Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Kid Gloves

Leather fragrances are the opposite of the modern synthetic-fruity-floral. 
Last summer I was asked for advice on the choice of a fragrance for a young woman about to go to Italy to study. The budget was moderate. The gifter wanted a classic, though, something that wouldn’t shriek “C’mere, soldier!” to the Italian, er, skies. We chose Anais Anais, and the giftee seemed to like it, but now I wish I’d recommended Cuir de Lancome.
I’ve fallen in love with this one, because it is a leather that is in no way bitter or harsh. Of all the leather scents I’ve tried, this one comes closest to the vintage Tabac Blond I wrote about last week, although it is, you might say, blonder. I don’t smell Iso Butyl Quinoline (hereinafter “IBQ”) in either of them.
IBQ is one of about 100 essences and aromachemicals in the perfumer’s kit  I have. Now, there are some bad boys in this schoolyard: Allyl Amyl Glycolate is the 14-year old hood, scion of the Georgio family, that hasn’t made it out of 6th grade yet -- the guy that everyone’s afraid of (except for Frank Incense, older than his years, who takes charge of every group he’s in). IBQ, well, he isn’t around much, because he’s usually in detention. But when he is, kiddies...watch your backs. 
This substance, which dates to the late 19th century, is pretty much the definition of the modern leather fragrance, not that there are that many. Could anything else be so out of fashion? (There is always hope, though. Since I’ve been writing this blog, the perfume cognoscenti have rushed from iris to incense to oud, and it hasn’t even been two years!) My point is that the leathers I’ve tried -- Miss Balmain, Cuir de Russie, Jolie Madame, Knize Ten, Bandit, others from The Leather List -- all contain it. But Vintage Tabac Blond and Cuir de Lancome, if they have it at all, are so beautifully constructed that I can’t smell it. That’s remarkable.
I’ve tried to experiment with IBQ. Twenty drops of this, ten of that, five of that...the formula book says to start with one drop of it. In my experience, one drop is about twenty times too much. Dip a toothpick in the vial, then stir the rest: still too much. Let it sit for a couple of weeks. Mellower, but still too much.
The result of this geek-a-zoid analysis is this: I can smell IBQ in a fragrance at twenty paces, but not in Cuir de Lancome. It’s now my favorite leather, excepting vintage Tabac Blond of course, whose price and rarity are beyond rubies.
The modern “Cuir de Lancome” has a sad history of cold feet. Released as “Revolte” in 1936, it was changed to “Cuir” in 1939, as the earlier name was judged to be too risky. The modern “Cuir,” reorchestrated by perfumers Calice Becker and Pauline Lanoni, went, as they say, straight to video. Part of Lancome’s 2007 “La Collection” group, the fragrance company said they would feature it in the US at retail, then they wouldn’t, then maybe they would, but then -- cold feet again? -- they didn’t. It’s only available in Europe. Is this bad news for U.S. leather lovers now? Why, not at all! It’s at the online discounters, which is where I got my bottle, and it’s reasonable. Very reasonable.
When we lived in Spain, my father liked a rotgut brandy called “Magno.” It was the working man’s liquor, he would say. Pressed from the leathery skins and bitter seeds of wine grapes scratched out of dry red dirt. And it did contain the essence of that land. I’d say that Magno was akin to IBQ in some ways, as are the fragrances that feature it prominently, like Bandit. Vintage Tabac Blond would sit somewhere on the other end of that continum, as would a hundred-year-old fine cognac. Cuir de Lancome would be closer to that end of the scale than anything else I’ve tried. 
Will leather fragrances ever return to popularity? The first response would be a twisted smile and a mention of hell freezing over. Most people don’t know these perfumes exist. I sprayed some on a perfume-naive friend’s hand the other night. “This is really different!” she exclaimed. And after an hour or so she said “This is...animal, somehow.” She loved it. 
I think Cuir de Lancome would be a great introduction to leather. It’s so smooth. It’s gently floral. It’s not aldehydic, so the dreaded “Old Lady” judgment isn’t an issue. The drydown is delicious and the sillage modest. Maybe Lancome missed the boat on this one.
So, if you have the opportunity to give a perfume to someone who might otherwise be wearing Beyonce, try it.
Cuir de Lancome’s “notes” include saffron, iris, leather, Aubepine (a macrocylic musk) birch, styrax, bergamot, mandarin, iris, ylang-ylang, hawthorn, patchouli and jasmine.
Perfumer Calice Becker’s other fragrances include By Kilian “Back to Black,” the modern version of Balmain’s “Vent Vert,” and Donna Karan “Gold.”
Photo credit: © Iurii Krivenko|Dreamstime.com 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pre-Code: Tabac Blond

