4/27/16

Old Spice Original (Proctor & Gamble)


It's Definitely Original.


I want to thank my dad for buying my bottle of Old Spice Original aftershave while on holiday in Ireland. (I requested it.) I'd read on Badger & Blade that the European version was a bit different from the "Classic" stuff sold here, but lacked a convenient way to compare the formulas. Now, thankfully, I can compare them side by side.

I really hate to add to the Old Spice controversy, but I'm afraid I must. True to form, the European version is markedly different from the American formula, and also different from the Indian Rubicon formula. My bottle of Original aftershave is labeled "Proctor & Gamble UK, Weybridge, Surrey." The box is not remarkably different from any other I've seen, but but but, drumroll please: the bottle, oh the bottle! Glass! A big, 150 ml bottle, all glass! How nice. I'll never need another bottle again. Any other version I buy, if not in glass, will be decanted into this flacon. I should remind you that I don't value the glass for any supposed advantage it might lend the scent. I've researched the plastic used for Classic, and found that it has no negative impact on Old Spice. It's just a novelty to have a glass bottle, and it's good fun to splash from something this hefty.

Anyway, the scent itself is easy to describe. It's actually a hybrid of the Rubicon formula and the American formula. The top and early drydown phases of Original closely match the Rubicon aftershave, with a fresher, lighter, creamier characteristic. There's a lot less clove, more sharpness to the cinnamon, and the orange aldehyde is brighter, and dries as something sheer and clean. Wait about five minutes and sweetness takes over, the balsamic powder of the American formula gradually taking over, until I'm left with a fairly close match to the stuff in plastic. It's not exact, but it's so close that I'd be splitting hairs if I tried to describe the difference. Some variance in balance and throw may also be attributable to how the skin toners are used in each. If I were asked to do a blind test, I'd immediately identify them, but if pressed about what exactly gives them away, I'd likely come up short.

Despite its best-of-both-worlds nature, Original isn't as good as Classic. The US formula might be "clovier," sweeter, rosier, more powdery in the base, but ultimately it feels like the most complete scent, with a burlier nature. It's definitely the most masculine. Granted, aftershaves are prone to transience, but I get pretty good time out of the American aftershave (an hour or more). I can't say the same for the Original formula, which feels fleeting after ten minutes, and gone entirely after twenty. If you can find it, try the Original formula for yourself and report back to me. I'd love to know what you think. Curiously enough, it's available stateside as a stick deodorant in their "High Endurance" line, and although it's tricky to get a sense of a fragrance formula from a deodorant alone, I'm now able to verify that it matches the aftershave quite well.



4/17/16

Ungaro Pour L'Homme II (Emanuel Ungaro)


Quite the little coupe.


The masculine triad by Ungaro elicits comparisons between the fragrance world and the car industry. Makes like Toyota and Honda have Lexus and Acura, exotic "upscale" divisions embraced by gleefully ignorant consumers. The cars are the same as their legacy badged counterparts, yet command premiums for being "luxe." Demographically, this approach tends to work better in the North American marketplace, although it exists elsewhere also. But does it make sense? If I choose an Acura Integra coupe over a Honda Prelude, aren't I just buying a variation of the Prelude? For that matter, couldn't I just get an Accord coupe and call it a day?

In the early nineties, Emanuel Ungaro's famous three were branded "Ungaro," but were merely re-badged Chanels. Parfums Ungaro was founded in 1983, but by 1992 it had been assimilated into the Wertheimers' illustrious stock portfolio. Jacques Polge had taken François Demachy under his wing; the two men had created Antaeus and Pour Monsieur Concentrée. The stage was set for Ungaro I, II, and III when they collaborated in 1983 on Diva, released the following year. It was Ungaro's second fragrance, and a broad market test for Chanel's Coco EDP. Its success encouraged Chanel execs to debut the brand's first masculines, and naturally they fell back on team Polge/Demachy. The results catapulted the perfumers' careers through the nineties and into the naughts. Polge remained with Chanel, while Demachy eventually joined Dior.

