Sleight of Fern (Masque Milano)

Stéphanie Bakouche is a marquee name in the fragrance industry, having worked for Givaudan and Takasago, as well as Parfums MDCI. In 2006, she established herself with Invasion Barbare, a postmodern relativist fougère that is as sleek and powerful as a small block aluminum engine. Its Germanic lines of unswerving aldehydes, bergamot, lavender, violet leaf, cardamom, thyme, cedar, vanilla, and white musk are anything but barbaric - they're really rather conventional and boring. That said, the fragrance is technically quite good, with each note and accord neatly arranged to convey a sense of sanguine masculinity. Brut for the rich. 

Stéphanie must have taken the criticisms of her work to heart, because her 2022 release for Masque Milano makes a statement that Invasion Barbare did not. Sleight of Fern opens with a barrage of medicinal anisic and green-geranium notes, carried along sinus-piercing bergamot, all lending the accord the desiccated effect of garrigue, with nuances of rosemary, juniper, and thyme bleeding through. This all gives way to a surprisingly burly lavender, with robust accents of patchouli, rosewood, a super-piquant coriander, ambergris, cedar, and civet, along with several other Kouros-like musks. Virile and a touch old-school, Masque Milano's fougère smells at various points like Davidoff's Zino (1986), Trumper's Wild Fern (1877), and, quite amusingly, Invasion Barbare. 

This presents a quandary for me, the humble reviewer. I enjoy Sleight of Fern, and I think it smells the way a fougère should: properly animalic, yet also herbal and soapy. But looking at my collection, I find I have fougères from yesteryear that satisfy this itch for far less money. Red for Men (1991, $14), Vermeil for Men (1995, $17), Wild Fern ($60), Lapidus Pour Homme (1987, $15), all accomplish in degrees the same result as this expensive niche offering. Kouros achieves the woody-musky effect better than all of them. But if you enjoy the subtle nuances of this sort of thing, and don't mind the price, Sleight of Fern is a pleasant option that is, quite frankly, a damn sight better than Invasion Barbare. 


Curve for Men (Liz Claiborne)

I attended high school from the fall of 1996 to the spring of 2000, so I managed to graduate in the final year of the twentieth century. I would have tossed my cap in 1999, but my folks held me back a year. This made me a little older than everyone in my class, from first grade onward. It also led to an odd bifurcation of my teenage experience; my personal sensibilities were sometimes aligned with those of my peers, and other times not so much. My taste in perfume was unoriginal (i.e., aspirational), and I gravitated to my French teacher's Chanel, but many of my friends liked Claiborne - and I understand why.

Curve for Men was released in 1996, freshman year, and contrary to what some of the talk on the interwebs suggests, it wasn't exactly "cheap" that year. I recall seeing it exclusively at Macy's and J.C. Penney: $45 for a 2.5 oz bottle, $65 for a 4.2 oz. These were standard Connecticut prices, but if you toured the malls of the Eastern Seaboard in the late nineties, you would be hard-pressed to find Curve for much less. Liz Claiborne was still very much alive and in the game, and although she had adopted the same mass-market strategy as brands like Pierre Cardin and Michel Germain, the newness and cultural success of fruit-fueled Curve kept it on the pricier side until the early 2000s. 

I mention this because the quality of the original Curve and its first unofficial flanker, Claiborne Sport (1997), is strikingly good. Jean-Claude Delville borrowed some of CK Eternity's pyramid and used the same heart accord of lavender, citrus, and sandalwood, but filtered it through Lisa Frank-like tones of neon greens, a drop of sweet pineapple, and dewy ginger. Accompanying the requisite dihydromyrcenol and violet leaf in the mid are very nineties notes of ginseng and soapy black pepper. Is it cheap in 2023? Yes. Does it smell good? Yep, and like its sport variant, it's still worth every penny. To wear the true nineties formula, look for Claiborne Sport on eBay. My vintage bottle is verrry potent. 


Greenley (Parfums de Marly)

This perfume went through some name changes before Parfums de Marly settled on Greenley. Its original title was "Sutton," and you can still find pictures of boxes with that label from late 2019 and early 2020. The story goes that another company had something that went by "Sutton" (gee, wonder which one it could be?), and it politely asked PdM to reconsider. Then they road-tested "Epsom," which is an odd one, although there's virtually no evidence of this to be found online, so I don't know how true it is. Eventually they went with the color of the packaging, the safest (and lamest) choice. 

