A sense of place: The Richmond fragrances of Modern Atelier
I am always amazed by how much talent is out there in the world of niche and natural perfumery. The big cosmetic and fragrance houses pelt us with hundreds of new releases each year, each more homogenized and forgettable than the last. With all those resources at their disposal, they come up with an awful lot of vapid scents designed by a committee. Then I try something by a perfumer very few people have ever heard of, working on a shoestring budget, and I find myself wanting more. Such is the case with the selection of samples I recently received from Richmond, Virginia perfumer Amy George, creator of the Modern Atelier line.
This young company has a dazzling array of perfumes in every style, from simple florals to spicy to gourmand, but the focus of my attention was a group within the line, of Richmond-inspired scents meant to evoke local landmarks and history. The list was very inviting, and I had a hard time choosing which of them to try, so these are by no means a complete picture of the Richmond scents, let alone the rest of the offerings.
I just had to have one in particular, called Shockoe Bottom and named after a favorite local watering hole, because it was meant to smell like my favorite liqueur of all time, Chambord. Accompanied by violet sugar, vanilla and musk, it does indeed. In fact, it even smells very much like my favorite cocktail made with Chambord. Ever had a Purple Haze? It’s not for the timid – you ask the bartender to make a Long Island Iced Tea, but then replace the Coke, the only non-alcoholic liquid in the recipe, with Chambord. I can only handle one of these but it’s worth every drop when I do have it. The sillage of this fragrance is boozier than it is close up on the skin, in a sparkling, slightly fizzy cocktail kind of way, so if you like the idea of Apothia Velvet Rope but don’t care for the ashtray accord, this is your scent. As an added bonus, when I press my nose close to my skin, it smells like a non-alcoholic childhood favorite of mine, all the more desirable because I can’t get it any more: Howard Johnson’s black raspberry hard ice cream. I almost always ordered that when we went to “HoJo’s” and I still miss it, as I may be the world’s biggest fan of black raspberries. Shockoe Bottom goes on my “gotta have it” list.
Flowers In The Fan is a really lovely green floral and a tribute to local Richmond gardens. Magnolia and narcissus are set off by a touch of honeydew melon, but it’s not a strong melon at all – just a little enhancement to sweeten the florals. It is quite beautiful and it lasted longer than I would have expected from a fragrance of this style. This is one you could wear anywhere, and perfect for a first date or a summer picnic.
URGE Magazine is named after a Richmond lifestyle magazine featuring the arts, club scene, fashion, entertainment, etc. whose trademark slogan is “Try Something Different.” And different it is – coffee, sandalwood, vanilla, chocolate, and bitter orange. At first blush I was afraid it was going to be all dusty cocoa like the only Montale I don’t like, Chocolate Greedy, but that only lasted a moment and the chocolate got all creamy and the coffee kicked in, and after that I was very happy. It was another memory for me, too – I used to get a killer orange mocha at a downtown espresso place that put a real orange slice in the drink along with the orange syrup. They went out of business and I practically got the shakes craving one of those damn things. At least I can smell it again now if I can’t have one!
Also sweet but in a very different way is The Vine That Ate The South, a tribute to the rampant kudzu vine that now covers vast swathes of the southeastern U.S. after being misguidedly imported from Japan. It had no natural enemies here so its progress was swift. However, it is pretty, with nice big leaves and fragrant purple flowers. The perfume has a grape-like aroma, similar to the scent of a blue or purple Iris, and also reminds me of another Asian plant that grows where I live, the Chinese Empress Tree, whose flowers look like upright Wisteria and are very sweetly scented. This one is simple and fun and would be a great first fragrance for a teenager.
Speaking of vines, Ginter Park Wisteria is a soft floral tinged with violet that I found mesmerizing, but its only flaw was its fleeting character; after about an hour it was gone. It is so pretty that it’s worth reapplying often though, and it is a style that I really love, akin to DSH Perfumes Cielle or L’Artisan ‘s La Haie Fleurie du Hameau, a pillowy cloud of a perfume with no edges anywhere. I would love to try this in a stronger concentration so I could enjoy it longer.
One of my favorites of the group seems meant to be more of a masculine fragrance, but the guys can’t have Manchester all to themselves. Meant to evoke the feeling of a tobacco-drying barn, it is quite redolent of clove bud at first, but that diminishes after a while and it turns into warm, dry oak wood and aromatic tobacco. If anyone knows barns, it’s a New England native like me, and this feels like standing inside one on a lazy afternoon as the sun filters through the high windows. I love the smell of tobacco leaf, pre-combustion anyway, and this really captures it. Longevity is excellent.
For a sophisticated and womanly fragrance look no further than Hippodrome, which with its notes of bergamot and tuberose was a good match for my skin chemistry. Leather is listed as a base note; I don’t get much, but it’s in there. It is one of the more complex scents in this line and would be perfectly fine for either office wear or evening. The florals start out as very bright, which I liked, and then they simmer down a bit, almost too much for my taste, since I never smelled a high-pitched white floral I didn’t like.
Included with my requested samples were two new fragrances that are still unreleased as of this writing. I have no detailed information about these, although the names do hint at their inspiration. I am going to go out on a limb and say that Give Me Liberty is a tribute to the famous Virginia patriot Patrick Henry. It’s a mellow, smooth and fairly subdued “skin musk” type of scent to my nose and could be worn by either men or women. As musks go it behaved itself surprisingly well on me, as I tend to amplify them much as I do white florals, and some can really get overpowering on me, but this was very nice and civilized. Forest Hill is something else altogether. Named after a Richmond neighborhood, I have to think there must be a lot of green space there, because this is pretty darn green. It opens with a citrusy feel mixed with mint, and at first it smelled just like pink lemonade with fresh mint leaves to me. I wish that had lasted longer, as the lemonade soon went away and it became a chewy, grassy green with a hint of dusty dirt and, an echo of the mint and maybe a little anise or fennel – not bad, but a bit odd. It reminded me of having to endure softball games in grade school; they made me play outfield, since I could not pitch, catch or throw. I stood out on the well-worn grass and smelled the dry dust kicked up by the runners rounding the bases, but I was never one of them. I have a feeling that this one would wear a lot better on a hot summer day, and I was testing it in chilly April in the Northwest.
Now I really want to try more of these, and the good news is that they are very affordable and that you can order them from the Modern Atelier web site. All scents are $15.00 for a one-ounce spray bottle, or four for $50.00. Check the sale bin for $10.00 fragrances, some of which are discontinued, and purse-size sprays of all scents are only $5.00. At these prices you can play around a lot, and in addition to the Richmond series there are dozens of others, including a number made to smell like famous fragrances such as Jo Malone, Kai, Creed, or even Bond No. 9. (Fear not, from what I have tried in this line they won’t be anything like the dreaded drugstore dupes!) One more memory for the road: I always wanted the really big box of Crayola crayons but I never got it – never mind the 32-color box or even the 64, I wanted the 128. Modern Atelier is the perfume equivalent of just that.
Image credit: Badly doctored Virginia state slogan sign by yours truly; original from thisnext.com