Patchouli-themed Perfumes (Part 2)

Personally I prefer wearing mixed-media perfumes (synthetic ingredients mixed with natural ingredients) to all-natural perfumes because they are much more interesting and exciting to me. (Aldehydes, metallic notes, fantasy notes, etc.) Some time ago I have heard a perfumer say that a lot of natural ingredients are mini-perfumes themselves and not easy to finesse; and all-natural perfumes if not well-designed often smell “muddy” or “brown”.

Maybe patchouli essential oil is one good example – to me it is a mini fragrance. It is strong, full of character, herbalness, earthiness, and nuisances, but It also gives me uneasiness for I find them smelling “too close to nature” – too earthy, deep and aromatic, almost the exact opposite of smelling a synthetic white musk detergent. I can imagine a perfumer either using just a little of it in a perfume to add some character or “darkness”, or “go big or go home”, using a lot to make a patchouli-themed perfume with some complementary notes.

There is a patchouli-theme fragrance that I have recently discovered that makes me feel that the perfumer has tamed patchouli and turned this hobo into a fine gentleman – Dior’s Patchouli Imperial. The opening is smooth, ambery, sophisticated, mildly spicy, but undoubtedly patchouli, yet constrained. It is so impressive that I feel like I want to stay close and talk to him for hours, as if he has seen the world and now he is back to tell stories in tuxedo and sandals, but really, I should leave this handsome hobo alone after taking a selfie with him. As the perfume reaches dry down, there is something in it that’s really synthetic and borderline nauseating. (Synthetic vetiver, maybe?) But crazy enough, the opening is worthy of my purchase of a full bottle.

Then I rediscovered Chanel’s Coromandel (“Asian lacquered partition screen”). You didn’t know how much I disliked this perfume when I first discovered Chanel’s exclusive line of perfumes. It smells like… you are trapped in a wet, wood cabinet and forced to eat white chocolate flavored TUMS to survive. I threw the sample across the field like a quarterback superstar and hoped not to see it again. One day, while reorganizing my sample drawers here it was again, I sprayed some on the back of hand. The epiphany arrived – it’s a powdery patchouli scent. It’s as weird as avocado milkshake in a Vietnamese restaurant, but now I have seen through the unusualness and found it amazing. Hurrah for white-chocolate and patchouli flavored TUMS! (Amazing yuck.)

Patchouli-themed Perfumes (Part 1)

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Patchouli perfumes: Noir Patchouli (Histoires de Parfums), Ylang 49 and Patchouli 24 (Le Labo), Patchouli Imperial (Christian Dior), Coromandel (Chanel) © Victor Wong

Three years ago, when my perfume journey just began, I had no idea what patchouli was, and what it smelled like. A small perfume shop sales lady had asked me many times what it smelled like too, for she thought I knew a lot about fragrances. (No I didn’t.) She was a bit embarrassed that she had no clue when her customers asked her to show them some patchouli-themed perfumes. I was more embarrassed; but I procrastinated almost two years before going to a all-natural supplement store and bought a small bottle of patchouli essential oil to smell. Now I know! (Dramatic lighting and a stern face.)

But before all that, my first patchouli perfume was Le Labo “Patchouli 24” (2006). This is the worst perfume to learn what patchouli smells like; as if someone shoves you a book on calculus when all you want to learn is multiplication. The smell of patchouli in this perfume is heavily masked by stronger smelling ingredients, and a lot of people argue that they can’t smell any patchouli it. (Now I can, thank goodness.)

Patchouli 24 is a challenging perfume, and I am grateful that it appeared at the beginning of my fragrance learning/appreciating journey – it has broadened my perfume palate, and set the possibility of what a $250 bottle of perfume could smell like. I didn’t have many perfumes back then, and I had spent considerably more time testing Patchouli 24 than I would for any perfumes today.

To me, Patchouli 24 is a heavy, tarry, medicinal perfume that smells like Chinese medicine pills with no sugar coating, and is made out of tree barks, 3/4 spoonful of tar, and one burnt tire of a Matchbox toy car. My love for Patchouli 24 suddenly sparked when I wore a sample one day while raking my garden. It was a cold, moist day, and I was perspiring heavily, and streams of P24 steam rose from under the neck of my hoodie. It was a beautiful melancholic “picture”; I stopped raking, and looked at all the bare trees around me standing in silence in front of a big grey sky. I dropped the rake and got back in the house to order a bottle.

My second “patchouli” perfume was, interestingly, Le Labo Ylang 49, but I didn’t know it until I blind-bought a second-hand bottle of Noir Patchouli from Histoire de Parfums from a friend. In fact, I remember some Youtube reviewer talking about Ylang 49, calling it a scrubber and a strong patchouli perfume. When I first smelled Noir Patchouli, my initial reaction was, damn it’s Ylang 49, except it’s cleaner, smokier and less floral. To me Ylang 49 is Noir Patchouli in drag and he fakes his tropical ylang ylang smile like the giant head of a theme park mascot. By that time, I had a strong idea of what patchouli smelled like and how it’s usually used in a composition.

To be continued…

Niki de Saint Phalle Parfum (1982)

Niki de Saint Phalle Parfum, 1oz (1982) © Victor Wong
Niki de Saint Phalle Parfum, 1oz (1982) © Victor Wong

My interest in Niki de Saint Phalle began to develop when I asked people in a fragrance group why it smelled so bad, specifically of stinky feet. I mean, wouldn’t it be embarrassing to ask a sales rep that you are looking for a perfume with an obscure name, and it smells like your husband’s stinky feet? Well, apparently Niki de Saint Phalle didn’t not smell like that, for people in the group immediately defended the fragrance, questioning the sample that I had got and telling me how it must have gone bad.

To be honest, I rarely encounter a perfume that has gone bad, and I am curious under what circumstances a perfume would turn into smelling like athlete’s foot. Regardless, another unexpected incident happened, a friendly perfume store sales lady decided I was the perfect person to receive a small landfill of samples of Niki de Saint Phalle parfum (yes, parfum, not EDT), and perfectly they all smelled great, proofing that my first sample was bad.

So, Niki de Saint Phalle is an excellent green floral chypre (heavy moss, heavy woody, dark green carnation, rose and ylang) from the 80s and a joy to wear. I like its unusual intensity, but somehow, the scent never blows me away, I guess because it is also a chypre from the 80s that I have smelled a lot before. The experience I get from smelling it is eerily similar to smelling the current wave of oud wood, oud fleur, oud oud, so oud, duh oud perfumes. What get my attention are the crazy fragile entwining snakes on top of the flacon bottle, the marketing of a waning chypre in the 80s, and of course, the artist herself.

With the help of the Internet, I found out that Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002, last name “de Saint Phalle”) was an artist born in France. Her parents moved the whole family to America when she was three, and she grew up pretty and became a model briefly. Later she moved to Spain to start her family and there she got influenced by Gaudi’s amazing architecture artwork (which I had suspected the case when I browsed through thumbnail images of her artwork). She had made some controversial and ugly-ass “shooting paintings” that looked like some wet toilet paper got stuck on a canvas and shot at with a paintball gun. Luckily the Gaudi bug got into her head instead, and she had created some colorful, whimsical abstract artwork and giant sculptures that are quite distinct, and in my opinion, inspired by Gaudi, late Herni Matisse and her contemporary, Fernando Botero.

Ok, why the two snakes on the bottle? Happy-looking toothless snakes are a recurring image of Niki’s work and according to The Guardian, they were borne out of what she called the ‘summer of snakes’ – when she was assaulted by her father. I shouldn’t and couldn’t question her, but I think it’s a recurring image because it’s easy to draw. (Yay, what colours should I pick for the stripes?)

In the fancy box that houses the parfum flacon, there’s a little leaflet – besides this flacon, you could also buy Niki de Saint Phalle EDTs, body cream, body lotion, bath oil, shower gel, perfume soaps, and shimmering perfumed powder! It makes me wonder, how successful was this perfume? (Not many people talk about it anymore.) Who came up with the idea and took the gamble to launch this massive line of products? At this moment, I know that they succeeded in creating a memorable product and I am enjoying just the echo of it.

Mendittorosa Odori d’Anima’s Nettuno (2016)

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Mendittorosa’s Nettuno © Victor Wong. Painting by William Hawkins

In 2006, Pluto was declassified and no long considered a planet in our Solar System. I was giddy about the declassification because Gustav Holst’s “The Planet” orchestral suite was perfect again. (Finished in 1916, Pluto was discovered in 1930, so the suite didn’t have Pluto in it.) Later I discovered that the declassification had caused other problems – people who were “governed” by Pluto suddenly had lost their planet and the astrologists needed to come up with some excuse to sooth the lost souls. One astrologist on TV said, “it doesn’t matter. It still is governing you.”

At one point I found astrology fun and briefly wondered if people were governed by big bodies in outer space. However, the most interesting talk about “something governing something” was given by my computer science professor who casually mentioned the father of computer science, Alan Turing and his “Turing Machine” – Can everything be represented by a Turing Machine? If so, does that mean our future is predetermined? It was mind boggling, also, I nearly failed the class.

So I found Mendittorosa’s Nettuno inspired by the planet Neptune quite interesting, and thought it’s about time that someone made a perfume dedicated to a planet. But, why Neptune? On their website it says, “Nettuno Extrait de Parfum is the scented vision of mirror of the soul, olfactory tribute to the Neptune. Mesmeric cosmic dust, planetary mirror of our potential, astral reflections of infinite freedom and possibilities.”

What this perfume has succeeded, is the ability to release a wonderment, mysteriousness and etherealness. It is both light and dark, rich, and very abstract. It shoots out dusty powdery pastel floral colours (iris and musk) that contrast against a three dimensional, darker, slightly medicinal aroma space (leather, vetiver, nutmeg). The scent expands very quickly then slows down, and it is not easy to tell what notes are in this perfume. It never reaches full floral, and never touches full masculinity. But one really shouldn’t analyze too much, but enjoy the little cosmic space it has created.

Etat Libre d’Orange’s Secretions Magnifiques (2006)

Etat Libre d’Orange's Secretions Magnifiques (2006)
Etat Libre d’Orange’s Secretions Magnifiques (2006) © Victor Wong

Note: The piece of writing contains adult subject matter, reader’s discretion is advised. ‪#‎hehe‬

Dismissing or making fun of Secretions Magnifiques is easy. Trashing it entertainingly requires some flair and effort. But I am here to say why I like this fragrance, as you know, like for every thousand haters of John Water’s movies there’s at least a fan. (A friend told me that I was the second person he knew who liked Secretions Magnifiques and I asked if he was the first one and he said yes.)

But first, I want to say something about the smell of human secretions, particularly semen.

When I was studying in university, I lived in a dormitory. I had two very good friends who also lived in the same wing of the complex, and we frequented each other’s rooms for instant noodles and study notes. One evening Dave wanted to return a computer game he had borrowed from Tony and go to the cafeteria together afterwards. We knocked on Tony’s door a few times, and many minutes later he let us in. Dave put down the computer game on his desk and started sniffing, “wow, what smells so fragrant here?” Tony immediately said in an annoying voice, “hey, let’s go.”

Well, I was pretty certain we had just smelled Tony’s secretion magnifique – post-masturbation paper tissue clean up in the waste basket next to his desk. It was very awkward, of course, but now I think about it, isn’t it amusing that Dave’s candid reaction of Tony’s secretion was “what smells so fragrant”?

I have never given much thought about the smell of semen, but now I think it has two aspects – the easily spoiled milky smell of protein, and something that smells fragrant and musky. And this is why I think the perfumer of Secretions Magnifiques, Antonie Lie, has successfully captured the essence of the smell of bodily secretions and reinterpreted it in an artful way in the form of a perfume – a mix of something fragrant (iris aldehyde floral accord) and something repulsive (seaweed / coconut milk / metallic accord).

Some reviewers say that Secretions Magnifiques smells like semen but I think that’s just their imagination. No, it doesn’t smell like semen. It’s a floral perfume with a disturbing high dosage of metallic accord. Luca Turin praised Secretions Magnifiques in his 5-star review (which I thought was over-blown) and he described it as a “nautical floral”, which to a certain degree I agree. (The nautical part probably comes from seaweed.)

I fell deeply in love with the coconut iris accord of Secretions Magnifiques, which is absolutely beautiful and powdery. If that accord is to be extracted and released as a perfume I would instantly buy it, only until a few weeks later I would be bored with it. It is this crazy combination of floral and metallic notes that make this perfume a fun challenge to wear. This is not a beginner’s perfume; (similar examples such as Serge Lutens’ Tubereuse Criminelle, Amouage’s Opus VIII) it is for those who have a broad palette for unusual perfumes and challenging accords. When I am bored, I crave for a spray of Secretions Magnifiques on the back of my hand. But never more than three sprays. Never.

Modern “Chypres”

Serge Lutens’ Chypre Rouge & Grossmiths Golden Chypre © Victor Wong

I once wrote about Kenzo’s Parfum d’Ete and how much I liked it, and a Facebook friend told me I was a “closeted chypre lover”. Poor me, it’s not me who was in denial, it’s just that I didn’t know this summer perfume from the 90s was actually a chypre.

By “definition”, a chypre is a perfume with an accord composed of citrus, labdanum, oakmoss and musk. I am lucky to have a small decant of the very first chypre, “Chypre” by Coty (1917), so I know what this classic accord (perfume in this case) smells like, and without better words, it’s the “grandma” accord. The chypre accord is unique, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Imagine if I say chypre is the colour brown, but you have never seen such color and I say it’s the result of mixing of yellow and blue and red, maybe you will have a hard time “visualizing” what it is like. However, if you have smelled it before and are able to “memorize” that smell, you can tell there are countless vintage perfumes that share the same chypre common denominator – one sniff and you can tell Guerlain’s Mitsouko is a chypre, Aromatic Elixir is a chypre, Dior’s Diorella is a chypre, Paloma Picasso is a chypre…

Then come the modern perfumes who claim that they are chypres, but I just couldn’t recognize them as chypres. You know, in the old days, in art classes as a kid you would draw people of different nationality circling around the Earth hand-in-hand, a Dutch is a white milkmaid wearing wooden shoes and an American wears a cowboy hat, but now I can call myself a Canadian but boy, do I look Chinese even holding a cup of Tim Hortons coffee. This chypre genre has blurred so much that my nose needs yoga training for flexibility and enlightenment.

Serge Luten’s Chypre Rouge (2006) and Grossmith’s Golden Chypre perhaps are two good examples of dubious chypres.

I remember two ladies in a Facebook fragrance group both say Chypre Rouge is one of their favourite perfumes. If I didn’t know the name of the perfume, just by the smell alone I can see why it’s attractive to them. It smells like the red gooseberry sauce that IKEA cafeteria serves when you order a plate of Swedish meatballs. On top of that, you have the beautiful sweet aroma of red wine mixed with honey. It’s quite romantic, “rouge”, maybe too sweet for me, but no way Jose it’s a chypre. I refuse to acknowledge it. Sorry. Ok, maybe, I don’t know, but the sweetness and fruitiness of this perfume cover whatever chypre element there is.

Grossmith’s Golden Chypre, on the other hand, is a real chypre, but it took me a few wearings to recognize it because the chypre part is very light. (I am sure some people can recognize it right away.) Golden Chypre really is golden, but not vulgar like Paco Robanne’s gold bar shaped bottle One Million, for the smell is like the shimmering blurry ocean of the California coast at dawn. Initially light and citrusy, then the warmth and the rich powderiness of geranium, accentuated by the spicy nutmeg and deep patchouli slowly spread around. The chypre-ness actually flashes before your nose when you first spray it, and shortly goes away like the Big Bang, and reappears faintly when the perfume reaches dry down. An excellent modern perfume, but not as “granny” as I would have expected from Grossmith, a brand since 1835.

Now I shall reach for my bottle of Kenzo’s Parfum d’Ete to study it again.

A comment from my Facebook friend, Henrique, on chypres:

I think that what people miss on the chypre is that it’s not a closed system. It’s a texture, an idea of contrast between the aforementioned elements. Like Fougere, the idea was abstract enough to let you modify those elements, extend it through the different fashions of each era. After all, if we made the definition stiff, what would come next wouldn’t be classified as a chypre. For me, for instance, the 80’s floral chypres are hardly classic chypres, but they are able to convey the light-darkness contrast in a different way.

Modern chypres do this also, but they are more subtle in this contrast. Still, they don’t claim to be classic chypres, so it does make sense. And for those that say they are repetitive, classic ones were also too, if you start to test one after the other you’ll see that. This is what happens when a trend, an idea or olfactory family becomes popular. The only difference is that classic chypres arrived on a time that we didn’t have social media to talk and compare them. And we didn’t have either as many launches as we have today, which makes this sameness pop out more easily.

And since you mention art, I would like to point out that many art movements rescue something from an old art movement and put it in perspective with what is happening at that moment. Perfume is not different and we shouldn’t expect the same olfactory themes to remain the same as the times goes by.

Atkinsons’ Amber Empire (2015)

Atkinsons' Amber Empire (2015) © Victor Wong
Atkinsons’ Amber Empire (2015) © Victor Wong

I remember listening to a radio show on which the host asked listeners to call in and talk about their favourite movie director. A guy called in and said his was Tim Burton. When asked which movies of Tim Burton he liked most and why, he could only name “Nightmare Before Christmas”. Ridicule ensued.

I was like that listener when I declared Maurice Roucel to be my favourite perfumer two years ago, partly because he was one of the very few high-profile perfumers whose name I could remember (due to CRNCNTWS, Can’t Remember Non-Chinese Names Too Well Syndrome), and also he was the nose of one of my favourite perfumes, Le Labo’s Jasmin 17. (I was senselessly madly in love with Le Labo back then.) However, I was very troubled by the fact that I didn’t care about his most famous work, Musc Ravageur.

Now I don’t think I have any favourite perfumer, although I have a few favourite perfumes and perfume genres.

I admire Mr. Roucel’s ability to create hits out of shoestring ingredient budgets, like DKNY’s Delicious (2004) and Nautica Voyage (2006). His style to me seems to be all over the place, but when he is given a bigger budget and freedom (this is purely my speculation), his affinity towards certain style of perfumes becomes more apparent.

When I found out recently he had created a perfume named “Amber Empire” for the British brand Atkinsons, I was very intrigued. To my knowledge, I don’t think he has designed any amber themed perfume before. And the main supporting note that he picked was unexpected, too – oolong tea (a type of Chinese green tea.) This big amber/tea combination is quite novel to me (Annick Goutal’s “Duel” being the only one that comes to mind), and neither ingredient steals the show. The opening is mildly sweet and herbal, like an ice tea sweetened by light brown sugar. Shortly after, the shy tobacco flavoured tea note appears and disappears. A rather simple and intoxicating perfume, both grand and unassuming at the same time, and it’s a joy to wear.