Sunday, December 13, 2009

Empire of the Senses: the Sisterhood of Scent

11 – 12 December 2009

Packaging is always the big draw for me. (I mean who on the PLANET could resist the original Chanel No. 5 bottle?) Anyway, so I’m already heading for the shoe department (what did you expect? Went momentarily INSANE about a pair of black knee-high suede boots someone was wearing – only they were her own – 4 year-old Yves Saint Laurent.), and I stop before an interesting array of bottles – with interesting names attached to them – all French, all very evocative. The woman standing behind the table is no less interesting – and she’s wearing a spectacular jewel that I can’t resist commenting on. And she’s no mere saleslady. This is DelRae and these are her fragrances – and boy do they have a story to tell. I am, of course, pretty resistant (and exhausted) again by now. But poetry – literary or olfactory – can be a pretty effective draw; and there is poetry here. Début would seem to be pretty straightforward; and perhaps it is; but DelRae immediately sizes me up and gives me a whiff of fragrances that are nothing if not complex – e.g., Bois de Paradis, Eau Illuminée. The names alone take us back to the Château – no escort needed (the rare exception allowed, I really don’t think most guys would understand) – and I don’t just mean any château. I mean Versailles – its bosquets, follies and fountains, the Apollo Basin and the magnificent wooded allées that flank the tapis vert, the Trianons with their own lovely gardens and bowers. Do you remember what I said about that certain ‘veil’ – I’m not even sure if I can call it a scent or aroma; maybe a kind of olfactory aura – that seems to descend over you when you walk into the Crillon in Paris? That aura of restrained luxury, power and elegance. That’s the finish on these scents – a sort of light, slightly powdery envoi off what are essentially complex floral/non-florals, floral-aldehydes. As you might guess, there’s quite a bit here for a Chanel girl – and certainly what dominates here is a kind of very dense, rich, but subtle olfactory harmonic. But it goes a bit beyond density – there’s an expansiveness here – not so much a second floral/non-floral note or after-scent, as a kind of aura that radiates from it. As I said, this world has changed, and DelRae is a part of this new landscape – and that’s it right there. If with some of the Lutens fragrances, you had the sense that the perfumer was trying to develop a narrative on your neck, here it’s as if DelRae and her collaborator, Yann Vasnier, were trying to paint a landscape; and to some extent they succeed.

Amoureuse – also a floral/non-floral – with moss and woody notes – didn’t really do it for me – but that might have something to do with my headset (could I possibly feel less romantic than I do right now? ‘amoureuse’ is forever off my horizon-line) plus maybe a bit of olfactory overload for one afternoon. But after my first samplings and the usual sketchy disclosures regarding my preferences and occasional digressions, DelRae has yet one more for me to sample – a scent she insists is all but custom-tailored to my scent-silhouette.

Well. I have to love the name – Mythique. Though what, I wonder, is my myth? I’d like to think of myself as Pallas Athena; but I think I’d fall well below the goddess line – maybe even something slightly pathetic – down there with Chloe or Eurydice. But perhaps there’s a middle ground (I want to say parterre) as in Diana, the Hunter. That might work – but we were talking about scent, weren’t we? As I said, these are fragrances as deep and expansive as landscape – and this one is very specific (speaking of châteaux): Chenonceaux. The gardens of Chenonceaux have a narrative of their own – having to do with the rivalry of Catherine de Medici – of the famous Florentine family, who brought art, servants (including cooks who would forever and decisively influence French cuisine), and serious political chops to the Valois monarchy – and Diane de Poitiers, muse from the get-go and inspiration to cougars everywhere – she was 38 when she took up with the already-married (to Catherine) 19 year-old Henri II – who transformed the gardens at Chenonceaux and the Château, building among other things the bridge and galleries across the river Cher (still called the Pont de Diane), perhaps the most distinctive element of the château. I’m going on about the Château, no? Well – let’s just say that I immediately got DelRae’s inspiration for this fragrance, which is pretty damned complex – peonies, bergamot, ivy, jasmine, sandalwood, patchouli, and iris, among other things – which already sounds more like a garden than a perfume. Diane laid out the garden as a series of diamonds and triangles in which she planted parterres of fruit trees, vegetables and masses of flowers – roses, lilllies, violets (one thing that’s not in the fragrance) and more. After Henri’s rather spectacular (according to legend -- you don't want to know) death, though, Diane was – big surprise – expelled and Catherine began her own program of building and planting on the estate (is that where the Italian elements in the fragrance come in? E.g.., what’s identified as Italian bergamot and Florentine Orris butter ‘Iris pallida’?) – so that what you get at Chenonceaux is this schizzy but nevertheless elegant combination of essentially two (really more) competing gardens – along with that Cher-(I want to say Cheri) spanning pont de Diane. Are you reeling yet?

