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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Perfume Cool and The Rules, with an aside on The Pleasures of Science

By Alyssa

When I understood that my love for perfume was here to stay awhile, I made a few rules for myself:

1) No Hoarding (and its corollary, No Saving for a Special Occasion).

2) Love Without Apology

3) Pleasure First

I needed these rules because I am bad at following them. I wanted to see if I could do better when it came to perfume.

Rule One has been, by and large, a smashing success. After a lifetime that began with stale Halloween candy and has continued with dried-out specialty soaps, expensive olives languishing in the back of the fridge, and beautiful scarves worn once every other year, I am learning to come to terms with ephemerality and the impossibility of having one’s precious thing and eating/using/wearing it, too.

Rule Two is a different story. I’ve already written here about learning to love perfume itself without apologies. The matter of taste has come along more slowly. I yearn to be one of those fantastic, iconoclastic women who make the things they love chic by fiat. I suppose I could create her, here on the page, and you’d be none the wiser. Alas, I know I’d never be able to keep up the illusion. While I’m too weird at bottom to be a truly good girl, I will forever belong to that class of worriers who test well and know how to please their teachers. I spent my adolescence eating lunch in the art room and dissecting the girl-driven power structures of my junior high with the obsessive precision of an archeologist unearthing an ancient civilization. Though I tried to leave it behind, later-life experiences (helloooo grad school!) did nothing to dissipate my paranoia. I can still sniff out a hierarchy from twenty paces, even when I’d rather remain oblivious.

So it was that after a scant few months of obsessive perfume reading and research this tenderfoot perfumista was certain that despite all the gentle, democratic talk of individual preference and skin chemistry and loving a cheap thrill she knew The Lay of the Land. At the top were the Great Houses (Guerlain and Caron, with Caron slightly more noble). Then came The Moderns (Chanel and Dior). Venturing out into the niche world we could find the New or Emerging Moderns (Goutal, L’Artisan, add your own here…) and The Indies (CB I Hate Perfume, Ava Luxe, Andy Tauer and other single-nose/person driven lines). Any of these can be trumped at any moment by a Discontinued and Almost Totally Unavailable Scent From The Great Days. More generally, smoke, leather, and skank beat the pants off of sweet, fruity and (god forbid!) aquatic. In perfume, as in wine, a taste for the strange and complex showed off one’s sophistication, while a desire for the merely pleasant relegated one to the kiddie table, getting drunk on Zima.

Like all category maps, this one had some truth and was also pretty ridiculous (Um, where is the rest of classical perfumery? The other fashion houses? How exactly are these ranked? And how massively pleasant is Theorema? Oh wait, that’s discontinued…). Gradually I came to see there were so many exceptions to the rules, and so many subdivisions within the lines themselves, that there was nothing to do but plunge in and trust my nose to learn for itself.

And yet. From the beginning there was one line undeniably at the pinnacle of Perfume Cool and, in spite of recent dismayed murmurs, there it remains. For the scent of beauty headed down the road to decadence, the jolie-laide, the astoundingly weird thing that just might, if you’re the right one, be the astoundingly beautiful thing on you, Serge Lutens wins hands down. (Sit down Etats Libre, you are not even in the competition). And there is still a part of me, no matter how I deny it, that wants to be Cool.

Which is how I got into my current predicament, staring at a small gray tube of killer-bees-on-crack (© Tom) Miel de Bois that has been taunting me since, oh let’s see, last August.

It all began innocently enough—sweetly, even. Back in the middle of August, the inimitable March, over on Perfume Posse called for us to reveal the perfumes that satisfied our sweet teeth. (I write that sentence and have to pause: what were we doing discussing sweet perfumes in the middle of August?) I took the opportunity to confess my love for Ginestet’s Botrytis. The Divine Miz M replied by asking (“Hey, honeylover…”) whether I liked Serge Lutens’ Miel de Bois and Santa Maria Novella’s Acqua di Cuba. Hearing a challenge (imagined, I’m sure) and eager to prove my cool, I promptly sent off for samples.

