Pi (Givenchy)

"A Little Further Than Infiniti." Far Out, Man!

To understand Pi, it helps to be more than a mathematician; you have to remember the nineties, and what cultural changes occurred after the 1980s. Following the conservative Reagan era, when masculine fragrances were either loud "cigar box" ferns and orientals, or loud "musky" compositions with borderline femme floral elements, and downright funereal moss notes (as found in Antaeus and Tsar), people were attracted to fresher, friendlier ideas.

Ferns became sweet and playful (Cool Water, Aqua Quorum, Polo Sport), chypres were hybridized and sunnier than ever (Red for Men, Acqua di Gio, Green Valley), and orientals were divested of unnecessary accords, stripped and compacted and simplified, until only the basics of "amber" and "vanilla" were left. Fragrances like Pasha, Angel, and Givenchy's now Classic Pi were the result. Interested in "fresh" orientals? Try Cartier's idea. Want something "gourmand?" Here's an overdose of Ethyl Maltol and some cheap patchouli, ala Mugler. Need a more traditional citrus-amber fragrance? Pi was the way to go. It is essentially a basic mandarin orange and toasted vanilla accord, and little else. There's a smidgen of cedar and synthetic musk in the base, and that's about it. It smells rich, smooth, almost edible, very warm, and oddly "fresh." It's a nineties frag to the hilt. I hear Gin Blossoms and Sheryl Crow songs whenever I spray it.

But there is perhaps one other aspect to Pi that goes a little deeper than just writing it off as a dull nineties scent. The decade was in many ways a throwback to the seventies. Big cars were momentarily back in style, the economy enjoyed a brief but luminous revival, thanks to the Dot-Com Boom, the President was plagued by scandals that had nothing to do with his political policies, and which threatened to undermine his office, and recent wars had caused an undercurrent of social discomfort and political dissent not felt since Vietnam. Perfume was fresh and sweet, but it was also loud, and very raucous in character, even conservatively speaking. Mugler and CK and yes, Givenchy, were putting noise into the air, competing with grunge music and Nicolas Cage movies to see which could be more obnoxious.

I was a teenager in the nineties, and remember it well. So to me, Pi smells not like a conservative gourmand, but like a boisterous vanilla crossover feminine, geared toward guys with Ceasar haircuts and subwoofed Iroc Zs. There's nothing demure about how one dimensional and fatuous this fragrance is. You can't wear more than two sprays and expect reactions to differ from the snickers and half-assed compliments elicited by Joop! Homme. In its original formula, Pi filled rooms, preceded wearers by ten minutes, and made coffee houses smell like whore houses. Is it an exciting fragrance? No, not by a long shot. But is there more to it than meets the casual nose? You bet. It's the Brut of the nineties, but it was never offered at Brut's price-point, fitting for the inflated ethos of 1998.

I'm not a wearer of Pi, and I don't personally know anyone who wears it, but the stuff is still being made, and still selling, so there must be stragglers from my generation keeping it alive. It wouldn't surprise me if it won over a few next-gen fans as well. Meanwhile, wearing KL Homme, with its crisp balsamic citrus top and warm, vanillic base, it feels like the twelve year interval between Lagerfeld's oriental and Givenchy's gourmand was lost entirely, and I want it back.


Virgin Island Bay Rum (Pinaud) & Why Old Spice Is Not A Bay Rum

A good bay rum is an olfactory sketch of two main notes, with a third note "bridging" them; bay is meant to be immediately noticeable, followed closely by a warm, sweet "rum" effect, with subtle spice connecting the two. Typically the spice is an amalgamation of several spices, be it a cinnamon and clove hybrid, or clove and nutmeg, black pepper and pink pepper, etc. Just as frequently, the spice note stands alone. The most common in popular bay rums is clove.

Eugenol is a miracle drug. Perfumers can take the dullest vanilla composition and give it teeth using but a hint of it. Too much conjures associations with a dentist's chair; too little impresses as merely a weird, camphorous aftertaste. But when it's dosed just right, clove is the height of manliness. Its woody-fresh bite can marry feuding accords like nothing else. Consider the bracing beauty of Z14's lemon aldehydes attempting a peace agreement with its cinnamon, vetiver, and oakmoss foundation, without the unambiguously stark eugenol underlying the citrus. And just as it can act as a savior, clove can also ruin the fun. Remember Copper Skies? What an awful composition.

