Wednesday, May 30, 2012

YSL by DSH: A Perfume Look at Yves St. Laurent

I’m always happy to get a samples package from Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. I admire her sure hand. I know that the scents won’t be oily headshop concoctions, but real perfumes, as beautifully crafted as the most expensive ones, but with better ingredients. I had read about the YSL Retrospective Collection, so was thrilled to get a chance to try them.

Last week, I was doing a lot of research on Andy Warhol, for another project. When struggling with the concept of talent — is there such a thing, or is it just work? — it was learning about Warhol’s upbringing as a poor kid from a lower-class ethnic ghetto in Pittsburgh that finally pushed me to conclude that these abilities can be inborn.  

It occurred to me as I was looking into YSL that Yves St. Laurent’s position in the history of fashion was similar. He  was from a comparatively  elevated but certainly not extraordinary background, born in a small town in colonial Algeria. Both he and Warhol showed early talent. Both rose quickly. Both became giants, suffered health problems, and died relatively young.

St. Laurent popularized pants for women, even as formal wear. He was the first to use models of African descent. He attempted street fashion at a time when his clientele wouldn’t dream of wearing anything so downscale as, say, leather. He made oceans of money with his Ready-to-Wear line — also simply not done at the time — and introduced Opium perfume with scandalous images and an infamous launch event. When I look back through images of his collections I can see that most of us wore his ideas, in one way or another, even if they came in liquid form.

What Dawn Spencer Hurwitz has done is make fragrant tributes to St. Laurent’s most important, and most creative, chapters. She did this to coincide with the Denver Art Museum’s YSL Retrospective Exhibit, in which St. Laurent’s couture pieces are shown as what they were: art.

c. 1950: The Dior Years “Ligne Trapéze”

Yves St. Laurent became Art Director at Dior when he was only twenty-one. His first collection for the house was “Le Ligne Trapéze.”  Hurwitz writes that she was inspired by a gorgeous silver evening gown from that collection:  "Trapeze.”  
The fragrance is a cool aldehydic floral with a decidedly vintage feel. For me it occupies a space somewhere between Mitsouko (the peach skin) and Arpege (the aldehydes). The silver here is not of the “sucked silver spoon” variety, but more a concept of the color and patina of well-used sterling. It’s a slightly aloof bouquet that warms to the skin over time. Included in the notes are aldehydes, of course, and violet, but also jasmine, “suede” accord, vetiver and castoreum.

Image from the Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.

c: 1958 − 1964: The Beat Look

One of my favorite old films is “a Bout de soufflé,” known in English as “Breathless.” Even now, it feels modern, still full of insouciance. Likewise this perfume, with its fruit and flowers, (not “fruity floral,” perish the thought!) underscored by leather. St. Laurent, like many of his countrymen, was fascinated with American motorcycle/beat culture at the time. This collection, for Dior, featured items like leather jackets and turtlenecks, and did not go over so well at Dior. St. Laurent left Dior after this, to fulfill his military service obligations. That didn’t go well either. He was hazed and taunted until he suffered a breakdown. After being released from service, he returned to Paris and started his own house.

This is my personal favorite from this collection. Notes include mirabelle plum, jasmine, orris, honeysuckle and leather.  The photo is Jean Seaberg, taken on the set of “a Bout de soufflé.”

c: 1968 − 1975: Le Smoking

“Le Smoking” was a YSL shorthand for the tuxedo, worn as evening dress by women. This was St. Laurent at his finest: daring, inspired by the women’s liberation movement of the time. Formal dress before this required horrors like “merry widow” corsets,  girdles and other forms of armor. The very idea of being able to sit comfortably at a formal dinner seemed revolutionary.

 “Le Smoking” is called a green chypre here, but what I sense is warmth; a beautifully green-floral beginning which settles into honey and tobacco leaves.  What makes this one so appealing are the bases, so well-blended that you get a feeling of incense, oakmoss and a bit of castoreum, but no aspirants and no scene-stealers. 

