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On the Scent: A Dip in the Mainstream

By (December 1, 2011) 2 Comments

It’s a strange thing to visit a perfume counter in a department store when you’re intimately familiar with perfume. With few exceptions, the sales assistants (referred to by aficionados simply as “SA’s”) know less about the art and the science of perfume than you do, but assume you’re the one who knows less.
Inevitably, they ask you if you’re looking for something in particular, and if not, what you currently wear or what kinds of perfume you like. For a perfume collector, these are nearly impossible questions to answer – we like almost everything, in theory, and we have no “signature scent.” (My collection includes multiple specimens in pretty much every category, from soliflores to aldehydic florals to chypres to fresh citrus colognes to aromatic fougères to orientals to gourmands.) It would be much easier to speak to what we don’t like, and in many cases this can be defined broadly as “mainstream perfumes,” i.e., what you, madam, are currently hawking.
I define “mainstream” as anything widely available at department stores and beauty stores like Sephora, as opposed to niche brands which have limited distribution (they may, for example, only be available at Barney’s, Neiman Marcus, or perfume boutiques like Aedes de Venustas in Manhattan) and in some cases can only be purchased online. Another notable difference is that most mainstream perfumes are sold under the brand of a designer or fashion line (Calvin Klein, DKNY, or Tommy Hilfiger, for example) or a makeup and beauty line (like Estee Lauder or Lancome) with independent name recognition, whereas most niche lines are devoted to fragrance alone (such as L’Artisan, By Kilian, and The Different Company), though they may branch out into scented candles and other fragrant accessories.
New mainstream releases tend to suffer from a tedious adherence to trends (we’ve been stuck in a cycle of thin fruity florals, super-clean musky florals, and Angel-esque fruity-patchouli numbers for a good decade now) as well as a certain cheapness that belies their price tags. This cheapness usually manifests as a bare minimum, or complete lack, of natural materials, which give body and complexity to perfume. Simple, mostly synthetic formulas can smell pleasant at first, but get boring very quickly, since they don’t offer all that much more than the fragrance in your $10 shampoo.
Also problematic is the fact that even if you are looking for something in particular – say you’ve set your fancy on a green floral – the sales assistants often can’t guide you to something that properly fits this description. It’s not entirely their fault – they’re encouraged if not forced by management to push the newer releases, so they’ve got to find something relatively green among this season’s batch of fruity florals; they can’t or don’t think to show you perfectly serviceable green florals of decades past, such as Chanel Cristalle or Estee Lauder Alliage. “Green” simply isn’t in these days.
As annoying as the experience often is, I can’t stay away from perfume counters, mainstream or otherwise. I love smelling the new releases (which come out at a frightening and unsustainable pace), though my expectations are usually low. This allows me, of course, to occasionally be pleasantly surprised. This month I’m reviewing mainstream releases from the past couple of years – not a niche in sight, and all of the below fragrances can be purchased in full-size bottles for under $100 a pop.
Bottega Veneta – No mainstream perfume launch in recent memory has been received so well by the (self-admittedly) snobby perfume blogger community (see here, here, and here) as Bottega Veneta, the first perfume from this luxury purveyor of leather bags and shoes. Oddly, though the official notes I’ve seen do not include leather, Bottega Veneta has been widely referred to as a leather perfume, even a “leather chypre.” It does have a suede-like feel, but it doesn’t actually smell much like suede – the trademark bitterness of birch tar or quinolone-based leather notes is missing – or a chypre for that matter. What it does smell like is jasmine, some apricot, musky patchouli and benzoin (vanilla’s smoky, caramel-ish cousin). In the top notes, it’s slightly peppery, with a touch of bergamot for tang. If I work at it, I can force the pink pepper and patchouli into something like a leather accord, but that kind of effort really takes the fun out of perfume, and this one’s worth enjoying. Sweet, clean patchouli bases are a dime a dozen these days, but there’s a definite restraint and refinement to Bottega Veneta – it’s classy and grown-up, and gives none of the “old lady” vibe that real chypres have been accused of. Overall, it’s very well done and very wearable, but I can’t help but feel it’s a tad overrated or at least misrepresented. Of course, it’s possible I’m anosmic to something in here, but I prefer to blame mass hysteria. (For more convincing examples in the floral leather category, see Bulgari Black, Serge Lutens Daim Blond or my personal favorite, Cuir de Lancome.)
Cartier Baiser Vole – Baiser Vole (which means “stolen kiss”) uncannily re-creates the smell of a florist’s shop in its top notes: it’s equal parts fresh, crisp, verdant greenery (leaves and stems) and creamy white petals – the main flower at play here is lily. The effect is impressive and a bit unsettling – it’s unusual to encounter this kind of realism in a floral perfume, especially a mainstream offering. (For a while now, it’s been considered unfashionable to smell literally of flowers.) Unfortunately, after this hyperrealist stage, the drydown is pretty boring – a vaguely floral, powdery, vanilla-ish musk I experience as lavender-gray. Still, I give it credit for not smelling like everything else on the counter, and it would make quite a room spray. The beautifully designed bottle has a very satisfying, Zippo-like lid – worth checking out in its own right.
