Monday, December 21, 2009


Lately, I've been dipping my toe back into perfumed waters a bit. I realized that I was missing the thrill of discovering new fragrances, and have been nosing about some. The hilarious and incisive Tania Sanchez, in Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, the book she co-wrote with her so-smart-it's-a-bit-scary husband Luca Turin, describes six stages in the evolution of a hard-core fragrance lover. Number 5 is Decadence (which I would interpret as the full fury of a serious perfume addiction) followed by the final stage, Enlightenment. Enlightenment, according to Tania, is "satisfaction in things in themselves."

(Before I go on, let me please urge you to read this book.

The Second Edition has recently been released, updated with many new reviews and now in paperback, which makes it more affordable. If you have any interest at all in smelling good, this book should be one of your bibles -- not just for the reviews but for the mini-education on perfume history and why things smell the way they do. Even if you're not particularly interested in perfume, the book is worth reading to witness how two terribly talented people write clearly, evocatively, and entertainingly about a subject that is notoriously difficult to get your hands around. I'm anxiously awaiting my copy.)

I've been through my Decadent phase. I went down the perfume rabbit hole several years ago and wallowed there for some time in resplendent scented gluttony.

This is my readily-apparent perfume collection, the bit that sits on the top of my dresser. Not actually all that impressive. This is because light, as any perfumista worth her decants knows, is perfume's greatest enemy. And so, the real action of my collection takes place IN the dresser:

This is what lurks in the top drawer, hidden away from the perfume-murdering sunlight. I know that for most people this looks like a LOT of fragrance, but I assure you: my collection pales and quails in comparison to many others I know of. Seriously, I'm strictly small potatoes.

Decadence was wonderful, but at some point I did pass into Stage Six, where I have been content -- even happy -- with the fragrances currently in my collection. Lately, however, I've had the itch again. If you are not a Frag Hag like me, it is hard to describe the small, delicious thrill to be had by looking at a few sample vials of new things to smell. It's even harder to describe the big, falling-in-love thrill of discovering something that rocks your olfactory world. I have smelled a fair few perfumes by this point, and while I often run across things that I think are really great and that I would love to wear, it isn't often that I bump into something that has the potential to de-throne one of my Top Three. (Perfumistas are big with the list-making and ranking.) But last week I dug into a pile of samples and pulled out one I've had for a bit: Parfums MDCI Enlèvement au Sérail by Francis Kurkdjian. (Perfumistas also like to credit the creators of a fragrance if they know him or her. It's not just pomposity -- perfumers often have a recognizable signature style, like great musicians, and knowing who made a perfume can tell you a lot about how it's going to smell.)

I went slightly weak in the knees as I sniffed this stuff. Good googly-moogly, what a beautiful thing. Eye-rollingly, jaw-droppingly, dizzyingly beautiful.

Let me just say here that Style Spy likes a Big Perfume. The things I really go for tend to be enormous stonking door-openers, fragrances that pounce on you and won't take no for an answer. I have loved & appreciated many lighter, more transparent fragrances, and even have several in my regular rotation that are very dear to my heart, but when asked to do a Top 3 or Top 5 list, they're all going to be monsters. It's just my thing, and probably surprises no one who knows me. Enlèvement au Sérail is what I would classify as a floral chypre. It is a Grown-Up Lady, perfume-y perfume. It is a fragrance in the grand manner, and makes no apologies. If you are one of those timid souls who says things like, "Oh, I just want to smell clean," this stuff is not for you. Which is great. More for me.

