideal for the workplace-- if only because it will have all of your deskmates dreaming about their next vacation when they ought to be filing statistical reports.

Scent Elements: Cherry, mandarin, iris, tuberose, tiare, frangipani, blond wood, patchouli, vanilla, white musk

Kiki Extrait de Parfum (Vero Profumo)

I am bone tired. I have slept a total of six hours over the last forty-eight, and I can't maintain any sort of focus.  The only thing keeping me vertical today is Vero Kern's marvelous Kiki.  Consequently, she has got her hands full.

Unless someone donates their secret stash of René Lalique decorative hair combs to the local Goodwill, I can state with conviction that Kiki is as close to a wearable Art Nouveau masterpiece as I'm ever going to get. Its basic structure -- lavender, citrus, animalics -- is a tip-of-the-hat tribute to that fin de siècle lavender giant, Jicky; it evokes both the jewel tones of a Louis Comfort Tiffany wisteria window and the sunset glow of a Maxfield Parrish illustration. But Kiki is no mere anachronism. The modern garçonne is not content to stop at the surface; her designs, as you can see, go deeper.  (Some are even permanent.).  Kiki is tailored for her bare skin-- and she is prepared to show a lot of it, glistening pale under the lights of the boulevard at night.

Let her shine.  I'm going to bed.

Scent Elements: Lavender, bergamot, citron, passionfruit, geranium, caramel, patchouli, musk

Anna Sui Classic (Anna Sui)

Whenever I’m too far down to get back up, my husband hands me the ultimate antidepressant. He goes to the bookshelf, pulls down two brightly-colored volumes, and silently deposits them in my lap. Within an hour – no matter how glum I was when he left me -- he’ll return to find me restored to good cheer.

The books? Shoichi Aoki's FRUiTS and FRESH FRUiTS.

In 1997, Aoki began photographing the teenagers who congregated daily in Harajuku, an outdoor shopping district in the Tokyo ward of Shibuya. Balanced between upmarket boutiques, downmarket pop-shops, and plastic fast-food cafeterias, Harajuku is the rainbow-bright capitol of Japanese street culture-- and this 60,000 square meter neighborhood cranks out more unique styles per minute than all the high-end couture houses of the world combined.

Every page of Aoki's books introduces you to a new superhero or heroine, clad in the self-made power suit of the day. By "self-made", I mean cobbled together from items purchased at a dozen different boutiques and thrift stores-- or sewn by hand from remnants of childhood kimono. Often, the sophistication of the resulting ensemble is startling; though seemingly random, it's the product of budding high concepts. These may be kids, but they're also full-fledged designers conscious of their potential as future brand names. They've got ideas, philosophies, look books. They're not here to mess around.

Well, some of them are. In honorable teenaged tradition, many Harajuku kids show up just to have some good, clean, absurdist fun with their friends. Both girls and boys demonstrate group solidarity via identical dress-- but unlike other historic urban fashion movements (e.g. London punk or Los Angeles gangwear) Tokyo's emphasis is on the cute 'n' cuddly (I swear, you never saw so much effort to look harmless in your life!). My personal favorites are the Gothic Lolitas-- those living bébés in Victorian petticoats, with their lace half-mittens and tiny top-hat fascinators and those wee parasols shielding their tender complexions from the sun...

But in 2004, the whole of Harajuku proved defenseless against the scorching effect of a much nearer star. The first curls of smoke coincided with the release of Gwen Stefani's album Love.Angel.Music.Baby. featuring the single "Harajuku Girls". Stefani's campaign to annex Fashion's Heavenly Acre for her own exclusive use continued the following year, when she conscripted four identically-dressed Asian "club kids" to be her new entourage. Their job was to look expressionless, remain perfectly silent, and surround Stefani with photogenic poses at every opportunity. (Possibly the worst thing I have ever seen is this videoclip, in which the Harajuku Girls actually kneel and bow down to their Great Blonde Goddess before busting various dance moves. Watch it and shudder.)

Then came those horrible, terrible, awful, no-good fragrances. If I mildly disliked Gwen Stefani before, now I really loathed her. She singlehandedly condemned the name Harajuku to be synonymous with "crap" forevermore-- and ruined perfume. Thanks, girlfriend!

