Saturday, August 14, 2010

Dior's Fahrenheit

As I've mentioned before, most of my favorite fragrances didn't impress me much at first, taking their time to grow on me and reveal their fine qualities. But Fahrenheit, perhaps the only fragrance that I'd want to take with me to the grave (or at least carry some backup bottles of into the next few decades), positively repulsed me upon first sniff. It was tarry, peppery, smoky, leathery; it called to my early-20something mind an old man's armpit; and, upon more focused sniffing, an old man doused in gasoline and pine resin. And then lit on fire. I was dumbfounded, and as I sniffed my wrist throughout the next few hours I was amazed that Fahrenheit was, and still is, a bestselling fragrance for Dior. But something about its character, its audacity and distinctive profile, intrigued me. I made a mental note to revisit it at some point, and revisit I did. Several times. With each spray from the department store tester bottle, I was freshly gobsmacked by the first 10 minutes of it on my skin. "It's a chemical spill", I thought to myself. "Dior is selling a chemical spill in eau de toilette. They're geniuses. Who's buying this? And why?" But with each testing experience, I paid more attention to Fahrenheit's smooth, floral, leathery, musky drydown, which struck me as lovelier with each sniff. It got to the point where I'd walk into a store, spray Fahrenheit, then settle for something more subdued, more classy, more "me". And then I'd sniff my Fahrenheit-soaked wrist compulsively on the way home. It got stuck in my head. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I craved it for an entire week - its brash opening, its iconoclastic profile, its headstrong character and firm sense of self. It was exactly the kind of fragrance I needed at the time, the polar opposite of a comfort scent: Something to square my shoulders, force my chin up, and help me face the world. I broke down and bought a bottle, gave it a proper wearing instead of a hurried spray-and-sniff, and fell in love. Eventually, even the chemical spill came to be addictive.

The green notes in Fahrenheit make the initial impression; the florals (including a violet note straight out of YSL's technicolor Paris) offer a hypnotic counterpoint; and the woods and musk in the base round out the whole composition, a textbook example of Trying Something Different...And Nailing It. 1988's Fahrenheit flew in the face of the de rigeur aromatic fougére blockbusters of the era, offering an alternative to the man who wanted to stand out. The brilliance of Fahrenheit is that it still stands out, in an equally monochromatic market of bland masculines and sugary-sweet feminines. It makes an indelible impression and is worth its weight in gold. Try it, retry it if need be...and when the cravings come, settle for nothing less. A classic.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Calvin Klein's Obsession(s)

Most of my favorite fragrances didn't impress me much upon first sniff. It was only after I wore them for a week or so that their magic started to take hold and I fully appreciated their many facets. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of my favorites come from another era; today's fragrances, almost to a one, are designed to smell great to the prospective buyer instantly without any delayed gratification or subtle development. I smelled Armani Code and liked it straightaway. Calvin Klein's Obsession (1985), after spraying it from one of the 15ml minis that my local Zellers stocks like candy, smelled like "Department Store Fragrance Counter, 1991". A bit floral, a bit spicy, a bit warm and vanillic, and very, very familiar. I wasn't hugely impressed, but I'd paid for it so I figured I'd give it a few days to see if it grew on me.

And grow it did. It grew exponentially. It was the only fragrance I wore for a good three months. The bitter, spicy wallop up top, the rich, boozy floral heart and the vanillic, woody base became olfactory catnip to me. I sprayed it on my pillow and on bookmarks. Wearing it made me feel mysterious, subversive, and (yes) sexy. It stopped smelling slightly dated and started smelling like just about the Best Damn Perfume Ever.

Naturally, I got a bit worn out on it and started wearing other things, but I still come back to Obsession often and it never lets me down. The opening herbal/green/leathery sucker-punch is sort of a make-or-break moment; either you love its sharp bite or you recoil. (This is also the most "butch" stage of the fragrance, for the men in the audience looking to expand their fragrance selection. Obsession is a great starting point - nothing girly about this stuff.) Once the top fades, Obsession becomes softer and thicker, with an ambery floral accord that's smoky and almost damp. Notes of brown sugar, coriander, musk, and (I swear, though no list of notes proves me correct) chili pepper waft throughout. The drydown is mostly a mossy, woody, blessedly dry vanilla with a whisper of patchouli. The sillage is tremendous - more than two sprays and you can clear an elevator - and the lasting power is excellent without being nuclear. Despite its '80s connotations and many imitators, Obsession remains a well-crafted, luscious bombshell of a scent. It's also one of the few oriental fragrances that bloom beautifully in the heat of summer, at least on my skin - must be the green edge, which keeps it out of the dusty and suffocating territory occupied by the likes of Youth Dew and Shalimar.

