Conundrum: Is Perfumery An Art?

Mark Rothko. Jackson Pollock. Robert Motherwell. Pierre Bourdon?

I've been reading a lot of airy banter on how aspiring perfumistas should quit trying to foist uninformed opinions on others and heed the extensive expertise of "senior" fragrance aficionados, those who know far more than "newbies" could ever deign to. The supposition here is that there is a sphere of knowledge within which fragrance-loving entities circulate, with the ignorant wooshing around the outer rim, and the enlightened hugging the nucleus of . . . what? A philosophical embrace of the metaphysical? An intellectual framework from which creative impulse is drawn? The perfume equivalent of Tachisme?

This sort of attitude presupposes that perfumery is something one can be an "expert" in. Naturally expertise applies to perfumery, as it takes an expert of sorts to create a fragrance, and another expert to market it. But I ask you, as a casual appreciator of all things fragrance, can someone removed from the profession of perfumery ever truly be an expert in perfume? If so, to what can we compare this lofty status? Or, to put it more concisely, what is the standard for being a "senior" fragrance connoisseur?

There are several avenues to explore, so let's see if we reach a satisfactory answer at the end of one of them.

To be an expert in perfume, but not directly involved in professional perfume-making, one should be compared to an expert in fine art, someone like an art historian. Such historians study not just the images produced by artists, but the philosophical engines of thought that drive artistic movements throughout periods of human history. 

Art historians are usually not artists themselves, but their understanding of art transcends the act of art making because they analyze, contextualize, and understand the fundamental process behind a finished artwork. To an art expert, a Pollock is not just a painting; a drip canvas holds the invisible tension of visible poles, acts as a beacon for automatism, relies on primitive imagery to supply a modern take on the limitations of humanity, and the fatalistic hand of the divine, without representational trappings. 

The hoi polloi of gallery-goers sees it and says, "I could do that." This distances them from actually being capable of painting like Pollock, simply because they cannot emulate what they don't understand. They lack the understanding, and are that much further removed from having any expertise on the subject. 

Conversely, a person who studies primitive images, and has conscious theological considerations of himself as he relates to the universe, is much closer to grasping the fundamentals necessary for recreating something like a Pollock painting. An understanding of the Big Ideas that fueled Pollock's creativity can help immensely in replicating his visual language on a layman's scale.

Can this apply to perfume connoisseurs? Let's take Pierre Bourdon's famous skankfest, Kouros. First, a basic understanding of what Kouros is: a musky fougère with a noticeable (and intentional) tension between its bracingly clean citrus and floral heart, and its dirtier, civet-laden underpinnings. Smelling Kouros is an exercise in free association - one generally thinks of air fresheners, toilet pucks, urine, raw incense, and mentholated clove. From there, the imagery can be further contextualized. 

I've often read that Kouros is evocative of a sex-tussled bed, or a shower-steamed locker room. For me, it invites memories of sun-baked avenues in an Italian village. It's amazing how easy it is to extract personal associations from Kouros. It's also interesting how easy it is to agree with the millions who think Kouros smells "dirty." Kouros is at once a very literal and subjective experience.

At first glance, one could say that one's Kouros experience correlates with one's Pollock experience. There is the sensory comprehension necessary to fully appreciate what one is experiencing (Kouros' olfactory structure/Pollock's drips and color choices), combined with more tangentially subjective musings about how the experience relates to one's own life. 

There are the less-informed who view a Pollock and cluck their tongues, thinking it is simplistic crap, and the more-informed who are transported to the Depression era and consider the raw and unprecedented randomness of an avant-garde style. There are the less-informed who smell Kouros, wrinkle their noses, and proclaim "this smells like piss," and the more-informed who sigh in rapture as their imaginations are flooded with all sorts of good things. Those who thoroughly understand Pollock's genius can still hate his work, while those who suddenly made the leap from a steady diet of comic books to the elevated abstraction of drip paintings can be endlessly inspired. 

Likewise, those who understand what Bourdon has achieved can still suffer bouts of Kouros-induced nausea, while those who know nothing about it can love it unconditionally. The same response mechanisms apply. But there is one key difference between the intellectualism of Pollock's work, and the intellectualism of Bourdon's - that of artistic motivation. Motivation, as they say, makes the man. So the question now becomes, is Pollock's creative drive comparable to Bourdon's? Are these men operating on the same hemisphere of thought? And does it even matter?