The photo, by Helmut Newton, from Google Images.

c: 1977 Opium Perfume  “Euphorisme D’Opium”

Opium perfume was iconic. Everybody wore it. The print ads featured Jerry Hall, Mick Jagger’s paramour and incredibly fabulous supermodel, reclining in a stupor on brocade cushions. For a couple of years every office and nightclub was filled women apparently aspiring to be that kind of  femme fatale. Opium was so ubiquitous, and so immediately recognizable that, like one of Warhol’s repeating disaster images, it ultimately lost its power.
This is a modern take on the idea of “Opium.” Clear, not murky. Conscious, not stuporous. The orange, carnation and clove bring up the Oriental association, but this is a bit more mannerly, with rose in the drydown. Don’t confuse it with the travesty currently being sold as “modern Opium” though! This one will elicit memories of the original formula, while being much more wearable.

The Opium ad came from French Vogue by way of Google Images.

c: 1983 Paris Perfume  “La Vie en Rose”

This is similar to “Paris,” the perfume St. Laurent said inspired the big-bow dress, but without the slap-you-stupid 80’s gigantism. Truth be told, I have always found “Paris” to be difficult to wear, but I also found huge shoulder pads to be daunting.  This is like “Paris,” minus the over-the-top quality. It has an aldehydic fizziness “Paris” didn’t have. It is still very much in the rose-violet camp, though. Notes include French rose, violet, violet leaf, cassis and civet.

The photo comes from the Denver Art Museum’s publicity materials for the retrospective.

c: 1994 − 2002 The Late Years  “Ma Plus Belle Historie d’Amour”

At his last haute couture show, Catherine Deneuve sang this song to him. By this time, St. Laurent was in failing health, barely able to walk down the runway after the show. He retired to Morocco soon afterward. This event highlighted his immense influence in haute couture, especially upon taste-making, powerful women. The fragrance is a ladies-who-lunch ozonic floral with one of the most beautiful jasmine-laced drydowns I’ve ever experienced in a perfume.

Yves St. Laurent dressed Catherine Deneuve for “Belle De Jour,” during which they became lifelong friends. Her appearance in that film is iconic; the classic, simple clothing, blonde mane, heavy Sixties eye makeup, stiff white lingerie.  To me, this fragrance is about her, in that film and later, as one of his great muses. Some of the notes here are linden, wisteria, sambac jasmine and ozone, all to great effect, romantic and wearable anywhere.

The photo is Catherine Deneuve and and Yves St. Laurent on the set of “Belle de Jour.”

The best thing about blogging is the learning. Before I began my research for this post, I knew a little  about Yves St. Laurent; he’d done Opium, the safari look and so on. I now know a lot more. I have never been a haute couture customer, but I’ve worn tuxedo jackets, safari-like shirts, pantsuits, brocaded jackets and Opium. Except for the last, I had no idea that it was Yves St. Laurent who came up with all of them. 

“You live your life in it,” says Stanley Tucci as Nigel, explaining why fashion can be art to the clueless Andy in “The Devil Wears Prada.” As fashion can be art, so can fragrance.

For more information, prices and a complete listing of the “notes” of each fragrance, visit

Photo crédits: Le Ligne Trapeze dress: Photo of Jean Seburg from Photo of Catherine Deneuve and Yves St. Laurent from Other photos are credited in the text.

Full disclosure: DSH Perfumes provided me with PR materials and 1 ml samples.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Suggestive Perfume Bottles, vol. 2

I recently bought a bottle of Caron’s “Montaigne” on fleabay, and the seller threw in this bottle of Pierre Cardin’s eponymous scent, after-shave version. 

The bottle needs little introduction. It’s the big-mack-daddy of ridiculous perfume bottles, nearly always cited as such when the subject comes up on blogs and perfume fora. It is, though, so very much of its time. That would be a time many who lived through would like to forget. 

