Dirty English (Juicy Couture)

Orange you glad I'm reviewing this scent?

My memory of the original fails me, suffice it to say I know it was "dirty." Given that the current EA version comports with most of the "dirty" and "fresh" characteristics of the original that have been discussed online, I think Jacques Polge could have thrown this together and called it "Bronzé de Chanel," or "Brun de Chanel," and swam into retirement on an unwavering stream of accolades similar to those garnered by his beloved Bleu. The current formula for Dirty English smells suspiciously similar to Bleu, but warmer and more diffuse, with far more mandarin orange and far less bergamot. And oh yeah, oud. DE contains more than a trace of synthetic, medicinal oud. But they really focused on the "fresh" aspect of the older formula, the part that resembled generic aftershave, and tuned it into an eerie likeness of Polge's citrus/vetiver/iso E theme.

However, there are several reports on Fragrantica that this still smells like good 'ol Dirty English, and what I read about it on basenotes also matches what I smell. And yet, despite its having a prominent and postmodern "fruits 'n woods" element, there isn't nearly as much love for this fragrance as there is for Bleu. Consider it an object lesson in the power of packaging and commercial image over public opinion. Again, if it were in blue glass with the double "C" logo on the cap, there'd be scores of positive feedback. But Juicy Couture opted for a swaggering, leather jacket-wearing "dude" vibe with DE, coloring the stuff the darkest reddish brown they could find, and giving the box and bottle that fuck-all look. If you toss the bottle three feet to your friend and miss, you could kill him. They went whole hog on this thing.

Except the fragrance itself reminds me of both new and old metrosexual masculines. Aside from its Bleu comparison, DE possesses semisweet agarwood, carefully mated to mandarin orange, an accord that is just deep and oily enough to resemble the sweetened citrus amber of vintage MEM Co. English Leather (which was the same color, btw). Like Bleu, EL was too groomed for its time. It was a smooth, super-dry woody citrus thing with a "buzzy" amber accord that was the precursor to today's over-used iso E-super, but much louder and more overtly feminine. It wasn't far removed from feminines of the forties and fifties. Wind Song is English Leather, only more honest.

Dirty English is good for anyone who wants a hybrid of Bleu de Chanel and a modernized English Leather, with the added element of synthetic oudy funk. I don't love it, but I like it. Its bergamot, mandarin, oud, vetiver, labdanum, and cedar are all very good, and work well together. It's very comfortable, skillfully balanced, and quite contemporary, a relevant designer scent through and through. There's nothing to complain about here. October is a good month for it. But if you want more of everything (except oud), wear Bleu de Chanel. If you want a better powdery, resinous amber with orange and musk, wear Lagerfeld Classic, or its balsamic brother, KL Homme. For more dimensional incensey cedar, try L'Occitane's Eau des Baux. And for a truly bad-ass leather scent, it's hard to top Parfums Retro's Grand Cuir. That stuff will put hair on your chest. As an aside, some comparisons have been made between DE and Gucci PH I, but I really don't smell it. Gucci has very strong pink pepper, herbal sage, and incense elements that DE completely lacks.


Perfume and the Interminable

To be as intrinsically valuable as art is, perfume must
exploit every known variable of time and space.

Perfume is more than a manufactured olfactory experience. Like the Modernist movement before it, postmodern perfumery is an intellectual and sensory exploration of human culture. We understand the social norms of wearing perfume within the various cultural contexts of our lives, yet contemporary perfumery employs methods of self-critical discipline aligned more closely with De Stijl than style.

The relatively recent rise of niche products has given us alternatives to the mainstream, creating rifts in ideology for perfumers, and in taste among buyers. As counterparts, these two commercial bodies are ecliptic, with financial gain the sole center of gravity. Yet the products themselves are dialogues in an internalized language of self-subordination, designed to place the medium more securely in its area of competence.

