17 Oud Mosaic (Banana Republic)

It's August, and autumn is right around the corner here in the stormy and muggy Northeast. Although I'm growing ever fonder of barbershop stuff, and foresee a future of wearing inexpensive powdery things commonly found on Barbicide-stained hair salon shelves, there's still occasion to don something that is more mature and sophisticated. 17 Oud Mosaic by Banana Republic makes for a compelling option in that regard.

As everyone who reads this blog knows, I'm not a fan of oud. The oud craze emerged back in the late 2000s, mostly with niche releases, and carried steadily onward through the last decade, when it penetrated the designer market, but I never warmed to it. Real oud is a complex note of prickly rotted woods and barnyard animalic funk, and is usually polished with a silvery glow akin to incense, and while that sounds like my thing, there's something about the funk that turns me off. I'm all for animalics, but the weirdly sweaty aspect of quality oud doesn't register as anything particularly sexy to me. 

Fortunately, Oud Mosaic doesn't contain a detectable oud note, real or synthetic. I won't hold back here: this fragrance is a 2017 recalibration of a 1989 fragrance by Azzaro called Acteur. Claude Dir, who authored the original feminine Escape for CK back in 1991, clearly studied the budgetary constraints of Azzaro's formula, assessed Maurice Maurin's rose reconstruction, approximated the spiced-woody accord that segues into Azzaro's floral note, and relied on excess of fruity esters to present something arguably original. That said, the rose here is Acteur's (the far dry-down woods are Zino's).  

The very top of Dir's fragrance is an opulent cloud of cedar, cardamom, vetiver, pepper, saffron, and musk, . . . eh, no this is complete bullshit. It's really just a piquant raw apple cider with underpinnings of cedar and lime that swiftly blurs into a darker semisweet stewed red apple and dry rose accord, and this October rose stays pretty linear before fading away several hours later. Longevity and projection are pretty good, although not mind-blowing, and I do wish the opening brightness persisted for much longer than it does, but the rose is so pleasant and grounding that all is forgiven. For twenty bucks, this is incredible stuff, and the sort of thing I miss dearly. It's the early nineties again.

I'm not sure why it's called "Oud" Mosaic, though. Is the woodsy cider effect meant to create an olfactory mosaic that generates the impression of oud? The classic pairing of woods and funereal rose is what's presented, and maybe the dusty anachronisms of the two parts lend a psychological perception of oud's presence? I'm not getting that, which guarantees I'll be wearing 17 Oud Mosaic often in the months to come.


Eau de Quinine (Pinaud)

British Colonial Soldiers, early 1900s

I'd like to get this out of the way first: Pinaud's hair tonics are not meant to provide hold. Compare the ingredients to their aftershaves, and you'll find the hair tonics are merely alcohol, fragrance, preservatives, and artificial color. The only difference is it says Hair Tonic instead of Aftershave on the label. Hair tonics are meant to de-flake the scalp and soften the roots for healthier hair, and that's it. Use styling gel to mould your coif, but be sure to run some Eau de Quinine through first to clean your head. 

Pinaud's Eau de Quinine is the brand's oldest surviving barbershop product. According to the Smithsonian, it was originally released in the 1850s, and has survived nearly two centuries in various iterations. Today it is labeled for hair-care but easily doubles as an aftershave-cologne, and I find its scent to be one of the most durable in the Pinaud lineup, a lovely shaving foam tune with a bracing quinine and cherry chord instead of anisic lavender, followed by a minuet of patchouli and vanilla in the dry-down. 

People ask, why Eau de Quinine? What place does quinine have in a barbershop? The answer takes us back to nineteenth century England, when Britain's Imperial Century saw the expansion of its empire across Africa and Asia, continents where malaria was everywhere. The Brits knew quinine was useful in fighting mosquito-borne diseases, and put it in anything they could - water, tablets, alcohol, toiletries - and it became an essential tool in the belt of the English colonizer. Pinaud marketed their Eau de Quinine shampoo, hair tonic, and cologne to safari-bound parties, and it caught on in the 1870s, when expansion was fully underway, becoming popular as hair-care for women, and an all-over bug repellant for men. This required copious amounts of quinine extract from the bark of the South American and Caribbean cinchona tree. 

