Design (Paul Sebastian)

Debuting in 1985 on drugstore shelves everywhere, Paul Sebastian's Design Eau de Parfum for Women struck a chord with high-school-age Jersey girls eager to blow their first paychecks on something "classy".  You could come home from your after-school job at Mickey D's, scour away the smell of aging french-fry grease in a fiercely hot shower, and emerge in a cloud of Design, ready for anything.  (Add a huge off-the-shoulder sweater, skinny jeans tucked into WigWam cheerleader socks, and a barrel of Dippity-Do to keep your big hair vertical-- and you're set to cruise the Mall until the store security gates go down.)

Beguiling sweetness... Narcotic opulence... Dreamy... Dangerous... Insinuating.  The ad copy for Design still manages to steam up the windshield, evoking those lightly smutty novels we kyped from our mothers' bedside tables to read on the sly.  Scruples. Mistral's Daughter.  Sweet Savage Love. Bibles of feminine wish-fulfillment, populated with impossibly glamorous characters in impossibly glamorous situations, designed to appeal to girls and women whose lives never strayed an inch toward such extremes.

Twenty-five years (and hundreds of new perfume trends) later, Paul Sebastian Design is (nearly) unchanged.  It may have undergone the usual cheapening process of reformulation -- a sobering thought, as it was so cheap to begin with -- but it's just as plentiful and affordable as it was back in high school.  However, its glory days are indeed gone.  If the market is to be believed, today's young women don't want sophistication; a regression into pink sugar-coated childhood is what they crave.  Accordingly, five out of ten Basenotes correspondents give Design a thumbs-down; of those five, three liken it to "bug spray" and one humorously envisions the Design wearer as "the woman... (who) routinely sports nude stockings with cream-colored heels."  Oh snap!

I can see why they object.  Design is neither safe nor cute nor clean nor cutting-edge.  It's a big, dirty, liquored-up gardenia-tuberose riding atop a gargantuan monster truck of a base-- musk AND civet AND cassis AND jasmine.  You can feel it before you see it; it makes road signs quiver and traffic lights bounce and small animals run for cover.

All things being equal, and cheap items being just as capable of beauty as the insanely expensive, Paul Sebastian Design is still a sight better than the vanilla-and-corn syrup travesties crowding the shelves of every Target, Walmart, Macys and Rite Aid today. Perhaps in its day, it was representative of a trend that stretched from Giorgio to Poison all the way up to Amarige. And perhaps in the future, Britney Spears' Fantasy and Kimora Lee's Fabulosity will be described as vintage classics (though 2012 is coming, and humankind might be spared that catastrophe).

For now, Design seems to me a solid piece of work, more likely to fall among the blessed than the damned once a thousand years have elapsed. It may be middle-of-the-road... but only because it's way too big to fit in one lane.

Scent Elements: Tuberose, orange blossom, gardenia, honeysuckle, lilac, peach, jasmine, carnation, ylang-ylang, rose, blackcurrant, sandalwood, musk, civet

Sun Moon Stars (Karl Lagerfeld)

I find the tiny, cobalt-blue, globe-shaped bottle sitting in a birdcage.  Not a real one-- just a miniature birdcage originally designed for a Lolita Lempicka mini.  The bottle itself is a cut-rate pressed-glass tribute to Worth's Dans la Nuit, but it seems right at home perched plumply upon the little dais inside the cage. The antique dealer must have thought the arrangement looked charming-- and despite its irregularity, so do I.

Karl Lagerfeld terrifies me, but Sophia Grojsman does not, so I take the time to smell it.  It is a light, cheap, and cheerful version of Jaïpur, peach with a slug of pineapple and Grojsman's signature intense rose, and I like it just fine. I remember how much Jaïpur sustained me through last winter, and I smell snow in the air, so I shell out a few bucks for it and take it home along with the birdcage. I am not sorry.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, freesia, neroli, pineapple, peach, rose, muguet, carnation, heliotrope, cedar, sandalwood, vanilla, musk

La Myrrhe (Serge Lutens)

A black Jaguar with tinted windows pulls up to the curb.  No sooner is the parking brake deployed than the chauffeur launches himself out to open the back door.  From it steps a tall man in a razor-sharp Savile Row suit-- so hard you could strike sparks off of him, so cool he appears to have emerged fresh from a cryogenic chamber.  As he approaches your table, you notice a Smith & Wesson high security briefcase-- twelve-gauge steel, brushed gunmetal grey finish, digital keypad combination lock -- handcuffed to his wrist.

His face is perfectly impassive as he places the case on the tabletop.  A quick and complicated salvo of numerals punched in with one perfectly-manicured finger, and the briefcase springs open.  Neatly, silently, the man in the suit spins it to face you so that you can inspect its contents. 

Nestled within a chrysalis of custom-molded shockproof foam is a massive, bullet-shaped chrismatory-- titanium, from the looks of it, seamless and polished to a mirror shine.  Laser-engraved on its surface are the words LA MYRRHE.

You glance at its bearer. With the merest flick of his chin, he motions to you to lift it out of its foam cradle.

It is heavier than you imagined, and so cold the pads of your fingers adhere slightly to its surface, forcing you to toss it from hand to hand until it warms up.  Its precision-fit screw cap spins smoothly counterclockwise with minimal prompting.   What engineering, you think-- a split second before all thought becomes impossible.

What rises from the mouth of the chrismatory is not what you were led to expect. When you think of myrrh, you think of spicy, warming balsamic oils enclosed in amber glass vials glowing in a pool of candlelight.  What you get with La Myrrhe is a deathly-cold gust of aldehydes fronting the hissiest, greyest-blue ghost of a scent you've ever smelled -- like the first morbidly sweet exhalation of air from a newly-opened tomb. You recoil, return, recoil, and return again to this olfactory memento mori in your hands.    It stares you in the face, harsh and merciless, its fluorescent-white intensity obliterating all shadow.

Never again will you be able to forget the etymology of the word myrrh:  Aramaic for "bitter".

