Whether justified or not, I consider myself an extremely privileged perfume writer. Not only am I lucky to have a plethora of dear and generous friends who send me wonders and marvels I might otherwise not know, I have also – rightly or wrongly – managed to make connections with perfumers and perfume houses over the past 3+ years who bear me in mind when new perfumes are released. I doubt it’s simply because of the free press they get, but because they maybe? hopefully? appreciate the idiosyncratic perspective I apply. Or so my vanity tells me.
As for me, I take this as the supreme compliment it surely is. Not only do I have something to look forward to in my mailbox besides bills, I also more often than not look forward to sinking my verbose teeth in these wonders. Because writing about perfume IS a privilege – and how else can I justify my own obsession, if not for the readers who want to know what I’ll write about next?
The thing is, I never know what will happen.
Sometimes, I’ve been borne away on a storied tide of inspiration.
This post concerns one of those other times.
Usually, I much prefer to write about perfumes that move me and take me places. I prefer to write positive reviews because even if it’s something I would never personally wear, I can at least show the courtesy to attempt to move out of my comfort zone and grasp the concept, the idea of a given perfume.
But every once in a blue moon I encounter something so bad, so terrible, so poorly executed I either hurl myself into a hot Jacuzzi of seething sarcasm or else repress the overpowering urge to throw in the towel and stick to writing Gothic erotica.
Not that long ago, I received a sample of a perfume from an indie perfumer who to the best of my knowledge and research has never been the benefactor of ‘free’ blogger attention. That fact is not the reason I won’t divulge the name or the link. If anything, this blog and the one preceding it have proven my worth and my love of indie perfumery. If perfume bores you these days, I dare say you’re looking in a lot of wrong locations – there is far, far more to perfumery than ‘designer’ or ‘niche’.
What yanked the beard on my personal goat was this: The perfume sample was quite simply one of the shoddiest, shabbiest-made ‘perfumes’ I’ve ever encountered.
How can a perfume be shabby? Simple – it falls apart on impact. Literally.
Believe it or not, perfumes are emphatically engineered. Built from the base notes up, they suspend their materials in mid-air; sometimes, it’s a symphony or a full-blown Met opera production extravaganza in three acts, sometimes a sonata, an impromptu or an etude. Hot messes happen too, and that’s fine so long as they’re unapologetic. So wrong in so many ways can be so very, very right. (Guerlain Insolence, here’s looking at you!)
Well, this particular ‘perfume’ is a sweltering mess of epic proportion. I’ll explain why in a moment, but bear with me.
My happiest moments in reviewing a perfume occur when I’m able to grasp something of the mind behind it. It’s not ‘terroir’, it’s not the overall gist, it’s a fragrant intimation of the soul who conjured it from the depths of his/her creativity – that metaphorical great, cosmic grid all true artists have access to and draw their inspirations from. It’s my obligation to that soul which compels me to write a review and to be as fair and as thorough as I can.
In retrospect, the reviews that have made me happiest to write are the ones where the soul of the perfumer or Creative Director wafted out and pulled at my heartstrings and I feel that I not only grasped the concept, I nailed it.
Or in this instance, nailed it to the Perfume Wall of Shame.
Because this perfume-that-shall-remain-nameless has no soul at all. No whiff of premeditation, no coherence, no personality, and so far as I can determine, it seems to be made by someone who doesn’t even like perfume.
I’ll let that last subclause sink in for a moment.
How in the name of sacred Saint Mary Magdalene – patron saint of perfumes – can anyone claim to make perfumes if they don’t like them – to wear, to sniff, to compose?
(*Bangs head in frustration on laptop keyboard. Deep breath.*)
Ok, then. Supposedly, this is a fougère, that fabled family of perfumes that heralded the advent of modern perfumery as we know it today. I’m no stranger to fougères and love quite a few, whether the amber-carnation-y wonder that is the modern Fougère Royale by Houbigant, vintage Guerlain Jicky, Geoffrey Beene’s Grey Flannel, the fougère-ish, hyper-green, über-plush silk velvet density of Oriza L. Legrand’s Chypre Mousse, the flawlessly sparkling DSH Perfumes’ Passport à Paris or even that Amouage heartbreak-in-a-bottle called Memoir Man.
Well, for about five minutes, it’s true enough.
Ceci est une fougère, biensûr!
All the usual suspects are present and accounted for; lavender, carnation, tonka bean, oakmoss. For about five minutes, I’m quite content among the ferns and flowers. Next, without even the benefit of a shark fin on the horizon, I’m dumped into the sea with the chum wearing this horror story that wants to eat me alive and drag me down to the very depths of the damned below.
I would have thought that with the notes list, it would be impossible to go wrong: tonka bean, oakmoss, lavender, carnation, clary sage, clover.
My mistake. I’ve been spoiled/ruined by all the great things I’ve written about.
One thing I’ve learned since I began to write about perfume is that its greatness or lack thereof stands or falls on its base notes. This is where the engineering, the underpinnings of perfume construction show themselves most clearly.
This is where this ‘perfume’ falls completely apart without even the benefit of scaffolding. And where the anonymous ‘perfumer’ shows a) a lack of coherence b) a lack of understanding just what ‘makes’ a perfume not to mention c) infinitely worse – a lack of even caring.
This lack of consideration takes ‘lax’ to a whole new level of audacity. Instead, it stinks, and not in a good way. The base is bitter, shrill, and obliterates everything that made the first five minutes tolerable.
With just a little more work – and a lot more care – this could have been a perfectly passable perfume. Not ground-breaking, not revolutionary, not edgy – but perfectly acceptable nonetheless.
As it is now, I’m running to apply rubbing alcohol, dish soap and whatever else I can think of to scrub it off with a Brillo pad. (I did that, actually.)
Those sharks will have to live without their teeth in my hide.
More to the point, I won’t deign to give this <cough> creation the publicity I very much doubt it deserves. No names, no links, no anything.
Because this particular ‘fern’ died of a broken, disillusioned heart a long, long time ago. It never did receive a decent burial.
But one thing it does deserve is an epitaph:
To misquote René Magritte…
Ceci n’est fut jamais une fougère.
With thanks to the friend who inspired this review.