Tubéreuse Animale (Histoires de Parfums)

Today a total stranger leaned towards me across the circulation counter and took my hand in hers. "What ARE you wearing?" she asked in a churchgoer's whisper seldom deployed in public libraries these days. "You. Smell. AMAZING."

I wrote it down for her on a yellow PostIt. Leaning closer, she squinted at the name in obvious confusion. "It's a small house," I explained helpfully. "Not mainstream, based in Paris-- but their stuff is available at Bergdorf's."

Her eyes went round with surprise. "You're saying this is a nowadays perfume? I could have sworn I'd been smelling it all my life." And lest I think she means this is a bad thing, she clutches my wrist again. "Whatever it is, it's a CLASSIC."

I agree with her on all points. Tubéreuse Animale does smell like a tribute to another time, one not too terribly bygone but just distant enough from our modern milieu to seem a bit dated. This is no crime, especially not to perfume lovers. Why else do we covet Chamade, Halston, Azurée, and other fabulous fragrant mile-markers, prizing them sometimes even more highly than the newest product on the shelf? And yet, my patron is not the only one who feels she must express her love for vintage in a whisper. In the face of constant cultural emphasis on the new and now, many of us subsume our yearnings, turn them into "guilty pleasures"... or simply wear older perfumes in self-conscious silence.

Tubéreuse Animale is the answer to our dilemma. Like a Biba mini-dress or a von Fürstenberg wrap, its silhouette is unmistakably, immutably retro. Yet it is an honest-to-god contemporary perfume, wearable right now, by modern women, for modern reasons. (Do we and our reasons ever really change?) Go ahead and wear it with lips sealed. It still makes a statement that will cause total strangers to open up and start talking.

Scent Elements: Tuberose, neroli, kumquat, plum, aromatic herbs, tobacco, immortelle, honey

Datura Noir (Serge Lutens)

...he was dancing with a beautiful woman.

She was tall and auburn-haired, dressed in clinging white satin, and she was dancing close to him, her breasts pressed softly and sweetly against his chest. Her white hand was entwined in his. She was wearing a small and sparkly cat's-eye mask and her hair had been brushed over to one side in a soft and gleaming fall that seemed to pool in the valley between their touching shoulders. Her dress was full-skirted but he could feel her thighs against his legs from time to time and had become more and more sure that she was smooth-and-powdered naked under her dress...

"I like you," she whispered, and he thought that her scent was like lilies, secret and hidden in cracks furred with green moss-- places where sunshine is short and shadows long.

"I like you, too."
Except she is a ghost, and he -- Jack Torrance, recovering alcoholic and hapless caretaker of the haunted Overlook Hotel -- is dancing all alone in an empty ballroom. By the time Jack awakens to the sight of dust motes glittering in the cold winter sunlight, a part of his soul has gone dark without him even knowing it. For with her alabaster skin and scent of sweet decay, his dream girl inhabits a mysterious dimension which swallows the unwary like a carnivorous flower.

Stephen King's The Shining is a fairly thick tome to lug around. If you crave the chill of the Overlook Hotel minus all its avoirdupois, make Datura Noir your portable reference. As ably as an Ouija board, this 2001 Lutens tuberose fragrance conjures up those "places where sunshine is short and shadows long". Tania Sanchez characterizes it as a "tropical heliotropin" designed for summer heat; if so, it's only because Datura Noir is chilly at its heart, a creamy white funeral bouquet straight out of the refrigerator.

Even a July day can turn inexplicably icy when a cloud blots out the sun-- but clouds are weightless, sailing past on the breeze. So it is that Datura Noir eventually mellows into a vanilla-custard accord as cozy and enveloping as a mile-thick down pillow. I'm not saying you should sink into it with perfect, unquestioning trust. Reread The Shining and remember the fate of Jack Torrance: one turn around the dance floor in her cold white arms, and it's over.

