In the Summertime: “Forbidden Games” by Kilian

By Kilian is a weird perfume house, as far as I’m concerned. Not weird in the way Serge Lutens is weird, but weird in terms of conception and execution. It belongs to Estée Lauder now, but it was established in 2007 by Kilian Hennessy, whose grandfather founded the Hennessy cognac company (and which is now part of luxury goods giant Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy). Kilian did his own thing, though, and unlike a lot of vanity projects by billionaire types, appeared to take it very seriously. He trained as a perfumer himself, working with big brands like Christian Dior for twelve years. Then he struck out on his own, and decided to produce top quality perfumes that, in the manner of Amouage and John Hammond, spared no expense. After all, he himself was used to the very best.

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I repeat: weird.

Not to worry–the cost for all that goodness would come out of the buyer’s wallet. By Kilian perfumes are some of the most expensive on the market. Like Ormonde Woman (the subject of my last review), they smell like it, too. My two sisters and I visited Saks in New Orleans a couple of years ago, and had a lovely time chatting with the generous By Kilian sales representative who doled out samples left and right (it paid off–one of my sisters bought a travel bottle of something-or-other). When we left the store, we talked about how sometimes, in perfume, you can just smell the money. Maybe that’s a crass thing to say, but then again, we’d just spent way too long in Saks.

But for all that, Kilian perfumes tend to leave me a little…I don’t want to say cold. Unmoved, maybe, is more accurate. For me, this is the weird part. I’ll sniff them, and say, “Yes, wow, that’s really nice,” and then forget all about them immediately afterward. I just can’t figure out how they’re worth that kind of price tag when there are so many perfumes with so much more personality.

Plus, they try hard. They try really hard. It’s kind of embarrassing. Most perfume marketing is pretentious nonsense, but honestly, if you’re going to produce a perfume called “Good Girl Gone Bad,” at least don’t make it a sweet little floral. Did the good girl go bad by knocking over her Barbie Dream House? Come on, guys.

And yet, a couple of weeks ago I stumbled across one of the sample spray vials I’d been given in New Orleans, and I spritzed it on. I’ve been wearing it more or less constantly since. I’m wearing it right now, and I figured I had no choice but to suck it up and write about it.

It’s called Forbidden Games, and it was composed by Calice Becker. Becker is responsible for most of the By Kilian line, and she also gave us the fantastic Tommy Girl, Beyond Paradise, and the original J’Adore (1999). She might also have created some of your favorites–look and see.

I spritzed on Forbidden Games less than an hour ago, and it’s already fading, but when I put it on–well, that’s really something. The top note is big and super fruity. The listed notes are apple, peach, and plum, which seems pretty accurate to me.

It’s kind of mouthwatering. I’d even say it’s downright juicy. It makes me think of strawberry daiquiris and wearing a floppy hat by the pool. By Kilian perfumes often take themselves so seriously, and they’re so carefully orchestrated not to offend anybody, that it’s really nice to stumble over one that just wants to have a little fun.

I don’t know what’s so forbidden about this particular game, though. Maybe it’s the rule where you’re not supposed to run around the pool.

After the explosive fruity opening, the perfume settles down a little and stops laughing, but it never loses its smile. It stays very sweet the whole time, never striking a spicy or sour note. Apparently, it’s supposed to “advance into a lush, exuberant floral heart” (according to its own copy); I can’t speak to that, since it fades so quickly on my skin. But while it lasts, it’s just so pretty and lighthearted that I haven’t bothered turning to anything else in my perfume drawer for days. It’s summer in a little spray vial. I can’t imagine paying out the nose (ha ha, get it?) for a whole bottle of this, but when I run out, I will make a sad face.

Then maybe I’ll make a fruit salad. Who knows? It’s summertime.

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Now that’s classy.

If you don’t feel like traveling to Saks and asking for a freebie, you can purchase a sample vial of Forbidden Games here.

