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.

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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.

Thierry Mugler’s B-Men (2003)

Thierry Mugler's B-Men © Victor Wong
Thierry Mugler’s B-Men © Victor Wong

I was pretty late to the fragrance party, by the time I bought my first bottle of A-Men, they had already released over 10 A-Men flankers. Recently a sales person showed me their newly released A-Men Ultra Zest and I told him it smelled just like A-Men with orange. Really I should have kept it to myself, but I couldn’t resist, and the sales person couldn’t resist either, and politely hinted to me, “What did you expect? It’s a flanker.”

Last week I blind-bought B-Men because I thought it might smell completely different from A-Men, but also it was in its first edition acrylic box (just like my bottle of A-Men), and I associated that to a more potent fragrance. (I’ve read stories that A-Men’s potency has gone much weaker over the years.) As it turned out, through a bit of research, B-Men was A-Men’s first flanker, and it flopped, I guess, but if it didn’t, the marketing department might have a hard time introducing C-Men for guys.

The more I wear B-Men, the more impressive I find the whole line of A-Men flankers has become – I can still recognize the sharp silhouette of A-Men no matter how much Thierry Mugler’s perfumers change/adjust/mutilate it to give it a new flavor or character for the new flanker. On the contrary, Guerlain has released tons of Shalimar flankers and people complain that they don’t smell anything close to the original.

In 1967 Andy Warhol created a pop-art painting named “10 Marilyns”. It has 10 identical Marilyn head shots, except that each one receives a different color palette treatment. (In Photoshop, it’s called “Hue Shift”.) No matter which one you isolate, people can still tell it’s Marilyn, that’s because Marilyn is so iconic. So who is great here? Marilyn or Andy Warhol? To me, it’s both. What Thierry Mugler’s perfumers did here was their own painting of “10 A-Men”, and B-Men is one of the A-Men in the painting, except it smells spicy (spice and licorice) and tart (rhubarb), instead of milky and super sweet, and the industrial strength patchouli is always there.

Lolita Lempicka’s Lolita Lempicka (1997)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

Eve of Eden had eaten it before and so did Snow White. Now it’s your turn to eat the “apple”, the life-changing symbol of temptation, but just like e-cigarettes, it only looks like the real thing and you shouldn’t feel too ashamed taking a bite of it; it’s supposed to be fun and “harmless”. Lolita Lempicka’s debut fragrance (1997) is a fantasy created and marketed perfectly, from the scent to the look of the bottle to the lush marketing imageries; no wonder it is still a best-seller for over 20 years.

The marketing didn’t do magic for me, but it surely had grabbed my attention every time I walked by some perfume counters. It’s everywhere, so I had no urgency to smell it, until, of course, I read Tania Sanchez’s 5-star review. It’s not easy to immediately tell if it’s a great scent (or not), but I know if a designer scent sucks, typically it can’t last more than 5 years on the market. It took me several wearing to understand what’s going on, for the opening is quite complex:  essentially it’s a down-to-earth, quieter Angel, a gourmand perfume that features star anise. But the supposedly pungent liquorice note here is like a peanut M&M’s, covered up by all kinds of yumminess, when you eat it, you are not eating a peanut, you are eating a chocolate candy with personality.

The best part of Lolita Lempicka is actually the dreamy powdery dry down. (I love my powder!) If you think Angel is too much and you don’t mind a little bit of liquorice, Lolita Lempicka is pretty neat.

Valentino’s Uomo (2014)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

There are two brothers who look alike, but have quite different personalities. One likes to live out loud and party hard, and the other likes finer things in life and takes things slowly. One is exuberant and likes to announce his presence, the other is more charismatic and discreet. Angel, nicknamed A-Men, chooses to live in New York, can’t survive a morning without a bottle of Red Bull, while Valentino, who people like to address him as Mr. Valentino, lives in Milan and enjoys a cup of Amaretto coffee while wearing his favorite fine jacket.

I brought my bottle of Valentino Uomo to work and my coworker sprayed a splitz on his wrist. He said he didn’t like it. Five minutes later we went to a meeting, and my boss who sat next to him said, “Oh I can smell Victor.” My coworker said, “No, it’s probably me. I sprayed Victor’s perfume on my wrist.” “Well, you smell very pretty today.” They both looked at me, and I looked at them, no words were further exchanged.

Serge Luten’s Louve (2007)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

Jasmin, Cherry & Marzipan

Louve, in my opinion, doesn’t quite fit the smell and feel of Serge Luten’s line of perfumes. Sweet & cheery, without any consideration to all the angry passers-by who hate sweet stuff, Louve shoots scoops of cherry almond ice-cream at you like a tennis ball machine. If you want an occasional happy-overdose, spray Louve!!!

Atkinson’s Oud Save The Queen (2013)

Atkinsons Oud Save The Queen, EDP, 100ml
© Victor Wong

British Amouage Contender?

I remember visiting British perfume house Atkinson’s brand new website a few months ago – super confusing to navigate, a bit cheesy and very British-looking. My immediate association was Penhaligon’s and Floris, both British perfume houses that no one is crazy about.

Today I went to a department store (Toronto’s Holt Renfrew) and to my surprise, found out that it is now carrying Atkinson’s perfumes. A British sales woman wearing a huge sparkling ring with a British flag design standing next to the table greeted me and showed me their products… in a British accent and with pride, of course!

I immediately checked out their range, and wow, they are good! Fresh ones smell fresh and not synthetic; rich ones smell posh and decadent! The ones that stood out was “The Odd Fellow’s Bouquet” and “Oud Save the Queen”

Oud Save the Queen and Oud Save the King are really good perfumes with silly names; they reminded me of Amouage Gold (without the dirty musks) and some Tom Ford’s oud perfumes.

Atkinsons save the British asses! No more lame perfume houses!

You know I am joking, right?