- the thrills and spills of the past year in perfume
It’s that storied time of year again when I finally sit down and decide on my favorites of (the thankfully passé) 2014. In spite of a frantic year that was frantic for all the wrong reasons, and in spite of far too much to review and not nearly enough time to write about it, I did indeed, thanks to dear and generous friends and my own initiative, get to stick my nose in not a few things I loved this year, many I very much liked and a few I absolutely loathed.
This time, instead of posting three separate lists, I’ve decided to mix things up a bit on one ultra-list, otherwise you and I will be here ‘till Doomsday, and I don’t know about you, but I have a long to-do list this year…
Another thing I feel compelled to point out is that many of the perfumes that have made it to this list have yet to be reviewed. Some because… well, that’s a surprise I’ll be getting back to in a bit. In so doing, that violates a principle I have about only including the things I reviewed, but we all have things to do. Some will be reviewed here on TAG, and others… well, I’m getting ahead of myself here.
The Worst of 2014
We might as well get the bad stuff over with.
Which means that whoever is in charge chez Parfums YSL will be the first to go down in flames in my revolution dream. It evidently wasn’t enough to slaughter one of the greatest perfume heritages of the late 20th century in terrible/lazy/rushed refomulations, nor even to pour ‘PVC+phthalate doll accord’ into the dregs of (badly reformulated) Paris and call it ‘Parisienne’. But did whomever-should-be-shot-with-current-version-Tabu stop to think about how we would perceive Black Opium? Because it is neither ‘black’ in the slightest, nor Opium in the least particular. It’s as forgettable and unremarkable as last year’s haute blondes. Henceforth, I shall proceed to call it (“perfume”) Methadone, except it neither alleviates Opium withdrawals nor the nostalgic pangs of prior highs. When Hedi Slimane, chief designer at YSL, finds it necessary to dissociate himself from it in a press release, you know it’s one terrible idea. Horribly executed. Alas, not fatally.
Perfumers and perfume houses: I have a announcement for you:
I. Am. So. Over. Oud.
And yes, I do like oud, except not so much the barnyard stable ‘fierce’ ouds, and certainly not the synthetic oud that passed for the real thing this past year. This is a trend that needs to die. You still have flowers, woods, resins, plants, all with their own languages to explore and their stories to tell. Start listening.
True luxury, stated a friend of mine in the know, is always inclusive. Meaning that inflating an already hefty price tag on a niche perfume, pouring gold dust all over the bottle (or whatever gimmicks are used to justify the price tag) and marking it all up by at least 5000% is not, in fact, luxurious at all. It’s simply, as I see it, pandering to the lowest audience of all: those who are too unsophisticated and too rich to know better. There are far too many ‘hyper-luxe’ sheep masquerading as big, bad wolves worth their prices. If I ever have 1000€ to spend on perfume (because I can dream!), I hope to spend it where my business is properly appreciated, not where I leave with a big, fat “SUCKER” tattooed in risible ink on my forehead. Roja Dove and Diaghilev extrait, here’s looking at you, and I say that because Diaghilev in extrait is literally flawless. And forever and always out of my reach. Damn it.
Because they display a distinct lack of inspiration or ambition, and I can’t decide what’s worse. Maybe both?
Guerlain Shalimar Souffle de Parfum. I spent the better part of two hours trawling through a large Copenhagen Sephora this Christmas on the first day of the sales, and lo and behold, there was Shalimar and Souffle, and I thought I might as well live a little. While I was certainly impressed with the original current-version Shalimar (although I much prefer the amped-up vanilla frangipane of Shalemur), this was a baby-faced powder puff girl desperately trying to look about 30, because that’s, like, old. Or mature. Or something. I wonder whether the marketing department of Guerlain has a huge THINK YOUNGER neon sign somewhere. The problem is, those ingénues don’t have the cash to go to town on perfume. We gens d’un certain âge, on the other hand, do. Grow up, Guerlain! Thierry Wasser – you’re better than that. And you know it.
