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On the Scent: Auteur Theory

By (December 1, 2010) No Comment

The fine fragrance industry perpetuates at least three major lies in order to sell more product. These lies are:

1. That the perfumes released by a clothing label are created by the designer (Eternity was created by Calvin Klein, Be Delicious by Donna Karan, and so on).

2. That high-quality perfumes are made of all-natural ingredients, or at least mostly natural ingredients (and, as a corollary, that natural ingredients are better).

3. That perfumes make you sexier.

Whether or not these lies work as they’re intended to is another matter. Lies 2 and 3 probably do.

The first lie may be more damaging on the whole to perfume’s reputation. Unlike the others, which simply wave the marketing wand to make the juice seem more valuable than it is, the first lie degrades a perfume’s status as art in several ways—first, by hiding the real “designers” behind the curtain. Fashion is taken more seriously as an art in part because designers are celebrated as singular artists. Perfumers, no matter how talented, work in secret, like ghost writers—imagine if celebrity memoirs were written by award-winning authors rather than nameless hacks. Secondly it makes perfumery look easy, since designers apparently need no specialized training to do it. And finally, by lumping perfume in with fashion, the industry has created the perception of perfume as outwardly directed, as decoration—a tool to improve how you smell to others, the way cosmetics are a tool to improve how you look. This attitude neglects the potential enjoyment for the wearer. You can’t see your own face with make-up on, but you can smell your own wrist.

In fact, aside from name recognition, perfumers fit the portrait of the artist in every way. They undergo years of training, they often come from perfume-making families or apprentice under a master, and despite working for and behind major fashion brands, successful perfumers almost always have a tangible vision or at least a signature style. In this way they’re a lot like directors, for whom producers and production companies are an influence, but not the guiding principal.

In fairness, there are difficulties with ascribing a perfume to a single artist. Many perfumes are composed by a team of two or three, lessening the chances that the scent bears any one perfumer’s signature style, and many perfumes are subject to extensive revision after the initial submission. Perfume, after all, is both an art and a commodity. Nonetheless, a number of perfumers have risen to star auteur status in the industry, if not in the eyes of the general public.

This month I spent some time with the oeuvres of a few of the star perfumers working today, all of whom deserve recognition independent of the brands that employ them.

Maurice Roucel

To me, what makes Roucel great is the extravagance of his gestures. His perfumes are big and loud and streaked with color—often sweet, always exaggerated in some direction. They demand to be worn with a sense of humor. He’s the diametrical opposite of Jean Claude Ellena, whose perfumes are pale watercolors, sketches that suggest a form via a bare minimum of cues. (In The Perfect Scent, Chandler Burr recounts Ellena’s fondness for creating the illusion of, say, cola or chocolate with two or three smelling strips dipped into as many single materials.) Roucel, on the other hand, is a maximalist, and for those who love him, more is more.

I think of Gucci Envy as a concept scent, a neon idea of green, not meant to smell natural. The acidic opening—and the color of the juice—remind me of the “Sir Isaac Lime” Otter Pops of my youth, which were best eaten outside in the sun so they’d melt before you could finish, allowing you to drink the rest in cold, hypersweet liquid form, sucking the plastic package dry. Freezer pop associations aside, Envy is great on a hot summer day, both crisp and sweet. The slightly sour fruity top notes overlaid on a green floral section (most identifiably, hyacinth and lily of the valley) make this similar to Acqua di Gio and Kenzo’s Parfum d’Ete, but never forget that this is a Roucel: It’s just more fun than other green florals. Note, however, that after the first cough-inducing spray, it’s lighter, with less tenacity, than a typical Roucel.

If Envy writes “green” in neon lights, Bond No. 9 Broadway Nite screams “pink” even louder. It opens with a cloud of sweet, fizzy aldehydes like strawberry soda. Under that is a fruity rose-violet-honeysuckle combo and under that a creamy, musky vanilla base. It’s incredibly voluminous and femme, like a pink standard poodle. I remembered Frederic Malle’s Lipstick Rose, another aldehydic violet rose, as being very sweet and simply too much, but it smells like a flat, skimpy, nail-polish-remover thing next to Broadway Nite. Somehow by taking “too much” even further, Roucel makes this accord work. It’s potentially embarrassing to wear indoors if you’re not drunk, but a ton of fun.

According to the marketing team, New Haarlem, also from Bond No. 9, is supposed to smell like coffee, but I’m getting the full breakfast, cinnamon-dusted French toast and bacon drenched in maple syrup, with a glass of orange juice on the side. If this were coffee it would have to be a novelty flavor at Dunkin’ Donuts. If they wanted a tough-guy fragrance, they picked the wrong perfumer. It’s a gourmand oriental, with just enough lavender to justify the masculine billing—rich, interesting, and slightly silly. I love sweet scents on men, and this is suitable for adventurous morning women too.