In 1929, a group of Catholic priests sat down with some of their followers to draw up a series of guidelines for the motion picture industry. Throughout the 1920’s, the fast-living young women known as “flappers” had been part of Hollywood’s lexicon, bringing to the heartlands images of speakeasies, pocket flasks, short dresses and bee-stung lips, often dragging on  -- horror of horrors! -- cigarettes.  
As now, the motion picture industry both reflected and advanced its times. The term “flapper” came into popular use after 1920, when the silent “The Flapper” was released. Flapper-dom became a fad, then a style. From corsets to step-ins; from elaborate upswept hairdos and chaperones to boyish bobs and late-night parties; this was more than a look. It was upheaval, an aftereffect of the horrors of World War One, and of Prohibition. Denied legal liquor, young men and women drank bathtub gin, and they often did so in clandestine bars. It was the thumbing of the nose at convention which led to this louche emancipation. 

Two silent films starring a very young and very uninhibited Joan Crawford -- Our Dancing Daughters and especially Our Modern Maidens -- were part of the output that led to the formation of the Production Code. In the latter movie, Joan Crawford plays a flapper who offers herself to an older diplomat to further the career of her rakish fiance, who is busy seducing her best friend at a wild party. Billie marries her rake, but leaves him for the diplomat when she finds out.
Not exactly Andy Hardy, is it?  And, even more surprising, it was released by MGM, America’s family values studio. In the studio's early years, however, MGM’s creative mastermind was Irving Thalberg, a literate young man who got films such as this one made, even after he helped form the “Studio Relations Committee.” That committee was mostly ignored by the industry, and Thalberg’s MGM continued to release risque classics like Red Dust (which starred Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, marooned together in the tropics) and James Cagney’s The Public Enemy. But illnesses weakened Thalberg, who died in 1936, not long after the National League of Decency was formed. Finally, the Breen Office/Hays Code, which had to approve scripts before filming could start, came to power. Once it was fully implemented, even existing films had to be re-edited to conform to its policies. The Hays Code lasted roughly until the next era of cultural upheaval, the mid-Sixties.
The Caron scent “Tabac Blond” was released just before the flapper phenomenon hit the U.S. It was the opposite of the delicate floral perfumes, often based on violet, that had been in wide use during the days of corsets and buttoned shoes. I’ve recently obtained a bit vintage Tabac Blond, and it is not what I expected. It’s not dark, not masculine (although it probably seemed so in 1919) or bitter. It’s smooth and rich, more like a fine cognac than a riding crop. Generally, it is thought that the flappers used this scent and the later Habanita to hide the smell of tobacco smoke from their eagle-eyed mothers. That could be, but I doubt that it was the reason for the perfume’s invention! It was just one of those synergies that happen sometimes, and smelling it now is like stepping into a time machine.