The three Ungaro brothers were released consecutively in 1991, 1992, and 1993, and they were low-key successes in Europe. I doubt they charted in the States, although Ungaro has always had fans here. Unfortunately, Salvatore Ferragamo Italia SpA inked an acquisition deal with Chanel in 1996, and when the reigns changed hands the first order of business was to delete all but Ungaro III from the roster. Francesco Trapani, CEO of the Ferragamo/Bulgari group, quickly made it clear that Ungaro I and II, along with Senso and the original Ungaro, were to bite the dust. Why is anyone's guess, but my theory is that the only one with healthy sales stats was Ungaro III. Usually I view this as the result of design flaws, but in this case I think advertising was to blame.

Ungaro's brand image was never robust enough to draw new buyers. Their adverts were sexy but unimaginative, their fragrances had esoteric titles and/or bland numerical designations, and their distribution sucked. I rarely saw an Ungaro fragrance at Macy's in the nineties. I don't even recall seeing any in independent shops, and we have pretty good indies here in CT. I guess it goes to show you that availability and brand image mean something, because there's no reason why Ungaro Pour L'Homme II should have been discontinued. It doesn't come across as an "oddball" fragrance. It's more aligned with Chanel's staid classics. What makes it stand out is its quality and craftsmanship, especially when you consider it's intended for men.

I like to laugh at online comments about how masculine fragrances are too often labeled "fougère." The aromatic fougère was the main player in the market, and if we're going to be totally frank about that, we ought to face facts. Twentieth century masculines were largely unimaginative; their target demographic balked at and broke cold sweats over "sweet," "floral," and "fruity" concepts. The only way to inject fun into things was to re-feather the holiday Butterballs with peacock down. The incessant need to prioritize paternal dependability over feminine capriciousness made it challenging, but Ungaro II took some chances and conveyed manly maturity with panache. It smells both demure and daring, and reinterprets conservative forms in a Rococo style.

I won't wax poetic about individual notes and accords. I'll just say that Ungaro II is a musky fougèriental with neroli, tobacco, tonka, amber, and a salubriously smoky vanilla drydown. My initial impression is always that this stuff resembles vintage Pierre Cardin Pour Monsieur, by either Tsumura or Aladdin, but this is only due to how the lavender is mated to the woodier aromatics. Ungaro uses a clear tobacco note, very ashy and "dusty" in character, which distances it from the Cardin. I also smell the eighties, echoes of Concentrée and Zino, and nods to contemporaries like Joint and Aubusson Pour Homme (original). Ungaro II would be a little nondescript if not for its quality: the majority of its players smell resoundingly airy and natural, and that means I get to have some fun with the musks in this stuff. A synthetic musk will never turn heads, but a natural-smelling animalic musk commands attention. I was lucky enough to find an unusued 2.5 oz bottle for under $50 at a brick and mortar shop, but I will warn aspiring Ungaro hunters that time has savaged the longevity of this scent. It technically endures for five hours on my skin, but four of those hours are so deflated and diffuse that I have to breathe on where I sprayed to remember what was there.

That said, I still heartily recommend it. If you enjoy things like Zino and Joint, you'll probably appreciate Ungaro II. It's a bright, fresh, sporty little thing that smells, for ninety minutes at least, much more relaxed and sophisticated than most of the older Chanels I've worn, perhaps with the exception of Égoïste. The elemental simplicity of its design sometimes seems very Polge-like and "safe," but at least it moves through the air like a nimble idea that didn't deserve to be discontinued. It's time to bring Emanuel Ungaro's brand and his masculine fragrances back from the dead. I'd pay Chanel Les Exclusifs prices for a stronger version of this one, that's for sure.




4/9/16

Photo (Karl Lagerfeld)


The Eighties Called: They Want Their Fougère Back.


As a disclaimer, I should clarify that I've never smelled the current formula of Photo. I've only ever smelled the original version from the early nineties, back when Lagerfeld Parfums and Benckiser was packaging it in a black "camera film" package with yellow-green lettering. If it should win any awards, it's for package design; Lagerfeld's cans generally suffer from boring graphics and forgettable color schemes, but Photo's was exceptionally good. Too bad I can't say the same for what's inside.

I'm the sort of person who appreciates vintage and newer formulas of old fragrances, although as you probably already know, I tend to view the value of vintages as something highly relative and variable. I assess each scent with its period's zeitgeist juxtaposed against its current reviews (and reviewers). That said, it's important to note that Photo's release year was 1990, so it was developed in the late eighties, but formulated to match the trends of the early nineties, as Lagerfeld saw them.

