Halston Z-14, Revisited

Although I did not eviscerate it in my original review, I made it pretty clear that Halston's signature masculine wasn't for me. I blamed cinnamon, and remarked on how this particular "oriental chypre" did not jive with my cinnamon sensitivities. It struck me as being peculiarly dated, very much a seventies lounge-lizard cologne. I must say, my bottle must have either been: (a) a bad batch, completely possible given the threads online with guys complaining about a fuzzy cinnamon element that cloys, or (b) simply a corked bottle that was off before I ever opened it. The Marshalls in my neighborhood is guilty of selling soured colognes, and Z-14 wouldn't be the first I've purchased. I recall buying Azzaro Pour Homme once, and wondering when the hell they put civet in there.

I saw a cologne/aftershave set of Z-14 on clearance in Walgreens today, and figured for nine bucks, what the heck. It's almost a new year, perhaps it's a good time to give Z a second chance. I'm glad I grabbed it, because what currently wafts from my wrist is very nice. Let's not beat around the bush here - there's a cinnamon note in this fragrance that, however subtly integrated, just doesn't work for me. I could do without it. But for whatever reason it's not screaming up at me, and I'm getting far more mossy, citrusy woods instead. In fact, the entire fragrance seems to be a poetic take on lemon.

There's nothing better than a good spicy-woody citrus fragrance. Citrus is common in perfume, and there are two roads, the one traveled, and the one less taken. The first is Juicy-Froot; the second, dry woods. Grey Flannel exemplifies the greatness of the latter approach by husking lemon into a super-dry, intensely bitter note that nearly collapses in on itself. Z-14, from the exact same era, aims just as high, marrying that dryness to tree moss, labdanum, cedar, and pine. It stays bitter and aromatic, never quite leafing up like its counterpart 1-12, and maintains a masculine balance for three or four hours, before fading quietly away. It's not a masterpiece, it's not going to weaken female knees, but it's really good, and smells classy. Try it if you don't mind sacrificing current trends for a forgotten, well-made chypre, one needing nothing but its oakmoss back.


Vanilla Fields (Coty)

The cold chill of dry winter air is finally setting in, and it looks like we southern New Englanders have a finicky season ahead of us, full of unpredictable temperature shifts and mixed precipitation. The holidays are mostly over, and it's the perfect time for seasonal depression. Feel like shit yet? Don't. Winter is a time for cheering up. That's where perfume comes in.

There are a myriad of vanilla perfumes on the current fragrance market, many cheap and crude, others pricey and overdone. Guerlain is the reference brand for competent vanillas, but there's something inherently wrong with vanilla these days. It's a note that applies itself too literally. A bad vanilla smells like dessert, Friendly's ice cream melted on skin. A good one can smell deceptively fresh and green. A great one smells fun. Vanilla Fields is an underrated early-nineties vanilla perfume that not only smells great, but accomplishes something rare in postmodern perfumery - instant entertainment.

Coty's vanilla is ostensibly feminine, but forget it, it's thoroughly unisex. I'm amused by its packaging. There's a bit of awkward copy on the back of the box that warns customers of "color variations depending on batch," and "different ingredients depending on the harvest." Is this the first "Millésime" perfume? What hits skin is a little surprising: a woody floral, softly lit by lactonic brightness (remote hints of peach), a soft, nutty vibe, on a woodsy base that clearly shines through even the immediate top notes. In a rare instance of agreeing with The Guide and Tania Sanchez's assessment, I find this to be the elucidation of an old-fashioned summer scent, namely suntan lotion. It has mimosa sweetness, a creamy coconut-like accord in its heart, and a soft vanilla in the periphery that throws me onto an umbrella-shaded blanket in July. Nice stuff, and while nothing cerebral, more than enough to chase away those January blues.


Al-Rehab "Fruit" Alcohol-Free Concentrated Perfume Oil (Crown Perfumes)

Sherapop's incredible blog recently opined on the woe that is oud. More specifically, "Oud Madness," a syndrome in which every designer and niche brand from here to Calcutta finds it necessary to market two or more oud-based perfumes. That this coincides with the recent development of a synthetic oud aroma chemical is beside the point - there is simply no reason for oud to be getting this kind of traction. This isn't Calone, people. When you step out your door in the morning and wait in line at Starbucks, then shuffle into the office, you don't smell a pungent, medicinal aroma wafting off your neighbors and colleagues. This scent has not permeated Western culture. Unlike freesia, vanilla, coffee, pink pepper, and the aforementioned Calone (fresh, aqueous, melon-like), you don't encounter oud on the street, in the office, at cafes, or in the gym. People don't even know it exists. Stop a couple of random clean-cut guys on the block and ask them to identify their favorite oud scent, and watch their already-bored eyes glaze over further. Their very first words will be, "what's oud?" Sorry oud fans, but you're living in a bubble.

