The Softest Sell


– when image is everything
At one important point in Quantum Demonology, one of the characters says “I can believe anything for at least five minutes, it’s all in the persuasion.”

So if you stop to think about it a little further, would you not agree with the statement that nowhere is that persuasion more emphatic than with …perfume? That art most ephemeral of all, fleeting as a spring wind, yet a perfume can engrave itself upon your memory and your emotions in such a visceral manner, it might as well be hewed in Carrara marble by Bernini to endure for eternity.

We buy, consume, wear perfume for so many reasons – to reflect our many and often disparate selves on any given day, to celebrate spring, summer, fall…or the first snow. We wear perfume to seduce and entice, or simply to seduce and entice ourselves into a newer, better self, however we choose to define it. We use perfume to define or emphasize a mood, a feeling, a certain emotion. As in…

“Today, you don’t want to mess with me. I am cool, confident and completely collected. Today, I wear Chanel no. 19.”

Or…

“Tonight, it’s you and me. The world stops at the door. Tonight, there are no…cell phones, no Twitter feeds, no Facebook status updates. Tonight, there is only now. So tonight, I shall wear Tabac Blond, for you alone…”

So by association, and by associating all the images conjured up in naming only two perfumes, two whole movie trailers play in the reader’s mind…Armani suit, well-behaved hair, an impeccable presentation of the ten most relevant facts a client needs to know to take the bait and pay the bills. Don Draper, eat my dust!

Or something black and slinky, something altogether different for an altogether different purpose…some time definitely after dark.

At least, that’s what yours truly tells herself in front of the perfume cabinet. Your mileage – or your perfumes – may vary.

But in choosing, buying, consuming perfume – whichever one you choose for whatever reason – you are buying into not just the juice, you are choosing, buying and wearing an entire aesthetic, as well. This was brought to my attention by some of the comments I received for my blog on Etat Libre d’Orange’s ‘Vraie Blonde’. Which got me thinking…and as we all know, that means trouble!


Behold, one of the glories of the twentieth century – Jacques Guerlain’s immortal ‘Mitsouko’, beloved, worshiped and adored by perfumistas and normal women alike since its creation in 1919. Because…it’s perfect. It is every bottled aspiration any woman and many men could ever hope to have, and – it’s Guerlain, who broke new ground in a world of ostensible soliflores with the still very modern ‘Jicky’ in 1887, and even then, they had been in business for over sixty years. Guerlain, to our jaded minds, wafts heritage, class, refined taste and a certain refined aesthetic native to France especially, where all aspects of life are sensual pleasures to be celebrated, explored and taken to entirely new heights. Buy a Guerlain perfume – almost any Guerlain – and you are buying an entire history in a bottle, all wrapped up in the heady aura of…Mitsouko, Shalimar …It is a compliment to your most excellent, discerning taste in that most excellent, ephemeral art form that is – perfume. In the unlikely if not implausible event anyone says it smells ‘weird’, please, just shoot that ignoramus on sight!

At the other end of that same super-sophisticated aesthetic spectrum, we have…the line of Serge Lutens. Whereas Guerlain has its nineteenth-century heritage to claim as its own, Serge Lutens as a perfume house has only existed since 2000, and yet, it would be fair to say that few other lines – and indeed few other perfume houses – have done so much to explore and even refine the singular and very personal aesthetic inclinations and preoccupations of M. Lutens and his perfumer Christopher Sheldrake. The brand, the concept, the very perfumes themselves are unique and uniquely intriguing, not least because this is not a mainstream brand, and these perfumes are nowhere near mainstream.

Yet the branding – of a super-luxurious, super-exclusive, inside secret of the cognoscenti fits the perfumes, even though many of them are challenging, shapeshifting, mercurial creatures who seem to take a life of their own on skin and bloom in ways we may or may not like. A Serge Lutens perfume can be difficult in a way no Guerlain can, can be downright obstinate and insistent and you can likewise insist that this…thing…on your skin is a horror story not even John Carpenter could cook up, until that one day, that one day you catch yourself thinking – as with Tubéreuse Criminelle pictured above…whoever could have guessed that gasoline and mentholated mothball could evolve into such peerless beauty? So you are hooked forever-and-a-day, and there is no cure, no panacea, no balm for that spot on your soul that only a Lutens could find and appease.

Meanwhile, we’re still in luxury territory, still within the safe and beautiful confines of sophistication and discernment and our own most excellent taste. There’s no disparity between the juice and the brand, nothing we need to outright reject, because it’s still…perfume. A necessary adornment and the only accessory that really matters, as Coco Chanel once said.

