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.

Cacharel’s Loulou (1987)

Cacharel's Loulou (Splash Bottle and Parfum) © Victor Wong
Cacharel’s Loulou (Splash Bottle and Parfum) © Victor Wong

I’ve heard that people who have had a near-death experience recall seeing their whole life being played back like a rewinding videotape in their head at lightning speed. If this is true, I might see a hexagonal blue perfume bottle flash by in my head for a nano-second too long when I die. Yes, that strange geometric blue bottle with a red pointy cap created in the far off exotic land of the discordant color scheme had left me with a lifelong impression. I first saw it at a department store in the late 80s, and I thought, “What is this crazy thing?” I stared at the bottle but was too afraid to touch it because I was a well-behaving young man.

Almost 30 years later, I finally know its name – Loulou by Cacharel, and own a splash bottle and a parfum bottle. They are both sitting on my desk, emitting an alienesque blue aura like two pieces of quartz, humming. My expectation for Loulou was quite huge. Luca Turin gave it a 5 star review with very little explanation, and it was one of the best-selling perfumes from the glorious 80s.

I must say I am a bit disappointed with Loulou, for I had read too many good things about it (I probably should give it more time). It’s supposed to be Cacharel’s reaction to Dior’s Poison – a fruity oriental bomb with massive sillage – but I found it rather tame. I brought a decant to work and asked my coworkers, “Are you ready?” then one spritz on the back of my hand, and three minutes later I asked again, “Did you feel the aftershock?” No one said anything except “Myeh” (I think it’s combination of yeah and meh).

The scent itself is quite interesting and a little “strange.” To me, it has two noticeable layers; the first layer is “something sweet and plasticky smelling,” like the smell of some brand new plastic toy. I think the plasticky smell is actually incense in low dosage mixed with some plum;  the second layer is “some white florals” that are soft, tender and slightly powdery (probably heliotrope) and feminine. I want to re-live the 90s to see how many people actually wore this perfume, brought down to Earth by some UFOs.

P.S. I decanted some parfum into an atomizer bottle and tried it on my skin, it’s quite potent and rich!

Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit (1933, Extrait 2015)

Guerlain Vol de Nuit Extrait © Victor Wong
Guerlain Vol de Nuit Extrait © Victor Wong

There’s a Chinese idiom “Like a cow munching a peony bush”, sarcastically describing someone who is unable to see or appreciate art and beauty. Unfortunately, I think I am that cow when it comes to Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit (Night Flight).

Vol de Nuit extrait was one of the few perfumes that I knew I had to get for my perfume collection just because of the bottle. A simple flat square bottle that perfectly captures the essence of the graphic design of one of my favorite art movements – Art Deco, with rays of a sunburst emitting from the center of the bottle (in this case, it’s supposed to represent the propeller of an aeroplane), paired with a shiny gold title plate featuring the iconic fat and chunky san-serif style font.

The scent, now I must say, does not speak to me like how it speaks to high-profile reviewer Luca Turin and many others. Luca wrote he used Vol de Nuit to “recalibrate” his olfactory apparatus to obtain a full-scale quality reading and used Creed’s Love in White to get a reliable zero. Who wouldn’t be tempted to smell a scent that could kick the balls of some Creed scents so high up in the sky?

Vol de Nuit extrait (not the EDT/EDP) to me is essentially a dark balsamic oriental scent. It smells like a lot vintage Lanvin perfumes that I own but with less character. (An image of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall comes to mind.) It also smells very much like a Chinese incense joss stick, borderline smoky and it’s not easy to tell what’s exactly in it. I think that’s why it’s marvelous to some people – it’s ambiguous, mysterious, with ingredients perfectly blended like the interlocking jigsaw pieces of a Escher illustration, so balanced that I don’t know what the heck I am smelling. It smells rich and very importantly, classically vintage. That’s actually the most exciting thing to learn about Vol de Nuit – I have read that in recent years Guerlain have been trying their best to replicate their classic perfumes and they claim that the new batches are very faithful to the original. (So much so that people complain that they don’t smell like the reformulated versions that they own.) If my brand-new Vol de Nuit extrait has every notes in tact and smells like the vintage perfumes from the 30s to 50s that I have been collecting, that means they haven’t deteriorated too badly! Vol de Nuit perhaps is the granddaddy of balsamic oriental perfumes like the top node of a perfume evolution tree.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Nu EDP (2001)

Yves Saint Laurent's Nu EDP © Victor Wong
Yves Saint Laurent’s Nu EDP © Victor Wong

Guess what impresses me most about Yves Saint Laurent’s Nu? The bottle – wait, not the space age silver cylindrical box that belongs to the Men In Black movie, but the surface of the chrome box – it leaves no fingerprints. How crazy is that? Nowadays you have to pay more for kitchen appliances with no-fingerprint chrome surfaces, but Nu, a perfume released in 2001 is already doing that. Well thoughout little details, kudos to the packaging design team.

To me the name “Nu” suggests something new and radical; to a certain degree, the perfume does smell quite unconventional in 2001. (It smells like a niche perfume now.) Nu is a mildly creamy and sweet, cardamom-heavy, woody and incensey perfume that’s warm and slightly exotic. It wakes me up because the spice is quite strong, and that’s the ironic part. Rather than smelling cold and android, it uses some of the oldest perfumery ingredients (cardamon, incense, jasmine) to create a supposedly space age perfume to be worn by women in cool shades. Instead, it should be a candidate for a Opium flanker. The confusion is like slicing a spring roll diagonally in the middle and plate it vertically and call it an Asian Fusion dish.