To show solidarity with Sherapop, and anyone else who is tired of hearing about oud, I've decided to take my own little stand against the oud craze that has manifested itself in the various board rooms of Eastern and Western fragrance concerns. I'm not totally anti-oud, but I'd like to minimize its already minimal impact. I'll do it with Al-Rehab. When I review fragrances from Al-Rehab, I'll review their "oud-less" formulas only. That's tough to do, because Al-Rehab loves oud, and puts it to good use. Many of their alcohol-free concentrated perfume oils approximate the effect of oud, or incorporate that note in their pyramids. And Al-Rehab has dozens of fragrances, actually more than I can count. Their website has a complete index, but for buying purposes it's easier to jump onto Amazon to see what's readily available. There's no less than thirty different scents listed. Fruit, one of the lesser-known Al-Rehabs, is also there, currently going for under four dollars. Get it while you can. Who knows how long it'll be there.

I encourage you to get it because Fruit smells really good, and it surprised me. I expected it to smell harsh and synthetic, because fruit fragrances usually wind up very plasticky and mean. Al-Rehab's take does smell very synthetic, yet it approaches the subject matter in its own unique way. And strange subject matter it is - how many flowerless fruit fragrances can you think of? The whole "fruity-floral" category relies on the interplay between green and edible for a "fresh" and "sweet" effect. But Fruit isn't a fruity-floral. There's nary a flower to be found in its composition. Instead, this perfume is comprised of several highly-blended fruit notes that are mated to a heady, slightly funky musk. It's a weird accord that strives to be different and succeeds. This concept was risky, and I think they pulled it off. But just barely.

They have quite a catalog.

The first minute on skin is super sweet, syrupy, an intense blast of stone fruits, like wearing a big gummy wad of dried fruit punch. It smells exactly like fruit(s). Yet the question immediately arises: which fruit(s), exactly? There's a massive apricot note that leaps out at me and practically strangles me with a big, saccharine, juicy kiss. But there's more than just apricot. Blended in there is red apple, white grape, peach, plum, passion fruit, pineapple, strawberry, mango, and pear. Sniff once, and you can't get any of those specific notes out of it. Sniff again, and there they all are, for a split second, piled high. Then again, and they're gone, back into a sweetly abstract miasma of edibly-unidentifiable fructose. There's an underlying shadow to all the brightness, but I can't quite figure out what it is. Until the further drydown, an hour later. Then it becomes clear.

Settled under the brighter top and mid-stage is a colder currant note, and it smells identical to the blackcurrant in Silver, a more widely-known perfume. In fact, there's a crucial interplay between this familiar note and the snowy musk tucked just under it. That musk becomes quite a bit sweatier as the minutes pass. Three hours into the drydown, its twangy animalism is more prominent, with sweetness an afterthought, although it's a stretch to say Fruit becomes completely musky. It remains relatively discreet, with a careful balance between sweet fruitiness and skin-scent, never tipping into full-on musk-bomb territory. Shards of blackcurrant, apricot, and pear remain in play. It all stays rather simple-sugary right to the end.

Fruit is unisex, you can expect no less than seven hours out of it, and it's strong enough to work in cold weather as well as high heat. Is it better than Silver? I'd say this is preferable because it's weirder, very distinctive, much more unique. Silver vies for attention over Silver Mountain Water, which itself spawned several imitators in a subset of "fresh" fragrances from the nineties. But Fruit isn't quite like anything else out there. It's all about intense fruit. Brisk, juicy, sugary fruit. Musk just holds it together and makes it a proper perfume, and not a Yankee Candle. You can't get samples of Fruit, but for three and change, you have very little to lose in blind buying it to smell for yourself. Just go easy on it - too much and you'll smell like the Kool-Aid man.


Duel (Annick Goutal)

For some reason, Duel reminds me of Ireland in winter. It gets bitter in the northwestern region, specifically Sligo, Cumeen, Donegal, Ardara. The bright country air silvers into glistening canine teeth, and snaps mercilessly at bare skin, tormenting whoever is unfortunate enough to hurry home from a pub after sunset. Dusk settles in at four p.m. sharp, by the way, with total darkness ten minutes on its heels, so drink up. It's not my favorite time to be in Ireland, but there's nothing quite like seeing a robin's-egg blue frost on Sligo's mossy, curvaceous hide by the pale morning light.