Perfumes came and went, perfume houses bloomed and died, all of them to the last bottle catering to our need for definition, our hunger for the extraordinary, the necessary, the hotly coveted…luxury, even if it were the only luxury we could afford, even if we would never wear or afford haute couture in our lives, we could aspire and breathe in that rarified air and for a moment believe ourselves to be…rare, exclusive sophisticates.

But times were changing, people’s perceptions of luxury and branding were changing – even luxury brands were – and are – becoming watered-down commonplaces, available to anyone with enough rubber credit and a bad case of the ‘screw-it-and-I’m-worth it’s. Other lines joined the fray in upping the ante to maintain that exclusivity, through price tag or limited distribution, all to better separate the plebes from the patricians, the cognoscenti from the clueless. Some of those lines merit their outrageous price tags, and some are just more…noisy hype in a world where everything is hyped as ‘luxury’, to the point where it can be hard to define what the word even means any longer.

Which was where that blog entry came in. Because in the comments, I came across several statements that quite simply stopped me in my tracks. It was a Japanese ‘satori’ moment, an ‘Aha!’ moment, when with a few select words, my entire perspective on perfume changed. Possibly forever.

In an Internet age, when everything new-ish is so five minutes ago, when chocolate, bath towels and even something so mundane as toilet paper can be marketed as ‘luxury’, along came …you guessed it…another perfume house, and this time, nothing ever would be quite the same again.

Enter the renegade perfume house of Etat Libre d’Orange, and pictured above, quite possibly the most universally reviled and deplored perfume ever created. No one who has ever experienced it can forget it, and many simply don’t have the stomach to try. It doesn’t even stop with the perfume itself. It’s the entire concept of the line. Because some of the comments stated quite unequivocally that the brand itself and its marketing concept was enough to reject the line entirely, and that was what stopped me cold.

Etat Libre chose a very different approach to marketing themselves as the Next New Kid On the Block. Instead of über-sophistication and exclusivity, they chose to sell themselves on shock value – and a certain adolescent – or tongue-in-cheek, if you prefer – image, and a definite salacious slant. With names such as ‘Putain de Palaces’ (Palace Slut), ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong (Baby I Don’t Swallow’) or even the infamous ‘Secretions Magnifiques’, they turned perfume marketing and branding entirely on its head, and even managed to raise quite a few hackles in the process by challenging all preconceptions as to what constitutes ‘perfume’ – that it must be beautiful, it must be luxurious, it must by definition be a continuation on an eternal theme – to smell good. And anything that smells…good must perforce be marketed like perfume has been marketed since the beginning of time – with the aesthetic we have come to associate with….perfume. Sacred, special, sophisticated, mirroring back to us our own…sanctity, uniqueness, sophistication.

Not so, if Etat Libre is anything to go by. They may have advertising copy Beavis and Butthead could have written (on a good day), their perfumes may have salacious names, and one of them may indeed be the bottled Texas Chainsaw Massacre in full Technicolor, 3-D and Smellavision, but all the same, they are doing quite well for themselves in spite of – or because of – that iconoclasm that dared to question our preconceptions of perfume and perfume marketing.

I have no problem with either personal choice and preference or iconoclasm – I actually gravitate toward it more often than not. If some would prefer to reject Etat Libre’s creations simply for their Beavis and Butthead aesthetic, well – it’s a free country, right? We’re inundated with choices every day. The old cliché – to each his or her own – is nowhere more true than in perfume. One woman’s Poison is another woman’s Obsession, etc.

Personally, I would never write off a new experience of any kind I might stand to learn something from. (If nothing else, I could always use it in a novel!) I would never reject an entire line on principle, because in my daily life, no one would ever know about my super-deluxe-exclusive-only-available-every-other-decade-limited-edition-and-distribution-vintage-in-18K gold-bottled…perfume. My surroundings would pass their judgment something along the lines of…good/bad/yuck/let-me-rip-off-your… etc. Which is fine by me.

What is very fine indeed by me is the occasional…huh-huh…Beavis..check-this-out-dude…reminder that sometimes, marketing can take itself too seriously, perfumes can certainly take themselves too seriously, and what we really need to do is just…chill out, laugh and let our hair down a little. There is a space and a headspace for our longing for the ephemeral dream that is perfume, for that flawless, shining moment of transcendent beauty that gives us such joy simply to exist, to live and to breathe! There is a place for our inner teenaged longing for irreverence and off-color, too, should we be that way inclined.

And above all, sometimes we need a reminder – that it’s only perfume, people! The softest sell of all!