As a perfume collector, I bought the vintage version of Nu because of the packaging. I became aware of it when a sales lady from the perfume shop that I visit all the time showed me the EDT version of Nu, which came in a simple blue bottle. (Mine is the EDP.) The scent didn’t leave a strong impression and neither did the bottle. She told me that she wished she could show me the sold-out first version (the one I have now) because it was so cool. A few months later I read about Nu in Roja Dove’s book “The Essence of Perfumes”, which has a big section dedicated to the most notable perfumes and bottles. Then one day, to my surprise, I saw a brand new bottle in a perfume shop that I rarely go to. The quasi-clueless owner sold it to me for an excellent price and the EDP version was definitely stronger and memorable than the EDT version the other shop had shown me.

Fendi’s Asja (1992)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

“Ha ha, Fendi misspelled Asia with Asja”, I raughed. But did they? I used Google to translate Asia to French and Italian but Asja didn’t come up. Fendi probably invented this word for the title of their oriental perfume so that it sounded even more exotic.

The packaging of Asja (1992) is fun and beautiful and not necessarily cliche. It is a mishmash of various Asian traditional iconic designs – Chinese red lanterns, Japanese lacquered wood bowls, radiating stripes that resemble sun rays in the old Japanese flag and paintings, and the use of gold colour that turns every Chinese on.

I haven’t noticed any new Asian inspired packaging for perfumes for years. I guess Asia is no longer exotic to westerners anymore – they are now everywhere in the world. I live in Toronto, and walking down the street in my neighbourhood, all I see are Chinese bubble tea shops, Korean convenience shops and Halaj restaurants. I bet nowadays white folks in Toronto would find a bottle maple syrup more exotic than before.

Asja is actually a proper title for the perfume. It’s oriental to the max, and I like it better than YSL’s classic Opium. Opium debut in 1977, although it’s a smash success, it smells unfriendly to me. It lacks a certain warmth that I expect from an oriental perfume, and also it smells plasticky to me. Asjacame out 15 years later, although the notes are similar, it is sweeter, fruitier, warmer, and has a little trace of metallic smell, which I like, probably due to cinnamon and carnation overdose.

Jean Desprez’s Sheherazade (1983)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

My barber for the past 10 years had never complimented my perfume. I wore a different one each time I visited the salon, and she never said a word about it. It was not particularly important to me, but I complimented her perfume most of the time (her favourite was probably Kenzo Flower), and her standard answer was, “Oh you can still smell it? I have had a long day.”

My barber is a Polish woman in her late fifties, and I can tell she wants a retirement, right now. She occasionally tells me her stories related to her family, which are mostly tragic. Like her grandmother was given an option between saving her dying son (but living the rest of his life in intense agony and discomfort and embarrassment) and letting him die naturally. She chose the former and only a year later she found out that he killed himself in a bathtub with a shotgun, next to it a letter blaming her for not letting him die.

Although I see my barber once a month, over the years, we have become “friends”. Friends that know a good part of each other’s life, but strangely the caring never goes beyond the salon. One time I wore Jean Desprez’s Sheheraze (1983) and she said, “Oh my god, what are you wearing? It smells amazing.” I told her the name and she said, “Sir Harrison?” My Chinese tongue had a difficult time untying itself but eventually I said it right. She contemplated for a minute and said, “it reminds me of some good old days.”

I think from now on I will wear it every time I visit the salon.

Sheheraze is a beautiful oriental floral, a little bit like Clinique’s Aromatic Elixir, but less herbal. It smells warm and creamy, probably because of benzoin and sweet myrrh. It has an addictive quality to it, and the goodness stays even the deep orange perfume has evaporated away from your skin.

Lanvin Vintage Black Bottle (1927)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

I have finally successfully removed the stuck stopper from the Lanvin bottle without breaking my heart and the bottle.I had come across many tips and know-how articles on how to do it before, but when it came to doing it on my own for the first time, I was so frightened. It is almost like a cat has jumped on your lap but decides to leave, but one its claws is hooked to the knitting of your brand-new sweater – the cat is struggling, your expensive sweater is being destroyed in front of your eyes, and you don’t want to break its paw trying to get that stupid claw off the sweater. That scary.

I got this bottle from eBay, and the seller wrote it’s a bottle of My Sin (1925) and it’s half-full. (There’s no label on the bottle.) When the stopper suddenly popped out from the bottle, a very little bit of perfume spilled on my hands and I could smell the stunning aroma. It’s beautiful and fresh and new… and old. Very ironic. And judging from the reflection, the bottle is actually 90% full. A very pleasant 1-2-yes-yes surprise. One time I tried to return a full bottle of perfume (in an opaque bottle), and the salesman shook the bottle to gauge how much was left. Honestly, it’s very hard to guess. A full bottle feels like half-full when you shake it.

Now the remaining mystery of this bottle is that I am not very sure whether it’s My Sin or Arpege (1927) for I have never smelled My Sin before, and the Internet told me it smells kind of like vintage Arpege.

[Turned out it’s a bottle of Arpege.]

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong