Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hotel Scents

In an interview of a few years back, cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum told ArtForum that if he could create his own perfume he would name it "Hotel" or "Standing Room Only." When asked which word would best describe it, he answered simply "banquette." Recently, Koestenbaum has published Hotel Theory (Soft Skull Press), a Heideggerian deconstruction of the place, category, and metaphor of hotels alongside a dime novel starring Lana Turner and Liberace (!!) printed in a parallel column on each page. While catsitting last week at a friend's loft, I read it and mused on the category of what, for me, could be dubbed "hotel" scents. Would such scents be anodynes to the appalling blandness of so many chain hotels? or ways of bringing traces of "home" into the mix? Or, alternatively, would they revel (olfactively) in the smells and sensations of such temporary, multiply occupied dwellings? Or, in a different way entirely, would they suspend their owners between the domesticities of home and the exoticisms of "the grand abroad," in artificially-created, private fantasy worlds? Would they, in fine, transport?

For myself at least, the scents for which I reach when packing my toiletries are all too often the ones that travel well: Hermès Eau d'Orange Verte scented soap (whose translucent green case is strangely for me a travel essential of nearly fetishistic significance), a deluxe-sample-size flacon of Annick Goutal's Eau d'Hadrien as well as the matching shampoo, and a small spray bottle of Montale's Oud Cuir d'Arabie for when I'm feeling just a tad "Indiana Jones." For protracted overseas travel, I add to these a bottle of Etro's Vetiver, which I feel is one of those ever-appropriate scents, as fitting at breakfast as it would be during intermission. Travel scents are not risky scents. They do not call attention to themselves. If anything they call attention to the wayfarer's identity, his masculinity, and the simple fact that, what with the foreign water, the temperature and the possible lack of some amenities, he's going to smell like a packhorse if he doesn't spray something. Now, what do women pack? (Also curious about other guys.) Is there a particular note or accord that suits airplanes, trains and hotels?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Time Regained

In the world of perfumes anachronism is nearly always a bad thing. But lately, with the publication of books by Luca Turin, Chandler Burr and Mandy Aftel, there is growing interest in the fragrance formulas of the past. Some of this is mere curiosity, alloyed to a rather academic nostalgie for famous accords and revolutionizing synthetics; some is marked by the re-emergence of vintage dressing trends. In today's Women's Wear Daily, reporter Matthew W. Evans quotes fragrance development consultant Doreen Bollhofer as saying that, despite the stale state of creativity, perfumers can scout inspiration in fashion trends such as "formality and sophistication." Often these dressed-up trends evoke a long-lost world of distinctions, i.e., between day- and evening wear: casual, chic, and formal. The fragrances of yesteryear, by and large, were sumptuously layered compositions that mimicked the elaborate layering of the current fashion: underpinnings, petticoats, wraps, and hats, hats, more hats. Think of any of Aimé or Jacques Guerlain's masterpieces: Jicky, Mitsouko, Shalimar, L'Heure Bleue. They are intricately layered and detailed stories. Heck, L'Heure Bleue is a veritable Tolstoy novel! The fragrances of today – deriving from their ür-scent, Chanel No. 5 – are the talismans of upward mobility, i.e., lifestyle scents. They do not so much tell the perfumer's story as they do the story of a time period. E.g., Opium tells the story of the drug-fueled sexual ebullience of the late 1970s and early 1980s; Drakkar Noir, the story of fetishized money=sex Wall Street greed; and Polo – an interesting case study by itself – basically a retelling of The Great Gatsby ca. 1978. But in each case, the perfumer was telling the brand's scripted story, not his own. To borrow a term from the marketing lexicon, he was blending "to spec." And, with it, advertising was becoming life. The grassroots niche fragrance movement, with its momentum building for the last decade, may very well effect among the LVMHs and Gucci Groups of the world a shift back to the fleshed-out narrative of the great scents. How many celebrity scents can be launched for the pleasure of fifteen-year-old ingenues before the rest of the customer base wishes for something more; in short, wishes for a message, if not a short story, in a bottle?