In some ways, it's groundbreaking in that regard. Photo's basic structure is an aromatic fougère. Its lavender and coumarin are unmistakable and aggressive, but they're sunken into a familiar Laz-Z-Boy of floral, herbal, and woody aromatics, which flesh out the fern accord, and create an ambery hybrid oriental tone of their own. The lavender note is fresh, bolstered by what may be the tiniest dab of Calone, lending it an almost aquatic, salinated aura that presages the "melon" trend of the nineties. You really have to strain to notice this, though. And Photo's problems begin to outweigh its little victories as it dries down.

Within a minute of application, it becomes clear that Photo is derivative, and copies from two major eighties masculines: Drakkar Noir and Xeryus. Again, I must post a disclaimer and say that I've never smelled the vintage version of Xeryus, but if the reissued Les Parfums Mythiques version is any guide, Givenchy's fragrance was the primary template for Photo, just as Laroche's was the template for Givenchy. Drakkar Noir's treatment of lavender carried down the line before coming to rest in Lagerfeld's scent, and any changes were negligible.

Photo's ingredient quality is on par with Drakkar, but not with the reissued Xeryus, which smells more coherent and balanced in comparison. What this tells me is that contemporary perfumery has moved on from vintage Photo and produced a very similar fragrance that smells measurably better. While affable enough, Photo's notes feel somewhat "blurry" and clumsy; its lavender is a bit too "gummy" (and also resembles the cheap lavender in vintage Bleu Marine), its woody notes are a little too sweet, and perhaps the scent's age is to blame, but the musk in its base smells like a chemical fabric softnener ingredient, like being downwind of Bounce dryer sheets.

LPM Xeryus has cleaner, crisper note separation, with nothing "spiking out," and a much less obvious musk in its cool, ambery base. And if I want an air-conditioned lavender note, the massive herbal blast of Drakkar Noir is still more satisfying than anything else. All things considered, I should have some love for Photo, and I certainly appreciate it as an indicator of where the eighties left off and the nineties began, but find little truth in reviews exalting the vintage version. Maybe I'd enjoy the reformulation more, but I definitely prefer to satiate my appetite for "fougerientals" elsewhere.



4/7/16

Evolving to Endure


Turning Drab, or Just Evolving?


In a recent basenotes thread, the question was raised as to whether or not "mainstream" fragrances have finally reached their commercial nadir, presumably in the face of all things "niche." Though the author is unclear in his original post, many respondents seemed to believe he was challenging the idea that "mainstream," i.e., department store designer frags, have much of a future left. That was the route taken in the pointless discussion that followed.

I say "pointless" because, as always, vintage lovers continue to ignore the one thing intrinsic to their passion: time. It never ceases to amaze me how vintage lovers will bemoan contemporary affairs while holding up idealized examples of yesteryear's olfactory masterworks, all while failing to recognize the paradoxical nature of their mindset. In their worldview, perfumes are no longer subject to the effects of time, vintages will become, quite without irony, extinct, and perfumers must solely revive trends of thirty, forty, and fifty years ago.

The fact that trends have changed, fashions have moved on, orientations of what smells good and wearable vs. questionable and dated do not register. They believe things were better yesterday than they are today, simply because today is not yesterday. Things like vintage Derby, Montana Parfum d'Homme, and whatever else men were dabbing when Herbert Walker Bush was President automatically cancel out Bleu de Chanel and Dior Sauvage, because of reasons. But no, these fragrances have been discontinued because people loved them, right? Whatever they're churning out today isn't comparable to the divine beauty of the dinosaurs.

What I find funny about these conversations is that they exist in the very same bubble as the vintage appreciation itself. These basenoters act as though their opinions weigh favorably against the millions of people who buy stuff like Bleu and Sauvage. As if a handful of guys on a perfume forum who feel like taking a few days to shit on designer frags represent the counterculture to the schmucks who shop at Macy's.

