11/25/16

Pi (Givenchy)


"A Little Further Than Infiniti." Far Out, Man!


To understand Pi, it helps to be more than a mathematician; you have to remember the nineties, and what cultural changes occurred after the 1980s. Following the conservative Reagan era, when masculine fragrances were either loud "cigar box" ferns and orientals, or loud "musky" compositions with borderline femme floral elements, and downright funereal moss notes (as found in Antaeus and Tsar), people were attracted to fresher, friendlier ideas.

Ferns became sweet and playful (Cool Water, Aqua Quorum, Polo Sport), chypres were hybridized and sunnier than ever (Red for Men, Acqua di Gio, Green Valley), and orientals were divested of unnecessary accords, stripped and compacted and simplified, until only the basics of "amber" and "vanilla" were left. Fragrances like Pasha, Angel, and Givenchy's now Classic Pi were the result. Interested in "fresh" orientals? Try Cartier's idea. Want something "gourmand?" Here's an overdose of Ethyl Maltol and some cheap patchouli, ala Mugler. Need a more traditional citrus-amber fragrance? Pi was the way to go. It is essentially a basic mandarin orange and toasted vanilla accord, and little else. There's a smidgen of cedar and synthetic musk in the base, and that's about it. It smells rich, smooth, almost edible, very warm, and oddly "fresh." It's a nineties frag to the hilt. I hear Gin Blossoms and Sheryl Crow songs whenever I spray it.

But there is perhaps one other aspect to Pi that goes a little deeper than just writing it off as a dull nineties scent. The decade was in many ways a throwback to the seventies. Big cars were momentarily back in style, the economy enjoyed a brief but luminous revival, thanks to the Dot-Com Boom, the President was plagued by scandals that had nothing to do with his political policies, and which threatened to undermine his office, and recent wars had caused an undercurrent of social discomfort and political dissent not felt since Vietnam. Perfume was fresh and sweet, but it was also loud, and very raucous in character, even conservatively speaking. Mugler and CK and yes, Givenchy, were putting noise into the air, competing with grunge music and Nicolas Cage movies to see which could be more obnoxious.

I was a teenager in the nineties, and remember it well. So to me, Pi smells not like a conservative gourmand, but like a boisterous vanilla crossover feminine, geared toward guys with Ceasar haircuts and subwoofed Iroc Zs. There's nothing demure about how one dimensional and fatuous this fragrance is. You can't wear more than two sprays and expect reactions to differ from the snickers and half-assed compliments elicited by Joop! Homme. In its original formula, Pi filled rooms, preceded wearers by ten minutes, and made coffee houses smell like whore houses. Is it an exciting fragrance? No, not by a long shot. But is there more to it than meets the casual nose? You bet. It's the Brut of the nineties, but it was never offered at Brut's price-point, fitting for the inflated ethos of 1998.

I'm not a wearer of Pi, and I don't personally know anyone who wears it, but the stuff is still being made, and still selling, so there must be stragglers from my generation keeping it alive. It wouldn't surprise me if it won over a few next-gen fans as well. Meanwhile, wearing KL Homme, with its crisp balsamic citrus top and warm, vanillic base, it feels like the twelve year interval between Lagerfeld's oriental and Givenchy's gourmand was lost entirely, and I want it back.


11/23/16

Virgin Island Bay Rum (Pinaud) & Why Old Spice Is Not A Bay Rum



A good bay rum is an olfactory sketch of two main notes, with a third note "bridging" them; bay is meant to be immediately noticeable, followed closely by a warm, sweet "rum" effect, with subtle spice connecting the two. Typically the spice is an amalgamation of several spices, be it a cinnamon and clove hybrid, or clove and nutmeg, black pepper and pink pepper, etc. Just as frequently, the spice note stands alone. The most common in popular bay rums is clove.

Eugenol is a miracle drug. Perfumers can take the dullest vanilla composition and give it teeth using but a hint of it. Too much conjures associations with a dentist's chair; too little impresses as merely a weird, camphorous aftertaste. But when it's dosed just right, clove is the height of manliness. Its woody-fresh bite can marry feuding accords like nothing else. Consider the bracing beauty of Z14's lemon aldehydes attempting a peace agreement with its cinnamon, vetiver, and oakmoss foundation, without the unambiguously stark eugenol underlying the citrus. And just as it can act as a savior, clove can also ruin the fun. Remember Copper Skies? What an awful composition.