Images:
Illustration for Le Galion’s ‘Snob’ by C. Maurel, 1957, belledepub.free.fr.
Vintage Guerlain Mitsouko, guerlainperfumebottles.webs.com
Limited edition Serge Lutens Tubéreuse Criminelle, megsmakeup.com
Etat Libre d’Orange Secretions Magnifiques, Etat Libre

The Green Fiend


– A review of Jacomo’s ‘Silences’
Once upon a time in the Seventies, women were not afraid to be audacious or unique, either in their choice of perfume or their personalities. “Not for unassuming women”, read the copy for Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Rive Gauche’, and if any perfumey slogan sums up an era, that would be it, equally applicable to Rive Gauche, Chanel no. 19, the teen-market version Revlon’s ‘Charlie!’ or any number of chypre/green/assertive scents of the time.

It was a bolder, more individualized decade, and the scents launched in the 1970s reflected that boldness, that audacity of spirit and daring and ‘You’ve come a long way, baby!”

And so I have, no longer anywhere near the 6- through 16-year-old I was in that decade, but one thing has stayed with me always – my penchant for the Green Fiends – scents that wave their galbanum flags loud and proud, scents with serious intentions for women you don’t mess around with.

Along the way, I found it was a perpetual quest to locate the ultimate Green Fiend. Chanel no.19, a perennial favorite, is very ladylike in its assertiveness, the kind to rap you lightly with a Japanese fan if you ever go too far. ‘Knowing’ by Estée Lauder is a rosy-green chypre that is as bracing as it is bitter, and this lady is not afraid to use her very expensive handbag, should you overstep your bounds, nor timid in the least to admit her relationship with her siblings, Lauder’s ‘Aliage’, Clinique’s ‘Aromatics Elixir’ or Prescriptives’ ‘Calyx’, none of them in the slightest unassuming, and all of them carrying metaphorical Hermès Kelly handbags with some serious punch behind them, or else some serious books inside them.

So on a whim, I wished for a bottle of a Green Fiend I had somehow managed to miss in my quest for green with a capital G.

Creeping in on sinuous, snaky tendrils of emerald green, Jacomo’s Silences arrived. Right away, I could tell this was no unassuming woman, this was a quietly commanding Helmut Newton glamazon, standing tall and proud in her six-inch spikes, not shouting her presence so much as insinuating herself into yours.

You can tell she is a blood relative of Chanel no. 19, the family likeness is right on her face, but whereas Mademoiselle Chanel is intimidating, Silences is intimate and more muted and by far more…green. This is the green of deep, uncharted forest, where unexpected flowers bloom.

After that sharp, bracing burst of galbanum, almost bitter, almost resinous, a hyacinth begins to bloom and grow, gathering more flowers in its wake, a hint of rose, a whisper of narcissus, the slightest touch of lily of the valley that keeps the hyacinth in check, keeping it from becoming too heady, too much, always erring on the side of class and elegance, always cool but never cold.

Those flowers stay with you a long, long time before they fade away to a verdant whisper of woods, a touch of amber, a tinge of something akin to regret. It lasted at least six hours on me, and was never less than stunning.

If Silences were a Tarot card, she would be the Major Arcana card called The Priestess, for that slightly chilly self-sufficient air she wears, that intimation she knows infinitely more than you could ever think to ask. She keeps her distance, and the distance only intrigues you more and lures you further in to those secret, green depths. She carries a touch of melancholy about her, a slightly pensive, eerie air, and even so, she inspires devotion, love and acolytes.

I’ve worn this during a heat wave this past summer, and it was the olfactory equivalent of air conditioning, keeping me cool, calm, collected and above all – grounded in the heat. But even in this wet and far cooler autumn, she reminds me that all things return, that even Spring will return, and so will I, longing for the secrets hidden in that emerald-green shade that is ‘Silences’.

This should receive far more attention than it does, but some of us do what we can to spread the word.

Can be bought for much less than the blood of your firstborn child in many locations, among them Amazon and here:

Notes according to the Jacomo website:
Top note : Narcissus absolute, Iris from Florence, Rose, Blackcurrant absolute, Galbanum
Heart note : Calendula, Bulgarian rose, Lily of the valley
Base note : Oak moss, Ambrette, Sandalwood, Vetyver

Notes according to Basenotes:
Top Notes: Galbanum, Green Note, Bergamot, Lemon, Orange Blossom .
Middle Notes: Orris, Rose, Muguet, Hyacinth, Jasmin.
Base Notes: Moss, Cedarwood, Sandal, Musk .