Before I shoot myself in the metaphorical foot here, let me start by saying this is me. Your mileage may vary. Yet for all I adore consuming both chocolate and coffee, sometimes together, I’m emphatically not a fan of wearing either of them. (There are a very few exceptions.) It could be my skin chemistry, it could be something else, but as soon as I try, virtually all the perfumes I’ve tried with either note just grows and grows and grows into an espresso-choc Godzilla, the second before I’m eaten alive. Argh!
The Best of the Best
Biggest Overall Unexpected Surprise:
Please forget that I’m a perpetually immature overgrown teenager who took an inordinate amount of glee in wafting Junky a good deal of this past summer and fall, and then laying it on my unsuspecting audience when they asked what I was wearing. But Junky – just as the other things I’ve sniffed so far from Jardins d’Écrivain’s line – is a super-seamless unisex green floral I can’t get enough of whatever the season or the reason. I’m hopelessly addicted. You can bet your vintage My Sin I hope to explore the rest of Jardins d’Écrivains in detail, tout de suite!
Best Seamless Floral, Part One:
aroma M Camellia Perfume.
If your heart belongs to that grand age of perfumes à la Française, if Coco Chanel had a few great ideas in perfumery at least, if you like your flowers bold and luxurious, if you also love the glories of frankincense all wrapped up in a bow of Parisian Ooh la la!, if in short you’re a nostalgia freak like me, then you might love aroma M’s stupendously beautiful Camellia Perfume.
Best Perfume I didn’t expect to like, but did:
Parfums Serge Lutens Borneo 1837
It smells like unearthed secrets and undiscovered sins of the most glamorous, Baudelairean kind. A dry, dusty, ever-so-slightly rose-flecked, cocoa-dusted patchouli that shouldn’t work at all, but does. This past autumn, I’ve been rereading J.K. Huysmans’ Against Nature and The Damned. I suspect Des Esseintes would be all over Borneo, just as Huysmans would be all over Parfums Serge Lutens, when the paradox is actually the other way around!
Honorable Mention: I’m ashamed I haven’t tried this one before now, even considering I’m such a fan of leather perfumes. But Chanel’s Cuir de Russie has been growing on me like a fungus, and the more I wear it, the more I love it. Who knew?
Best Mainstream releases:
Even in my backwater part of the world, miracles happen. Such as the time I discovered Dior Homme Parfum
in my local chain shop. Since I consider the original Dior Homme (and Dior Homme Intense) among the greatest masculines ever made and I wear them whatever the label, I had to sniff this one. I was not disappointed. François Demachy, you have almost redeemed yourself. I dreamt about smelling this on the right kind of man for days. Lacking that option, I’d wear this super-sexy film noir beast, too.
Balmain Ivoire Eau de Parfum:
The original (I have a vintage eau de toilette) Ivoire is such an all-star favorite of mine, it was the very first true perfume review I wrote. There is neither a season, a reason nor an occasion when it is less than perfectly satisfying, perfectly lovely in its green soapy-sappy-aldehyde aura and perfectly appropriate. So I was expecting another hot-mess reformulation when Balmain launched the eau de parfum in 2014, only to find they’ve kept virtually everything that made the original so great except the oakmoss base. And speaking of…
Best “We’re not worthy!” perfume, Part One:
Every so often, it happens that a perfume launches I suspect Planet Perfume isn’t entirely prepared for. In 2014 came Bogue Profumo’s MAAI. Holy St. Mary Magdalene! Antonio Gardoni took tuberose, that most erotic of flowers, and super-glammed and super-sexed it up, and up and up and UP. No Superman would stand a chance against this perfume Kryptonite. It is as luxe, as grand, as velvety-plush, as mossy, as heady and did I mention s-e-x-y? as anything the Eighties ever dreamed of. I’m saving that sample for a date night with definite ulterior motives, presuming that ever happens. As they say, hope springs eternal, and Signor Gardoni – I’m not worthy! Of either hope or this perfume, I can’t quite decide…😉
Best New Perfume House:
Aedes de Venustas. AdV, the storied Greenwich Village perfumery store, has a very special place in my black and decadent heart, because once upon a time, their printed catalog provided all the perfumes I had – to dream about. Some time later, my sister brought me back a modestly priced perfume from Aedes, and whoever sold it to her was also sweet enough to provide samples for a severely aesthetically and perfume-starved woman. I never forgot it. So when Robert Gerstner and Karl Bradl launched their own perfume line in 2012 with their eponymous Aedes de Venustas, naturally I sat up and paid attention. Fate had plans when I was sent samples of everything AdV and they all blew me away. The running theme of Aedes de Venustas is incense – heartstopping, sacred, swoon-worthy incense, in unexpected combinations that both intrigue and hugely please this jaded perfume writer. I’ll be getting to those marvels in future posts. On that note…
Best Resurrected Floral, Part One:
Why carnation has such a fuddy-duddy, dowdy reputation is completely beyond me. I can’t get enough of carnation; peppery, rosy, clove-ish, fiery, feisty, thick, sweet and utterly delicious. Carnation sprang into my awareness with a bang when I had the chance to try a brand-new carnation (or so I thought) through a perfume split of Aedes de Venustas’ Oeillet Bengal. I bought a decant blind and promptly… adored it. Oeillet Bengale – actually, the name of a rare China rose – is a peppery, rich, rosy incense-laden wonder that shot to the top of my Hotly Coveted FBW wishlist, especially since that decant is going, going…
A Rose is a Rose is a Marvel… a.k.a. Best We’re Not Worthy, Part Two:
Not many perfumers can claim to have not one perfume that doesn’t do me any favors. The one who does like no other is Vero Kern of vero profumo. Heaven help me, I love all her work in any version: Rubj, Kiki, Onda (Onda did take a while) and Mito. So Vero gave us Rozy, her fragrant tribute to Anna Magnani in ‘The Tattooed Rose’, and just when you thought there was nothing new to say about rose, here is Rozy: emphatic, dramatic, sensuous and earthy, with a honey-flecked sweetness that shows a true maître’s effortless hand. I’ll have a time-travelling tale for Rozy’s crimson glories, but more on that one later…
Best Heatwave Antidote/Best Re-Release:
Tauer Perfumes’ Cologne du Maghreb.
Bless dear Andy Tauer for re-releasing this instant 2011 classic, for it subverted much I thought I knew about Tauers and everything I assumed about colognes, mainly that most of them are boring, as Cologne du Maghreb never, ever is. It is sparkling, subtle, intricate, cooling, distinctively different and utterly delicious, and over several sweaty weeks of a summer heatwave, it kept me and my composure as cool as a glass of chilled cedary lemonade. I think of ‘July’, and I think of this cologne. Because It’s That Good.
Best All-Round Unisex:
Olympic Orchids’ Blackbird.
‘Fruity’ – as in ‘berry’ – and I don’t get along that well. But Ellen Covey’s perfume for Seattle store Blackbird is an exception to that rule. This wondrous green concoction with a heart-of-darkness is an ode to the blackberry bushes (something of a plague) of the Pacific Northwest, and if you think blackberry and balsam firs don’t mix, think again. Many of Ellen’s creations have an extraordinary sense of place, and Blackbird’s verdant ode to where the sweet wild things are has been known to make me sing in the dead of night and high noon too, showing just how much one of my favorite perfumers just keeps on getting better and better. And better.
Best Bottled Gothic Autumn:
Neil Morris Fragrances’ October & Chasing Autumn.
Neil Morris is another perfumer whose nose has an exceptional sense of place, and never more dexterously demonstrated than in his two tributes to the beauty of a New England fall, October and Chasing Autumn. Everything I love and adore about autumn is here: the scent of apples on trees and on the ground cradled by leaves, burning leaves and bonfires, the breath of forest trees breathing their seasonal farewells as flaming leaves dance a timeless measure to the forest floor. I do mean everything. If October is mulled wine, apple cider and all things sweetly great on a peerless Sunday October afternoon, then Chasing Autumn is a forest… of Halloween bonfires and eerie shadows in the dark beyond, a resolutely Gothic ode to all things autumnal with no signs of that fabled new England restraint. Nathaniel Hawthorne could do them justice. I’m not sure I could. I’ve never come across anything quite like either of them, and since they’re Neil Morris creations, I know I never will.