Scent Elements: Tuberose, lemon blossom, coconut, mandarin, jasmine, osmanthus, bitter almond, apricot, heliotrope, tonka, musk, myrrh, vanilla

Défilé New York (Histoires de Parfums)

Masterminded by Vogue editor Anna Wintour as an economy-boosting corollary to NYC Fashion Week, the citywide open house known as Fashion's Night Out promised street-level prêt-à-porter retailers a cut of couture action. For four years running (2009-2012), boutiques stayed open late on a chosen September evening to ply visitors with free champagne and a parade of A-list celebrities. The public accepted the invitation-- but they did not spend money, which was the whole point. Instead of landing ledgers solidly in the black, Fashion's Night Out drowned NYC's small businesses in a flood of recession red. As a result, city promoters cancelled Night Out in 2013, and no plans have been announced to revive it.

Something about Fashion's Night Out reminds me of the Bradley-Martin Ball, held at the Waldorf Hotel in 1897. Ostensibly motivated by a desire to stimulate the economy, socialite Cornelia Bradley-Martin planned a masquerade both lavish and locally-sourced-- even mailing her invitations out late to prevent guests from ordering their costumes from Paris. Spending fortunes on clothing, jewelry, flowers, champagne, and favors, the Bradley-Martin set congratulated themselves on "buying American"-- yet it never occurred to any of them to put that cash directly into the city poor-box. Public furor over the bill reached such a pitch that the hapless hosts were forced to expatriate after the last fragment of caviar was swept up from the carpet. The Bradley-Martin ball had no equal and no sequel... until Fashion Night Out.

Designed to embody the spirit of Manhattan's fabled Garment District, Défilé New York made its debut in September 2010 as a very limited edition eau de parfum exclusive to Henri Bendel. I have yet to discover the figure on the price tag from four years ago-- but maybe it doesn't matter anymore. What does it smell like? Let's go to the press release:
The top notes blow in a soft wind of fresh mint, bergamot and cut grass – paying respect to the many years spent in the famed Bryant Park tents – and also give a nod to the new Lincoln Center location, just steps away from Central Park’s grassy lawns and fresh flowers... The heart of the fragrance opens with the smooth scent of water flowers, pineapple and rhubarb, ushering out the marine and citrus scents of summer and heralding in the scents of autumn harvests.
True enough, so far. Unfortunately, if I could pass on any portion of Défilé New York -- or better yet trim it off like so much excess fabric-- this opener is exactly what I'd skip. Minty-melony-watery, it's a chlorinated bore. But what comes next?
The warm scents of fall prevail with the addition of sweet spices like clove, cinnamon and star anise... The lingering base notes take us backstage at the runway – full of anticipation, yelling and muddled laughter. The aroma of Venti coffees, bite-size gourmet chocolates and licorice snacks waft out from the dressing rooms and mix with the scents of blond wood and vanilla emanating from the walls and floors of historic Lincoln Center.
Now, set aside all the folderol about runways and dressing rooms, and this thing's right up my alley: a scent that strays away from uptown comfort and heads for the little neighborhoods and boroughs beyond, drifting far and wide on an East River breeze. Its coffee is spicy, gritty, not especially high-end; it comes in a cardboard cup. As advertised, the chocolate is only bite-sized, but the licorice is cheap, sticky, and plentiful. Overall, Défilé New York is like an edgier version of Tokyo Milk's Bulletproof (or a slightly more diffuse Covet, depending on your vantage point). But in no way is it luxe, and I like it better for it.

Keep your fancy swag bags and give me only this: a perfume for the people.

Scent Elements: Mint, bergamot, cut grass, water flower, pineapple, rhubarb, clove, cinnamon, star anise, coffee, chocolate, licorice, blond wood, vanilla

Veni, Vidi, and Vici (Histoires de Parfums)

I remember when there seemed to be no limit to what I might discover in the world of scent. Around every corner, a brand new olfactory voyage beckoned, if only I had the courage to leap on board. The usual safe rides – Chanel, Dior, Calvin Klein, Givenchy – didn’t interest me. I wanted adventure… and that meant choosing a ship of the rickety, ragtag, risk-taking fleet known as niche.