On another of March’s honey posts I duly reported in about the AdC (I got honey, barbershop, and boyjuice) but begged off on the MdB pleading hot weather and deadlines. There is something about MdB that frightens me. I try all kinds of scents. I even go back to bang my head against Chanel No. 5 on a regular basis. But I just don’t have what it takes, somehow, for this one. Maybe it’s the hype. Maybe it’s knowing I’m in for a six hour ride. Or maybe I’m just not quite cool enough.

Sometime in September I did finally try it and it was, well, OK. Not horrifying, not gorgeous. A little tough to take but…OK. Heresy, I know.

I should try it again. And I should give it more than the single barely-there wimped-out half-spritz I managed. But as I stare down at the vial I have to ask where this “should” comes from. Why do I hear my mother’s voice telling me to taste that weird thing on my plate three times before I decide what I think? What happened to Pleasure First?

Which brings us finally, to the Pleasures of Science. I think that for most of our best beloved reviewers, experimentation—comparing, trying things out, trying them in a different way, returning to them—is a pleasure in and of itself. For these lovely mad scientists, the true pleasure-killer is not the horrifying, but the boring (and here I’d like to give a shout out to Robin on NST and her efforts to keep up with new releases--don’t think we’re not grateful for it, R.). March’s style is a prime example. I’ve seen her write, “I have to dig ____ out and scare myself with it again” more than once.

I am a science groupie. I love to read about science and hang out with scientists, but I’m only sporadically possessed with the Spirit of Science myself. Here is the part where I should be giving away my killer bee crack, but I can’t quite bring myself to give up the fight quite yet. If you’d like a sample of my beloved Botrytis however, give a holler in the comments and I’ll pick a couple of names out of the hive. If I can’t be cool, I can at least spread a little honey love around.

Image: Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, courtesy of the UK Daily Mail.

47 Comments:

Anonymous vance108 said...

Ooh! Ooh! Over here! I'd LOVE a sample of Botrytis!

10:13 PM EST  
Anonymous Billy D said...

AMEN SISTER! What a fantastic and articulate enunciation of the hierarchy in the fragrance world. Whereas you recognize the syllogistic association of "weird" to "good," I see the confusion of "old lady" and "connesieur." It is as if those who can pick out the individual flowers and aldehydes in an old Guerlain are somehow better than the rest of us who are turned off at first whiff by the blast of powder and memories of grandma.

Ok, I love Guerlain and I love the fact that some are sophisticated enough to dissect fragrances infinitely--I really do. The analytic brain is admirable and covetable. What I don't like is the fact that as one gets deeper and deeper into vintage, one often loses the ability to step outside the historical or analytical back into the realm of the base-level aesthete.

This is comparable to what happened to me and what I saw happen to many coworkers when I was employed by Banana Republic (a right of passage for every gay man nowadays, don't you know). I called it "Banana blindness." What was once just a way to earn money became "I have to buy every new shirt that comes out!" You lose sight of the fact that it is a poorly made, overpriced, derivative POS and buy it simply because you are lost in the matrix of belonging to a community or having an identity. I'm sorry, but aldehydes, as fantastic as they may be, are not immediate or intrinsic indicators of "coolness!"

Wow, that was long. Can you tell I've been reading theory all night? Meh, sorry I sound so grouchy. I'm really not--I actually like to read about people who enjoy, say, heavy chypres; I just hate it when they think it gives them some kind of cache.

And yet, I'm as opposed to mainstream scents as the next fragaholic. The contradictions!

12:05 AM EST  
Anonymous Billy D said...

and yes, I misspelled connoisseur...wanna fight about it?

12:07 AM EST  
Anonymous QuinnCreative said...

