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…

Le Labo Thé Noir 29 (2015)

Le Labo Thé Noir 29 © Victor Wong
Le Labo Thé Noir 29 © Victor Wong

I walked in the shop, and pretended that I wanted to take a sniff of Thé Noir 29 (Black Tea) and acted hesitant for one second. The shop owner, a beautiful woman, still recognized me after almost more than a year since my last visit and knew that I would buy a bottle. “What else would you do?”, she smiled in a half-joking way and turned around to open the fridge door to reach for the bottle of concentrate for dilution.

Yes, I bought a bottle because I collect Le Labo perfumes. They were one of the reasons why I started my own business. I will continue to follow them even if  one day they have a perfume called Donald Trump 100.

Some people said, “Just like any other Le Labo scents, you don’t smell what the title says it is!”

Actually I could detect the black tea note the very first time I smelled it in the shop. It was freshly sprayed on a card, but the card itself already had been sprayed on quite a few times before. It’s not bad.

“And It is all about figs.”

Well, yes, there’s fig in this perfume, but I don’t think it’s very dominant. This is actually a disappointment, not that I think the perfume needs more figs; it’s just that I thought Le Labo actually listened to my plea that I wanted a full fig perfume. (I wrote them an email for a different matter, but I mentioned that I wanted a fig perfume in the postscript.) The bergamot, fig and black tea note complement each other quite nicely. Not heavy-handed.

By Kilian has a perfume titled “Imperial Tea” and it smells like a tea canister filled with great dry jasmine tea leaves and nothing else. Laser-focused concept and execution. I was very tempted to get a bottle, but I thought, maybe I should try hanging two jasmine tea bags under my armpits first and I probably would smell the same (except it’s very bad for my white undershirt). Le Labo’s Thé Noir 29 on the other hand, is the opposite of Imperial Tea and very typical of their style: it’s a rather ambiguous scent, and you can’t exactly pinpoint its genre. I think oriental, in this case?

I have been very busy recently, I didn’t have a chance to give Thé Noir 29 some proper wearing. Just when I was about to write this review, I took a sniff of the cap, and all of a sudden, I realize something. Oh my god, Thé Noir 29, you’ve slept with Baie Rose 26!

In a dramatic moment, Thé Noir 29 became emotionally volatile and unstable, and he pulled his black tea wig off and said, “I am actually Baie Rose 26!”

“No, come on, you don’t have to do this. Tootsie already did that.”

That’s right, the heart and base notes section of Thé Noir 29 reminds me of Baie Rose 26. I don’t know what to think… Is this a flanker?

Le Labo’s Jasmin 17 (2006)

Le Labo Jasmin 17 © Victor Wong
Le Labo Jasmin 17 © Victor Wong

This is a story about crap and perfume.

In the middle of the giant office there was a big room with glass walls on four sides where everyone could see inside. The “aquarium”, as I called it, sat some of my special coworkers. Everyday I had to swim into the aquarium to talk the shark, the lazy clam, the slimy eel and the copycatfish about the projects that I was working on.

One morning I walked into the aquarium to return a binder and a wall of stink hit me in the face. Wow, this room needed some air freshener, I thought. Later in the afternoon I sat down with copycatfish to talk about some project details and holy cow, he smelled like shit. Suddenly I knew what happened – he had stepped on dog poop. I told him about that and he immediately went to the washroom to clean up, and when he returned he said, “wow, dude, I thought it was you, and I almost wanted to ask you if you had ever taken a shower!”

And Luca Turin gave Le Labo’s Jasmin 17 a one-star rating and described it as “crap jasmine”. My only conclusion is that he must have stepped on some great dane dog poop while writing his review. What crap? I smell only lemon meringue pies, jasmine and amber, and it’s so finger-licking good. However, Jamin 17 doesn’t last long on my body. So one day I went bat-shit crazy and sprayed 8 times on my neck before I went to work.…

The scent did last long enough, so long that I could still smell it when I took the bus home. However, on that trip the bus driver had turned the heat so high up that the whole bus was like a sauna; all the windows were fogged up with human sweat, and suddenly I doubted, did Jasmin 17 really smell like shit? I kept calm and sweated quietly.

Inspiring Perfumes Series Pt. 7 – Le Labo’s Aldehyde 44 (2006)

Le Labo Aldehyde 44, © Victor Wong
Le Labo Aldehyde 44, © Victor Wong

[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]

Pt. VII. Playing Hard to Get – Le Labo’s Aldehyde 44

An animal figurine collectible manufacturer confesses in their collector’s handbook that when they first started their company, they were a little clueless. At a gift show, a businessman told them that they had some great products, but they weren’t exactly in the collectible business yet. He gave them invaluable advice on how a proper collectible company operates: some pieces should be limited editions while others should be retired, and a collector’s club should be formed.