Image credit: 35mm photographic still, Raoul Ruiz's Les Temps Retrouvé (1999).

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Master Blender: Lorenzo Villoresi

In a world of LVs, I opt for the olfactory: Lorenzo Villoresi. Florence may have its David and the traces of Lorenzo the Magnificent, but for its modern-day denizens the magician in their midst is a perfumer. And a very good one at that. For me, Villoresi's compositions stand out as stunning, high-quality compositions that create a world around the person privileged to wear them. My first encounter with his scents took place in 2002 on the bathroom shelf of my then-boyfriend in Basel, Switzerland. It was Vetiver (1994) and, boy, was it opulent: rosewood and florals, labdanum, pepper and a base of vetiver, tonka bean, sandalwood and more than its fair share of musk. Beside my Etro Vetiver the Villoresi felt quite rich (as in monied) and manly. It had more going for it than some petitgrain. Wearing it was like cascading through an enchanted perfumers' scent organ in perfectly formed chords and arpeggios. Today, what with my carnation kick, I'm wearing Garofano (1995). It's refreshingly unisex, shower-clean and pitch perfect with rose, vanilla, heliotrope, powdery musk and carnation con forza. After a few minutes on my skin, the florals recede to further reveal the spicy earthiness. With Villoresi I'm tempted to employ the word terroir in an attempt to place the impeccable provenance of his natural oils and essences, but perhaps what I'm trying to capture is that world he's created in his head – one that he's managed to translate flawlessly in the finished product. Compared with Prada's Oeillet, Garofano is full-bodied and viscous. It demands a warmer personality in its wearer ... and some Florentine élan.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Just Dandy: One Oeillet Open

As I tried to convey in last week's Just Dandy posts, it is essential that the dandy–he or she–treat accessorizing as an activity of freedom and personal judgment. In the speeding up of today's fashion scene, many of us can easily lose our way when well-meaning salespeople attempt to assemble for us a "complete" look. Putting this jacket with those pants with that tie and those shoes does not make for being stylish–it makes for being new. The art of dressing is about those touches which we decide on at the last moment, touches that at first might not appear to work but, in the end, do. The same can be said for fragrance: some constitute a complete look, others merely a tuning-up of what is already there. Prada's No. 2 Oeillet parfum falls into the latter category. The carnation (Oeillet in French, dianthus in Latin) note is rather straightforward: soft, white-blue, sparkling, even pretty. In the background, and on the drydown, lurks some delicious spice, and benzoin lends a creamy amber note to the scent's delightfully lingering personality. Oeillet reminds me of a time when a nattily dressed man would amble into the local florist on his way to the office and pick a small dyed carnation or bachelor button for his lapel. He feels the morning sun on his face, against the panels of his suit ... and the world is new again.

No. 2 Oeillet is sold exclusively at the Prada boutique in Soho, as well as at Harrods, Printemps and Galleries Lafayette.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Just Dandy: Les Folies Fougères

