Annick Goutal’s 1001 Ouds (2015)

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Annick Goutal’s 1001 Ouds © Victor Wong

Annick Goutal’s 1001 Ouds is a big surprise to me because it doesn’t smell like any typical synthetic oud perfumes. It actually smells like… oud. And dry woods. It smells natural, and it triggers memories of certain places that I’ve been to, one distant and one recent…

The distant one: In Hong Kong, there were many claustrophobic Chinese furniture stores all trying to cramp as many pieces of furniture as possible because space had always been very limited. Each store was filled and stacked with uncomfortable mahogany hardwood furniture with no cushioning, and the air in the stores was permeated with scents of dry and somehow fragrant wood scents, for the lacquer could never seal the wood surfaces completely. It was my mom’s dream to fill the living room with traditional Chinese furniture that no one wanted to sit in and use, and when I was a kid, I got dragged along to visit those shops very often. I wanted to see toys, not chairs carved with dragons and phoenixes. Now I miss the days go shopping with my parents.

The recent one: I was in a night market with my partner in Cambodia, and there’s a shop that sold wooden bead bracelets. Hundreds of bracelets were displayed in cabinets, and taped on the glass was a card that read, “Authentic oud bracelets. We do not sell phonies”. I never really cared for ouds before I had become a perfume addict, but at that moment, I wanted to ask the shopkeeper to show me one – imagine, a scented oud bracelet! My partner immediately stopped me in an angry tone, “Are you an idiot? This is a tourist area, these are of course phonies! Also, they are from China, they must be fake! Those bracelets must have been soaked in some chemical to give off that smell and colour, and if you wear it, the skin on your wrist will get burned.” Fine, when your partner lost his marbles like that, it’s time to tell him, “Look, there’s an UFO in the sky!” and run out of the store. As we were leaving, I could detect traces of supposedly oud in the air.

Now I have memories of my childhood and unfinished shopping distilled into a bottle of perfume. Smelling 1001 Ouds gives me instant solace – the smell of wood and oud in this perfume is never too sharp; and although the oud is not very strong in this scent, the strength of the wood in this scent helps extend its longevity, and it creates an illusion of a young piece of wood that has been infected by the oud virus not for too long. There’s also a little bitterness in the scent that makes it smell precious. When I am wearing it, I feel like I am a mature, well-travelled man with stories to tell and a drawer of ouddies to sell.

Auphorie’s Miyako (2015)

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Auphorie’s Miyako Extrait © Victor Wong

The first time Luca Turin smelled Miyako, he couldn’t even. There’s nothing he could do except give Miyako a five star glowing review; and if you know what a five star review has done to Andy Tauer, you can imagine what could happen to Auphorie, or any new startup perfume house. On the day the review was released, I checked out their website – Miyako was already sold out.

I had had the greatest pleasure meeting the owners/perfumers/brothers at the AIX Scent Fair 2016 in Los Angeles a month after the review was released. They had a booth there, and on that night they won the 2016 Art and Olfaction award in the Artisan category, and just when the show was over, they were inevitably talking to the people of Luckyscent, the biggest niche perfume online shop in US.

Rewind seven hours back that day, when I first sniffed Miyako with one of the greatest anticipations in my life since my fortieth birthday, my initial reaction was, “What am I smelling? An osmanthus leather? Ok…” I wasn’t let down, nor I needed someone to carry me to the nearest bench to get my ghost back. I bought a bottle, because I needed to, for I knew while Luca Turin sometimes can be a drama queen, he was like the little kid in the movie “Sixth Sense”, instead of seeing dead people, he could see unusual things in a perfume most people couldn’t.

I have been wearing Miyako on and off since then, and slowly I think I’ve got it. It has an accord that I have never smelled before, whether it is beautiful to you or me or not. It’s a scent of musty osmanthus flower and moist leather, and it creates a strange, austere atmosphere – like someone has taken you to an unfamiliar room with Asian decor with not much ventilation. You are told to have a seat, and someone you do not anticipate will greet you soon – except that person never comes. You are sitting in the room dead silent, looking at things, breathing the weird sweet air that the room and objects are emitting, and trying to make yourself at ease. Eventually, the uneasiness subsides, and you wake up naturally, you faintly remember you just have had a dream. Let’s try again.