As I was reading it, I felt that I was a little tool, being manipulated by their collectible business strategy. But, I’ll be damned, I felt happy collecting them. Without scarcity, there’s no appreciation of value, no thrill from competing to own before others, no fun and no need to collect. If you think about it, all products except Cream of Chicken discontinue some day. By telling you it’s limited edition, you suddenly feel that you need to get it now.

But how do you create scarcity without discontinuing a product? Limiting its distribution channel and marking up the price, maybe? Guerlain, Roja, Robert Piguet and many perfume companies have one or two perfumes created just for the luxury London department store Harrods. You go there to get slaughtered and come home smiling with a bottle that you think only a few people on this planet have. The price of “exclusive” perfumes are often double the street price of their regular line, for two reasons I can think of. The shop carrying them will be happily perceived as selling only to the rich and powerful; and because the exclusive products are not conveniently available, for a perfume house to recoup the cost of developing the perfume and make as much money as their regular line, they mark up the price even higher.

At the beginning I thought I could make some decent sales of my perfumes through my online shop exclusively, but they weren’t as rosy as I originally had imagined. (I even fantasized that I could quit my day job as soon as I had started my shop.) I had always thought my products were unique, but in the world of perfumes, they were only as unique as the pink balls in an IKEA kiddie ball pool. Reality is brutal, and since then I have been thinking of asking other online and retail shops to carry my products. I had walked into a niche perfume shop in Toronto and had a good conversation with the owner. During the conversation I suddenly had an urge to suggest, “How about I develop a perfume just for your shop? Please carry my products?”

And that was why I thought Le Labo was so ballsy. Their Aldehyde 44 was a Texas department store exclusive, but unfortunately that department went out of business, and Le Labo discontinued Aldehyde 44 altogether, instead of selling it online or getting another store to carry them as an exclusive. I have spent a considerable amount money developing my own perfumes, and discontinuing a perfume like that was like throwing money down the drain. But Le Labo is rich, and they have probably recouped all their development cost from just selling 50 bottles. (Best example is their Geranium 30 perfume. It’s limited edition, and they made only 100 bottles at $250 each. Assuming that they’ve made a profit, now you know how crazy their markups are.)

There are many books on luxury marketing, and I vividly remember some of the key points from those: Never reduce but always increase your price, never go on sale, the more difficult to get the better. And people buy that.

Inspiring Perfumes Series Pt. 4: Le Labo’s Iris 39 (2006)

Le Labo Iris 39 © Victor Wong
Le Labo Iris 39 © Victor Wong

[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]

Pt. IV. Perfume and Gender – Le Labo’s Iris 39

Spring, 2013

Dear Le Labo,

I have a question about your fragrances. Are they all unisex? That’s the feeling I get from browsing your website. However, upon closer examination of the product photos, some bottle labels read “Femme” and some “Homme”. So I guess they are not unisex? I am a man and really like your Iris 39 fragrance, but it reads “Femme” on the label.

Sincerely Yours,
Victor


Dear Victor,

Iris 39 is an unisex fragrance. Just ignore those photos with our old labels and buy all our products.

Yup,
Le Labo.


Not exactly what they wrote, but I got the idea – not too long ago, Iris 39 was a women’s fragrance, but by not specifying which gender it’s for, the potential market simply had doubled.

But I knew Iris 39 was for women, because it smelled just too beautiful to me. There were no rough edges, just very rich powdery green iris mixed with a little bit of ginger juice, a hint of some sweet bread smell, and a drop of sweat from the baker lady who is looking at you tenderly in a softly lit morning kitchen while she kneads the dough.

I wore Iris 39 perfume and went out only twice; one time taking a subway and an older woman sitting in front of me looked at me with an ambiguous smile, as if she was telling me, “You smelled nice, but son, it’s a women’s perfume you are wearing.” The other time I wore it to work, and I had to walk over to a programmer’s cubicle to talk to him about some bugs. I could hear he was listening to some death metal; and as he saw me coming he immediately paused the music, but he wasn’t prepared for the cloud of Iris 39 that I brought along with me. I was very uncomfortable talking to him because I knew I over-applied my perfume and his balls were falling off because of that and no electric guitar could save them.

I remember some guy on Basenotes.net wrote, “If a man wants to wear a woman’s perfume, he is free to do so, but let’s not pretend that fragrances have no gender associations to them.” I actually agree, although I have reached the point of I don’t f*king care what others think.

But that’s just me and a small group of people (I think) who don’t care. I could have done a more thorough marketing research before deciding which gender my niche perfumes are for, but at the end, I trusted my gut instinct and designed one for each category: Beaver is unisex, Panda is for women, and Rhinoceros is for men. (Although the latter two turned out unisex.) When it came to the label art illustrations, I asked the illustrator to draw all male animal characters. I believed that most (straight) men simply would not buy a bottle or packaging with a hint of feminism. (God damn, there’s a flower!) Women, I think, are more relaxed and flexible, though. If a bottle label has a female character, I think women will most likely think that this is a women’s product; if it has a male character, they might think it’s attractive, seductive or “whatever”; for men, any hint of feminism could challenge their sense of security in their masculinity, even if the perfume itself smells unisex or masculine.