“Pierre Cardin pour Monsieur” came out in 1972. My personal cascade of memories from that storied year includes:

Burt Reynold’s hairy visage as the first “Playgirl” centerfold; actually, Burt Reynolds. “The Joy of Sex,” featuring line drawings of a portly couple doing, y’know, it. “The Sensuous Woman” by “J.” The Loud family blaring it all on PBS in “An American Family.” The first — very first — disco records on the radio. Halter tops (that’s one of mine, from 1972, in the photo). The end of the earnest hippie; the resurgence of detached Hip. “Oui” magazine. Shag haircuts and, damn it, having to start styling your hair again. Cocaine amongst the cognoscenti. The end of Levi 501’s and the beginning of “designer” jeans. Um, waterbeds. Suburban couples lining up to see porn movies at the local Pussycat theater. Really Wide Ties. Muttonchop sideburns and fat mustaches. Shiny shirts with big collars. Deep tans. Hair spray for men.

…and that’s just a few of the references that come to (my) mind when I look at this bottle.

I’m not sure how old this one is. The cologne is still in production, but, in the usual sad story, has been sold and sold again and can now be had in discount drugstores for practically nothing. I think my bottle has some age, because the scent inside has things I recognize from other vintage fragrances I have — leather, geranium, tonka, oakmoss. And, although it starts out gag-me sweet, that quickly dissipates and becomes something that is…not too bad. It actually smells a lot like Habit Rouge, which was marketed for years as the scent one wears while riding to the hounds. 

This one is decidedly Seventies, for the peacock-man of the time. Brian Ferry might have worn Habit Rouge but I bet he never wore this! I’d say it sits somewhere between Habit Rouge and those really downmarket drugstore musks-for-men. 

And then there’s that, y’know, bottle.

Did you live through the Seventies? Do you remember them? So share already! (Posting as “Anonymous” is fine.)

According to Basenotes, the “notes” for Pierre Cardin pour Monsieur are lemon, bergamot, orange, lavender, basil, carnation, geranium, leather, sandalwood, patchouli, orris, vanilla, moss, tonka, benzoin and “amber.” 

photo by Patricia Borow, aka Olfacta. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Leather Love: Peau d'Espagne

I have a problem with many leather fragrances. It’s really not with leather itself, but overuse of the aromachemical isobutylquinoline, usually shortened to IBQ.  A few years ago I got a bit of it in an introductory perfume notes kit, and soon realized that, even in a 4% dilution, it was the schoolyard bully; no matter how little I used in a mix, it knocked everything else out of the way. After that, I could instantly recognize its brass-knuckles presence in just about every “leather” fragrance out there. (When I made my series “Scents of Place” for my January art exhibit, one was called “New Leather Jacket.”  It contained — you guessed it — IBQ and a bit of dirty musk.) Anyway, the smell we call “leather” is nearly always IBQ.

My Peau d’Espagne doesn’t smell as though there is one bit of IBQ in it. So quite a few of the Basenotes reviews I’ve read say something like “where’s the leather in this?” or “the leather fragrance without any leather.” Our noses get so numbed by these synthetics, in perfumery and in functional household products like detergent, that subtlety is sometimes lost. But to me, anyway, this is a gorgeous leather; softened by years and care, nothing like the simulacrum IBQ.

“Peau d’Espagne” means “skin of Spain.” Spanish skins, sometimes known as Cordovan leather, came into common use in the 9th century, as the Andalusian city Cordoba was becoming a great center of learning and art. The skins, usually goat, were tanned and then embossed and gilded for use as wall hangings, like the tapestries hung on castle walls in northern Europe. These leather hangings kept out drafts and had the additional benefit of being resistant to insects. The art of making them was North African, or Moorish — the Moors ruled Andalucia for eight centuries, and Cordoba was their capital.

The version I have is from Santa Maria Novella, the Italian house that remains the oldest perfumery still in operation; this fragrance dates to 1901. (There have been other fragrances with the same name.) I got it in a split, and it’s marked “vintage,” and although I don’t know exactly what vintage it is, it smells fresh and unspoiled.