There are some warm associations as well: brisk mugs of tea at Henry Lyons & Co. on Knox Street in town, the faint whiff of spices from the bakery, the humid air as the January sun sucks dew droplets off stiff briar petals, all adding to the charm. Smelling Duel's lucid black tea top note brings these associations to mind, with accents of petit grain and green notes really heightening the experience. Fragrantica shows votes for holly as a prominent element, but frankly I just smell a nondescript "sweet-green" effect. It's the perfect encapsulation of an Irish morning, sitting by the cafe window with tea in hand, looking out at the mountains. Duel reminds me that perfume is capable of this sort of thing - one sniff can transport you to a different time and place. The human nose, I'm convinced, is inextricably connected to whatever part of the brain controls memory.

The drydown isn't particularly complex, a simple medley of artemisia and something mildly floral and sweet, presumably guaiac wood oil, or something similar. If Yatagan and Balenciaga Pour Homme are meditations on the brute force of artemisia, Duel is an exploration of its gentle side. Isabelle Doyen's EDT (more an EDC, really) is a breezy, evanescent affair, gone within four hours, but lovely while it lasts. It's arguable as to whether Duel is a traditional fragrance or an olfactory poem of sorts. It is fluid, it is green, it is woody, and it is rather inarticulate, the way Ulysses would smell if Joyce's words wafted up off the page. Who knew airy freshness could be so deep? Wear this and travel to a distant emerald shore. It's one of the best tea/green scents ever made.


Balenciaga Pour Homme (Balenciaga)

The simple French tagline reads: "Balenciaga Pour Homme: The Power of Dreams". It reminds me of the slogan for Lapidus Pour Homme, "L'Instant D'Eternite," or, "The Instant of Eternity". And also the commercial quip for one of Gerard Anthony's early works, Azzaro Pour Homme: "A Fragrance for Men Who Love Women Who Love Men." These broad-shouldered, square-jawed masculine aromatics had cool posters, smooth taglines, and beautiful bottles. It's strange to think that people got so fed up with powerhouses that they sacrificed their coolness and swagger to smell like Acqua di Gio. 

When it comes to Balenciaga's famous ambery oriental for men, I have good news and bad news, starting with the good: Balenciaga Pour Homme is "find-able." Look online, Google it, and you'll come up with numerous one ounce bottles, and 4 ml. minis, all for reasonable prices. My favorite local brick and mortar shop recently stocked up on fifteen of the minis, which look brand new. This means, of course, that Balenciaga might be experimenting with small bottles to see if they sell, before committing to a major re-release in standard sizes. If so, that's really exciting, because this fragrance has been off the market for a while, and aficionados want it back.

The bad news, sadly, is that nothing is confirmed, and speculation alone is not enough to raise the dead. The small bottles are reasonable, but not exactly cheap. And a comeback for Balenciaga would be odd, given that fresher fragrances are still en vogue. It's hard to imagine that a strong aromatic oriental, loaded with leathery patchouli, strident lavender, coriander, cedar, and artemisia, would become popular again. Then there's the fact that the minis smell old-school, loaded with natural materials, with no shortcuts taken. Is this the real Balenciaga? Yes, but is it the old Balenciaga, or a recently updated version? Hard to say, but there are some longevity issues with its heart stage, so I'm thinking it's the original. This suggests that Balenciaga has no intention of re-releasing. But one can dream.

The fragrance is beautiful, a stunning portrait of artemisia, nicely framed by brisk snatches of bergamot and lime, hints of spice, and a resounding incense accord that explores a profane pleasure buried deeply under sacred urns. I can almost smell the burled walnut pews, with smoke baked into their knots, as I kneel before this poisonous deity to pray. Patchouli lightens the load and adds a touch of sweetness, while tonka and sandalwood maintain a balance between an overbearingly macho smell, and something truly gentlemanly. I'm reminded of Caron's Yatagan, with its brusque wormwood and dry pine notes, but the softness of amber underscores this perfume, and is distinctly absent from the older chypre (which hurts it, by the way).

Gerard Anthony is a very talented man. While working for Azzaro, he brought the world its first refined aromatic fougère, and then in 1990 he topped that with Balenciaga. We should start buying the minis, the one ounce bottles, and show the company that we remember its former greatness, this knock-out of a perfume that is only matched by Kouros and Lapidus (and the latter not so much). Gentleman, if we don't take this resurgence in Balenciaga stock seriously, we may send the wrong message, and inspire more years of weak, synthetic drivel. That would be the power of nightmares.


Brit for Men (Burberry)

It's been a hell of a week so far, with fallout from the school shooting settling into our daily lives like a bad case of gout settling into an alcoholic's joints. Weird analogy? Everything's weird now, sorry. From the locked-down buildings at work, to the news that one of the slain was a teacher who worked at my company only a couple of years ago, to the disturbing fact that the children, of all people, must not be exposed to the truth about Friday's events, unless they ask about them first, and even then only as far as specific queries go. It makes sense, but at the same time I can't help but wonder if pretending nothing's wrong is itself wrong. Guess we'll take it on faith that it's the right thing. Meanwhile, we're all hoping peace returns to Connecticut.

