1/28/15

Fake Vintage Showcase: Climat Parfum by Lancôme (1967)


Looks Real. Is Fake. Currently $334.31, Plus Shipping.


I've taken some heat in the past for claiming that vintages are faked on auction sites, as if this idea is batshit crazy instead of an obvious fact of life. In my prior post I talked about vintage enthusiasts a bit, stating that they are generally well-informed people with an in-depth appreciation of perfume history. Yet there is a pallor of informational hubris on this population, in that some folks think they know what a specific vintage should look like, without ever actually checking and cross-referencing their sources (if they have any) to verify.

From what I've read, I think that there have been hundreds of people suckered by clever counterfeiters into thinking their vintage is the genuine article, a tragi-comic situation. Imagine spending $300 on a "rare" bottle of something ostensibly forty or fifty years old, and taking it to your grave thinking you've been its proud owner, when in fact you were bilked and simply never knew it. Not a pleasant thought. Ignorance may be bliss, but then again why wonder if you've done something stupid? Better to know.

Take Climat Parfum by Lancôme, for instance. This was a popular fragrance in the eighties and nineties, though it was originally released in the mid sixties. The nineties version in the blue box has become quite a seller on Ebay in recent years, commanding impressive triple-digit prices, but also some fairly affordable numbers in the $40 - $80 range. It's one of those off-the-beaten-path feminines that few talk about anymore, originally made by a prestigious French firm, and long since discontinued, something that has its fans perpetually upset, I'm sure. One would think that it's wonderful that conscientious Ebay sellers have unlimited access to dusty stashes of the stuff, because how else can a chic girl get her pretty manicured hands on it? All she has to do is hop on the internet, click "Buy It Now," and she's the proud owner of a vintage bottle. Thank you, technology!

Except that she's almost guaranteed to get a fake. How do I know this? There's a blogger who has compared Ebay "vintages" to her own original, store-bought vintages. Amazing how simple that is. She kept the old stuff for years, and eventually held it up against photos on Ebay to compare. If they match, the seller is honest. If they don't, look out. Apparently there are some tricky things to look out for with Lancôme perfumes from the eighties and nineties. The accent mark over the "o" in their name as printed in ads may not match the mark on the perfume bottle. The little ribbon around the neck of the Climat bottle will be specific colors, likely a bit discolored by time. Letters will match up to each other, line by line. The perfume itself will be a specific color. The box will likely have certain features. Everything needs to add up here. Ultimately, your bottle of Climat should look like this:


And not the worthless piece of cheese nestled here:


It's hard to get too angry at the seller of the bottle above, because he or she is only asking $45 for it, but what about the same kind of counterfeit at the top of the page, going for over three hundred bucks? Some unfortunate sap will pick it up eventually, thinking she's (a) lucky to be wealthy enough to drop hundreds of bucks on vintage crap, and (b) she's lucky enough to have found an old favorite on Ebay. Now some have argued that those wealthy enough to drop this kind of money on perfume wouldn't really care if they took a loss on an accidental fake vintage purchase, but I beg to differ. I've known some wealthy people in my time. They're usually penny pinchers who only spend when they absolutely must, and even then they do it begrudgingly. With Climat, that leaves people with some disposable income who are not actually rich, but who desperately want that vintage bottle. So they splurge and buy it, and they're the real victims. To the guy who could afford a $300 lunch, losing on a counterfeit is no biggie. But to the average working person who makes $45K a year with partial benefits, it's highway robbery.

I encourage you to read that blog post I linked here. Then visit Ebay and type in "Climat" or "Vintage Climat." You'll find that most of the parfums listed are either hard to discern (the 'ol "unopened box" trick), or blatantly not the genuine article. Some are so poorly counterfeited that you can see specks of black ink smattered across the bottle. Others are very good attempts, but are a little too pristine to be up to snuff.

About five years ago, perfumeshrine.blogspot.com published a piece warning about vintage counterfeits, which is something more writers should be doing, and highlighted one especially nefarious crook who goes to great lengths to replicate vintage Chanels. Take a look at this "vintage" N°22:


Looks pretty real, right? Yet it's fake, fake, fake. The technique in question? Pretty much everything I've ever said is done to fake this shit - a carefully replicated label stuck on a pour bottle, carefully colored liquid placed a few centimeters down to create that "naturally evaporated" look, and all sorts of other shenanigans. His feedback as reported on perfumeshrine was 100%, and according to the post's author, he has:
". . . an endless supply of specific rare things, especially Carons (Farnesiana and Tabac Blond extraits are his specialty, as well as older classic Guerlains in a pleiad of incarnations and coveted Cuir de Russie, No.22, Bois des Iles and super rare No.46 Chanel extraits in collectable bottles)."
This makes me wonder if anything on Ebay can be trusted. Naturally there are real vintages on there, but it's the weeding through process that's so tricky. In this example we have someone who is clearly a criminal attempting to make a living through sales of extremely expensive counterfeits, preying on people who think they know what they're getting, or who perhaps have their heads too far up their own asses to even care.

