The Polyphonic Oriental

Today I was musing on the strangeness of twentieth century masculine orientals, particularly the cheaper ones like Old Spice, Sex Appeal, and Pierre Cardin Pour Monsieur cologne. Creed's Bois du Portugal, Avon's Mesmerize, and Joop! Homme came to mind as well. Orientals have always been a tricky group for me because they eschew traditional notions of "fresh" and "clean," which are better embodied in fougères and citrus chypres, and opt for earthiness and byzantine radiance instead. Sometimes I feel dirty in fragrances like Lagerfeld Classic and The Dreamer, because their muskiness or resinous notes combine with my skin chemistry to form an animalistic funkiness that rests on the line between sexy and repulsive. I wouldn't be surprised if classic compositions in the French traditions of Pierre Cardin and Bois du Portugal are essentially every woman's idea of men's aftershave, that generic, citrusy-alcoholic aroma wafting from under male collars in church. Pierre Cardin definitely feels like a classic aftershave, with its warm orange notes playing off cool lavender and precious woods. It's timeless and chic, but also familiar and comforting.

Last week I wore Joop! Homme for a few days. I used to think Joop! was a sandalwood and white-floral affair, cheaply executed in the Keith Haring-esque, sentimentally abstracted style of the nineteen eighties. Tania Sanchez's little two-word summarization of it, " violet soapy," had me thinking that I was over-thinking it. Maybe this is a type of obnoxious violet-sandalwood bar soap in liquid form. Perhaps its purplish-pink color is Joop!'s way of stating the obvious. Indeed, the more I wear it, the more Joop! becomes a vague, violet-orange blossom-sandalwood accord, brimming with violet's sweetness and woody notes, minus the overtly green and organic (leafy) stray notes that usually accompany violets in perfume. Joop! is terrific stuff but it's notoriously difficult to use, one of the few fragrances out there that require an owner's manual. Close-range application is not recommended. I tend to hold my bottle at arm's length, spray quickly, and gently wave the mist toward myself. The animalic musky element, which complements orange blossom's indolic stray note, seems to greet me first, followed by the throat-tickling sweetness of synthetic florals and spicy Australian sandalwood. Hours later, as in twelve or thirteen hours later, the entire fragrance has settled into a simple sandalwood and musk, with the ghost of heliotrope floating by.

And look at Sex Appeal for Men. Thirteen dollars for four ounces, and it hasn't even updated its packaging. This fragrance is one of those rare masculine anomalies, the high-quality patchouli oriental that goofs on being the gaudy, sneeze-inducing crap advertised on the box. It is truly polyphonic, consisting of separate but related accords that act as disparate weights on an airy lavender note. The richness of lemon, cedar, patchouli, anise, birch, vanilla, and a handful of other kitchen herbs and spices accents that one simple lavender with an ease that beggars belief. You would think that something so inexpensive would devolve into nothingness in minutes, but not so - Sex Appeal gets drier, crisper, and woodier, while maintaining a cheerful freshness and earthiness that smells as clear and complex as the very first minute of application. Like Bois du Portugal and Old Spice, its simplicity is not in its pyramid, but in its vibe. There's actually a ton of ingredients doing a whole lot of things, but all the movements are singing the same tune, like chamber choirs on Christmas Eve, imparting the essences of warmth and well-being across cold spaces.

I encourage readers to act with more bravery than I ever have, and spring for more orientals. In America there is an unspoken and off-the-books law regarding them: wear with caution. We're so afraid of offending each other here that we neglect these complicated, occasionally-loud compositions, and favor fresher, simpler, generically-clean scents instead. The perfume industry is like any other - it responds to buyer trends. If we habitually buy orientals, then corporate strategies will reflect a desire to satisfy that preference, and place a new premium on the complexity, quality, and "wow factors" of their products. Even reformulated classics like Pierre Cardin and Old Spice maintain a level of quality and exoticism that most department store labels only dream of attaining. The niche brands have offered thousands of options, but what would the world be like if we could walk into Macy's and find re-releases of Sex Appeal and Pierre Cardin? What would the world's office buildings smell like if Avon's Mesmerize and Lagerfeld Classic filled the halls again? How wonderful would it be if America and the rest of the western world returned to the swagger and confidence of the seventies, when men weren't afraid to smell a little wild, and women wanted them for that? Classic orientals are materially and culturally polyphonic, capable of infusing their appreciators with the kind of mystical song that the ancient Greeks supposedly played. Maybe it's about time we ditch our liquid soap regimens, and turn our attention back to the sooty, woody, ambery, herbal, wonderful earth.

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