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.

Caron’s Parfum Fleurs de Rocaille (1934)

Caron Parfum Fleurs de Rocaille © Victor Wong
Caron Parfum Fleurs de Rocaille © Victor Wong

I know there are a lot of fans of Caron vintage perfumes for women, and they always lament the watered-down or disfigured modern reformulations. I have read enough negative comments to avoid, blindly, all reformulations for women from Caron (updated Caron’s perfumes for men don’t seem to have suffered much at all), and also partly due to the relatively reasonable prices of the vintage versions you can still find on eBay.

One particularly Caron fragrance that caught my attention was “Fleurs de Rocaille” (1934). Note the plural, “Fleurs”. People always say, don’t buy “Fleur de Rocaille”, buy “FleurS de Rocaille”, just like the movies “Alien” and “Aliens” are two different things. Well, “Fleurs de Rocaille” had me at the packaging. I absolutely adore the colourful, almost folksy bouquet illustration on the box and perfume stopper. I wish I can find a poster of that illustration and hang it on my wall.

Only one aspect of the scent of Fleurs de Rocaille is surprising to me, which is its “dirtiness”, otherwise, it smells perfectly of the similar vintage perfumes from that era, such as Arpege. According to Fragrantica, Fluers de Rocaille has a lot of flower notes, such as jasmine, rose, lilac, ylang, but I guess it’s the carnation/violet/musks combo that makes it super spicy and funky. May be aging has something to do with it too.

Imagine, you are sitting by the sea, the golden shimmering reflections of the waves illuminating your face. Slightly startled by a beautiful, fragrant bouquet of flowers brought to you quietly from behind, you involuntarily have a big smile on your face; you turn around to find out who the thoughtful one is, and it’s a smelly baboon showing his love to you.

[After wearing a few more times: The dirtiness is a bit exaggerated, but it’s still a rich, dark, ambery and heavy floral perfume.]

Penhaligon’s Tralala (2014)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

When I first saw Penhaligon’s Tralala (2014), only one thing had come to my mind: this outrageous packaging is going to be discontinued in a hard way, for it is so fancy, the different factories that made their boxes and crazy ribbons may not have all the parts available when Penhaligon’s decides to make another batch later down the road. It’s just my collector’s gut feeling, I could be wrong.

So I blind-bought the perfume because of the packaging. Penhaligon’s, you win. But the actual surprise, is the perfume itself. Tralala, I have decided, is the perfume of former-glory. It’s a black and white photo that has turned yellow, a showgirl retiring from Moulin Rouge, a neglected face that uses a trowel to put the make up on, an unsatisfying life that needs whisky to resuscitate. I am sure that’s not the mood Bertrand Duchaufour (nose of L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Timbuktu) wants you to feel, but this is the mood that I get when I am smelling it. (You might find it marvellous and uplifting.) In fact, the creatives of Penhaligon’s said it in an interview, ” I wanted the perfume to be heavy and old fashioned, I wanted it to smell glamorous. I love the idea of perfume dominating the space it fills and as a glorious sensory barrier between you and the World, like a deep velvety aura.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like the scent, and I am happy to own this bottle, but it smells delightfully depressing. Whisky, saffron, leather, incense, vanilla, myrrh, all the warm and moody notes paired with some aldehyde who has just lost its stock portfolio. Let me apply some now, I need drama.

Christian Dior’s Dior Homme Parfum (2014)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

Dior Homme is probably one of the most reviewed male fragrances on Youtube for many good reasons. It’s a widely available scent; if you blindfold yourself and walk into a department store and reach for a heavy sharp rectangular bottle, it’s likely to be Dior Homme. It’s affordable to the working class, probably to some students; you will not get dirty looks recommending it to anyone who wants to upgrade from Axe or Adidas. And damn it, Dior Homme does smell wonderful and sophisticated for which you can say “it’s the best perfume ever” with amateur uncertainty or connoisseur certainty and you will still get acknowledgement and likes regardless. (Luca Turin gave it a 5 star too.) Both men and women love it because everything is in harmony and inoffensive – floral from iris, yumminess from cacao, manliness from leather, warmth and spiciness from amber and cardamom, and richness and strength from lavender and million other things.

To me, Dior Homme smells rich, romantic and full of confidence, but sometimes too calculatedly charming. (I just saw some middle fingers from the bros on the net telling me no one gives a damn what I think.) But, of course, the most interesting thing about Dior Homme is the iconic stem inside the bottle. In the first release, the stem is a silver tube. Later, Dior changed it to black plastic. People associate the black plastic stem to reformulation and they all want to get the silver stem version. At one point I also joined the craze looking for a bottle with the silver stem, but gave up after trying a few shops. Honestly, I suspect the difference is insignificant. (It’s not like a perfume that was released 50 years ago and got reformulated.) I’ve once talked to a woman who told me that her ex-boyfriend was very fussy and insisted on finding the silver stem, and it didn’t sound like a compliment to me.