Paramount among this ramshackle armada towered Histoires de Parfums, a house whose every fragrance related an epic yarn complete with battle scenes and surprise unmaskings at midnight. Just as reading one superlative novel might prompt me to pursue the author’s other works, my first taste of 1828 Jules Verne encouraged me to seek out as much of HdP’s back catalog as possible. I started with the rest of the Parfums d’Auteurs, then moved on to the Tubéreuse trilogy. I played leapfrog through the Soliloquies and Cult Books, and here is where I landed.

In the main, perfumer Gérald Ghislain’s compositional skills admirably matched his imagination. No tale was too tall to bear his bold signature— and no detail too small to merit his care. Even the disappointments (which numbered only three— Colette, Tubéreuse Capricieuse, and Pétroleum) did not vex me as much as others I could name. Overall, this line seemed as safe as houses. So sated did I feel after my Grand Tour that I put all further exploration on the back burner.

I wonder now whether this was a mistake, or a godsend.

When did I start feeling nervous? In 2012, when Ghislain launched the Scent of Departure line (14 fragrances), the Alice & Peter kiddie-gourmand “dessert cart” (5 fragrances), AND the conquest-themed cardamom trilogy of Veni, Vidi, and Vici. That’s 22 fragrances all in one year—each with an excessively detailed concept and florid PR copy to match. I suppose one has to admire Ghislain’s ambition; clearly, he meant to move HdP (and his fans) from the fusty old library to the shinier vistas of mall, airport, World’s Fair. But the fragrances sounded contrived, undercooked—mere gimmicks designed for tourist-trap kiosks. The yawning distance between the HdP I knew and the HdP of the future made me very anxious indeed.

Veni, Vidi, and Vici do not settle my agita at all. They are wildly inconsistent, flailing in all directions around a supposedly shared center—a cardamom note barely detectable underneath all that PR stürm und drang about victory and destiny and raw natural elements. Veni (“I Came”/Earth) is a pleasant, sweet fougère in the coumarinic Pierre Cardin mold, and not much more. Vidi (“I Saw”/Water) is a nauseating concoction of musk, cucumber, and brackish low tide, straightforward in its nastiness. Vici (“I Conquered”/Fire) alone of the three deserves a raised eyebrow for its fierce take on dry-roasted seeds and spices— but even this has been done by others, if not better, then at least before. (Compare any of these to the windswept romance of 1828, or the finger-licking sticky comfort of 1740, or the youthquaking optimism of 1969… if you can. I know I can’t.)

It gives me grief to think that Histoires de Parfums has gone the way of so many old-fashioned bookstores— doors gated, windows shuttered, content digitized and repackaged for today’s more fickle “cloud” consumer. I had hoped to find so many more engaging narratives on HdP’s antiquated shelves— so many new voyages between the covers of each volume. But in the act of writing my recent review of Pétroleum, I truly wondered what other tales Histoires de Parfums might tell that I even would be willing to hear. Then I realized that I'd still not gotten around to writing about Tubéreuse Animale or Défilé New York-- two perfumes that might help to conclude this assessment on a positive note.

Our story may have its happy ending after all!

Scent Elements: Cardamom, cinnamon, galbanum, lavender, marigold, saffron, guaiac, patchouli, vanilla, caramel, musk, amber, benzoin, oakmoss (Veni); cardamom, cucumber, ozone, cyclamen, saffron, immortelle, musk, amber, cashmeran, vanilla (Vidi); cardamom, angelica, celery seed, aldehydes, basil, violet leaf, raspberry, galbanum, iris, osmanthus, incense, patchouli, musk, cedar (Vici)

Pétroleum (Histoires de Parfums)

Did you ever play Mad-Libs as a child? When I read fragrance PR copy, I get the feeling that some of us are still playing it. Here’s the description of Pétroleum on Histoires de Parfums’ website:

A symbol of wealth and prosperity, Pétroleum is an unexpected essence. Once referred to as ‘Black Gold’, it is rich, dark, and mysterious… a miraculous gift from the depths of our Earth. In all of its precious form Oud is effortlessly felt throughout the fragrance. Woven with Bergamot and Orange its fresh top notes unfold, assertively layered with woody and resinous power. Ozonic floralcy lives at the heart as a mystical rose unveils warmed ambered stones. An eccentric chypre character exhales narcotic fumes with an intense signature of leather wrapped in lucid white musk… It is a potion, a rare elixir that will lead to exalted ecstasy and pure euphoria.

