Simply (Clinique for Estée Lauder)

Nowhere is the power of suggestion more apparent than in perfume note lists: here are mythologies born.

Clinique Simply -- a now-discontinued fragrance once touted as "all-natural" -- is said to contain soy. I once presumed that this meant it utilized lecithin as a diffusing agent for its 'white flowers' and 'smoky woods'. Now I'm not so sure. So many people claim to smell creamy soymilk in this fragrance that it's hard to determine which came first: the knowledge or the note in one's nose.

Honestly, now: if you didn't know what Simply had in it, what would you think it smelled like? I doubt soy would be anyone's first answer. After twenty-five years as a strict vegetarian, I can confidently state that I've eaten AND smelled soy in just about every incarnation, and I can't find a trace of it here. Not that I'd mind. The wonderful, delicate, milky-salty-sweet scent of fresh soymilk would be a wonderful thing to encounter in a fragrance. Or the sight of the lush fields where soybeans grow: I'd love a perfume that expressed that intense, overwhelming green, bursting with life.

But no luck. I found only what I found: the scent of hazy flowers, crushed dry aniseed, sea salt. And with these, I am satisfied. Simply is as sheer as chiffon, as benevolent as summertime. It walks a precise line between smoky and saline. It puts me in mind of driftwood turned silvery by ocean air. It exactly mirrors my indolent mood today. That is enough for me.

I came to Simply without preconceptions or expectations. I did not know what notes I ought to look for, and even now, no notes list can convince me I smell soymilk. But still I wonder. Would I imagine that scent if I thought it existed in this bottle? What do people smell who have no name for what they're smelling?

It's certainly food for thought.

Scent Elements: White flowers, soy, smoky woods

Ming Shu Fleur Rare (Yves Rocher)

Ming Shu Fleur Rare est une création originale.

Really? Says you, Yves Rocher. In point of fact, everything about this fragrance is a tribute to Laura Biagiotti's Venezia: its scent, its name (reminiscent of the wong shi flower for which Venezia is famous), even the conical shape of the bottle cap.

Did it sound like I was complaining? Lord, no: I'm perfectly content. Ming Shu Fleur Rare may be a clone, but since the original Venezia has been replaced by a replica far more tragic and thin, I do believe I'd rather wear a dupe than a doppelgänger.

More and more, I admire Yves Rocher for its standards, borrowed though they may be. Their fragrances are often largely reminiscent of ones which occupy a much loftier shelf, but they choose their inspirations well and charge a mere pittance for the experience. Heck, even the one sample that has failed to please me thus far (So Elixir) was still a damn sight better than some more expensive scents I could name. (And I will: Marc Jacobs Daisy, Gucci Flora. Stop me before this gets ugly.)

So yes, Ming Shu Fleur Rare is a fruity floral-- not exactly a rare breed. And yes, it possesses the aching sweetness of all fragrances who share that particular lineage. It's lighter and more crisp than Venezia; its fruits are not nearly so richly honeyed, and its base not so weighty with precious woods and musks. One could rightly call it transparent-- but only because Venezia's painted silks and layers of gold foil are designed to scream "substantial".

Still and all, I like this fragrance. It wears well, it benefits from decent construction, and it really does bring a discontinued beauty at least half alive again.

Ming Shu? Déjà vu.

Scent Elements: Peach, green apple, jasmine, water lily, lily-of-the-valley, cedar, musk

Iris Bleu Gris (Maître Parfumeur et Gantier)

Something smells LOVELY.

Not something one generally hears in reference to a men's fragrance, is it? Yet I've heard it multiple times since I started wearing Iris Bleu Gris.

My sample was given to me by a woman, and again, it's always women who fall into raptures over it. But men? Despite the fact that MPG created Iris Bleu Gris for them -- lucky bastards! -- they have thus far remained stolidly indifferent to its rooty-floral charms. Or else they're silently horrified by the experience of inhaling it off of a passing frail. Why would a chick want to smell like a dude, dude? Well, sir, if more dudes smelled like Iris Bleu Gris, the resulting crush and clamor of interested females would answer your question.

