A Homecoming Dream

A review of Etat Libre d’Orange’s ‘Tilda Swinton Like This’

Sometimes, you can encounter a combination of disparate elements that in theory seem so utterly wrong and alien, you wonder how it can ever work. Scallops in a vanilla-white wine sauce, dark chocolate and curry, lavender cupcakes – all the things that shouldn’t work yet somehow do, sometimes beautifully, sometimes not.

Then come the occasions when you wonder why no one thought of it before. When idea and execution come together in a flux so seamless, the result seems like some elegant, effortless sleight-of-hand, and the rabbit out of that hat has orange fur with gold-brown polka dots and will redefine the word ‘rabbit’ for all time to come in your own mind. One singular combination – but it still has long ears, a fluffy tail and eats the carrots in your garden.

Etat Libre d’Orange’s ‘Tilda Swinton – Like This’ is one such rabbit. When it was released last year, I read the reviews and thought to myself: Pumpkin perfume? Gingerbread? Pumpkin pie? R-e-a-l-l-y now…

Famous last words. Because on May 5th, ‘Like This’ won the Fragrance Foundation France’s award – the perfume world’s equivalent of an Oscar – for best specialty/niche fragrance, a distinction I personally think Etat Libre richly deserves for several reasons.

For one thing, this isn’t anything like a Demeter. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s not about the pumpkin at all, or even anything normally categorized as ‘gourmand’. It could be me, but I don’t get anything resembling ‘pumpkin pie’ in the least – and that’s a good thing.

Right away, I get a tangy, sharp zing of mandarin and ginger, an electric bolt of summer, heat and all things ‘happy’ to my nose, but that’s just the beginning, there’s this indescribable crème brûlée scent of almost-burnt sugar and within moments, an earthier ribbon of vetiver and what I suspect might be that ‘pumpkin accord’ weave their way into the picture. I can smell neroli, too, and rose, say the notes, but the neroli is dancing a joyful fandango on my skin and I never notice that. What I most definitely notice is immortelle creeping in to the limelight like some sentient vine, shooting sunshine-yellow blooms unfolding in fast-forward on my skin to sing the song immortelle sings so well.

The worst thing I can say about ‘Like This’ is that if you hate immortelle, this probably won’t change your mind. I thought I did. I thought that maple syrup+curry were vastly overrated, and I thought I would hate this, but if it’s the vetiver, the heliotrope, that pumpkin thang, or just my ever-expanding olfactory horizons, I don’t care and know less, since I have to sit down. I feel dizzy, dizzy in a way that happens more frequently these days, in the grip of some inarticulate emotion that boils down to…happy. Not ecstatic, not delirious, not my usual overexcited puppy-dog mode, but happy-content, happy-comforted, happy-peaceful, happy in a way that makes me want to laugh at nothing more and nothing less than the simple, incredible pleasure of being alive in my skin, in this moment, in this company. I applied liberally this morning, and these thirteen hours later, a hint of skin-but-better still remains.

‘Like This’ is …a dream of a homecoming, when you have sampled a taste of all the adventures this world has to offer, and it was…enough. It’s when open arms reach out to hold you and draw you inside to a fireside and a perfect cup of Darjeeling with two warm gingersnaps on the saucer, and you feel body and soul come completely together for the first time in a long time, because you’re…home.

It’s that perfect, contented moment, a fleeting flower frozen in amber for eternity, that you will love and cherish always.

It’s like saying goodbye to a lover on a Sunday morning, when he pulls you close and asks: “What will it be like, when I see you again?”

And you grab his shirt and pull his head down to yours and brush a taste of firelight and spice across his lips and you say:

“Like this.

Notes: Yellow mandarin, ginger, pumpkin accord, immortelle, Moroccan neroli. Grasse rose, vetiver, heliotrope, musk

I have never drained a sample vial so fast in my entire life. If that’s not love…

Disclosure: Sample generously provided by Anthony of NkdMan, who gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse!

Image: Fossil Mall

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.”


“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!

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

Life’s a Peach!

A review of Etat Libre d’Orange’s ‘Vraie Blonde’

Scandinavia, any red-blooded male will tell you, is the natural habitat of The Blonde. Tall, short, silver, bronze, amber and every shade not even L’Oreàl has discovered yet. Pixie blondes, mermaid blondes and suicide brunettes with fair roots.