Fans of the discontinued Theorema, take note: Roberto Cavalli Oro reminded me of it instantly; they both have that unmistakable eggnog accord. Oro opens with lots of citrus and spice, like the orange/cinnamon/vanilla section lifted from L de Lolita Lempicka, also by Roucel. But it’s both creamier and woodier than L, like a nightcap of spiced rum poured into milk. Oro smells a little cheap, but thankfully, it is. I found my bottle at Marshall’s for under $30. Said bottle has taken the title from Flower by Kenzo for tallest, and from L for the tackiest.

Calice Becker

Calice Becker is the author of three of my favorite fragrances—By Kilian Beyond Love, Cuir de Lancôme, and Donna Karan Gold—all of which would probably make the short list if I could only take ten (fifteen? twenty?) scents to my desert island. This can’t be a coincidence, but it’s interesting, because Becker doesn’t have a clear signature—it’s as though her talent somehow transcends style. It’s the difference between loving Woody Allen for all his imitatable quirks and loving Ang Lee, whose Sense & Sensibility and The Ice Storm are both wonderful and have nothing obvious in common. I love perfumers with a sense of the trashy, but Becker’s creations tend to avoid excess in any direction. Whereas some of Roucel’s scents are the equivalent of fuck-me boots, Becker’s are more like diamond studs and a cashmere sweater—nothing flashy, just comfortably gorgeous.

I’ve talked about DK Gold before (in relation to Clarins Par Amour, for example), but haven’t given it a full review—perhaps because I feel protective of it. I’m not a “signature scent” person, but if I were, Gold would come close to meeting my criteria. It’s distinctive without being difficult, present without being loud, and suitable in any setting. Unfortunately, though it can still be found online at a bargain, it’s discontinued and will eventually be scarce and expensive, which pains me deeply. (The same is true of the magical Cuir de Lancôme.) So don’t go buying this unless you really want it, okay? Gold opens on a fresh lily accord that some have interpreted as cucumber-like, only accurate in my opinion insofar as it’s a bit watery and borderline savory. This sits on top of an amber base that is pretty much perfect, rich and resinous but never so sweet that it veers into gourmand territory. Gold works beautiful as an all-day fragrance, since the fresh morning lily half gradually fades, leaving the slightly salty amber to linger for hours. This is Becker at her best, simple, elegant, and memorable.

Estée Lauder Beyond Paradise is a floral perfume with that prickly character of tropical flowers—as though you could smell the stamens. It goes on quite sheer, tangy with hyacinth and some light citrus top notes. It’s similar to Michael Kors’ extinct Hawaii, which was louder and somewhat the better for it. Beyond Paradise has some of the green, creamy aspect of the tuberose in Beyond Love, but the lower-quality materials are profoundly obvious. Though pleasant and comfortable, it feels unusually half-assed for a Lauder—too simple and too weak.

Love & Tears, the latest fragrance Becker has created for By Kilian, is a study in jasmine that makes Beyond Paradise look pathetically cheap and thin. The By Kilians are quite unaffordable but at least you know you’re getting a quality fragrance with some naturals. Love & Tears has so much animalic jasmine that initially it smells a bit like the monkey house—it’s paradoxically both fresh and dirty, like some musks can be. It smells beautiful and expensive, like an updated Joy—but, to state the obvious, you have to like jasmine. If you do this is a must-try, just as Beyond Love is for tuberose fans.

Calvin Klein Secret Obsession, the 2008 follow-up to 1985’s original Obsession, a heavy oriental (as I’m sure you all remember), is not really supposed to smell like Obsession. Surprisingly, it’s not even a straight oriental. After a very boozy fruit top note that reminds me of Estée Lauder’s Sensuous Noir, the perfume morphs into a rosy floral you might mistake for J’Adore (which Becker created in 1999), but with a hint of spice (mace, supposedly) and a woodier, Sensuous-like background. Secret Obsession in no way deserves the vicious review it got in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (“brings to mind things people once sprayed on shag carpets in dorms to cover up the smell of vomit, and which made you miss the vomit”), but it is vaguely pungent in the drydown. Though unoriginal, it’s still kind of strange—you don’t expect the floral heart to follow the dense opening—and a viable option if you’ve ever found yourself unable to choose between Sensuous and J’Adore. (Personally, I prefer either of the latter.)