The scent doesn’t necessarily make you reel (maybe that’s a good thing), though unlike the others, it does seem (again like so many contemporary fragrances) to have a pronounced secondary note or harmony – which is where the iris is most pronounced – perhaps inevitable given the scent's complexity. In her publicity, DelRae says that she was inspired simply by the painting in the Louvre, Diane Chasseresse, Diane de Poitiers as Diana the Huntress (and I think I know which one she’s talking about – possibly by Caron; definitely School of Fontainebleau – though there are more famous representations here; e.g., the Houdon sculpture – let’s just say I could take a hike or two with that chien); and that’s enough for me right there. No point in trying to save those foolish boys and their lances, right? You just have to take your dogs and hunting gear and go right back into the woods. Or something like that.

DelRae knew I would like the iris because I mentioned I sometimes used an iris-scented dusting powder from Santa Maria Novella on my shoulders during summer. (It’s fabulous. They also carry an oil or essence (or maybe it’s just an eau de toilette) that’s also pretty fabulous, but very intense.) She was right; and I have to say (for this reason alone?) I liked her immediately.

Is there a sisterhood of scent? I have to wonder – because what seems at first so superficial is nevertheless undeniably intimate and can come to almost define a relationship – a physical connection at its most basic level. I remember who first gave me a box of that Santa Maria Novella Iris dusting powder. It was one of my Italian (and closest) friends. She’s someone who really understands luxury and at the same time is very down to earth. I had seen it on her dressing table, and had probably smelled it on her before I even knew what it was. She somehow knew it was right for me – certainly at least seasonally – just as it was right for her. And I’m reminded a little of our bond, our connection, almost every time I brush it over my shoulders. We’re sisters under the skin and however completely wacked either of us gets (and we can both get pretty wacked), we know that on some level we’re both pretty much there for each other.

Scent – who knew? (But then you probably didn’t think I knew that much about French art, did you? Well, I did – as a college sophomore anyway.) I don’t think it’s just me, either. This landscape is changing – as you may have noticed from that piece on Maurice Roucel, the perfumer for Frederic Malle, in Thursday’s New York Times. People seem to be embracing the scope and complexity of contemporary fragrances in a way we haven’t for maybe a century. (I thought it was funny that the article made reference to ‘Proustian memory’; I’m not alone.) But you know that’s what this is all about: that hunger for memory and in particular a kind of sensual memory that envelops an entire world – whether of childhood, past or early sex or romance, or simply a particularly evocative place. New York in spring (or autumn); Paris – just about any time. Los Angeles – when the jacurandas are in bloom, or just about to lose their flowers. L.A.’s own l’heure violette (as distinguished from the Parisian ‘l’heure bleue’) or, gris-ged out under a smoggy mist, l’heure mauve. (At play-off time, I guess we could call it l’heure Laker bleue.) It’s Paris-gray here the last few days (I’m still on deadline); and I’m loving it.


blog revisited said...

oh my god, mythique sounds, from the list of notes, delicious. oh man...

i am a fan of chanel mademoiselle, a newer scent than #5, same gorgeous bottle. i don't care for 17 at all, but a good friend of mine wears it daily and it is "how she smells".

another personal favorite is jaipur eau de parfum by boucheron. classified as a fruity floral (which i hate), it smells nothing at all like that on me. i bring out the pepper notes and i just love it. it's gone now and i relish the few drops i have left.

and who can resist their commercials?

blog revisited said...

i mean chanel commercials.