I do not doubt that Ms. Stefani has more need of Harajuku than Harajuku has need of her. Such is the fertility of that creative ground that in five, ten, twenty or fifty years, we will know many names from the pages of Shoichi Aoki's FRUiTS intimately-- because they'll appear on fashion labels next to our skin, as well as (one hopes!) the perfume bottles on our vanities. Until then, anyone looking for an alternative to faux-Harajuku hijinks might do well to check out New York's own Anna Sui.

Parsons alumna, SoHo stalwart, and proponent of a very particular creepy- cute aesthetic, Sui is notable for applying a fresh coat of urban decay to the "dolly rocker" look popularized by Pattie Boyd in the late '60's. Demure up top but revealing an outrageous expanse of leg, Sui's fashions combine girly freshness with Rocky Horror glam and a touch of Siouxsie Sioux. Properly accessorized, they could hold their own in the Harajuku district any day of the week.

And what of Sui's perfumes? Just like Gwen Stefani's, they're girly-whirly, hypersweet, kitschy-cute-- but still they somehow manage to beat Harajuku Lovers by a mile. I rather like the bottle designs for the "Dolly Girl" series (2003-present), inspired by the eerie mannequins Sui designed for Pucci International in 1997. It's a pity she didn't utilize the motif for her eponymous first perfume (1998)-- a chic little goth number begging to be dispensed from a vessel resembling Louise Brooks' head! Instead, it comes in black-and-clear glass flacon that belongs on a dressing table in an Old West whorehouse. Ah, well. I suppose that's sort of Gothic Lolita-- if you overlook the opium, syphilis, and gin.

Anna Sui Classic kicks off directly with an juicy explosion of sweet orange, followed by a fuzzy red raspberry note straight off the vine. Yes, you're getting yourself into a youthful fruity floral-- but there are all kinds of youth culture, and ASC means to ally itself with the avant-garde, as demonstrated by the strange new-plastic accord that turns up next. (Remembering this very accord from Gaultier's Ma Dame, I was all ready to compare scent note lists when I found their common synthetic ingredient: supermodel Agyness Deyn, whose scary-long Barbie legs have traversed the catwalk for both couturiers.)

When all scent suddenly disappeared, I admit I was taken aback, but as I'd seen this sort of thing before (notably in Patricia de Nicolaï's Sacrebleu, for which I die) I determined to wait it out. This proved the best choice, as ASC sidled back to me minutes later, batting its smoky eyes by way of apology. Once it made the decision to stay, it got as down-home comfortable as a perfume could be-- enfolding me deep in a pillowy-warm tonka note touched with a powdery incense rose. And really, this was the part I liked best. Because when you need comfort, you go with what's gentle and colorful and cheering. Anna Sui Classic may shroud itself in gothic black lace, but oh, it's got a soft, soft heart.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, raspberry, apricot, rose, jasmine, cedarwood, tonka

Prophecy (DSH Perfumes)

In the perfume world -- as in Western art -- Orientalism's fan club is a sizable one. Its pin-up girls are fair-haired, phlegmatic beauties who enjoy long, lazy days of captivity in the Sultan's seraglio, clad in little else but transparent gauze and costume jewelry à la Ingres' Grand Odalisque. Have you got that image fixed in your mind? Now imagine a gigantic Peep® recumbent on the bed instead of the girl, and you have a fairly good idea of where Prophecy is coming from.

When I first popped the cap on this one, I did a double-take. How the hell did Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab get in here? This is the hugest, girliest, most sugary-dreamy DSH fragrance I've tried yet, and it just keeps getting bigger and sweeter. Soon it will attain the girth (and tiny tutu) of that lusty lady hippo from Disney's Fantasia and back me into a corner with a few well-timed pirouettes. And I will love every minute of it.

I'm not saying that "pink marshmallow incense" is a fragrance impossibility, nor am I saying it's unpleasant once you try it. But if this is the Orient, I'm Angela Lansbury.

Scent Elements: Amber, sandalwood, Himalayan cedar, incense

Dalissime and Daliflor (Parfums Salvador Dalí)

Confession: I'm no fan of Salvador Dalí. I don't "get" him, and I have no desire to try. Is that bad?

Once upon a time, I believed that my inability to fathom his brilliance was a symptom of some grave personal deficiency. Everyone knows the man was a genius!-- but still my heart refused to leap, twang, ache, or swell at the sight of his paintings. Those forced and pompous images, full of deliberately cryptic symbolism yet devoid of emotional substance, continually frustrated my attempts to connect with the soul that made them. No matter how long I stared at them, they never flowered into meaning for me.