Annick Menardo

Annick Menardo’s palette is both dark and sweet—like a goth girl who is shy, but flirty. With the exception of Lolita Lempicka, which is bubbly and bright, her creations are muted and a little fuzzy, belonging to a world of camel-hair coats and dove gray suede. The dominant notes she favors are almond, anise (black licorice), and leather, bolstered by vanilla, patchouli, and musk; floral touches, when present, are light. The effect is subtle but striking and rather androgynous.

The original Lolita Lempicka was clearly inspired, like a hundred others, by Angel, the first of the heavy patchouli gourmands. Lolita Lempicka au Masculin is even closer to Angel, to my nose, but instead of intensely camphoraceous patchouli, there’s a smoother woodsy base; the sugary-sweet notes are there (vanilla and tonka bean) but in scaled-down proportions. The Menardo touch is a peppery anisic note that blends in perfectly. Take note: Even if you hate the taste of licorice, black jelly beans, fennel seeds and their brethren, you may like this scent. I have always found black candy to be an abomination (more like Bad & Plenty!), but anise in perfume can be quite beautiful, more like an aspect of lavender. Lolita Lempicka au Masculin is utterly delicious and works perfect well as a feminine—in fact I prefer it to the feminine scent—with the one drawback of being quieter than I’d like, though it is long-lasting. The utterly misguided bottle is supposed to look like a chunk of log. For once you’ll want to follow the experts’ advice and store it in the box.

Bulgari Black manages to make vanilla cool—and unisex—by juxtaposing it with rubber. The latter note is officially leather, but really smells more like a tire shop than a leather goods store. It’s one of the few truly minimalist compositions that works, by being just strange enough to hold your interest but not so strange as to be distracting or unrealistic for daily wear. Black perfectly embodies that subtle-but-striking thing Menardo does so well; it’s soft in texture but strong in effect. This is Menardo’s effortless classic.

Dior Bois d’Argent is a protean scent, morphing from almond to chocolate to rubber in quick succession, and then seeming to embody all of them at once. It feels like something dark and intense in its pure form made pale and powdery, like Dutch process cocoa and latex gloves. The chocolate is an illusion, born out of dry iris backed by sweet vanilla and honey and the often chocolate-like patchouli. A Swiss Miss packet spilled on a car seat—this is an even weirder cousin to Black. There’s also a vaguely metallic aspect (the name means “silver wood”) that reminds me of a running blender motor. Bois d’Argent is undeniably interesting, but somewhat overwrought and hard to wear.

Hypnotic Poison, also Dior, is a study in almond and vanilla, which in combination smell surprisingly like cream soda or perhaps a root beer float. I love the smell of almonds, and this smells very nice, but the current formulation is somewhat thin and flat, more like scented lotion than perfume—there’s no evolution and not much more to say about it. A more complex and evolving almond scent is Belle en Rykiel, which has a fruity lavender opening, a gorgeous heliotropin heart (heliotropin is a flower that smells like almonds) and a lingering incense and patchouli drydown. Come to think of it, Belle en Rykiel is sort of a fruitier Lolita Lempicka au Masculin. (It was done by Jean-Pierre Bethouart, who has name-checked Menardo as an inspiration.)

Andy Tauer

Certain houses build their lines around a common base or signature accord, the most well-known example being Guerlain’s “Guerlainade,” which includes rose, iris, tonka bean, and vanilla. Andy Tauer of Tauer Perfumes has a similar signature—many of his perfumes open with a long-lasting citrus accord (bergamot, mandarin) and end with a rich incense-y base with woods, amber and/or vanilla. Tauer’s scents are also distinctively powerful—he uses a high concentration of natural materials (though his line is not all-natural), giving them voluminous sillage and nuclear half-lives. This “cost and propriety be damned” attitude lends his perfumes a throwback quality—they wouldn’t stand a chance with the Light Blue–wearing crowd. I think of them as classical and mature, and in 2010, that comes off as edgy.

L’Air du Desert Morocain, like Lonestar Memories, is dry and smoky with a strong leathery component—golden and whiskey-like—and an animalic edge from the rock rose (labdanum). Also like Lonestar Memories, it smells a tiny bit toxic from some angles, like gasoline fumes—probably due to Ambroxan, an ambergris-like synthetic present in many of Tauer’s bases. This differs from the typical Tauer by using only the slightest hint of a citrus top note, and though it gets sweeter into the drydown, essentially this is an austere incense fragrance, rooty and resinous, very warm and relatively quiet, and certainly beautiful when you’re in a contemplative frame of mind.