About that bleu gris: something tells me it's less of an homage to Vincent Roubert's Iris Gris than simply a means of suggesting that this fragrance is safe to wear with a business suit. Of course it really isn't, but men do feel secure in their regulation drabs. Synesthetically speaking, my mind's eye reads Geoffrey Beene's Grey Flannel as a gorgeous, shimmering vermilion-- but I doubt men would go for Orange Flannel any more than they'd opt to wear Mitsouko's flamboyant peach to the office.

And this is not to say they shouldn't. I hold firm to my belief that scent is genderless; everybody ought to feel free to wear everything, and it's only societal pressure that keeps men and women segregated in our respective scented ghettos. Many un homme has already discovered the joy of Mitsouko as well as the inner courage to wear it without apology. And yet I've encountered plenty of reactionary male bloggers who cling to their sad "active fresh" fougères with a sort of chauvinist fury. They accuse female perfumistas of neither understanding nor respecting the worth of such fragrances... yet make the contradictory claim that they act as "chick magnets".  (Really? Well, every magnet does have its repelling side...)

Ah, well. More for them, I suppose. I'd rather live in a world where Iris Bleu Gris, Mitsouko, and a million other colorful pleasures are equitably shared by all... suits and skirts alike.

Scent Elements: Greens, lemon, bergamot, iris absolute, vanilla, jasmine, oakmoss, vetiver, musk

Poivre (Caron)

The scent of candy is a sure divider amongst perfumistas. Some pursue it as if driven by the dictates of an uncontrollable craving. Others recoil from it as if nursing a perpetual toothache. But these represent the extremes. Between them lies a vast diversity -- a virtual candy store, really -- catering to every permutation of taste, even those politely given the label "acquired".

My candy radar can be pretty persnickety. I favor powdery (Necco Wafers) over sticky (Jolly Ranchers), savory (salted toffee or mukhwas) over syrupy (cherry cordials), obscure (horehound drops, coffee haagsche hopjes) over trendy (anything Trolli, Gummi, or Haribo)... and I like my candy red hot.

As though whole cloves, peppercorns, and cinnamon sticks had been smuggled into its boutique urn and left to steep, Caron's Poivre roils with heat. Wed Bellodgia to Parfum Sacre and toss a peck of árbol chilis into the dowry for good measure, and you have the jist of Poivre. (An early advertisement for Poivre calls it le parfum de la mariée-- "a perfume for the bride". My god, what a girl she must be!)

Few flowers could stand up to this intensity better than carnations, roses, and geraniums. Believe me, they do succeed... for a while. But what Blacknall Allen says is perfectly true: even so spicy a triumvirate of flowers as this "...sinks in a morass of heavier, hotter materials like a bouquet in a lava flow." Neither she nor I are complainin'.

Like Heeley Esprit du Tigre, Diptyque L'Eau, L'Artisan Poivre Piquant or Navegar, and Parfums de Nicolai Sacrebleu, Poivre is a savage little confection based on the contrast between airy sheerness and fiery "bite". If all of the above-named fragrances came in a boxed and beribboned sampler (hear that, Olfactif?) I'd bethe happiest candy addict on the planet.

Scent Elements: Carnation, peppercorn, cayenne, clove, geranium, rose, tuberose, jasmine, ylang-ylang, oakmoss, vetiver, sandalwood, opopanax

Mahora (Guerlain)

A tropical confection, not only monumentally vulgar (no bad thing in itself), but also utterly humourless.
Jeez Louise! If we all listened to Luca Turin, what a lot of fun we might miss.

Named after the Cormoran island of Mahore (the place from which Guerlain sources its ylang-ylang), Mahora is a bosomy, complaisant tropical floral that reads like a combination of coconut suntan oil and the sandalwood paste that Mahorese women paint in delicate patterns on their faces for protection from the equatorial sun. In other words, it is both powerful and salubrious, a scent that serves (like its very beautiful bottle) as a talisman.