It's noted that most scammers aren't as meticulous about it as the one mentioned on perfumeshrine, but my belief is that there's a whole league of scammers out there who buy up empty vintage bottles and fill them with home-made perfumes that are then put up for sale on Ebay as being "rare" specimens of vintage. How hard is that to do, really? All you need is some busy, old-fashioned drugstore perfume, food coloring, maybe a few inexpensive essential oils from one of those health-nut sites, and you have something that approximates what a vintage might have smelled like. Most vintage buyers can't remember what the original formulas smelled like, if those formulas were released in their lifetime, and even if they do, they often don't have any on hand to use as a guide when purchasing. They are reading notes pyramids and reviews online, and whatever they receive in the mail will be accepted if it comes close to what they had in their head. For vintage counterfeiters, it's a fool's paradise.






1/27/15

The "Tasters" And The "Feelers"



"What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."

Mr. Warhol's famous quote about Coca-Cola is perhaps one of the most prescient statements about the American condition. It encapsulates the reality behind our national pride: we cherish the symbolism of "sameness," and hold it up as a democratic ideal. Naturally the wealthy and the poor must inhabit different spheres of living, and of course those spheres spin in different universes, but lookey here! We've connected them with sugar water. The multi-billionaire and the back-alley bum can both experience the sameness of a Coke. When it comes to this beverage, all the money in the world, all the influence and power is not enough to make it taste better. It is what it is for everyone. It is the same for everyone. No one Coke is better than another.

Unless you ask Mexican Coke enthusiasts. Ever hear of Mexican Coke? I'm sure you have, and if you haven't, let me fill you in on the viewpoint held by its ardent fans. They claim Mexican Coke is much better than American Coke. It tastes better. It's better for you. It's undeniably a different formula. It's spicier. It's sweeter. It's more floral. It's richer, deeper, more nuanced. The claims go on and on. Oh, and it comes in an old-fashioned green glass bottle with sixties-styled ACL labeling. What could be cooler? Just the packaging alone should elevate the worth of Mexican Coke head and shoulders above the drab, plastic-bottled American swill we Yanks suffer with.

As a consumer of Mexican Coca-Cola, I can confirm that the soda does taste a bit better in regards to how its sweetness is handled, due to its containing regular cane sugar instead of hi-fructose corn syrup. And I also agree that the bottle is awesome. It's heavy glass, nicely curved to fit your hand. Put simply, drinking Mexican Coke is fun because you get to see what the soda tastes like with sugar instead of corn syrup, and the bottle is retro and really cool. However, that's where the novelty ends. When I first started drinking this south-of-the-border product several years ago, I was struck by how disappointing its flavor was. Sure, the tongue knows real sugar from corn syrup. That's all fine and well.

But the actual flavor of Mex Coke was not quite as fizzy and fresh tasting as American Coke. Something seemed wrong, either with the product, or my own taste buds. Or maybe I just had unrealistic expectations because of the hype. I'd been led to believe there was something special about the formula that did not bear out when I finally wrapped my lips around the bottle. In truth, it tasted like slightly flat Coke with a slightly flat "Coke flavor" that was pleasant and familiar, but nothing remotely close to being the dream elixir people made it out to be. All the chatter I'd heard in high school was just hot air. But hey, kids talk, right?

So do fragrance enthusiasts. It never ceases to amaze me how persistently threads about the value of vintage fragrances pop up on basenotes and other forums, people going on and on about how this fragrance or that has been ruined, how one should try to find certain labeling to ensure their perfume is the "real deal," and how shitty reformulations are. As with anything that isn't standardized the way soda production is, there are shades of truth to these claims. Unlike Coke manufacturing, fragrance production isn't a black and white issue. There are some very subjective and very sensitive shades of grey. But like the Mexican Coke debacle, the notion that something older is automatically better, just because it's made with something natural and housed in the original package, is inherently flawed.

Loving vintage because it's always "better" than a current formula is a joke. I like jokes. I like to laugh. The notion that something older is better just because it's older flies in the face of human nature. The best of anything need never be changed. Yet we change most things, most of the time. With vintage fragrances, I've had the Mexican Coke experience far more often than not. It's true, occasionally I find a vintage that surpasses current things in quality and wearability, and sometimes ingredient quality is truly head and shoulders above anything new. My last review was of Furyo by Jacques Bogart, a lovely fougère with exotic floral notes and a smart incense reconstruction. The lavender was all but dead in it, but at least I got thirteen hours of beautiful heart and base notes.

