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.