In the life and times of a perfume writer of a certain age in an era where perfumes are launched (and sometimes relaunched) at breakneck speed, it makes a certain kind of sense to stay away from heartbreak.
The heartbreak of venturing into the Brave Old World of vintage perfumes, that is. I leave that to my justly celebrated colleague and friend Barbara Herman of Yesterday’s Perfume, author of the likewise celebrated Scent and Subversion, who has jogged my own memory of perfumed glories past we used to wear more times than I can count, bless her.
But memory and perfume are so intimately entwined and so mutually evocative, even
hardnosed post-punk cynics diehard optimist romantics such as I can sometimes be caught unaware. Especially concerning those beauties we wore once upon a storied time when we were less cynical, less heartbroken and perhaps far less inhibited by what we now know of perfumes and their history, never mind the way those perfumes have defined and underlined our own.
This was brought home to me in more ways than one when I received an anonymous package recently. It had no identifying marks or a sender’s address on it, even, and at the time I wasn’t expecting anything from anyone.
As soon as I opened it, however, I knew. The package came from my sister, and inside, to my own huge surprise, was a bottle of the current version of one perfume that really has defined me in ways great and small since the early Eighties – Lancôme’s 1978 Magie Noir.
I first encountered Magie Noir in late 1978 as part of a fashion spread in a Danish women’s magazine. The name alone was enough to get my attention, but at a very naïve fifteen, I was nowhere yet woman enough to wear it, I quickly discovered when I tried it. Those amber colored depths contained some arcane, occult secrets of womanhood I wasn’t mature enough or sophisticated enough to understand.
When it next made an appearance in my life five years later, I still wasn’t sure. My boyfriend at the time presented me with a huge bottle of the eau de toilette as The Perfume He Wanted Me To Wear, so I did, not least for the effect it had on him. Somehow, I still didn’t feel I was quite glamorous enough, beautiful enough, seductive enough, tall enough or even woman enough to wear it, but if it made him happy…
Throughout the Eighties and well beyond, Magie Noir followed me as a permanent part of my collection. It trailed in my wake on nights on the town, alternated with another 1980s witchy brew, Paloma Picasso’s Mon Parfum, it stayed on mornings after, it followed me on those occasions I had definite ulterior motives.
Even today these all too many years later, it remains the single most complimented perfume I have ever owned. I have yet to meet a man it hasn’t swiped sideways in a swoon. I even wore it at my wedding in 2000, a great, whopping cloud of it, because my husband insisted it was his favorite out of the five I owned at the time.
The marriage didn’t last, but Magie Noir did!
When in 2008, I located a bottle of the original formulation at an online discounter at an outrageously cheap price, I wasted no time at all in wishing for a bottle for my birthday. I still have that bottle today, doled out in tiny sprays, because once it’s gone – it’s gone.
Yet my sister remembered when a DK retailer had a nostalgia campaign recently and brought back modern versions of some of the greatest perfume successes of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, perfumes that usually are nowhere available anywhere here. She even sent a text message to make sure: “Didn’t you used to wear Magie Noir?” “Hell, yes!”
A few days later, I received that current formulation. (Thank you, Sis!) And…
At some point, I caught myself thinking Lancôme should have just given up the ghost of former glory and called it Magie Blanche. Because unlike the original there is nothing in the slightest morally ambiguous about this version.
It’s a lot of things, most of them very good, but it’s emphatically not the original, and in this IFRA-compliant age, how could it be?
If the original is a rosy patchouli-flecked castoreum-laden, mossy witches’ brew with green fangs worthy of the three ladies in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, if not Lady Macbeth herself, this modern reformulation is not unlike seeing Lady Macbeth as a holograph of her former, witchy, manipulative, evil self.
She has, as they say, had some work done.
So this rainy, humdrum Sunday afternoon, I sit with the goddess Hecate – the original formulation – on my left wrist and the ‘rejuvenated’ Madame Macbeth on my right. How do they compare?
Well, they don’t.
If Hecate works her witchery best after dark and preferably after midnight with emphatic ulterior man-eating motives, Madame Macbeth much prefers the safety of daylight and the solace of the familiar. She is airier, lighter and infinitely fresher, to appeal to a younger audience, maybe? Certainly, if you were allowed to wear perfume to the office/workplace, no one would be offended by her presence. Her fangs have been replaced with perfectly aligned dazzling movie-star white caps, or to put it another way, more bergamot and less of that ensorcelling, eerie will-o’-the-wisp earthy-green galbanum.
Hecate, whose fangs are long and green with only a tinge of sunny bergamot and a distinct galbanum, makes no such efforts to conform to any other rules than her own. That animal growl that so defines her is present right from the start. Kneel in her presence, you hapless mortals! A goddess walks among you. For the love of all things atavistic and primeval, appreciate her. Or beware the consequences!
Because this goddess on the far side of midnight conceals a rich, deep, burgundy hued rosy heart (Bulgarian rose, if my memory serves me correctly) to lure any all-too willing victims even further into her passion play, down and down and down into the dark fur-lined abyss of castoreum and oakmoss where secrets are revealed and truths are made apparent and skins are peeled away and made irrelevant yet souls may taste immortality if they’re deemed worthy of such transcendent pleasures.
Madame Macbeth’s heart hides nothing more edifying than a dewy, fresh pink rose wrapped in a few casual patchouli leaves and an approximation of oakmoss almost as an afterthought. No feral creature growls down below. If she existed as a woman, you’d stare at her still-beautiful face and wonder:
“What the hell happened to you?”
The perfume equivalent of extensive plastic surgery, that’s what. Hecate’s witchy soul has had her forehead Botoxed, her cheeks and compelling facial lines packed with Restylane and her porcelain skin resurfaced with IPL. That heart of splendid dark has been liposuctioned out of existence. Her character retains just enough of its former beauty to remind you of what she once was and made her into a hologram. You can inhale what she is and sense what she was, yet what she was is now forever gone and far away, and what is left doesn’t stick around for long. I could easily wear – indeed, I have – this Madame for any occasion at all, and it’s still good enough that I will.
Meanwhile, Hecate laughs from the depths of her black abyss. “You had a goddess among you,” she seems to say, “yet you forgot what you had.”
With thanks to my sister Stephanie for the memories old and new. And also Barbara Herman, for sharing the mutual nostalgia.
Photo of Kim Novak by Ralph Crane in ‘Bell, Book and Candle’ (1958). In this movie at least, as close as any human can get to being the great goddess Hecate.