Contrast that experience to something like Relax by Davidoff, for example. For years I read about how criminal it was that Davidoff discontinued Relax, how wonderful it was, how much better than Zino it was, how unique it smelled, how I had to have it. When I finally got my hands on a small bottle, I found the fragrance to be pretty mediocre. Sure, it didn't deserve to be dc'd based on smell alone, but I didn't get what all the fuss was about. Zino and Cool Water are both far superior. Relax didn't smell unique at all - it smelled like a cross between Brut, Zino, and Skin Bracer. Its discontinuation was utterly understandable to me. This frag had been Mexican Coked in the blogosphere. And I'd been punked.

Look at Joint by Roccobarocco. Another one that got soaringly good reviews by a few prolific reviewers online. I couldn't help but wonder if the enthusiasm was more Luca Turin-like than sincere. Turin is notorious for heaping adulation on fragrances that are nearly impossible to find because they're in extremely limited distribution, or discontinued for decades, like Blue Stratos, Givenchy III, and Caldey Island Lavender. This only flies as long as the fragrance is out of reach. Once acquired and tested, all bets are off. When I bought my bottle of Joint and began wearing it for a week, I found the reality didn't match the myth. This fragrance was also very mediocre, derivative, and synthetic. It belongs in the graveyard with Relax.

There's some science to the idea that people favor things because of their novelty. J. Kenji López-Alt, the managing director of the site seriouseats.com, conducted a double-blind experiment three years ago with Mexican Coke and American Coke. He has discovered several times in his esteemed career that the mind plays tricks on us when it comes to our taste buds (our noses and taste buds are interdependent), and this example further bolstered his case. I'll let you read for yourself, but the bottom line was that despite the preconceived idea that Mexican Coke was exotically superior to American Coke, people overwhelmingly preferred the flavor of American Coke in blind tests. Mr. López-Alt was able to discern two different populations in his tests, the "Tasters" and the "Feelers."

The "Tasters" were the people who preferred the flavor of American Coke over Mexican Coke, regardless of what container it was served in. So even when Mexican Coke was served in a plastic American bottle, they weren't fooled. The American Coke delivered in a glass bottle was identified as different from and preferable to the Mexican formula in the same bottle. The "Tasters" preferred the flavor of American Coke seven times out of eight.

The "Feelers" on the other hand were influenced overwhelmingly by the glass bottle the Coke was served in, preferring it over the stuff in plastic and cans. It didn't matter whether it was American or Mexican coke. The "Feelers" were more about the tactile feeling of glass against their lips, and the taste was secondary, if it mattered at all. That didn't stop the "Feelers" from saying the Coke in glass tasted better, of course. In their minds, the flavor of something from an old-fashioned package had to be better by default, because that's how they always felt about it.

My belief is that vintage enthusiasts are very knowledgeable about perfume in general. They understand perfume history better than the average person, maybe even a bit better than the above-average person, and they value that history. I believe vintage enthusiasts also have a dim view of most contemporary perfumes, generally feeling that current releases are crap, perfumers are now beholden to accountants like never before, and big corporations are ruining the world and people's enjoyment of it. Vintage enthusiasts are the "Feelers" of the fragrance world, those who would rather pick up an old bottle of semi-spoiled Habit Rouge and spritz themselves with it than grab a brand-new, totally fresh bottle and wear that instead. The old bottle looks better, the color of the perfume is deeper and more promising, and the fact that top notes and some heart notes are spoiled doesn't always register.

There are among us some true "Tasters," however. I call it like I smell it, pulling no punches when it comes to the true value of vintage. If I smell notes that are spoiled, accords that are unbalanced, bases that are prematurely appearing mere minutes after application, I tell you about it. I don't go on the internet and say things about really old perfumes like, "Other than a few seconds of flat top notes, the heart and base is beautiful," unless it's really true, and guess what? Sometimes it's not true. My mission in life is not to ruin the fun for vintage enthusiasts. My mission is to be more honest. Sometimes vintages smell gorgeous, and when that happens I'll tell you. But very often vintages smell a bit spoiled. I can abide some spoilage, if there's something good left behind to redeem it, but I'll never tell you that a vintage perfume is better than its newest incarnation.

There was a basenotes thread a while back in which the OP touted the notion that he's never encountered a spoiled vintage, or that at least the number of times he'd smelled a spoiled scent were far outnumbered by the times he'd smelled perfectly preserved vintages. He kept asking people to send him their spoiled scents, I guess to prove the point that people were lying about their claims of encountering spoilage, which seemed downright strange, if you ask me. It didn't occur to him that people usually toss their spoiled fragrances shortly after purchase, nor did it seem reasonable to him to suppose that nobody would want to be bothered to go to the trouble of packaging and mailing a bottle of skunked juice to god knows where. What would that prove? He would likely receive the package and either (a) claim the fragrance wasn't really spoiled and the sender was mistaken about it, or (b) agree it was spoiled but then question the honesty of the sender, wondering whether he did something to it prior to mailing it. In either case, his assessment of the spoiled scent would prove nothing. What he was asking was bizarre, and to my knowledge nobody humored him.