To answer this, we must look carefully at the cultural context in which the respective creations of these men have been placed. Jackson Pollock's work fits neatly into the academic world of Abstract Expressionism, a higher plane of modern painting and sculpture that spanned a generation and brought us thousands of masterpieces. His work is art, and is defined as such.

Bourdon' work, on the other hand, is a product, and is essentially a chemical construction. However, his role is multifaceted, and doesn't abruptly stop at these definitions. In creating Kouros and many other perfumes, Bourdon has done two things, (1) fulfilled an assigned brief, and (2) tapped into a current fashion trend. His work, while often culturally significant, is not recognized as being artistically significant by scholars, or the masses. It is recognized as being fashionably significant. 

Kouros helped to illuminate a revival in the late 1970s and early 1980s of sweet musks for men, which were the mode for adult males during the 1950s. Bourdon then helped redefine this trend toward fresh (read: less musky) fougères with his biggest and furthest-reaching commercial achievement, Cool Water.

A realization is made - the work of these men inhabits two entirely different worlds.

In investigating his body of work, it becomes clear that Bourdon, like all perfumers, has never achieved an intellectual, emotional, or theological expression through scent. He has achieved accords that are reminiscent of theological environments - the incense in Kouros, for example. I have heard people comment that Cool Water smells like Holy Water, which is a strange consideration, but could have something to it. However, these are subjective projections based on free association. There is no philosophical anchor to which an intellectual can chain these associations, and therefore not enough material with which to flesh out Bourdon's personal motivations in creating his scents. 

Furthermore, there is a conflict of interest in Bourdon's creative process that never existed in Pollock's - the perfumer's brief. Pollock was largely self-motivated, with guidance from Clement Greenberg and other colleagues. Bourdon, however, is motivated to fulfill a brief, with restrictions on expression, and the materials for expression, as dictated by a business entity. Bourdon's process is the gestation of personal skill and public mission; Pollock's was the release of inner mental, physical, and spiritual tension. One is flat; one is multidimensional in scope.

Thematically, Pollock deals with Big Ideas, which are necessary for great art. Life, death, god, the abyss, the electrical tension of existing in an organized void, all are manifest in his work. These themes are stated. Pollock himself describes the act of integrating with his art, of standing within it, searching for subconscious answers to conscious questions. Bourdon's themes are primal (anything dealing with the olfactory sense is primal), sometimes primitive, but do not transcend the sphere of fashion. It is, unfortunately, a mode of expression that is not stated. The intent is vague at worst, and commercially astute at best. This doesn't mean that his work cannot hold greater subjective meaning, but the objective truths are simply not there. Intellectually speaking, there is a lack of intent. 

One can wonder if such intent is even possible when appealing to the most primitive of the five senses, but this is a subject better left to biologists. However, it is clear that Bourdon is not operating within the same hemisphere of thought at Jackson Pollock. It's also clear that it doesn't matter - his work is far enough removed from Pollock's, and no comparison is truly apt.

Now that we've established the difference between perfumery and art, the question remains: can a perfume connoisseur ever be a senior "expert" in perfumery? The answer is built into our discoveries regarding the Great Divide - if understanding the intellectual motivation behind art is necessary to make one an art expert, then one must understand something more than the intellectual motivation behind perfume in order to be a perfume expert, for there is little to no intellectual motivation behind perfume. The motivation behind perfume is invariably linked to fulfilling a request, usually commercial in nature, and is therefore not enough to flesh out one's expertise.

In order to become a perfume expert, one must possess something more than a fundamental knowledge of what drives the creation of perfume. In order to be a perfume expert, one must possess a fundamental and first-hand knowledge of the perfume-making process itself. This is in stark contrast to the expertise of an art aficionado; the Pollock expert doesn't need to be skilled in drip painting to claim intellectual territory, but does need a thorough understanding of how Pollock influences the larger modern and postmodern cultural aesthetic. This understanding makes one well-versed in the before, during, and after effects of Pollock's creative process, and it is this arch that enlightens us.

