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.

Friday, August 12, 2011

In a nutshell: YSL's Opium pour Homme

Woody vanilla with hints of spice, talc, tobacco, cedar, and patchouli, wrapped in a tailored cashmere V-neck that still manages to breathe. Less baroque, boozy, and dramatic than the women's version, but with a similar fizzy cola veneer and autumnal hue. Opium pour Homme is masculine vanilla done right: soft, elegant, and sweetly sexy instead of obnoxiously gourmand (looking at you, A*Men) or viciously powdery and ironically femme (hi, Le Mâle and Joop!). Dries down to a warm, slightly leathery patchouli-cedar with a wisp of vanillic smoke curling throughout. The original Opium is a wonderful thing, a whirlwind of opulence coming at you from all angles - in Technicolor, with surround sound - but its elbow-jabbing sillage and brick-wall density make it something of a loose cannon, hard to tame and wear discreetly. Pour Homme is far more relaxed and user-friendly, yet doesn't descend into dullsville the way so many masculine sequels to feminine originals can (shout-out to my peeps Euphoria for Men and Dune pour Homme, among many others). Just like that tailored V-neck, Opium pour Homme works because it's built with care, demands nothing of its wearer, and needs no parade to prove its good taste. It's a winner, and easily wearable for women who want a smart, non-candied vanilla, or for whom the original Opium is just too much. Bonus: cheaper than dirt and about as easy to find (check online discounters, perfume shops, your local Wal-Mart, and hell, the gas station).

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cartier's Déclaration

Perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena has, over the last two decades or so, developed and honed what has come to be his signature style. His perfumes are sparse, translucent, cut from thoroughly modern cloth but draped over the framework of classic perfumery, and distinctive while remaining effortlessly wearable. Unlike the sturm und drang of the 1970s and '80s bestsellers, almost all of which required a few extra ounces of either extreme cockiness or cocaine-fuelled hysteria on the part of the wearer to pull them off convincingly (YSL Opium, Dior Poison, and Ralph Lauren Polo come immediately to mind, but there were more, oh so much more), Ellena's creations demand nothing of the user besides skin. They're built for the modern age, when we don't want our fragrance to announce its presence before we do, but would rather it accentuate and enhance our natural charisma, surrounding us like a subtle aura of confidence and good taste.

One of the first of Ellena's modern style, and arguably the most influential, was Déclaration by Cartier. Released in 1998, Déclaration is as notable for its sheer, gossamer-light treatment of traditionally heavy materials - woods, spice, moss - as for its use of Iso E Super, a synthetic aroma molecule borne of the mid-'80s and possessing a slightly sweet, woody scent and a shimmering, radiant, almost velvety texture. Déclaration was one of the first fragrances to shine the spotlight on Iso E, which has now found its way into almost every mainstream masculine scent on the market, and more than a few feminines as well. It makes up a whopping 50% of the formula for Hermes' Terre d'Hermes (2006), another Ellena bestseller that is arguably the apotheosis of his current style - flinty and full of character, but as lucid and wearable as a sheer cotton tee. Ellena's use of Iso E Super is so profligate that it's become something of a calling card for the perfumer, and the material's distinctive yet ephermal character seems a perfect match for Ellena's style.

Despite its modern sheen, Déclaration has its feet firmly planted in the classic French eau fraiche creations of the 1950s and '60s, with their sparkle of spice and citrus over bases of leather, woods, moss, and musk. (Vintage framework, modern cloth.) Délcaration does away with the musk - a contributing factor to its transparency - and ramps up the spice, particularly cardamom, ginger, and cumin. Juniper, lavender, wormwood, and cedar lend a slightly medicinal aura to the top notes, which consist of full-bodied, almost photorealistic renditions of bergamot, orange, and lime. The base is a long-lasting, smooth, and delicious combination of cedar, vetiver, and oakmoss. The whole composition has a clarity and legibility that belies its list of rather dense materials, and it's this clarity, stripped of bells and whistles - what Ellena himself dubs his "little haiku" style - that is perhaps Déclaration's most noteworthy aspect. Nothing about the fragrance seems forced, contrived, or insincere. It's elegant, but with an outdoorsy air and a sly grin (the cumin and cedar skirt the edge of armpit sweatiness and serve as a nod to '50s classics like Eau d'Hermes, one of Ellena's oft-mentioned favorites). Despite its influence on the male fragrance market, Déclaration smells as singular as it must have when first released. Its velvety texture, hint of sweetness, and lack of leathery musk or patchouli also lend it plenty of unisex appeal. Women could easily wear Déclaration, and they should. It's a desert at high noon, in a bottle: arid, crisp, clear, and breathtaking. It nods to the past yet remains utterly, thrillingly of the moment. In other words, it's a modern classic.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In a nutshell: Dior's Dior Addict