The opening notes of Peau d’Espagne are not for the faint-hearted. Anise jumps out with its licorice smell, like a first sip of Pernod or the dry version of “Chinchon,” an anise liqueur which I’ve never seen anywhere outside Spain. There is a slight medicinal bitterness, a volatility that gives a bitter taste on my lips as I sniff it, and then a gentle morph into essences of herbs and florals. I’ve read that the Spanish tanners used rose and orange woods, with lavender, and spices like cloves and cinnamon, and civet, and musk. So this leather is more about the substances once used to produce it than what we now call “leather.” That must have been the smell of tanning chemicals the leather absorbed, to be later synthesized as IBQ.

The fragrance continues in this way for quite awhile, with the herbs and florals flowing across the skin, back and forth and back again, while the bottom notes arrange themselves and gradually rise. (There is a supposed quote from Havelock Ellis that peau d’espagne is “often the favorite scent of sensuous persons.” I can see this.) These base notes are skinlike, with subtle musk  and dust — possibly a bit of myrrh -- and a slight — very slight — civet, just an echo, really, appearing and disappearing in rhythm with all the other notes. If I had to characterize this fragrance succinctly, I’d call it elusive. On the back of my hand, it has dried down after about an hour to a subtle and delicious skin scent — idealized skin.

The skin I wish I had.

The photo was taken at the Seville Fair and is titled “Young Aristocrat, Seville, Spain, April 2004.” Sounds a little silly, but it’s accurate. Members of the old families of Seville, in traditional dress, parade grandly on their Andalusian horses through the Feria de Sevilla grounds. The children are taught to ride almost as soon as they can walk. 

“Peau d’Espagne,” from Santa Maria Novella, is available in Europe and here and there in the U.S. at a reasonable price — around $125 for 100 mls.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Eeeewwwoud -- Trading in the Golden Triangle

Do you remember the first time you smelled oud? I certainly do!

It was unfortunate, in a way, that my initial exposure to the oud note in fragrace was the infamous, stonking Montale Black Oud. It put me off synthetic ouds forever, or so I thought — once I found out that the oud was, in fact, synthetic. Off I went as usual, to search for the real thing.

I doubt that I’ve ever found it. I thought I had, with some expensive niche perfumes I’ve sampled this year. 

It seems that the skyrocketing demand for natural, Southeast Asian oud has turned agarwood into gold and put the trees that produce it on endangered lists. The few remaining agarwood trees of Laos and the highlands of Vietnam, sources of the highest grades, are extremely hard to reach (a week’s hike in the jungle or so). That’s only the beginning; getting the wood out of the jungle is even more dangerous. Local villagers, for example, might be recruited to inform members of Vietnamese trading networks about sightings of wood haulers. By one account I read, local police sometimes “confiscate” the harvested wood for the traders, who then sell it up and down the line in an organization known as the Agarwood Mafia. They don’t treat independent wood hunters, who they call smugglers, kindly.
If you are a foreign concern and want to legally participate in the agarwood trade, a very large and very local bank account must be established, and many deposits must be made. If that works out and your deal goes through, your agarwood oil or distillate is likely to have been stepped on — about ten times is the average for a western purveyor. But, in recent years you’d be lucky to get anything at all, because China appears to have cornered the agarwood market.

In parts of China, infected agarwood (sometimes called “sinking wood”) is a good luck charm.  Although the wood itself is difficult to carve, the highest grades are used anyway, because those who hold this superstition want the very best, heaviest, fastest-sinking wood. According to one wood harvester, the Chinese factories do a pretty good business in leftover, low-quality agarwood chips, soaked in synthetic oud and sold as high-grade oud wood. (The beads and charms themselves are frequently carved from other heavy woods and then soaked in the synthetic oud while the buyer stockpiles any real agarwood he finds.)

So, when you buy that big bottle of Steam Oud from an online discounter for around $150 — well, you get my drift. Common sense tells me that a higher — much higher — price point for the latest niche oud fragrance is no guarantee either. I have a small sample — a drop maybe — of oud oil and even the botanical company from which I got it freely admits that it may not be of the highest possible quality. (Hey, at least they admit it!) So I’m wondering what it is, exactly, that I have been smelling all this time. The answer of course is synthetics.  They, like real oud, vary in quality, but many are better than they once were.