Every day this week, it's the same: I post, I click, it disappears. Somewhere out there praise of your views is flying through the ethernet.
Here's another one to join the empty floaters--I'd love a sample of Botrytis.

You are absolutely right in your post--you don't have to be cool to love perfume, you just have to be true to yourself.

12:58 AM EST  
Anonymous 2scents said...

I laughed and cried. Oh the sadly familiar flavor of stale Halloween candy, languishing olives, and dried up soap (May I add rancid body lotions...)I, too, have successfully challenged my silly hoarding with my love of perfume, pushing myself even to spritz generously and (gasp!) finish samples and decants (there's more out there!)Thanks for your lovely writing about our demons.

1:06 AM EST  
Anonymous Marla said...

Wonderful essay, great writing! You nailed perfumista cool right on the head. And I was laughing, as I, too, had a small (vile) vial of MdB- gave it away, no Science in the world could make me keep experimenting with that nuclear meltdown. But I love Chypre Rouge and Chergui, so am I still cool?

2:06 AM EST  
Anonymous lady jane grey said...

Wow, Alyssa, what an article ! Bravo ! I can see myself in there. I just can't manage to follow the first half of rule #.1 (I have an extensive collection of perfumes already...).
And I love Blanchett as Dylan... I'm not there...

7:56 AM EST  
Anonymous donanicola said...

Thank you, Alyssa, for a most perceptive piece on Perfume Cool and Its Rules. I suspect the situation translates to many other areas of life and art. I began being serious about perfume about 18 months ago and knew from the start that if I was to call myself a perfume fan I must have a favourite Serge. So imagine my inner distress when it took me a LONG time to find one I liked let alone loved let alone purchase. I was uncool until very recently (like/love ISM, RdN and bought Chene). Now I wonder why I tormented myself! I'd love to be in the draw for the grape rot, please - sounds fascinating!

9:12 AM EST  
Anonymous Silvia said...

Fabulous post.
Perfume confidence was not an instant achievement for me either. I guess some people are all instinct and others need to build more knowledge in order to trust their own choices; I definitely belong to the second - nerdy - group. It's not so much the desire to be cool, but the fear of being uncool. Fortunately the beauty of perfume blows it all away.

9:25 AM EST  
Anonymous Livia said...

Oh, how I LOVE your post! I'll think of you next time I bang my head against No. 5. And let me confess that I would not have survived the winter without L de Lolita Lempicka, me, the Pink Sugar and Angel hater. Am I not cool? ;-)

9:38 AM EST  
Blogger elle said...

Wonderful post! Have to say I'm a confirmed science geek when it comes to perfumes. :-)

9:42 AM EST  
Anonymous leopoldo said...

There was some guy chuntering on the radio earlier as I was driving to and from appointments. Hording, buying, having what others deisre - all hardwired hunter-gatherer behaviour he claimed. We rush to get it, and that's the thrill. Then it languishes at the back of the cupboard cos it's no longer a need priority. Our status is secure in our purchasing power. So there you go - an evolutionary explanation for the acquisitiveness of consumer capitalism...

I'm a firm believer in simpler statements. If you love something, never let the dust settle for too long on it.

9:44 AM EST  
Anonymous Therese said...

Terrific article! A similar hierarchy exists in art, literature, film. music.
Billy D: I too admire those who can identify notes. It is even informative for me to read such descriptions. But I live for that "swept away" whoosh that I get from sniffing something that is wonderful.I can't even always guess what will make me olfactorily delirious. Divine's Infante, for example: I never would have chosen it, but I received a sample along with an order, and Infante chose me. I love that feeling of abandon, abandon to scent associations.

9:53 AM EST  
Blogger greeneyes said...

A, I too belong to that class of worriers! I'm in good company, clearly. And seriously--you come across as quite Cool, whereas I wear my nerdiness on my sleeve for all to see. ;-)

About the MdB--that's one of my favorites, and...I've been known to wear it in August. In Atlanta. I know you are also in hot and humid territory, but seriously, try it. I actually like it better in the heat, in some ways.

