Imprévu Vintage Eau de Cologne (Coty)

One week before AppendixFest brings VintageFest to a (literally!) screeching halt, I sit mired in frustration over a stalled review of Coty Imprévu. That Imprévu is a firm favorite of mine ought to ease the path of criticism-- yet I find myself struggling in vain to articulate exactly why this chic green-leather chypre sends me.

Noting my descent into literary quicksand, my husband tosses me a line. Would I care to come away from the computer and watch the premiere of We'll Take Manhattan?

He reads me too well, that man of mine.

A joint production of Ovation TV and BBC-4, We'll Take Manhattan depicts the sweet-hot dynamic between model Jean Shrimpton (Karen Gillan) and Vogue photographer David Bailey (Aneurin Barnard)-- two youthquakers loosed upon the hidebound world of haute couture. In the year 1962 (the precise moment at which Cecil Beaton's mannered mannequins have begun to appear as stiff as their plaster counterparts) these two Young Turks conspire to introduce flippancy and fun to the pages of top fashion rags.

Of course, not everyone in the docudramatic world of Manhattan is pleased. Vogue fashion editor Lady Clare Rendlesham (Helen McCrory) reacts with horror at Shrimpton's predilection for posing sans hat and gloves, legs splayed and arms akimbo. Ladies don't DO that, she argues. Oh, don't they? Just watch!

The morning after the broadcast, I pull out my beloved 1966 volume of Glamour's Beauty Book, where photos of "the Shrimp" are legion. Gazing into her vast Bambi eyes, I feel strangely protective of her. She's only twenty-four in these photographs -- a mere thousand days past being named Glamour Model of the Year -- and already her camera fade-out has begun. Any minute now, a sixteen-year-old waif nicknamed Twiggy will supplant her, first on magazine covers, next as the Symbol Supreme of a decade.

Yet Jean's smile is tranquil. She radiates a lucid, self-possessed quality impervious to the passage of five decades. She looks as though knows something. But what?

I close the book, put it away, reach quite naturally for Imprévu-- and finally understand what keeps me reaching, and reaching, and reaching.

In fifty years, pop culture has reinvented itself a hundred times over. Interleaving yesterday's conventions with tomorrow's trends, it strives with varying levels of success to claim eternal youth. But every once in a while, some mere kid -- insouciant, artless, and devastating -- flits through and blows that pretense to smithereens. They may not understand what they've done, or even notice. They're here and gone... and we build new civilizations atop the wreckage.

It's not that Imprévu is necessarily a game-changer. While it projects that aura of chic indispensable to modern living, it wasn't the first gem of its kind to sparkle. A revolutionary army of chypres and leathers paved its way-- but the thing is, Imprévu doesn't get hung up on concepts like gratitude or legacy or debt. With breathtaking arrogance, it swings merrily along as though it owns the whole road. It is what it is and it does what it does with minimal effort and maximum impact-- and not for a single minute does it take a damn thing seriously.

In short, Imprévu is young. Not eternal, not timeless, not endless-- but new and now. I don't wear it to remind me of anything. I wear it to walk forward into the future... sans hat and gloves, easy and free.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, bigarade, aldehydes, cloves, oakmoss, patchouli, leather

Echt Kölnisch Wasser Vintage Eau de Cologne (Farina am dom Köln)

This past week at my surgical followup, I received the stupendous news that I'm cleared to drive again. Such a development might evoke only an offhand shrug from the average citizen -- but me, I LOVE TO DRIVE. From my first turn behind the wheel in high school (a clipboard-wielding gym teacher glowering by my side), I have cherished every liberating hour of road time granted to me. Sure, at present I am forced to wedge a pillow under my lap belt to protect my healing midsection... but it's a small price to pay for Vroom-vroom-vroom!