Blonde may be a state of mind or just a moment, and blondes have more fun, right?

I doubt it, but bear with me. I’m having a moment and I am…a blonde.

There are even perfume blondes…Daim Blond, Bois Blond, Tabac Blond, or even Chanel no. 5 by way of association with one of the world’s most famous ever (bottled) blondes, which is beyond horrible on this particular blonde. Scents of suede, woods, tobacco or aldehydic florals, they’re not really about being blonde at all.

Which is not something you could ever say about Etat Libre d’Orange’s Vraie Blonde.

Etat Libre is a line that tends to make a lot of people, well, nervous. Nervous to have their scented bubbles burst, their preconceptions challenged by whatever true-crime movie ELdO bottles up and unleashes upon an unsuspecting planet.

If that’s your idea of Etat Libre d’Orange, stop right there. Vraie Blonde isn’t one of those.

Instead of distance and glacial perfection à la Grace Kelly or Catherine Deneuve (my all-time favorite blonde), this blonde is flirty, peachy, utterly and completely approachable. Instead of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this is the best kind of Thirties screwball starring Carole Lombard. Blonde, yes, kooky, yes, but smart and sassy too, and if all she wants is to have a good time and let her hair down, who am I to argue?

I was…surprised, and that’s a good thing. I like surprises. I like knowing that there are knock-your-socks-off, opulent Orientals, I like knowing about immensely complex perfumes that are never the same from wear to wear, I like instant sex appeal and I like happy-go-lucky florals, too. I like don’t-mess-with-me leathers and chypres. Help me, someone, I love them all.

Do you know, sometimes I just want to let my own hair down, drink slightly too much champagne and be…well, blonde, too! Certainly if champagne is involved. Among other things.

Out of the bottle, Vraie Blonde is a bubblefest of aldehydes and a hint of champagne. Rose and white pepper are in the mix, too, says Fragrantica, but what I get is…peach. Not too sweet, definitely not canned, but sun-warmed, perfectly ripe and right off the vine, ready to slice into the chilled glass of bubbly on that golden summer evening when your most pressing intellectual concern is to savor the moment and dish all the off-color jokes unfit to print.

Later, the bubbles fizz and soften to a slightly smoky finish where I can detect a suggestion of patchouli and a hint of myrrh that stays close to the skin, but not so close someone else can’t appreciate it. On my skin, it lasts about three hours, which is just right for two bottles of champagne, a pound of peaches and my repertoire of dirty jokes.

Vraie Blonde makes me laugh. Laugh at the absurdities of life and the seriousness of love, laugh at myself and laugh in good company. Laugh because this is a good night, and great champagne, and peel me another perfect peach, would you, darling? You are a peach of a guy. There’s more champagne and life’s a peach, and did I ever tell you about the time I pulled a Lady Godiva by accident when the horse rode off with my clothes one day at the beach, so I had to chase after it, right, which was when these two dishy police officers showed up. So I said to the horse, and whoever says that horses can’t laugh is dead wrong…

What did you expect? I am a blonde, after all, ornamental topiary included!

Thank you, Etat Libre. I shall henceforward never write you off as gimmicky again. I didn’t expect to like this so much as I did, and I certainly didn’t expect this reminder of one very important fact.

Sometimes, life’s a peach!

Thanks to Dee who sent it…tongue-in-cheek and with a wink!

Notes according to Fragrantica: Aldehydes, Champagne Cognac Liqueur, Rose, Vine Peach, White Pepper, Myrrh, Patchouli

The Human Beast

Imagine we’re playing a word association game, where I say a word, touch your nose and you then tell me the first thing you associate with that word. No thinking! Here goes.

Perfume. Ah, see – already, your nostrils are flaring. Perfume – heavenly scents in beautiful bottles, exorbitantly expensive, conjuring up any number of images and emotions – the clay-like smell of a newborn baby, the fragrance of baking bread wafting through a room, the aura of evergreen and orange pomanders in December, an exquisite scent in the air, trailing after a beautiful woman – or a man. All of these bring out any number of associated images and accompanying scent-memories, all prompted by one word – perfume.

Which is to say – by choosing the word ‘perfume’, our brains have already taken sides on the qualifying line of good vs. bad: perfume = good. The word ‘smell’, on the other hand, is neutral. Something can smell good or bad. Stink, on the other hand, is all – bad. The phrase ‘the heavenly stench of humanity’ seems to contradict almost everything we’re indoctrinated with in this hygiene-obsessed age, which at the very least is to smell like nothing at all.