Pinaud's Virgin Island Bay Rum is a popular cologne with several decades of accolades from several generations of "manly" guys under its belt. It is incredibly cheap ($7 for a 12 oz bottle), and readily available at almost every online retailer, although good luck finding it in your average brick and mortar pharmacy. Its spare plastic bottle and wan, tricolor label are easy to miss, but the liquid within is a bit harder to overlook. VIBR smells charmingly piquant and almost drinkable, with lively "rummy" notes layered under vague citrus, and what is without exaggeration the closest one can get to clove overdose without crossing the dentist's threshold.

That said, I must assert a measure of caution to those considering this fragrance. It's technically an aftershave, but in this case that means they merely added a skin toner to a cologne. You can expect four to five hours of longevity, with subtle but noticeable sillage. For the first hour, you'll enjoy a brisk and linear breeze of boozy clove, very old-fashioned, but undeniably charming. As you near the ninety-minute point, you'll begin to realize that aside from the alcoholic eugenol, there isn't much to play with. There's a very flat, almost stale wafer effect, which eventually settles into a gingerbread cookie. And two hours in, you will understand: Pinaud's VIBR doesn't have any actual bay in it at all. It's just a Christmassy barrage of clove over a cheap gourmand amber.

Now, every so often I visit wetshaver boards and encounter comments about Old Spice that go like this:

"Such a great bay rum. I love this better than my other bay rums!"

Or I'll read:

"A real shame P&G reformulated this. Now it's just a lame bay rum scent."

Comments like this really bug me, because Old Spice is not a bay rum. It has no bay, and It has zero rum. Furthermore, Old Spice's reformulation is actually less like bay rum than its previous formulas, for the simple fact that the massive clove note in the American version exists primarily to darken the fluffy orientalism of its relatively loud orange citrus and vanilla accords. Old Spice is doing other things with clove, things that have a lot in common with contemporaries like Habit Rouge and Royal Copenhagen, and nothing in common with homemade stews of bay leaves soaking in Captain Morgan's. Shulton's formula had an airy transience that I guess one could associate with bay rum aftershaves, but here the association is strictly subjective.

I would argue that Pinaud's bay rum isn't really a bay rum, either. After all, it lacks a bay note. But at least it nods to classical bay rum with its potent rum note. And that massive clove note is just the direction they decided to take the scent. Why they didn't bother with the bay is beyond me, but I would guess it was just too difficult to manage on Pinaud's paltry formula budget. I personally don't consider it a bay rum, but more of a spiced rum cologne with what is perhaps an unintentionally edible facet that makes it a little too "nice guy" for my taste. Don't go by me though, because I'm not really into this sort of thing. If I'm wearing spice, I want it to say "Old" on the bottle.


The Incanto Charms Problem: Why Cheap Gourmands Usually Don't Work

Coca-Cola Can Do It. Why Can't You?

In 2006 the house of Salvatore Ferragamo released a little inexpensive gourmand feminine called Incanto Charms. The fragrance features a fruity, saccharine opening, followed by an Ethyl Maltol bomb with abstract hints of cheap jasmine. The one and only time I wore it, I was immediately self conscious, wondering if my girlfriend would dump me for smelling like a preteen girl. It's not that IC smells "bad," because in all honesty, this is the sort of composition that young girls love, and it's relatively inoffensive, wafting in gentle clouds of nondescript "sweet." But as a fragrance, considered objectively and without any predetermined contexts, it's as dull and forgettable as a Ken Burns movie.

It raised the question as to whether or not the noses at Ferragamo were just lazy, or if their boring gourmand was part of a larger problem. With other gourmands by Paris Hilton, Beyonce, Coty (non-prestige), and Mugler in the mix, I realized that perfumers are largely missing the point of making someone smell "edible." They're operating in a vacuum, informed only by their communal accomplishments in a pseudo niche realm, and they never stop to ask themselves if they should try a little reverse engineering instead. After all, many gourmands on discounter shelves are being one-upped by something as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, a mass market soda brand. That's shameful.