Chypres are misunderstood creatures, and other people can do a better job of explaining them than I do. (Read Vika's article on Bois de Jasmin here, and helg's on Perfume Shrine here.) The Mother of All Chypres is, of course, Mitsouko by Guerlain. (Actually, the real mother of all chypres is Francois Coty's Chypre, the originator of the species in 1917; but since it's extinct now, Mitsouko is our yardstick.) Mitsouko is one of the Olympians of perfume -- it & Chanel No. 5 function in sort of the same way that the Beatles and the Stones do in rock & roll -- the question of which is greater is sort of a litmus test of personal taste, but they are inarguably the most important things going. Suffice to say that I have yet to see a Ten Best, All-Time Greats list from any perfume critic with any claim to legitimacy without both of them on there, and there's better-than-even odds one of them will be in the top slot. Mitsouko is not just a perfume, it's a rite of passage for a perfumista. Appreciating Mitsouko means you've probably reached a certain level of sophistication in your sniffing. Notice I did not say, "liking Mitsouko." Nor do I mean to imply that it doesn't smell good, because it sure as hell does. But not everyone can wear it. It is notoriously difficult.

And here is where I commit a bit of Perfume Heresy: Enlèvement au Sérail is what I always wanted Mitsouko to be but never was. Mitsouko has always been Just Not Quite for me - something too stern in it kept me from loving it thoroughly, though I admired it. But every time I wore Mitsouko it was a hundred repetitions of me catching a whiff of myself and then being ever-so-slightly disappointed. As we all know, there's only so many times one can go through that before she finally gives it up. To quote my darling mother (although in a radically different context), "You do what you do until you can't do it anymore, and then you stop." That pile of tiny disappointments finally stacked up to the point where the scales tipped, and I stopped wearing Mitsouko. I have never stopped admiring it, and I believe - I know - it to be one of the greatest fragrances ever composed (without going into how much of its soul is left after a century of reformulations). It's just not for me. In Perfume World, Mitsouko is often referred to as "she," as though this fragrance were a living thing, and a lot of jokes are made among perfumistas about her persnickety nature and how she either loves you or hates you. But Mitsi never seemed to feel very strongly about me one way or the other. What it felt more like was that each time she met me, she was sort of mildly interested in me, enough to spend a short time getting to know me, but invariably I would say or do something that disappointed or annoyed her and she would drift off to talk to someone else at the party who was more worth her time, someone cleverer or more sophisticated or exciting. I was left standing there all alone, holding my drink, blaming myself more than her.

Enlèvement au Sérail, on the other hand, really, really likes me. Loooooves me. We spent the day in a fascinating conversation that ended in a warm embrace the like of which I have not received from a perfume in a long time. Most perfumes are built to have three more or less distinct phases: top notes (which are the bits you smell immediately after you spritz), heart notes (which are the bits that reveal themselves after the fragrance sits on your skin for a time), and base notes (which is usually the longest phase and the one with the most depth). This is true of the vast majority of fragrances, even skanky cheap ones, but there are exceptions -- see: Bulgari Black. If you're lucky, you will like all three segments of a fragrance and if you are really lucky, you will like them more & more as they progress. The beginning of Enlèvement au Sérail, with its juicy bergamot (one of my favorite notes) is arresting, the jasmine-rose heart of it is swooning, but it was the gorgeous, deep, plush, delirious, better-with-every-passing-moment woody-chypre bottom of the thing that really sealed the deal for me. Love. Utter, utter love. (For a better idea of how the stuff actually smells, read carmencanada's review on Grain de Musc here. Or, of course, Luca's review in The Guide.)

And as it stands now, unrequited love. Because if you click on the photo of the gorgeous bottle above, you will find out that this is going to be a very expensive love affair, one that I cannot continue in any real way for a bit if I want to do things like... ohhhhh, feed myself. (Right this moment I'm really, really bitter about the money I had to spend on new tires this weekend. Yeah, sure tires are important, blah blah automotive deathtrap fishcakes blah, but dear god, you should smell this stuff!!!!) So right now I am mining all my resources to come up with a decant of it to swap for or purchase, and officially Saving Up for a bottle. It has seriously bumped several other hoped-for purchases way down the ladder -- I'm going to be mooning like a Twilight-besotted teenager until I get some more of it.

Photos: Style Spy,

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