10:02 AM EST  
Anonymous Suzanne said...

Alyssa, there are not enough superlatives to convey how articulate and moving your essays are (I often refer back to the earlier one you wrote, "Perfume? Really?" when I am feeling the need to justify why collecting perfumes is as valid as any other hobby or passion). I love your honesty and wit--and I sooo identify with someone who can "sniff out a hierarchy from twenty paces."

Thank you for your insights into Perfume Cool -- and for offering to spread the honey around. I'd love to be included in the drawing.

10:18 AM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Dear everyone -- I'll be back later this afternoon to answer your wonderful comments individually. Couldn't resist peeking in on my way out the door, and am now grinning ear to ear to find I have so many fellows...Elle, I'll join you in the lab eventually. Maybe...

10:56 AM EST  
Blogger heather said...

Awesome, awesome, awesome, Alyssa. As you know, I'm deeply in touch with my sweet side and I love to see those toothaches of honey and vanilla and amber confectionary fleshed out in the explorations and musings of others. My inner science geek, cool wanna-be, and lover of abandon pumps both fists in the air to celebrate your warm, funny, and insightful article. I keep thinking that your rules are a perfect interpretation of those famous Keats lines...

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

11:09 AM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

And I should add -- I just realized that the phrase "massively pleasant" should be credited to Robin, bits of whose prose I've obviously swallowed whole...

11:09 AM EST  
Blogger Ducks said...

Delightful post. Your hierarchy of notes makes me want to create a collectible card game! :)

No, don't enter me in your drawing; I am already a Botrytis lover and I want others to have the opportunity, too.

11:55 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alyssa, great article. I think many of us are guilty of that. I know it took me a long time to get over that hoarding instinct, or whatever it is. I think Leopoldo's radio guy might have been onto something. The fact that they *will* (at least in most cases) make more of whatever it is should be enabling enough, but of course it's not.

I, too would love a sample of Botrytis.

-Existentialist

12:25 PM EST  
Blogger kamala said...

alyssa, that was hilarious! and don't worry about the geekness - i'm so geeky i write notes on every single sample i try, and force myself to try everything at least 3 times before i give up (which, actually, is very helpful - yes, mitsouko and mkk, i'm talking to you!)

and i absolutely find pleasure in analyzing them, though you're always looking for something to knock your socks off. you're so right about that! for me, so far, it's the daltroff carons - my notes on them read like bad poetry by a hormonal teenager. i. love. them. so. much.

my perfume "failure in cool"? messe de minuit. the descriptions were so perfect! it's goth and depressing ... i'm goth and depressing! but to me it smells like mildew and herbs. but, damn it, i've only tried it once, so i've got 2 more shots at it! :-)

and i'd love to try the sample.

12:34 PM EST  
Blogger Theresa said...

Oh this was such a good post! I kept nodding my head in agreement. As much I try to go with allowing myself to love whatever I happen to love, I still feel like a bit of a failure for not loving Mitsouko. And feeling validated when I love a "classic." Definitely something to remedy.
Please enter me in the drawing.
-Theresa

12:47 PM EST  
Anonymous Asta said...

Great article. It felt like you were describing me at the beginning; I have to force myself to stop hoarding and enjoy what I have now!

I'd love to try Botrytis as well.

2:04 PM EST  
Anonymous Denise said...

I really enjoyed reading this post, Alyssa. And I second that shout-out to all the bloggers who scare themselves with samples so that we don't have to.

I haven't found a Serge Lutens FBW yet- how uncool am I? =P

2:48 PM EST  
Anonymous Ben said...

What a great post!

I'm fairly new to this world. Having worn Guerlain Vetiver more or less exclusively for years, I decided to venture out into different directions a few months ago and got hooked. This is one of the wonderful perfume blogs on which I've been lurking and learning. Thanks!