Only about a week before Friday's nightmare occurred, I wore Burberry's famous Brit for Men, expecting quite a good fragrance prior to application, but at the same time remembering that Burberry makes mall juice. My expectations were ramped up due to the fairly good press this scent gets in forums. Lots of guys and gals enjoy it, and many find it to be a sophisticated woody oriental. Rumors of a big rose note also precede it, so I was eager for that. As for my opinion, I like Brit, I think it smells good, and I understand the love for it. But it's not something I'd ever wear on a regular basis. This boils down to personal preference, not any beef with the fragrance itself. There isn't much I can find wrong with the stuff, although there is one over-arching issue that I'll get to in a moment.

I'd like to say this, though - the packaging for Brit is awful. The faux plaid theme is downright obnoxious, a weak designer stab at looking chic and au courant. I understand the idea behind it, the European associations, following the British penchant for textiles that cross over themselves, but really now. It's not on. Couple this sentiment with a seething distaste for an all-grey color scheme, and it's double trouble. Why plaid? Why grey plaid? Just plain why? I give up. I guess when it comes to market testing and demographic research, Burberry found that teenagers and twenty-somethings think plaid is "adult", but still "cool." I'd love to see the details on that study.

The fragrance itself is a powdery-woods concoction, with a dry bergamot/ginger accord on top that speedily segues into a baby-powdery combo of tonka and rose. From the get-go, this top is permanently wedded to cedar, patchouli, and musk. Sweet spices, presumably nutmeg and cardamom, are detectable, but within thirty minutes they've whispered themselves into tonka's semi-sweet fog, becoming lost to the perfume's smoothly-sanded wooden underpinnings. There's a husky veil of white rose powder, like scented talc spilled over cheap maple furniture, that comprises most of Brit's character. The rose, the spices, the woods, all smell nice, but lack definition, seemingly on purpose. Everything in Brit has a distorted texture, like a pretty face seen through an unfocused camera lens. The result is a rather blobby effect, albeit a pleasant blob. If you're a woman who is into evanescent and powdery floral orientals, and want a more masculine effect, Brit for Men is something you should try. But guys, really, Royal Copenhagen costs $16 at Walgreens. If you're going this way with fragrance, go retro, or go home.


Calvin Klein Man (Calvin Klein)

Calvin Klein has never made a truly great fragrance, except perhaps Obsession for Men, and that's highly debatable. However, the company has in recent times released some good stuff, things that aspire to be great, but merely stand on the shoulders of giants. Fragrances like Truth for Men, CK One Shock for Him, and Beauty all borrow from other brands and reinterpret popular designer themes. But I'd say the most misunderstood CK fragrance, the one that many aficionados, including myself, have maligned and neglected the most unfairly, is Calvin Klein Man. I know several respectable people who find this fragrance to be pretty awful, and having never smelled it before, I was content to read about it and write it off as another Cool Watery aromatic with synthetic violet leaf standing in for class. Then I tried it, and immediately liked it, enough to use a gift card to pick up a small bottle. Calvin Klein Man is really, really nice.

I'd like to start with the packaging. I have mixed feelings about the packaging for this fragrance, because its box seems pretty standard and thoughtless, with a plain, silver-framed color field of black, and pencil-thin silver letters that suggest "metrosexual" without even trying. It's boring to look at, boring to contemplate, just a terrible visual concept. If it were 1960, I'd be intrigued, but this sort of thing has been done to death since then, and if I see another sans serif font in silver or gold, I'm going to use some of my job's sick days and take an extended leave of absence from the world. Enough already, we get the message: you're hip. Except you're not. You're posing as hip, you're unoriginal, and you're played out. But then I open that boring-as-shit box and find a bottle that matches it completely, rectangular cap and all. It's a thin glass slab, black lacquered front and back, all straight, clean lines, and as I hold it in my hand and feel its expensive heft, all is forgiven. Somehow the continuity of Man's packaging saves it from banality, shows me that no, it's not fucking around, it's serious about following through with this visual concept, and yes, that concept works better for the bottle than the box, so I should quit complaining. Visually speaking, Man imparts confidence.

The fragrance itself is not what I was expecting to smell, AT. ALL. I can't emphasize that enough - this thing surprised me. It is an olfactory commentary on masculine perfumery since 1985, and touches on aspects of Green Irish Tweed, Cool Water, Fahrenheit, and Klein's own CK One, with vaguer references to the spicy Bay Rums of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and pieces of Sport Field and Green Valley tucked in there as well. I'm not sure what caused my initial confusion, but part of the problem seems to be with the note pyramids published online. Basenotes and Fragrantica mention various notes, some of which I can detect, but many of which I can't, yet I smell content, complexity, something else happening in Man's construct. It goes through three distinct phases, with a fourth phase that is less distinct, but it's just the far drydown, so no biggie.

