Soul by Curve for Men (Liz Claiborne)

There are rumors that Soul by Curve was discontinued for being racially insensitive, and too obviously targeting people of color in its name and package design, but I have my doubts. I find it to be far more evocative of hippies and headshop oils, and anything else is purely incidental. The free-love credo, "Love, Passion, Truth, Hope," cements the vibe for me, but maybe I'm just naive. Anyway, this 2005 release isn't as much of a departure for Curve as its image suggests, and that isn't a bad thing in the least. 

It's easy to overthink the composition of Soul, and get sucked into the "notes trap" of thinking you smell weird stuff like shea butter and saw palmetto in the blend, but I've been at this too long for that. Soul opens with a fairly standard green citrus accord, bright but not blinding, like warm juice with all the pulp strained out after it's been swirled in a blender and made ready to meet ice. The first five minutes are smooth, sweet, fruity, but not nearly as fizzy and buoyant as other iterations in this line. The muted aspect of Soul's intro suggests that this is a different tack for the brand. But what direction is it aiming for? As it dries into the heart, a translucent violet leaf and iris emerge, smelling sweet but not cloying, vaguely herbal and woody, and it becomes clear that Claiborne was trying for a Chez Bond creamy-floral thing (Laurent Le Guernec is the perfumer, hint, hint).

I sat smelling my sample, wondering at the woodiness, when the person who offered it reminded me that the top had an interesting green quality, and that's when I remembered Soul contains a bamboo note. I immediately recognized the same weirdly woody citrus quality as smelling nearly identical to the top of Montblanc Starwalker, which also has a shy bamboo note, and I laughed. I guess that's what bamboo smells like? Live and learn. That's where the surprises end, though. From the thirty minute point onward, Soul begins to smell more and more like the original, or rather like Claiborne Sport. Sweet, fruity, evocative of things in dark purple. It's slightly more floral and boasts a higher fidelity woodsy base, but overall it smells like a quieter version of its predecessor. It's worth seeking out, but perhaps only for a serious Curve enthusiast.


Ébène Fumé (Tom Ford)

Every few years,
a fad fragrance note comes along that doesn't really work. Back in the 2000s, it was "rice," appearing in stuff like Kenzo's Amour, Creed's Love in White, and Miller et Bertaux's A Quiet Morning, and I never thought it smelled that great. Lately it's been Palo Santo, which, while a wonderful smell, is proving to be difficult for perfumers to pull off. It's super strong, and tends to hijack a composition. Never one to shy from a challenge, Tom Ford hired Rodrigo Flores-Roux, and went for it with Ébène Fumé. 

Every precious wood has its bad side, and the vaguely pickle-like off-notes of palo santo seem to overshadow its better features. But Ébène Fumé does something clever, and presents its freshly-sawed dill-by-fours alongside a fresh and discreet incense. All I get when I smell this perfume is intense palo santo for the first few minutes, hyper-realistic and three dimensional, and I have to pull back a little. You must truly love palo santo to invest in this. However, it tames pretty quickly, and when incense comes forward, it's clear that Flores-Roux has made palo santo palatable (say that three times fast). I don't know if I'd wear it, but Ébène Fumé winds up smelling very nice. 

After a few hours, the main notes on my skin are still palo santo with a hint of incense and just a touch of labdanum. There's a brief stage of amber and smokier resins, which help to nuance the laser-focused woody notes, but it doesn't last. It's tempting to think Ébène Fumé is too loud, but I think it's merely stolid, a firm, focused, and eminently well made piece that takes a route less traveled, the sign of a true niche perfume. 


Mûre et Musc (L'Artisan Parfumeur)

L'Artisan Parfumeur is one of those early niche lines from the seventies that reached peak popularity in the 2000s, and has since seen its cache descend under the tide of overpriced crap that has arisen since. I remember the rampant enthusiasm for L'Artisan fragrances on Basenotes between 2008 and 2013, right when the oud craze fully took hold, and I thought it was an esoteric brand that was only interesting to me because I had no interest in it. Maybe it was all the fawning praise for stuff like Méchant Loup and Dzing!, which were fun to read about, but failed to inspire me. Or perhaps it was that L'Artisan was "niche," but not really that expensive, and I was snobbily rejecting anything priced at less than a hundred dollars an ounce. I found it strange that Jean Laporte had created a brand, only to leave it four years later, and create Maître Parfumeur et Gantier to compete with it. Seems like something a CEO of an automaker in Detroit would do.

