vendredi 10 avril 2015

My Top 10 Fragrances of Spring

Last Tuesday, the French Fifi Award for best niche fragrance was given out to Corsica Furiosa by Parfum d’Empire. I was part of the jury, comprising 25 journalists, evaluators and bloggers, who went through three rounds of voting to select the winners in two categories, niche and “big brand” exclusive lines. The last round of votes on the short-listed products was done on anonymous blotters – but of course it wasn’t hard to identify Aedes de Venustas Oeillet Bengale, Serge Lutens L’Orpheline, Comme des Garçons + Pharrell Williams Girl and Parfum d’Empire Musc Tonkin and Corsica Furiosa

Any one of the finalists would have deserved to win, but many of us were rooting for Parfum d’Empire, as a truly independent brand and one of the few headed by a perfumer, its fearless, physical, baroque style deserved to be saluted. When Marc-Antoine Corticchiato was called up to collect his Fifi, I just about let out a whoop (but it wasn’t that sort of gala – apart from the very vocal L’Oréal tables).

So, obviously, I’m kicking off this seasonal top 10 with…

Corsica Furiosa by Marc-Antoine Corticchiato
 for Parfum d’Empire

In music, “furioso” means “to be played rapidly and with passion”. Based on lentiscus, a Mediterranean shrub whose olfactory range spans from ivy to earthy via hay, moss, pepper, liquorice and leather, Corsica Furiosa celebrates the rites of spring on the Island of Beauty with an exhilarating blast of green.

Succus by Shyamala Maisondieu 
for Liquides Imaginaires

“Succus” is an obsolete medical term designating the expressed juice of a plant. Part of Liquides Imaginaires’ new trilogy “Les Eaux arborantes”, a tribute to trees, Succus smells like a hallucinogenic vegetal potion served by an Amazonia shaman. Sharp, metallic, sappy, peppery, smoky, this compelling weirdo’s effect is quasi-synesthetic – you’ll see iridescent butterflies, day-glo birds, psychedelic fruit and carnivorous (or carnivalesque?) flowers.

Ostara by Bertrand Duchaufour
for Penhaligon’s

With Ostara, Bertrand D. adds another deconstructivist blossom to his herbarium. Built around narcissus absolute, his daffodil sets off its heady, horsey-honeyed facets with dew-gorged green. A spritz of this is enough: Ostara is powerfully radiant – a sign of its strong identity and excellent balance – and has the half-life of plutonium on hair or textiles…

Cologne Indélébile by Dominique Ropion 
for Frédéric Malle

The name is an oxymoron. And so, of course, is the olfactory effect: a cologne that tattoos itself on skin rather than evaporating within an hour. But the most fascinating balancing act of Ropion/Malle’s new opus is the way it constantly teeters on the brink of functional perfumery without ever toppling over into it, its clean neroli and white musks structure gloriously messed up by narcissus absolute.

Vacances by Henri Almeras 
for Jean Patou

The scent was launched to celebrate an event Jean Patou’s chic clientele couldn’t have cared less about: in 1936, for the first time ever, French workers were given paid holidays. Which meant the countryside rather than the beach back then. So that Vacances, part of the latest trio of Jean Patou’s “Collection Héritage” reformulated by Thomas Fontaine, smells of a spring break rather than a summer vacation, with its big verdant burst of galbanum and vivid lilac-hyacinth accords…

Mimosa by Jean-Christophe Hérault 
for the IFF Speed Smelling Coffret

Some brand has to nab this jewel. A tender, poetic interpretation of the late-winter flower, this very limited-edition scent is based on Hérault’s notes as a young perfumer discovering the hills of the Massif du Tanneron near Grasse when mimosa trees are in bloom.

L’Ile au Thé by Isabelle Doyen and Camille Goutal 
for Annick Goutal

Though inspired by a visit to the Korean island of Jeju, “the island of tea” somehow summons images for the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence of Disney’s Fantasia  -- the one where a family of winged horses gambol in a pastel sky and seascape… Like Ninfeo Mio, L’Ile au thé blends notes actually found in the setting: mandarin blossom, osmanthus, and, obviously, tea – a natural match for osmanthus which features a tea facet.

Ilha do Mel by Aliénor Massenet 
for Mémo

Another island, off the coast of Brazil… Neither Mémo’s owner Clara Molloy nor the perfumer Aliénor Massenet set foot on it, but the idea of a “Honey Island” proved irresistibly inspiring. Honey is a note many perfumers are exploring right now – it works well with florals, is gourmand without smelling of candy, and provides animalic dimensions without being ripped off a furry critter’s bottom. Ilha do Mel derives its honeyed effects from broom and orange blossom absolute, drenching its core jasmine-gardénia accord with golden nectar.

L’Eau en Blanc by Annick Ménardo 
for Lolita Lempicka

Launched in 2012 and re-issued this year as a bridal scent, L’Eau en Blanc shares its bottle with LL’s signature fragrance. But it sheds the liquorice to expose an olfactory arc spanning from raspberry to violet (the latter’s ionones being used to conjure the former), on to iris and heliotrope, an almondy note that stands in for the more anisic, caramelized liquorice. Somehow, to me this a descendant of Guerlain’s Après l’Ondée, minus the wistfulness…

Narciso by Aurélien Guichard 
for Narciso Rodriguez

Alberto Morillas’ masterful (and discontinued) Essence strayed too far from For Her’s olfactory codes. Not so Narciso, which picks up the brand’s signature woody musk accord – swapping For Her’s patchouli for vetiver and adding a milky, stylized gardenia. A lovely, luminescent cosmetic aura – if angels have a toiletries range, that’s what it must smell like.

La Panthère eau de parfum légère 
by Mathilde Laurent for Cartier

I was utterly disgusted when Black Opium (aka Starbucks coffee) beat out La Panthère at the French Fifis for Best Feminine Fragrance. Clearly, the industry professionals who voted acknowledged commercial success rather than olfactory merit. This new flanker adds a tiaré blossom note to La Panthère’s gardenia (the two flowers are botanically related) and lightens up a bit on the beast, but it’s still a curvaceous, purring animal…

For more seasonal round-ups, please visit:

P.S. For those who’ve been wondering why I’ve gone AWOL, well, there’s nothing the body resents like being knocked unconscious and cut open… Nothing serious, and I’m on the mend, but I’ve cut myself all the slack I could afford while still meeting my professional deadlines (because bodies also resent not eating).

The illustration is a picture I took of the Villa Livia frescoes at the Palazzo Massimo museum of Roman Antiquities.

mercredi 25 février 2015

Misia: Carnal Chanel

All of the Exclusives are named after some aspect of Coco Chanel’s story. Speaking about Jersey, Jacques Polge explained that the olfactory concept had come first: it was matched with a facet of the Chanel saga later[i]. Were things done in the same order for Misia? The PR team did say that for his first Chanel fragrance, Olivier Polge started by seeking out an accord that had never been explored by the brand. Once he had found it, the scent was christened after the woman who introduced Chanel to the artistic avant-gardes of her time.

As a muse, Misia Sert is almost too rich a source of inspiration: musing was her raison d’être. Known in her heyday as “The Queen of Paris”, she was trained as a pianist by the composer Gabriel Fauré, who considered her a prodigy, but after getting married she played only for her friends, admirers and protégés – i.e., most of the great writers, composers and painters from the Belle Époque to the Jazz Age. Renoir, Vuillard, Vallotton, Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec painted her; Marcel Proust based his Mme Verdurin on her. She inspired, nurtured or sponsored Mallarmé, Cocteau, Ravel, Stravinsky, Picasso, Satie…

But it is her patronage of the Ballets Russes, to which she introduced her friend Gabrielle Chanel, which justifies the use of her name for the fragrance. Olivier Polge states he had no intention of composing an olfactory portrait of the lady: the scent is meant to evoke the heady blend rising from both the dress circle and wings on the opening night of a Ballets Russes production.

The scent Polge the Younger decided to work on is built around the classic violet/rose accord that came to be associated with lipstick in the early 20th century. Introduced in fine fragrance by Coty’s 1904 La Rose Jacqueminot, its contemporary version was coined for Yves Saint Laurent by Sophia Grojsman in Paris: at this stage, it had already acquired its retro connotation, and stood for the glamorous, old-school type of femininity YSL wanted to project (when you call your fragrance “Paris”, you’re setting yourself up as an institution). Frédéric Malle’s 2003 Lipstick Rose was the first to use the accord ironically, between quote marks. Since then, it has been featured as such in a number of scents such as Prada’s discontinued Rosetto or the more recent Guerlain French Kiss. When Nathalie Feisthauer developed Putain des Palaces for État Libre d’Orange[ii], it was the “lipstick accord” she picked to evoke the “luxury hotel hooker” in the Gainsbourg song that inspired the scent (given the brand and brief, the result is predictably raunchier and rougher-edged than Misia).

It’s interesting to note that when Olivier Polge came up with his own interpretation of the lipstick accord, Chanel named it after a woman: a first for the Exclusives. And what’s more, after a woman not Coco: a first for the house. In perfumery, the lipstick accord may well function as a metonymy of feminine artifice and seduction, those of the muse or courtesan Gabrielle Chanel might have become, but didn’t.

Judging from her pictures, Misia Sert’s ripe-peach beauty was better suited to Renoir than to her friend’s petite robe noire. Though her namesake fragrance is not meant as her portrait, it does reflect some of that lushness. Misia is all flushed cheeks and heated, powdered skin under swishing furs, with an undertow of leather. The more you wear the fragrance, the more you feel that the lipstick accord, bolstered by magisterial materials such as the rare Grasse rose grown exclusively for Chanel, somehow burst through its quote marks to turn into a stranger, richer blend. The violet, wine-dark. The rose, petals crushed with raspberries. The balsamic base (tonka, benzoin), a sable-trimmed velvet wrap. Misia may well be the most erotic of all Chanels, perhaps because it is a scent that bears the name of another woman. It is also a masterful reinterpretation of the lipstick accord, as reinvented by Sophia Grojsman (an IFF perfumer, Olivier Polge’s alma mater), that manages to be both keenly contemporary and almost archaic -- much like the Ballets Russes. In picking its new in-house perfumer, Chanel seems to have been right on the nose.

Misia will be commercially available as of February 28th. You can already find it at

[i] In this particular case: the scent focuses on lavender, which is historically an English fragrance note; hence, “jersey”, since the knit fabric Coco Chanel made fashionable comes from the Channel Islands.

[ii] The name comes from the lyrics of the Gainsbourg song “Ronsard 58”, based on the 16th-century poem “When you are old” by Pierre de Ronsard (for translations of both, click here)