I just got a sample of Miel du Bois last weak. I had just bought a bottle of Fumerie Turque (needing some Lutens to prove my chops, I suppose ;-) ), and asked to try MdB. This request clearly earned cred with the sales associate at the store (it was "controversial" I was told).

Fearing the dreaded cat pee, I waited until I knew I wouldn't be going out for a while to spray some on. To my surprise, I really liked it. I'm in the "this perfectly captures the smell of honey" camp. I had never really thought of wearing a honey scent before. But I may be changing my mind...

But that, in turn, made me think that I'd better try some other honey perfume to get a better sense of what I think of MdB.

The obvious solution? A sample of the Botrytis, please!

3:59 PM EST  
Blogger tmp00 said...

Ooooh, I wish I could turn a phrase as eloquently as you..

I have to agree with you one the hoarding. If only because if I didn't actively stop myself from doing so my address would be "Refrigerator Box in the alley behind" my former address. But hey, I'd smell nice, right?

4:09 PM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Vance108 -- you are in the hive!

Billy d -- no fights, please! Thank you for your passionate comment. Part of why I love perfume is that is combines the very abstract with the inescapably concrete--I get to geek out and be a sensualist at the same time. So glad my nights of theory reading are over for now, though they had their charms...


quinn -- you are in!

4:24 PM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

2scents -- I'm right there with you.

Marla -- you are *so* cool. And I love Chergui, too, but it's not an easy love... Chypre Rouge fascinates me.


Lady Jane -- To me, Hoarding does not equal, um, Collecting. To me it's only hoarding if I don't wear it or share it. So collect away, just enjoy them! And isn't Blanchett just the coolest?

4:33 PM EST  
Anonymous maitreyi1978@yahoo.com said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you using things now instead of saving them up. You might not get to use them at all. I'd love to try Botrytis. Thanks.

4:35 PM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Donanicola -- you are way ahead of me on the Serge front! I just keep compulsively collecting samples, hoping I'll find The One. The One aside from Chergui, that is... And you are in the drawing.

Silvia -- oh my, yes, the beauty is undeniable, isn't it?

Livia -- thank you, and your comment about L just reminds me how many cool perfumes are quite sweet, including lots of the Lutens.

4:45 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had to laugh at your post because I was finding myself in there, too. I can so relate to the 'dried out things somewhere because you're too afraid to use them up' kind of thing. I've been working on overcoming that as well. Have actually managed to use up three or four decants entirely in the past three months. No regrets. I'm proud of myself.
I, too, try some things over and over and over again. And I'll continue to do so, for most often there's a new discovery at the end of that road. It is liberating to know that one doesn't have to love something just because others love it. Sometimes you admire something, but don't love it (here's to you, Mitsouko). I like your rule #2, love without apology. That makes you cool in my book because it takes guts to do that.
Would love to try MdB, I love Honey (Honey Gentle Water being my only Honey experience so far, and that doesn't really count because it's not perfume). Would love to be in the draw.
Sabina

4:52 PM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Elle -- hooray for science! You know, I'm actually quite scientish in some ways -- I'm in the process of learning how to blend raw materials so I can learn more about individual notes and I looooove it. I'm just not very good at the pain for gain thing, in perfume or anywhere else.

Lee-- amen.

Therese -- let's demolish those other hierarchies too!

P -- but clearly you have gone all the way through nerd and come out as geek-cool on the other side. MdB in August! Why don't you come visit me and I'll sniff it on you, instead?

4:54 PM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Suzanne -- thank you so much for the compliments! I just checked out your blog and enjoyed it very much. And you are in the draw.

Heather -- *blush*

Ducks -- I so want that card game.

Ex -- thank you! And you are in.

5:01 PM EST  
OpenID girlandthecity said...