He released Mûre et Musc eau de toilette in 1978, and it is one of several L'Artisan works that has survived the decades relatively intact. Touted as a novel accord of blackberry and clean musk, the composition is every bit like a seventies drugstore musk, and is evocative of Jōvan Musk, smelling sharp, soapy, and acrid, which you'd expect from something much cheaper. This pungent bell-bottoms-in-a-bottle is rapidly ensconced in a tart blackberry note, which only smells like actual fruit for fifteen or twenty seconds before devolving into a basic sweetness that hums alongside the sweet muskiness. There's a serious Saturday morning cartoons vibe here. The competing polarities of sweetness form a sort of soft, fuzzy-purple shampoo effect, a touch cozy and kitschy, and easy to like. It's cool, a tad raunchy, and not as transparent as I thought it would be. 

I think I could get into Mûre et Musc if it weren't for things like Jōvan Musk and Monsieur Musk, which are infinitely cheaper and more durable. L'Artisan's longevity is middling in the EDT concentration, and I get about four to five hours before it turns into a barely-there whisper. During that mediocre duration, it's already pretty weak and unimposing, and smells like it would be hard to apply too much. More importantly, it smells like something I can get for far less money, which is annoying at these price points: $145 for 100 ml, which isn't exactly mind-blowing money, but enough to want more. Weirdly, Afnan's Supremacy in Heaven smells more complex and expensive, and costs $115 less. I guess you could argue that Mûre et Musc preceded many of the designer musks of the eighties, and thus its pedestrian quality is a feature and not a bug, but I still want my moolah back. 


Itasca (Lubin)

Photo by Bryan Ross
Fall is here, and nothing takes me to Minnesota lake country more than Lubin's vetiver fragrance, Itasca. Just kidding, I don't get anything remotely Minnesotan about it, but apparently people from Itasca County are wont to toss their two cents about how familiar they are with the many "manly" smells of country living, and how close this frag gets to it. Personally, I find Itasca (the perfume) to be a sweet, only mildly woody ensemble of fruits and aromatics, but what do I know? I've only been to Minnesota once. 

I must admit, I don't quite get this one. Luca Turin calls it a "Nice lemony vetiver," and the lemon note registers for all of .3 seconds to my nose, a mere blip of aldehyde off the tippy-top. He also calls it a fougère, and yet I detect no lavender. Reviewers on Fragrantica and Basenotes claim it smells piney and green, but to me it feels sweet, as if its big mandarin orange and massive juniper berry melded into a hybridized red apple note, loaded with pectins and sugars. I do get some juniper in isolation, but it weaves through other things to form this ghostly apple that dominates the whole trajectory. Weird. 

I guess you could say there's a bit of vetiver in the base, but by that point in its evolution, Itasca gets more pointedly "green" and piney, and it's tough to say if vetiver is the dominant note. I do get a clutch of woody notes, some sweet, some very dry, and there's definitely a cedar note tucked in there, but ultimately it all reads as fruity and fresh, like a postmodern take on a generic-guy nineties masculine. I agree with Luca Turin, it's "very presentable," and it's perfect for apple-picking in October, but I doubt this was what Lubin intended it for. Altogether a good fragrance, but polite, unadventurous, forgettable. 


Gendarme (Gendarme)

This is one of the few perfumes I've worn where the exact release date is unclear. Basenotes says 1983; Parfumo says 1991. Fragrantica says nothing. Overall, it smells more nineties than eighties to me, though its base reminds me just a little of Dana's Monsieur Musk, with the animalic parts pared down to almost nothing. 

I have difficulty with Gendarme eau de cologne. A lot of difficulty, actually. It's a bit of an oddity, in that it aims squarely at "cologne" and "fresh," without smelling like either thing. Surprisingly, it comes across as musty and sour to me, almost like mildew. It opens with an explosion of raw alcohol, and the first minute is pretty dismal. It then develops into barely detectable notes of lemony citrus, dried herbs and florals, and adopts a gauzy glow of snowy laundry detergent chems that travel in little clutches of plastic soap bubbles. 