I had no such difficulty with Miró, Magritte, or de Chirico. But then, none of them possessed personalities half as infuriating as Dalí's. Just like his modern-day heir Lady Gaga, he delighted in outrageous behavior for the sake of raising other people's hackles.  I am edgy, revolutionary, groundbreaking, such people love to proclaim, even unsolicited.  I shock you, don't I?

No, you BORE me, I want to reply. Deeply, thoroughly, to sobs.  But they'd never hear me... let alone believe me.

Salvador Dalí himself did not design the following two perfumes, so there really is no reason for me to hold a grudge against them.  Only their bottles attempt a Dalíesque level of tomfoolery-- but are not ludicrous enough to succeed.  If you, like me, avoided them on general principle due to their name affiliation with the great provocateur, relax.  They're just regular perfumes.  You can take them anywhere without fear of embarrassment.

Dalissime (Parfums Salvador Dalí)
Released by Parfums Salvador Dalí in 1994, five years after Dalí's death and one hundred years after his wife Gala's birth, this sweet Mark Buxton composition offers a montage of idyllic summer images-- sunshine in a cloudless sky, sweet floral breezes across the back patio, ripe fruits in honey spooned up from a chilled glass bowl.  If all this sounds commonplace, you clearly need a vacation.  Incentive:  that nice, raspy little animalic note lending subterranean interest when you least expect it.  You'll  may even find yourself focusing harder so as not to miss it-- which will give the neighborhood bumblebees time to sample the fruit salad nectar remaining at the bottom of your cup.

Scent Elements: Blackcurrant, jasmine, peach, apricot, ambergris, rose, vanilla

Daliflor Eau de Toilette (Parfums Salvador Dalí)
I don't know whether to love or laugh at this bottle. Based on the graceless main figure of Femme à la Tete de Roses and sporting a bizarre floral toque where a head ought to be, its very ugliness is bizarrely appealing. It seems to cry out for affection, as does the perfume it houses. By turns herbal, floral, savory, and sweet, it grows curiouser and curiouser with every passing second. It's got the same perverse accord of hot steamed white rice that I loved in Amanda Lepore's fragrance, along with a strange touch of salty green approaching fresh flat-leaf parsley... but these are wedded to a fruity-floral of consummate girliness, with a shot of caramel syrup calculated to really throw the wearer off. What does it mean? I'm not sure. But I'm willing to wear it until I find out.

Scent Elements: Grapefruit, jasmine, rose, verbena, sandalwood, Bourbon vanilla

Not your average May-December romance....

May is here at long last.... so why in tarnation am I posting about Christmas? Well, thanks to the generous JoanElaine, it happens that at the advent of spring, I'm reliving the delights of that other Advent. One of the samples she sent me has reawakened a certain anticipatory Yuletide feeling. Twelve days of Christmas?! Try 127!

Hidden in the crawlspace beneath our house for eleven months of the year, my mother's collection of fancy Christmas candles occupied a battered old cardboard box whose fibers had absorbed all the scents of twenty holiday seasons. When Yuletide arrived, we'd pull that box out into the light of day and begin to unpack its contents: tapers, spheres, columns, Santas, angels, fancy "Swiss cheese" candles made by mixing ice cubes into hot paraffin, and silvery "icicles" built by slow and patient wax-dripping. With these came the scents of bayberry, cinnamon, clove, orange, spruce, apple, and vanilla, all backed by the rich odor of the paraffin itself and the sooty-greasy smell of blackened wicks.

Light all of them at once, and you have Dawn Spencer Hurwitz's December-- ripples of heat and all.

Think of December as an Advent calendar, opening slowly to reveal one hidden treasure at a time. Patience is required to fully extract its charms, which start with the candle wax (kinky!) and veer towards the sweet ephemera of candy without ever overwhelming you with a surfeit of sugar. In the bottle, it smells like incense plain and simple; on skin, it smells like the contents of the most blissfully overstuffed Christmas stocking known to childkind-- all peppermints and licorice all-sorts, and nary a lump of coal.

December didn't last as long as I wished it would... but neither does Yuletide, proof that life's briefest joys are also its sweetest.

Scent Elements: Clove bud, galbanum, ginger, spices, sweet orange, balsam fir, Bulgarian rose otto, fir needle, pinecone, Atlas cedarwood, frankincense, myrrh, balsam Tolu, moss, vanilla absolute