Towards the end of the discussion, one disgusted thread participant said flat-out that he wouldn't trust the OP, a vintage perfume peddler, to send him quality vintage perfume. The OP's contention that virtually ALL vintages he'd encountered smelled fine was not credible. It wasn't credible to me, either. My guess is this person is a "Feeler," someone who sees a vintage bottle, holds it, reads about it, and just "feels" that it must be better than its reformulation, or a current comparative. That feeling is self-reinforcing once the fragrance is smelled, because a very old perfume is guaranteed to smell different from a new one. Different is all that matters, not a "better" smell. Different to him is better. He's interested in the unique sensory experience that comes with owning a vintage, especially a rare vintage.

Like I said earlier, it's tricky comparing Coke to perfume. Coke is a mass-produced, one-size-fits-all product. Perfume is a design aesthetic and is not the least bit uniform. Subjectivity plays a huge part. The guy with the vintage thread is not necessarily wrong in his belief - but he is also not significantly right, either. Perception varies by person, and there are billions of people, and billions of perceptions. With variables judging variables, the number of rulings is endless.



1/22/15

Furyo (Jacques Bogart)



More Perfume Economics 101: when in doubt about the value of a discontinued scent found online, visit your local hole-in-the-wall brick and mortar store and find out what it's really worth. I'm not talking Perfumania chain stores or even your typical mall island kiosk. I'm talking an independently owned and operated shop that carries a wide range of fragrances in both gender categories. I'm lucky enough to have two near my house, and when one comes up short, the other invariably delivers. The fragrance in question today is Furyo by Jacques Bogart, another lovely ambery fougère from the late eighties. It was wisely placed just under Lapidus Pour Homme on the Leffingwell chart, although to me it calls to mind Joint by Roccobarocco. It definitely shares the same vibe as Joint, smelling of rich musks and spiced woods.

Ebay sellers are attempting to get no less than $100 for three ounces, with the cheapest bottle (one ounce) currently up for $66.99. I've been parsing Ebay for a few weeks now, hoping a three ouncer would show up for less than seventy bucks, but no luck. Fortunately I was able to snag that same size here in CT for $34.97, and yes, it's "vintage," with a slightly tattered box and an ingredients list naming only SD Alcohol, fragrance, and water. My receipt is something I should try to sell on Ebay, particularly to the jerks who want to get $100+ for Furyo.


Let's not beat around the bush here - Jacques Bogart is not an upscale fragrance brand. Their scents are lower middle shelf, generally cheaply made, but made with love. I expected Furyo to be boisterous and fairly well balanced, but also expected to encounter some degradation in quality, as I did with Joint, and as I have with pretty much every vintage scent that I've smelled. Furyo is indeed boisterous at first. There are rich cinnamon, honey, musk (possibly real civet), and wormwood notes that hit the nose, but I sense there was once a stronger lavender and some distinct citrus, both missing from my juice. Within thirty seconds its floral heart, velvety and bittersweet, emerges and wows me. I can tell Furyo has become a bit condensed with age, its heart phase making a premature appearance, but at least it smells smooth and elegant, a truly stunning musky fern.

Like Joint, Furyo is a very focused fougère. It's not linear, but after drydown it doesn't make any sudden moves. I definitely like it much better than Joint, although I do like Joint. Unfortunately Roccobarocco's fougère possesses a strange mustiness that threatens its balance a bit before everything deflates into a disappointingly cheap laundry musk of sorts, but Furyo never smells musty, cheap, or deflated, although it does become pretty tame and even a little soapy the longer it sits on skin. Several reviewers have commented that they smell a similarity to Kouros in Furyo, as in Joint, but I don't get the comparison in either scent. I'm beginning to think that the similarity exists in a certain type of musk that I must be anosmic to. If there is a family resemblance, I simply can't smell it. If I had to link it to something else from its era, I'd say that like Joint, Furyo smells strongly similar to Zino by Davidoff.

I think Furyo is a lovely fragrance, and definitely worth seeking out for fans of old-school musky fougères from the eighties and early nineties. It broadly fits into the same category as Kouros, Balenciaga PH, Zino, Vermeil for Men, and even Aubusson PH, as Furyo has a very noticeable touch of sweet red apple. I'll add that I enjoy smelling this on myself, but I would enjoy it even more on a beautiful woman in her late twenties or early to mid thirties. Of all the brusque "manly" ferns, this one is the most gender neutral, with rose, jasmine, and carnation comprising its core structure. This is a casual but dignified perfume that I'm very happy to own and wear, especially because I was fortunate enough to find it for less than forty dollars.

If I can do that, so can you. Get off the internet and get back into brick and mortar stores if you're looking for discontinued frags. You have nothing to lose, and potentially quite a bit of money to save.