Pinaud's Virgin Island Bay Rum is a popular cologne with several decades of accolades from several generations of "manly" guys under its belt. It is incredibly cheap ($7 for a 12 oz bottle), and readily available at almost every online retailer, although good luck finding it in your average brick and mortar pharmacy. Its spare plastic bottle and wan, tricolor label are easy to miss, but the liquid within is a bit harder to overlook. VIBR smells charmingly piquant and almost drinkable, with lively "rummy" notes layered under vague citrus, and what is without exaggeration the closest one can get to clove overdose without crossing the dentist's threshold.

That said, I must assert a measure of caution to those considering this fragrance. It's technically an aftershave, but in this case that means they merely added a skin toner to a cologne. You can expect four to five hours of longevity, with subtle but noticeable sillage. For the first hour, you'll enjoy a brisk and linear breeze of boozy clove, very old-fashioned, but undeniably charming. As you near the ninety-minute point, you'll begin to realize that aside from the alcoholic eugenol, there isn't much to play with. There's a very flat, almost stale wafer effect, which eventually settles into a gingerbread cookie. And two hours in, you will understand: Pinaud's VIBR doesn't have any actual bay in it at all. It's just a Christmassy barrage of clove over a cheap gourmand amber.

Now, every so often I visit wetshaver boards and encounter comments about Old Spice that go like this:

"Such a great bay rum. I love this better than my other bay rums!"

Or I'll read:

"A real shame P&G reformulated this. Now it's just a lame bay rum scent."

Comments like this really bug me, because Old Spice is not a bay rum. It has no bay, and It has zero rum. Furthermore, Old Spice's reformulation is actually less like bay rum than its previous formulas, for the simple fact that the massive clove note in the American version exists primarily to darken the fluffy orientalism of its relatively loud orange citrus and vanilla accords. Old Spice is doing other things with clove, things that have a lot in common with contemporaries like Habit Rouge and Royal Copenhagen, and nothing in common with homemade stews of bay leaves soaking in Captain Morgan's. Shulton's formula had an airy transience that I guess one could associate with bay rum aftershaves, but here the association is strictly subjective.

I would argue that Pinaud's bay rum isn't really a bay rum, either. After all, it lacks a bay note. But at least it nods to classical bay rum with its potent rum note. And that massive clove note is just the direction they decided to take the scent. Why they didn't bother with the bay is beyond me, but I would guess it was just too difficult to manage on Pinaud's paltry formula budget. I personally don't consider it a bay rum, but more of a spiced rum cologne with what is perhaps an unintentionally edible facet that makes it a little too "nice guy" for my taste. Don't go by me though, because I'm not really into this sort of thing. If I'm wearing spice, I want it to say "Old" on the bottle.




11/19/16

The Incanto Charms Problem: Why Cheap Gourmands Usually Don't Work


Coca-Cola Can Do It. Why Can't You?


In 2006 the house of Salvatore Ferragamo released a little inexpensive gourmand feminine called Incanto Charms. The fragrance features a fruity, saccharine opening, followed by an Ethyl Maltol bomb with abstract hints of cheap jasmine. The one and only time I wore it, I was immediately self conscious, wondering if my girlfriend would dump me for smelling like a preteen girl. It's not that IC smells "bad," because in all honesty, this is the sort of composition that young girls love, and it's relatively inoffensive, wafting in gentle clouds of nondescript "sweet." But as a fragrance, considered objectively and without any predetermined contexts, it's as dull and forgettable as a Ken Burns movie.

It raised the question as to whether or not the noses at Ferragamo were just lazy, or if their boring gourmand was part of a larger problem. With other gourmands by Paris Hilton, Beyonce, Coty (non-prestige), and Mugler in the mix, I realized that perfumers are largely missing the point of making someone smell "edible." They're operating in a vacuum, informed only by their communal accomplishments in a pseudo niche realm, and they never stop to ask themselves if they should try a little reverse engineering instead. After all, many gourmands on discounter shelves are being one-upped by something as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, a mass market soda brand. That's shameful.

