Vero Profumo Rozy Extrait, 2015

rozy extrait

Image, Philip-Lorca diCorcia

Perfumer Vero Kern.

Vero Kern is known for using three versions of a perfume in order to express a concept in its entirety.  The three concentrations are exceptionally detailed and finished, yet considered together, they allow you to contemplate more fully the meaning of the perfume.  Each fragrance is a fully executed idea and the choice is yours to select the ‘Goldilocks’ version, the one that’s just right.

Kern defies the trend in perfumery of rehashing an idea with serial iterations of a perfume.  It might seem a fine point, but it is important in understanding Kern’s work: the three concentrations of her perfumes are not flankers or sequals. Each piece stands alone, yet together they provide different perspectives and propose an ongoing discussion. They are akin to triptychs in the visual arts.

Rozy Eau de Parfum drapes honeyed fruit notes and smooth leather on the balancing point of the rose.  It is both sultry and contemplative, triggering my imagination of the ambrosia of Greek mythology.  The Voile d’Extrait, on the other hand, makes the EDP feel positively introspective. It is a universe of rose and leather micosconds after the Big Bang.  It expands in all directions and accelerates your senses.  Both concentrations expound on similar notes but send them on very different journeys.

The extrait or pure perfume concentration has traditionally been considered the ultimate version of a perfume (eg. Chanel 5, Jean Patou Joy, Guerlain Mitsouko).  Kern is known for her extraits and they demonstrate her thorough understanding of classical perfumery.  Like the best traditional pure perfumes, her extraits balance a stronger concentration of materials with a plusher sensibility.  Some contemporary pure perfumes mistake strength for volume and come off as simply loud. Kern’s extraits are powerful, but they focus on width and texture.  They are three-dimensional yet spectral.  They are simultaneously particular and elusive, more dreamlike than her other concentrations.

After the carnal EDP and the bombastic Voile d’Extrait, Rozy Extrait is the brilliant resolution to the Rozy story. The three share the same DNA, but the Extrait reconfigures the features of its siblings.  It’s a face I recognize, but couldn’t have imagined on my own.  Rozy Extrait is a refined and effortlessly powerful perfume.  Where the EDP is leisurely and the Voile d’Extrait races, the Extrait demonstrates poise, that balance between movement and stillness, not stasis but self-possession.  You don’t consider gravity until you try to overcome it.  Rozy Extrait exerts a similar force but with a lipsticked smile.  The rose is dark and the leather is heavy but Rozy floats obligingly around you like your own personal atmosphere. 

Like the Extrait version of Onda, Rozy Extrait feels as though there is a threat below its calm surface. It is alluring. It is tantalizing.  Each time I wear it, I can resist for all of a minute before I give in.  Vero Kern gives us a surprise with Rozy Extrait and reminds me why I turn to the artist for what I couldn’t have imagined myself.   

Frédéric Malle Vetiver Extraordinaire, 2002

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Vetiver Extraordinaire

Perfumer Dominique Ropion.

Vetiver root has been used in perfumery since day one, but the eponymous masculine Vetivers fixate on it with a particular reverence.  Vetiver isn’t simply the masculine equivalent of the feminine white floral.  It’s become a ceremonial totem of male toiletry, ranking with the fougère as a masculine olfactory reference. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Big Three (Carven, Guerlain, Givenchy) boosted vetiver from a fixative and a basenote material to the center of the discussion.

The Maculine Vetiver became safe harbor in the 1960s-1970s when the underpinnings of masculinity were up for discussion.  More vetiver fragrances than you can shake a stick at followed.  Some kept close to the scent of the vetiver root itself (eg. Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier Route du Vetiver, Etro Vetiver, Lalique Encre Noire) while others strayed a bit further, riffing on a particular quality of the root (Annick Goutal Vetiver’s salty iodine, Serge Lutens’s chocolate Vetiver Oriental, ELDO Fat Electrician’s plastic and vinyl.) 