To celebrate the restoration of my vehicular independence, I head to Ye Olde Antique Barn in search of vintage treasures. Bingo! A half-hour of searching unearths a 50 ml. bottle of Farina am dom Köln Echt Kölnisch Wasser, full and in perfect condition. Judging from its label and cap, I'd estimate that it dates back to the early '60's-- but of course, Echt Kölnisch Wasser's age is measured in centuries, which almost makes the establishment of vintage a moot point.

So how does history smell? Like it repeats itself.

Dating to 1709, Giovanni Maria Farina's innovative scent spawned a host of imitators including 4711, which it predates by a century. A quick sniff establishes that the two fragrances do indeed smell very similar, though Echt Kölnisch Wasser seems to me more lemony and optimistic. If I'd encountered it first, I might find those tart citrus top notes and that powdery-misty floral heart captivating. But the fact is that I prefer 4711, which I believe improves on Farina's formal exponentially.

I know only one of the two can be der echte Artikel... but by the same token, only one can claim my heart.

Scent Elements: Ölen von Zitrone, Orange, Bergamotte, Mandarine, Limette, Zeder und Pampelmuse sowie Kräutern ein Duftwasser mischte. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

B Scent (LUSH)

Neither grapefruit nor rose are among my favorite scent elements, but a novel combination could conceivably change my mind. This didn't. As a matter of fact, it seems to have left me with a troubling case of fragrance amnesia.

I can hardly recall why B Scent disappointed me -- all that remains of the experience is a hazy impression of plastic fruit and flowers -- but even now I question my memory. Was it really so devoid of charm, twists, and surprises as to slip my mind completely?

Scent Elements: Lemon, bergamot, grapefruit, fennel, lavender, rose absolute, jasmine absolute, sandalwood, ylang-ylang, musk

1000 Kisses (LUSH)

On the average, I would say that I embrace weirdness more than I push it away. By this standard, I ought to adore the pants off of 1000 Kisses. Its kickoff is stunningly naphthalic, like a mothball up the nostril (ever do that as a kid?). A drizzle of orange-scented acetone later, and we plunge into a sweet amber dressed up with the apricot-almond scent of osmanthus. Then 1000 Kisses lights up a cheap lilac-scented room candle and politely asks what more it can show us today.

Nothing, thanks. I'm spent-- and so is my spouse, who inhaled the roiling fumes from my wrist and uttered only three words: "Rubber party balloon."

Scent Elements: Mandarin, osmanthus, myrrh, labdanum, musk

Cocktail (LUSH)

A good deal reminiscent of Mona di Orio's penetrating Nuit Noire, Cocktail offers the excitement of a test drive on an empty country road-- all swooping hills and heart-pounding curves, and of course that fabulous new-car smell.  Here, jasmine rather than tuberose is the flower in the passenger side bud vase.  The woods are mossy, dark and deep, and if the tiniest touch of motor oil does not strike you as inconsistent with the glorious scent of a passing meadow, take the wheel.  This is a sweet ride!

Scent Elements: Lavender, bergamot, rose absolute, jasmine absolute, Australian sandalwood, ylang-ylang, cananga wood, oakmoss

Dear John (LUSH)

I wish to god this came in a deodorant.

Don't laugh at me! My longing for greater creativity in functional product fragrance is a serious matter. We're all habituated to such a limited palette of body scents ("breezy", "sporty", "powder fresh") that the idea of routinely smelling like clove-studded Mexican limes on a thick bed of evergreen needles might sound like a shot across the bow. (But wasn't that sort of gentle revolutionary tactic the very point of Estee Lauder's Alliage? It can work, people. It CAN.)

I would rather that my underarms exuded this scent than anything the personal hygiene industry has provided for me thus far. However, LUSH might want to hammer out the kinks in Dear John's longevity, because a deodorant simply cannot quit after only an hour... and nor should a fragrance this fun.