“Our Modern Maidens” was released less than two months before the stock market crash of 1929. That event brought an end to the era of the convention-flouting flapper, although the last of the “Our” trilogy, “Our Blushing Brides” came out in 1930. (These flappers weren’t the careless debutantes of the earlier two movies, though. They were shopgirls on the hunt for rich men a la “How to Marry a Millionaire,” Depression version.)
And so these leather fragrances, most exempified by this one but with companions like Chanel’s Cuir de Russie, are monuments, wearable history. Like the pre-Code movies, there is something really emancipated, but reflective of reality, about them. They aren’t idealized, aspirational or even artificial -- in their vintage versions, anyway.
There is a scene in “Our Dancing Daughters” where Joan Crawford, seen only from the knees down, does an impromptu Charleston as she prances into her step-ins. Once she’s dressed (but just barely) the scene widens to include the only-in-Hollywood lavish art deco set that is her bedroom. Behind her is a window lined with glass shelves, on which are arranged many bottles of perfume. In this way, we’re shown something about her character. She’s well-off, true, but also discriminating; she has many choices. And unlike her friends, she generally knows what’s what.
It is that quality, that subtle gravitas, that defines vintage Tabac Blond to me. 
Tabac Blond was released in 1919. Like all old perfumes, there have been changes, but the notes include bergamot and a bit of orange blossome, carnation, jasmine and iris, amber, musk, civet, benzoin and oakmoss. The perfumer, Ernest Daltroff, founded the House of Caron.
For a YouTube look at Joan Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters (and the perfume shelf) go here.
The photo is a production still from Our Dancing Daughters, which I found on a Joan Crawford fan site.

“Our Dancing Daughters” and “Our Modern Maidens” were released on videocassette by MGM-UA Home Video in the early Nineties as part of a “Forbidden Hollywood” promotion, but are difficult to find now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Scents and Sensibility: Brian Eno on perfumery

Whenever I start to wonder if this perfumery thing isn't just a little,  um, frivolous, I look up and read this article. It's been kicking around the web for awhile, and it's quite a bit of text, but if you haven't read it, do.  The original article came from Details magazine.

(Image and article credits will appear at the end.)

"I started thinking about smell in 1965. At art college, a friend and I made a little collection of evocative aromas, housed in about fifty small bottles. There was rubber, naptha, motorcycle dope, cuir de russe (used to make leather smell like leather rather than dead animals), gasoline, ammonia, juniper wood. In 1978, in a neglected and unlikely part of London, I discovered an old pharmacy that was crammed with oils and absolutes.

Their beautiful names - styrax, patchouli, franipani, amber, myrrh, geraniol, opoponax, heliotrope - and their familiar/strange aromas attracted my curiosity, and I bought over a hundred bottles. Soon I found myself actively collecting the primary materials of perfumery - in Madrid I found a crumbling apothecary's with dozens of mysteriously labeled phials; in San Francisco I discovered the strage olfactory world of Chinatown, of five spices and jasmine and ginseng; a woman I met in Ibiza gave me a minute bottle containing just one drop of an utterly heavenly material called nardo (I later came to think that this was probably spikenard oil, extracted from a shrub growing at between six and eight thousand feet on the Himalayas and used by wealthy Indian ladies as a prelude to lovemaking).

I started mixing things together. I was fascinated by the synergies of combinations, how two quite familiar smells carefully combined could create new and unrecognizable sensation. Perfumery has a lot to do with this process of courting the edges of unrecognizability, of evoking sensations that don't have names, or of mixing up sensations that don't belong together. Some materials are in themselves schizophrenic (or is it oxymoronic?) in that they have two rather contradictory natures. Methyl octane carbonate, for example, evokes the smell of violets and motorcycles; Dior's Farenheit uses a lot of it. Orris butter, a complex derivative of the roots of iris, is vaguely floral in small amounts but almost obscenely fleshy (like the smell beneath a breast or between buttocks) in quantity. Civet, from the anal gland of the civet cat, is intensely disagreeable as soon as it is recognizable, but amazingly sexy in subliminal doses (it features in Guerlain's Jicky, probably the oldest extant perfume, and one whose market has changed over the hundred years of its existence - it now has a following among gay men). Courmarin, the primary ingredient in Cacharel's Lou Lou, has the characteristic smell of late summer, from whose flowers and grassses it is derived, but then it carries strange overtones of powder, boudoirs, bedrooms...

You don't have to dabble for very long to begin to realize that the world of smell has no reliable maps, no single language, no comprehensible metaphorical structure within which we might comprehend it and navigate our way around it. It seems to compare poorly, for example, with the world of sight. If we want to think about color, we can use words like hue and brightess and saturation. We can visualize a particular sightly milky green, imagine where it falls on a spectrum chart, look at its neighbours and complemetaries, and the finally say that it is, say, "eau de nil" or "pale turquoise" or "jade." These are relatively precise numerically, in angstroms, for example, or (if you want to paint your house in it) as "British Standard paintshade number something-or-other." Similarly with shape: We use measurement and geometry and, of course, drawings, to communicate that type of information.