If I could buy a large-format bottle of Swiss perfumer Vero Kern's Kiki and if, on doing so, every other single bottle of perfume were taken from me, I would still die a happy man. (OK. I'd plead for a small "mercy" bottle of Jacques Polge's almost divine Les Exclusifs de Chanel scent 31, rue Cambon, too, but that's for a future posting.) Kern, who has tutored fellow Zürich perfumer Andy Tauer – see my posting on his Rêverie au Jardin – has fashioned in Kiki a thoroughly enjoyable, if slightly abstract, improvisation on a fougère accord. What's more, she's created a fougère that embodies my dandy ideal, a sort of Rilke-meets-Colette. The sacral meeting the sacrosanct, if you will. Or Montparnasse meets Potsdamer Platz. On application, one smells a good dose of lavender and white flowers: heady, indolic jasmine obscured among them along with muguet, rose, lemon and lily. Like Tauer's Rêverie, the medicinal side of the lavender is almost entirely absent. Unlike Onda, also reviewed here, I don't find much development on the skin. My olfactory sense is fairly overwhelmed by the initial strength. The indoles, however, do take this scent on a journey from the soapy powder notes of freshly starched linen sheets to the scene enacted on those sheets, as if the scent itself were trying, at first, to hide a (how shall we say it) much-compromised reputation. As in a classic, clean, gentlemanly scent like Penhaligon's English Fern, a eugenol note, i.e., clove, is readily apparent, warming things up while lending a crispness. But the inherently naughty smirk of Guerlain's Jicky takes hold of the reins before Mr. Propriety gets ahead of himself. What brings it on, I cannot say. It isn't civet. Perhaps white musk. Its elusiveness speaks to Kern's genius as a blender. What seems simple here is not so simple. In fact, I would wager that, besides the synthetics, there are a dozen naturals here that Vetivresse in her incomplete wisdom cannot place. But, then again, Kiki isn't about wisdom – it's about a certain gamine-like angularity ... and, hélas, the folly of endless olfactory analysis.

Kiki will be available in the U.S. in mid-2008.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

A Rose That Isn't Just A Rose

The other night at Provence, a dear friend presented me with a gift, which itself beckoned from that sunny southern land (by way of NoLiIta): Le Labo's Rose 31. Freed it from its unassuming box, the characteristic no-frills presentation belied a fragrance that was anything but simple. This was, however, not our first meeting. I had visited Le Labo's shop a few months back and purchased the Discovery Set (three 5ml EDP of your choice), which consisted of Vetiver 46, Iris 39 and Rose 31. Pleased with all three and preferring not to brave that precariously crowded little stretch of Elizabeth Street, I had staved off the perfumophile urge to buy them in larger formats until my 15ml stash ran out. Then, there had been an article in the New York Times about young men's newfound taste in niche fragrance, which quoted a salesclerk at Le Labo as saying that Rose 31 was its most popular men's scent. And then, this: the gift bestowed. How Mme. Circumstance works us to her unseen ends! And, honestly, it's no wonder. Rose 31 is a special sort of thing. It manages to cradle what could be an over-the-top floral accord in a nest of warm, woody, spicy notes. Rose centifolia de Grasse, more humbly dubbed in our tongue as "cabbage rose," has an old-rose feel to it which could, with a few wrong turns, end it permanently in the septuagenarian soapdish. But from the start, Rose 31 tells its wearer that he's far from the ladies room. Here at last, he thinks, is a rose that conjures up Napoleon resting in the gardens at Malmaison after his latest military campaign, the aroma of 250 varieties of roses wafting through the air. Here at last, the twinned traits of masculine and feminine, fervor and ease, fecundity and languor. Rock rose notes blend with those of cumin, cedar, cardamom and Guiac wood. Longevity and sillage are pronounced. My only caveat would be skin-chemistry, as on my boyfriend this can turn a tad medicinal. Perfumer Daphne Bugey, the creator of this scent, has some other unusual, complex creations to her credit, the best of them also available at Le Labo: Bergamote 22 and Neroli 36. I hope to review these in the coming weeks.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Just Dandy: Accents Better Placed

After a surfeit of runway fashion, it is refreshing indeed to return to the hallowed precincts of enduring, classic male style. Not for me, though, the Beau Brummells, the Robert de Montesquious, the Gilbert Osmonds and the more tarnished of dandydom; rather, the quiet, studied elegance – the painterly placement of the most appropriate detail – of a Jamesian hero: Hyacinth Robinson from The Princess Casamassima or Spencer Brydon from "The Jolly Corner." Or, for those of you allergic to Henry James, the Prince of Salina from Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo. Nevertheless, I am trying to explore the personal style of such a man. Everything about him is tailored, but with a nonchalance which makes him immune to mere vanity. The tone of his casual and formal dress is timeless, undiverted by the currents of trend. He is not a spendthrift. He looks and smells good. His hair is coiffed. His beard is trimmed. His shoes, while not of a military-grade shine, are cared-for. His suit fits. He sees no advantage in claiming membership in that band of men who deem personal style as prissy or unmanly. Short of those trifling excesses which come of a cultivated connoisseurship, he does not shoot his wad on designer fragrances and bags. He is not a label-whore. (Perhaps "label-rake" is more apt.) He uses common sense. He is not a braggart. He knows how to have a good time. En fin, he knows that there are superlative values in his being a man, in practicing the economies of masculinity.