Synthesis of quinine was first achieved in 1944 by organic chemist Robert Woodward and Professor William Doering, and Pinaud's hair tonic made a comeback around that time, although natural quinine retained its status. Ian Fleming featured Pinaud's Eau de Quinine shampoo in chapter two of the 1963 novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service, detailing how a road-weary James Bond found hotel respite in a bottle of champagne and a cold shower using "Pinaud Elixir, that prince among shampoos." I find this interesting because it shows that Fleming himself used the shampoo, and held it in high regard. He likely booster-shot new life into Pinaud's product line, although sadly the shampoo has long been discontinued. Bring it back, Pinaud. 

Today, Eau de Quinine remains a historical novelty, but I think it's amazing that Pinaud sticks to its guns and continues making it. I wouldn't recommend it as a hair product, but heartily endorse using it as an aftershave and cologne. I get several hours of noticeable longevity from it, and find the smell very much in line with traditional barbershop tonics. It has a freshness, yet also a smokiness, a hint of tobacco, a subtle earthiness, and a masculine vanilla powder at the end that is tooled finely enough to compete with pricier fare. It gets mixed reviews, with one notable blogger calling it "utterly boring and uninspired." I disagree - this is historically inspired, and thus unavoidably interesting. 

A note on unicorn vintage hunting: for several years now some jerk has been listing a 30 oz bottle of 1960s Elixir shampoo on eBay for $1k. So far, no buyers. Let's keep it that way. Vintage Pinaud is best priced between fifty and a hundred dollars, unless the bottle is from the eighteen-hundreds, pristine, sealed, and full. 


Let's Keep the Terms "Designer" and "Niche"

A few years ago, Youtuber Daver of Fragrance Bros. fame posted a thought-provoking video in which he proposed retiring and replacing the terms "designer" and "niche" to distinguish between the two different perfume camps. His solution was to employ the labels "mainstream" and "boutique" instead. This got me thinking about why we might be more wedded to how we address these categories than we realize, particularly when he gets to the part about what "makes sense." 

Let's start by briefly considering what I like to call, "The Comedy of Semantics." This is when a description, a series of adjectives, a prevailing definition, is parlayed several different ways, with the same result each time, and without actually clarifying a subject in any iteration. Superman is the personification of The Comedy of Semantics, because we're exposed to three Supermans across his history: Superman, the supernatural alien god, Clark Kent, the supernatural alien god in plainclothes, and Super-ego Superman, the douchebag in a cape. For the record, Super-ego Superman is the real Superman. 

When I say "Superman," you think of a noble hero who looks and acts like a man, yet can literally reverse Earth's rotation if he walks fast enough. When I say "Clark Kent," you think of the same guy, except he wears glasses. But Super-ego Superman? This is the long-form name for him, which is to say it's just him, pure and simple. In the 1950s, Superman's entire legacy was book after book of him belittling and insulting his friends, creatively degrading women, unduly chastising his kids, and just being an all-around jerk. He wasn't a hero, he wasn't even "super," he was just an asshole. And American teenagers scarfed it up. When the pretense of heroism was stripped away, it revealed a boorish cad. But the boorish cad was Superman with his hair down. It was inarguably Superman being himself. With that said, the Superman who saves Lois Lane and pretends to be Clark Kent is also inarguably the guy being himself. Why bother with Kent, Superman, or Superman, "King of the Earth," when the man is the same? 

The answer, of course, is in why we might be drawn to these different labels, and who they represent. For some, the unvarnished Superman is the coolest way to take in his otherworldly majesty, flowing cape and all. For others, Clark Kent holds a peculiarly familiar charm, despite the obvious bullshit. For still others, seeing Superman act out after a long day in the office by berating and insulting his friends is his most "super" act of all. There's a different audience for each, and different levels of humor in attendance. And here is where the semantics of perfumery directly apply to Daver's argument. 