But the best we seem to be able to do with smells is to evoke comparisons. We can say that karanal is "like striking a flint," that the aldehyde C14 is "like latex." As far as I know there is not even the beginning of a usable system of realting these to one another. Where does karanal stand in relation to tuberose? Or sandalwood to sage? Don't ask me.

Like others who've played with perfumes, I found this somewhat unsatisfactory. I wanted a system, a map. I briefly thought I might be able to make one myself, but this plan foundered as I jotted down the resemblance between strawberries and egg yolk, between breweries and certain types of horsehair bedding. I just knew I didn't have enough stamina to collect, let alone collate, all those sensations. I'd also noticed to my confusion that the substances "coriander" and "vetiver" were never quite the same twice. The vetiver I bought in the Walworth Road in London was distinctly different from what I got from the labs of Quest International in Paris, and the French coriander I found in 1988 was different from the French coriander I bought a year later. Even the names, it turned out, didn't describe anything stable. So, still lost, I abandoned the classification project (what a relief!) and decided to continue pleasurably stumbling around in the gloaming, rubbing bits of thei and that on anyone kind enough to loan me a patch of their skin, then sniffing to test the effects (it turned out to be a great way of getting to know people...).

It took me a long time to begin to realize that this was the way things were likely to continue. Just like with everything else, there was probably never going to be a time when I "knew what I was doing," when I had in mind some final, logical picture of the whole world of smell. The Linnaeus of smell was not to be, or not to be me.

It's strange how you arrive at ideas, how thoughts consolidate themselves out of the most disparate and unlikely beginnings, and how often those beginnings are realizations from experience that something isn't possible (or alternately is possible but not interesting). This is one such roundabout story.

During my dabbling with perfumes, I'd also been dabbling with other things, including music. Whenever I talked about sound, I stressed the inadequacy of the classical languages that composers had used to describe it. I said that the evolution of the electronic instruments and recording processes had created a situation where the whole question of timbre - the physical quality of sound - had been opened up wide and had become a major focus of compositional attention. Modern composers and producers working in recording studios were experimenting with sound itself and were quite content to use largely traditional "received" forms (such as "the blues") upon which to hang their experiments. It struck me that this had been completely missed by classically trained musicologists, who were always looking for innovation in places where it wasn't happening. They were expecting that any music that deserved the title "new" would be making breakthroughs in harmony, in melody, in compositional structure; but here they were faced with a music that, in those respects, had barely made it past the turn of the century.

When they failed to notice, or at least attach any importance to, was that their language, the language of classical written composition, simply didn't have any terms to describe Jimi Hendrix's guitar sound on "Voodoo Chile" or Phil Spector's production of "Da Doo Ron Ron" - arguably the most interesting features of those works. Rock music, I kept saying, was a music of timbre and texture, of the physical experience of sound, in a way that no other music had ever been or could have ever been. It dealt with a potentially infinite sonic pallette, a palette whose gradations and combinations would never adequately be described, and where the attempt at description must always lag behind the infinites of permutation.
So while I was happy to accept and exploit this wonderfully fluid situation in music, I was worried about finding myself in the same place vis-à-vis perfume. The inconsistency of these positions finally filtered through to me while I was delivering a talk to a group of businessmen in Brussels. My talk was called "The Future of Culture in Europe," and in it I tried to sketch out the breakdown of the classical view of Culture and art history in favor of a more contemporary one. Until quite recently, I said, Culture had been viewed as a field of hurman behaviors and artifacts that could be organized in some ideal way, the assumption being that, if only we sat down and talked about it for long enough, we would all agree that, say, Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Goethe, Wagner, and a few other big names were the real kingpins of Culture, and that, say, chocolate-box designers, popular balladeers, walking-stick carvers, hairdressers, clothes designers, and Little Richard were all relatively marginal. The history of the history of art is really the story of people trying to make a claim form one orthodoxy in favor of any other, asserting that the particular line that they drew through the field of all the events we refer to as Culture had some special validity and the proximity to that line was a measure of originality, profundity, longevity: in short, of value.