This fakey-soapy aura is strong enough to go nose-blind to, yet evanescent enough that smelling it feels subliminal. There's so little meat on these bones, and aside from an amorphous white musk, Gendarme feels anemically underdeveloped and compositionally unchallenging. All the notes are bare ghosts: wispy citruses, fleeting hints of herbs, maybe a trace of spearmint? A hint of camphoraceous clove? Thin sketches of white florals, like a pencil outline of lily and jasmine and maybe muguet, all lost behind an ivory veil. It smells like I'm wearing a vinyl raincoat. It doesn't smell good. I wouldn't want a bottle. 

And speaking of a bottle, what's with the price? One dollar per milliliter, for a total of $120 per bottle? Of this stuff? What are the Gendarme people smoking, and where can I get some? Perhaps it's an availability thing, but it doesn't matter to me. I find the whole washed-out experience underwhelming. Our senators and state reps can keep it. 


La Tulipe (Byredo)

Photo by Vanja Kovac
Some perfumers express "greenness" by constructing a pyramid that is representative of green things, like moss, grass, green herbs, bitter pine. Other perfumers, like Jérôme Epinette, approach it from a more peripheral angle, and opt to incorporate notes that coalesce into a color-coded experience that isn't necessarily found in nature. 

La Tulipe is an example of the latter approach. It starts with a studiedly muted citrus accord, more lemongrass than lemon, and rapidly morphs into the gauzy-green smell of dewey stems wrapped up in a grocery store fridge. There's a little rosy sweetness in back, the fantasy concept of what a tulip might smell of, if it had a smell, or what its chilled niche actually smells of instead. It is paradoxically an unmistakable yet nondescript headspace, a bit powdery and cold, green and plant-like, and only lightly touched by a romantic bouquet aura. It doesn't change much, doesn't really move over the course of eight hours, but it doesn't need to; it smells great. Byredo focused their brief on a specific thing that we all know to be true, but have never encountered outside of a florist shop.

This is the sort of direct beauty that I wish I could find everywhere, but alas, not since Jacomo's original Silences have I smelled something as starkly green as La Tulipe is. Silences is heavier, with foggy layers of oak moss, denser florals, and intense orris, while Byredo's scent dispenses with the extra atmosphere, and just goes au naturale. Yes!


Vanille Extreme (Comptoir Sud Pacifique)

Photograph by Luna202
Comptoir Sud Pacifique means "Trading Post of the Pacific," and Vanille Extreme is part of their "Eaux de Voyage" collection, where the majority of their offerings are found. This is a niche brand, but it isn't a particularly expensive one, with most fragrances clocking in at well under a C-Note. Knowing this helped to temper my expectations of Vanille Extreme, but I'm still disappointed, and it irks me to think about it.

Vanilla fragrances became a thematic thing in the early twentieth century, then turned boring by midcentury, only to be revived again in the nineties and the wee hours of our current shitshow. Most of the classic vanillas that we consider "wearable" emerged from the nineties revival, and they were quite versatile, things like P&G's Old Spice, Le Male, Angel, Vanilla Fields, and Alyssa Ashley Vanilla, and all expressed the note in ways that didn't break the bank. Ethyl maltol took off in 1992, with Mugler's first Angel, and has since left its sticky traces everywhere, but its legacy is even stickier; the problem with Angel is that it incentivized perfumers to use ethyl maltol to excess in things that were meant to be "vanilla." Ethyl maltol smells like a big cloud of pink cotton candy (candyfloss), and not like sugared vanilla beans. While it certainly inhabits the same ballpark of creamy-lactonic desserts, it's a different animal altogether. I tend to get cranky when I'm expecting to smell vanilla, and instead I smell cake batter and candyfloss. It's like putting in for a good lavender scent, and getting hyacinth instead. Close, but no cigar.

Vanille Extreme makes this crucial error. One whiff, and I immediately thought of Alyssa Ashley's fragrance, which is identical in every way but concentration (the 1991 release is weaker). Vanille Extreme is just as frosting-like, and just as linear. This isn't such a bad thing, but if you're looking for a unique and realistic vanilla, this ain't it. Why is vanilla so hard to get right? If Breyers can do it, anyone can. I simply don't understand!