My take on Greenley is that it faces a few insurmountable challenges. Its main problem is that it inhabits the Creed price bracket at $355 for 75 ml, and Creed does green better than every other niche brand in existence. Want something fresh, green, clean? Original Vetiver. Want something manly with a perfect grassy/green apple accord? Green Irish Tweed. Looking for an edgier fruity-green? Silver Mountain Water. These frags are expensive, but they're expensive for a reason: they smell miles better than anything in the designer realm, and they're made with top-tier synthetics. For Greenley to stack up, it needs to match or surpass the Creed standard by using equivalently good materials in an equally-great composition. Unfortunately, it falls short. Like, $300 short.

Greenley smells remarkably close to Banana Republic's Grassland, and I suspect the latter is a straight-up clone. Both fragrances are directly predicated on a familiar cast of sweet-green violet-leaf-and-ginger things popularized by Green Valley (1999, another Creed). Both open with a translucent mélange of green apple and citrus, both pop and fizz their way into serene grassy-woody handsoap hearts, and both end up on simple bases of Cashmeran and white musk. Greenley's apple is perkier and its heart is pinier, but it's undeniably a waste of cash. For soapy-green, get Grassland instead. 


Valaya (Parfums de Marly)

Photo by Don Graham 

Having taken up the pursuit of fragrance writing in the early twenty-tens, I was privy to veritable oceans of shit-talk about the house of Creed. The brand was lambasted for its purportedly false historical references and claims of clientele pedigree, and for generating legions of "swivel-eyed" chads who swore by their "panty-droppers." 

Yet, to me, Parfums de Marly is a far more chad-centric niche brand than Creed ever was. I can't even get to my subscriptions page on YouTube without encountering a half-dozen videos of men touting the latest PdM scent. It even generates quite a bit of female-driven content, to the point where if another woman tells me how sexy Layton is, I'm buying a one-way ticket to Međugorje and taking a vow of chastity. 

Nevertheless, Valaya is a beautiful name on a beautiful bottle for a perfume crafted by a handsome and accomplished perfumer named Quentin Bisch, and with ample evidence that PdM isn't going anywhere anytime soon, it's time for a review. The PdM site gushes, "Fresh top notes as bergamot, mandarin, and sweet white peach, lead to a blend of white flowers, settling on musk and ambrofix sensual base notes." Reading that, I'm lead to believe that Valaya is a standard woody-floral musk. Priced at $177 per ounce, I want the floral elements to really shine. And they do, kind of. 

The copy is fairly accurate in regards to the top: noticeable for several minutes are juicy essences of warm citrus, followed by a lick of peach, and they're soft, transparent, and well done. In our post-Covid world, in which every other nose is virus-compromised, perfumers have resorted to diabolically powerful ambers and musks, things that even the most war-torn snout can detect. I've never had Covid, so mine is still keen. It embraces the top notes of Valaya, only to sense their swift transition to a massively radiant and intensely powdery white musk, which emanates facets of the fruity opening fusillade, while also enveloping them in a gauzy haze of arid, nondescript freshness. Must be the Ambrofix, which Givaudan cites as "the most suitable material to deliver an authentic Ambergris note." 

This cacophonous muskiness also possesses ambery, vanillic, and white-floral dimensions, including a truly diaphanous accord of a dry orange blossom melody uplifted by a silvery, muguet-like harmony. There is subtle beauty to be found in Valaya, but I feel that it "flattens" around ninety minutes after application, and becomes a nebulous and linear dryer-sheet amber for the remainder of wear time, which stretches on for no less than ten hours. In the end it reminds me, stylistically at least, of CK One, that landmark abstract citrus-floral, which can still be had for around eight bucks an ounce. 


Treacle (Pineward)

Nicotiana, Photo by Markus Hagenlocher

I'm under the impression that Nicholas Nilsson released Treacle and Steading together, like Hayride and Hayloft, and Christmas Wine and Glühwein. Of the two, I consider Treacle the far better fragrance, and I think it's one of the finest tobacco perfumes in existence.

Like Steading, Treacle is a bit sweet, but it's not sugary-sweet, not gourmand. Steading is loaded with intense notes of graham cracker, gingerbread, molasses, honey, and maple syrup, but Treacle has only a beautifully balanced interplay of fermented tobacco leaves and raisins, with the gentlest hints of molasses and honey tying them together. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the breathtaking smoke-dried camellia sinensis top note, which, while fleeting, ushers everything in with decadent aplomb. The fruity-caramellic side of honey swirls in the air with the caliginous savour of molasses, until the duo succumbs to a stunning burnished tobacco, which smells simultaneously rich and expansive. When it comes to notes, tobacco leaf is one that I want rendered as clearly and simply as possible, with precious few complementary embellishments. Treacle delivers. 

