Soapiness is a fragrance quality not often desired these days. Darkly-woody oud orientals, and blaringly sweet 'n feminine gourmands are the latest trends. Those essential oil bars of the '70s and '80s are largely relegated to the consignment bins of history's fashion graveyard. Still, some have survived. If you were to ask me what my favorite surviving soapy fragrance is, I'd say that I have two: Grey Flannel, and Sung Homme.
Grey Flannel was a given the moment I first smelled it; Sung Homme had to earn my love. A few years ago, I picked up a small bottle of Z-14, and another small bottle of Sung Homme, and did something obviously foolish - tried them both at the same time. The result was that I could tell what Z-14 smelled like, and couldn't tell what Sung Homme smelled like, except it smelled really, really bad. Because my sniffer was having no problem with the Z, I figured the same for the Sung, but it wasn't so. The intense leathery-cinnamon Mack truck of Z-14 ran right over the more subtle and nuanced Sung, allowing me to discern bare facets of what should have been a complex olfactory impression. I mistakenly thought that I hated both scents, and got rid of them as quickly as possible.
Fast forward a few summers, and I suddenly found myself curious about Sung Homme again. It occurred to me that I probably didn't have the whole picture, especially since I'd given Z-14 much more of a chance (it was the first scent I tried that day). Also, I'd been reading about it. People were fairly consistent in their evaluation of Sung - it was widely compared to Irish Spring bar soap, especially the original 1970s formula. It was also described as being very synthetic, a "powerhouse", and of a world that, since the years immediately following its heyday, has long been abandoned.
When it arrived in the mail, I unwrapped the bottle and gave it a spritz. This time there was nothing interfering with my nose. Lo and behold, there was the scent of Irish Spring bar soap, emanating peacefully from my wrist. Better still, it was the original Irish Spring, not the current formula, which is a little too dry and stark for me. The original soap had a creamier, spicier, and more complex scent. It was also a tiny bit sweet, which contrasted nicely with its green effect. Colgate has re-released the original soap in body wash form, but I'm not convinced it does it justice. The original bar was just . . . better. I don't know if Alfred Sung intended for his first masculine fragrance to smell like Irish Spring, or if it was just a coincidence. In the extremely unlikely event that our paths ever cross, I'll mention it to him. My guess is, he'd roll his eyes and give me an I've heard that a million times already look.
Anyhow, I digress - from that soapy, synthetically-green opening unfurled a dense array of spices and aromatics. Sage, thyme, fir, black pepper, and juniper berry are combined into a smooth, but forceful scent sheen, one that reads as a synthetic construct of representational notes, blended into an abstract soap effect. It was like I'd just showered, there in the middle of a hot August day. The brisk afterglow of my soap still lingered in the air around me, cool and thick, like a cloud. I smelled like a lye-based product, but not really clean. Something here made me happy.
As the fragrance dried further, the bittersweet density of the heartnotes began to give way for a pleasant blur of fake pepper, pine, patchouli, and oakmoss. Actually, the pine doesn't smell all that synthetic at this stage. It was linear for another couple of hours before it faded away. The verdict: Sung Homme is very good. Unusual, yes. Synthetic, yes, yes. But crap? No way. Yeah, it's about as soapy as a scent can get, and it reminds me of a Christmas candle with those massive fir and juniper components. But this is cool juice, a bright-purple '80s masculine chypre in one of Pierre Dinand's gorgeous Art Deco-inspired skyscraper bottles. Its bright demeanor isn't hard to like, especially if you're a fan of Irish Spring.
I really wish they still made bold chypres like Sung Homme. But then again, if we were awash in a fashion-scape where chypres are the trend, Sung might be considered too synthetic to be a real contender. It isn't something I reach for all that often, but when I do, Sung makes me consider the possibilities of masculine perfumery, and that's more than I can say for most things.