The perfume expert, however, cannot draw from a before, during, and after process because the motivational impetus behind his work originates with other people, for reasons that are usually non-creative. To have expertise, or any kind of "seniority" of knowledge, this expert must have a hand in chemistry, and be capable of accomplishing the chemical constructions of more established perfumers. Anything short of this is simply perfume enthusiasm. And there is nothing separating one perfume enthusiast from another, except perhaps patience, money, and access to a broader range of scents. 

One enthusiast may be limited to drugstore scents like Aqua Velva, Brut, and Old Spice, while another may collect a wide range of perfumes by Lutens, Creed, Montale, and Amouage. One may have the predilection to explore the extensive backstories behind famous perfumes, while the other may be content to settle for marketing blurbs. The two are basically the same person, with Woody Allen's equation of comedy equalizing them (comedy = tragedy + distance). It is tragic that one is financially limited and could have a much broader range of olfactory experiences, if only he had more money. It is remote aloofness that allows the wealthy to revel in the exotic expressions of various niche houses unhindered. It's funny that both are, in the end, situated in the exact same place, often without ever realizing it.

So there you have it. Perfumery is not an art after all. I can't tell you what to do, but I recommend that you challenge anyone who suggests it is. And the next time someone tries to intimidate you with their "expertise" in perfumery, remind them that we all have the same primitive olfactory epicenter in our brains, but not all of us have the ability to create the things that tap into them. Those that do are the real "experts." The rest of us are just enthusiastic admirers from afar.


Obsession (Calvin Klein)

One has to wonder if Obsession would have been nearly as popular without Kate Moss as its spokesmodel. Moss was a force unto herself in the 1990s, a woman whose face was as ubiquitous as it was beautiful. I recall spending a number of my teenage years imagining her as a water nymph, merely masquerading as a human. There's something discarnate about her, and I'm not referring to her extreme thinness. It wouldn't surprise me if photographers needed a special lens to photograph her.

A magic glass of sorts is also required for deciphering Calvin Klein's famous unisex oriental. It's hard to make sense of it; Obsession is a very dense and complicated fragrance. People describe it as "hot," "spicy," "vanilla," generally strong, and somewhat retro. It's a big '80s perfume, full of the bombastic energy of that time period. It has been reformulated into something significantly less than its former self, but it still smells pretty good. Subtle notes of peach and bergamot exit the atomizer first, followed by cinnamon, clove, benzoin, and vanilla. 

Eventually the white flowers show up - plenty of orange blossom and jasmine. An earthier base of patchouli, oakmoss, and sandalwood asserts itself, but here the scent becomes a bit flat. I'm reminded of Creed's Baie de Genievre in that Obsession's drydown, like the Creed's, resembles the smell of clean hospital bandages. Side-by-side sniff comparisons of Obsession and the original formulation of Obsession for Men (sadly I do not have the original formulation of the feminine Obsession) reveal the latter has superior citrus and spices and a deeper clove note.

Obsession has limited longevity and a compromised structure, but it's still the best offering from Calvin Klein. I don't use it myself because the far drydown reminds me of, believe it or not, Passion for Men by Liz Taylor. The two are so similar that I'm inclined to pass on a whole bottle of this formulation and just wear Passion - it's half the price and just as good. Then again, Obsession for Men is far better than both of them, and smells cleaner due to its soapy clove note. With me, soapiness always wins the day.


Weird Reformulations - Grey Flannel & Kouros

Today I bought back-up bottles of my two favorites, Grey Flannel and Kouros. I was running low on both, and decided it was worth it to purchase follow-ups.

I went to Marshalls for Grey Flannel, as I've seen it there countless times and figured they'd have at least one bottle available. Sure enough, they just restocked a bunch of 4 ounce bottles, the ones that come in the box that says "eau de toilette spray vaporisateur." I grabbed one and went on my merry way.

When I opened it a few minutes later, I was confused. Immediately, something didn't look right. Naturally I hadn't brought my current bottle with me to compare, but I could tell that the new juice was a totally different color - in fact, it was clear. My older bottle is of the same color glass, but holds a slightly greenish fluid, which darkens the bottle when it's full. With some trepidation, I gave the new bottle a spritz on the back of my hand.

