31 Rue Cambon (Chanel)

...by her obstinate energy, by the way she faces you and listens, by her guarded stance, which sometimes kind of blocks her face, (she) is a black bull. Her dark hair is curled, the privilege of the bull calf. The tufts reach her forehead and cavort whenever she moves her head....

I read on her face what is so legible-- two long black eyebrows that she doesn't pluck, despotic, ready to shoot up, to be lowered, quivering when the dancing tufts of hair annoy them. From the eyebrows one's attention concentrates on the mouth, but there I hesitate because at moments of concentration or irritation the center of her face seems to become cupped, drawn in, withdrawn under the eyebrows' overhang, under the black vault of her hair. Only for a moment, a kind of fierce retreat, an ephemeral immobility from which the mouth suddenly escapes-- pliable lips with sad, impatient, obedient corners, punished by cutting teeth.
That's Colette dishing about Coco Chanel in 1932's Prisons et Paradis, but honestly-- couldn't she just as easily be describing Frida Kahlo?

It's not just the eyebrows. Two artists of such rare intensity and determination would surely have struck sparks from one another. One imagines a classic "meet-cute" charged with typical instant loathing. Chanel-- a poor foundling striving to be a fine lady -- is all cold reserve and terse dismissals; Kahlo -- a bourgeois girl eager to appear the brawling revolutionary -- lets loose with an avalanche of Mexico City swear words. At some point, each sees through the other's swagger. One slow smile or a particularly irresistible twinkle of the eye, and in no time those two "black bulls" are stampeding through Paris side by side.

God help the fool who strays into their path!

As I planned out this week's Chanel series, pairing each fragrance with an appropriate feminine icon from the 1920s posed a nifty challenge. I wanted each lady's personality and style to be reflected somehow in the scent chosen for her. It took some creative tailoring, and it didn't always result in a perfect fit... but from the very first, no one but Frida Kahlo could represent 31 Rue Cambon. Perhaps it was the vision of this frank, vivacious, firm spirit housed in so delicate a frame. Or perhaps my reasons can only be deciphered by my own convoluted logic. Let's just say that once the connection was made, it was stubborn-- just like its subject.

It could be due to the fact that 31 Rue Cambon reminds me of Parfumerie Générale's Iris Oriental (née Taïzo), which in turn has always reminded me -- inexplicably and perversely -- of a bitter cup of xocolatl. This in itself is a mental mystery. Why my cerebral cortex insists on converting the Japanese temple referenced in Taïzo's name into an towering, blood-speckled Aztec sun-temple remains something for the neurologists and their fancy equipment to figure out. But I digress.

Whatever Iris Taïzo did, 31 Rue Cambon does too, but better, fiercer-- and with greater openness of heart. Its iris blooms forth more vigorously; its spices flaunt greater virility-- but these are balanced with an emotional generosity and humor that saves all this machismo from being nothing but empty show. It is never sullen, as Iris Taïzo always appeared to be. Perpetually transforming on skin to offer up new little gifts, it demonstrates a joyfulness and eagerness to engage that sets it apart, not only from all other Chanels, but from most other fragrances in general. Seldom have I worn a perfume with so much awareness at every moment that it was really, truly speaking to me-- or that everything it said was so important that I'd actually shush others around me to catch more of what it had to say.

When you find yourself thrusting your wrist under random people's noses and blurting out, "Listen!" only to be rewarded by recognition of the wonder widening their eyes, it's hard not to feel caught up in something-- a fervor, a fever, a movement, a revolution of the senses.

A friendship, new and intoxicating.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, jasmine, narcissus, iris, black pepper, patchouli, ambrette seed, vetiver, sandalwood, labdanum