Obsession for Men, relased a year after the original, initially struck me as hopelessly dated and obnoxious, a fragrance for a Wall Street power broker with shellacked hair and a looming midlife crisis. I first smelled it from a sample I got in a charity event gift bag two years ago and decided it was inarguably Not Me. My fragrance tastes being expanded these days, and my love for '80s powerhouse scents in full swing, I bought a mini of it a few weeks ago and was taken aback. Either it's been reformulated recently (I have no idea how old my first sample was) or I've become more accustomed to strong orientals than I thought I was; Obsession for Men strikes me as quite powdery, with a woodier quality than the women's version and much less heavy. It brings to mind spicy talcum powder, damp leaves and dried vanilla beans over a bed of smoky cedar and sweet musk, like a less cloying and synthetic version of Gaultier's Le Mâle. The sillage is good but not overpowering, and the lasting power is typical for a men's eau de toilette on my skin - about 4-5 hours. I like it, but it's not at all what I was expecting, and it's miles removed from the image conjured by its name and the associated scent memories of the '80s and early '90s. It's also not dramatically masculine - most orientals read as fairly unisex to my nose anyway, but Obsession for Men is particularly soft and easily wearable for women. In a blind sniff you may confuse the two Obsessions with their intended genders.

Both versions are ripe for rediscovery and renewed appreciation. Obsession is the perfect antidote to the candied-sweet swill currently dominating the women's fragrance market, and Obsession for Men is the perfect antidote to...well, just about everything happening on the men's side. Give these two hits of the '80s a fresh spin.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Rochas' Femme (but first, a bit of rambling)

I recently did a "purge" of my burgeoning fragrance collection, jetting the bottles I bought unsniffed, gave a good try, but finally accepted as Not Me (and in the case of Zirh's Corduroy, simply Not Good), as well as the ones I like but simply never wear. I hate clutter, and I possess a latent Scottish gene that insists I don't waste my money on things I won't get good use out of. This tendency has only recently made itself known; my adolescence and early twenties were a whirl of impulse buys based on my whims, rave reviews, the weather, or a combination of all three, in all areas - clothes, DVDs, electronics, books, hair products, foodstuffs. Part-time income be damned, I spent, and spent it all. I can't do that anymore; living on my own for the past three years has necessitated a smaller disposable income, true, but lack of funds is only half the story; the buyer's remorse that would set in after yet another spur-of-the-moment purchase that I Don't Really Need and Can't Exactly Afford If I'm Being Honest About It got to be intolerable. I must be in some kind of survival mode, or something; necessities only, it could all end tomorrow! (Perfume apparently doesn't count, or it's now become a necessity. Ask me in a month.)

Regardless, de-cluttering my surroundings and possessions really does help my state of mind, and the clutter on my fragrance shelf stopped being quirky and simply started nagging at me. I can have a million pairs of socks, or messenger bags, or belts, and not bat an eye - I use those things every day, and none of them cost very much individually. But if I'm plunking down $60-90 dollars on a bottle of fragrance...well, I need to use it, which means I need to love it. Which means no more blind buys, unless it's an absolutely screaming deal or something vintage or uber-rare that sounds intriguing and probably won't cross my path again for a while, if ever. So, back into the box and onto my swap lists went:
  • the aforementioned Corduroy
  • another Zirh, Ikon, which I reviewed positively but which never really struck my fancy
  • a vintage eau de toilette of YSL's Paris, which was lovely in a soapy, baby powder way, ie. Not My Thing Whatsoever, and officially the most pervasive, scrub-resistant sillage monster I've ever worn; they simply do not make eau de toilettes like they used to, if YSL's back catalogue is anything to go by
  • Chanel's Coco, which I assumed would be a richer, spicier, more punchy version of Coco Mademoiselle; it ended up smelling too polite and "perfumey" for my male skin (aldehydes? damascones? scent memories of Mom's '80s orientals?), and I found I simply preferred the fascinating citrus-incense-cola wallop of Opium, Coco's '70s forebear that somehow hasn't aged a day
  • YSL's Rive Gauche pour Homme, a modern take on '70s aromatic fougéres with an enjoyably metallic barbershop vibe, but with the same thick, synthetic clove/cinnamon accord that's in Corduroy and renders two of my favorite spices flat and plasticky; I was mostly persuaded by the low price, and the utterly genius packaging that makes me wish every fragrance came in light-proof, shatter-proof, stylish and travel-friendly aluminum cans
  • Azzaro Pour Homme, which I loathed on first sniff (scent memory alert: Dad's Aftershave circa 1986!) and which I slowly came around to enjoying, then stopped wearing completely
  • Tommy Hilfiger's Tommy Girl, gorgeous fresh out of the bottle but too soapy and sheer for me in the heart and drydown; great for what it is, but I never feel moved to wear it
  • CK Eternity, which I found increasingly two-dimensional the more I wore it; I also reviewed this positively, which shows how utterly fickle my tastes are, so you should probably take every review on this blog with a grain of salt (or a truckload)
  • and finally, Rochas Femme, another blind buy after discovering my love for spice, animalic and leather notes, and after reading its recommendation as a surprisingly wearable fragrance for men
Aaaaaaand we've arrived!