Wow, what a massive anise note, mixed with naked alcohol. Gradually the oakmoss steps in and balances the anise a bit, but where are all the dense violets and that cool violet leaf that I love so much?

Thirty minutes later, the drydown introduces the violet leaf, with a hit of metallic sweetness to it. At this stage I recognize the scent a lot better than I did initially.

So I went home and compared. I was right, the older bottle has a darker perfume in it, and the label is different, too. Instead of announcing that it has an atomizer, the older bottle simply says "eau de toilette." Aside from the coloring and label differences, the two bottles are identical.

I did a sniff test next. There was a lump in my throat because I expected the new to smell inferior to the old, and blatantly different. First I applied them to paper, and shockingly, they smelled identical. Both had a strong anise note! Why hadn't I noticed this before?

Then came the skin test. This was a little more revealing, although not as much as I had thought. I put the current stuff on my left hand, and the new stuff on my right. Both had an anisic, alcoholic opening. Again, very surprising. However, as they dried, I notice the juice on my left is slightly, almost imperceptibly deeper in its mossy tonality than the new juice. The new stuff is the same, but the violet note - not the violet leaf - has been shaved just a hair. The anise note in the new juice is definitely clearer, sharper than the old. These are the only differences I can see, and are negligible at best.

I took the new purchase to Villa Fleur, a brick and mortar shop in Hamden on Dixwell Avenue. I know the guy there because I've purchased from him several times, and figured he could help me make heads or tails out of this situation. I know, this is what I do with my Saturday off.

He took one look at the box from Marshalls and said, "Oh, that's really old. I haven't seen a box like that for Grey Flannel in many years."

I begged to differ. "I've been seeing these boxes all over the place, and this one is made by EA Fragrances, so it can't be that old."

"EA has been making Grey Flannel for a long time," he replied. "No, this is old. Usually you only see the flannel sack, or a box for smaller bottles."

"What about the color?" I showed him the clear juice in front of a light.

"Old stock," he said. "These things sit in warehouses, and they get auctioned at ten cents to the dollar to places like Marshalls and T.J. Maxx."

Again, I begged to differ. Why had I decided to ask this guy? He's the same person who tried to sell me a bottle of Green Frich Tweed, assured me that he bought his Creed stock from Creed itself, and explained that they spelled the fragrance with the "Frich" only for Christmas time.

"Well," I said, humoring him, "I guess that must be it." Damned if I've ever heard of perfume becoming paler with age. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't the opposite usually happen, particularly with these older, mossier woody scents that contain oakmoss?

Fortunately, both the older bottle and the newer bottle have labels that list the exact same ingredients, in the exact same order. So according to the two packages, the formula is the same. Still, I can't help but feel that the "anise alcohol" listed for Grey Flannel is far more prominent in the new bottle. My only guess as to why this would be is that there has been a slight modification to the dying of the juice, and the boxed bottle features a dreaded "batch variation." I thought batch variations only existed in the world of Creed.

And then there's Kouros.

While at Villa Fleur, I decided to grab a 3.3 ouncer of Kouros. Villa Fleur's prices are usually exorbitant, but the pricing on Kouros was more than fair. The box looked legitimate (I'm sometimes uncomfortable buying more popular scents from this vendor after my encounter with the counterfeit Creed), and summer approaches, so no time to waste.

When I got home, I opened the box, and this time there was no doubt about it - the bottle had changed. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I've included one here showing my current Kouros on the left, and the new bottle on the right:

For cost-cutting reasons they removed the metal trim from the bottle (but inexplicably, not from the atomizer), and for aesthetic reasons changed the font from a blueish grey to an exact grey. The Kouros font is also a little thinner on the new bottle.

How does the juice smell? My current bottle has a gorgeous musky citrus opening, with a massive wallop of civet. The new bottle has a very nice but noticeably muted citrus opening, with a little less musk and a lot less civet. Both ingredients are still present, but dialed back a notch or two. The movements into the middle and far drydowns of both scents are identical.