Whoever wrote that ought to get a Prix Eau Faux Lifetime Achievement Award—but wouldn’t it be more fun (and efficient for future PR writers) to convert it into a Mad-Lib formula?

A symbol of (ATTRIBUTE), Pétroleum is an (ADJECTIVE) (NOUN). Once referred to as (EPITHET), it is (ADJECTIVE), (ADJECTIVE), (ADJECTIVE)… a (ADJECTIVE) (NOUN) from (LOCATION). In all of its (ADJECTIVE) form (SCENT ELEMENT) is (ADVERB) felt throughout the fragrance. Woven with (SCENT ELEMENT) and (SCENT ELEMENT) its (ADJECTIVE) top notes (VERBS), (ADVERB) layered with (ADJECTIVE) (ATTRIBUTE). (ADJECTIVE) (MADE-UP FRAGRANCE TERM) lives (LOCATION) as a (FANTASY NOUN) (VERBS) (MORE FANTASY NOUNS). An (ADJECTIVE) (PERFUME CHARACTERISTIC) (VERB) (ADJECTIVE) (NOUN) with an (FLORID DESCRIPTION OF SCENT ELEMENT)… It is a (NOUN), a (NOUN) that will lead to (OUTCOME).

Sadly, the perfume itself is not nearly as diverting as the word games it inspires, as this rewrite will surely demonstrate:

A symbol of how even brilliant perfumers can run out of ideas, Pétroleum is a shameless mashup of older, better fragrances. Once referred to as Shalimar/Bulgari Black/LUSH Breath of God, it is smoky, sweet, synthetic… a clumsy conglomerate from what should have been Gérald Ghislain’s reject file. In all of its most unsettling form burning rubber is harshly felt throughout the fragrance. Woven with Orange Soda and Talcum Powder its acrid top notes stick in one’s throat, incongruously layered with old-ladyish aldehydes. Venal vinyliciousness lives in Pétroleum’s hotpants as a thousand silken petals litter the freshly-painted runway at the AVN Awards. A flimsy floriental takes another weary huff from an acetone-soaked paper bag still replete with a haunting trace of the greasy carnival funnel cake it once held.… It is a disappointment, a misstep that will lead to very few people wishing to own a whole bottle of this stuff, let alone a small sample.

Word.

Scent Elements: Oud, bergamot, aldehyde, rose, amber, leather, patchouli, civet, white musk

L'Eau Froide (Serge Lutens)

Thank god for life's little freebies... especially when they come in mini-bottle sizes. L'Eau Froide (Icewater) came to me as a generous gift-with-purchase included with my birthday Arabie. Strangely enough, it has received more wear by now than the illustrious full bottle it accompanied. I suppose I've held off wearing Arabie out of respect for my new colleagues, who might find a blast of souk spices a little overwhelming at the circulation desk. But I haven't hesitated when it comes to wearing L'Eau Froide. Though I wouldn't call it a textbook "office fragrance", it makes its statement in a calm, restrained tone that seems well-suited to the library's hushed atmosphere-- and no complaints from my teammates, either.

Glacial, crystalline, and metallic, L'Eau Froide combines all the best features of Serge Lutens' most unearthly works (Iris Silver Mist and La Myrrhe) with those of his most utilitarian (L'Eau Serge Lutens). Lemony frankincense, snowflake aldehydes, and crisp hesperides fuse into a polar whole that is ameliorated by the heat of fresh-grated ginger root and invigorated by the tonic bitterness of vetiver. If anything can spring-clean my soul, it's this fortifying fragrance. My only concern is whether or not I can make it last until summer. What a refresher it will be then, if only I can show some self-control!