Vetiver Extraordinaire falls into the conservative camp of Vetiver perfumes and The Big Three are its specific predecessors.  All four are sweeping, classical perfumes that balance broad splashes and nuanced choices.   Malle and Ropion are too well-versed in composition and history not to have understood the importance of the Big Three, but they chose to rival them rather than to imitate them. Malle also takes advantage of the of the fetishism surrounding the material, and fumies dutifully cite the 25% of vetiver oil used in the composition.

Ropion’s approach is to take vetiver to finishing school.  After the dazzling citrus punch of the first sniff, he employs a  swirling floral topnote to accentuate vetiver’s inherent thumping bass range.  The liveliness of the topenotes have hints of lipstick and makeup and Vetiver Extraordinaire barely skirts the scandalous ‘Old Lady Perfume’ territory.  The topnotes are ‘perfumey’ and remind me that Ropion known for his over-the-top perfumey feminine florals (Givenchy Amarige and Ysatis, Malle’s own Carnal Flower).  Vetiver Extraordinaire eventually settles into a more traditionally masculine woody range, albeit with a dandy flourish. 

Vetiver Extraordinaire captures the sensibility of the Frédéric Malle line perfectly.  It is a superlative contemporary spin on a traditional form.  Though not nearly as ubiquitous, Vetiver Extraordinaire rivals Guerlain Vetiver as the standard-bearer of the genre among vetiver enthusiasts.

Slumberhouse Kiste, 2015

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Perfumer Josh Lobb

(The below is 18 hours after wearing and sleeping in Kiste.  I usually wait a bit to write about a perfume, but not today.)

There is an entire wing of niche perfumery whose strategy is to reverse-engineer Slumberhouse perfumes and then try to replicate their results.  This is a losing strategy for any number of reasons, principally for the cheapness of disregarding process and wanting an end product without the requisite start and middle.

Slumberhouse perfumes can be difficult, conceptually and practically. Ore isn’t an easy ‘daily wear’ and Jeke would make a demanding signature fragrance.  Slumberhouse perfumes take backbone to wear and I inwardly gird my loins when I put on Sova or Sadanne.  They aren’t simple or easy.

If perfumer Josh Lobb’s goal is to play with our expectations as much as our desires, he’s succeded.  Kiste isn’t simple, but it is effortless.  I can surmise the work that must have gone into making this perfume but I don’t feel it. 

I’m listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong as I write. The groundedness, the keenness of their talent, the complexities of their success in their era.  It’s all there in the music, but listening to it is a breeze.  I don’t listen to this music because I don’t want a challenge.  I listen to it to remind myself that life is good.

Peach, sweet-tea, bourbon, tobacco, hay.  The Southern connection might be in the notes, but it’s also in the pace of the experience. Kiste is a sippin’ whiskey of a perfume. Potent but smooth, satisfying from start to finish.

Ease is not a lack of ambition.  Kiste is the reflection of a mid-career artist stretching his legs.  It covers a lot of ground in a golden, lustrous range of late afternoon tones.  The allusions to fruit, honey, old-fashioned ‘miracle elixirs’, tobacco and liquor swirl around you.  There is a lot of movement in the first few hours of Kiste, but it fine-tunes into a goldilocks ‘just right’ drydown that is less sweet and more medicinal than the top and heartnotes lead me to expect.  Complexity reads as intricacy rather than complication.

Guerlain La Petite Robe Noire Couture, 2014

La Petite robe Noire couture-Elena_Montemurro_1_o

Image by Elena Montemurro

Perfumer Thierry Wasser.

Guerlain have long followed the rule that it’s better to be good than to be first.  Or at least it’s better to be the last one standing.  Coty Chypre created the genre that defined perfumery in the 20th century.  Mitsouko copied the formula, improved it and is now the standard-bearer.   Shalimar came on the heels of Coty Emeraude and a number of other huge vanillic/balsamic ambers that were popular at the time. It then surpassed them and became the model of the genre.  Coty l’Origan, then Guerlain l’Heure Bleue.  Caron En Avion, then Guerlain Vol de Nuit. Even on the men’s side, Guerlain’s eponymous Vetiver followed Carven’s by four years. 