Chloe Love, Chloe – One hot night this summer, I went with a friend to the perfume counter at Saks, where we proceeded to spray perfumes on every spare inch of our skin above the waist. Afterwards, having a drink and a bite in a café, we both marveled at how Love, Chloe rose above all the rest, hovering in a heavy pink cloud around us. In the top notes, Love, Chloe smells remarkably like honey, thickly sweet but still floral, reminding me of the warm honey you pour from diner-style glass syrup dispensers onto sopapillas at Mexican restaurants in El Paso. Then the honey starts to give way to a very powdery accord involving orange blossom, hyacinth, and heliotrope– some would say face powder or rice powder, but baby powder associations are unavoidable. At this stage, I picture a gussied-up “ladies’ lounge” (i.e., restroom) every time – not exactly the association you want nagging you all day. This perfume was generally well-received by the blogosphere, probably because it’s not a fruity floral or a fruity patchouli, and because powdery notes are considered old-fashioned – in other words, Chloe clearly wasn’t targeting a ditzy teenage demographic with this release. And that’s all well and good, but the perfume is still lacking in subtlety. In the end I find it too sweet, too loud, and too bathroomy to recommend. (For a somewhat similar powdery oriental with more complexity, check out Cacharel Loulou.)
Tom Ford Violet Blonde – Surprisingly, Violet Blonde’s opening gambit is iris, not violet. Iris in perfume is almost always orris, not the petals but the root of the plant, and its scent is not floral but rather dry, earthy, even carrot-like. I like violet better than iris, so this was a little disappointing to me – up close, it’s a noseful of chalky orris and vetiver, like Chanel No. 19 without the galbanum. However, from a distance, it smells sweeter, almost heliotropin-like, and a bit lemony-spicy (the notes say pink pepper and “Italian mandarin”). I’m guessing Tom Ford is interpreting iris as a “blonde” note, though for me it conjures a blonde gone gray, like Carmen Dell’Orefice. As it dries down, it gets warmer and woodier, coming closer and closer to the root beer accord (anisic vanilla-almond) of Hypnotic Poison. (And there is actually a breed of iris that is supposed to smell like root beer.) This is brave for a mainstream launch, and I commend the effort, though it’s not entirely to my taste. Interestingly, Shalimar Parfum Initial, another recent launch targeting a younger crowd, was also stealthily an iris scent. I’m guessing some new iris synthetics have become available on the market, because pure orris butter is one of the more expensive materials in perfumery.
Diane von Furstenberg Diane – Diane is the brainchild of Diane von Furstenberg, designer of fabulous wrap-dresses and print blouses, and unlike Violet Blonde, it’s actually a violet perfume. The opening is delightfully complex in a “modern chypre” way (a la Agent Provocateur or David Yurman), with green notes and citrus sparkling over the heart of fruity violet blended with a vaguely tropical white floral note billed as frangipani. Also apparent is a softer, muskier take on the talcum powder note seen in Love, Chloe. The first time I tried Diane, I found it sweetly candied, but not in an overwhelming way. I tried it again next to cloying Love, Chloe and it smelled positively tart. This, to me, is a much more wearable, nuanced rendition of the powdery concept. It manages to smell both grown-up and girlish, such that you can imagine a mother and daughter happily sharing a bottle. (And the bottle here too is lovely.) The drydown, sadly, is dominated by a boring musk; I wish the reported myrrh and patchouli were doing more work here.
Calvin Klein Beauty – Beauty, which strikes me as Calvin Klein’s attempt at a J’adore, suffers from the same problem as many models and actresses who meet the all-American, girl-next-door, blond-hair-and-tan standards of beauty: it’s forgettable. Because it lacks differentiating quirks, it isn’t really beautiful, just pretty. It’s a wedding-magazine-bouquet floral – jasmine-lily-something-something – on the sweet side but not candied or particularly fruity, though synthetic florals tend to be fruity-ish, and Beauty has a touch of the apricot flavor seen in Kim Kardashian’s original perfume. Rather than fading, this aspect intensifies as it dries down. The scent of Beauty matches the golden hue of the juice and the graceful bottle, oval and symmetrical like an ideal Anglo face. It smells like an amalgam, in a way – like a memory of what your friends’ moms wore when you were a kid. The main problem is that there’s no reason to choose this perfume over anything else, unless you belong to the Witness Protection Program. If you want a beautiful floral, check out the By Kilian line.
Michael Kors Gold – The original Michael Kors (which Tania Sanchez called a “shrieking hair-singeing horror … one of the worst ever”) is supposed to be a tuberose, but all I’ve ever gotten from it is banana, likely due to an overdose of benzyl acetate, a synthetic jasmine material. On paper, Gold smelled more like actual flowers to me, of the dreamy tropical variety. I was hoping for a rehash of Kors’s Hawaii, a very pleasant, indolic summery floral that is now discontinued. But on skin it turns out to be just more banana – a somewhat floral banana, but banana nonetheless. (Indoles are what make white flowers smell realistically like white flowers, a smell I always think of as prickly. They’re entirely absent here, which is partly why this smells like a smoothie instead of a garden.) It’s also a little salty – even vinegary – bringing to mind some kind of Hawaiian barbecue. To be perfectly clear, this isn’t very good.