1/9/15

Poppy (Coach)


The effectiveness of a fragrance depends entirely on who is wearing it. By "effectiveness," I mean its ability to attract positive attention to whoever is wearing it. On a social level it is counter-intuitive, which is interesting to me because fragrance seems like a direct thing. But it's true: fragrance goes against the grain. Nice people should wear mean perfumes, and mean folks should wear pleasant scents. Young people should wear sophisticated stuff, and old fogeys should sport youthful breaths of fresh air. Hard guys should wear soft scents; soft women should wear tough-guy fare. When you wear what you think you should wear, your self-perception is comfortable, but everyone around you feels something is "off."

Poppy is a typical "girly-girl" frag of the last five years, a crisp, extra-sweet powder puff of fake white flowers and even faker "precious" woods. I know a couple of young ladies who paint their toenails and wear Poppy, thinking it's a fitting accessory for them, but really it's just redundant. Certain femme perfumes still work on them, but Poppy is so far to the pink side that I can't stomach it - unless it's worn by a butch, androgynous cement spitter, a woman so hard that it takes active learning to decipher her femininity. Think Joan Jett. What would work on her? Not a gasoline leather like Grand Cuir or even a browned Bronson spritz like Puig's Quorum. Again, redundant. No, Jett and women like her are sexiest when they smell like Cher from Clueless.

The perfume is an essay in obscene gender typing, its nostril-flooding barrage of candied cucumber suggestive of chartreuse vinyl and toy dogs with hundred dollar dietary needs. It is decidedly anti-feminist, but feminism is too elusive a concept for people, and why smell vague when you can smell vacuous? Freesia becomes apparent after fifteen minutes, then gets watery and loses ground to ethyl-maltol and fuzzy sandalwood, like Joop! Homme wearing a dress (would that be double drag?), essentially an olfactory plea to not be taken seriously. Yet there's a hidden message in all the sweetness, just like in Joop! - "What you see is what you get." Like Jett, the authenticity behind all the fakeness is ironic, if worn by a straight shooting take-no-prisoners type who never compromises.

For guys like me, Poppy is a tough sell. I'm masculine, but not a tough guy by any stretch of the imagination. I'm not conventionally masculine, either. No guy who wears Cabotine could claim to be. Poppy is an extreme smell, one that literally has nothing to do with actual poppies, and it takes an extreme sensibility to pull it off. There are millions out there with that kind of persona, and this is a fragrance for them. It won the wrong audience, but then again I doubt the suits at Coach had rocker chicks in mind when they made it. I doubt rocker chicks themselves would think to wear it. Too bad.




1/3/15

Michael Kors for Men (Michael Kors)





Oud does not smell all that good. There, I said it. Jim Gehr gave me the opportunity to smell a few oud isolates and one oud blend, and none of them smelled like something I'd reach for. They didn't smell bad, they just didn't smell very good on their own. Jim has used oud to great effect, but I'm not entirely convinced that the note belongs in mainstream perfumery, and judging by Americans' reluctance to jump on the oud bandwagon, I'm not alone. Show me two or three major releases from designers that showcased oud and sold like hotcakes, and I'll show you a million dollars in bearer bonds with coupons attached.

Incense is another story. Bleu de Chanel springs to mind as a superstar frag featuring noticeable incense, although I'm beginning to think the fragrance is a common dimestore aftershave in hi-fidelity, but I'll get to that another time. There's also Body Kouros, Eau des Baux, Opium, Zirh, Obsession for Men, and Encre Noire to consider when it comes to raw, burnt, and fresh incense notes. Why has the public embraced incense? Because unlike oud, incense smells good. Oud has a pungent, rotted wood aroma with an unusual beauty in niche compositions, and takes some getting used to. Incense smells good even when it's at its most naked - see Tom Ford's Sahara Noir.

Michael Kors for Men is all about incense, and features it as bold, crisp, and slightly charred. It's a refreshing change of pace after another summer and autumn of dull-as-dishwater freshies. This "new" and updated Michael for Men was originally released last summer I believe, but suffered some unusual balance issues after only a few weeks on store shelves, putting guys off their lunch with an odd skanky note in the drydown. Kors pulled the fragrance for a couple of months and then re-released it with the chemical issue repaired. I frankly never smelled the problem, but I assume it was there for the brand to take this sort of risk.

Accompanying the smoky stuff is a solid balsamic structure of frostbitten herbs, spicy-green elemi, semisweet star anise, and sueded leather notes. It reads as a woody and rather boozy oriental, its synthetic sandalwood basenote feeling aspirational but pleasant nonetheless. My only gripe with Michael is that its suede accord begins to wrestle for attention with the incense, and after a zillion Calvin Klein and Avon frags featuring suede, it's impossible to smell it and not think "cheap." Also there's a slightly generic buzz to the top notes, as if they're made of rudimentarily assembled designer-grade materials (just slip star anise, Bang-like black pepper, and coriander together in equal measure), but whatever.