Xyrena’s Basic Bitch & Cinemanic (2015)

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Xyrena at AIX Scent Fair, Los Angeles, May 7th, 2016 © Victor Wong

You went to your kid’s grade school gymnasium to support their annual science fair, and as expected, everything was glued-together-cardboards and cutout letters sprinkled with glitter dust. Suddenly you saw a table, no, actually a booth with a canopy, decorated with professional presentation graphics and style. The kids were all wearing black polo shirts with their own logo stitched on as a team, cheerfully presenting their topic of study to everyone, and there’s a cameraman that they hired, shooting footage to be uploaded to different social media channels. Now you thought the PowerPoint presentation you made last week with sliding transition effect wasn’t that cool anymore.

That’s the kind of feeling I got when I saw Xyrena’s booth at the AIX Scent Fair in Los Angeles two weeks ago – surprised, in awe, inspired and a little envious. The owner, the perfumer and the staff were in their mid-twenties (young and energetic, anyway), and I was very impressed by their presentation, packaging and concept. They used custom-moulded VHS clam shells to house their perfume bottles, and each scent came with a 80s’ style B-movie poster sleeve insert. With their limited budget (bigger than most startup indie houses, in my opinion), they really took the “go big or go home” route, and no, just affixing a simple label on the bottle wouldn’t cut it. (Ironically, their labels were pretty bad, but they said they would improve it.)

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Xyrena’s Basic Bitch & Cinemaniac © Victor Wong

Their scents all have funny names and smell half joke and half serious. Priced at around $40 to $70, their target audience is not you, who buy Amouage body cream. They are targeting people who buy novelty items, people who love pop culture and don’t care whether if it is politically correct or not. They are selling gags in a perfume format.

On the show floor they had Cinemania, a caramel popcorn scent (my favourite kind of popcorn); Hellanut, a hyper-realistic Nutella hazel-chocolate scent (just smelling it raises insulin level); Dark Ride, the scent of water theme parks featuring chlorine and mouldy smell; Basic Bitch, a pumpkin spice latte, paperback and UGG leather boots scent (subtitled, “This Sunday Funday She Literally Can’t Even!”) is actually very good despite a bit synthetic smelling; and finally, Pool boy, a sun tan lotion/cocktail drink/pool water smell. Quality and composition wise, all these scents are distant relatives of $300 perfumes; with proper polishing, more sophistication and better ingredients, they aren’t that different. (Well, except Dark Ride, you can stay at the park.)

I think you get the point – they are ridiculous. Ridiculously creative and shameless, and they are proud. Their presentation, despite imperfect, blew most standard indie brand away, in my opinion.

Sonoma Scent Studio’s Amber lncense & Fig Tree

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I must confess that the name Sonoma Scent Studio preceded my discovery and love of niche perfumes. A few years ago my friend from Pittsburgh visited me in Toronto and I told him I had never smelled anyone wearing a perfume that’s actually “incensy”. (He’s caucasian and he loves everything Chinese and he lights incense joss sticks everyday and his home smells like a temple.) He highly recommended Sonoma because it’s “awesome”.

And now I can tell you he is right. My impression of this line after smelling most of their samples is that they remind me of a high-end nature store. You know, beautiful interior, decorated with big wind chimes, hangable stained glass panels, cosy all natural organic sweaters and a bird chirping soundtrack being played from all-surround sound Bose speakers.

There are so many that I like from the sample pack, and some of my favs include Spiced Citrus Vetiver (quite unexpected, because I am not a big fan of cologne and vetiver, but this blend is just done amazingly appealing), Yin and Yang (florals, amber, musks), Fig Tree, and of course, Amber Incense and Incense Pure, and ALL their rose perfumes.

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Sonoma Scent Studio’s Amber lncense (2015)

Remember in The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits carry little biscuits called Lembas Bread that have magical powers of satiation; “one small bite is enough to fill the stomach of a grown man”? Well, the amber incense perfume equivalent is Sonoma‘s Amber Incense, an all natural, powerful, concentrated perfume that can rival any extraits and it lasts for many many hours.