DKNY Women – This perfume has been around since 1999 but it’s suddenly getting a new push in stores like Sephora, leading me to believe it’s been reformulated. My current sample emits a very light, fresh citrus scent, which starts out pleasantly fizzy like lemon soda or a champagne cocktail, then quickly flattens. I can’t detect any real florals, and the base, such as it exists, is a super-clean “laundry musk.” According to the list of notes, this is meant to evoke all kinds of interesting materials and concepts, including chilled vodka (the Polish vodka in my freezer is very nearly odorless), tomato leaf, tulip tree bark and “wet cobblestones.” The only one I believe is “freshly laundered t-shirt.” Oddly, the notes don’t include lemon, but instead blood orange. (If blood orange floats your boat, try Atelier’s more realistic Orange Sanguine instead.) This is a perfectly nice smell, but the budget must have been miniscule; this scent wouldn’t impress me in a hand soap. It’s nearly undetectable within an hour.
Kate Walsh Boyfriend – Boyfriend is built on a unisex concept: Actress Kate Walsh wanted to develop a perfume that would smell like a “boyfriend,” i.e., a dude. Luckily, the masculine cliché in play is woody notes, not cheap, sporty metallic citrus. Also luckily, Boyfriend doesn’t smell like most celebrity scents or mainstream releases (light ‘n’ fruity). Instead, it smells like Serge Lutens’s Un Bois Vanille: lots of vanilla, lots of piney woods and incense. In other words, it’s pretty unoriginal, but it makes a decent substitute for Un Bois Vanille, which always struck me as overpriced anyway. Side by side, the Lutens smells a little stronger and more complex – spicier, a bit citrusy – but also sweeter, surprisingly, and a little soapier. With vanilla scents, you always have to watch out for that candle note. I suspect some people would prefer Boyfriend in a “blind taste test” – but even if not, it’s similar enough for half the price.
Thierry Mugler Womanity – Thierry Mugler occupies a unique place in the mainstream market. The line includes huge best-sellers like Angel – whose influence is still palpable almost 20 years after its release – as well as a slew of masculines and flankers with very devoted cult followings. Womanity was a highly hyped and anticipated release, almost destined to disappoint. It was billed as smelling of both figs and caviar – exciting because few perfumes explore savory territory. Most fig perfumes – the genre being created and defined by Olivia Giacobetti with Premier Figuier for Artisan and later Diptyque Philosykos – are dry, green, and woody, like figs on the tree, with creamy, coconut-like facets balanced by a slight bitterness, similar to blackcurrant buds. The fig in Womanity, however, is closer to dried figs or fig jam – dense, chewy, almost granular with sugars. I like dried figs, so I like the scent, but it’s hardly groundbreaking – certainly not as complex as Angel, with its fruity, floral, patchouli, and gourmand (chocolate and burnt sugar) counterpoints. The supposed caviar accord is basically nonexistent. I’m definitely not missing a fish note, but it’s interesting to see how salt is interpreted in perfumery – plain table salt, like white sugar, doesn’t have much of a smell, so perfumers usually evoke saltiness via association (through marine notes, for example). For me, this is pretty much figgy all the way down (though in the deep drydown, oddly, it starts to resemble the fruity vanilla violet of Guerlain Insolence). If I wanted a linear fruit smell, I’d go for Byredo Pulp, an intensely tart blend of blackcurrant and fig leaf, like getting whomped over the head with a giant cranberry.
Pink Sugar Sensual – Less sensual than the original Pink Sugar, which is all burnt sugar and vanilla, Pink Sugar Sensual (shouldn’t it be sensuelle for maximum sensualness?) is a bright fruity floral that smells like lemon drops and pink lemondade, plus a strange candied sugar note somewhere between taffy and marshmallows. The drydown resembles the pink vanilla of Rochas Tocade, without Tocade’s obnoxious Palmolive note – in other words, pretty much the bottom third of Hanae Mori. PSS is actually very pleasant in a tea party kind of way, and I appreciate that it has no pretensions toward being a proper, adult perfume. A fun little pick-me-up.
English Laundry English Rose – See above. This is basically the same perfume as Pink Sugar Sensual, with the addition of a weirdly rubbery top note (probably not intentional) and a vaguely herbal component in the heart, something I can’t quite identify – geranium perhaps? English Rose feels thinner than Pink Sugar Sensual, but I couldn’t swear to it. Again, names are deceiving – this isn’t very rosy. It’s also probably discontinued (already).
In sum? The mainstream perfume counters aren’t devoid of interesting specimens, but you may need to do some digging, and price and reputation can be very deceiving. If you only have room in your purse for two new samples this season, I suggest trying Diane and Bottega Veneta on for size. Or you could ditch the mainstream entirely and order samples from a niche retailer like Lucky Scent.

Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.

Perfumers interested in having their scents reviewed can send inquiries to elisagabbert [at] gmail [dot] com.