The opening of Man is a little misleading. There is an initial pungent blast of peppery violet leaf, cured bay leaf, rosemary, and a spicy-green element that I guess could be construed as "cypress," in accordance with Fragrantica's pyramid (which has a lot of votes for cypress). Anywhere from five to ten minutes after application on skin, this spicy greenness begins to transition into nutmeg, losing the "green" to simply become spice. For another five minutes, nutmeg dominates. But it's a fleeting effect, and the heart accord rapidly emerges, bringing sweetness with it. Violet leaf and violet appear, along with a mellow hawthorn note very reminiscent of Dior's Fahrenheit, but not nearly as tarry. The nutmeg never really vanishes completely, and holds these sweet floral elements in check, preventing them from getting too loud and cloying. In typical Calvin Klein fashion, Man remains fairly sheer and light, but it never wimps out. This violet/hawthorn/nutmeg phase lasts about twenty minutes, and then it turns into something else.

The florals abruptly coalesce into a denser package, picking up intensity, and becoming more violet-centric, with a creamy wood note underpinning it. This stage is the one that reminds me of Green Irish Tweed and Cool Water, although it doesn't smell like them in a direct way. It just reminds me of them. There's something a little aqueous and chemically fresh underpinning the sweetness, presumably to balance it out, which alone reminds me of CK One. But that sweet violet-like richness is from something called "oil of guaiac", an inexpensive material with a rosy-violet scent, distilled from the wood of the palo santo tree, which is found in parts of South America. This stuff is used in abundance in various soaps around the world, and is useful in stabilizing the rubbery aspect of rose oil, to make it sweeter and more aromatic - it's an adulterant in that regard. Its use in Man is bold and commendable. Without it, Man would smell hollow and overly simplistic. The presence of guaiac in the heart of this perfume gives it depth and complexity, with winey off notes, and a different sort of green-leaf freshness.

The far drydown of Man is a reminder that this is a CK frag, but its lifespan is pretty good for CK, clocking in at around five hours, maybe longer depending on the weather and how much is applied. There's an abstract white-musky freshness in Man's final stage that isn't anything to write home about, but it's okay. There's no dissonance, no unbalanced movement, no disparate effects here. It's a solid formula with distinct stages of evolution, and easily discernible notes. What isn't easily discernible is mainly aroma chemical stuff that this brand can't stay away from, materials that don't resemble anything in particular, but just smell clean, like Calone and dihydromyrcenol. I don't get any incense, mandarin, bergamot, or amber, so I guess my nose isn't attuned to the CK interpretations of those materials. I do get a bit of sandalwood in the heart, which again contributes to the GIT association, and I get a lot of hawthorn closer to the top, which cements a Fahrenheit impression. There's definitely an ode to Dior going on in Man. And you know what? I admire Fahrenheit, but I'd rather wear Man. Go figure.

If you see this, buy it. It's at Marshalls for under $30. It's worth it, and I dare say it's the nicest contemporary Calvin Klein scent on the market for men. I also applaud them for not acquiescing to the woody-amber trend of most modern masculines, and opting instead for an off-beat sweet-floral approach, which may be metrosexual, or may just be sexual, period. You decide for yourself.


Canoe (Dana)

Canoe is another classic feminine perfume that switched gender roles a while back, and now joins Pinaud's wonderful Clubman and the equally wonderful Brut as one of the greatest "barbershop" fougères of all time. Of the three, however, I'd wager Canoe is the low man on the totem pole. Still, for $12, you really can't go wrong with this fragrance.

"Barbershop" refers to the basic lavender/coumarin/moss accord that powders out with any combination of white flowers, vanilla, or musk, and Canoe utilizes a vibrant vanilla note to balance the aromatic snap of lavender in its opening, and the sweetness of coumarin in its heart. There's a lick of orange blossom on top and a dab of talc in the drydown, but otherwise Canoe is simple and fresh-smelling in a very just-out-of-the-barber's-chair sorta way. It's a little more scaled back in strength and longevity than Clubman and Brut, but it's definitely a cross between the two, a bit how I imagine Clubman Vanilla aftershave-cologne smells (I have yet to try that one). Clubman is probably different, but there's no denying that Canoe's vanilla is the trademark note of the scent, distinctive and memorable.

Has Canoe been reformulated down from what it used to be, back when it was sold in the more Art Deco-looking bottle shown above? Well, it doesn't matter. Postmodern culture has moved well beyond basic talcum powder ferns, but that doesn't mean it needs to stay beyond them. When you're stuck between the olfactory fatigue of Amouage and the spice overload of Serge Lutens, wearing Canoe as a low-key weekend scent may be just what the doctor ordered. Even in its current drugstore form, I wholeheartedly endorse its simple smell and mood-lifting effect. This is a good one.