Scent Elements: Lime, coffee, clove bud, coriander, vetiver, cedarwood, pine

The Smell of Freedom (LUSH)

First of all, I love the premise. Three scents created for three survivors; three unique olfactory biographies, each standing on its own. Blending them into a single fragrance, the perfumer decides to name it for his subjects' common goal: freedom.

So what does it smell like? Like riding horseback fast over a wide plain, trampling sweet hay and verbena under hoof. A cold, refreshing wind stings your skin and draws tears from your eyes. In the saddlebag, precious incense and spices; waiting at the end of the gallop, the tribal home fire.

I can't help but think of Jen and Lo, the doomed lovers from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Chinese title of this movie, 卧虎藏龙 (Wòhǔ Cánglóng) is an idiom for people who appear ordinary but who hide their extraordinary talents from plain view. In the film, Jen's nickname is Jiao Long (Delicate Dragon), while Lo is also known as Xiaohu (Little Tiger). She is a sword prodigy disguised as a naive bourgeoise; he is a poetic lover disguised as a tribal warlord. Only with each other can they honestly be themselves. In other words, FREE-- liberated for so short a time by the power of their shared embrace.

Like their story, The Smell of Freedom is exhilarating and leaves me breathless. But I rather want to sniff those three separate "seed" fragrances (Fire Tree, Old Delhi Station, and Oudh Heart) in order to try to understand how exactly we got here from there.

Scent Elements: Lemongrass, lemon myrtle, neroli, jasmine, iris, ginger, fire tree, clove, black pepper, sandalwood, oudh

Milly-la-Forêt (Dior)

In Sébastien Japrisot's novel Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement), young Mathilde Donnay undertakes a journey that she privately dubs "the Milly expedition". No day trip, this. Mathilde has spent seven years (and thirteen chapters) searching for her fiancé Manech, whose death in the Great War's trenches she has firmly refused to accept. A torturous breadcrumb path of clues, hints, and false leads has brought her to a secluded garden in Milly-la-Forêt. Here, her beloved (now a shell-shocked amnesiac) waits-- so Mathilde's been told.

They say the most terrifying moment of any ordeal is the one in which the victim comes closest to deliverance. Mathilde has traveled long and hard to reach Manech. All she must do to claim him is travel a little further... into the garden's shadowy, dangerous heart. This, perhaps, requires more courage than anything else she has done.

How much peril can a garden contain? In Japrisot's psychological language, plenty. Throughout Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles, flowers regularly surface as symbols of failure, denial, and human fragility. Manech's fellow soldiers dub him "le Bleuet" (The Cornflower) in tribute to his naïveté and innocence. After he is sentenced to death for committing self-mutilation, this nickname -- so evocative of a wildflower's impermanence -- assumes a special pathos. For her part, Mathilde obsessively paints canvas after canvas of "cheerful" florals that express clandestine disgust for a world forgetful of the horrors of war. At night she dreams of a field of yellow sunflowers whose tall green stems enclose her like prison walls. For Mathilde, the real terror of this nightmare lies in the flowers' blind and insensate optimism. She kicks at them in a rage; they break and fall before her-- but there are miles of them to get through, and she is one woman, small and alone.

Imagine, then, Mathilde's apprehension as she proceeds through the garden at Milly-la-Forêt. The tide of hope that threatens to overspill the boundaries of her soul is tempered by vague anxiety. What if "the Milly expedition" is just another cul-de-sac? What if the young man waiting in the garden is a stranger?

What if she reaches the end of this path... and finds nothing but flowers nodding their empty heads?

Luckily for great literature, Sébastien Japrisot chose to end his tale differently. Unluckily for us and the cologne known as Milly-la-Forêt, Dior did not. If fragrance tells a story, then this chapter of Dior's 2010 Collection Privée tragically fails to deliver on the promise of a great opening sentence.