Objections? Please. Is my life so ideal that I wouldn't sign up for that, and then more of that, and then some? At this point, depressed as I am, I would rather have a dozen gleaming white-flower leis cascading from throat to navel than pearls of any size. And as for utterly humorless, I believe that these words more aptly describe Mr. Turin than Mahora. (Is someone in need of a vacation? I can certainly suggest a destination!)

Scent Elements: Orange blossom, almond blossom, green notes, ylang-ylang, neroli, tuberose, jasmine, sandalwood, vanilla, vetiver

Portrait of a Lady (Frédéric Malle)

Forget the priggish, prickly Isabel Archer: this perfume is Madame Merle.

Believe me. It takes one to know one.

If you prefer (and who wouldn't?) someone more noble, more sympathetic, you could opt for Ellen Olenska, with her "vague pervading perfume... like the scent of some far–off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses". But that smacks of PdN Balkis, doesn't it? And anyway, Ellen's all wrong for the rôle... as are Isabel, May Welland, and sweet little Maggie Verver. None are sophisticated or cold-blooded enough to sit for this Portrait. To wear a crown of thornéd roses such as these, a woman would have to have nerves of steel.

And if Madame Merle's schedule won't permit, I'll gladly be her understudy.

Scent Elements: Raspberry, cassis, Turkish rose absolute, cinnamon, clove, benzoin, sandalwood, patchouli, frankincense, ambroxan, white musk

Bouquet Lenthéric Muguet Vintage Eau de Toilette (Lenthéric)

Once upon a time, unless you lived in the countryside or possessed enough wealth to retain either a gardener or a private florist, you might live your whole life without ever encountering lilies-of-the-valley. Fey and elusive, lending a half-wild presence to even the tamest garden setting, Convallaria majalis emits an aroma that can rightly be termed magickal. And yet -- tricksy in the way of all magickal things -- it yields up not even a ghost of itself to the perfumer.

In hydroxycitronellal, science managed to approximate what Mother Nature refused us: a facsimile of the divine. Plentiful and inexpensive, this aldehydic molecule scented some of the most luxurious floral fragrances on record-- and also, quite democratically, cheap detergents and cakes of hand soap priced for the hoi polloi. From the dimestore to Diorissimo, it was a surefire crowd-pleaser. People wanted to smell it everywhere and in anything, reliving over and over an olfactory thrill heretofore too rich for their blood.

But society's tastes (along with its values and its bank-account balances) are so changeable. In the manner of things once exclusive that have become ubiquitous, the scent of lily-of-the-valley today strikes us as safe, familiar, prim in that very particular manner we call 'mumsy'. It doesn't excite feelings of surprise or sensual danger the way that oud, leather, or tuberose do. Its melody, once so enchanting, has become Muzak.

Every so often, though, a wisp of the original song reaches a willing ear, and the magic comes alive-- quite as if it had never had the life pressed out of it.

The white-blossom goddess of Bouquet Lenthéric Muguet emerges from her greenery like a burlesque idol peeping through a thirty-foot waterfall of emerald velvet draperies. This is not to say she's cheap or showy, and lord knows it's difficult to accuse a lily-of-the-valley of being voluptuous. But she is so gorgeously pale, so powder-smooth against that endless depth of green, she has no need of feather fans or sparkling sequins to capture my attention. I'm just as nature intended, her smile says. And even though I know that chemically speaking, she's telling a white lie... I want so much to believe.

Some muguets project cool sophistication; some suggest buttoned-up modesty; still others even achieve a sort of Byronic romance. Bouquet Lenthéric Muguet evokes -- quite simply -- a 'pale wildwood flower'. And that's a song I can listen to time and again, without end.

Scent Elements: Lily-of-the-valley, aldehydes, a lemony citrus, and most likely some oakmoss.