The man in the suit touches a button on his high-tech earpiece.  "Balthasar to Headquarters," he intones curtly in a voice as smooth and hard as a block of lucite.  Two seconds later: "I've made the drop."

Scent Elements: Myrrh, bitter almond, woods, pimiento berries, sandalwood, honey, jasmine, amber, musk, spices

Bois d'Encens (Armani Privé)

The custom of burning frankincense to sanctify and sweeten the air had already passed its 3,000th birthday by the time baby Jesus celebrated his first.  Due to its very antiquity, certain personages in the frankincense story are destined to remain shrouded in obscurity.  Whoever thought to nick the Boswellia shrub with a knife, or collect the fragrant sap that flowed from the cuts, or toss the hardened tears of resin into the fire-- these are the anonymous geniuses whose praises we sing.  (We'd send them a thank-you card if only we knew their names...)

For lack of a firm mailing address, we can always thank Giorgio Armani instead.  Bois d'Encens (like its other brethren in the Privé line) is a tour de force of minimalism-- Beethoven's Ninth attempted by a one-man band, the Mahābhārata published as a two-by-three-inch stocking stuffer, the Hallelujah Chorus arranged as Quaker plainsong.  The simplicity of its starting formula (at least three ingredients, no more than five) belie the jaw-dropping majesty of the end result.

While Comme des Garçon's Avignon captures the effect of frankincense smoke filling unlimited space, Bois d'Encens moves in for an extreme closeup on the individual frankincense nugget as it blisters, sizzles, toasts and melts atop glowing coals. If Avignon is dry, light, and cool, Bois d'Encens is liquid, heavy, and lava-hot. So truly does it cleave to the reality of frankincense that I would identify it as a soliresin in the same sense that a single-flower oil is called a soliflore.

But just as the coal consumes the incense, time consumes Bois d'Encens, and far more quickly than the precious substance which inspired it. Its most glorious moments are those least sustainable on skin (though the cedar-vetiver accord that remains is certainly hale and handsome). Still -- guided, perhaps, by those nameless ancient experimenters responsible for bringing us frankincense in the first place -- I'm driven to seek a solution. What would a triple layer of Bois d'Encens, Avignon, and Encens Flamboyant smell like?

Something tells me you might be able to see it from space-- or, on earth, at least from afar, twinkling like a star on the horizon.

Scent Elements: Frankincense, cedar, vetiver

Divine (Divine)

As brutal, bitter winter readies itself to pounce, one envies the creatures who simply pack it in and hibernate until spring.  The rest of us wander around chilled in body and spirit, a quart low on both vitamin D and optimism, suffering for want of a beauty we can embrace without fear of frostbite.  At this time, two things strike me as gifts worth their weight in gold:  fresh flowers and sunshine.  In the bleakness of winter, no panacea could be more miraculous than a bouquet of rare blossoms, or a flood of benevolent light and heat just when your weary bones need it most.

Authored by former L'Oreal exec Yvon Mouchel and promulgated worldwide from a tiny village on Brittany's Côte d'Émeraude, Divine brings to December what we most desire: both flowers and sunshine in abundance.

Every super team needs a heroine.  If the Magi were the Mod Squad, Divine would be its Peggy Lipton.  This glorious blonde of a scent -- goddesslike in stature but gentle and yielding at heart -- wins us outright with an armful of ambrosial flowers, sweetened to perfection.  Now, while gardenia and tuberose lend dewy moisture to a floral, they also lower its temperature, trapping it in the blue light of perpetual deep shade. Mouchel corrects this tendency by applying warm tones of vanilla, peach, and rose to the overall picture so that it glows with golden light. The effect is that of masses of petals, soft as charmeuse, still warm from the sun.

There are no thorns in this bouquet; nothing hidden, no mysteries.  Divine lays all her charms out on the table for us to take what we will.  Only a goddess could provide such celestial riches-- and only a woman could delight so in giving it all away.

Not in a silver casket cool with pearls
Or rich with red corundum or with blue,
Locked, and the key withheld, as other girls
Have given their loves, I give my love to you;
Not in a lovers'-knot, not in a ring
Worked in such fashion, and the legend plain—

Semper fidelis, where a secret spring
Kennels a drop of mischief for the brain:
Love in the open hand, no thing but that,
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt,
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt,
I bring you, calling out as children do:
"Look what I have!—And these are all for you."

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Scent Elements: Peach, coriander, gardenia, tuberose, rose de Mai, oakmoss, musk, vanilla, spices

Crosseyed and painless.

I'm spent.

My Christmas shopping is complete. My bedroom closet is full of gifts, duly tagged and bagged, the hard-won spoils of an arduous hunting season. My skin is blotchy. My feet are killing me. I feel as drained and ill-used as though I've been on a six-month safari with Ernest Hemingway. I might willingly commit a crime if it meant never having to listen to "Feliz Navidad" ever again.

Yes, this is the season of giving... and the season is giving me hives.

The irony is that I actually enjoy Christmas now more than I ever have in my life. But I had to learn to like it... and it sure wasn't easy. Years of Christmas seasons spent in retail customer service had turned my holly-jollies into heebie-jeebies.  Even after leaving the service (so to speak), the ghosts of Christmases past followed me everywhere...

Ten-to-sixteen-hour days facing down crowds of increasing volume and hostility, with no escape except to the backroom under the pretext of replenishing stock. A quick cry behind a stack of boxed inventory, or -- if your supervisor's the sympathetic type -- a cigarette smoked at top speed just outside the emergency door. For sustenance, a handful of junk food hastily crammed in one's mouth (no mall worker worth their salt wastes their lunch half-hour languishing on line at the food court). Then back out into the fray, where thinking and breathing are for people with too much time on their hands....