The Fruitchouli genre is a somewhat restrained take on the egregious gourmands of late 1990s. The Fruitchouli’s emphasis on berry notes makes it technically gourmand in nature, but it is Gourmand 2.0. The questionable goal of smelling like a cupcake was toppled and ‘hints of (fill-in-the-blank) berry’ became the marketing catch-phrase. In 2009, late in the game, Guerlain entered the fray with La Petite Robe Noire eau de toilette. The reference Fruitchoulis by this time were already dead and gone. Badgely Mischka by Badgely Mischka was discontinued and Miss Dior Chérie had been thoroughly reformulated, flanked and renamed to the point of anonymity. Guerlain went the shell-game route of Miss Dior Chérie, quickly replacing its first version by Delphine Jelk with a similar version by Thierry Wasser, then releasing an eau de parfum. Then came the stream of flankers, each distinguished by a slightly different silhouette of a little black dress on the bottle. Most buyers don’t actually know which perfume they actually have. 
La Petite Robe Noire Couture is the stand-out of the lot.  It is unmistakably a Fruitchouli, but rather than simply following the reduction of the genre (sweetness + berry flavor = perfume) that has become the norm, it benefits from Guerlain’s years of twisting patisserie into perfume.  It shows its Guerlain DNA in an almost campy exaggeration of its predecessors. Mitsouko’s plum is prim next to La Petite Robe Noire Couture’s sweet berry cobbler, but the likeness is there.  La Petite Robe Noire Couture’s dark sweetness is a less restrained play on L’Heure Bleue’s bittersweet version of the floral oriental. 
La Petite Robe Noire Couture’s real precedent, though, is Guerlain Insolence. Insolence was derided as a trite sweet floral that watered down the reputation of the brand. Guerlain’s smart move was to beat the criticism by going further over the top, creating Insolence Eau de Parfum. It was a monstrous, laughing fuck-you of a perfume that made critics of the original appear out of step and fussy. If La Petite Robe is considered just the next post-LVMH nail in Guerlain’s coffin (also said of l’Instant, Insolence, Idylle, Shalimar Parfum Initial and l’Homme Ideal) the Couture model wades further into the dogfight. The berry compote is simmered down to an even thicker consistency so that Couture’s sweetness is denser than the edt’s or edp’s. It even steals a page directly from Insolence with a touch of a hairspray note that gives Couture a defiantly ‘perfumey’ quality. 
You thought the original Petite Robe Noire was a little déclassé for Guerlain?  Try Couture.  Modesty is for pussies. 

Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur, 2000


musc ravageur

Perfumer Maurice Roucel.

L de Lolita defined my fear of the gourmand genre. Thick scents of chocolate dessert are coupled with musks and ambers, both of which are known for their fixative properties.  Amber ‘fixes’ the gourmand quality of L de Lolita the way concrete shoes ‘set’ in a mafia fable before you’re thrown in the river. 

Wearing L de Lolita could well be a Catholic-school lesson on the sin of gluttony and the threats of eternal hell.  The anticipation draws you close, the titilation makes you give in, the satisfaction is the pleasure you’ve been denied.  Then you continue to eat, unable to control yourself, long past the point of nausea and revulsion.  Jaques Guerlain gave a seminar on the line between plenty and excess when he took Shalimar close to crème brulée, but then pulled back.  The value of gourmand notes is in the suggestion or the temptation, not in the pudding.  L de Lolita demonstrates the lesson by failing it and falling into the more-is-better trap. 

So if L de Lolita (2006) is a sin against god, does Musc Ravageur (2000) have a more original sin?  

I experienced Roucel’s trio out of sequence. I first smelled Labdanum 18 (2006), then L de Lolita (2006) and finally Musc Ravageur (2000). I hadn’t known that the same perfumer made all three, nor had I known that the two 2006 perfumes were derived from Musc Ravageur.  Now I understand who’s who, or better, who’s the flanker. 