Paul Parquet and Francois Coty soldered their demarcations between the masculine and the feminine into our consciousness, elevating natural essences via synthetics. Nearly a century later, Ramon Monegal meditates on a contemporary rendition of oud, while Andy Tauer contemplates neroli, and Frank Voelkl explores iris. The language evolved from a series of broad, objective statements with spare accords into an expository, inescapably referential ponderance of subjective specifics, right down to the last note.

One fundamental difference between perfume and art is found at the mutual vanishing point of the two: the utilization of space. In pictorial art, particularly in Modernist painting, flatness is emphasized first; viewers are to consider the physical limitations of a canvas before absorbing what is represented within them. Perfume suffers no such constraint. It exists as an extension of one's presence, and as an extension of self perception. The former condition relies on space to convey itself to others; the latter favors the immediacy of self awareness, needing only the space occupied by one's self to be enjoyed.

Perfume is irreproducible, another trait which separates it from art. Therefore it can not experientially transcend the present, and chances of generational appreciation are virtually nonexistent. If the Mona Lisa burned tomorrow, my children could enjoy accurate reproductions of the image thirty years from now. Once my bottle of Furyo is empty, no one will ever know what it smelled like, unless they're lucky enough to encounter their own perfectly preserved bottle of the original formula. Perfume exists in the present, with no promise for the future.

Art endures. Art is shark-like, continually moving along the currents of time, thrashing through time in bursts of tangible and material expressions. It is a celebration of confusion. The twenty-first century has advanced this state of confusion more efficiently than anything else, sending barriers between fine art and popular culture crashing to the ground. But as Clement Greenberg pointed out in his essay, Avant Garde Attitudes, "Artistic value is one, not many."

There are varying degrees of quality in art, which Greenberg calls "goodness," but we measure one singular value: the "goodness" of good art. Lesser examples elicit commensurate levels of appreciation, but only from those savvy enough to recognize the difference between good and bad art. To someone who is ignorant of what constitutes good art, the pictures in a comic book are the world. The same metric can not be applied to perfumery, because there is no qualitative standard. There is only the perceptual standard, or the ability to perceive perfume, and therein lies the rub. If we are to consider perfume valuable, it must offer an ineluctable condition of its own value.

Such a condition can only be recognized if perfume is allowed to exploit the variables of time and space in the same manner as art. If an art object is thousands of miles away, it can still be experienced in a photograph; if a perfume is a thousand miles away, it can not be experienced at all. Perfume in space is finite.

If one wishes to enjoy an art object five years from now, the preservation of the object is of secondary importance, as long as its existence was effectively documented via reproduction. If one seeks to enjoy a perfume five years after it is sprayed, it is best to use the entire bottle, and never shower. Perfume, given only a short time, is finite.

So far the only emphasis in the search for empirical value in perfume resides with how it exploits space. Here it holds an advantage over art, even sculptural art, because its interaction with space is dynamic and indefinite. One spray may yield a favorable result at four feet, or ten. Two may make an impact at fifteen feet. The drawbacks become evident when we try to determine the relationship between space, perfume, and time. Indeed, perfume may be beautiful at any number of feet from the source, but for how long? By the seventh or eighth hour, whatever molecular activity remains is fractional, with the experience proportionate to quantity and proximity. You may need to be smelling more sprays from mere inches away.

But even so, the wearer subverts these conditions by simply existing with the perfume. This is markedly different from being in the same room as perfume. Wearing perfume collapses the time/space continuum in on itself, at least temporarily. The wearer flaunts the immediacy of being with the perfume, enjoys the sensory experience without needing to be downwind, and never requires any relative experience to appreciate it. The light may need to be right for art to be enjoyed, but not so with perfume.

With so many divergences from art, it is a wonder these questions persist with perfume. Perhaps there is a reason for them, one which resides in our broad recognition of how we value perfume. Perfume is to be smelled. We can only bring its smell along with us throughout our day, but somehow its bottle, the color of its fluid, its box design, and even its name embellish our focus on the smell. Perfume manufacturers commission these ancillary design details to profit in a competitive market, but our embrace of them exposes how collectively fallow our intellectual probity is in appreciating the true product.

