Thursday, June 14, 2012

Floral Grab Bag

And now for something a little different! I promise not to mention patchouli, Thierry Mugler, or my half-baked musings on the fragrance industry in the following post. This week, as befits the season, Toilet Water and Whale Vomit is knee-deep in flowers.

Astute readers of this blog may have picked up on my predilection for fragrances rife with woods, spices, musks, and moss; forest-floor chiaroscuro, and all that is dense and dark. The skipping-through-a-meadow school of perfumery - ie. floral - has never really appealed to me, and even darker, dirtier floral fragrances rarely seem to "fit" my skin. (It's a failing on my part, not theirs.) However, in an effort to shake up my perfume paradigm and inject some garden-variety variety into my wardrobe, I've been trying on some florals lately and finding a few that actually work for me. I've discovered that fresh, dewy, green, and spicy florals strike my fancy more than sweet and/or powdery ones; flowers coupled with citrus and woods can provide a wonderful olfactory backdrop to a high-ceilinged spring day. The Four Florals of the Apocalypse - jasmine, tuberose, ylang-ylang, and orange blossom - are still iffy territory for me, but I'm making progress. Herewith, three floral perfumes that actually turn my crank, and hopefully more to follow.

Stella, by Stella McCartney. Admittedly, this is a bit of a training-wheels floral; specifically, a beginner's rose. I used to think I disliked rose, and then I tried YSL's Paris and discovered that I hated rose. At least, a particular sort of perfumery rose: powdery, soapy, evocative of cosmetics and potpourri. Stella is not that rose. In fact, it's not entirely about rose at all. Stella's rose is more akin to a swathe of maroon satin that blankets a lovely springtime composition of peony, amber, mandarin orange, and soft musk. (For once, a fragrance's official listing of notes nails it; I find nothing to add, nor take away, from Stella's PR blurb.) Katie Puckrik refers to Stella as a "peekaboo" rose - now you see it, now you don't. Sometimes it's front-and-center, sometimes it's just a background flavor, enhancing the overall composition. What makes Stella work for me is its languid quality, a late-afternoon glow that fits cocktail hour as easily as a stroll in the park. This floral isn't forced, girly, lascivious, or in-your-face; it simply is, and it's blessedly free of powder and/or sugar. In Perfumes: The Guide, Tania Sanchez pithily labels Stella a "salty musk" and a "tight-lipped rose...for women who programatically say no". Agree to disagree: I find Stella relaxed and reflective, only gently musky, and comforting. On a clear spring day, this one sings a lovely, lilting tune, tinged with the slightest melancholy. (Or perhaps I'm projecting onto my perfumes again.) Four flower pots out of five.

Lust, by LUSH. It figures that my first proper jasmine perfume would be a juggernaut like Lust. This past winter, I was hit by an out-of-left-field craving for jasmine, spurred on by remnants of Mugler's Alien clinging to my jacket sleeve after a department store spraying spree. (Oops, I dropped the M-word. Three lashes and a forced wearing of Drakkar Noir for penance.) I sought out Lust, rumored to be one of those jasmines capable of swallowing whole planets. The verdict: "Yuck", followed by "WOW", followed by "...meh." This is indeed a no-holds-barred jasmine: lush, full-bodied, and indolic. Problem is, the good stuff lasts only about an hour, after which the blend dissolves into harmless white floral wallpaper that neither ruffles feathers nor inspires lascivious thoughts (the scent of jasmine has long been held to be an aphrodisiac). A gentle and short-lived drydown of vanilla and sandalwood makes one long for a fresh spray to relive the opening tropical floral fireworks. I dig Lust, but it's one of those hysterically not-me fragrances that I'm in the mood for maybe twice a year, and it's awfully raw (as most LUSH perfumes are). My 10 ml travel spritzer should last me quite a while. Three flower pots out of five (unless you're a jasmine fiend, in which case it's beyond rating - you must smell this now, if you haven't already).

Fleur du Mâle, by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Once upon a time, I had a fling with Gaultier's Le Mâle. I adored it, and wore it gaily and shamelessly (and probably far too lavishly). I now find it unwearable: sweet, stuffy, synthetic, and cloying. I don't know what compelled me to try its 2007 flanker Fleur du Mâle recently, but I know it works a darned sight better for me than the original. This is a gorgeous (and strong) orange blossom fougére, blending early-summer optimism and barbershop elegance in a soft, pillowy package. It rears its synthetic head a few times throughout the duration, and sometimes the orange blossom is a little over-the-top...but then, this is Gaultier, not Guerlain. And unlike the original Le Mâle, Fleur has the good sense to let its guard down a little and not be so plastic and fake-friendly. Terrific lasting power, great bone structure, and sexy in a crisp-white-shirt sort of way. Four flower pots out of five.