The mark of a great perfumer is his or her ability to render subjective interpretations of the world around them in olfactory terms. When I smell Treacle, I know what Nilsson thinks of tobacco: he adores it, and he wants me to enjoy it with him. Invitation accepted, good sir. Invitation accepted. 


Autumnal (Pineward)

Photo by An Basova, color & contrast adjusted by B. Ross, Creative Commons Attribution

One of the knocks against all-natural perfumery is that it tends to yield things that resemble herbal teas. I don't know if Autumnal is all-natural or not, but it smells like I'm wearing an herbal teabag. It's like I stuck my head in a barrel of herbs, mostly peppermint. In fact, all I smell with any clarity is peppermint. It's rich and spicy and not unlike Twinnings peppermint tea, or perhaps a peppermint-herbal potpourri. You get the idea. 

I've never associated autumn with peppermint. I can barely detect other notes in the composition, and they're crushed by its Manhattan-sized menthol monster. There's a whisper of chamomile, a dusting of cinnamon, and terpenic fir needles tucked under all the menthol. After a few hours, the chamomile asserts itself more, and its gentle sweetness pairs well with the sharpness of mint. By day's end of wearing Autumnal, all I smell on myself is a quality chamomile-mint tea, the kind that costs $10 a box. 

Autumnal smells good, but I should be drinking these aromatics, not wearing them. I close my eyes, and I'm in the spices-and-herbs aisle of my local health food store. 


Velvetine (Pineward)

I happen to
like "trashy" ambers, those cheap kitchen-sink amalgams of resinous materials, softened with vanilla and given lift and sparkle with aldehydes. A good example is Tabu by Jean Carles, an intense oriental with zillions of abstract notes, all sandwiched between a metric fuck-ton of aldehydes on top and a massive sassafras/patchouli/benzoin accord below. Spraying it on is like attempting to time travel back to 1932, with an exponential increase in mass accompanying the lightning speed of your migraine setting in. It turns out that perfumery, like all forces, is subject to the laws of gravitational physics. You really can have too much of a good thing. 

Pineward's Velvetine is one such amber, of the trashiest variety. It presents as the brand's real "core expression" to me, more so than Fanghorn II, in that it embodies the pedestrian "candle amber" that imbues more than half of the range's offerings with its pervasive and amorphous sweetness. It's as if Nicholas Nilsson took a pair of tweezers to the line, extracted that essence, and called it a perfume. If you're into that sort of thing, Velvetine is for you. I'm aware of two elements when smelling it: a beautiful ambergris accord in the top that lasts about ten minutes, reminiscent of a similar handling of ambergris in YSL's original Kouros, followed by a perpetually incipient amber of vanilla, clove, cinnamon, incense, and labdanum, with a hint of the ambergris sweetness adding some dimension to the vanilla. Compact, dusky, semisweet, rather warm and fuzzy. Not bad, except it doesn't develop much, and you can get this kind of thing from classics like vintage Cinnabar, and the aforementioned Tabu. (These vintages are available in abundance on eBay.)

Perfumers usually fail not from a lack of talent, but from a lack of vision. Velvetine is a work of great talent, but a failure because it courses haplessly after an ideal fragrance "type," the classical oriental, without ever gaining purchase. Wearing it feels like an exercise in nostalgia that doesn't build on itself, but instead collapses under its own weight. It is as if Nilsson saw vintage Cinnabar and Tabu, but not his own versions of them. He used no brighter notes of citrus or white florals to balance the resins. There are no aldehydes, which keeps everything earthbound. And the dry-down remains linear for hours, reminding the wearer of what could have been. 


Revelries (Pineward)

Evening Revelry by Benjamin Vautier

Revelries should be, at least judging from its notes list, an easy thumbs-up from me. Stewed fruity notes blended with spiced rum? Hazelnuts, raisins, and a bit of oud? Sign me up! If there's anything I've learned from wearing this range, it's that Pineward's nose shows immense talent with fruity-woody compositions. Yet Revelries perplexes me. 

It opens with a sharp barrage of spicy-fruity things, very clovey, cinnamony, appley, but after a few seconds of legibility, these notes blur together to form something olfactorily analogous to bitter-green angelica, with all of its celery off-notes. Eventually this effect gives way to an oddly dank amber, a phase I struggle with the most. Everything in it feels ponderous and affectless, with only the twang of cinnamon rum lending texture to an egregiously flat synthetic oud. Occasionally throughout the day, I catch pleasant whiffs of a familiar Pineward apple note, but the accord is like cider that's half-turned to vinegar. 