They don't. They like generic crap as much as the next guy. What separates them from the mooks is that they like expensive and obscure niche shit a little more. But that only helps them so much, and frankly I think most can see through it. The OP of the thread above gave L'Eau d'Issey Pour Homme Summer 2012 a thumbs-up for Christ's sakes. (He also writes very highly of Bond No 9 fragrances - wtf?) What is telling about this person is that he exhibits the curious behavior of bashing Bleu de Chanel, making the often heard claim that it smells like a myriad of other things, yet declining to mention a single one by name, so as not to "bore you." How considerate!

Whenever I read a review like that, I recognize the reviewer as a "type." This person isn't a reliable source of information on a fragrance because he has a bizarre vendetta against anything that might appeal to millions of other guys. If it only appeals to a few thousand wealthy guys, it's legit. But that generic department store crap that smells like many other things that he won't bother to name (because he's full of shit)? That's for the hoi polloi. The guys who drive Chevys because they deserve to.

Most Bond fragrances are designer rips (and/or Creed rips) that really aren't worth full retail - like most designer fragrances. Yet most of the Bonds he reviews are in the green. What gives? I think we've run afoul of common sense here, that's what. The worldview being held by vintage lovers doesn't hold up to scrutiny, simply because it doesn't comport with reality.

Let's take a quick look at what's happening, and piece it all together from the vantage point of a person who sniffs scents with an open mind, without caring about the size of their pricetags. In the last thirty years, perfume has changed, rather dramatically. Once upon a time, men were into earthy, woody, spicy, resinous, musky compositions that layered rich, heady aromas into borderline orgiastic displays of liquid testosterone. Even the "polite" stuff like Davidoff's first few scents were miles away from the typical "fresh" scents of today.

What changed? I feel like I'm in the basement slurping brewskies with Principal Vernon and Carl the janitor. You know, that scene in that movie when Vernon complains to Carl that the kids have become more and more arrogant. And then Carl wryly answers with: "The kids haven't changed. You have." Well, imagine the perfumes (and perfumers by proxy) are the kids here. Has their performance in our school of thought really declined, or has our open mindedness and understanding gone out the window? What if the kids are growing up, or better yet, evolving beyond what we expected them to be?

Consider the beauty of the Monarch butterfly, its brightness and natural gaudiness the visual equivalent of something like Balenciaga Pour Homme, or perhaps Bob Mackie for Men. These were what people wanted in the late eighties and early nineties. But these weren't the most socially acceptable fragrances. Thirty years ago, mass market department store fragrances for men were still relatively new. You didn't see this stuff lighting the commercial world on fire in the fifties, sixties, or early seventies. It wasn't until things like Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin PM started to catch on that brands began to reach out to middle class blue collar buyers with XY chromosomes.

By the mid nineties, men were only seriously buying fragrance en masse for about twenty years. That isn't a long time. It isn't enough time for people to atone for, well, overdoing it. We endured a decade and a half of bombastic celebrations: "Yay, we can smell each other from across the subway tracks!" And then, at long last, we started to wish we hadn't gone so apeshit.

Enter the "hygienic" nineties, with its "aquatic" and "citrus" and "herbal" and "sport" stuff that men lapped up like dogs in August. Acqua di Gio and CK Escape. L'Eau d'Issey and Platinum Egoiste. This stuff was just as loud as the eighties brews were, but their loudness was geared toward the ideas of soapy-fresh cleanliness and hesperidic fantasy. On an intellectual level, we needed a shower after all the musky dirtiness of prior years. So we washed with Le Male and Allure Homme.

If you want to cry about "the beginning of the end" for designer, you might as well consider the mid to late nineties the tipping point. Except it wasn't. Instead, the naughts gave us more designer stuff, much of it forgettable, much of it garbage, and much of it both. And now we're in the teens, and the niche revolution has come and gone (even Luca Turin is over it), and we've fallen back on bashing designer because we've nothing better to do with ourselves.

Funny thing, though - designer fragrances persist. Tirelessly. And when I stop to consider what this means, I can't help but see it as the inexorable march on the forward path that nature takes in its journey to building the perfect beast. Which brings me to the humble leaf butterfly, which looks quite drab next to the King Monarch. Heck, if you don't stop to really look, you just don't even see the leaf butterfly, even though it's right there in front of you with its wings out. Why is that? The leaf butterfly has evolved to endure. It's invisible to predators. It doesn't care about being beautiful and flamboyant. It values longevity over bombast. Nature has found a way to genetically transcribe these traits into something that will carry on for a very long time, unlike the flying bulls-eye butterfly. You can't kill the leaf, because it blends in, and it's easy to miss.