Next up: More florals, followed by a week of nothing but Bulgari Thé Vert as a cleansing ritual.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Thierry Mugler's B*Men

One of the perks of working in a restaurant kitchen is that I've become acquainted with a broad palette of culinary aromas, which then pop up like olfactory whack-a-moles in the perfumes I sniff. Thanks to my day job, I've picked up on the chili pepper note in Calvin Klein's Obsession, the pineapple in Mugler's Angel, the pickled ginger in Cartier Declaration, the rosemary in Dior Eau Sauvage, and the cumin in Ralph Lauren Polo. What I didn't expect to come across in perfume form was the smell of burnt maple syrup left over from glazing meat. Thierry Mugler's B*Men is a delightfully subversive gourmand fragrance, effectively roasting and distorting its foodie elements into disfigurement and sculpting a surprisingly wearable perfume out of the resulting goo.

An inital blast of black pepper fresh from the grinder segues to an accord that resembles crispy rhubarb crumble, slightly scorched on top and intriguingly tangy. The maple syrup effect comes into play here, along with a whiff of cinnamon, carrot cake, hazelnuts, dark caramel (think creme brulée), and toasted coconut flakes. If A*Men is the after-dinner caffe mocha, B*Men is the quirky dessert course. Despite the aforementioned sugar-coma accords, B*Men is more nutty than sweet, spicy rather than saccharine, and surprisingly crisp. As it moseys along, B*Men takes on a malty, grassy quality thanks to a restrained vetiver note, and a decidedly unrestrained patchouli offers up a peppery, herbaceous counterpoint to the sweet/smoky heart. As is the case with Angel, the patchouli hums a subterranean bass line while the top notes sing their sweet, enticing melody, and the patchouli is a crucial component, not an optional extra. Like celery in a stew, you might not taste it past all the meat, spices, and broth, but you'd know if it were missing.

Which brings us to (yet) another food metaphor: B*Men, in terms of the overall fragrance landscape, is that experimental, nouvelle fusion dish that bucks the status quo and gains a small cult following, rather than pandering to the masses. B*Men was released in 2004 and discontinued a few years later; apparently its scent profile was just too "out there" to gain footing in an increasingly crowded perfume market. Ironically, Thierry Mugler's biggest fragrance success to date is Angel, which aimed even further "out there" and eventually won over the average perfume buyer through sheer audacity and infectious word-of-mouth. But Angel also has an irresistibly trashy (and loud) candy-store vibe, where B*Men plays a softer, more earthy tune, with a less clear focus than Angel and less obvious intent to please. B*Men was either too inscrutable, too untethered, or too subtly marketed to duplicate Angel's success (or even that of its masculine followup, A*Men). It’s by no means a masterpiece, and the vetiver/amber drydown is rather banal in comparison to the bizarre opening, but B*Men is still a pleasant kick in the head. It can be had for a song at online discounters and eBay, as its large-scale production eclipsed its minimal sales, and it’s not exactly the kind of discontinued scent the perfumista community goes gaga for.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Thierry Mugler's A*Men

Following up a blockbuster perfume can’t be an easy task; crafting one that’s on par with its predecessor must be even less so; and marketing said follow-up to men surely sits on the bottom rung of the fragrance industry’s “dirty jobs” ladder. The mainstream man has notoriously lowbrow taste, an aversion to distinctive styles – witness the uniformity of the corporate world’s suits and ties - and tight purse strings (so to speak) regarding grooming products. Thierry Mugler’s epochal Angel represented a paradigm shift for the industry’s key players; suddenly, nothing seemed off-limits, no perfume too avant-garde to become a smash hit (given time and a massive marketing budget, of course). Weird was suddenly good, and weird with a blockbuster name attached even better. The launch of A*Men was a no-brainer in this context, but it was still a gamble. Would men take to a “gourmand” fragrance as readily as women did with Angel? Would they shuck the shackles of the stereotypical men’s fragrance blueprint – citrus, aromatics, wood, musk – and embrace a new ideal, one reeking of chocolate and caramel? Would A*Men be an expensive flop?