At least this fragrance is legible and attractive in an inoffensive, off the beaten path sort of way. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in incense, but if you're more interested in fresh, sheer incense notes in the vein of Bleu de Chanel and Encre Noire, try before you buy.




1/1/15

The Elusive Fougère, Part Two




One might exclaim, "Everything's a fougère to some people," and still be right about it. That is, if discussing masculine fragrance is the context of such a statement, in which case it's true that many guys identify contemporary (2005 - 2014) or near contemporary (1985 - 2005) fragrances as fougères, if anything at all. When in doubt, call it a fougère, right? As long as it has lavender and something woodsy in the composition, you might as well.

I disagree with this, though. A glance at the Leffingwell chart reveals that fougères are a relatively small category next to chypres, which seem to overwhelm the gender bracket. The fragrances that "charted" in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are distributed across the board, with no obvious favoritism toward fougères, at least as far as Michael Edwards' input is concerned. But what about the masculines that fell through the cracks? What about obscure things like Joint for Men by Roccobarocco? Or Green Generation Him by Pino Silvestre? Or Vermeil For Men? Or even the odd niche scent like Chergui by Lutens?

Questions like this get to the heart of why we bother culling fragrances into categories at all. Take Joint, for instance. From the atomizer nozzle before spraying, the lavender note is obvious, an intensely gummy, "fresh" sort of lavender, similar to that of Cool Water and Drakkar, but woodier and heavier. Spray it, and lavender meets civet, with the latter note balancing the freshness over a chasm of brown, earthy notes. Fragrantica's pyramid is wrong about this fragrance - lavender should be noted. Joint was discontinued decades ago, likely because it was underfunded and not made as well as it should have been, but it sticks out as an example of a "busy" composition that could throw people with lavender anosmia off track. I've seen people compare Joint to Kouros, which is an aromatic fougère of the early eighties, and which has a prominent lavender note (to the point where it's been argued that Kouros should be called a "baroque masculine lavender scent"), so I'm not alone in my opinion here, although I don't really smell any similarity to Kouros, other than both scents having lavender.

I happen to like Joint a lot, but my taste is admittedly unusual. Having worn it now for quite a while, I can say that its drydown, a full fifteen minutes after application, is decidedly "musty." This brings up another weird term I've seen bandied around on forums: the "old man smell." You've seen it, I've seen it, we've all seen it before, young guys calling an older fragrance "old-mannish," the ultimate put-down. For years I've wondered what it means, because the few old men I've encountered smelled of either nothing at all, or some basic aftershave like Skin Bracer, which actually smells good.

It wasn't until I wore Joint that I recognized a fragrance that my inner child called "old mannish." It dries to a musty, brown paper baggy labdanum/amber/synthetic musk accord that is equal parts delightful and questionable. I enjoy it, but questions persist - why does it thin down to a stale smell? Was it intentional? Or can a fragrance really degrade this much and still be wearable? It was Hednic on Basenotes who said that Joint smells very "generic and synthetic." I partially agree - it does smell synthetic, but not generic. All the fundamental parts of a fougère are there (alone, the accord is generic), with the buzzy lavender on top, tobacco/hay-like coumarin in the heart, and poisonous, mouldy musk in the base. Despite having generic fougère components, it could easily be confused with orientals or chypres from its era! Now that it's gone, I suppose you can call it whatever you like, but I wouldn't do that. That a perfume is extinct is no reason to erase its identity!

The same goes for forgotten gems like Vermeil or Green Generation Him. In recent months Vermeil has begun to smell mintier to me in its top notes, a tough call to make. Those who can't smell lavender (or who chronically misidentify it) call it "mint," which is not in itself an inaccurate term, since lavender is a type of mint, and can smell intentionally minty sometimes. If you want lavender as lavender, wear Drakkar. If you want the same lavender note as mint, wear Taxi. Where the first fragrance uses the note in a conventional dihydromyrcenol plus linalool fashion, the second takes the linalool and spools it around other 10 carbon alcohols to form a sort of "green bath soap" accord, smooth and clean without being overtly herbal. I get this sprightly mint effect off the top of Vermeil, itself frequently compared to the original Davidoff from 1984, but despite that mintiness, it still reads as lavender upon closer inspection, perhaps because it joins a soft floral chord in the early drydown phase.

You won't find Vermeil for Men on the Leffingwell. No one bothered to classify it when it was released - whenever that was. Where the fragrance and its packaging is manufactured is one of the great mysteries of the modern world. Yet I believe that it bears consideration to call it a fougère, simply because by classifying a forgotten masculine, its roots in the interconnected tree of masculines are made one with the congruent whole. It is no longer a detached, elusive scent, but part of fragrance history, worthy of note. It has a name that goes beyond branding.