On a practical note, he prizes the right accents for daily wear:
  • A well-knotted tie. Silk, cotton or wool, and of a good hand
  • A tailored vest, to keep the look sharp even when the jacket is off
  • A good watch, nothing too big or ostentatious; preferably with a leather or exotic-skin strap
  • A slender leather or ribbon belt
  • Socks that show his sense of whimsy
  • A citrus or floral scent, such as a néroli, bergamot or rose blend
  • A book or magazine. (Newspapers should remain in the office.)
  • An unrushed demeanor
  • A well-directed smile. (Sometimes nothing is manlier.)
Image credit: Alvin Langdon Coburn, Henry James (in the garden at Lamb House, Rye). Courtesy of George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

True to My Fashion

Yes, mes chères, it's Fashion Week here in New York. Apologies for not posting over the last few days, but my schedule bristles with commitments. Don't think for one second however that, on all those queues, I'm not smelling what's in the air. Tune in over the weekend for an entry on Le Labo Rose 31 and the first installment of my "Just Dandy" column.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Oh, Pair!: Miller Harris and Dauvissat

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to initiate some friends into the pleasures of wine and scent pairings. One of them, like me, certified by the WSET in viticulture, vinification and wine tasting, turned up her nose (equivalent of flipping the bird here on Vetivresse) at such an idea; the other submitted willingly. The blind pairing under scrutiny was comprised of a Dauvissat Chablis 1er Cru "La Forest," 1996 and perfumer Lyn Harris's recently released Fleurs de Sel. What intrigued me about the proposed marriage between the wine and the perfume was that any connubial bliss would be superceded by the discovery that, way back when, they had shared a common bed: the sea. Fleurs de Sel was inspired by its creator's beloved Brittany strandside retreat at Batz-sur-Mer and the famous sel gris that is hand-harvested from the salt pans there. The Chablis, while coming from an inland appellation, originated in a terroir marked by the vestiges of a former ocean: millions of fossilized crustaceans, mainly ostraceous. (Use your dictionary.) Of course, I kept this information to myself and decanted for my guests. The wine was conspicuously darker – medium-light straw – than the eau de parfum. At first sniff, it gave off textbook aromas of white fruits, white flowers and seashells; the scent, a coolness and marked salinity followed by an herbal accord, which, to my nose, disclosed Clary sage and wild thyme. We took a break for some water crackers and Caraquet oysters, and let the scent develop on the skin. After about ten minutes the scent had changed completely, with orris lending an intriguing smokiness and a glimmer of my beloved ambrette seed. The wine continued to evolve in our glasses, elegant, lithe – a harmony of minerals and sunkissed fruit. After another half-hour the scent had turned woody and warm, with very conspicuous vetiver and oakmoss. And, what's more, I could smell another one of my favorites: leather. (I corked the Chablis for fear that my guests would be susceptible to suggestion ... as well as for a selfish reason. Quiet protests followed; I stood my ground.) My neighbors interrupted us to show off their new puppy, and, by the time we returned to the task at hand, the Fleurs de Sel was showing the orris again (but softly floral this time around), alongside white narcissus and ... rose (?). Sipping the dregs of our glasses, I revealed the labels. We agreed that both wine and scent had transported us to some memory locale: for me, the shellfish bar my father and I frequented after fishing exploits on Long Island; for my guests, a summer weekend on the Île de Ré and a stay on the rocky limits of Nova Scotia. I was cajoled into uncorking the unfinished bottle. Oh, well. What else could I expect from such a pair?