Just as art styles deteriorate with time, the perception of a perfume deteriorates with subsequent bottles, usually due to reformulation. Inversely, our opinion of the first bottle usually improves with time and memory, despite our perception of the fragrance remaining the same. Our noses do not smell the aroma chemicals differently; our emotional connections to these smells recontextualize and reconfigure around subsequent experiences, essentially assuming different forms.

This can be likened to the idea of feeling less satisfied by an art reproduction than by the original piece, except that people do not honestly have this reaction to quality reproductions of artworks. My friend owns an original print of a piece by Joan Miró, and is very proud to have it on his wall. In thirty-four years, I have not known him to lament the absence of the original piece. A good, frameable reproduction is usually considered worthy of constant appreciation. A reproduction of scent by reformulation (or "cloning") is a different story.

My explanation for this is directly applied to labeling, and our postmodernist acculturation toward labels; perfume labeled "Art" is difficult to penetrate, while perfume labeled "Design" makes sense. Design is disposable; art is, for better or worse, indispensable. If we call perfume "Art," we are claiming it is indispensable, but when does the actual art experience begin? Is it "Art" in the bottle, or only after it has been sprayed? If we call it "Design," the question answers itself: the experience begins when perfume is used.

I mention this because a perfume's use is its termination point. However, as with all designed objects, the desire to use, and the need to use, plods on interminably. We used forks five hundred years ago, and will continue using modified iterations of the fork five hundred years from now. The fork itself will likely cycle through at least a dozen modifications, with specific forks seeing only several years of use, mere incremental fragments of its time. Perfume will endure in similar fashion, unless our sense of smell devolves as a result of an unfortunate biological twist of fate.

Five years ago, Juliette Has A Gun released a perfume named "Not A Perfume." Ironically, they were correct; until the first customer bought and used it, the product was merely liquid in a bottle.


A Noseful Of Ghosts: Beware Of Phantom Notes!

Whatever you do, don't inhale!

Typically when people enter the world of fine fragrance, their initial exposure to its technical aspects involves the concept of "notes." Anyone who has seen the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer recalls Dustin Hoffman mentioning notes to his criminal protégé. They are the fundamental building blocks with which the complex accords and dynamics of perfumes are made. One would think that those building blocks are actually "aroma chemicals," but that depends on your orthodoxy. If you're staying true to the "Perfume Is Art" narrative, you don't want to hear about aroma chemicals. You want to spend hours whittling away with the tired old saw that perfume is, by default, artifice. Therefore, mentioning the artificial materials used to compose perfumes is redundant.

Likewise, those who subscribe to the "Perfume Is Design" school of thought are primarily interested in avoiding the tedious parsing of chemical lists, favoring instead the more enlightening descriptions of what such lists are intended to impart. But unlike the first group, the "design" crowd isn't averse to acknowledging important and innovative steps using specific synthetics, like Hedione, Musk Ambrette, Dihydromyrcenol. Recognizing and naming raw materials is part of understanding the function of perfume, for design is merely a functional aesthetic.

And so the newcomer ventures into the tangled forest of purported notes, usually listed by cosmetic companies as advertising copy for their products, or on Fragrantica, which has a note pyramid feature that is democratically voted upon by members. Some can go their whole lives without ever questioning these things, and perhaps are all the better for it, but others express skepticism, confusion, and concern. Reading about notes is not inherently troubling, but forming expectations can be, especially if investments are made for the sole purpose of experiencing something later found to be absent.