Scent Elements: Frankincense, oceanic saltwater, hesperides, musk, vetiver, mint, incense, pepper, ginger.

Dries Van Noten (Frédéric Malle)

Creative synchronicity is a concept I understand because I've seen it happen with my own six senses. An idea travels along the world’s neural circuits from one artist's mind to another, coming to fruition simultaneously in two entirely separate spheres. When this occurs, one looks the zeitgeist in the eye and feels a jolt, a shock, a shiver of recognition...
Could it be?
Yes, it could.
Something's coming,
Something good...
Unfortunately, in my admittedly limited experience, an idea only produces that feeling at its birth. After that, the thrill ebbs away; each successive iteration dilutes it further until at last it's just a memory.

Or a facsimile.

Just as every person on earth is said to have a “twin” living somewhere unmet and unseen, it’s probable that every individual perfume shares a kinship with at least one other, both displaying the same inherited traits. If this is so, then the perfume known as Dries Van Noten could be the twin of Puredistance M...only they can't really be twins if they were born three years apart. Maybe if there had been TEN years’ distance between it and M, I’d be able to discern something revolutionary here, a risk taken. But there are none. DvN plays it safe by emulating what has gone before.

You've doubtless encountered kids who strive to look, act, talk and walk like their older peers. All the trails they travel have already been blazed; all the audacities committed and blasphemies spoken. Such youngsters are left to wear their hand-me-downs with a sort of fruitless defiance. Deep in their hearts, they know that they do not measure up.

So it goes with poor Dries Van Noten. Even if it had launched simultaneously with M, these two scent-twins would never be strictly identical... not when one clearly towers over the other.

Scent Elements: Sandalwood, guaiac, tonka, vanilla, saffron, jasmine, musk, bergamot, lemon, nutmeg, clove, patchouli, balsam Peru, woods

Olène (Diptyque)

I don't know how to read Olène, because she does not seem to want to be read.

When I exclaim, "Oh, what glorious spring flowers!" she suddenly changes her tune and blankets me with chill.

When I marvel at her deathly pallor, she drowns me instead in a flood of nectar.

When I accuse her of being morbid, she lays a warm and cozening hand on my shoulder.

When I suggest that she might want to tone down the flirtation... oh boy, does she ever.

I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw her. But owing to her prodigious talent for talking me back around, I doubt I could throw her very far.

If you ask me, Olène's more than bit of a bitch. But aren't bitches the most interesting people?

Scent Elements: Narcissus, honeysuckle, wisteria, jasmine, greens

Vie de Château (Parfums De Nicolaï)

C'est la vie de château, pourvu que ça dure (this is the good life, for as long as it lasts)! Truer words were never translated into perfume, a medium naturally inclined to fade no sooner than it delights. Patricia de Nicolaï's interpretation accomplishes the latter with ease, and resists the former just stalwartly enough to please me even more. Without prevarication or apology, Vie de Château emulates the grand green chypres of the 1970s in all their dry nobility, with just a ray of sunlight to soften the traditional harshness of the terrain. Life in this castle is a chilly affair; one finds few comforts here. But King or Queen, whosoever sits in the high-seat hall has earned them-- and to wear the scent of Vie de Château is one way to capture the castle.

Scent Elements: Grapefruit, ferns, grass, herbs, vetiver, tobacco, hay, patchouli, leather, oakmoss, musk

Paperback (Demeter)

A trip to your favorite library or used bookstore. Sweet and lovely with just a touch of the musty smell of aged paper, Demeter's Paperback harnesses that scent with a sprinkling of violets and a dash of tasteful potpourri.

Now, I have spent my entire life -- from birth to this very second -- steeped in the scent of books. I spent my childhood surrounded by my father's massive collection of pocket paperbacks, purchased new (price: 35¢ to $1.25) from the early 1960s to mid-'70's. Marx, Kerouac, Whitman, Millay, Aristophanes, Tolkien, Eliot, Salinger, E.F. Schumacher, R.D. Laing, The Warren Report, The Temple of Gold, The Rubáiyát, The Prophet... Covers creased and coffee-stained, page edges dyed coral and turquoise and pale yellow, these were the companions of my early life.