I often wonder if perfumers ever think seriously about the link between scent and flavor. Why, for example, hasn't anyone ever made a perfume that smells like Coke, or any of its flavors? Soda reviewer Patrick O'Keefe, creator of the prolific soda review site "Soda Tasting," once said that if Coke made an air freshener of Cherry Coke, he would buy it and use it all the time. Given that this guy has taste tested hundreds of sodas, his sentiment is quite an endorsement. (Vanilla Coke is perhaps the only soda that he awarded with five stars.) This got me curious about Cherry Coke, so I went and bought a few cans and tried it. I hadn't had it in twenty years, and my return to it was a surprise. This stuff is excellent.

When we think about soda, we think two things: "cheap," and "sweet." Sodas are usually just a few cents per can when purchased in bulk, and their flavors are generally disgusting, nondescript, and forgettable, much like the myriad of bargain gourmands being foisted on people here in the States. But Coca-Cola is the exception. Unlike their competitors, the Coke brand has paid extra careful attention to perfecting what they do, rather than just shoving HFCS and one or two fake flavors into a syrup. Cherry Coke has the potential to taste like Dimetapp and sugar cubes, but it actually tastes great. The cola is gentle and crisp, and complemented beautifully by an even-handed and well blended fruity cherry accent that leaves a clean aftertaste. The brains behind it all must have spent a year or two laboring over a way to make fruit cola taste elegant, and they succeeded.

Vanilla Coke is even better. It could have been glorified cream soda, but no. They spent time and money on this flavor. The vanilla isn't candy-like. It's actually fresh, with a brightness that works incredibly well against the cola backdrop. It's so rich and smooth and appealing that it's worth poisoning your pancreas to drink it. It helps that Coke's original formula is a masterpiece, the veritable champagne of colas, full of subtle cola, coca, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange flower, and vanilla notes. If ever there was a crime against the genre of gourmands, it's the neglectful stance the perfume industry has taken in not giving Coke its due. These sodas, in all their simple beauty, should be cloned into wearable art. It wouldn't be too difficult for a decent nose to achieve, and I'd wager millions of teens would fawn over such frags.

Instead, we have Incanto Charms. But hey, at least I don't encounter shelves of Incanto Charms at the grocery store.





11/15/16

Bamboo Eau De Toilette (Gucci)




Perhaps the "Alt-Right" has a point after all; it's frightening to think that political correctness has neutered Italian bravado into the stuff of pallid white florals. Yet when I smell Bamboo EDT, a pallid white floral is pretty much the long and short of it. Yes, it's well balanced. Yes, yes, yes, I know, I know, it's well made, I get that. Every synthetic analog of fruit and floral is modestly rendered against a wan, woody, chemical background, all fogged up with white musk. It's a fragrance that smells pleasantly uninteresting on a woman when you're both crunching the company numbers, but which suddenly becomes intoxicating after hours, when fragrance is the only thing she has on. But that's not really a convincing argument for it. A great frag deserves higher praise.

The truth is that beautiful women don't need great perfumes. And by "beautiful women," I mean whatever women you're into. (Beauty is subjective, and honestly, I'm not being "PC" when I say that.) When a man digs a girl, the last thing he's worried about is the pedigree of her fragrance. She could be wearing her husband's Brut, and if a guy thinks she's sexy, he'll assume she's wearing "girl stuff," and his hormones will just block out the rest as they zero in on the score. Men aren't sophisticated when it comes to sex. We're not complex machines when it comes to spreading our genes. Our brains go into autopilot, our senses search out pheromonal stimuli - the invisible, musky smells secreted through skin, hair, mucous membranes - and our "conscious" noses, always eager to identify burnt toast and spoiled milk, take the night off.

Still, it would be nice to return to the days when women wore foghorn frags to dampen the essences of their competitors. Loud perfumes, often commissioned (without irony) by men, played into women's unending interest in the other women around them. Whether to arouse innocent, friendly small talk between office girls on a luncheon, or catty disapproval, with backhanded comments whispered snidely behind unsuspectig backs, feminine "powerhouse" fragrances like Paris, Poison, Chanel No 5, and Gucci's own Rush were patterned for sapphic and tribalistic mores. Women wore perfumes so loud and garish that sharing an elevator with them meant you stopped on whatever floor had the Tylenol. And even though I knew they weren't wearing them for me, I thought their olfactory egotism was charming.

