Perfume Botox

kim-novak-ralph-crane-shoot-1958-1 – When perfumes become holographic

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.”

As if.

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.

Not Quite 20 Questions…on smell!


Prompted by a post on Yesterday’s Perfume and Michelle Krell Kydd over at Glass Petal Smoke, which got me thinking about some of the things I all too often take for granted…
Here are my answers…what are yours?

Q: What does your sense of smell mean to you?
A: Smell is a way of defining and explaining the world without words, it can manifest a presence, define a mood, an ambience, a state of mind. I have a terrible time imagining a world without smell, because smell centers and deepens so many other sensory impressions – sight and sound, taste and touch. It does it in a way we have a hard time explaining or rationalizing, because the brain’s olfactory center bypasses the verbal areas to head straight for emotion – and few things are so evocative of emotion as smell.

Q: What are some of your strongest scent memories?
A: The smell of wild pears in autumn when I was very young. They had incredibly tough skin and took forever to ripen, but I can remember scratching my fingernails on their skins and breathing in that smell. A fur coat my mother used to have, which was impregnated with the scent of Jolie Madame. Later, hiding in her closet and breathing in the perfume from her clothes – Eau de Womanhood, let’s call it, a heady blend of Mitsouko, Shalimar, Fidji, Narcisse Noir. The scent of the Florida Keys, where I spent my later childhood – key limes and coconuts, seashells and ocean and the frangipani on the veranda of our house on Key Largo, the fishy-pink smell of mountains of leftover conch shells and rum stills in the Bahama islands. The orange trees in bloom at another house, and how narcotic that scent was in the heat. In general, the scent of southern Florida in those days – tropical scents and Coppertone and sand and sea. The scent of elderflowers and philadelphus, when I returned to Europe, which always spells midsummer to me. The first time I ever encountered true perfume for real and for my own at age 14, when my mother took me to Maison Guerlain in Paris, and a whole new world opened up to me…

Q: What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking &/or your environment?)
A: The smell of wild oregano, which always reminds me of Greece in the summer, the heat radiating off the earth and vibrating with that pungent, heady scent. A blooming orange grove, or any blooming citrus trees. The way that cinnamon smelled in a Moroccan souk, like nothing on Earth. The frankincense they burn in Greek Orthodox Sunday services, which I experienced once and never forgot. The smell of a beech forest in May, right after the leaves have all burst out. Poplar buds. Apple blossom. Chocolate. Pine trees, especially those vanilla-scented pines called ponderosas in New Mexico. Vanilla. It makes a long list!

Q: Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?
A: Horse stables. I used to ride a lot, and that smell is associated with some of my happiest memories. I love the smells of leather and suede. A lover’s armpit in certain situations. When my son leaps into my arms in the morning and I bury my nose in his neck and smell sleep and dreams, I love that, too. The smell of my cats, asleep in a sunny windowsill. Tar and the gasoline smell of old cars. The leathery smell of new, expensive cars.

Q: What fragrances remind you of the places you visited on vacation?
A: That Greek oregano. A friend recently returned from Athens and brought me a bunch. All I have to do is sniff the bag and I’m there. Cinnamon – not the cassia cinnamon you usually find, but the Ceylon cinnamon I first smelled in a souk in Casablanca – which was heaven on Earth. Roasting chiles, sage, sweetgrass, burning mesquite wood and ponderosa pines all remind me of my years in New Mexico, as do the blooming daturas I found in the courtyard of the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe. She called them jimsonweed. I call them otherworldly, on canvas and in real life.

A: Q: Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.
A: My tomato sauce, bubbling away for hours. Baking cinnamon pastries, or bread. Or cake. Any cake I make. Homemade curries, bubbling on a stove or in a wok, Thai or Indian, Punjabi or Keralan – I love them all!

Q: What smells do you most dislike?
A: Bad breath. Smelly feet. Cheap, low-grade musk and patchouli oil makes my stomach turn. (Although not the good stuff!). I’m not big on litterboxes, and I own three cats! Certain perfumes make me turn green, but thankfully, they seem to have gone extinct in the Eighties, among them Giorgio! And Giorgio!Red, except for Angel, which hasn’t, alas. Certain kinds of plastic. Lovers who are not-quite-so…beloved!

Q: What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?
A: Patchouli, which I thought was horrible, until I found how good it can be. Labdanum, which I smelled in Greece in the wild for the first time, was a shock – all goat! All the time! – until one day, it wasn’t.

Q: What mundane smells inspire you?
A: Lemons or any citrus fruit, the scent of my rose geranium plant, the scent of leaves and mold and fallen apples on an autumn day, the scent of flowers and green in spring, the heady aroma of elderflowers in midsummer.

Q: What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
A: Jicky and Miss Dior take me back to Paris, where my mother took me when I was 14. And because they were the first two perfumes I picked for my new, almost-woman self!

Q: What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?
A: Fidji, Shalimar, Mitsouko, First, Jolie Madame – all of these were my mother’s favorites. And with the exception of (vintage) Fidji, I can’t wear any of them for that reason. Chanel no. 5 reminds me of my sister, because it’s so divine on her, and horrid on me! Acqua di Parma, because my stepfather wore it. Drakkar Noir, because a former boyfriend did (so, guys – take note and pick something else, OK? 😉 )

Q: What fragrances remind you of growing up?
A: Coppertone suntan lotion, Seventies Clairol Herbal Essences (the one with the flowery earth Goddess on the bottle with the emerald green shampoo), Mr. Bubbles (I forgot that one!), Bazooka Joe bubble gum, Je Reviens and Blue Grass, because my grandmother loved them.

Q: What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
A: Charlie! Makes me feel about 16 all over again, Jicky and (vintage) Miss Dior. Strawberry scented/flavored sticky lip gloss that everyone used in my teens, Magie Noire, Paloma Picasso and Cabochard remind me of certain men in my life (in a good way!), Chanel no. 19 of the subversive (if fragrant) punk I once was!

Q: Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.
A: I couldn’t locate the quote I wanted. So instead, I’ll paraphrase from memory…
“I gave them money for food, but instead, June bought perfume, while Henry goes hungry.”
-from ‘Henry and June’ by Anaïs Nin.

Obviously, June Miller believed in hyacinths for the soul! As do I…

Do you?