Fendi "Donna" (Fendi)

I don't make it a habit to review discontinued perfumes, because people can't buy them anymore, can't find them anywhere, and wind up shelling out hundreds of dollars for something that might only cost $60 if it's randomly reissued. It's the sort of hilariously un-funny thing that happened to Red for Men fans when Giorgio Beverly Hills (now licensed by some other entity) decided to crash the ebay party of hawking half-used bottles for $150 each. Suddenly, there's Red for Men sitting at Marshalls for $15 again, no more a hit this time around. So the following review is written not as a temptation to vintage seekers, or as a frustration to non vintage seekers, but rather as a eulogy for a fine fragrance that no longer sees the light of day, but should: Fendi's original feminine perfume, nicknamed Fendi "Donna." She is a masterpiece.

Fendi is an animalic-woody chypre, an extension of K de Krizia's peachy take on the classic fresh floral of four years earlier. This extension of the dry, brightly aldehydic structure of K brought a darker and denser pyramid, and the result is sultry leather, full of rosy snarl and spicy texture, with the brisk sweetness of cardamom and coriander shuffling through an incredibly dry cloud of patchouli. Where K leans on its aldehydes, Fendi embraces mossy woods, never succumbing to trite sweetness. The pairing of rose and rosewood in its heart is inspired, as the rose is smooth and burnt, while the wood is fresh and vibrant, magnifying all that surrounds it. If you imagine Fendi as a woman, she's none other than Sophia Loren, the swarthy Mediterranean siren of the big screen. Sexy, a little scary, but ultimately warm and friendly, this perfume inhabits its own realm, transcending forum discussions and genealogy charts.

My only objective thought about Fendi is that it is a landmark chypre in an eighties style, very big boned and broad-shouldered. Men could wear it with ease, and perhaps today they'd be better off wearing it than women, as it seems ethyl maltol is still all the rage with the ladies. Yesterday I heard a woman remark that she loved the smell of cotton candy, and I found myself wondering whether this was nearly as bad as it first seemed. I actually like that smell, too. Cotton candy has a pleasantly soft, cuddly aroma. It's a comfort smell, in a way, the sort of thing that accompanies the thrill of having your father treat you at a ball game. Integrated into perfume, it creates a fun, bouncy mood. And we all enjoy "edible smells", so it's understandable that a woman might find cotton candy appealing as a perfume scent.

But another voice inside me kept saying, "yeah, but still . . ." There's something about a challenging woman that appeals to me. It's not the idea that she would be intentionally "hard to get" or anything like that. It's the idea that her range of moods, behaviors, personal sentiments, and even fashion sense is variable, diverse, subject to instantaneous change. I enjoy women who wear their thoughts on their sleeve, and speak their minds, even when they're quiet. Women like that (I've known a few) should present something unconventional, something daring, even for a chypre. No one is sweet and fluffy all the time, but sometimes people are sweet one minute, dry and crackly the next, and then altogether charming just a few moments later. This is Fendi. The sweetness of its floral notes persistently hints at its good intentions, even as its uncompromising spicy-leathery heart rolls over everything. The far drydown, a golden glow of sultry moss and amber, reads as the final word on who wears this well - a good, solid woman. She's beautiful, she's bold, she's not afraid to tell you how she feels, and she rarely cries. She's my future wife, and I'll be a happy man when I meet her.


31 Rue Cambon (Chanel)

Chanel would be well served to reconsider their compliance with IFRA regulations. I fully understand the legal concerns, and the social pitfalls of ignoring this association's multitudinous edicts, but when you're avoiding a recently-outlawed ingredient (slight exaggeration) critical to the success of your flagship niche perfume, you're just pleasing bureaucrats at the expense of perfumery. And that's pretty darned awful.

Successful chypres incorporate bergamot (and other citrus notes), cistus labdanum, and a base of oakmoss into variable structures that are usually citrus-focused, or woods-focused. Grey Flannel is my reference (Mitsouko for others) - a dehydrated, lemon-centric fruit melange on top, followed by a particularly woody accord that loosely incorporates the spiced bourbon barrel side of labdanum's many facets, followed by the dankest oakmoss imaginable. To suggest pyramid naturals are in there, other than the oakmoss listed on the box, is disingenuous. Synthetics always stand in for traditional raw materials in modern perfumes. The better ones intersperse naturals into the synthetic formula, but generally you're guaranteed to experience something lab-made. The trick is in fooling the nose into thinking it's smelling all-natural materials.

