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 fougĂ©res 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.)

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