On first wearing, you might think you are just wearing amber and incense, because the spice, rose, oakmoss, resins are so packed tightly together, it takes some time for your nose to slowly unravel this Pac Man Power Pellet, and while you are doing that, you are invincible.

Sonoma Scent Studio’s Fig Tree (2011)

Note that it’s not “Figs”, but “Fig Tree”, and here you really get a beautiful, austere fig tree scent with ripe figs ready to be harvested. The smells of leafy greenness, woodiness, and unique fig fruitiness in this scent are naturally proportionate to a real fig tree and in that order. The touch of creamy coconuty vanilla makes this scent extra comforting to wear.

I’d say Fig Tree is an upgraded version of Diptyque’s Philosykos, the more famous mass-marketed fig scent, but Fig Tree smells stunningly more longer-lasting, natural, classy, generous and less cartoony, than Philosykos.

Olympic Orchid’s Kyphi (2011)

Olympic Orchid's Kyphi (2011) © Victor Wong
Olympic Orchid’s Kyphi (2011) © Victor Wong

Kyphi’s has saved me from a near mental breakdown.

Last week, Bat, a perfume from my own brand Zoologist Perfumes, won the Art & Olfaction Awards 2016 in the Independent category. Before the award ceremony, I had a full day to see the AIX Scent Fair at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. I finally had the opportunity to meet Ellen Covey, the perfumer of Bat, for the very first time in person.

After I returned home in Toronto, a friend of mine told me to go to a Facebook fragrance group to read about some of the discussions of my brand. To my dismay, the said thread was all very negative. I had read comments such as, “Zoologist perfumes make me want to vomit”, “I don’t want it even if they are free”, “Victor is nice, but such and such scents are just nasty”, etc.

It would be the biggest lie if I tell you such comments didn’t hurt. In fact, they hurt so much that I couldn’t sleep and eat for a whole day, and they lingered in my head and never went away. I didn’t say anything in their thread, because I understand how the Internet works. They didn’t know me, and they just spoke their mind. I myself also write “reviews”, and sometimes they are very negative. It’s a fair game.

However, the irony is that, Bat won an award. And there are positive reviews about my scents. I have had occasional good sales in some countries. I just have a hard time reacting and adjusting to these extreme influx of highly positive comments and highly negative comments.

Long before the collaboration with Ellen Covey, I had known about some of her works (Olympic Orchids) through readers’ reviews on Fragrantica. One particular scent, Kyphi, caught my attention because it had received quite a bit of negative reviews. I was very interested in smelling it, and I asked Ellen to bring some with her to the show.

I smelled it on the show floor and I instantly fell in love with it. She used ingredients typical of what the ancient Egyptians would use, namely frankincense, myrrh, beeswax, lemongrass, and spices.The scent smelled like a tomb, and images of me being hollowed out and mummified came to mind. Is it a perfume? Can I wear it to work? All these thoughts went through my head. It doesn’t matter, I concluded.

Yesterday, I smelled it again because I missed it, and suddenly everything unlocked – despite all the negative reviews, there are always some fans of your work. Just stay focused, and constantly improve. It will all work out.

Antonio Gardoni and Bruno Fazzolari’s Cadavre Exquis (2016)

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I am writing this in response to a few people who have asked me if it is worth it to buy a bottle Cadavre Exquis. There are a lot of internal struggle, I know that: It comes in 50ml only and quite pricey, $245 a bottle. They have only made 99 bottles, a very small quantity, but a tricky quantity – if it is absolutely fantastic, only one or two people will post on Facebook telling everyone how good it is, but such annoying voice is going to be small and you will just eventually ignore it. If it is a limited edtion of 1000, hmm, you still have a chance to test it and buy it when your budget is looser and join the choir. Finally, it’s a gourmand scent, a love it or hate it genre, but men, they are designed by two revered indie perfumers, Antonio Gardoni and Bruno Fazzolari, and you love to tell people you have finished your second bottle of Antonio’s Maai and Bruno’s Au Dela. Decision, decision, decision and time is running out…

Well, the opening smells like some old-style chewy non-fruity semi licorice (it’s actually anise) and caramel chocolate candies covered with some dubious wax to preserve them. It’s strong and rich, and not for kids, like Riesen Chewy Chocolate Caramel (Have you ever seen Riesen’s TV commercial? It’s caramel for grown men!) but more complex probably due to the camphor they have added and the mid-notes that can’t wait to show up. If you spit out licorice candies when you were a kid, but love to eat them now (especially some that also have a chocolate flavor), get Cadavre Exquis.