The thing is, we all do – smell like something even when we don’t, all leaving behind an imperceptible trail of our own unique selves, all of it registering on a gut level of awareness our brains record and that we react to emotionally, but aren’t consciously aware of. Science has proven that women in particular have acute noses due to hormone levels, are able to perceive which men have differing immune systems, and be attracted precisely for that reason, no matter what we can articulate to the contrary. It even works in the opposite direction – during menstruation, we gravitate toward more nurturing, caring men, but during ovulation we want the bad boys, the alpha males, the heartbreakers who give us babies with survival instincts and superior genes.

Perfume – the word – makes us associate something good, the smell of roses, of lily-of-the-valley, of incense and cinnamon and Shalimar and Narcisse Noir and Mitsouko and any number of names branded into our awareness of – perfume.

At least, that’s how it used to be. Because in 2006, the renegade French niche perfume house of Etat Libre d’Orange decided to push the buttons of perfume preconceptions everywhere and gave an unsuspecting world a stupendous creation named ‘Sécrétions Magnifiques’ – Magnificent Secretions. A liquid love letter, if you please, to the ‘heavenly stench of humanity’. Sweat, saliva, milk, sperm, blood – oh, yes! Let’s not forget, these are the folks behind such euphonious perfumes such as ‘Putain de Palaces’ (Palace Whore), Jasmin et Cigarettes, and my own favorite, ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong, Baby, I Don’t Swallow’. I would love to see that advertising…

I came across a few drops – I wasn’t fool enough to try it on my skin – in 2008, and I think my olfactory synapses exploded. That’s what I got for thinking that perfume should be beautiful, that scents should smell good. Because it was – at least to my nose – the stench of humanity, and no heaven in sight. Spunk and funk in a bottle, with added blood. Or I could put it another way – the kind of night to remember you could never, ever, tell your mother you had, or even your best friend, because it involved hair-raising activities neither would approve of.

Katie Puckrik, video perfumista extraordinaire, put it thus: “This smells like a crime scene.”

But is it perfume if it stinks? There are people, I’ll have you know, who actually buy this stuff – and wear it, in public even. Is it possible that this is in effect one overlarge and very hyped practical joke – to turn our perceptions upside down, to make us aware of just how far we’re removed from our animal origins, to make us aware, in fact, that no matter what we wear, no matter what we buy, dab, spray or embalm ourselves with, underneath it all, buried beneath layers of soap and shampoo and body lotions and deodorants and scents in all permutations – people, let’s face it. We stink.

In a famous letter, Napoleon wrote to Josephine: “I arrive home in three days. Don’t wash.’ That got many laughs since those letters were published, simply for being so alien to our modern sensibilities. Ew. Three days without soap and water, in an age without deodorant, even. Napoleon wanted Josephine, not Josephine with an overlay of the musky scents she loved to wear, but the musk that was all her own.

Once upon a time, I had a boyfriend, if not as extreme as Napoleon, who could relate to that. The day after a rip-roaring party, when I wafted hangover, leftover scent traces and cigarette smoke, always did him in. So far as he was concerned, I only lacked one thing to be perfect.

The extra layer of ‘human’ that Etat Libre can now supply in a bottle.

I live for many things – for music, for literature, for my writing, my loved ones, for art and for the art that is – perfume. I live for the epiphanies in bottles that make me…walk taller, feel better, feel prettier, sexier, more in command of strange situations, more confident and at ease. Just as Jean Grenouille in ‘Perfume – the story of a murderer’ was shunned for not having any human aura of his own, I feel somehow diminished without perfume, less complex and even – dare I say it – less human and definitely less female.

I also live for those moments that turn my world on its head, that make me change my perspectives and question my assumptions and the Big Fat Why of It All. I live to be challenged – even by a perfume that so far as I can tell, is the complete antithesis of what I believe perfume should be. It’s another form of artistic expression that’s every bit as valid as any other, even if it leaves me cold, indifferent, or in hives.

So long as I live, I can honestly say I never want to smell this ever again. And so long as I live, I can also say – I’m glad I did. Simply because – it challenged me.

Which is more than I can say about 95% of the contents of perfume counters these days.

Image: Steuben sterling silver/glass perfume bottle, ca. 1910

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