For many reasons this idea of intrinsic, given value becomes less and less tenable. We don't expect to write books now called "The History of Painting" (as if there were only one), and only a dwindling band of fundamentalists (about 5.9 billion at the last count) still believe in "the True Nature" of anything. We become more and more comfortable with the idea that there are all sorts of ways of describing and organizing phenomena, that there are descriptive languages that don't translate into one another, that there is no absolute basis upon which to decide between one language and the other, and that anyway, "the same set of phenomena" is a shifting field of energies that we choose to give the same name to until it gets so confusing that we have to find another.

So, just as we might come to accept that "coriander" is a name for a fuzzy, not very clearly defined space in the whole of our smell experience, we also start to think about other words in the same way. Big Ideas (Freedom, Truth, Beauty, Love, Reality, Art, God, America, Socialism) start to lose their capital letters, cease being so absolute and reliable, and become names for spaces in our psyches. We find ourselves having to frequently reassess or even reconstruct them completely. We are, in short, increasingly uncentered, unmoored, lost, living day to day, engaged in and ongoing attempt to cobble together a credible, at least workable, set of values, ready to shed it and work out another when the situation demands.

And I love it: I love watching us all become dilettante perfume blenders, poking inquisitive fingers through a great library of ingredients and seeing which combinations make sense for us, gathering experience - the possibility of better guesses - without certainty.

Perhaps our sense of this, the sense of belonging to a world held together by networks of ephemeral confidences (such as philosophies and stock markets) rather than permanent certainties, predisposes us to embrace the pleasures of our most primitive and unlangued sense. Being mystified doesn't frighten us as much as it used to. And the point for me is not to expect perfumery to take its place in some nice, reliable, rational world order, but to expect everything else to become like perfume."

The image comes from the White Cube publicity card. The article was originally featured in Details magazine. Both appear on the Hyperreal website (logo below). Use of this material for noncommercial purposes is noted as allowable in the site's text.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Grab Bag