In adolescence, the best birthday tribute a girl could receive was a gift certificate to the local Waldenbooks. There I encountered Richard Adams, Walter Wangerin, Jr., Orson Scott Card, Anne McCaffrey, Tim Robbins and Stephen King. As I moved from teens into twenties and began not only to earn my own income but to drive my own car, I could now travel for books-- and so my collection and my horizons expanded together. Trips to local thrift stores gave way to pilgrimages to the Montclair Book Center, Micawber's in Princeton, and the incomparable Strand. (Is it any surprise that I ended up working for printing presses, bookstores, and libraries?) When my husband and I joined lives, we also joined libraries-- and according to our LibraryThing account, we're just a few thin pages away from owning one thousand volumes.

All that being said, there's not a single molecule of Demeter's Paperback that evokes a storied history. There are many Demeter fragrances that delight me with their true-to-life audacity, but this is not one of them. The only part of a book whose smell it might resemble is glue. No paper, no ink, no literary flights of fancy-- just a strange piña colada mashup of fruit and mucilage evoking only bewilderment.

But at least Demeter tried to capture a reality. Bluntly stated, eBooks have no smell. Or do they?

Scent Elements: "Paper", "potpourri", and violets.

A Quiet Morning (Miller et Bertaux)

So quiet, in fact, I forgot what it smelled like almost immediately after wearing it. A dab to refresh my memory reveals a humdrum saffron-sandalwood accord overlaid with something uncomfortably bright and chemical, like nail polish remover. No wonder I blocked it out. And that kind of wraps up Miller et Bertaux, in my book. Two boring fragrances sampled-- would I waste my patience on a third?

Scent Elements: Saffron, turmeric, Basmati rice, palm flower, woods, spices.

Rahät Loukoum (Serge Lutens)

Possibly my first perfume was the McCormick Almond Extract my mother kept on a kitchen shelf. Bitter almond essence is among the most enticing odors on this planet, but also one of the shortest-lived-- and such was my enjoyment of this fleeting "fragrance" that I compulsively sneaked into the kitchen to reapply. Eventually, to my shame, I emptied the bottle. My crime was discovered at the worst possible moment: Christmastime, when dozens of cookies waited to be baked. The parental dressing-down I received that Yuletide was bitter indeed. Lump of coal, second stocking from the left!

Years later, I obtained (with my own money, this time!) a bottle of bitter almond essence direct from a Caswell-Massey outlet. Perhaps it would have been better if I'd shoplifted it, for it seemed to me that its aroma had been naturally sweeter when illicitly gained. I understood then why Edmund Pevensie so loved the White Witch's Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Trickery and deception are acquired tastes, spoiling our enjoyment of honest and straightforward fare.

In Rahät Loukoum, Serge Lutens offers us the ultimate temptation: a wearable confection of a character worlds apart from the rest of the candy fragrance genre. In recent times, that territory has been noticeably lacking in subtlety; one must wade through a swampland of caramel, fudge, and candyfloss in search of anything truly appetizing. In contrast, Rahät Loukoum promises a delicacy in the truest sense of that word: something rare, refined, fragile. Looking at a piece of actual Turkish Delight -- so naked and translucent under its demure dusting of powdered sugar -- one gets a sense of the ephemerality Lutens' Rahät Loukoum is meant to convey.

Does it deliver? Yes-- if a vanishing act is what you crave. I could dump this perfume on by the bucketful all day long, and every damn time, that gorgeous initial haze of marzipan almond dissolves into a suffocating glut of cherry cough syrup. Somewhere in the background, the White Witch laughs... because she knows that however much I keep reaching for it, no amount of this Turkish Delight will ever sate me.

Scent Elements: Aldehydes, almond, cherry, hawthorn, Turkish rose, heliotrope, white honey, vanilla, tonka bean, balsam, musk