Another reformulation that has the packaging slightly different, and the juice a tiny bit different as well. There's no one to ask about this, but with Kouros, the density of the scent makes differences totally unnoticeable to anyone other than a freak like me. Still, it's worrisome, because you never know what you're in for when you purchase what should be a familiar product.

Why, I ask? Why?


Tea Rose (The Perfumer's Workshop)

I don't know how they did it, and it doesn't really matter - The Perfumer's Workshop created a deceptively complex soliflore on a budget, and found a way to make it accessible to the public for an absurdly reasonable price. My hesitation prior to trying Tea Rose was caused by the reputation of cheap soliflores for being stuffy, grandmotherly, dull. To say that I missed the mark in my prefiguring of Tea Rose is an understatement. I missed the continent on this one. The scent is crystalline, natural, sweet, and unforgettable.

The budget does present itself a little in the far drydown, but it's nothing to lose sleep over. An unwanted rubbery edge to the crispness, something outside of the soliflore realm that reeks of "supporting note," as though the chemical that makes the star notes dance and sing is vying for an unscripted number of its own. Ultimately, Tea Rose succeeds on every level as a pleasantly green rose scent, something either a man or woman can wear to enhance their charisma in a variety of circumstances. 

You don't have to be on the red carpet with this one. It's fine for daytime dates, dinner dates, Sunday brunch with the fam, or just slumming at the park. I wouldn't wear it to work, unless you're a florist, as the sillage here is tremendous, and you're looking at around ten hours for longevity. But hey, if you're tired of the same-old, same-old, maybe this could get you through a draggy casual Friday.

A parting thought - if this scent were available in the 18th and 19th centuries, it would now cost $100 an ounce, as it would certainly have been worn by royalty.


Rose Absolue (Annick Goutal)

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of rose perfume out there: those that employ the relatively-new "headspace" technology, and those that render the flower the old-fashioned way by using absolutes. Rose Absolue is of the second method, and stands as one of the finest in the genre. I prefer this type of rose scent over the headspace stuff because the experience of inhaling rose fumes from several inches away for a sustained length of time usually leads to a headache. 

Its dense and somewhat rubbery oil of rose possesses none of the heady green loudness of modern perfumes. The redness is turned a deep purple. The smell is that of raw rose, mixed with ground stems, soil, and burnt mulch. The sweet verdancy of a young rose is nowhere to be found. Rose Absolue conjures the feeling of deep roses, old, ripe roses. 

The intensity of the absolute is such that granny perfume is replaced with oily, Arabian-like woods and spices. This is man juice in disguise. Rose Absolue is truly unisex, beautifully made, and worth the price of admission. Wear it confidently during any time of the year, and enjoy the delicious warmth and depth of its composition.

Spice and Wood (Creed)

Much of the recent Creed buzz has been about their latest Millésime, Aventus. My review for this scent is upcoming, but I would like to address an internet meme which claims that Aventus is a stark departure from Creed's house style. Nothing could be further from the truth. Aventus is a sensible stop along the Creed line, as it follows another EDP of less repute: Spice and Wood.

There's a big difference in popularity between Aventus and S&W, and I figure price is the main reason. Technically, 8.4 ounces of Spice and Wood is cheaper by the ounce than the 4 ounce flask of Aventus, but Creed has made S&W part of their "Royal Exclusive" line, which is simply a series of scents that are only offered in one massive size. The pricing over at Creed is pretty hard to figure out, but maybe some industry insider somewhere understands what they're doing. I'll never understand why anyone would buy Creed's 2.5 oz bottles when you can get an extra 1.5 ounces for just $45 more. Maybe traveler's preferences have something to do with it.

S&W is the one Creed fragrance that irritates me to no end. It's something I definitely liked enough to purchase, but can't see having 8.4 ounces of. Nor can I justify coughing up $575 dollars for a fragrance. This annoys me because there aren't many must-have Creeds out there, and if it were part of the regular Millésime line, S&W would be a must-have. If I ever sell that $10,000 painting I did back in college, a bottle of S&W will be my celebration scent. Popular Science Magazine recently wrote to assure me that the statistical probability between pigs sprouting wings and my selling the painting favored the pigs by a relatively small margin. So there's hope.