Musc Ravageur is the template. The other two variations were made by turning up and down the volume of specific notes of the original.  Labdanum 18 skips the aromatic topnotes but overdoses the sweet vanilla and powdery musk.  Without the loud aromatic topnotes of Musc Ravageur, Labdanum18 feels listless by comparison, yet is famously le Labo’s best seller.  If Labdanum was made by subtraction, L de Lolita relies on the addition of chocolate and maple syrup to distinguish itself.  The classic vanilla ‘oriental’ is given the chocolate-steroid treatment and the bergamot topnote of Musc Ravageur is twisted into a candied orange.  Piling a maple syrup/imortelle/fenugreek note on top of the chocolate makes L de Lolita a Frankenstein-Gourmand and poster-child for the excesses of gourmand perfumery. 

L de Lolita is so egregious that having smelled it a number of times seven years ago it tainted my experience of Musc Ravageur.  This week I wore Musc Ravageur for the first time.  I wore it  three days in a row, haunted by the anticipation of recognition that wouldn’t come. While distracted, the flashback to L de Lolita struck me in the gut and having made the connection, there’s no turning back.

How might I have experienced Musc Ravageur if I hadn’t first been affected by L de Lolita?  We all arrive to a perfume with our bags packed, but the recycling of ideas across different lines without marketing the subsequent perfumes as flankers muddies the waters.  Maybe I’ve been damaged by the Lolita perfume association and have made the jump to Nabokov’s Lolita.  With its effusive barbershop masculine reference and smarmy musky-amber sweetness Musc Ravageur reads like the perfume a stereotypical dirty old man would wear. 

(Please don’t take my ‘kitchen sink’ quibble with Musc Ravaguer as a blanket criticism.  I’m all for excess in perfumery generally and in Roucel’s work specifically.  He’s used it to great success in Guerlain Insolence,  Hermès 24, Faubourg, Missoni by Missoni and Gucci Envy.)

Narciso Rodriguez Narciso, 2014


Image from NAM collective, Hiroshi Manaka / Takayuki Nakazaw.

Perfumer Aurélien Guichard.

Notes are a fairy tale in perfumery.  Believe them as you would believe in the Sugar Plum Fairy or Tom Cruise.  They’re ‘real’ but not actual.  Aurélien Guichard doesn’t refute the notion of notes but he rephrases them.  He separates aromas (floral, green, fruity, musky) from the other tones that the nose perceives (roundness, velvet, opacity.)

Slicing and dicing notes is nothing new in contemporary perfumery.  Notes and materials have long been picked apart and shuffled around. Deconstruction and recontextualization are the classic two-step of post-modern art, a relic that perfumery has taken and run with.  The next step, the rebuilding, the creation of a new picture is harder to achieve and is largely missing in contemporary perfumery.

Narciso is abstraction in its fullest.  The separation and identification of the parts is thoughtful, but Narciso reconceptualizes perfume more credibly than you’d expect find in a designer fragrance. Guichard manipulates his materials so that the broad qualities, not the notes themselves predominate.  There is not so much a clear magnolia note as there is a sultry luster.  It is less specifically woody than it has the feel of an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Materials and notes aside, Narciso smells balanced and synthetic in the artistic sense.  It doesn’t attempt to recreate aspects of “nature” as in the solifor and it has none of the smugness that can accompany avant-nichery.  It’s a perfume made with an eye on aesthetics and ideals. Its indelible trait is an ambience, a spherical quality that feels like an additional dimension has been added to musk.  The tone is both pervasive and subliminal.  It surrounds you but it subverts the whistly, woody-amber persistence of many contemporary woody-musky perfumes.  It is less radiant than evenly distributed.  There are no seams showing, no bumps in the ride. If I could read a perfume formula, I suspect this one would have some sort of dimensional trickery like an Escher drawing. Impossibility made probable by screwing carefully with perspective.

Narciso’s commitment to aesthetics feels almost Greco-Roman in its classicism.  Like many classical works, Narciso has a designed imperfection, a distraction that keeps you from falling into a beauty-trance.  Narciso’s blemish is its whiff of paint.  Sniffed from the right angle, Narciso has the wonderful smell of a fresh can of exterior paint.  It might  seem odd at a cursory sniff, but it is perfectly placed and enhances the overall purr of the musk.