Favorite Perfume Experiment:
Sometimes, instead of simply chasing after the Next New Things, it can be good to take a deeper look at what you actually have. The results may surprise you. I was very surprised to learn I owned no less than 22 different Serge Lutens/Christopher Sheldrake creations in varying degrees of full bottles, decants and samples. I then proceeded to wear each of them consecutively over the course of about two weeks, and gained a whole new artistic and aesthetic appreciation of all of them. It goes without saying I don’t have nearly enough of any of them, and wish for at least eleven more…
Happiest Perfume of 2014:
On rare occasions on Planet Perfume, a concept, the execution of that concept and the final result come so seamlessly and perfectly together it’s all you can do to keep your cool before you surrender with a helpless shrug and a laugh in the face of such beauty. Sunshine arrived with impeccable, supernatural timing at a time when I was seriously considering to pack it in as a perfume writer and just give up the ghost of ever trying to capture the ephemeral art through words. Yes, I reviewed it. No, my words didn’t convey what I had hoped they would. But a few scant days later, I held my daughter as she made me a grandmother to a lovely little girl, and since it was the only thing I had with me at the time, I gave her Sunshine. To see the joy on my daughter’s face as I did was all the sunshine that cold night in November needed. To experience the arrival of a new generation perfect baby girl was all the immortal sunshine I needed. Apropos finding the right words…
Proudest Moment in Prose, 2014 edition:
I’ll be honest – Christopher Chong made it very easy for me. Shanghai in the 1930s, Chinese film noir and all things grand and great (noblesse oblige!), wrapped up in the two parts of Journey Man and Woman, one a fiery gold Chinese dragon, the other a sublime osmanthus song, my story of Journey counts among my finest – and hardest – hours as a perfume writer. It took me into new and wondrous places in my research and made me wonder at that story’s continuation of ‘a celluloid cliché of a Shanghai that was an improbable fiction anywhere else but here’. You’ll find no clichés in either Journey, but just as all the best journeys do, you’ll be a changed person when you return home. Whenever I wonder at why I even bother to write about perfume, which happens at least once a day, I look to Amouage. Oh. Yes. That’s why.
Greatest Shapeshifter Perfume of 2014:
Mandy Aftel’s Palimpsest, inspired by the layer-upon-layers-and-lines of ancient manuscripts, is without question the greatest shapeshifter I encountered in 2014. I’ve never experienced a perfume containing the Australian firetree before, which partly explains it, but this thick, honeyed animalic-peachy-ylang-ylang growl in a bottle did two spectacular things: It completely flummoxed a perfume writer of four years’ standing, and shape-shifted entirely from ‘dead-wildebeest-wearing-ylang-&-jasmine-wreath’ on a blonde semi-vegetarian to a sumptuously sexy come-hither Mae West on Ms. Hare, the carnivorous brunette. Which only goes to prove the artistry of Mandy Aftel and also the maxim, written through several layers of parchment… chemistry is everything.
Best Resurrected Floral, Part Two:
DSH Perfumes Scent of Hope
Among vintage perfume lovers, a select few perfumes stand out for their greatness of execution, their scope of imagination and their sheer, jaw-dropping sleight-of-hand artistry. When perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz was given the bespoke assignment of recreating one such perfume, Jacques Fath’s fabled 1947 Iris Gris for a private client, she apparently succeeded beyond all imagining and expectation. Luckily for those of us who don’t have access to the Jacques Fath original (and being an iris lover, trust me, it’s on my list!), Dawn decided to make it available for the rest of us, and if the original Iris Gris is even 10% of this, then by Golly, it deserves its reputation. Scent of Hope is the apex of Great, Grand Perfume and the perfumer’s art: a peerless, perfect contradiction of everything you’d suspect an orris-centric perfume could be, warmed by the caress of a sun-kissed peach. I thought she outdid herself with Iridum, another of her iris perfumes, but Dawn has had an astonishing creative year and Scent of Hope is among the stratospheric best perfumes I’ve ever encountered. In my life. Why my fixation on the art of perfumery? (Also) Because miracles like Scent of Hope happen. Stay tuned!