Meanwhile, I'll settle for remembering how this perfume smells. Subtle opening notes of citrus, birch, and red apple give way to a rich melange of cedar and angelica root, which eventually crescendos into a sweetly-spiced drydown. The spices are mated to the usual ambergris, and I find the base quite potent. S&W is a delicate fragrance, yet hugely masculine due to the bitter pairing of apple and birch. 

It isn't unreasonable to suggest that the scent hosts the most realistic birchwood note in modern perfumery; the first ten minutes of sniffing this scent yields a startling array of incredibly realistic elements. I find the spices in the drydown to be a little sweet for my liking, but still amenable enough to my tastes. There's a nice use of oakmoss here as well, something one doesn't find very often in a Creed, except for Aventus.

If you have the money to spare and are looking for the perfect autumnal perfume, this could be your juice. One day I'll get down to the Creed Boutique and give it another whirl. Who knows, maybe Luis can talk me into something foolish.

Jade East (Regency Cosmetics)

Like many other American men, I'm a big fan of powdery barbershop scents. They remind me of being a young lad, all spiffed up and ready for some family function. That fresh out of the barber's chair kind of feeling is really catnip for us guys. Hard to explain it, really. I get the feeling that the sentiment isn't largely shared by women. Hard to explain that, too.

Pinaud's famous Clubman aftershave lotion, which doubles quite effectively as an eau de toilette, is probably the best example of the utilitarian barbershop scent. If one were to go to the opposite end of the price-point spectrum for powdery barbershop, Habit Rouge is the upscale equivalent. Oddly enough I find Clubman to be quite wearable, while Habit Rouge doesn't really mesh. But I understand its appeal.

Floating in the endless universe of masculine grooming products between Clubman and Habit Rouge is Jade East, a pleasant fougère with some oriental leanings, not the least of which is its name. This fragrance has been through the reformulation mill, which is unsurprising for a 48 year-old scent. Its current incarnation is competent, but a bit worn out. Jade East opens with a synthetic blast of sweet lemon and orange zest, and very rapidly dries into a spicy powder with hints of wood. The drydown is dull but very smooth, and I suppose one could liken it to Old Spice, although it has a more citric feel throughout its development. Everything is sweet, powdery, spicy, and warm with Jade East, the way men wanted to smell back in the '50s and '60s.

Would I wear it today? My thought is, why bother? It's nice enough, but does nothing that the cheaper Clubman can't do. And Habit Rouge would be the more sensible eau de toilette for retro powder power. I guess Jade East's continued availability can be chalked up to '60s nostalgia, with a whole generation of old guys remembering their childhoods when they put it on. And you know something? I can relate.


Allure Homme & Edition Blanche (Chanel)

I met Doctor Edward Bourke in 1996, my high school freshman year. He was my French teacher, a former superintendent of schools in New York, serving out his millionaire-bachelor retirement in the classroom. His style was impeccable, all Savile Row suited and Rolex watched. The first thing I ever saw him do was explode at a fellow classmate, Jeremy M____. Good 'ol Jeremy was a buddy of mine, a bona fide troublemaker, the sort of guy who drank Bud Lite on his dad's boat, which was forever hitched to a station wagon in his dad's driveway. I vaguely recall Jeremy making a crack about one of the girls, and suddenly getting crushed by Bourke's thunderous entrance.

"Hey! You!" Bourke said.

Jeremy raised an eyebrow and looked over his shoulder. "Who? Me?"

"That's right. You. Shut up and listen to me."

"You just tell me to shut up?"

"And listen to me." Bourke's voice was suddenly quiet. He went to the podium at the front of the classroom and shuffled his papers around and looked up at us with a scowl that would put Clint Eastwood to shame. "If you think the usual fun and games is going to happen in my classroom," he hissed, "then you're all in for a big surprise."

Six months later, Jeremy, Dr. Bourke, myself, and a handful of French 101 survivors were joking about the French, exchanging stories about the various cars we'd driven (the Good Doctor was a car fanatic and regularly traded his leases for sexy 8 and 12 cylinder toys), and probing our main man about his style and personal tastes. The veneer of toughness, the meanness and academic aggression had been peeled away to reveal a funny and lighthearted guy who was all bark and no bite.