It certainly had all the makings of one, in retrospect. The advertising, featuring a Terminator 2-style liquid metal avatar gravely holding the bottle aloft, was an exercise in self-serious pomp; the bottle itself, a cartoonish flask emblazoned with a cerulean star, was patently goofy; and the name certainly didn’t lend itself to easy, just-us-guys small talk. (“What’s that your wearing?” “Uh, A*Men.” “What?” “It’s the men’s version of Angel.” “You’re wearing a cologne called Angel?” “It’s for MEN. REALLY.” “Whatever you say, dude.”) But lo, the gamble paid off – Mugler should take up residence in Vegas, he’d probably make a killing – and A*Men hit its mark, ill-defined though that mark may have been. It’s still in production and a perennial bestseller, with loads of moneymaking flankers and a rabid fan base. Perhaps there’s hope for the modern male yet.

I like to compare A*Men to blue cheese – not in terms of smell, of course, but in appeal. One does not come out of the womb loving A*Men. One works up to A*Men, braces him/herself for it, acquires a taste. It is not, like so many of its counterparts in the fragrance department, eager to please. In fact, upon first spray, it seems expressly designed not to please: A blast of peppermint, tar, industrial-strength lavender, nuclear bergamot, and over-extracted espresso grounds greets the nose, with all the subtlety and harmony of a jackhammer against a marble floor. It is an unholy brew, with little obvious appeal beyond sheer “WTF” audacity. At this point, most right-thinking people quickly put down the tester bottle and scramble for some hand sanitizer, myself included. But soft! Give it time, and the mint fades, the lavender calms, and the coffee takes on a robust, silky quality. A vivid dark chocolate note creeps in, flanked by vanilla and caramel. Patchouli and cedar sing an alluring background harmony, and a hint of powder and musk play a smooth backing track. The drydown is a velvety combination of caramel, patchouli, toffee, and a hint of leather, with a clear family resemblance to its big sister. (Both Angel and A*Men could be worn by either gender, for the record.) My repulsion turns to shock at the 180-degree turn things have taken, then to pure lust as I sniff my wrist compulsively and crave coffee ice cream.

It took me a good two years of sporadic testing to finally come around to A*Men’s brash character and high-calorie charm (I've dissed it more than once on this blog alone), and now I’m head over heels for the stuff. What once struck me as high-pitched and overexposed now seems vibrant and hypnotic. It’s true that the volume of the entire production is dialed awfully high – don’t wear A*Men to the office – but I finally realized that A*Men’s brand of rough-edged appeal is exactly what I look for in a perfume. This is no fragrance for wimps, nor for anyone who favors the soft-spoken or transparent. A*Men is solid, lush, and full-bodied; if most men’s fragrances are string quartets playing Pachelbel, A*Men is an orchestra playing Wagner. In a confectionary.

Like Angel, A*Men makes no concessions to elegance or good taste - beyond a taste for sweets, of course – and is all the better for it. Men need to be reminded just as much as women that, beyond its functionality as a product to make you smell good, perfume should be fun, something to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step. Nothing is quite so fun as freewheeling decadence, and A*Men is as decadent as they come. A bundle of contradictions, an oddball stew of conflicting accords that somehow works, and a true original, A*Men is delightful to wear and an important reminder that masculine fragrances need not pander to be successful. May it never be out of production.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Random sample hour: Giorgio Armani's Armani Code

Sweet, silky, and woody, with hints of mint, coconut (?), hairspray (?!), shaving foam, tonka bean, Irish Spring soap, and musk. Armani Code holds the distinction of being the first fragrance that made my knees weak and my heart go pitter-patter, back in my college freshman days when I rarely wore fragrance, didn't know Chanel from Cerutti, and thought that Calvin Klein whipped up Obsession personally in his lab. This stuff was called "Black Code" back then, and I bought some for my dad in '05, knowing only that it was Armani (read: classy!) and that the bottle looked quite dashing. I found it for peanuts on eBay, and my thrill at snagging a bargain turned sour when I opened the package and realized I'd bid on a 5 ml mini. (Wah-waaahhhh.) I couldn't very well gift my father a mini, so I bought him a full-size in the department store and kept the mini for myself. And when I popped the cap off and gave it a sniff...ohhh, boy. Imagine a dark, immaculately tailored, pebble-smooth Armani tuxedo worn by a freshly shaven, heartbreakingly handsome man on a crisp autumn night. Now bottle it. That was Black Code for me, and I kept that mini for a good five years, wearing it only on Special Occasions so as to ration its lusciousness. It remains the only fragrance I've worn that has prompted a young woman to bite my neck. (She was a friend, and rather inebriated at the time, but still.)