Best Floral Reinvention:
Envoyage Perfumes’ Fiore di Bellagio
Readers, bear with me. I tried. I truly did. I tried to think of something else, tried to stir things up a bit, tried to come up with alternatives and be a little different this year. Only to have to give up the ghost, shrug in surrender and kowtow to the spectacular talent of Shelly Waddington of Envoyage as she once again blew my proboscis to smithereens with the companion perfume to last year’s no less spectacular Zelda. Fiore di Bellagio, her ode to Ernest Daltroff’s 1927’s Caron classic, Bellodgia, is neither Zelda nor Bellodgia, but something altogether otherwise and resolutely one of a kind. If you could somehow wrap up all the glamour, all the glitz, all the decadent fun and all the flowers of a 1920s summer day in a luxurious villa at Lake Como, you might come up with something this great, this grand and this glorious. Or, if you love carnations, summers, epically great perfumes and all those words imply, you could take the easier route and head straight for Envoyage and buy a vat of Fiore di Bellagio, the instant before you plant Shelley Waddington on an onyx pedestal in the Perfume Pantheon of Fame and crown her with 20 carat diamond-studded dianthus blooms. This was another high apex of 2014 perfumery for me and although I realize I’m repeating myself (and an army of other perfume bloggers and writers), but there is method to my madness: I recognize greatness when I smell it. That’s all. Go buy it!
My Greatest Perfumers of 2014:
I can’t even hesitate here, and if you’ve read this far, this is a foregone conclusion. But with everything I’ve stuck my nose in this past year, I’ll have to hand it to two. Understand that even the names that made this (overly long) list are at the very top of their game, but these two outdid themselves and their justly deserved stellar reputations:
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz & Shelley Waddington
I’m not quite sure what to say about Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, since I know I’m preaching to the choir, but Dawn has had the most amazing, productive and creative year. Whether it’s her tribute to the Impressionists in her Passport à Paris collection, her Cannabis Culture Collection (review pending), her Brilliant Collection (ditto) or the utterly flabbergasting Scent of Hope (likewise totally ditto), Dawn should be right up there will all the Great and the Grands of perfumery, indie and otherwise.
Shelley Waddington nearly did me in. After taking my breath away with Zelda last year, she pulled another epic rabbit out of her proverbial top hat with Fiore di Bellagio. I had some intimations of what I was in for. Only to find that they weren’t nearly big enough. But Shelley Waddington certainly should be. Make it so…
A Waft of Things To Come
Anticipation is part of the pleasure of writing about perfumes. I’ll never know what pleasures lie ahead. But apart from spending this winter catching up on my review backlog and returning full-speed as a perfume writer to the best of my capabilities, I anticipate becoming acquainted with two ‘new’ brands that have been on my radar for a while: Oriza L. Legrand and Stéphane Humbert-Lucas’ 777. Stay tuned!
Another thing to anticipate is the arrival of not-your-usual perfume book at some point in the year. If you appreciate my perfumed fictions, you might like this book, which will feature not just the Greatest Hits, but also ten brand-new perfume stories, some of which have not been reviewed yet. Watch this space for a book by yours truly with the salacious title: Stories of L’Eaux.
Rumor has it that Neela Vermeire Creations (another all winner line for me) will launch her newest perfume later this year. Are we excited yet? I know I am!
So what are you, dear readers, anticipating in the year to come? What took your breath away this past year, what do you hope to try, what floats you out the door in a cloud of scented bliss?
Tell me all about them in the comments! And have a happy, healthy, fortuitous 2015, too!
With special and perpetual thanks to my greatest enablers and loudest encouragers: Val, Portia, Lucy, Shelley, Dawn, Maria, Neil, Ellen, Andy and Mandy.
Photo: The crown of Danish king Christian IV, 1596.