One heartening note: Agarwood plantations are in the works now. I’ve even heard of U.S. efforts  in Florida. But properly inoculating the trees with the oud-producing Phaeoacremonium parasitica fungus is difficult, too. A tree planted today will take thirty years to produce the prized infected wood.

Maybe synthetic oud isn’t so bad. 

I have given away quite a few samples of oud-laced fragrances. I kept a large vial of YSL’s M7 because I’ve always liked it, even before I knew what oud was. (Can’t find it today, of course.) And I liked Mona di Orio’s fairly recent oud. And a few other niche offerings. Some imply that their oud is real. After my research for this post, I don’t see how. But, after discovering what goes on in the wild agarwood harvesting business, I’m not so sure I’d want it anyway.

That having been said, I really do love the recent “Trayee” (Neela Vermiere Creations), which was developed by perfumer Bertrand Duchafour. A wonderful reader and I were doing some swapping, and she sent me some — the generosity of perfume lovers always amazes me. It’s the only oud-featuring fragrance I’ve ever liked this much. Green and woody and a little floral, too, it’s hugely strong and lasts forever. The oud in it? Probably  synthetic. And if that’s a problem…well, is it really?

photo courtesy of Google Images.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Trendia: Black Cardamom

Summer’s coming, the season in which I most like to fool around with perfume-making. I’ve made a couple of successful tinctures, one from dried oakmoss, one from tonka beans. I’ve used commercially produced green cardamom absolute, but haven’t seen the black variety. However, the international market where I shop features, in its enormous spice section, black cardamom pods as well as green ones. 

Black cardamom is in the same botanical family (Zingiberaceae, or ginger) as green. The kind I’m using, Amomum subulatum, usually comes from Nepal. The pods are smoked over slow fires as a means of drying them. The result is an intense, but not too pungent, smoky aroma with a hint of wood.

The pods are full of gray, slightly fuzzy seeds which, when chewed (we here at Olfactarama believe in primary research) are smoky and a little bitter. Their smoky flavor merely hints at cardamom, and is not nearly as pungent, citric or long-lasting as the green’s. 

This cardamom variety is used a lot in northern India, often in the ubiquitous garam masala spice mixture. I can see why it’s used to flavor cold-weather soups and stews. The smoky taste lends rusticity, but does not overwhelm a dish, and so can be used in rice dishes, dal and Chai spiced tea. Green cardamom is saved for more refined foods. This reminds me of  the difference between the earthy Cajun cooking of South Louisiana in the U.S., vs. the much more French-influenced Creole cuisine of New Orleans.

Green cardamom has been popular in perfumery for a couple of decades, as in Declaration (Cartier), and  Eau Parfumée Extrême (Bulgari), both from Jean-Claude Ellena. It’s a lot harder to find scents that feature the black variety, but Paco Rabanne’s Black XS lists it in some places, as does BBW’s “Noir” body spray for men, and Jo Malone’s Dark Amber and
Ginger Lily. I’m going to see if it makes a good “smoke” note. I’ve used cade oil, but it smells too much like barbecue to me, and a porky one at that. 

(It should be noted that Grains of Paradise, a slightly different botanical sometimes called “Greater Cardamom” is not the same thing, although it too emits a spicy note. I’ve seen it used in botanical perfume. There is also a Chinese variety of black cardamom, which has much larger pods, generally isn’t smoked, and is used in the Sichuan province as a culinary spice.)

I was a little surprised to see black cardamom as an ingredient in a mass-market body spray like BBW’s Noir, but it does appear to be a little less expensive than the green variety. My market charges $17.39/pound for it, which, because the pods are very light, would be a whole lot of it. I’m going to tincture a little over an ounce and a half of the pods in a cup or so of perfumers alcohol, for a couple of months, and will replace the pods once during that time. If I get a smoky scent, laced with cardamom’s cineol and terpinenes, I will be happy!

the photo comes from

References:  Gernot Ketzer's Spice Pages and "The New Perfume Handbook" by Nigel Groom