Now that Dior has recently released the parfum version, I think, perfect, you guys can go search for the silver stem to visit the Willy Wonka factory while I enjoy the more intense version with a smaller distribution channel. (I bought mine at the airport duty-free shop and so far that’s the only place I’d seen one in Toronto.)

Postscript: According to the Internet, the parfum version is “very different” from the regular EDT version and a lot of people hate it. I have never owned the EDT except taken a few sniff of it at a department store, but I very much so prefer the parfum version – heavy, concentrated, slowly diffusive and masculine. It’s better suited for guys who wear suit and tie and a cashmere scarf, whom you will unlikely get greeting hugs from.

Amouage’s Gold for Men (1998)

© Victor wong
© Victor Wong

I am no expert on Amouage perfumes, but I am almost certain that if Amouage were a country and needs to recruit an army, all they need to do is say “please”. And it will be the best smelling army in the world for sure.

When I first started exploring their line, I tested the little samples I ordered from Lucky Scents. My expectation was so high, I was prepared to have my socks knocked off. But one after another, I felt so puzzled because there wasn’t one that I felt very drawn to, until I smelled Gold for Men (1998). My reaction was almost like those women in a chocolate TV commercial, in which she puts a piece of rich and creamy chocolate in her mouth, closes her eyes, tilts her head up, her face exuding an orgasmic pleasure.

I will cut to the chase – if I get married, or I am lying in an open casket, I will be wearing Gold for Men. Because it smells so expensive, formal, powdery, floral, romantic, musky, classy and classic, when I am wearing it, I feel like I am a 6 foot 5 czar wearing a vintage mink coat and pair of sunglasses spreading caviar on a cracker. However, under normal circumstances, wearing it is almost overkill, particularly in summer.

Guy Robert, the nose behind this masterpiece, considered ‘Amouage Gold’ a symphony and the crowning glory of his career. (He did both Gold for Women and Men.) I agree. (source: Perfume Shrine)

Etro’s Royal Pavillon (1989)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

I wonder if you have ever fantasized of living in a different country with a very different culture, or simply in a different era, perhaps the Victorian era or the Middle Ages… I have of fantasy of owning a bakery in Italy before the microwave was invented, and the back of the shop is a little patio garden full of potted lemon trees, where I can sit down and watch the sun set and my Ragdoll cat is rolling on its back on some patio stones.

I happen to have a bottle of perfume that can take me to a different place of a different time, although not exactly that bakery in Italy, but a fantasy royal garden, and that perfume is aptly named “Royal Pavillon” (1989) by Etro. (I guess if they named it “Potpourri in a Bowl Covered with Dust on Top of a Toilet Tank” I might hate it, but thank goodness they did not.)

When I smell Royal Pavillon, I cannot pinpoint which accord exactly gives me that royal pavilion association, but overall it does. The floral in this perfume doesn’t smell fresh; it smells dusty dry, a little bit like potpourri. (You may argue the ingredients that they used in this scent are not top-notch.) The scent also has some “heaviness”, probably due to the use of rose, vetiver and oak moss, and not to mention the use of the famous rat and cat – beaver butts and civet butts. With this heaviness or stillness, I can picture some royals wearing multi-layered clothing slowing walking though a well-manicured garden under a grey sky, thinking about nothing but how boring their next meal is going to be. How great. I will definitely wear this perfume more often during the winter times.

L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Bois Farine (2003)

© Victor Wong
© Victor Wong

It takes me a lot of courage to show a friend or a coworker my perfume collection. A Japanese manga collection? “Very cool!” A video game collection? “Hey, I played this game with my younger brother when I was a kid!” A figurine collection? “Oh wow, they are cute! Where did you find them?” A perfume collection? “Are you INSANE?” Unfortunately, this question is at the top of “Most Frequently Asked Questions for Victor Wong.” Instead answering it, I like to immediately distract them by showing them a few of my “interesting” perfumes. Usually the first one I choose is L’artisan Parfumeur’s Bois Farine (2003).

My friends typically say the scent reminds them of something very familiar, and it’s on the tip of their tongue. Almond cookies? Peanut butter? They are good guesses, but when I tell them it is supposed to smell like flour, they will exclaim, “oh yes! that’s very interesting!” I will then put on my snob-cap and tell them that the nose behind this perfume wanted to recreate the scent of some flowers from an unusual tree he had encountered in some remote island that I don’t remember the name, but anyway, it smelled like flour.

This perfume is really perfect for fall, and if you happen to have a very soft and fluffy milk-colour sweater, spray some on, wear it, and it might bring you back to your favourite childhood memories – making cookies with mommy. (Well, I have never made cookies with my mom, but I remember I ate a whole bag of almond cookies while watching cartoon.)