I am not sexist, but you can call me stereotypical, I’m just applying my observation to product development.

Inspiring Perfumes Series Pt. 1: Le Labo’s Rose 31 (2006)

Le Labo Rose 31 © Victor Wong
Le Labo Rose 31 © Victor Wong

[I want to write about some of the perfumes that have influenced and led me to the creation of my perfume brand, Zoologist Perfumes. They have sparked ideas and given me new understanding about niche fragrances and the marketing of them.]

Pt. I. The Concept of a “Hit” Perfume – Le Labo Rose 31

In 2013, my partner and I revisited Quebec Montreal, Canada during a long weekend. We stayed at the iconic and beautiful hotel, Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac.

Our room was old, but I could imagine how marvellous it looked when the hotel was newly built. In the bathroom, there were neatly arranged toiletries and a bar of soap labeled Le Labo Rose 31. I took a sniff, and thought, wow, this smelled quite good!

Before leaving the room, I sat in the bed for a little while, smelling my hands, which had just been applied with some Rose 31 lotion that I also found in the bathroom. I thought, “Wow, this scent was so strong and rosy, would people think that I am wearing a woman’s perfume?” I put my hands in my jacket as I walked around the city.

The trip ended great, but the souvenir that I brought home with me, the little bottle of Rose 31 hand lotion, was greater.

I visited Le Labo’s website and had discovered how expensive their perfumes were. Besides Rose 31, they also had Oud 27. What’s oud? And neroli? What’s labdanum? I was so curious. Wait, they have Rose 31 detergent? How come their other scents don’t have their own detergent?

It didn’t take me much time and effort to discover fragrance review channels on Youtube, Basenotes forums, Fragrantica, fragrance related blog sites and many more. I had also learned about Luca Turin’s infamous book, “Perfumes, the A-Z guide”, which I promptly ordered from Amazon.

The book arrived and I immediately read his review on Rose 31. Two stars? What’s going on!? How is it possible? Come on!? It is the best perfume I have ever smelled! A quick conclusion had come to my mind – it really doesn’t matter, as long as I love it, that’s most important. I am sure a lot of people also think the same.

Later I’d come to realize that Rose 31 was Le Labo’s home run mega hit. If they didn’t have Rose 31, they might not have their success today. I think, for someone who has never experienced niche fragrances, Rose 31 probably smells amazing. Now that I have smelled quite a few perfumes, I found Rose 31 still very good, but not that spectacular. I think some of the other Le Labo fragrances smell better than Rose 31, but what they lack is universal appeal. Now I rarely wear Rose 31, but it has deeply inspired me. For a fragrance company to succeed, you need luck, a very wearable hit perfume (which doesn’t come easily and immediately), and the ability to seize the moment, promoting the hack out of it through different channels.

I have read a business article on Le Labo, it says that the founders sold their condos to gather $30,000, just enough to start their business. They had faith in their business idea and through hard work and a good understanding of the psychology of consumers, they managed to carve a good piece of cake out of the competitive niche perfume market.

Le Labo’s Benjoin 19 (2013)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

When I was younger I liked to voice my opinions on the net on new music albums after just one listen. Looking back, I regretted saying a lot of “oh this song is nothing special” or “this album is a let down” because some of my favourite albums took me more than 3 or 4 listens to get warmed-up to. Now that I believe I am a sensible grown up (but still opinionated),  I try not to write anything too reckless about a perfume before wearing it at least a few times.

I am very nervous to talk about Le Labo’s Benjoin 19, because 1) why would I buy a perfume that’s crazy expensive and say anything negative about it; 2) a lot of people have already voiced their opinions on Benjoin 19 and they all think it’s a great perfume; what if I say it sucks? Does it make me look like Jim Carey in Dumb and Dumber?

#1 is easy to answer, because I am a Le Labo collector and ten foot too deep into collecting their scents. I just have to get their latest stuff; #2: I have worn it several times and I think I can give it a fair opinion on Benjoin 19:

It’s a woody and warm (because of the benzoin) scent, very likeable, and it smells like a pencil made out of some good grade cedar wood, but the carbon core is made out of amber and benzoin. There’s nothing more about it, in my opinion. Compared to Le Labo’s Gaiac 10, which I consider a minimalist’s creation that smells elegant, interesting and full of idiosyncrasy, Benjoin 19 cannot achieve its greatness, instead it’s like the base of an incomplete perfume or a slice of boring artisan bread short of a dab of butter or jam.