For years, the mere sound of jingle bells was enough to trigger my seasonal panic attacks. Fortunately, I've accumulated some Christmas-shopper coping skills which have reduced my annual bouts of in-store hyperventilation by a huge margin:
  • Never shop alone. Bring a friend, a coworker, a comrade-in-arms. You can hold one another's packages, swap objective opinions and wisecracks, and keep each other on an even keel.
  • If compelled to shop alone, bring audio distractions. An MP3 player or iPod loaded with your favorite sounds can provide a sense of security and personal space amid the chaos. I recommend Skullcandy earphones, which block out ambient crowd noise like a charm.
  • Pack for the long haul. Load your purse or knapsack with blood-sugar-boosting protein snacks, cough drops and tissues, bottled water, a small pad and pen for keeping gift lists and notes, and a pocket-sized sprayer of your favorite eau de cologne (to use as a refresher when you start to wilt). Imagine whatever items you'd appreciate if you were trapped in an elevator-- and bring them.
  • Make frequent escapes. If you have a car, periodically ferry out bags and packages so you can continue shopping unencumbered.  Each time, breathe in as much fresh air as possible before you plunge back into the shopping pool.
  • Practice random acts of kindness. Let someone ahead of you on line. Cede the last item on the rack to a fellow shopper. Bring a treat for the clerks at your favorite store-- coffee gift certificates are usually welcomed with tears of joy. Every small beau geste you make increases the real holiday spirit-- a thing quite different from that which appears on your credit card statement in January.
  • Remember that enough is enough. It's tempting to buy until you reach symbolic perfection, but honestly, don't try to condense everything you feel for the people in your life into material goods. Give them something nice to unwrap-- but remember that presents can't take the place of love. If you find yourself slipping into a state of fear, panic, anxiety or failure, stop what you're doing and step outside. Get away from the lights, signs, ads and sales pitches (all of which are designed to induce a sense of inadequacy which leads to hysterical spending). Think about the people you love who love you back-- and recalibrate your pace. You're allowed to pass up sales, overlook chances, stop short the quest for the perfect gift and say, "That's enough for today".
  • Treat yourself. I know this sounds crass, especially since we're supposed to be focused on pleasing others during this season. But don't neglect your tired, cranky, frantic self. Remember that airline safety lecture about putting on your own oxygen mask first? Somewhere in the middle of your busy shopping schedule, allow yourself some small, gentle, and reasonable expression of self-care and comfort.
For me, that last tip found fulfillment at Sephora, of course. During a recent bout of mall shopping, I nipped in to request a couple of samples on the fly. Both fragrances I chose are ones I've encountered and loved before... but walking away with those teeny spray bottles in my pocket revived my spirits as much as a double latte to go!

Euphoria Eau de Parfum (Calvin Klein)
Color me surprised by this plum-and-persimmon confection touched with incense and dusted with caster sugar. So strongly does this fragrance remind me of Japan that I half feel the weight of a padded-silk winter kimono settle over me moments after spraying my wrists. The color of this garment would of course be murasaki (violet-purple), perhaps accented with kurenai (safflower-pink) or kōbai (plum-pink) in the Heian style. If I close my eyes, I further envision a low lacquered table upon which has been placed a single branch of flowering plum and a bowl of azuki (red bean) ice cream, notable for its pale mauve coloration, delicate sweet taste, and novel interplay of starchy-milky-glutinous-delicate-rich. A second bowl is filled with sugarplum candy, deep purple and sparkling with sugar crystals. Curls of incense smoke issue from a hidden censer. Outside, snow falls in silence.

Scent Elements: Pomegranate, persimmon, "lush green accord", lotus blossom, champaca flower, black orchid, black violet, amber, "cream accord", mahogany

J'Adore Eau de Parfum and L'Eau Cologne Florale (Dior)
Have you ever eaten Bananas Foster? This decadent, New Orleans-born dessert consists of ripe sliced bananas flambéed in white rum, brown sugar, and butter, served bubbling hot over vanilla ice cream. The ice cream (usually of the French custard variety, yellow with egg yolks and speckled with black flecks of vanilla bean) instantly and voluptuously collapses wherever the hot rum-caramel lava touches it. J'Adore exactly recreates this experience, from the silky-wet texture of bananas and cream to that instant of sensual surrender when everything melts and flows together. Champaca -- a heady flower with relatives in the indole-rich magnolia, ylang-ylang, and plumeria species -- permeates J'Adore like a golden aura, augmenting its sense of irresistable, tropical warmth. The Cologne Florale is a different animal altogether, light and sparkling with citric good humor and a welcome touch of hyacinth. It is conceivable that one could wear the EDC to work and slip a layer of the EDP right over it for nighttime. Brilliant.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, champaca flowers, ivy, African orchid, rose, violet, Damascus plum, amaranth wood, blackberry musk (EDP) / Hesperides, lemon, neroli, bergamot, magnolia, ylang-ylang (EDC Florale)

La Rose Jacqueminot (Coty)

In my house, changes of season are most accurately gauged by the shifting of my "special interest" bookpiles. In spring, it's all Vikings-- I pore over sagas, Eddas, and thick tomes of Norse mythology. Summer brings a resurgence of interest in shamanism and botany. During the fall, I'm most likely to be found with my nose in a book about geisha. And as winter sets in, my thoughts bend inexorably toward the Romanovs.

As the first snowflakes fall, I ritualistically reread Robert K. Massie's classic portrait Nicholas and Alexandra, as well as other well-worn titles by Peter Kurth, Edvard Radzinsky, and Andrei Maylunas. The big coffee table book on Fabergé comes out of hiding, as do the full-color museum catalogs of Romanov artifacts. My visits to the Alexander Palace Webring increase, as does my file of photographs of Tsar Nicholas' four daughters, for whom I feel a special affinity.

In her memoir of palace life, The Real Tsaritsa (1922), Imperial lady-in-waiting Yulia "Lili" Dehn describes the toilette of the young Grand Duchesses:
A large room, divided by a curtain, served as dressing-room and bathroom for the Grand Duchesses. One half of the room was full of cupboards, and in the other half stood the large bath of solid silver. The Grand Duchesses had departed from their mother's simple ideas, and, when they bathed at night, the water was perfumed and softened with almond bran. Like their mother, they were addicted to perfumes, and always used those of Coty. Tatiana favoured "Jasmin de Corse"; Olga, "Rose Thé"; Marie constantly changed her perfumes, but was more or less faithful to "Lilas", and Anastasie never deviated from "Violette".
Of the named perfumes, only Tatiana's Jasmin de Corse (1906) is absolutely certifiable as a Coty fragrance. Anastasia's "Violette" may be tentatively identified as La Violette Pourpre, also released in 1906. Lilas Blanc followed in 1910, followed by Lilas Pourpre in 1914; either could be Marie's choice.

This leaves Olga's Rose Thé-- which is not a Coty fragrance at all.

According to the Perfume Intelligence database, fragrances named "Rose Thé" were produced in 1880 by Savonnerie Maubert, in 1898 by Eugene Rimmel, and in 1910 by Lubin Parfumeur. It is possible that Rose Thé could have been obtained from one of these sources-- particularly the latter, a supplier of scents to the Russian Imperial Court for well over a century.

Yet Lili Dehn states very clearly that the Grand Duchesses "always used those (perfumes) of Coty"-- and within this sorority of four, singularity was an alien concept. The sisters dressed in identical outfits, swapped personal items such as jewelry and ikons, and rarely appeared outside of one another's company. "They were together so much that they even thought of themselves collectively," observes Edvard Radzinsky (The Last Tsar, pg. 113). Olga, the eldest, exhibited the greatest tendency towards individualism-- but the authority against which she pitched her battles was parental, not sororal. Would she have deviated from her sisters' Coty brand loyalty? Difficult to imagine-- but still possible.

Unless, of course, Lili Dehn mistook the name... and Rose Thé was actually La Rose Jacqueminot.

If you have access to a copy of Judith Miller's Perfume Bottles (Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 2006), you will find therein a photograph of a Coty luxury coffret dating from the first quarter of the 20th century. Designed by Rene Lalique, this cunningly-designed presentation box contains twelve different Coty fragrances in Delpinoix glass sample bottles. La Rose Jacqueminot is the second bottle from the left in the front row, three bottles down from Lilas Blanc. An identical coffret predating World War I appeared this past September at Harrod's Perfume Diaries exhibition. Among the perfumes included were Jasmine de Corse, Lilas Pourpre... and once again, La Rose Jacqueminot.

Could the Grand Duchesses have been the recipients of a Coty coffret? It would certainly explain their group fascination with Coty perfumes-- and the neat division of the spoils, scent by scent and sister by sister.

One envisions the presentation box's arrival in the Imperial nursery at the Alexander Palace. Tatiana -- or "The Governess" as they call her -- superintends its placement on the tea table and smacks away Anastasia's curious hands.  There's a flurry of excitement as each bottle is unstoppered and passed around; cries of delight and declarations of ownership as one fragrance after another fills the air.

Over and over, Olga -- the eldest, quietest, and most studious of the sisters -- returns to one bottle in particular.  The heavy, exhilarating attar of roses it contains reminds her so of her beloved Livadia Palace and languid summers in the Crimea, where the air itself is perfume. She reminisces about her first full-dress ball last autumn, when she turned sixteen. A pink silk haute couture gown, gauzy layers as thin as wisps of cloud... pearls and diamonds... a thousand miles of dance floor traveled in a neverending waltz...

And banks and banks of roses....

A dab or two on her skin veils Olga in flowers and something more-- a thrilling amplification of the scent of her own warm skin, carrying with it the unmistakable essence of womanhood. The thought excites and discomfits her.  It's like being uncovered, the private self she keeps carefully contained now made disturbingly public, en décolleté.

At the same time, the temple architecture of La Rose Jacqueminot's notes seems distinctly ceremonial, made for a high priestess uttering sacred prophecies in some fluid, archaic tongue.  It's a slow, wise, knowing language, neither innocent nor demure, and though she'd never admit it to anyone, Olga thinks she might actually understand a smattering of it--

"Darling," Maria exclaims.  "What is that?  It smells so rich and heavy.  Would Mama approve?"

Undoubtedly not.  But then, the Empress' idea of fragrance is verbena eau de toilette -- a faint green shimmer on skin, like dew dissipating from a blade of grass -- and Atkinson's Essence of White Rose, which she prizes chiefly because it is so very "clean".

La Rose Jacqueminot is not clean.  It is animalic, heated, pent-up and ready to spill over.  It is all the flirtations and stolen glances of summer reduced to a dangerous distillate.  It is the decadent weight of the heaviest satin or the thickest sables.  It is a color richer than any Olga has ever worn. She dabs again, and the atmosphere around her fairly turns cerise.   

No, she thinks to herself, Mama would most certainly not like it. 

Out loud, she says, "This one belongs to me."

Scent Elements: All the roses in Bulgaria, oakmoss, civet, and an array of Oriental hard spices.

I recently had the enormous good luck to read her marvelous review, and the even greater luck to be randomly chosen to receive a sample of the object of her affection. It could not have come at a more significant time, as you can see. Thank you, Olfacta, for this opportunity to encounter a classic fragrance... and to explore a well-loved topic in an entirely new light.

How I learned to love the 'Bomb.

When I first encountered Viktor & Rolf's Flowerbomb, the name, the bottle, and the marketing campaign all led me to expect the perfume equivalent of Frida Kahlo as assessed by Andre Breton: "a ribbon around a bomb". No such luck. Flowerbomb is a straight-up sweet vanillic floral-- nothing earth-shattering, risky, offensive, anarchic, or original. My disappointment in discovering it to be a mild, staid floral prompted me to quickly write Flowerbomb off. I called it a competent fragrance to wear to weddings, family birthdays, and garden parties, and declared, "The apocalypse is years away."

And yet...

Months and months have gone by. I've had plenty of time to think it over. When a friend left a foil-pull sample of Flowerbomb on my desk earlier this week, I figured the time was ripe to reassess. The results? My original opinion stays the same, but with a suffix: I no longer feel let down by Flowerbomb. Freed from expectations, I am at liberty to like it. It may not have been what I was hoping for, but it is pretty-- and in a cynical world full of rank odors and dashed hopes, that must be good for something.

Perhaps Andre Breton's summary isn't quite appropriate, but let Diego Rivera supply the similes. Flowerbomb, like Frida, is "acid and tender, hard as steel and delicate and fine as a butterfly's wing... profound and cruel as the bitterness of life."

Scent Elements: Bergamot, tea, jasmine, freesia, orchid, rose, patchouli

Uomo (Fendi)

Towards the end of the Talking Heads' concert film Stop Making Sense, David slays Goliath. It's surprising how easy the giant goes down.

As the band revs into "Girlfriend Is Better", a titanic silhouette -- fifteen feet high and almost as wide -- looms over the stage. At first it's quite menacing, but soon its tiny head begins to bob like a chicken, helpless to resist the beat.  A few tottering steps forward, and the giant is revealed to be a Dondi-eyed geek upon whose skinny frame hangs the biggest, goofiest, most ridiculous damn suit you've ever seen.

Now, during the 1980's, the suit was king-- icon of Wall Street power, badge of the moneymaker's dignity and might. But as David Byrne performs a herky-jerky, rubber-limbed dance, something magical happens. Flapping, flopping, jiggling and wiggling, the suit sheds its pride and its power to intimidate.  It ceases to be the uniform of The Man and becomes a banner of gentle satire.  And by the time the song's over, David has brought down the decade's Goliath-- not with a slingshot full of rocks, but with a gleeful shimmy-shake.


A powerhouse.
A monster.

These words -- found scattered across the fragrance forums -- sum up the popular verdict on Fendi Uomo.  Apparently, it's Gordon Gekko in a bottle.  Or Caligula.  Or Hannibal (Carthage or Lecter-- your choice).  But as David Byrne and countless Bugs Bunny cartoons have taught me, the scariest shadow on the wall invariably belongs to the mildest-mannered nebbish.

It's how he's lit that makes all the difference.

Uomo contains all the requisite ingredients that would normally make it a right bastard of a fragrance.  Cruel leather?  Check.  He-manly woods?  Check.  Musk?  (You want musk?  Get over here.  Yeah, I'm talking to you.)  Then it startles you with some of the most gorgeous, romantic "feminine" notes in any perfume-- powder-soft carnation, blushing cyclamen, fresh anisic angelica. And yet, as incongruous as these seem, they mesh so well with the leather and woods and musk that Uomo seems crafted all of a piece, true through and through. This tough guy knows how to tango, and I mean really tango -- with wit and good humor and a flower in his teeth, even -- and he doesn't care how it looks.

After a minute in his arms, neither do you.

Like Patricia de Nicolaï's New York and Bertrand Duchaufour's Timbuktu, Uomo owes a greater debt to early 20th century feminine fragrances than to any modern power juice of the übermensch genre. In other words, it's more L'Heure Bleue than Or Black. It may begin with a fulgent blast of citrus and follow with a chaser of bitterest birch tar, but all this is nothing but the rattling of sabers before the Hundred Years' Peace. All the warnings about criminal overapplication seem exaggerated; a little goes just the right distance without ever committing the least misdemeanor.  As Uomo changes over to dusky twilight tones, the thought that some people are terrified of this fragrance becomes more and more inconceivable.

The real badass to fear, I'm convinced, is the Fendi PR genius who engineered the spin on Uomo-- not to mention that fifteen-foot-tall shadow it casts over all posterity. Whatever he or she did to make this refined gentleman appear like Attila the Hun qualifies as a career masterpiece.

Just as the perfume does, for the perfumer.

Scent Elements: Lemon, bergamot, lavender, coriander, angelica, marjoram, cinnamon, carnation, cyclamen, patchouli, musk, birch tar, vetiver, cedar, amber

1969 Revolte (Histoires de Parfums)

Having 1969 for a birth year is no picnic, I'll tell you. Even after four decades, the words "nineteen sixty-nine" trigger an entire slideshow of Time/Life images, each more iconic than the last. Moon landing! Chappaquiddick! My Lai! Charles Manson! Woodstock!  Stop me before this turns into a Billy Joel song.

Can I count how many times I've heard, "Born in '69, eh? Did you go to Woodstock?" Answer:  no.  And even if I had, I wouldn't remember it.  Being a mere eight months old that fateful summer, I was chiefly preoccupied with drooling and watching the pretty colors and lights all around me...

Wait, that sounds an awful lot like Woodstock. Maybe I'm wrong! Maybe I was at Yasgur's Farm!  They say that if you remember the sixties, you weren't really there.  Brothers and sisters, I don't remember a thing.

In common cultural parlance, 1969 equals hippies. Not that I dislike hippies (heaven forfend!) but there were other, equally compelling social movements happening that year.  The flower-child phenomenon was only the most marketable-- and continues to be so. Each year a brand new generation discovers tie-dye, crushed velvet, nag champa incense and jam bands; each year "hippie" gets more shrinkwrapped and fake, like a mass-produced Hallowe'en costume.  To amend the proverb: Everything old is used again. At least we're recycling, right?

When I pick up a perfume named "1969", the cynic in me braces itself, expecting an entire gallon of patchouli condensed into a few lethal drops.  How refreshing it is to find instead this sweet, nubile thing, cheeks fresh-scrubbed and clothes nicely pressed; so presentable, so well-put-together, so clean.

Bless you, Gérald Ghislain. Bless you.

What's simplest is best, and 1969 Revolte follows a simple path to beauty. It launches with a fanfare of peach and apricot notes, plaintive and sweet.  What a glorious switch-- peach for patchouli!  What a stroke of genius!  I am instantly reminded of a particular shade of lipstick my mother wore the year of my birth: a pearlescent hue halfway between tangerine and apricot, made to delineate the lips by a mere frosted shimmer that stood out only barely from one's complexion.  There was, after all, some subtlety in '69-- and not at the expense of individual quirk.

Before this peach accord's bell-toll has vanished from the air, it's joined by a lambent floral accord that manages to project an air of neatness even as it distributes a goodly dose of indoles around.  These lead the way quite naturally to a long-lasting base of rich, spicy chocolate musk.  Interestingly, that original peach note continues to peek out mischievously from behind the chocolate accord for a good while-- recalling pêche au miel millefleurs, a confection described in Joanne Harris' novel Chocolat as "a slice of peach steeped in honey and eau-de-vie, a crystallized peach sliver on the chocolate lid".  Delicious!

I debated inwardly for a long time over what rating to give 1969 Revolte.  It clearly and joyfully demonstrates a certain contemporary spirit that a cousin of mine, for lack of better terminology, dubbed "K&E" -- kicky and eclectic.  Its cumulative effect is that of a thoroughly modern Mitsouko, minus the latter's stateliness (and perhaps its foundation garments as well-- who could be K&E wearing a girdle?)  But did I dare give it five stars, as I had Mitsouko? 

Why not?  On the thin basis of a crystallized peach sliver, it must inevitably bear comparison to its elder sister-- but by dint of its K&E attitude, 1969 Revolte is in a league of its own.  And even if my initial impulse was to give it only four stars, it earned that last star by proving that not everything blazoned with the 1969 cattle brand needs must run with the herd.

Scent Elements: Peach, rose, white flowers, cardamom, clove, patchouli, cacao, coffee, musk

Ambre 114 (Histoires de Parfums)

Ever seen Grey Gardens? There's an early scene in which Little Edie Beale models one of her signature ensembles-- a plain scarf headdress fastened with an "important" brooch, pantyhose worn over short pants but under a safety-pinned sarong (which, Little Edie explains, can be converted into a cape at the whim of the wearer).

"This is the best costume for the day," she cheerfully declares. "I have to think these things up, you know!"

Ambre 114, I believe, is the best costume for every day. A soft amber with an appealing touch of herbal green, it's "serviceable" in the best possible connotation of the word. One could wear it to the grocery store or a gala opening night with equally happy results. Like the perfect guest, it offers its charms at all the right moments and then discreetly melts into the background-- never pushy, always polite, as graceful an amber as anyone could wish.

To all of these recommendations, add the fact that Ambre 114 goes with just about everything-- battered jeans, flowing chiffon, your husband's old flannel shirt, your mother's vintage silk blouse, twin-sets and pearls, that Indian-print hippie frock you've had since forever (so well-worn and well-loved you can practically see through it)... or hell, pantyhose worn under the skirt but over the pants.

As Little Edie would say, YOU understand.

Scent Elements: Thyme, nutmeg, rose, geranium, patchouli, sandalwood, ceder, vetiver, amber, vanilla, tonka bean, benzoin, musk

Like This (État Libre d'Orange)

Today I am wearing two special items: my traditional Irish ruana and État Libre d'Orange's Like This.

The ruana is a long handwoven wool mantle with a wide scarf of the same material attached to the nape. The body of the mantle is worn draped over the shoulders so as to hang evenly fore and aft like a serape, with a penannular pin to fasten it at the collarbone. The scarf can be wound around the neck or pulled up over the head like a deep cowl. Wearing my ruana makes me feel like Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon-- mysterious, sacred, bound ceremonially to the old ancestral folkways.

The word ruana is often misidentified as Spanish, derived from the Latin ruga, meaning "crease" or "fold".  However, its true linguistic roots grow much closer to home.  The Irish Gaelic word ruaimneach (pronounced, tellingly, "ruana") denotes something made out of hair-- for which sheep's wool certainly qualifies. A clóca (cloak) or cába (cape) can be made out of any material... but a ruana can only be fashioned from spun wool.

Interestingly, the term itself is linked to a few significant others. In Gaelic, rua means "red-haired" with a side connotation of "foxy", evoking the auburn fur of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes, Ireland's largest wild predator). On an island where red hair is not only genetically prevalent but symbolic of Irishness itself, ruas (ruddiness) is an important seed-word. My ginger-haired grandfather's family name, Russell, derives from rua sáile, "luxurious red growth". (Appropriately, the Russells' crest features a rampant lion, full-maned and flame-red.)

My ruana contains threads of many hues.  One, of course, is ruddy: a dark honey-gold the color of aged mead. In concert with threads of slate, indigo, and twilight blue, it produces a unified tone of deep purple-- a color which, in ancient Éire, only royalty could wear. Though not of noble blood, I feel quite regal wearing my purple ruana... and its color sets my long chestnut-red hair on fire.

To explain why Like This --Tilda Swinton's signature fragrance by État Libre d'Orange -- seems destined to be paired with my ruana requires a long reach. Deliberately composed of "warm-hued" aromas (pumpkin, mandarin, neroli, everlasting flower), it ought to be accorded similar color values (amber, sherry, burnt orange). Why then, when I step back from it, do I so clearly see purple-- rich, deep, and imperial, with highlights of powdery blue like the satiny skin of a ripe blackthorn sloe?

Perhaps it's a matter of suggestion. Like This implies heat and light so strongly that the mind can't help but envision the antithesis.  Just as yellow and orange sit opposite to blue and purple across the color wheel, the hearthfire I picture at the center of Like This can only be complemented by the profound violet of a corresponding twilight. Without the latter, the former lacks comfort; without the former, the latter lacks mystery.

The dichotomy between home and wilderness, inside and outside, is the secret energy source of Like This' copper-top battery.  As Tilda Swinton explained to journalist Mike Vilensky of New York Magazine, "I thought about how great it would be if I could have a smell that would keep me at home wherever I was." With perfumer Mathilde Bijaoui, she set out to weave random sensory threads into a unified fabric.  Into the warp and woof went images of blazing fires, kitchen-comfort scents like winter squash, sweet potatoes, and baby carrots, mystical poems by Rumi, and Swinton's own identity as a red-haired Celtic woman.*  One might fear that a brief this crowded would result in nothing more than cacophony.  But Like This is an utterly integrated perfume-- indeed, almost linear but for the slightest modulations of tone as you carry it with you through the day.

You may not recognize Like This' pumpkin element, since it isn't drowning in pie spice.  That seasonal mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, mace, and ginger is what we Americans most associate with pumpkin, pie being our primary use for this native winter squash.  (That is, if you don't count aromatherapy candles, room sprays, potpourris, body lotions, or Hallowe'en jack-o'lanterns.)  Mathilde Bijaoui opts instead for garam masala flavor in the form of immortelle, which combines the savory heat of turmeric with the amber sweetness of maple syrup. The "pumpkin curry" theme shifts the expected locale of Like This from the New World to the UK and parts east. Little is left of the notion of pie filling save its uniform silken smoothness.

Running through this fragrance like glimmering threads of pure color are its minor scent elements:  rose, ginger, and citrus.  Against the solid and earthy backdrop of Like This' base fragrance, they surface, shine, and recede continuously-- ever subtle, never intrusive..  I found the rose note particularly sweet, bearing memories of midsummers past.  Golden citrus (in both fruit and flower) lend a sunny aspect to the autumnal motif, evoking a crystal-clear blue October sky.

Overall, Like This was far subtler than I expected-- an impression which worked entirely in its favor. (Prior to this, my only experience of a "pumpkin" fragrance was Harvey Prince's Eau Flirt-- an experience only total amnesia can remedy.)  What truly struck me was how blanketed in warmth I felt as I wore Like This.  It's not by any means a sexy perfume, made to adorn revealed skin or to enslave the object of one's desire.  It is a perfume crafted solely to enclose the wearer in a sense of boundless contentment.

And yet, there is indeed an element of Swinton's iconoclasm in it... because you'll want to wear it for yourself and no one else.

*Throughout Europe, where ancient superstitions remain comfortably embedded in modern prejudice, red hair continues to provoke a distinct sense of unease.  "Gingers" have been branded as changelings, burned as witches, teased, harrassed, and accused of everything from homewrecking to thievery.  Tilda Swinton's red hair attracts as much comment as her unconventional lifestyle-- often in the same breath.  That the courage it takes for her to live so openly and unapologetically would be found, almost by contradiction, in the safety and comfort of home makes perfect sense to me.

Scent Elements: Yellow mandarin, Moroccan neroli, ginger, pumpkin, immortelle, rose, vetiver, heliotrope, musk

Chimère (Prince Matchabelli)

Come here, little one. I won't hurt you, I promise.

See? My hand is out, waiting for you to take it. Don't be shy, poor little lamb. You're safe here.

I was so mean to you, I know. The thing is, I just didn't understand. Your former owner put you in a nasty little splash bottle; all I could do was dab-- that's where the problem lay. I simply couldn't see you for who you are.

I said terrible, horrible things about you. Scientifically speaking, a chimera is a creature built out of the genetic material of several distinct species, displaying features of each in fantastic conglomeration. Its mythic allure is undeniable, as are the profoundly uncomfortable reactions it provokes. So it is with Chimère by Prince Matchabelli. It's an amber. It's a floral. It's a chypre. It splices a jarringly sour citrus top note to a disarmingly tasty ginger heart, then grafts on a disturbing, sweat-sock-like cuminseed drydown for good measure. To be sure, it's got its moments-- but they're bracketed by other moments so weird, so puzzling, and ultimately so incompatible, that the sum total is an olfactory monster.

Oh, despicable me!

But now that I've got you in a spray bottle, everything's going to be different-- no, better! Better than you ever dreamed, little one! Your citrus and ginger are going to sort themselves out, and that strange aquavit-like cumin-caraway note is going to suddenly collapse into a soft, sweet labdanum, the way it should.

Dry your tears, little Chimère. Everything's gonna be party streamers and birthday candles from here on out-- you just see if it isn't.

Scent Elements: Nigel Groom's Perfume Handbook identifies Chimère as a "Chypre (floral-woody)"; oakmoss is a sure bet. Beyond this, it's anyone's guess.

Tea time.

My friend and colleague GW is a scent fanatic of the first order. She collects everything from samples and minis to entire lines and can ransack a Sephora like a five-star general. (I would pay good money to see her take on Sniffapalooza NYC. Some day... some day.) After months of listening to me natter on about the joy of decants, she finally decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Her limit: $30. Her criteria: Light and fresh scents incorporating tea, florals, and fruit (especially citrus), and NO VANILLA. The choice: all mine.

Now I could add a new official title to my name tag: personal shopper.

Acting as GW's ambassador to The Perfumed Court was nerve-wrackingly fun. I felt a great responsibility-- not only to choose well for her, but to let my choices reflect whatever arts of discernment I've personally acquired in Perfumeland. Though GW most enjoys Estée Lauder, Burberry, and Hermès (Eau d'Orange Vert was a favorite), I was determined to shop outside of those lines and perhaps (did I dare?) sneak a dark horse into the running. Thus armed, I bravely sallied forth.

First order of business: obtain some Guerlain Eau de Cologne Impériale. GW had tried some of mine and took to it like a duck to... well, eau. Since its inclusion was non-negotiable, I decided to orchestrate the full Guerlain eaux experience for GW and threw in Fleurs de Cédrat and Eau de Guerlain as well. The easy part was over: on to the real challenge.

Using TPC's handy-dandy scent-note tagging system, I browsed florals and citrus perfumes for something new and inspiring-- but without results. Only when I ventured into the tea category did I begin to feel a heightened sense of excitement. Good old Hermès was represented well here via Jean-Claude Ellena's "Eaux Parfumées au Thé" series. I chose Vert (Green) and Blanc (White), eliminating Rouge (Red) due to an instinctive fear of rooibos. (Am I the only one who thinks it smells like garden mulch?)

Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert (Bulgari)
As exuberantly green as matcha, as fresh and thrilling as the first breath of spring after a long, cruel winter, this is one gorgeously bracing brew. The interplay between green tea leaves and oakmoss convinces me that this is a perfect, even obvious, combination. "Jamaican pepper" is exotic shorthand for allspice, which (along with cardamom) gives Au Thé Vert a certain scrubbed-clean masculine vibe. Very enjoyable, and understandably a classic these twenty years.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, neroli, cardamom, Jamaican pepper, Bulgarian rose, jasmine, green tea, oakmoss, tonka beans, beeswax

Eau Parfumée au Thé Blanc (Bulgari)
An amiable (but somewhat less able) sibling of Au Thé Vert, Au Thé Blanc suffers from an unfortunate soapy note which possibly stems from the use of the wrong musk. Hibiscus, itself an ingredient of many tea blends, is put to good use as a means to cut through all the soapsuds. Finally, an absinthe-like artemisia lends a crispness that saves Au Thé Blanc from drowning in its own bathwater at the eleventh hour.

Scent Elements: Artemisia leaves, white tea, hibiscus, white pepper, ambergris, musk

Sometimes the creative solution to a problem is to approach it from a side angle rather than head-on. Having already obtained a pair of refined tea fragrances for my friend GW, I wanted to find her scents that were compatible rather than identical. What would go with tea without being tea?

It wasn't until I poked my head into the Perfumed Court's osmanthus category that I truly started to feel a sense of excitement. Stumbling across Badgely Mischka, I recalled Tania Sanchez ranting on for pages about her grand love affair with this red-berry/osmanthus floral. Seldom will a reviewer expresses a wish to MARRY a perfume, but Sanchez spoke of hiring a caterer, which seemed like a pretty positive endorsement overall. Done and done!

You know me:  normally I flee from cassis as a benighted Oklahoman farmwife flees from an advancing Depression-era dust storm.  But things of pure loveliness cannot be denied, and Badgely Mischka gets no dissent from me. Simply put, this is Thierry Mugler's Angel as it would have been if its glorious first five minutes had been extended into eternity, and all the nasty parts excised.

Badgely Mischka's osmanthus-tea note is impeccably crisp, propelled toward the stratosphere by a biting hint of redcurrant mixed in with the aforementioned black. It won GW's strongest approbation from the very first spray, and her praise for it has only grown with each passing day-- as has mine. I shall merely add that this fragrance is fully as graceful and elegant as any gown created by its two namesake designers: it ripples and flows without a single break in the lines.

Scent Elements: Red and black currants, peach, osmanthus, peony, jasmine, sandalwood, amber, patchouli, musk, caramel

The experiment was almost over; GW's thirty dollars were now used up. But another scent caught my eye-- irresistible not only for its theme, but also for its name and the notes it held in common with those we'd already explored.

I understood Hermès' Osmanthe Yunnan to be Jean-Claude Ellena's sequel to his own Osmanthus for The Different Company-- incorporating smoked black tea and milky notes in place of Osmanthus' citric oolong, but retaining the mellow, peachy floral quality for which GW had loved Badgely Mischka. How could I resist the perfection of coincidence? I'd been wanting to try this fragrance for so long, there could be no other outcome: I added it to my own basket with a resolution to share the wealth.

Osmanthe Yunnan (Hermès)
If your local Chinese restaurant (notice I said 'restaurant' and not 'take-out counter', implying that you will take your meal seated at a table rather than home with you in your car) serves smoked tea as a matter of course, award it with your loyalty forever. Smoked tea (AKA lapsang souchong) is a variety of black tea that is traditionally dry-roasted over resinous pine-bough fires, picking up a delicate sooty flavor in the process. Here, Jean-Claude Ellena plays with the peach-tea-floral accord of Osmanthus by swapping its mild golden accord for the ash-grey austerity of lapsang souchong. Moreover, whereas Osmanthus was served up neat, Osmanthe Yunnan incorporates a lactonic note that suggests tea with milk in the British style (and hints tactfully at the historic travels of tea from East to West).

If all this sounds intense, never fear-- Osmanthe Yunnan is actually lighter, gentler, more elusive than its predecessor. Is it addictive? Why worry? You know you want to ride this dragon.

Scent Elements: Osmanthus, orange, tea, freesia, apricot

Omnia (Bulgari)

Scarcely a week and a half ago, I made the statement that all saffron perfumes ultimately smell alike. At that time, I had yet to run across one that did not smell good. This, I regret, is no longer the case.

Composed by Alberto Morillas in 2003, Omnia is a sour woody saffron that reads like a bad adaptation of Olivia Giacobetti in every particular. It dutifully wedges tiny pieces of her entire catalog into a disorderly, ramshackle format similar to a video clip-tape of sports-season highlights. Sure, it's got its moments. Unfortunately, they all belong to someone else's perfumes.

In my imagination, the Omnia brief was authored by a Bulgari executive with a secret yen for all things Olivia Giacobetti.  Having failed to secure the niche princess for his own kingdom, he commissioned Alberto Morilla to compose a single perfume containing all of Olivia's most thrilling perfume moments.  Ever obliging, Morilla slapped together a grab-bag of all-purpose Giacobettisms, and thus was Omnia born.

That sarcasm springs from disappointed hopes, I've never been more certain. What I wished for from Omnia is exactly what I wished for from Après L'Ondée-- a delicate, dreamy cloud made as solid and dense as a block of alabaster, backlit and glowing, cool to the touch. What I got instead was a confused and unpleasant flicker of notes whizzing past like playing cards dealt from a huckster's deck.  Among them, I caught a thin note of egg custard (Safran Troublant, 2002),  a wet-cardboard saffron (Dzing! 1999), a smattering of chai spices (Tea for Two, 2000), traces of fruity fig (Philosykos 1996), and a shadowy smudge of wood ash (premonitory, since Omnia preceded Idole by two years). Every single one subtracts from my goodwill column and adds to the sum of my scorn.

Still -- despite being its Frankensteinian creator -- Morilla should not necessarily be held accountable for the monster.  The job of the professional perfumer is to convert the client's desires into saleable product.  One does not always have the liberty (or luxury) to edit the spec-sheet.  In Morillas' case, obedience to the brief has produced many more hits (Estee Lauder Pleasures, Yves Saint Laurent M7) than misses. But there is always room for failure, and here it looms large.

Omnia completely lacks the sincerity, depth, and spark of life possessed by the bona fide article-- and that's how you know it's a forgery.  In its attempt to cram in all the hallmarks of authenticity, its bareness and poverty are revealed.  Instead of Omnia (everything), they should have called it Nihilum (nothing).

Or maybe they should have just called it Olivia.

Scent Elements: Ginger, mandarin, orange, saffron, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, almond, tea, lotus, sandalwood, tonka bean, white chocolate accord, guiac wood.