Fast-forward seven years, and a department store SA has just dropped a fresh sample of Armani Code into my shopping bag. How does it strike me now, with the benefits of time, a well-travelled nose, and no personal stake in the matter? Pretty damn good, actually. I suspect this formula is a tad thinner and slightly less compelling than that of my mini - time having passed, and accountants being what they are - but the satin polish is still here, the tuxedo still hangs perfectly, and the whole production is rather hard to resist. I'd written off Code as overworn and overplayed by too many dancefloor douchebags in the latter half of the aughts, and I figured I'd grown immune to its charms as a result. But here I sit, my arm freshly spritzed, and damned if I'm not smitten all over again. There's something refreshingly sober and relaxed about Code in sharp contrast to many masculines that have followed, and to say that the fellas could do a whole lot worse is an understatement. I just might wear it tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dior's Hypnotic Poison

Contrary to its reputation as a smouldering, heavy-lidded weapon of seduction, Dior's Hypnotic Poison is actually a first-rate comfort scent, a pillowy blend of vanilla, marzipan, jasmine, and sandalwood that barely hints at intentions less than spotless. It's also arguably the most distinctive of the current Poison line, what with the 1985 original having its fangs filed down and its stilettos traded in for office-friendly pumps sometime in the last decade, its 1994 followup Tendre Poison discontinued, and the other two - 2004's Pure and and 2007's Midnight - barely worth mentioning. Hell, Hypnotic is probably the most distinctive scent in the current Dior lineup, its olfactory signature and overall effect bearing no connective tissue or evolutionary links to any other perfume before or since. It's not a fruity floral, it's not an Angel clone, it's not a leathery chypre or a spicy oriental. It contains no citrus, no resins, no patchouli, no rose. It doesn't screech, but it projects; it doesn't sit on the skin like a wet carpet, yet it has depth and presence. It's sweet, but not candied or juvenile, and it has a gourmand feel without smelling literally edible (that's too easy, and also boring). It's not overtly feminine, but neither does it bear ostentatiously masculine tics, shoehorned into a classically feminine composition in order to lazily "sexify" things. (See Calvin Klein's Euphoria for the best of this rather tired lot.) It smells rich and sophisticated, but about as far from a typically "perfumey" scent as you can get without dragging in headshop oils. Basically, Hypnotic Poison is a singular, almost alien being, delicious and legitimately mysterious in an industry that promises such mystery routinely and delivers rarely.

The mystery arises from its unique olfactory effect. Sprayed on the skin and smelled up close, Hypnotic Poison is a bit flat, slightly bitter from the almond note, and rather nutty (the topnotes include caraway, but I detect a bit of hazelnut in there, too). Stand back, though, and the entire composition unfolds and practically dances in the air, splaying streams of silky jasmine, boozy vanilla, crisp sandalwood and sensual musk all around, glossed over with the aforementioned bitter almond sheen (this is not the cherry-almond of DiSaronno liqueur or that almond extract gathering dust in your kitchen cupboard) and delightul hints of creamy coconut and baking spice. The composition feels unusually dense and solid, almost muted in its color palette, yet it diffuses effortlessly and isn't the least bit suffocating.

It's also an uncommonly no-frills venture. Hypnotic Poison hits on an idea - almond/vanilla/jasmine, dark and velvety - and basically serves it up as is, with no bells and whistles. When the "as is" is this delectable, who needs garnishes? Hypnotic Poison is confident in its quality; it knows it has the goods. It's also remarkably, almost maddeningly addictive. One of the few women's perfumes I can pick out of a crowd with pinpoint accuracy, Hypnotic Poison more or less drives me to distraction every time I smell it in passing. (Another one that stops me in my tracks? Calvin Klein Euphoria. Maybe I shouldn't have backhanded it up top.) Once I learned the name of that ambrosial smell wafting from various friends, coworkers, and passersby, I stormed department stores and sprayed their testers like they were hits of heroin. Eventually I broke down and bought a bottle so I could sleep at night. It's serious business, this perfume hobby.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fresh's Cannabis Santal

Well, not really. The "cannabis" smells more like hemp, if anything - a sweet, earthy, hay-like accord, lovely but hardly the sickly, skunk-like reek of marijuana, smoked or otherwise. And the santal - sandalwood - mostly sings backup harmony rather than taking center stage as its top billing would suggest. (Frankly, patchouli and coumarin are the real stars of this show.) But regardless of its slight identity crisis, Cannabis Santal works beautifully, offering a warm, pillowy blend of sweet comfort with just the right amount of dirt.