How does this problem manifest? It usually begins with reading reviews. A fragrance is sought after, so people read about it. Perhaps it isn't sought after by many, but at least a few read about it. Then the purchase is made, and the perfume is worn, and hey, what gives? Where's the sandalwood? Where's the pineapple? Where's the civet? And that's when things get ugly. Instead of entertaining the possibility that these notes were being misidentified by prior noses, people begin to chant the mantra: "reformulation . . . reformulation . . . reformulation . . . "

There is a simple way to avoid becoming this sort of mindless zombie. Instead of endlessly repeating the "R" word and staggering through overgrown fields with your arms out in front of you, you might try considering the true source of your ire. Hint: it ain't the perfume. More than likely it's the guy or gal who wrote about the perfume. Either their nose is touched, or there's something wrong with their bottle in particular, but the likelihood that a reformulation has zeroed out the desired notes is very slim (though certainly a possibility). I can tell you from personal experience that I get very annoyed with people who claim to literally smell expensive materials like sandalwood in blatantly cheap fragrances - and I say "literally" as opposed to "figuratively," because claiming to smell a sandalwood note is not the same thing. Saying you smell a "sandalwood note" isn't troubling in itself, unless the note is nonexistent. In many cases though, readers expect a level of quality in a fragrance that never existed in the first place.

When a reviewer claims there's sandalwood in a composition that couldn't possibly have any real sandalwood in it, and there really isn't any in there, that results in people seeking the "vintage formula" of the scent, in the hopes that they will experience the supposedly high quality materials of yesteryear that have theoretically been replaced by unimpressive synthetics in subsequent releases. Consider how sandalwood is described in this excerpt from a review of vintage Zino by "ericrico" on Fragrantica:

"A huge blast of patchouli, warm vanilla, great wood (more prominent, rich sandalwood and dusty rosewood) along with a great cedar note strengthens the deep, dark and dank base of 'stewed' florals."

In this case, "ericrico" is describing what this perfume exudes, neglecting to use the word "notes" in the description of anything except cedar, and implying that the composition actually contains these things. Now consider this excerpt from a review of Aubusson Pour Homme, also on Fragrantica:

"This smells natural and it's somewhat dry; it's definitely not too sweet. Over time a nice sandalwood note emerges. Don't expect heavy patchouli, moss, or leather notes; this is more of a warm weather scent."

In the excerpt for Zino, readers are being led by the use of the adjective "rich" to believe that sandalwood inhabits the chemical structure. Sandalwood oil is rich. If the sandalwood in Zino is rich, there must be sandalwood oil in Zino. But in the excerpt for Aubusson PH, we're told "A sandalwood note emerges." Sandalwood, even synthetic sandalwood, is typically a basenote, and rich by default. Rich notes don't emerge; rich notes are laid bare with time. They're there to begin with, and subtler, hungrier impressions emerge from and exist around them. For example, from natural Indian sandalwood come hints of pepper, amber, cream, incense, and rose. These are more usefully called "facets," which I'll get to in a bit. Here I'll just say that a good, prominent sandalwood oil, when it is infusing a sandalwood profile in a scent, allows other subtler scent impressions to come forth. Richness is the forest from which wolves wander.

These scent descriptions are unintentionally deceptive to readers. In the case of the Zino review, the writer suggests that there is a certain kind of "richness" to Zino, a quality that exists in a far different form than the one described. As I mentioned in February, there were some clever and relatively new synthetics being used when this fragrance was made, and the scent seems to possess at least one of them. While by no means a "mild" or "weak" scent, Zino is not an expensive and luxurious composition, although it certainly exhibits a level of sophistication that makes it a terrific value. To suggest to readers that it contains "rich sandalwood" is to lead them astray, for no such richness exists. Zino merely has a smooth blend of woody notes, those abstract accents of wood-like smells that together form a coherent impression of wood. Discerning noses know there are no lucid wood oils to be found.

In the excerpt for Aubusson PH, readers are led to believe that a "sandalwood note" exists in the scent. This is a sin of a different kind. While the Zino reviewer was wrong to suggest that natural sandalwood inhabited Zino, namely because it doesn't, this reviewer is wrong to assert that the possibly synthetic analog of the same note exists in Aubusson, for the same reason. There is no sandalwood note in Aubusson PH. That is to say specifically, there is no detectable synthetic analog of sandalwood in the composition!