Oh, and he wore Allure Homme by Chanel. He broke that out during my senior year, which was when it was released. When I discovered that it was his new favorite, it became the only fragrance that I wore in the decade to come. I also abstained from wearing blue jeans for ten straight years, as the Good Doctor hated them and always chided anyone who wore them. Yes, his influence was that potent and far reaching.

Recently I had a chance to try one of Allure's flankers, Edition Blanche. The juice was on my skin for twenty minutes when I realized there was no way in hell Doctor Bourke (now well into his 80s and still teaching French at my Alma Mater) would ever wear such an abomination. Its odd pairing of synthetic pink pepper and lemon was a listless olfactory experience and didn't hold a candle to the warmth of its timeless progenitor.

Never, ever, mess with a classic. And some things, like some people, are simply classic.


Opium (Yves Saint Laurent)

For the ultimate oriental, look no further than Opium. Sniffing it today, it's utterly plausible to suppose that this was what Marlene Dietrich's Magdalen wore while kissing smoke across velvet-curtained train cars in the movie Shanghai Express. Decadent myrrh, nutmeg, opoponax, and amber fill the composition to a bursting point, saved only by its deliberate exoticism and natural volume. 

It would make a fine masculine these days, although only if applied very lightly and in social settings. If I were to be totally frank, I'd consult younger men to explore other orientals before Opium. Old Spice is a much safer alternative, and there's no shame in wearing it, although you risk coming across as a bit of a bore, which isn't an issue with YSL. I must admit, however, that the prospect of meeting an Opium-wearing woman fills me with desire, followed by a little fear, followed by desire again and again. 

I'm pleasantly surprised to see Emily Blunt as the new face of Opium. I had heard that she had been drafted for this role, and the end result is good stuff. Orientals like Opium need a strong, sexy, intelligent face to promote them, because only strong, sexy, intelligent people can pull them off.

Opium is strange in that it does different things on different people. A few of my grade school teachers wore it, and they always smelled like cinnamon sticks. A younger woman might be more successful in animating the delicate sweetness of its opoponax and myrrh, while also grounding some of those piercing red spices. 

If I were to wear Opium it would undoubtedly develop into makeup powder, as many '80s orientals seem to do with me. Emily Blunt . . . well, I can see it smelling like heaven on her. Then again, I'm fairly certain Ms. Blunt could wear the detestable Jovan Woman and still smell like a multimillion dollar western European movie star. As could Marlene Dietrich, so she's in royal company.

Ignoring its flankers, I have to wonder if the original perfume is still relevant to the fashion sensibilities of today. My theory is that this fragrance is iconic enough, and modern enough, to continue influencing feminine styles for years to come. Long live the '80s, long live bombastic spicy '80s orientals, and long live Opium. May it continue making subway commuters sneeze and shift managers furrow their brows well into the dark heart of the 21st century.

Alien (Thierry Mugler)

Mugler's perfumes share the distinction of being the rare kind that one can enjoy without even trying - all you need to do is look at the bottles! Whoever is on the Mugler design team can be applauded for having very, ahem, unique visual sensibilities. It's impossible to walk past a Mugler counter and not pause to marvel at the array of unorthodox shapes. 

For some reason Alien stands apart, eclipsing even the bizarrely compressed polyhedron star of Angel. Its upright flask is a cross between a remote control and a Dung Beetle, and seems to challenge every conceivable assumption one might make about the juice housed within. The only assumption safe to make is that confusion, intimidation, and sheer awe were the intended reactions here.

I wish I could give the fragrance a score that corresponds with my appreciation of its container, but alas, it cannot be. First to hit my skin is a rocket booster of highly synthetic (and oddly sour) jasmine mixed with violet-like sweet notes. The concoction seems to be a dense blend of patented ionones (Dihydro Ionone Beta? Jasmatone?), aldehydes, and detergent musks that have endured several passes with a K2 meter.

After an hour of head-splitting blare, the ensemble settles into a milder and woodier base, with the floral sweetness still shouting from the sidelines. My immediate impression of this evolution is that it is the perfect accessory for someone who uses his or her naked body for money, which covers everyone from strippers and prostitutes to art school models for Life Drawing 101. This is sexual but heady, something that asserts a level of authority over the natural world. It's Red Door for the 21st century.