Bamboo EDT just reminds me of everything we've lost.



11/12/16

It's Donald Trump's America. Does This Bring 80s Perfumes Back?



This has been a weird week. Donald Trump, author of ghostwritten tomes such as The Art of The Deal, and reality TV star, Page 6 playboy of the 1980s and 90s, will soon be giving the State of the Union Address. Think about that for a moment. The guy behind Trump Steaks will be signing legislation with sixteen pens in just a few weeks. It doesn't get any more surreal than that.

One of the more entertaining theories I've had about about time, history, fashions, and trends bears a look at what it means to actually time travel. Many people talk about time traveling into the future as if it were a physical possibility, at least as far as astrophysics is concerned. Travel faster than the speed of light (round trip), and twenty years of your time becomes two hundred years of everyone else's. It's basically the premise of Planet Of The Apes. According to most physicists, it's theoretically true.

But traveling back in time is something most physicists would frown upon. There is currently no plausible theory to support the idea. Sure, you could try it, but visiting the past isn't the same schtick. We can't actually shift the time/space continuum manually. It's not a dial we can adjust. We can only accelerate our participation, but decelerating progress is a mathematical impossibility. The Big Bang can't be repeated, not because it can't happen again, but because it already happened.

Yet I've been a staunch believer in the circumstantial nature of time travel. If you really want to return to a bygone era, and don't have a few trillion dollars available for researching and developing your time machine, there is still one teeny tiny little step you can take: just walk the walk. Interested in revisiting the 19th century? Get rid of all your modern appliances, chuck your computers and phones and modems. Lose the car. Lose your entire wardrobe, and replace it with starched tuxedos, top hats, and hoop skirts. Put up a few pictures of Queen Victoria. Scale back your bathing routine. Grow your own food. Mill your own oats. Say goodbye to electricity and running water. It would probably cost you around $100K to shift your time period over, and when you're finished, you'd probably want your money back. But if you were really interested in going back to that era, it can be done. You just have to live it.

Collectively, we've done that here in the United States. We've elected Donald Trump to be our leader. This is a man who has given interviews on TV from inside his private jet, gulped champagne and danced with floozies at Studio 54, and did lines of coke at the Playboy Mansion. He has bragged about everything, including his failures. He surrounded himself with New York City thugs for most of his life. He had ties to the mob. He had ties made in China. He has broken every political rule ever written, and up until now he wasn't even remotely interested in being a politician. And now he is one. The ULTIMATE one. The leader of the free world.

It's a loose return to the days of Ronald Reagan. In 1980, America knew Reagan as the governor of California, and a man whose B movie career had already been largely forgotten. He was unlikely to become President, and yet he did, and at one point even secured electoral votes from every state except Minnesota. He is quoted as telling Pat Buchanan, when asked about this single defeat, "No Pat, we didn't lose Minnesota."

Trump is not Reagan, however. Unlike the Gipper, he has no experience in leadership, and he isn't as widely loved. Reagan was never offensive to people, because he always embodied that old-school Hollywood charm, rather like an American Cary Grant. And Reagan wasn't divisive. He never used bold rhetoric, he never swore, he never singled anyone out. He was a union-busting, anti-gay, anti-socialist asshole, but he usually kept these qualities under wraps. He and Margaret Thatcher were perfect together.

Trump does not represent Hollywood's golden age. He represents Wall Street's Gordon Gecko days. He represents shady business dealings, slick-haired shenanigans, materialism, excess. Donald Trump is the 1980s incarnate, and amazingly his views of the world are still solidly 1980s views. Thirty years ago America was still a racist, homophobic, shallow culture. Doubt it? Just watch Crocodile Dundee. That film was a huge hit. The fact that Paul Hogan grabs a transsexual woman's crotch and calls her a "fag" meant little to audiences, because they just loved characters in Tarzan outfits who walked around NYC with big knives.