Terrifically trashy jasmine/vanilla bomb, projected through a haze of smoke, wood, amber, and noise. Guerlain's Shalimar with her wrinkles Botoxed and her eyebrows tweezed, her hair Elnetted to within an inch of its life, and half a cigarette dangling from her mouth as she picks out her skimpiest outfit to wear to the club. Dior Addict - as in, a woman hooked on Dior products, not an addict of the Intervention sort, Dior is quick to clarify - is brutally effective in its mission of seduction. Sweet and slightly narcotic, vulgar with just enough false-lashes-and-pearls glamour to resist immediate dismissal, full of enjoyably crude charm (that creamy/plasticky, dialed-up-to-11 jasmine note would never have found its way into a '20s-era Guerlain), and with a winkingly retro "don't wear it around your parents" vibe that's anaethema to today's squeaky-clean perfume paradigm. A good deal less respectable than its classic oriental forebears, but arguably more fun. And if (like many) you're unconvinced of Dior Addict's quality, some food for thought: Its creator is Thierry Wasser, one of the best noses in the business and currently the in-house perfumer for...wait for it...Guerlain. (More food: Its smoky vanilla/musk drydown bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Le Labo's vaunted Patchouli 24. Stick that in your holder and smoke it, niche snobs.) Bonus: Projection and lasting power that border on the unholy. Who says you can't get bang for your buck anymore?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In a nutshell: Thierry Mugler's Cologne

Mugler Cologne can be a disappointment to those expecting an eau de cologne in the classic style: fresh, fleeting, natural-smelling, and citrusy. This is the eau de cologne George Jetson might wear, with a deliberately synthetic space-age feel and an incredibly tenacious base of white (some say "laundry") musk. The citrus at the top (bergamot, lime) is a bit of a tease, as it gives way almost immediately to a green, soapy skin scent, with a touch of neroli and vetiver to give some floral/earthy interest to the central musk accord. This is the cleanest musk possible; moreover, there's a particular aromachemical in the mix that smells deliberately and uncannily of hot, metallic steam, like that from a clothing iron (or, as one Basenotes user put it, the smell of shower fog on a bathrooom mirror). This accord immediately sets Mugler Cologne apart from the pack of similarly fresh, soapy citrus fragrances, and nearly raises it to the level of a concept scent. The end result of this wackiness is that, hours after spraying, you smell like you've just stepped out of a hot shower with a grassy, spicy soap. Works unbelievably, mind-bogglingly well in the sweltering heat of July, but Cologne is a welcome, wonderful scent any time of year.

In a nutshell: Le Labo's Patchouli 24

Mercurial, shimmering, Gareth Pugh-esque (ie. on the razor's edge of wearability) composition from that mistress of the weird and wonderful, Annick Menardo. Explodes off the skin with a mix of lapsang souchong tea (read: campfire), cedar, patchouli (it's there, look harder), gasoline, and a bone-dry vanilla that somehow blends perfectly with the smoky salvo. Much like Menardo's Black for Bulgari, 24 is a bipolar shape-shifter, seeming sweet and sultry one minute, coarse and carcinogenic the next. Unlike the easygoing Black, though, 24 can be fickle: The drydown occasionally calls to mind a glass of flat, watered-down root beer into which someone's extinguished a cigarette. But when it works, Patchouli 24 is nothing short of relevatory, a delicously dark confection with a rich presence and phenomenal staying power. Not for all tastes, but a masterwork regardless.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bulgari's Black

I've always dug Pitchfork Media's description of Massive Attack's 1998 album Mezzanine as so dark, subterranean and bass-heavy that it "absorbs light". The same could be said of 1998's Bulgari Black, a hypnotic, sloe-eyed riff on vanilla and musk buffeted by hints of black tea, jasmine, woods, and rubber. Composed by Annick Menardo, mistress of the dark and weird (Dior's Hypnotic Poison and Le Labo's Patchouli 24 are among her divine creations), Black seems to occupy a realm apart from other fragrances of its ilk, operating on a different spectral plane; making its presence known when you least expect it, and disappearing into the abyss again just as quickly. It's downright ghostly.

The oddness begins at first spray: Black dispenses with the traditional top-middle-bottom olfactory pyramid, springing forth fully-formed from the bottle. From there, it hovers between four distinct states: smoky vanilla, woody jasmine, tea/rubber, and powdery musk. Depending on the time of day, the weather, your mood, or any combination of the above, one facet of Black will make itself known more forcefully than the others. Then, about half an hour in, it will probably disappear. This is a trick. Do not be fooled; Black is having you on, lulling you into a state of ennui: "Well, that's not so exciting. Vanilla and musk, big whoop." But for the next few hours, you will be struck at random moments by a lovely, warm, dense, smoky essence surrounding you. Black is the consummate "aura" fragrance, the kind that wraps you in a subtle but noticeable cloud of scent without projecting for miles or screeching loudly to passersby. Four hours after spraying Black on my neck, I still get wafts of it when I shift position or turn my head, and each time it smells familiar but ever so subtly different.

Now then, the rubber. Easily Black's most talked-about aspect (at least on the fragrance blogs and fora) is its unmistakable rubber accord, which has been compared to the smell of tires. Leave it to a master perfumer like Menardo to add a seemingly discordant note to a composition and not only make it work, but make it shine. The rubber in Black is both intriguing and perfectly harmonious, never jarring or self-consciously avant-garde. Along with the inedible, smoke-laced vanilla, the rubber keeps things just off-kilter enough that Black doesn't slide into a snoozy "comfort scent" mode. It holds your attention as long as you want it to.

Black is that rare thing among mainstream scents: A fragrance that is its own creature, plays by its own rules, and isn't afraid to contradict itself. It is light and yet dense, fleeting yet ever-present. It's warm and cool, comforting and austere. It's solid one minute, ephermal the next. It absorbs light. It's ghostly.