10 – 12 December 2009
How, you wonder, did we end up here? – the realm of the senses, as I put it a couple posts ago – and more specifically down to taste and smell. Before I finish up on this note (a little scent-appropriate argot for you there), we might be reminded just how powerful the synaesthetic and mnemonic properties of taste and smell are. Proust’s A la recherche du Temps perdu seemingly evanesces out of the fog of childhood memories brought into vivid focus by the commingled taste and fragrance of madeleines and chamomile tea. Listening to music (not necessarily those Beethoven or Bartok quartets I was talking about a couple posts ago, but certainly music at that order of complexity and sophistication) can occasionally evoke this kind of sense memory. And is there any city in the world that doesn’t have some distinctive olfactory association, even a kind of scent (albeit a very complex one)? Asked by a fashion magazine what his favorite fragrance was, Andy Warhol once replied, “New York in Spring” – and anyone vaguely acquainted with New York and specifically Manhattan knew instantly what he was talking about. (But then Warhol was genius that way.) There is a smell to Paris – and Saint Laurent’s sentimental and rather pedestrian rose-based perfume doesn’t come close to capturing it – that rises up full-blown in certain neighborhoods of the city – the Opera district, the Madeleine and rue des Grands Augustins, the right and left banks of the Seine near the Ile de la Cité, Saint Germain des Près, the rue du Bac. Obviously it’s so much more complex, and varies from one neighborhood to another. Yes, roses provide one note; closer to the mark, I think, flowering trees and various herbs; also bread and bakeries; tea, coffee, red wine; printed paper and the scent of various fabrics – both fresh off the bolt and lived-in attire; bath toiletries (which I suppose would encompass scent); human (and dog?) hair; the Seine and some of its pollutants. The smells of certain places make their own more specific impressions (or not). I don’t remember much about the Ritz, or even the bar there; but walking into the Crillon I was not exactly hit, or even enveloped, so much as veiled with a scent that evoked sheer august splendor. The only place for me that comes close to evoking that quiet, restrained, Louis-le-Grand grandeur of 18th century classicisme are the gardens of Versailles. Of course, there are a lot of other places in Paris that evoke a certain pomp and luxury in their scents. And I’m wondering if there’s a bit of Chanel No. 5 in that mix? (Hence my loyalty??) Probably; maybe a bit of Joy there, too; and some Guerlain fragrances. (L’Heure Bleue is said to be very city-inspired – and yes, you get that in the scent.)
A year or so ago, an artist mapped out New York by its various commingled scents and smells – an amazing kind of conceptual art piece. Jason Logan (a New York illustrator and author – who may be the artist I’m thinking of) wrote a piece in the Times summing up some of these neighborhood smells in brief olfactory word-collages. Under “Midtown,” amid some of the more predictable scents in the mix – e.g., garbage, urine, pretzels, etc.) were a few others that sort of let the reader know he really got it: e.g., “white wine sautéing ,” “salty Armani leather,” and a “touch of vomit.” Oh yeah, let me think – Lexington and 63rd, right?
So here I am at Barneys stopped for a moment at the Serge Lutens counter – a brand I’m vaguely aware of but not really familiar with – and I guess he’s evolving the packaging, the lines of the bottles and so forth. The titles of some of the scents are intriguing (again, speaking of those polarities) – some in a very basic, elemental way, some much more complex. Miel de Bois sounds wonderfully simple and fresh (though you wonder exactly what wood (as opposed to clover? or orange blossom?) honey would taste like). Then, speaking of les bois, there is (what the very charming sales girl describes as a Lutens classic) Féminité du Bois – which seems to be Lutens’ stab at a very complex harmonic – absolutely nothing simple about it. What it’s supposed to evoke, I’m not sure – a girl strolling or horseback-riding through the woods? (Dirt-biking would not be quite it.) Girls and trees? Girls in trees? Wood nymphs? This is one of those fragrances that combine florals, spices, slightly oriental notes for a completely eccentric registration. I mean that literally – it’s as if it were a fragrance that was trying to move past an olfactory harmonic into a kind of narrative. There’s a distinct and very edgy top note that’s both honey sweet and distinctly oriental, almost metallic, that then carries forward into the kind of floral/herbal mix that grounds it somewhat (I guess with your own skin chemistry). Then there are the kinds of fragrances that seem to really be striving for some kind of scent narrative on your skin. What exactly is Five O’Clock Au Gigembre about? (That’s the name – French and English – go figure.) I mean, what are we talking about here? Thai dumplings after (or maybe before?) sex? It is kind of sexy – at first – a less metallically edgy top note – very sweet, distinctly floral at first, then settling into its spice notes, the ginger (if that’s what it is) muted , slightly altered (but not by garlic, I assure you). And you know, it’s going to smell a little different two hours from now. This is what we seem to be getting in the world of scent. A two-hour movie – myth, fairy tale – with food, sex, atmospherics, incident – unfolding on your wrist or your neck. (Is that why they seem to be getting so expensive? Because in theory you’re getting at least two distinct scents in every bottle?)
Lutens has an interesting story – as designer, art director and perfumer – but I’m not going to go into it here. The scents were originally produced under the auspices of Shiseido, but are now under Lutens’ sole control. The more recent Lutens fragrances, however, are essentially the work of his current perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake. Looking at the Lutens publicity, you’re confronted with a library of scents, of variable olfactory (and seemingly narrative) complexity; and suddenly I’m reminded of – this is going to sound sooooo sophomoric – the fragrance ‘organ’ of Des Esseintes in À Rebours (or Against the Grain, in its English translation), the novel by J.K. Huysmans that more or less distills the essence of late Romantic Decadence in French literature. When you’re a college (well) sophomore, besotted in literature, art, philosophy (and, uh, drugs), it’s reassuring to think that people were living in their heads as much as you are 100 and more years earlier.
So – I continue strolling through the fragrance counters. The Chanel lady offers me a sample – and Chanel girl that I am, how can I refuse? – the new (I think) Eau Premiere – which speaking of veils of scent, more or less falls, I think, into this category. I mean, obviously they’re constantly adding to the variations and dilutions of the fragrance to sell more product; but sometimes it does seem a bit much. Closest analogy? The eau de Cologne or perhaps toilette, as mixed and/or decayed through the admixture of various cosmetic components that end up on the skin at one point or another. The salesgirl says something about a ‘powdery’ finish – and I agree with her; but wonder why you can’t just stick with the cologne and dusting powder after your bath or shower. (The cologne does have a slightly different ‘fade’.) Well. Something I suppose you could keep in a desk drawer for a quick daytime freshening. (Rrrrrriight – this from someone who rarely wears fragrance. Okay.) I have to go again – and we’re not quite there yet. Just one more stop – I promise. This is the pay-off, I’m telling you.