So what does it mean that millions of Americans have voted for Gordon Gecko? For Paul Hogan? For materialism, unbridled narcissism, and wanton excess? Does my country really yearn for those days to return? Do we want to turn back the clock and watch Madonna and Micheal Jackson tear it up? Do we want to abolish political correctness and put racist and homophobic characters back into our movies? Do we yearn for the days when Communism and Socialism were bad words? If so, does that also mean we want our loud, bawdy, room-destroying eighties perfumes back?

Will fragrance companies subconsciously pick up on this? Will Dior release a reformulation of Fahrenheit that actually smells like the original? Will Grey Flannel come back into fashion, and become as popular as it used to be? Maybe Davidoff will reissue the original Cool Water. Perhaps Chanel will come out with a new masculine that smells so heavy and complex that the IFRA goes apeshit. Impossible, you say? Well, I'm not so sure anything is impossible anymore.

I hope that the fragrance world does "regress." It would be nice to stop hearing vintage enthusiasts complain about everything. It would be great to have all the classics back in their original form. It would really be terrific to smell new releases that explode with woody, spicy, floral aromatics. How hot would it be if people started offending each other with their perfumes again? If a woman's floral behemoth entered the room an hour before she did? If guys emitted vicious clouds of cigar box madness when they went to church? America has a habit of adopting the zeitgeist of its leadership, and letting it pervade all aspects of their society.

With Donald Trump's Presidency, there is hope after all.




10/23/16

Dior Homme Eau (Dior)


I never understood the appeal of the original Dior Homme. Its powdery and bittersweet iris pastiche never felt convincingly dimensional, lacked the fundamental warmth of classical orientals and chypres, and Dior created flankers for it, which seemed akin to flanking liver and onions with tripe. If ever there was a challenging, "stand-alone" composition, it's Dior Homme. Although I'm not sure what makes it popular, I appreciate it as a mature, competently crafted work that I do envision as acceptable fare to a funeral, or perhaps a brit milah. It says plainly, "I'm not smiling today."

I approached the "Eau" flanker with trepidation, but I needn't have, because it's lovely, a crisp, Mediterranean interpretation of the original. Where the first employed a strange, almost waxy iris note, Dior Homme Eau lets the heaviness go to the breeze, allowing iris' inherently cool and powdery freshness to shine. It still evokes the makeup counter at Dillard's, yet also brings me to the beach with splashes of pert citrus, smelling at once nondescript and unfamiliar. Here the alien strangeness of its progenitor touches down on friendlier terrain, yielding a fragrance not as challenging as the original, but quite interesting in its own right, and much easier to wear.

The unusual "lipstick" aspect of this line is not an outlier in masculine fragrance, or fragrance in general, with parts of Mitsouko and Miglin's Pheromone for Men employing a similar quality during various stages of their drydowns. Refined chypres aim to soften their balance of otherwise harsh components (bergamot, oakmoss, labdanum) via sweet florals, precious woods, and musks. What sets Eau apart is its ability to meld an ambitiously classical and dated chypre idea with an unexciting and contemporary woody-amber drydown, while always smelling cheerful and original. No easy task, and a solid effort from Demachy.



10/17/16

Thoughts On An Anonymous Person's Odd Ideas



This is a brief compendium of strange ideas that were posited by a fellow fragrance enthusiast (who shall remain anonymous, to protect his identity), and my direct responses to them. Bear in mind that I am not directly quoting this person. I'm simply presenting a distillation of his ideas in generalized quotation marks, followed by my equally paraphraseable thoughts. Here goes . . .

"When sealed in airtight bottles, and loaded with inert gases to extend shelf life, the chemicals in perfumes don't change."

Ever look at what is printed on 90% of the boxes and bottles on store shelves? It's any variation of the words, "Eau de Toilette Natural Spray," sometimes called a "Vaporisation Naturelle Spray," etc. Many years ago, perfume companies used "gas atomizers," which required a compressed propellant to expel fragrance droplets. These were unique because they reduced the degree of control in application, and cut off one of two common ways that air could mix with the bottled liquid. The other way air could mix with the perfume was if the bottle was not actually "airtight."