It's not for me, that's for sure. Ten minutes of uninvited wear on my skin would be enough to send me screaming for the hills. Alien's appeal to young women wishing to push the social envelope is evident, and I can recommend it to anyone who is tired of the same-old, same-old. I'll stick with more human fare, thank you very much.


Cabotine (Parfums Grès)

I'll keep this short and sweet, as I'm reserving a fuller review of this sort of scent for that which Cabotine copied - Creed's Fantasia de Fleurs. My belief is that Creed does green florals better than anyone. Still, this once-expensive French designer perfume is a real beauty, and in my opinion is deserving of a comeback. I gave Country Chic, Alien, and CK Shock for Her second (and third) tries the other day, but Cabotine was the first thing I tried, and remains the only scent that I genuinely liked. 

Call me a contrarian, but this does not deserve the label "nasty floral." It doesn't deserve accolades either, but almost nothing does. Cabotine's fresh ginger and hyacinth opening is made a bit odd by extra-fatty aldehydes, which seem to illuminate and aerate its denser floral drydown. The initial burst of Chinese-style ginger is particularly bright and clean. Hints of hyacinth keep things fresh as ylang-ylang, jasmine, rose, and lily notes emerge and intensify, resulting in a pretty floral that is mercifully light on Calone.

There are stages in Cabotine where the scent veers away from fine fragrance and into room-freshener territory, but this is a $16 perfume, after all. What saves it for me is its sheer ginger, jasmine, and rose notes, which seem to presage the aquatic jasmine in Calice Becker's Tommy Girl. Cabotine is quite nice, and I see a bottle in my future. Speaking of which - I really love the bottle. Yeah, it's a touch feminine and has a crazy green plastic cap, but when I pretend the cap is glass it strikes me as being a uniquely modern design. Eh, what can I say? I'm a weirdo.

Lapidus Pour Homme (Ted Lapidus)

Budget fragrances of 2011 were generally crumby. You've got your CK flankers, your sugar-shock Justin Bieber celeb nothings, your Ed Hardy disasters, your latest Curves in the road, all synthetic-smelling, aquatic, chemical florals and musks. We can't do cheapies with any dignity these days. Sniffing through all the fake fruit-laden contemporary crap last summer had me thinking about trying Creed's Aventus, just so I could smell a fruit note (namely pineapple) that doesn't remind me of a Yankee Candle. Following that train of thought, I remembered a much older scent that utilizes pineapple without the exorbitant price tag. And I got a little nostalgic. Surprise, surprise.

Lapidus opens with a smooth burst of sugary pineapple and not much else. It's an opening I've never encountered before, and what surprises me isn't the choice of fruit, but how realistic it smells. It doesn't have a chemical opacity to it. It feels like I opened a can of Mott's pineapple juice and splashed it on my chest. This pineapple is transparent, light, and sweet - but still quite strong. It settles on skin with hints of lemon and orange, and seems to recede for a few minutes before allowing the heart notes to open up. 

Once the top subsides, the honey, backed by a not-so-subtle incense and rose, emerges with startling clarity. The honey gradually loses balance, almost becoming noxious in its intensity, but that issue passes within a few hours. My bottle was older, and the honey note may have degraded. The pineapple never actually disappears, but lurks in the periphery to compliment these darker elements. Gradually the rose becomes stronger and is edged by a spiced jasmine, and Lapidus gets in touch with its floral side. Note separation is effortless here; for a downmarket offering, this fragrance never lets me forget that it's Parisian, a solid piece of French perfumery. I get each note with ease, and the scent as a whole maintains a congruence and beauty that are hard to find in many pricier perfumes.

After a few hours Lapidus brightens - the hints of clove, the darkness of the honey, and the dankness of the rose become airier and a bit soapy. The sweetness, initially introduced by pineapple and followed by a gargantuan honey element, becomes less realistic and somewhat chemical at this stage. Still, it smells good, and I've definitely gotten the most bang for my buck. To anyone who believes that price is directly correlative to quality, let Lapidus stand as a conscientious objector - it is brilliantly conceived and executed, utterly wearable, and a fine example of how to wear pineapple without wearing your bank account down to its nubble.