Milly-la-Forêt begins with a fanfare of summertime exuberance, all flowers and greenery laid out like a labyrinth and poised to lure us inward to a place apart from humdrum reality. One begins the journey willingly, seduced by the full complement of sun, songbirds, and pretty flowers. Here, we are assured, the tranquility of Christian Dior's famous country home can be vicariously experienced. But what's this? Only a few steps in, and the heady, sleepy scent of blossom-heavy green vines disappears. Into its place steps the jarring smell of a dimestore sourball.

Don't misunderstand me; I like acid sweets as much as the next person. Few treats can be more refreshing than the spine-tingling, mouth-puckering whammy of hard sugar imbued with malic and citric acids; pawing such delights from the depths of a cheap cardboard box or crackling cellophane sleeve never fails to bring out the kid in me. But even if I wanted candy right now, I'd want a better brand than this. Don't these surroundings deserve it somehow? And what's more, don't sour candies require more than chemical special effects to be satisfying? They need a flavor-- and the artificial pineapple one found at the heart of Milly-la-Forêt is so dilute that it nullifies all the force of character which with this fragrance commenced. At the same time, like an Everlasting Gobstopper, Milly-la-Forêt's hard-candy heart possesses a deathless tenacity. I quit before it did-- how about you?

While initially impelled to write Milly-la-Forêt off, a sentimental impulse held me back. Was it the promise inherent in those beautiful top notes? Was it the sense that the author might yet redeem himself-- or that one bad chapter might not hold back the rest of the novel?

Not counting Eau Noire (the preface which made me want to crack open this volume in the first place), I still have eight chapters to go to finish the Collection Privée. Will I -- like my literary heroine Mathilde Donnay -- summon the strength to press on regardless of the danger of disappointed hopes? Or will I find myself frustrated, kicking wildly at sunflowers just to get through to the blue sky?

Scent Elements: Orange blossom, neroli, jasmine, iris, mandarin, white musk, sandalwood

Jour Ensoleillé (Sonoma Scent Studio)

Without our even noticing, the sun has passed its zenith. As indigo shadows lengthen across the grass, we pursue our transient pleasures at a heightened pace and pitch, hoping to trap approaching twilight in a net of laughter. It eludes our snares as it must, and yet we feel no resentment. We knew this day of perfect weather could not last.

Wasn't it wonderful? we chime, straggling homeward through the blessed cool of evening, itself as much a natural consecration of our joy as the envoi that concludes a sestina.

A hundred years from now, strangers will come across a faded photograph of our perfect day. They'll study our joyful faces and wonder what exactly we were laughing about. They might guess at our names, our personalities, our inner thoughts, and never once hit the mark. But they will know -- as surely as if hearing it directly from our lips -- what we felt. And for an instant, they too will bask in the heat and brilliance of the sunlight that illuminated our world.

5STARS Small

Though of modern make, Jour Ensoleillé evokes the golden haze of nostalgia that can be found suffusing images of a bygone world. While its description reads like a symphony of heady white flowers, its underpinnings (beeswax, ambergris, and a glowing gem of a chypre) speak most compellingly of a past that resonates with unexpected emotion.

I experience this whenever I view photographs of the Tsar's daughters at the summer palace in Livadia. I feel as though a portal has opened up beneath my feet and I am standing right next to these innocent girls, their traditional white linen summer dresses incandescent in the midday light.*. I hear their laughter in my ears; I feel the sweet flower-scented sea breezes that they love so much fanning my warm brow. And I know what they do not know about how it will all end, and I can't bear it, no, I can't bring myself to look into their eyes...

Could Jour Ensoleillé be the perfume equivalent of the Petit Trianon? On a hot August day in 1901, Eleanor Jourdain and Charlotte Moberly -- two eminently reasonable and sane English ladies -- lost their way on the grounds of Versailles. Within sight of the Petit Trianon, they found themselves transported... to the year 1792. Only afterwards did they come to the reluctant conclusion that they might have wandered through a "wrinkle in time". How could they be sure? Their logical minds had chosen to treat every bit of the mirage as real... and they reacted accordingly.