It's tempting to cross the term "fougère" off the wall forever and just stick with more amorphous language, perhaps inventing one's own definitions, none of which would be "wrong" in an official sense, but I consider this to be the sort of thinking that makes understanding fougères so tricky. It seems that once people step beyond the fragrances that are inarguably fougères (Brut, Canoe, Clubman) and shuffle a bit afield of early aromatics (Paco Rabanne, Azzaro PH, Drakkar), consensus of what is and isn't a fern weakens. Arguments and heated discussions begin. From 2005 onward, it's clear that there's even a bit of a backlash against calling anything a fougère.

There is one fragrance however that slipped past the censors and landed the coveted title: Rive Gauche Pour Homme from 2003, one of the newest extant ferns. Distinctive for its powdery patchouli and talcum drydown, with a vaguely Drakkar-ish lavender/star anise up front, this fougère's identity was never seriously challenged, and was actually celebrated as being one of the few remaining examples of the genre. I really like Rive Gauche and have an older tin can version of it, but I do believe it is very, very similar to a slew of cheaper drugstore ferns. Its lavender is similar to Lomani Pour Homme's, almost identical really, and its spiced Barbasol heart accord is more or less Canoe. It winds up smelling like clean powder, which is never a mind-blowing effect, but is always reassuring in its staid masculinity. The only other fern released in the last twenty years that comes close to unanimous approval from guys on forums is the little-known Patrick by Fragrances of Ireland.

I suggest that anyone still confused about fougères, and what makes a fougère a fougère, should go to a perfume shop and smell Rive Gauche in tandem with drugstore ferns like Drakkar, Canoe, and Clubman. You'll be taking a fragrance that is only twelve years old and connecting it to fragrances that are many decades older. At the very least, you'll come to an understanding of how solid the combination of notes actually is, and why so many masculines draw on that classic accord for inspiration.

I just want to add one more thing: when I speak of people not being able to detect certain notes, I don't mean that as criticism in any way. I'm anosmic to a few things - we all are. This is something that happens through no fault of one's own. It's also not a big deal, because even if you can't smell a note or two, you can often "smell around" the notes, detecting accompanying aroma chemicals that a perfumer used to bolster the desired effect, like adding something camphorous to a lavender note. It poses challenges for certain, but fault only exists if someone knowingly cannot smell something and then claims that note is absent from a composition without disclosing their anosmia to readers.






12/31/14

The Elusive Fougère, Part One




Few fragrance families have befuddled, confused, eluded, even angered men as frequently as the fougère has, which is worth mentioning because it's one of the most common types of masculine fragrance out there. It only befuddles fragheads of course, those of us who are far more interested in perfume than the average guy who reaches for his one bottle of Gucci Guilty and wears it without a second thought. An example of just how laborious it can be for us to understand the genre can be found in this thread, which dissects its history a bit, and then ponders what exactly a fougère should smell like. The OP asserts that it is "not beautiful," and "if you get too much of it, it can be even nauseating," which is at odds with my own experience, but then again I've been known to have an uncommonly tough tummy.

Here is my assertion: the fougère is basically a fresh, somewhat floral, somewhat woodsy, slightly mossy/musky concoction that in traditional format smells stereotypically "barbershoppy." Lavender and coumarin are the main players, but the handling of both notes can vary, even among traditional ferns. Nevertheless, all share a uniquely powdery, talc-like quality, with a lukewarm coumarin adding ambery heft and depth to an otherwise evanescent herbal structure. The fougères pictured above are a visual answer to the question, "What is a fougère?" If you own and wear at least three of those six fragrances, you fully understand what a fougère is, and if Drakkar is one of them, you also understand the basic aromatic fougère fairly well.

So why all the questioning? I suspect some guys have an unintentionally poor olfactory grasp of one or more of the key notes, which may or may not create an unnecessary sense of mystery. I attribute this to natural causes, a physical inability to detect a specific scent. For example, I know at least a couple of people who are anosmic to lavender. When faced with lavender, alternative adjectives are used to describe it, rather than just identifying it as lavender: it's "camphorous," it's "minty," it's "laundry musk." Contemporary perfumery methods have allowed perfumers to extend the life of lavender on skin by a considerable length of time, beyond the forty-five seconds you might get from dabbing pure oil mixed with perfumer's alcohol on skin. Missing the central lavender chord may ruin fougères for some people.

Another problem may be unfamiliarity with the similarities old-school ferns share. If your three frags of experience are Caron Pour un Homme, Drakkar, and Brut, I can understand that it would be hard to find their common link. There's still an experiential vacuum with ferns there. Add Pinaud's Clubman, Mennen Skin Bracer, and Canoe to the mix, and suddenly there's a familiar shape in the air. Take for example the musky talc drydown of Brut, Clubman, and Canoe, each very "barbershop" in their own right. Alone, their fragrances are anomalies compared to what's currently under glass in department stores these days, but together they're like triplets after a particularly trying birth - similar enough to be unmistakably siblings, but each with a slightly different face. Familiarity with all three ensures the confusion factor is minimal.

