Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Orange Aid: Bigarade Concentrée

The chill has arrived. Commuters march like penguins down Lexington Avenue. New Yorkers actually walk closer to one another when it gets cold like this. Human nature, I suppose, even affects the most stolid of urbanites. And with the cold snap, my thoughts turn to ...

Oranges. Yes, oranges. In particular, the bitter oranges of Jean-Claude Ellena’s Bigarade Concentrée (Frederic Malle Edition de Parfums). Essentially, Bigarade Concentrée is a cousin of Ellena’s Déclaration for Cartier, but executed with more recherché ingredients. Here I contend, though, that Ellena has tried really hard to create a virtual bigarade to fly in the face of ‘citrus’-classified fragrances. Apparent here is his trademark process of adding and leaving out – adding the rose behind the orange, adding hay and cedar absolutes, but leaving out the glass-cleaner mimicry of high-toned hespiridic materials.

Concentrée indeed is the apt word. There is nothing light about this scent (despite what many of its critics identify as its too-fleeting character). Rather, it reminds me of Gozzi’s hapless Prince, immortalized in Prokofiev’s opera The Love for Three Oranges, encountering those eponymous citrus for the first time. An almost-paralyzing euphoria. This version of the scent (which Ellena originally created as Cologne Bigarade) is more complete, more human. Like the slightly inferior Déclaration, it is less a study in quenching with loads of liquid refreshment – or covering up – than in reveling in its bodily nature. It’s a citrus that is not citrus-simple, a fruit that is not fruity. It reminds me more of naked body posed with tangerine... or Susan Sarandon in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980), just this once preferring oranges over lemons. I’d like to smell this close to a body, after removing all the wintertime armor ... Truly “a blaze of summer straw in winter’s nick.”

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hold that Tiger

Der süße Duft der Blümen ist verflogen. So begins the German translation of the second strophe of the Tang Dynasty Zhang-Ji poem, “The Lonely Man in Autumn,” which Mahler set as one of the orchestral songs in Das Lied von der Erde. (Rough translation: “The flowers’ sweet perfume has gone.”) It was a propos, then, that on the day I took farewell-till-spring sniffs in a local rose garden, I received a package of samples from Paris-based English designer cum perfumer James Heeley – among them the brilliantly anti-floral Esprit du Tigre (2006).

Much has been made of this fragrance being inspired by the camphorous Eastern cure-all known as Tiger Balm, and I can’t say I rushed to test it on that account. But among the many pleasant things in the sample box, this stood out. Could it just have been the juxtaposition of crisp autumn air and the yellow glow of the gingko trees outside my window? Well, I’d wager this wouldn’t have been high on my list a few weeks ago. Spice, camphor and menthol tend to turn off my nose in warm weather. The eugenol (clove) singing at the heart of Esprit du Tigre is beautiful now, whereas in September it would have dominated the other notes and anesthetized the better part of my olfactory receptors. Wintergreen is used judiciously in Esprit’s upper registers, sweetening and soothing, if ever so slightly, the medicine-man character of the whole.

All in all, I find Esprit du Tigre to be a unique, deep, cool weather masculine. It conjures up for me a funky downtown loft hung with Buddhist thangkas, animal skins and the spoils of long trips abroad. It reminds me of a time when men’s colognes were made for men - and the women who wanted daily mementos of their scent.

This is one tiger I’d like to have by the tail.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

L’Heure Brun: Estée Lauder Amber Ylang Ylang

Aerin Lauder’s latest addition to her Private Collection, Amber Ylang Ylang, is as close to a calculated risk as you can get. After last summer’s star-studded launch of Sensuous, a perfume more notable for its signaling of Lauder’s volte-face than for its compositional merits, Private Collection Amber Ylang Ylang betrays a realization, on the part of Lauder and creative captain Karen Khoury, that a new Estée Lauder customer is waiting to be wooed.

Amber Ylang Ylang is more self-consciously femme than Sensuous, a scent whose ‘Molten Woods’ caught many women off-guard. Where Sensuous was woody and peppery, Amber Ylang Ylang adopts a similar palette of tones but for a vastly different effect. Instead of an interior by Pottery Barn, we have a brown vélour salon by Ruhlmann, in which musicians can be heard tuning up for a pièce de chambre by the likes of a Mompou or Poulenc.

In extrait de parfum, the only concentration I’ve really taken my time with, the first thing that strikes me is sweetness - honey, vanilla, labdanum and something equating maple-syrup (for once, not immortelle flower) - a sweetness that reminds me more of high-end pâtisserie than the bins at Dylan’s Candy Bar. As it progresses on the skin, the florals come through. Ylang ylang, a note that I adore in No 5 extrait but which can be terribly off-key, is reigned in, not once caught trying to outplay the other members of the quintet. The real star solo, though, is played by heliotropin, that almond-marzipan-morphing-into-Play-Doh note so expertly handled in classics such as Après l’Ondée and L’Heure Bleue and, more recently, Jarling and Dans Tes Bras.

Despite the golden amber used in abundance here, even in the extrait concentration don’t expect something equating a Lutens’ or Tom Ford amber. Even the sandalwood is shot with Vaseline on the lens, never reminding one of a souk or savouries. Rather, everything is bathed in a soft, golden glow, and I for one find it very becoming.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

On the Road: Musc Nomade

Isabelle Doyen’s Musc Nomade, the fourth fragrance in the Annick Goutal Les Orientalistes collection, states the case for exceptionalism in the oft-maligned “white musk” category. It is at once soothing and clean, rich and surprisingly deep. By no means is it a difficult or furrily animalic scent, but if there is merit in subtlety this is it.

Musc Nomade is all about Muscone, ambrette absolute, rose absolute, angelica root and - an elegant Middle Eastern touch - oud wood. It’s as if Doyen took many of the same materials which Polge and Sheldrake used to craft Chanel No 18 and did something warmer, more lactonic, more casual and a tad less elegant. The rose and ambrette seed lend a sweet fruitiness where even the best of the rest (those white musks) simply give a fresh laundry smell. In fact, the genius of Musc Nomade is that, my nose at least, it comes off smelling partly of really high-quality ambergris and at a fraction of the price.

I first wore this from a sample in the mid-July heat. Its relatively light touch made it elusive to my nose in ninety degrees, but a friend commented that every so often a beautiful smell would fill the air in my vicinity. As much as I’d like to affect the odor of sanctity, I’d wager that what he was smelling was the blending of the ambrette and the rose. In the lower temperatures of late October and early November, my nose settles on the Muscone, the ambrette and the woody facets. Infinitely adaptable, I’d call this one a winner.