Read more here:

Image: Copyright: Helg of Perfume Shrine

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Ms. Frigidaire

A review of Chanel no. 19

Indulge me for a moment. Imagine the year is 1982. The location Copenhagen, Denmark. Nothing like the Hipsterville it is today, nothing like the romantic, copper-roofed old Nordic city seen in movies, but a dire, dour downer of a town. Unemployment is high, spirits are low, and an entire generation is busy declaring they have no future at all with all the passion of the very young and disillusioned.

Picture this: Hanging around the fringes of political activism, underground art, the squatter’s movement and general malaise is quite possibly the world’s cleanest punk. Second-hand Doc Martens, fourth/fifth and sometimes sixth-hand clothes hanging by one thread, black of course. This young lady – for that she is – has few hopes of anything much at all, and maladjusted doesn’t even begin to describe her. She’s eighteen going on nineteen going on a very crotchety ninety, a dangerous age, getting into scrapes, getting into trouble, getting arrested at demonstrations for her fast and furious mouth, hurling old toilet commodes out of the windows of squatted buildings at the police who are there to kick her out, along with her closest eighty rabid activist friends.

When she’s not wreaking havoc with her fellow anarchists, she hangs out in one haven for the misfits and Misfits fans, a book café in a side street that never sells that many books, but people club together for vegan potluck lunches, argue about music and political theory, and where to run if the cops crash the next squat.

Remember, she’s arguably the world’s cleanest punk. Despite her demeanor, despite the forbidding eye makeup and the safety pins and the scuffed boots and bitten fingernails, she is scrupulously clean. Her beloved grandmother did not crawl out of the gutter of the working class just so she could wallow in her own brand of dirt. That, too, gets her into trouble, because soap and water are so oppressing, so bourgeois. So not punk. And there’s that other thing, that other not-cool thing to do that she does – she wears perfume.

One day, when no one is looking and she has a little cash that didn’t go into the communal anarcho-syndicalist potluck/LP/herbal tea kitty, cash she didn’t say she has, she sneaks into a local department store feeling in the mood for something sneaky and stealthily subversive. Two hugely guilty if very happy hours later, she leaves – with a bottle of Chanel no. 19 eau de toilette.

Sure enough, one warm spring day just after her nineteenth birthday, her sometime boyfriend notices an aura that has nothing in common with stale beer, herbal tea or cigarette smoke. Being her boyfriend, he makes a comment, and the poor girl is instantly lambasted for supporting such a capitalist, commercial enterprise as Chanel. Suddenly, even her very political stance is called into question – because of her perfume. She may be a punk – but she’s also a g-i-r-l. At age nineteen, someone finally notices!

Stealth subversion at its finest. A punk in French perfume, and not just any perfume, but Chanel no. 19, as opposed to the far more common no. 5.

These far too many years later, and the former punk is no longer quite so angry or so defensive. All these many years later, she still wears Chanel no. 19, whenever she’s in the mood for a little subversion. It calms her, grounds her and focuses her attention on the things that really matter.

Taking over the world, for instance. She can name at least two occasions where her qualifications – and possibly her Chanel no. 19 – landed her some very high profile jobs.

Chanel no. 19 is a chilly, green and even slightly intimidating perfume. The kind of perfume you’d imagine Sigourney Weaver wearing in ‘Working Girl’ – not compromising on femininity, or much of anything else, for that matter. It’s a take it or leave it scent, from the first cool, muted burst of galbanum to the far dry-down of earthy vetiver, and all the silky-smooth stages of iris and rose in between. It has no need to be loud, no need to wear its heart on its dark green sleeve, but you will notice it, you will pay attention and you will do as she bids you – or else. The perfect scent for Ms. Phrigidaire.

The different concentrations offer a surprising evolution of the same scent. The parfum is like cold, slippery, gray-green satin, emphasizing the happy marriage of iris and rose. The eau de parfum is less focused on the rose/iris and more on the leathery, vetiver and oakmoss base notes, whereas the eau de toilette is lighter, with more of a galbanum kick and a flirtier, more lemony iris middle.

It has certainly been reformulated due to IFRA restrictions. The Chanel no 19 I remember at age 19 was much richer, more faceted and less fleeting than the one you can find today, but having said that, some loves last well beyond the age of nineteen. Even this one.

Notes according to Basenotes

Top notes:
Galbanum, Bergamot, Neroli, Hyacinth .
Middle Notes:
Rose, Orris, Jasmine, Narcissus, Muguet, Ylang-Ylang.

Base Notes:
Musk, Sandal, Oakmoss, Leather, Cedarwood .

Image: © SexyEyes69/redbubble.com