Eau d’Epices takes the basic citrusy-ambergris structure and adds “Indian spices” and orange blossom. Typically, spicy fragrances register as sweet, with cinnamon and clove tending to dominate and triggering thoughts of mulled cider and pumpkin pie. Eau d’Epices, however, feels decidedly savory, more like shrimp curry than a baked good—I could swear I’m smelling tomato and cilantro too. The effect is somewhat startling, and I’ve gotten the impression that this isn’t one of Tauer’s most popular fragrances. But after dropping my expectations, I’ve come to really enjoy this bizarre, foody citrus. The lemony mandarin lasts for hours and hours and counteracts the potentially harsh woody amber in the base. This makes a distinctive masculine and, for the brave (and moneyed), could even layer well with L’Air du Desert Morocain.

Le Maroc pour Elle, which has such a high concentration of oils it comes out in an orange smear on your skin, was Tauer’s first release. It combines rose, jasmine, and lots of juicy mandarin in what initially registers as a bubblegum accord, sweet and fruity and not altogether pleasant—not, in any case, as effective as the gorgeous, spicy bergamot rose of Une Rose Chypree. After an hour or so, the sweetness disappears and Le Maroc pour Elle becomes a surprisingly toasty jasmine, dry and woody. As always I commend the high-quality materials, but this isn’t my favorite rendition of Tauer’s talents.

Lily of the valley can be difficult, as can this line in general, but I found Carillon pour un Ange lovely right away: intensely green and grassy, slightly citrusy, with heady, honeysuckle-like florals. The opening is shockingly strong and natural-smelling—it’s like emptying a bag of lawnmower clippings. The boldness here is very Tauer, but the color palette is different: sunshot yellows and greens instead of shadowy reds, oranges, and browns. It slowly takes on some of the smoky character of Tauer’s more incense-centric creations while the citrus section, unusually, gets stronger. As such, it begins to smell quite similar to others in the line, like Eau d’Epices. This is a little disappointing after such an unusual start, but no marks against it in and of itself.

Jean-Claude Ellena

I purposely chose scents from Ellena’s oeuvre that diverge from his signature style, because I dislike his usual tendencies. I find most of his scents too fresh, too clean, too spare. They often seem appealing at first—like a very sheer white blouse on the hanger, until I realize I don’t own any bras nice enough to wear under it and I can’t go to work with my breasts on display. Once I’m wearing a typical Ellena, like Eau Parfumee au The Vert, I often feel as though I’m barely wearing perfume at all. For a certain type of person, this is the goal; for me it’s merely frustrating.

However, Ellena’s work wasn’t always so sheer. Van Cleef & Arpels First, launched in 1976, is an old-fashioned aldehydic floral in the style of Lanvin Arpege or Lancome Magie Noire, and by far my favorite of the three. Aldehydes can tend to render florals too heavy and too sweet (Magie Noire smells like floral fudge), but First achieves that difficult balance between crispness and depth, best illustrated by White Linen. As soon as you describe something as “classy,” it seems less so, but that’s exactly how this smells, expensive but not flashy, proud but not mean. It’s quite green, with a grassy jasmine quality that reminds me of Balmain Ivoire, but smoother. I still prefer White Linen, in which, next to First, Sophia Grojsman’s touching way with rose becomes apparent. But they both hold up remarkably well, considering how far out of style this genre has fallen.

According to the Internet, Rose Poivrée from The Different Company was horrifically animalic in its first incarnation, and was later reformulated to a far more presentable fruity rose with pink pepper. If this is true, the original version must have been beyond beastly, because the juice in the tester at my local Barneys and the sample they gave me are deeply animalic. The sweet, fruity red rose is there, sure, but in addition to mainstream-friendly pink pepper I get a ton of sweaty, cumin-like spice. It may be that Ellena traded some civet (which is usually described as “fecal”) for cumin, but either way, this seems to vacillate on skin between rosy-sweet and armpit-salami. If you find Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Kahn sensual versus disgusting, or if you enjoy the way your lover smells after a game of tennis, Rose Poivree will delight you. In a field full of boring roses, it delights me.

Balenciaga Rumba could almost be a Roucel perfume, big, colorful, and ridiculous—except that I find it disgusting. The aldehydes, so carefully judged in First, are garish here, painfully sweet and mushroom-clouding off your skin. It’s partially good—the base has an interesting smoky, animalic quality—but you can only catch glimpses of it under all the fruity aldehydes that remind me simultaneously of children’s medicine and bathroom air fresheners. The notes seem beside the point—it smells like the ‘80s, as experienced from a bathroom. Possibly the worst perfume I’ve ever smelled.

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, Denver QuarterlyThe Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.