The opening is a delightful kitchen-door waft of plums, peaches, and strawberries, caramelized and autumnally spiced. The sweetness threatens to cloy, but it's kept in check by the aforementioned hay - sorry, cannabis, man - and a patchouli that pulls off the hat trick of being both earthy and restrained. This patchouli isn't of the musty, trunk-in-the-attic variety (see Clinique's Aromatics Elixir and the original Prada), nor is it that squeaky-clean "modern" patchouli, borne of test tubes and omnipresent in perfumes aimed at young tartlets who want something only mildly suggestive beneath their bubbling flowers and fruit. This is a smooth, decadent patchouli, redolent of the forest floor yet elegant enough for cocktail hour. The combination of patchouli, fruit, a dash of cocoa, a veil of tangy vetiver, and a taffy-like coumarin backbone - and, oh yeah, a bit of sandalwood - gives Cannabis Santal more than a passing resemblance to none other than Thierry Mugler's Angel. The olfactory tug of war between dry and diabetic is less baroque and vivid here, and there's no cotton candy machine in sight, but the comparison is hard to dismiss. Where Cannabis Santal differs crucially, though, is in its intent: Angel blares and demands attention, Cannabis Santal is content to draw you in. (Both scream to be eaten.)

Cannabis Santal is an eau de parfum, and has terrific lasting power but polite sillage after the first 20 minutes or so. (It also clings to clothes for days, so you'd better be a patchouli fan.) Upon its release, it was marketed to men, somewhat bafflingly given its sweet nature and lack of traditionally "macho" notes of citrus, aromatics, and wood. Plenty of women adopted it regardless, at least judging by reviews on MakeupAlley, and it seems to have found a cult fan base of women and men alike. Its appeal is skewed more niche than mainstream, and it comes off as a bit of an oddball at times, which suits me - and Cannabis Santal - just fine. (Groovy.)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thierry Mugler's Angel Eau de Toilette

On the heels of a brand-new marketing campaign for Thierry Mugler's perennial bestseller Angel (featuring the buxom Eva Mendes, no stranger to perfume advertising) comes an Eau de Toilette variation of the original Eau de Parfum. This isn't the first time Angel has been been lightened and freshened for those who can't stomach the brash and heady original - 1999's Angel Innocent presented a softer, more childlike vision of similar gourmandise, and 2007's Eau de Star was Angel on the beach sipping a watermelon daiquiri - but it's the first to be presented on equal footing with its predecessor, and is expected to be a permanent addition to the Mugler lineup. We may as well find out what we're in for now, before our noses are assaulted from passersby trailing a drugstore-candy version of the stench that wafts from your local Bath and Body Works and pervades for miles. Angel Eau de Toilette is not a shy creature, but nor is it particularly unique.

The opening is familiar; Angel's signature camphoraceous chocolate-and-cotton-candy stew makes its presence known at first spritz, here done with a somewhat lighter hand and made fresher and more berry-like. The cotton candy fades, the chocolate stays a mere whisper, and a fruity/soapy/floral heart accord barges in, calling to mind that shower gel you bought at the Body Shop because it was on sale and came with a free tube of lip balm. Angel's patchouli undercarriage - the most divisive aspect of a fragrance full of them - is here, but cleaner and less earthy, and there's no coumarin to soften and thicken the overriding sweetness and light (coumarin was the unsung hero of the original Angel's composition, lending a taffy-like chewiness and pipe-tobacco density to the saccharine top notes). As the fragrance fades the patchouli becomes more evident, but it's still too inconsequential to make much of an impression. The drydown supposedly contains cedar, but then, BBW's Twilight Woods was supposedly a dark, forest-floor scent and contained enough sugar to send an elephant into a coma. Angel EdT is working with a similar palette, the Sweet Oriental Lite selection, and it's a little disappointing.

Angel EdT's most grievous error, though, is in choosing to smell like nothing you haven't smelled before. Say what you will about 1992's Angel - and most of you reading this surely already have - but it wasn't just unique, it was from another planet. It broke nearly every rule in the playbook and shook the perfume industry to its core. It attracted and repelled in equal measure, and eventually took over the world through sheer force of personality and brutish charm. Lighting can't strike twice, and Angel's many imitators have somewhat dulled its shock-of-the-new effect circa 2011, but couldn't Mugler have stepped up to the plate and delivered something a little less generic? Angel Eau de Toilette is safe and middling, and while admirably less "edible" than might be expected from such a venture, it's still too sweet and juvenile for most anyone over 18. I do predict it will sell like hotcakes, and the bottle is certainly an eye-catcher, but I'll be shocked if this Eau de Toilette elicits anywhere near the love-or-hate reception of the Eau de Parfum; it's a bland, watercolor recreation of a true pioneer that deserves better. Wearing it, I longed for nothing more than to be wrapped in a cloud of the original - or failing that, a shower.