With time and tears, this tightly-clenched arrangement loosens up enough to allow the mellow sweetness of raisins and the sugary afterglow of apples and rum to shine through. Sadly, this is not until its murky oud heart has burned off, by which point I've asked myself a hundred times why I didn't just wear Apple Tabac or Pastoral instead. 


Christmas Wine & Glühwein (Pineward)

Detail of Saint Nicholas by Robert Walter Weir, c. 1838

Nicholas Nilsson opted to give his customers the full concept behind Glühwein ("Mulled Wine") by releasing its base as another perfume, Christmas Wine. Glühwein smells rich and robust, while Christmas Wine is dry and pallid, and I think they're terrific fragrances. Both are gorgeous; both are contemporary masterworks. 

First, the base: Christmas Wine is to be lauded for having a rare cranberry note that permeates its entire structure and remains legible (and beautiful) for hours. It is predictably brumal and bitter, and is closely mated to an equally brusque blood orange, which imbues its heart with an arresting shimmer of warmth, a flame flickering in the snow. Touches of nutmeg and balsamic notes round things off and provide balance. The fragrance dwindles down to little more than sour cranberry with the ghost of woody-citrus parsing its glittering edges. It's the clearest and perhaps the most unisex fragrance in the line, with a rimy concision that is eminently modern, fresh, and original.

Glühwein is obviously related, and has the same fruity underpinnings, but with sturdier notes of chocolate and honeyed champaca in its heart. Not nearly as fresh as its template, but perhaps all the better for it, this evolved variation isn't particularly complex, but at least feels like a festive affair. I waffle on whether I like the chocolate note. There are times when it feels right, but also moments where it's a bit too gastronome for my style. Then there are times still when Glühwein's darker notes coalesce into a velvety dessert wine, which is when it makes me smile. I'd say Glühwein is the friendlier fragrance.

Both compositions are reminders that the most engaging innovations in niche perfumery are spurred by uncomplicated ideas. Unlike many of Nilsson's other creations, these two elucidate a simple pleasure, the smell of holiday cheer. While they may occasionally feel a bit raw, I find them endlessly interesting, and well worth a year-round sniff. 


Cotswold (Pineward)

When I approach
a niche fragrance, the first thing I consider is cost. Why am I spending in excess of one hundred dollars on a perfume? What is it offering me that I can't get from something for half the price? I expect to experience heightened legibility (discernible notes that coalesce into a distinct structure), superlative materials (sturdy synthetics that include captive molecules), and efficient design (structurally beautiful at all stages). 

Pineward perfumes are relatively expensive. Seventeen milliliters will set you back eighty dollars. For that kind of money, I want all of the above. Cotswold doesn't give me any of it. Aside from a fleeting phantom of woody pine in the top accord, it smells entirely of some banal dessert-flavor Yankee Candle. It's a sweet, foody, ignoble, and overtly synthetic fragrance, overwhelmingly driven by vanilla and stale buttery notes, evocative of those Royal Dansk cookies that come in a fancy blue tin. 


Eldritch (Pineward)

Photo by Hypnotica Studios Infinite

Patchouli is commonly associated with hippies, and for good reason: its potent aroma is ideal for camouflaging body odors, sex smells, and marijuana vapors. This made it pretty handy in the years between 1963 and 1975. In 2023 it is still kindred to its free-love roots, but now belongs to a sort of postmodernistically open interpretation of human experience, where its facets can be tweaked and comported to fit an individualistic fracturing of society. Think Urs Fischer, not Yayoi Kusama. Enter Eldritch.

"Eldritch" is an adjective for "weird and sinister or ghostly." As a fragrance, it is definitely weird; those unwashed naked bodies on Hawaiian beaches in black-and-white photos are now thrown into a digitally color-corrected American inner city, given pink hair, and plopped amidst a field of NPCs on their smart phones. Eldritch adopts a viciously aggressive profile, throwing the crispness of a properly dusky oolong tea, a leathery opoponax, a super-dry oakmoss, and a camphor-heavy patchouli into a designer woody-amber that smells intentionally 2020s ("THIS IS A CHALLENGING PERFUME") and serious. 

There are things I like and don't like about Eldritch. I like its conifer top accord. I also like its base of artfully minty aromatics, all moored to a woody dock. And I enjoy how the camphor-like aspects of the patchouli wed themselves to the mineralic elements of smoky tea to create a biting, marine-like ambergris effect. I find it unbearable as an extrait, but it would open up in an EDT concentration and allow itself (and its wearer) to breathe.