Absence of traditional chypre materials is often circumvented by a perfume's ability to substitute its means for the appropriate end, and achieve a balance between divergent accords. When you smell Grey Flannel, you feel like you're surrounded by dryly brusque, bright wood notes (a trick of the citrus light), while also feeling ensconced in the shadows of low-lying trees and shrubs, all very wet and dripping green. It's a deeply raw, leafy sensation, and quite a wonderful perfume. And Geoffrey Beene never went out on a limb to self-classify and then justify an absence of real cistus labdanum, so its secondhand classification by fragrance historians is not commercially influenced.

I approached 31 Rue Cambon knowing that it is generally considered a chypre, Luca Turin calls it one, etc. Chanel's spin is that they've created an oakmoss-free chypre, with bolder labdanum notes standing in, and a bunch of other things propping up the illusion. We're to automatically forgive that they're disinterested in bypassing IFRA oakmoss regs, which severely restrict the dosage of actual oakmoss permitted in contemporary fragrances, and embrace their compromise. According to them, and many Chanel fans, 31 is beautiful enough to get away with it. I'm not convinced, but I'll be a gentleman and say that despite my reservations, and what my nose smells, I'm eager to let 31 be different things for different people, without pre-labeling it and swaying their impressions. So I wore it to work, knowing that my boss and co-workers are not especially interested in perfume, and possess an average to below-average knowledge of the better ones.

As a creature of habit, I tend to leave home early every day to beat the morning rush hour traffic, which puts me in the office about thirty minutes before my shift starts. My boss was there on 31 day. She was talking to a resident therapist about something as I sat down. It was probably a minute after I sat down that she stopped mid sentence and leaned in closer to the therapist, also a female. "Is that you?" she said. "You smell nice. Some kind of perfume you're wearing?"

The therapist suddenly looked puzzled. It seemed she could not smell anything. "I'm not wearing perfume," she said.

The boss lady straightened up and said, "Well, maybe something in your hair? It smells like Obsession. Are you wearing Obsession?"

"No," said the therapist. "Really, I'm not wearing anything."

I kept my mouth shut.

The therapist left, and we began our morning routine, preparing for the day. I walked past my boss's desk, and she looked at me. "Oh, I think it's you! Are you wearing perfume? What is it? I just got a whiff of something that smells good. Is it Obsession? Are you wearing Obsession?"

This particular question didn't land so well, not because she was asking it, but because the answer in no way comports with the realm of $35 Calvin Klein fragrances. I ruefully (pardon the pun) wrote the name down for her, and she raised an eyebrow and said, "Huh. Thanks."

Not a $115 hi-pedigree perfume.

You could write this exchange off to pedestrian ignorance, but a pedestrian's opinion tends to be like a child's - brutally honest, and to the point. The fact that she was mistaking 31 for Obsession made me realize that she's the perfect age to know Obsession, and similar orientals, quite well. I can't personally say I smell Obsession in 31, but then again oriental accords are based on amber, and 31 has one massive plonking amber in its base. The Obsession thing made me cross-reference past pedestrian reactions to fragrances by other brands. Recently Mont Blanc's Individuel elicited a gushing response from a female co-worker who dropped what she was doing to ask me about it. She didn't compare it to anything. She simply said, "Ooh! That smells really good!" And Creed fragrances almost always garner "holy shit" comments. People tend to want to know what makes Creeds smell so dimensional. A prior boss thought Original Vetiver smelled "very, very expensive" but couldn't place where she'd ever smelled it before. She was not name dropping CK fragrances with that one.

Am I putting too much stock in this? Making too big a deal out of the Obsession comments? Perhaps. But it's a punch in the gut when you're wearing something supposedly classy, hoping its class will shine through, only to have someone's very first knee-jerk response be a throwback to a cheap eighties oriental. And an oriental is how I read 31 as well, very loud and almost bombastic, although falling just shy of shoulder pads. Its top accord is fruity, a little lipsticky, not particularly citric, but more of a "red fruit" type of smell, albeit with a slick of bergamot overlaying things. Because there's no oakmoss, it has an airy, flowing, floral feel, but this perfume desperately, desperately needs oakmoss. Its absence is painfully obvious. Then there's 31's grey iris note, which swiftly follows the initial sweetness with a thin, bready aspect. It yields some depth, and incremental contrast, but not enough. The iris in 31 is unfriendly, but it isn't plush. It smells as if someone clapped a bit of chalk dust across my wrist. Then comes the lactonic flow of peachy-milky notes that caress the air in a soapy cloud. One minute it's a floral jasmine-like arrangement of soft-focus white petals. Another minute there's a citrusy-vanilla vibe going on. And yet another minute later, peppery amber with labdanum standing in for moss. Quite a dizzying merry-go-round.