I often wonder if perfumers ever think seriously about the link between scent and flavor. Why, for example, hasn't anyone ever made a perfume that smells like Coke, or any of its flavors? Soda reviewer Patrick O'Keefe, creator of the prolific soda review site "Soda Tasting," once said that if Coke made an air freshener of Cherry Coke, he would buy it and use it all the time. Given that this guy has taste tested hundreds of sodas, his sentiment is quite an endorsement. (Vanilla Coke is perhaps the only soda that he awarded with five stars.) This got me curious about Cherry Coke, so I went and bought a few cans and tried it. I hadn't had it in twenty years, and my return to it was a surprise. This stuff is excellent.

When we think about soda, we think two things: "cheap," and "sweet." Sodas are usually just a few cents per can when purchased in bulk, and their flavors are generally disgusting, nondescript, and forgettable, much like the myriad of bargain gourmands being foisted on people here in the States. But Coca-Cola is the exception. Unlike their competitors, the Coke brand has paid extra careful attention to perfecting what they do, rather than just shoving HFCS and one or two fake flavors into a syrup. Cherry Coke has the potential to taste like Dimetapp and sugar cubes, but it actually tastes great. The cola is gentle and crisp, and complemented beautifully by an even-handed and well blended fruity cherry accent that leaves a clean aftertaste. The brains behind it all must have spent a year or two laboring over a way to make fruit cola taste elegant, and they succeeded.

Vanilla Coke is even better. It could have been glorified cream soda, but no. They spent time and money on this flavor. The vanilla isn't candy-like. It's actually fresh, with a brightness that works incredibly well against the cola backdrop. It's so rich and smooth and appealing that it's worth poisoning your pancreas to drink it. It helps that Coke's original formula is a masterpiece, the veritable champagne of colas, full of subtle cola, coca, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange flower, and vanilla notes. If ever there was a crime against the genre of gourmands, it's the neglectful stance the perfume industry has taken in not giving Coke its due. These sodas, in all their simple beauty, should be cloned into wearable art. It wouldn't be too difficult for a decent nose to achieve, and I'd wager millions of teens would fawn over such frags.

Instead, we have Incanto Charms. But hey, at least I don't encounter shelves of Incanto Charms at the grocery store.


Bamboo Eau De Toilette (Gucci)

Perhaps the "Alt-Right" has a point after all; it's frightening to think that political correctness has neutered Italian bravado into the stuff of pallid white florals. Yet when I smell Bamboo EDT, a pallid white floral is pretty much the long and short of it. Yes, it's well balanced. Yes, yes, yes, I know, I know, it's well made, I get that. Every synthetic analog of fruit and floral is modestly rendered against a wan, woody, chemical background, all fogged up with white musk. It's a fragrance that smells pleasantly uninteresting on a woman when you're both crunching the company numbers, but which suddenly becomes intoxicating after hours, when fragrance is the only thing she has on. But that's not really a convincing argument for it. A great frag deserves higher praise.

The truth is that beautiful women don't need great perfumes. And by "beautiful women," I mean whatever women you're into. (Beauty is subjective, and honestly, I'm not being "PC" when I say that.) When a man digs a girl, the last thing he's worried about is the pedigree of her fragrance. She could be wearing her husband's Brut, and if a guy thinks she's sexy, he'll assume she's wearing "girl stuff," and his hormones will just block out the rest as they zero in on the score. Men aren't sophisticated when it comes to sex. We're not complex machines when it comes to spreading our genes. Our brains go into autopilot, our senses search out pheromonal stimuli - the invisible, musky smells secreted through skin, hair, mucous membranes - and our "conscious" noses, always eager to identify burnt toast and spoiled milk, take the night off.

Still, it would be nice to return to the days when women wore foghorn frags to dampen the essences of their competitors. Loud perfumes, often commissioned (without irony) by men, played into women's unending interest in the other women around them. Whether to arouse innocent, friendly small talk between office girls on a luncheon, or catty disapproval, with backhanded comments whispered snidely behind unsuspectig backs, feminine "powerhouse" fragrances like Paris, Poison, Chanel No 5, and Gucci's own Rush were patterned for sapphic and tribalistic mores. Women wore perfumes so loud and garish that sharing an elevator with them meant you stopped on whatever floor had the Tylenol. And even though I knew they weren't wearing them for me, I thought their olfactory egotism was charming.

Bamboo EDT just reminds me of everything we've lost.