So it is with Jour Ensoleillé. Breathing it in, I experience feelings I am not sure are mine: wistfulness, hope, a very certain shade of heartbreak. These emotions both entrance and unsettle me; I find I cannot easily exorcise them.

What strange advice do the ghosts of Jour Ensoleillé have to offer? Nothing... except to play along. From the beginning, its impact depends entirely on the associations and sentiments it draws from us; on these, the power of the total experience is predicated. But do not be afraid. If you stray into its spell and feel the sting of heartbreak, be sure that sweetness follows.

*Less traditional was the sisters' passion for sunbathing-- a post-Edwardian fad which (like the newfangled art of box-camera photography) required skills in exposure and development. While the Tsaritsa enjoyed the sun only through layers of protective silken veiling, her daughters exploited every patch of sunlight that crossed their paths. "(T)he Grand Duchesses used to lie like lizards in the sun... regardless of their mother's appeals to them to think of their complexions," reported Countess Sophie Buxhoeveden. Occasionally, the girls' hobby fed the roots of rebellion. In one famous incident, Olga cultivated a "disfiguring" sunburn the day before meeting an unwanted royal suitor. Her sisters appeared similarly burnt, demonstrating a solidarity that reached more than skin-deep.

Scent Elements: Orange blossom, neroli, tuberose, jasmine, beeswax absolute, labdanum absolute, myrrh, sandalwood, ambergris, vetiver, green leaves, oakmoss absolute  

Coeur de Vétiver Sacré (L'Artisan)

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; 
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!

--from "Ode to the West Wind", Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819 
Does the wind excite you... or disturb you?  Does its constant, restless song fill you with a sense of expectation... or utterly shatter your peace of mind?  Ever since it arrived last night, I admit I've paced the house like a fretful cat, fur and hackles raised, reading ill auguries into its every moan and sigh.  I know what it brings; I wonder what it will leave behind.

Wildfire weather is upon us.  As I speak, six hundred acres blaze out of control in the next county, while another four hundred acres to the southwest lies blackened-- a weekend's work for Mother Nature, who suddenly reveals herself to be a pyromaniac.  All around my house, tree limbs creak and grind against one another, as if she were attempting to start a fire using their friction.  With the wind's help, she may yet succeed.

In the hopes of finding something to soothe my singed nerves, I dig blindly through my scent stash and emerge with a decant of Coeur de Vétiver Sacré.  Though I only obtained it a short while ago, it has evaporated away to nearly nothing within the spray vial.  What remains has separated like some kind of misconceived salad dressing-- globules of golden oil riding unsteadily atop a quarter-inch of pale alcohol.  I shake the vial briskly until it turns milky and opaque, then spray it all over me until nothing's left.

I might as well.  Time is short.  And so is Coeur de Vétiver Sacré.

Just as with Karine Vinchon's earlier L'Artisan composition, L'Eau de Jatamansi, I recognize what is so alluring about Coeur de Vétiver Sacré just before it vanishes forever from my skin.  For exactly five seconds I'm lost in a glittering cloud of powdered tea leaves, spices, and citrine dust-- then the mirage wavers, and I see the endless blazing-white sands undulating away toward a bleak horizon.

Delirious with thirst, Coeur de Vétiver Sacré and I stumble onward side by side for the barest half hour before it, too, falls and dies in my arms... or does it? As I watch, dry-eyed and resigned, a dust devil rises from the site of Coeur de Vétiver Sacré's demise, swirling heavenward in a sparkling helix.  And the wind -- the everlasting, ever-mocking, never-stopping wind -- carries the beauteous djinn away.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, orange, dates, dried apricot, pink berries, rose, iris, osmanthus, black tea, ginger, pepper, coriander, saffron, tarragon, vetiver, sandalwood, guaiacwood, white cedar, labdanum, castoreum, vanilla, musk, incense