 Remember the film “Moscow on the Hudson,” about a Soviet-era musician who defects to the US and moves to Manhattan? (Hint: played by Robin Williams.) A fair amount of treacle, but one truly great scene: he goes to an American supermarket to buy coffee. Directed to the coffee aisle, he stands, astonished, staring at the hundreds of brands and roasts and cans and bags. Unable to choose, he has a sort of fit, muttering “Coffee, I only wanted coffee!”
I used to feel like this when trying to choose a new shampoo, for example. Fifty, a hundred, two hundred kinds, when all I wanted was clean hair.
Now, it’s samples, and decants and even bottles. I had gotten so backlogged with samples, from swaps and "gotta try this" purchases and so on, that I began to avoid them. After all, it’s nine a.m., and I just want to smell good. But I also need to experiment, contrast and compare, and, well, keep up (and have something to write about). What to do, what to do. 
Here’s what: I put them all in a gift bag. Here’s the new routine: reach in and retrieve a sample -- no putting back, now, I am bound by honor to try it, whatever it is. Pour the entire vial’s contents into the palm of my hand. Apply to the usual places. Wear until gone. Take occasional notes. Rate on the following scale:
5 stars: Help me somebody!
4 stars: A near-swoon
3 stars: Special 
2 stars: A decent everyday wear
1 star: I wouldn’t pay for it
0 stars: celebrity skin
This method, while not exactly “blind,” -- the samples are labeled -- is a great way to try things I might otherwise avoid. And, while I don’t expect to ever really reach the bottom of the grab bag, I’ll at least make progress, and we’re all about progress, are we not?
So here’s the first batch, exactly in the order retrieved, and my impressions.
Serge Lutens Vanille: a nice boozy caramel vanilla. Very foody. Made me hungry. A vanilla milkshake with brandied caramel in the bottom. Lasted about 4 or 5 hours. 3 stars
Fracas: Applied a 1/2 ml vial to my wrists and chest this morning.  So far it's been about seven hours and it's still going strong. I wore it to the grocery store a little while ago. Sometimes you can tell people are smelling you, you know? I think I was cutting a fairly wide swath down that aisle. But in a good way. And the checker was nicer than usual.
Tuberose/rubber/heat. It speaks in a high voice, although I was expecting a low growl.  Just Not Me. 2.5 stars.
Back to Black by Kilian: A combination of pipe tobacco, cherry syrup (maybe cherry pipe tobacco?) and vanilla. After 2 or 3 hours only vanilla; after six it's a generic heliotrope/vanilla with a slight Play-Doh note. I don't know what all the fuss was about. 2 stars.
Nuit Noire by Mona di Orio: This has the most compelling final drydown but it is unidentifiable as any particular flower or vanilla. I think it must be the civet. Truly delicious and sexy. Opening: 1.5 stars (too fecal) Drydown: 4 stars.
Ambre Extreme by L'Artisan:  At first I thought the vial was mislabeled. It opened with lots of vanilla. Then the amber kicked in -- or was that just my expectation? Time will tell...3/4 hours later: yes, it’s tree resins. Opoponax/labdanum and/or synthetics, + vanilla. 6:30 pm:  can still smell it. But it’s beginning to fade an hour later. Still a very nice amber. 3 stars.
Habanita by Molinard (modern formula): I put this on by mistake on a very cold night (I thought it was My Sin.) I’d written negatively about the vintage formula last year, saying it was all choking powder. But this smelled fantastic. One spray on a sweater lasted all through the evening. It is a dark scent for dark nights, a tobacco-based oriental, very out of time, and it made me feel even more a femme fatale than the My Sin does (and incidentally, the two layer well.) Winter only. 4 stars.
Patchouli 25 by Le Labo: It’s true! Smoke and leather and a little, tiny bit of patch. Put on around 10:25 a, about 1 1/2 mls. 2:45 - smokiness only. 5:30: ash. (How do they do that?) Ends with a vague vanillic smokiness. I think this is a man’s scent. A real good one, but not for me. 2.5 stars.
New York by Parfums de Nicolai:  Amber and orange, and opens with a wonderful citrusy blast, reminding me of the old “L’Eau de Hadrien.” Which then turns toward orange. Longevity only medium so far on skin though. Very pretty and powdery in drydown. This was a swap; I’m wondering how old the bottle was, as it’s rumored that the PdN’s have been reformulated. This formula: 3.5 stars.
Parfum Sacre by Caron: Pleasant. Just pleasant, rosy but mostly powdery with only a tiny bit of the bitterness at the very beginning. Short-lived too. This was an old 1 ml sample from a swap. I wonder what the vintage would be like. 1 star.
L’Aimant Cologne by Coty (vintage): This is one for spraying all over yourself. A pretty light aldehydic floral followed by a gentle powderiness. I think this would be perfect in warm spring weather or for the gym. Can be pumped up nicely by using the perfume with it. 2.5 stars.
Cartier Les Heures du Parfum XIII La Treizieme:  New sample. Opens with black tea, Lapsang Souchong, very pungent and smoky. I used to call this “barbecue tea.”  Later: tea. Later: tea. Later: (after some perspiring): tea. I like tea, but not enough to go around smelling like a chest full of it. 3 stars for special-ness, 1 for the possibility of actual wearing.
Parfums de Rosine La Rose: Sample, about a year old. Sprayed whole thing on.  At first I thought this would be a rose soliflore but it’s not -- not rose anyway. Opens with a bergamot or citrus and maybe aldehydes, and then begins screaming “Violet! Violet! Violet!” I think this is a perfume for a well-off well-coiffed French grandmother. Maybe a violet cologne from the era of Napoleon smelled like this. Reminds me of the elderly French woman in the 2nd class train compartment with us in southern France who said riding backward made her ill, and insisted on switching sides with us every time the train changed direction.
Hours later: still screaming, except now there’s some choking too, from all the powder. Tried to wash it off with witch hazel but only got part of it. 0.5 stars.
Five hours later: it’s still here, aaarrrraguuuhhhh! 
Much later: finally the violet is beginning to recede, but much too late. 0 stars.

...and there you have it, a dozen opinions; nothing more, nothing less.

Illustration © Georgios Kollidas|Dreamstime.com