Clearly, this is where perfumers are taking us. This is where nature is headed. Yeah, those bottles of Sauvage look pretty dull and nondescript, almost totally blending into their department store surroundings, but guess what? People are responding to this with their pocket money. Sauvage is a little of everything, yet it's unlike anything else. It's truly new. And so far nobody has satisfactorily found a direct comparison for it. The same goes for Bleu. For years now the vintage loving blowhards have railed against Bleu for being derivative and "generic," yet they can't define those terms in relation to the scent.

The OP says that in the future, he doubts people will be seeking vintage bottles of Paco Rabanne's Invictus. Yet how many relatively recent releases were discontinued, only to be sought out for resale? This isn't uncommon. To point to that scent and use it as an example of why today's fragrances are "bad" doesn't compute.

What also doesn't work is the mental gymnastics I have to do to understand the logic of people who think "generic" department store scents aren't worth the time or energy. Take this comment, for instance:

"Designers are basically dreck these days (generally-speaking, of course), and this has led me to buy scents like some of the Playboys, which are great value for the money (I wait for bargains). But there's something else here, which is that these are often 'watered-down' versions of popular designers, meaning I can wear them because they don't become cloying, as so many recent designers do!"

When you're done scratching your head, think about what this person is really saying here: "Designer fragrances smell like crap these days, so I buy much cheaper clones of these crappy designers because they're harder for people to smell, which means they're a great value!"

Huh?

Look, I'll wrap this up by pointing out the obvious. In the wide-ranging canon of masculine scents across the decades, the classics that have truly endured are the subtle treasures, not the loudmouthed braggarts. Old Spice. Brut. Guerlain Vetiver. Zino. Acqua di Gio. The crazier stuff, like Jules, the original Kouros by Pierre Bourdon, and Balenciaga Pour Homme, have fallen on the noses of niche audiences, and much harder times. These are the fragrances that are no longer "mainstream."

Can you accuse Bleu de Chanel and Sauvage of smelling as bombastic and crude as those old saws were? No. Do they speak with the same civility as Guerlain Vetiver and Zino? Actually, yes. They've evolved to be staid and forgettable to a few thousand people (those who actually stop to argue this stuff), but they're intriguing and beautiful to millions of buyers. I'm pretty sure that twenty years from now, people will still be buying Bleu and Sauvage. They're the perfect examples of postmodern perfumery evolving to endure.




4/3/16

Imperial Leather Bar Soap (Cussons)




Back in the seventies, PZ Cussons reissued their prewar Imperial Leather brand of colognes and aftershaves for "men of good taste," a move that in retrospect was probably doomed from day one, given the growing popularity of a liquid jetsetter named Brut. I doubt Cussons could compete with Fabergé in the fragrance market, but they weren't limited to colognes. They'd always boasted a healthy range of toiletries, including their flagship bar soap. I splurged on a six pack of soap from UK Gourmet, a lovely little British import shop in Newtown, CT, and I'm pleased to say that I don't regret the purchase at all.

The bars are relatively small, weighing in at about 3.5 ounces. They're narrow and lightweight, their feel in hand similar to Ivory soap, but with a much smoother texture. They're double wrapped in little cardboard boxes and vacuum plastic. Centered on the bars themselves are little sticker labels that peel off. In water, Imperial Leather is a surprisingly high viscosity soap that lathers easily into rich, oily suds that take longer than expected to rinse off. It has an antiquated lavender freshness with a hint of saddle soap and sandalwood, similar to the current Arden Sandalwood. I think it also works pretty well with a splash of the current English Leather.

Of the drugstore soaps I've tried, Cussons' is a step up. Yes, it reminds me of hotel soap, and it's a bit over-packaged (it'd be cheaper without the cardboard), but it gets the job done and smells good. It's also a deodorant soap; its austere aroma fills my bathroom with the same nuclear strength of Irish Spring. Its incredible lather has me wondering if it would make a decent shave soap. I'll try it out and see. The shop also had a bottle of the talc, so perhaps in the future I'll give that a whirl too.