I smell a clearly synthetic, nondescript, and very smooth woody musk note in the far drydown of Aubusson PH, for the record. Now, one could surmise that there is a sandalwood note, and that readers might not smell it for other reasons, but that blames the victim. Aubusson is actually a better scent than Zino on a few levels; while the Davidoff scent does possess a sprightly fern element with eerie lavender special effects of rosewood and sandalwood analogs, Aubusson spins fruity and musky notes into a more interesting cinnamon-spiced amber for even less money, and at the same level of quality. It contains the suggestion of Krizia Uomo's dense cedar and castoreum notes, but there is no impression of sandalwood, real or fake, to be gleaned from it.

Readers seeking sandalwood might read the aforementioned review, buy Aubusson, and be sorely disappointed that there isn't this facet to the composition, particularly if they're fans of sandalwood. There's no doubt the reviewer smelled what they thought was sandalwood in this composition, but I'm afraid it must be classified as a "phantom note" in this context.

Often "phantom notes" are pushed by companies and impartial reviewers as being confounding elements in simple compositions. Consider Caron Pour un Homme, one of the simplest fougères ever made. It is primarily lavender, vanilla, and musk, with very little else. Indeed, these are the only notes listed on Fragrantica. The top note of Caron PuH is mostly lavender, but basenotes mentions notes of lavender, rosemary, bergamot, and lemon. I smell the rosemary and the slightest twinge of bergamot, and will concede that although I don't smell it, lemon essence may be used as well. My bottle is a vintage from the nineties, by the way.

Once we get into the heart notes, I smell only a high quality vanilla touched with slightly urinous musk, and nothing else. Basenotes claims there is "clary sage, rose, rosewood, cedarwood," but no. Now the pyramid has gone from being descriptive to being sensational. I think this has happened because vanilla is not simple. Vanilla is a rather complex note. It's isn't the sugary sweetness found in many contemporary designer scents. Good vanilla has facets. And facets aren't the same as notes.

I remember when my nose became good at detecting notes. I realized that notes aren't the end of the road, because individual notes, when rendered with good materials, can be very complex. A good vanilla note has a bit of a crisp bourbon characteristic, a little dried fruitiness, a warm tonka edge, and a spicy twinge to it.

High quality lavender is also complex. It has a fruity quality, a metallic mint quality, and a warm-biscuit quality, a natural extension of its coumarin content. If you account for the boozy spiced warmth of vanilla, with all facets identified, and mate it to the fried ice cream of lavender, two notes suddenly seem like seven. You can pretend there are seven in the fragrance, but five of them are phantoms, and it behooves you to clarify your impressions to naïve readers. I was recently told that there's a bit of a sage note in Caron. Honestly, I never smelled sage in any iteration of the scent. And I'm particularly sensitive to sage, so I'd say its presence in Caron is also phantom-like.

One more thing to understand with notes is that no fragrance can be reduced to its notes and retain its identity. Fragrances are compositions, not stacks of notes. Some notes may poke out at you more than others, and some notes may possess complexities and facets that add yet more depth to a composition, but none of these things can be usefully separated from the overall abstract impression of the perfume itself. Most perfume companies know this, which is maybe why they don't take their own note pyramids very seriously, often resorting to descriptions that are pure fantasy (any of the Mugler or Dior pyramids, for example). It's not advised to read advertising and consider it a useful description of a fragrance. I've seen notes pyramids for mainstream perfumes that are phantoms from top to bottom.

Lastly I'll mention that none of the "notes" that I or any other reviewer mention actually exist as natural representations of the material they smell of. In Halston Z-14 there are prominent pine and moss notes, but they exist because of synthetics. I've said before that Z-14 smells like one of the most natural perfumes in existence (certainly in my collection), but that doesn't mean it's a natural composition. It's purely synthetic, with a small amount of natural materials mated to a larger quantity of lab-made chemicals that serve as representatives for smells in nature. Approach reviews with an understanding of this, and you'll never be led astray.