"Natural Sprays" eliminate that one fail safe by allowing air to be the sole mechanism of dispensation, simply by creating a suction vacuum in the bottle's stem, which propels the liquid into the button and out of the spout. Ever wonder what happens when you lift your finger off the button? The vacuum pressure eases and a reverse effect occurs, with tiny amounts of external (and internal) oxygen dribbling into the bottle. That's how air bubbles form in the fluid. And of course, the perfume bottles on the broader market are almost never entirely "airtight." Quality is usually good enough, but the area around the atomizer, including where the atomizer's collar meets the glass, is never hermetically sealed. Perfume is not "vacuum packed."

I find the suggestion that any perfume bottle is "airtight" to be a conveniently inaccurate aspect of the vintage enthusiasts' arguments on the subject. And perfumes use "preservatives?" True. But so do foods. Would you eat a twenty year-old can of beans? No, didn't think so.

"Testers are no different from main stock bottles because it would be obscenely expensive and impractical to reformulate fragrances just to make their testers smell stronger, richer, and more enticing than the stuff you actually buy."

Then I guess reformulating anything would cost an obscene amount of money, and the whole idea of reformulating something to "save money" goes right out the window. Remember my recent post on "false narratives?" This is another one. Why is this person talking about reformulations in the context of testers, when testers almost always smell like nothing more than a higher concentration of the same formula? It would be a bit out of their way to do it, but it's not unreasonable to suppose that companies would put an EDP concentration of fragrances in testers otherwise billed and sold as EDTs. Where's the "obscene expense" in that?

As a graphic design student, I learned something interesting about how far companies will go to bait and switch customers. Most companies aren't just selling their products; they're selling the idea that their products are of greater quality than everyone else's. Food labels, particularly cereal boxes, are great examples. It would, in theory, be cheap, quick, and practical to just pour a bowl of cereal, add milk, take a few photos, and print one on the box.

But this isn't how it's done. Elmer's glue (or a glue like it) was used for years as milk's stunt double. The dried glue was carefully sculpted to give the appearance of perfect splash droplets ensconcing those big fat plastic strawberries accompanying the cereal. The cereal itself was the only real thing in the shot. Now that's expensive. It was done for decades, until Photoshop and digital manipulation replaced that process. And even paying a photo retoucher $20 an hour for eight hours is way pricier than just snapping a simple photo and printing it.

Think of how simple a bowl of cereal is, relative to a perfume. Now does it seem so unlikely that they'd put a little extra perfume concentrate into those tester bottles?

"Spoilage is a non-issue. Perfume has two enemies: heat and light. I have twenty year-old bottles that smell identical to the way they were the day I bought them."

Aside from being something a fragrance chemist (with gainful employment) would never say, these statements are absurd because they contradict each other. If spoilage is a non-issue, perfume would have no enemies. Nothing would endanger it. So which is it? Is perfume immune to the elements? Or does heat and light spoil at least some of it? And if you have a memory that can call up with perfect accuracy how a twenty year-old perfume smelled when brand new, why aren't you, or any other fragrance chemist, able to reformulate such things with equally flawless accuracy?

It strikes me as interesting that anyone in the chemistry field would bemoan IFRA regulations when their perfect olfactory memory would simply, by virtue of extensive training in the field, work around the issue. These folks work with their noses, right? Vintage enthusiasts love to act like they "remember" how things from decades ago smelled. But it doesn't occur to them that if such incredible memories exist, at least two-thirds of the reformulations out there would be dead on.

"It's become costlier to reproduce vintage fragrances in the post-IFRA era because synthetics are more expensive than natural materials."

This claim upends the common vintage enthusiasts' claims that the current formulas for classics are "cheap." But it actually doesn't make any sense. If naturals are cheaper, why not cut costs by predominantly using them? Why cut into your profit margin by using mostly "expensive" synthetics? IFRA regs would bite the dust, because the billion-dollar behemoths like Lauder and Chanel would throw all their money behind dismantling the IFRA and going about business as usual.

Clearly synthetics are more profitable to use, and generally cheaper than naturals. You can buy ounces of many synthetics on the internet for the price of a sandwich. Try finding price parity for naturals, like rose and sandalwood EOs, and let me know if they're cheaper than their synthetic counterparts.