Femme was created by legendary perfumer Edmond Roudnitska and released in 1944, and its backstory has been covered much more thoroughly and eloquently by other perfume bloggers, so I'll skip it here. It belongs to genre of perfumes that I have yet to fully discover and appreciate - the Prewar Classics - but that I'm itching to. It also belongs to a less clearly defined but equally beloved genre of fragrances that, shall we say, aren't quite squeaky-clean. These fragrances, which range from classic chypres like Mitsouko and orientals like Shalimar all the way to modern florals like Agent Provocateur and colognes like Eau d'Hermes, have an undercurrent of, as the perfume fanatics call it, "skank". Something earthy. Musky. Intimate. Sensual. Perhaps slightly fetid, even a tad...fecal. Usually just a hint, mind you, oftentimes not even noticeable upon first sniff, or if you're not paying close attention. But it's there. Femme is one such creature, and is often name-dropped in discussion of such skanky scents.

Femme isn't as offputting as all that, of course - this is a perfume, after all, and if the classic French houses put out fragrances that literally smelled of feces or armpit sweat, they wouldn't sell. Supposedly the original version of Femme was considered shockingly animalic and indecent (although beautiful) at the time of its release, but modern noses, being more jaded and unflappable, routinely describe it as simply a gorgeous floral chypre with ripe fruit undertones and a fabulous woody base. Rochas reformulated and relaunched Femme in 1989, and the perfumer in charge of the revamp, Olivier Cresp, added a strong cumin note to the blueprint in an effort to both modernize the fragrance and recreate the original's shock value.

It worked...the shock part, at least. Nothing about Femme smells modern, but the cumin truly is unexpected and initially alarming, even to my spice-loving nose. Cumin unfortunately reminds many Western noses of body odor and stale sweat, particularly of the feminine variety, but that's precisely the effect that Femme is aiming for - the scent of a Voluptuous Woman, most decidedly not fresh from the shower. The voluptuousness comes from Femme's plum and peach notes, which have an overripe, almost dried quality, as well as a leathery undercurrent that's most prominent in the middle stage. The overall effect is of stewed peaches and plums, sprinkled with sweet cumin and a touch of cinnamon oil. Rose and jasmine are the most prominent floral notes to my nose, and an occasional whiff of sandalwood lends an arid, almost soapy quality before the smooth, syrupy-woody finish. All throughout the cumin lurks, threatening to overwhelm the entire structure, but somehow it stays just on the edge without going over.

I'll admit that I'm still not entirely sure what I think about Femme, at least in its current eau de toilette concentration. I know I'm fascinated by it, I know the ripe fruits and spice tickle my fancy, and I know it's wholly unlike any other fragrance in my collection. But I almost never wear it. It's temperamental. Sometimes the florals and fruit are simply lovely, their elegance perfectly tempered by the raw, sensual edge offered by the spice and leather; other times, I can't get over the impression that I'm smelling a sweaty woman in an old perfume. A whisper of cumin can add a wonderful warmth and sensuality to a composition (see YSL's Kouros), but its use in Femme reeeeallly skirts the edge of decency. And yet, when I catch random whiffs of its sillage, I'm struck by Femme's rich, glowing loveliness, the cumin a mere background note to the plush fruit and spice. It's an extremely well-made perfume with a rounded "wholeness", a classic feel, and a distinctive character. I might have trouble with the idea of wearing it in public, but I have more trouble with the idea of not having it in my collection at all, to spray and bask in when the urge strikes (which has happened on more than one occasion).

Lovers of Femme seem to recommend the apparently sweeter, richer and less spicy Eau de Parfum over the eau de toilette, so perhaps I should give that one a whirl. Either way, Femme is off my swap list and back onto my shelf - a readily available relic of another era, and one that I'll hopefully claim as my own someday. Until then, I'll sniff that heady fruity-cumin rush and remember what uniqueness is.

(Oh, I put the Azzaro back, too. After the 40-minute mark it starts this drydown stage that's possibly the best I've ever smelled in a men's fragrance, and one of the best in any fragrance, period. Starts off bitter, harsh, and dated; ends up being what I wish every man naturally smelled like, including myself. Fantastic.)