Daver suggests that there's no longer any practical use for saying "designer" and "niche," because the fragrance world has expanded to the point where nothing is clear anymore, and people don't even know why they're using the terms. This may be true to some degree, but he proposed using "boutique" and "mainstream" instead, and I expressed myself in the following comment beneath his video: 
"You have to ask why someone would buy something. With 'designer' fragrances, people are buying because they want a connection to the designer brand, and the product is sold to them via the perceived pedigree of that brand. With 'niche' there's no prevailing brand awareness to form the cultural tailwinds because the brand is entirely conceptual. Unlike a Chanel, where I can associate the perfume with the clothing and accessories (and commercial image), a Xerjoff stands alone with only the Xerjoff name and perfumes to speak for it. 
If I don't understand something specific about Xerjoff perfumes, like what kind of fragrances they make, and how those fragrances compare to everything else, I won't be inclined to bother buying anything. Thus I'm basing a purchase solely off of what I know, rather than what I perceive. This makes the act of buying one of self-stratification with niche, while buying designer is me adhering to commercial stratification; when I buy Xerjoff, I am distinguishing myself as someone who appreciates Xerjoff perfumes, whereas a Chanel purchase is Chanel successfully tagging me a Chanel customer.
The problem with your term 'boutique' is that it's a distinction without a difference. Chanel boutiques are literally what they're called. So does that make Chanel's frags 'boutique' frags, when they're clearly just 'mainstream,' as you say? Creed Boutique is another example. Creed's logo is a clothing tailor's scissors. They're not hiding the ball there, they're telling the world they're designers . . . These terms 'boutique' and 'mainstream' don't really address what customers are buying, because they negate why they're buying them. So basically let's just keep 'niche' and 'designer.'" 

While I think his argument is interesting, my counter-argument is that there's really no point in trying to separate the two categories with different language when the current language is clarifying from a consumer's point of view. Terms like "boutique" and "mainstream" are probably useful guidance for the suits wanting to know which market they should penetrate, but they fail to acknowledge the psychological motivation of the customer. Daver actually mentions this, stating that "niche" used to target a specific audience, which elaborates on the exact definition of the term, yet he deviates into the notion that the targets have broadened enough to warrant calling the whole mess "boutique." Certainly you could do this, but it would confuse many people as a colloquial term, especially when discussing designer boutiques. There's just too much definitional overlap there, a certain Comedy of Semantics. 

He argues that there's too much audience overlap between the two market segments, but by taking an introspective approach to that argument, I hoped to parse out the utility of maintaining the Old Guard terms. In some ways I see his point more in regards to saying "mainstream fragrance," simply because this doesn't confuse. Stuff like Bleu de Chanel and Dior Homme are "mainstream" and mass-market. But there's still a linguistic weakness inherent to applying this label; we live in a world where familiarity isn't always the act of knowing. While Chanel and Dior are familiar "mainstream" brands, there are entire swaths of their catalog that exist under the radar. Everybody knows Chanel No. 5, but a tiny subset of everybody knows of Chanel Boy. Yet the same "mainstream" brand makes both. If you're releasing perfumes that very few people are aware of, are you in the "mainstream," or simply successful at penetrating mainstream markets? How would a customer ever discover Boy? Oh, yes, because they're interested in something to go with a Chanel tweed sweater, and the knowledgeable salesman happens to mention lavender. Suddenly the clothing matters again, even if it has nothing to do with how anything smells. Clark's Glasses vs. Superman's Cape. 

If you ask me, "What kind of boutique fragrances do you like," my answer will be, "Huh?" Ask me "What niche brands are in your collection," and I'll immediately know what you're talking about, because I'm the niche audience that wanted specific items in my collection. Boutique fragrances are pretty much all fragrances, and it's hard to know what you're after if you use that word. 

We need to be clearer in the language we use. In a time where everyone has their own pronouns and "truths," where definitions are being adjusted and expanded upon on a minute-by-minute basis, it would behoove us to rope in meaning when we see it, and I'm fairly certain the demarcation of perfumery markets is a worthy subject for that. Then again, Super-ego Superman would probably reduce me to a blubbering mess for suggesting it, so let's keep this between us.