Ultimately it dries down to a woody-floral base, which gets flatter and sweeter as the hours wear on. Without the foundation of real oakmoss in this base, without that bitter green monster lurking beneath the sunny proceedings, 31 feels a bit hollow and commits the greatest sin of modern perfumery: it lacks tension. To suggest otherwise feels false. Let's face it, you can't create a high quality chypre with fair-grade synthetics and a masterful composition without attaching the perfume to the basic structure of a classical chypre. Yes, the citrus is there, yes, the labdanum is there, but no, the moss isn't, and no, 31 Rue Cambon doesn't quite pull off ravishing beauty without it. It is, however, very, very pretty, and I received a compliment from a younger female co-worker today who had to know what it was, and repeatedly said that it smelled VERY nice. So to suggest this fragrance is a failure is also false. 31 may not be perfect, but it's still a lovely perfume, and if I wasn't so hung up on Chanel's self-deceiving approach to it, I'd probably be less biased in my review. The next time they exclude something important, they ought to keep a lid on it. If lightweights can get blind drunk on the practical joke of non-alcoholic beer, we perfume enthusiasts can smell depth and contrast where there is only flat beige. The Placebo Effect is perhaps the world's greatest equalizer.


Royal-Oud (Creed)

Creed's list of successful oriental Millésimes is short: Bois du Portugal, and Original Santal. One could argue that the "Love Ins" share their limelight, but critically speaking, they never broke the same ground. BdP shares Green Irish Tweed's realm as one of Creed's hugely popular eighties perfumes, just as big, bold, and ferociously masculine (Creed suggests unisex, but I'm skeptical). It's a wetshaver favorite, and deserving of its classical status. Original Santal inhabits a different zone, appealing to a younger demographic with its modern take on the sweet 'n spicy oriental. Spice and Wood, while very nice, doesn't even make the cut, despite being a Royal Exclusive packaged in a super facy bottle with a ginormous price tag.

I learned about Royal Oud by reading comments on Fragrantica and watching video impressions on Youtube. One commentator did a blind buy on it and sniffed it for the first time on camera, feeling somewhat neutral at first, but rapidly expressing admiration, and then total devotion to the fragrance wafting off his arm. Cross referencing his description with written reviews helped me develop a mental pre-configuration of what Royal Oud actually smells like. When the sample arrived a couple weeks ago, I could smell it through the card. What I smelled eased me ever closer to knowing this Creed without actually smelling it. And then, finally, I smelled it. After that, I wore it.

Put simply, I don't like it much at all. And oddly enough, the fragrance smells exactly as I imagined it would. It opens with a vibrant, lemon-laced pink pepper accord, very fizzy, a little fruity, and reminiscent of Himalaya, an older Millésime that I'm intrigued by, but would never own. Creed's pink pepper is heady and tickles the nose, and as far as pepper notes go, this one is tops. There's a pleasant woody-fruity aspect to higher quality pepper notes that I appreciate, and when black pepper joins the pink stuff, I'm somewhat impressed. Give Royal Oud three minutes, and a strong birch note develops, but as it plods out of the peppery haze, I realize it's been there all along, a note without any purpose, other than to remind me of Spice and Wood and Aventus. I guess birch is Creed's new 'note du jour', and Aventus makes the best use of it.

As far as oud goes, it's there, but it's barely, barely, barely there. I mean, good luck picking it out of the crowd. It's the Where's Waldo of oud notes, just strolling casually along behind the busiest woody amber accord I've ever encountered. Hello cedar, sandalwood, and musk. Hello Tylenol. Seriously, Royal Oud's drydown is a billowing, migraine-inducing cedar fest, with Bois du Portugal's creamy sandalwood underpinning it. I'm not a fan of cedar, and anything that blares it this prominently drops several levels on my internal rating scale. Of course, this particular cedar note smells of quality, with all the earthy-sweet nuances of real Texan cedar oil. But I'm not inclined to wear this at all, and even the ghost of lavender that flits through its dense forest fails to redeem it.

Add to my growing ennui the fact that Royal Oud's chemistry disagrees with my sinuses, inexplicably closing them up and wreaking nasal havoc as the day wears on, and Royal Oud earns a big thumbs down. I'm not interested in badmouthing this perfume, because I know it has a strong fan club, and it certainly isn't foul smelling and downright awful. But I must lightly protest some proclamations that Royal Oud is Creed's best Millésime - or even their best perfume ever. At best, it's almost - ALMOST - as good as Bois du Portugal. But not quite, as BdP is airier and much better balanced. It's easier to wear than this. This is competent, but disappointing, and taking the whole "where'd that oud note go?" out of the equation, it amounts to a mere footnote of an over-priced Creed fragrance, their completely unnecessary peppery-woody oriental. Which, I might add, some have wisely said should have been named, "Spice and Wood."