And while I'm discussing the confusion factor, I should add that contemporary releases generally eschew the conventions of old-school ferns, in favor of more aromatic and gourmand nuances. Compare Canoe to Bleu de Chanel and you see what I mean. One could argue that it's silly to say fougères are alien to guys, given their iconic status, but "iconic" can be synonymous with "forgotten." Just today I visited a local brick and mortar shop that carries dozens of hard-to-find masculines, and asked the owner for a bottle of Canoe. I didn't even bother looking at his shelves, I figured he'd hear the name, immediately know it, and simply hand it to me. After all, Dana frags are found in every drugstore across America.

I was in for a surprise - the guy had no idea what I was talking about. He's been in business for twenty years, is roughly sixty years old, and he gave me a blank, confused stare. I went to his shop and not a Rite-Aid or CVS because I figured that unlike the big-boxes, he would have a wider variety of sizes (I was looking for an eight-ounce bottle). I had to spell "Dana" for him. He eventually found it on his smartphone and showed me a picture to confirm the item, then apologized, saying it was out of stock. Indeed, he had English Leather and one or two other obscure Dana items on a shelf, but no Canoe. So it's getting to the point in America where cornerstone masculines like Canoe are not even being stocked in independent perfume outlets.

In the thread linked above, a Parfumo member named "LovingTheAlien" wrote, "I decided to blend myself what I had learned from various sources to be the building blocks of a 'real' vintage fougère: Oakmoss (my own tincture!), Tonka Bean (my own tincture again), a little amber (in place of labdanum, which I don't have), sandalwood (Mysore tincture - also mine), a light floral blend (jasmine and rose, a tiny bit of each), lavender (another tincture), bergamot, and a teensy touch of (regrettably) synthetic musk. It came out kind of muddled - something was weird. It had a spicy sweet edge, something like a fougère, but something was missing. A little investigation, and a drop (well, smallish tacky glob) of patchouli was added. And there it was: Pinaud Clubman, Avon Wild Country, Dana Ambush, and Canoe!"

He presciently added, "The 'aromatic fougère' genre certainly spans a large range of finished products, from the still very fougère-like Azzaro Pour Homme to the baffling Dali Pour Homme (one of my favorites), which emphasizes the metallic leathery quality of tonka with castoreum and plays with all kinds of bitter green notes in the top. I can still smell the fougère accord in most of these scents - it's kind of impossible to hide if you know what you're looking for, it seems!" I agree, the accord is unmistakable, but that doesn't change the fact that it's only unmistakable to those who can accurately discern the notes that comprise it, a major issue for some.

But knowing the fougère accord isn't essential to understanding what a fougère is. It's more important to recognize the traditional fougère's general scent profile - is it spicy, powdery, balmy, green, woody, or sweet? Is it all of those things? If so, what is it more of? In my opinion, it's more powdery than anything else. My nose is sensitive to the talc effect in the bases of these compositions, so when I smell that clean powder essence, I know I'm dealing with either a straight-up traditional fern, or something derived from it, like Royal Copenhagen. I'm also pretty good at detecting lavender, so for me there's an early warning sign that a fougère is in use. Essentially this combination of lavender and powder is universal to the classical fern.

The final frontier, and perhaps most daunting aspect of understanding ferns, is in assessing the aromatic variants, which take the classical structure and condense it, then surround it with additional notes, usually notes that fit each of the scent profile categories. They're much more complex and subject to change, these aromatic ferns, and therefore are often harder to define. I think fragrances like Azzaro PH, Paco Rabanne, and Drakkar are suitable gateways to the aromatic fougère, because their "barbershop" qualities are still prominent, and they show the progressive advance of dihydromyrcenol in masculine compositions. Even Kouros and Jazz hold some semblance of citrus aftershave and talc dust, enough to connect them to the family tree. Once you establish that the antiseptic citrus/lavender accord can be twisted around any make and model of coumarin, the sky is truly the limit.

Lastly comes the more amusing question that sometimes crops up, the plea to define "barbershop" as it pertains to scent. Some guys know what it means when you say, "It smells like a barbershop frag," but others are instantly lost. Either they went to a different barber, or they always cut their own hair. Or perhaps their culture is one where using talc and aftershave is rare. Barbershops across America use talcum powder after a close cut or shave, usually to dry out and soothe skin. I've been to barbers who used Clubman talc, and I've been to barbers who used Pinaud After-Shave Talc. I've even been to barbers who used baby powder, disguised by an unmarked tin. That powder is the essence of the barbershop scent, a dry, diffuse, slightly floral aroma, evocative of summer afternoons and rides in dad's car.

Peruse the Parfumo thread for some additional thoughts on the role of gender and personal taste in recognizing fougères, and consider this - fougères have been around since the dawn of perfumery itself. To know one fougère is to know a piece of history. To avoid fougères is to subjugate yourself to the pitfalls of attempting to live around a massive, maw-like hole in your education.