Serge Lutens is such a genius!!! Thanks for such a great post!!!

xoxo Girl and the City (in Paris)

http://girlandthecity.wordpress.com

5:03 PM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Kamala -- "bad poetry by a hormonal teenager" LOL! I know it so well! And you're in.

Theresa -- you're in. And don't feel bad about Mitsy -- you know she's not spending any time worrying about us.

Asta -- you're in!

Denise -- I am so grateful to them! And I have no full bottles of Serge either.

5:06 PM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Ben -- what a great story! I love that 'cred' with the SA's, hee, hee. And you're in the draw.


Tom -- but you notice that I was stealing your phrases!


Maitre -- you're in!

Sabina -- Honey Gentle water totally counts and I admire you and your empty decants. You're in the draw!

Girl and the City --welcome!

5:10 PM EST  
Blogger NowSmellThis said...

About keeping up with new releases: yes, there's lots of boring stuff, but these days, there is as much "boring" to be found among the high end niche as there is among the lowly generic department store stuff. I used to consider myself a "niche snob", but I'm not sure it makes sense to be one anymore.

7:35 PM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

R -- No doubt you are right, but I'll pretend you're speaking from stage five perfumista cynicism because I can't give up hope this early on in my sniffage. I like the idea of not knowing where the next interesting thing will come from, but I really want the niche houses -- particularly the indpendent perfumers -- to be the ones to shake up the big boys. Hopelessly naive, perhaps...

Thanks for reading!

7:53 PM EST  
Anonymous March said...

Look at your lovely post! And what a pleasure it was to stop over here at the end of a long, sorta sucky day and read not only your thoughts, but all the interesting responses.

I think I have shared my issues with hoarding so won't bore you with that further (I come from a family of hoarders, and hoarding freaks me out.) I am glad you enjoy my fragrance revisits -- I don't know whether it's pigheadedness or something else, but there's nothing like actively loathing something to draw me back. And I dunno about the hierarchy; okay, it's there, but we're still going to do some JLo reviews, and I commented on PP today how much I like Light Blue. I'm going to leave the snob gig to someone who can pull it off more convincingly.

Finally, I have no idea why we were sniffing sweet things in August? WTH was I thinking?!? ;-P

8:44 PM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Hooray! So glad you stopped in, March. I hope you see that I both acknowledged and made fun of the hierarchy. You're right, it's there, but it's sort of riddled with so many holes (like the rest of perfume taxonomy) that it's only worth paying attention to for the fun of it, like horoscopes or something...

10:19 PM EST  
Anonymous Julie said...

Oh I totally need to treat my senses to Botrytis! I think I have been missing out on something important! I'd love a sample! Even a teeny one!

1:31 AM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Hi Julie -- you're in the draw!

8:13 AM EST  
Blogger chayaruchama said...

The beautiful Bob- yes !
I loved him MORE than cheese...

Botrytis- absolutely.
Acqua di Cuba- I'm there, baby.
MdB- after 4 hours under a boulder, it sings to me....
But I have trouble waiting four hours for anything !

Loved the post, A.
One ought never to 'save', or hoard.

10:45 AM EST  
Anonymous Flora said...

I hope I am not too late to be entered in the Botrytis draw - Blogger ate my comment?! I am all about the honey! (I adore MdB, yes I admit I do!)

And RIGHT ON about the "rules" - I am trying that too! :-)

6:17 PM EST  
Anonymous sweetlife said...

Flora -- you're in!

7:31 PM EST  
Anonymous Ben said...

A postscript...

Tried the MdB for a second time today, this time with my wife around. Her negative reaction was strong and swift. Guess this will really have to be a private scent!

(I'm going to be away from my computer until February 17, so just in case I should happen to emerge from the hive with a Botrytis sample, I won't be able to get back to you until then.)

9:00 AM EST  
Blogger TMH256 said...

I ditto "Amen Sister!" Extremely well said and I think we may have gone to the same school. ;-) Thank you for the entertaining and very true post!

9:59 AM EST  

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