Supremacy in Heaven (Afnan)

Some day an Arabian perfumer will enlighten me as to why Creed's Silver Mountain Water is a "must clone" perfume in the UAE. Pierre Bourdon did two amazing things when he designed SMW: he authored a "fresh" olfactory profile, the likes of which had never been done before, and he got it right the first time. Since 1995, countless copies and spin-offs have exited the Emirates, a phenomenon I find fascinating. 

Afnan is a young brand, founded in 2007 by an entrepreneur named Imran Fazlani, and its street cred must be solid, as it has a Gajillion products across as many lines. Although it's always exciting to discover a competent Saudi perfume brand, they really are springing up like weeds, with a different "niche" line appearing virtually every month. If I had the bread to shop Dubai, I'd be spoiled for choice. So I approached Afnan fully expecting Supremacy in Heaven (2018) to blend in with Rasasi's Al Wisam Day, or Ajmal's Silver Shade, the same Mefisto-on-a-budget approach of mating a sweet pink berry note to metallic citruses and floral white musks. In short, a been there, done that scenario. But, ever the optimist, I told myself, what the heck? Let's try it. Having smelled Sillage, I figured another thirty dollar frag could possibly outdo its beleaguered template of nineties excess. 

Supremacy in Heaven is a very divergent take on the SMW theme. I'm struck by the high quality of materials and blending here. Instead of opting into synthetic "froot" sweetness, the perfumer chose realism by showcasing an intensely earthy, acidic, and slightly smoky blackcurrant note, and I must say, this is the clearest and most natural blackcurrant note I've ever smelled. It surpasses Silver Mountain Water with a multifaceted pissy-fruity naturalness. One could argue that this level of realism works against the fragrance because it's too on-the-nose, and the overall focus of the SMW profile is shifted to blackcurrant as a central player instead of being integral to a smooth, Creed-style blend, but I might quibble with that point. I that it smells expensive and arguably more "niche-like" than its template. It's blended with a glacé citrus accord of red grapefruit and mandarin, juicy and bright. The result is the relaxing effect of an "inky waterfall," as one Fragrantica reviewer put it. The astringency of the fragrance is notable, very crisp, tart, and green, and filled out by the rounded citrus on top, and a dry sencha note below. Definitely the "inkiest" SMW clone, and the most literal rendering of blackcurrant, citrus, and green tea. Very nice work, though marginally livelier on fabric than skin. 


Siberian Rose (Fragrance du Bois)

Fragrance du Bois has only been around for ten years, and in that time they've collaborated with a YouTube reviewer, released "pure ouds," and set a high standard for perfume packaging. I tend to look askance at brands that prioritize packaging over content, and even more so at those that partner with twenty-something females on YouTube for social media clout, but the firm employs fourteen well-known perfumers, so I figure there must be something there. Siberian Rose is part of their "Nature's Treasures" collection, which FdB says is "simply an original collection of hand-blended perfumes using only the finest and sustainably sourced natural ingredients." I read this, and had to know more.

Siberian Rose's opening is a very "natural" ehtyl maltol and pink pepper affair, which is an interesting combination, both sugary-sweet and piquantly sweet. The cotton-candy element dances with the spices in a way I've never smelled in nature. In that first minute, I'm wondering if I'm dealing with another Angel clone, but luckily my initial fears are unfounded, as eventually fir and oakmoss cut in, with a hint of cinnamon and leather in the periphery. The leather note intensifies and seems to become the main player, but that only lasts for fifteen minutes, after which a juicy pear note appears and envelopes everything in fruity esters. I find this stage interesting, because it presages a dry and somewhat powdery rose, and the rose hugs the fruit closely enough to imbue it with a woody and vaguely cidery tang. I've encountered this effect in other woody roses, like Guerlain's Rose Barbare, Azzaro's Acteur, and Banana Republic's Oud Mosaic. 

Perfumes that do rose the way these frags do rose are doing it right. Look, the smell of straight rose is pretty unmistakable, and it asks for artistry. Most brands turn to fruits and musks that turn the flower neon, but a few are smart enough to offer a more "grown-up" interpretation. We all like our standard-issue fruity florals, and there's nothing wrong with that. But eventually we need a dose of high culture, and Fragrance du Bois has followed the French chypre tradition of seventies haute couture to its logical endpoint, a stunning woody and mossy rose that isn't above having a little fun.