Since I know both Antonio and Bruno’s work, the opening of Cadavre Exquis, does not smell anything like their works, but because of its richness and matureness, I would say it smells slightly more “Antonio” to me, with a touch of the pop art feeling of Bruno’s work. If you absolutely hate gourmand, Cadavre Exquis has a resolution in the dry down. It continues to smell sweet, but it’s resinous, ambery, a little bit spicy and herbal (rosemary), and this candy has a small surprise for you – just a little civet castoreum poop in the chewy center that makes women scream in joy.

If Martha Stewart says, “Today I am going to fry an egg”, you know it’s going to be over the top, garnished with rainbow. Same as Antonio Gardoni and Bruno Fazzolari telling you, “We are making a candy gourmand perfume!” Don’t worry, it’s spectacular, and if you really don’t like it, sell it on eBay for $450.

P.S. It is absolutely interesting to see both perfumers next to each other in the 2016 AIX Scent Fair. Bruno is more reserved and quiet, and Antonio is very talkative and has no secrets. Very memorable.

Grossmith’s Saffron Rose (2012)

Grossmith's Saffron Rose (2012)
Grossmith’s Saffron Rose (2012) © Victor Wong
A perfume boutique owner once told me a story of a customer who wanted to give himself a “surprise” – he asked to be left alone to sit in the corner of the shop so to read all the promotional materials of the perfumes that the shop carried. An hour later, he stood up and made a purchase based on what he had just read.
 
I wonder if he has got himself a pleasant surprise or a disappointment? Most people on the Internet are against “blind buying” perfumes, and the reasons are obvious. Even by studying the perfume notes breakdown, it is still of little use – you don’t know the proportion of each ingredient in the perfume. When a perfume says it has rose and patchouli, you might get a rose perfume with a hint of patchouli, or a patchouli perfume with a hint of rose.
 
Last week I played a round of “Wheel of Fortune – Perfumista Blind-Buy Edition.” The stakes were quite high, for I saw a few slices of “Bankrupt” on the wheel.
 
“Are you sure?” my friend who worked at the boutique worriedly asked.
 
“Yes. I have asked a friend who has smelled all the Grossmith perfumes and he said this one was the best,” I replied.
 
“Ok,” and the credit card was swiped, my neck bled a little, and irreversibly the cashier iPad displayed the message, “PAID, sucker.”
 
You may wonder why didn’t I smell the testers in the shop first? Well, the shop actually didn’t have Grossmith testers. I don’t know if Grossmith simply don’t provide or sell testers or this particular shop didn’t buy testers from Grossmith. Anyway, this purchase was a pure shopping-therapy kind of indulgence.
 
I tore open the shrink-wrap, and carefully took out the bottle and sprayed some on my wrist, took a sniff, and let her take a sniff too.
 
“Oh my, this is amazing! It smells very warm.” she exclaimed. (Remember that she had never smelled any Grossmith perfumes before this.)
 
I believe that was a sincere expression. However, in my head, I thought, “Oh shit, oh shit, this was not what I expected. Where’s the rose? Where’s the rose?”
 
I had this reaction due to the fact that 1) I expected it to be a rose perfume, 2) I had never smelled a perfume with this much saffron (real or not) in it. Stronger than sniffing a bottle of real saffron before I stingily put just a little in a Spanish paella, it was medicinal, but moist, rich, warm. So much so, as if the valve of the awesome dispenser broke and awesomeness couldn’t stop spewing out like a rainbow – I was a little dumbfounded.
 
As I was about to reach home, it was half an hour since I had sprayed one spray of Saffron Rose on my wrist, and I sniffed again. Damn, this was Le Labo Rose 31. The dry down of Saffron Rose was actually Rose 31, the whole perfume, but better – spicy, woody, powdery, tobacco-y and of course, with some saffron and rose. C’est la vie.