 

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Ormonde Woman: the forest primeval

Cards on the table: this is a review of my favorite perfume in the world. No qualifiers. It’s not my favorite for winter, spring, summer, or fall. It’s not my favorite “wood” perfume or “feminine” perfume or “splurge” perfume. It’s my favorite fragrance, period.

Let me explain.

Shennongjia virgin forest
As a teacher, I often joke with my students, and one of the questions I routinely pose is: “Who in here likes camping?” When several invariably raise their hands, I follow up with: “Why?

They laugh at my skeptical tone, then tell me the same thing each time: they like to get away from it all, to disconnect from everything, to go into the wild where it’s just them and Mother Nature. Camping is both a retreat and a refuge.

It’s like they’ve never even heard of fairy tales.

You remember Little Red Riding Hood, warned against encountering the Big Bad Wolf when she goes to the woods to see her grandmother. Or Hansel and Gretel, who leave a trail of breadcrumbs in the forest so they won’t lose their way. Or, if you want to kick it up a notch, Dante Alighieri, who begins his journey towards salvation in a dark wood that symbolizes the danger faced by his soul.

Stories love the woods. Poets really love the woods. Remember Robert Frost from high school? The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. He finds them so compelling that he would prefer to remain there and watch the snow fall, but forces himself to resume his journey instead. And what about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

I’m getting to the perfume review soon. I promise. (Remember that part about the hemlocks.)

But first, the point that I want to make is that the forest is more than a biome (although it is the biggest). All over the world, forests represent the unknown: the dangers of human existence in a natural world that can erase us in a heartbeat, without caring anything for our hopes, our dreams, or our frustrations.

Does anybody here watch Game of Thrones? Do you remember the opening scene of the series?

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I’m just asking.

Let’s separate the trees from the forest. My last post mentioned, briefly, the different categories of perfume. “Woods” is one of the most popular categories, and for a very good reason. You can imagine it right now, can’t you? Think of fragrant logs on a fire, or the smell of a sawmill, or the scent of pine needles. Wood smells great.

And it’s hard to improve on a classic woody scent. Chanel knocked it out of the park in 1926 with Bois des Isles, a modern interpretation of sandalwood. Caron built on it with Parfum Sacré (incense for everyone!), and Serge Lutens followed that with Féminité du Bois (a whopping dose of cedar).

It was all very civilized. Very elegant. Other woody fragrances built on that theme, though as fragrance evolved, you were more likely to find wood mixed with spice for increased sex appeal (see: Opium), or citrus (Diorella). It was supposed to make you feel sophisticated and confident, like you could conquer the natural world, not be cowed by it.

In 2002, Linda Pilkington saw matters differently, and created the first perfume for her niche firm, Ormonde Jayne: Ormonde Woman. As the copy claims, the perfume is bursting with “Black Hemlock absolute – rarely used in such luscious quality and quantity.” If you’re like me and you’re not up on your conifers, you immediately thought: Hemlock? Poison perfume?

Nope. Learn something new every day. Ormonde Woman contains absolute of pine tree, and it doesn’t smell like any other woody perfume I’ve ever encountered. In her review of the fragrance, perfume critic Tania Sanchez says, “Ormonde Woman is the only abstract woody perfume I know that triggers the basic involuntary reflex, on stepping into a forest, to fill one’s lungs to bursting with the air.” I’ll go her one further–it’s the only woody perfume I know that reminds me why the woods are so darn scary. It’s pine, moss, oak, cedar, sandalwood, and the full moon visible through the branches. It’s the dark path leading out of the village. If you leave, who knows what will come back in your place?

It’s also the perfume that taught me the difference between a good fragrance and a great one. On the day I first tried it, I had another wood scent on my other arm: Tam Dao by Diptyque, a straight-up cedar that smelled perfectly nice. Not thinking much about it, I put Ormonde Woman on my unscented arm, and went about my business. Then I took a couple of moments to sniff Tam Dao, then Ormonde Woman, right after the other.

I was stunned. Ormonde Woman was deep, rich, intense–layered. I thought I had to be imagining things, the difference was that stark. It had started off with clean, bright grass–almost citrusy, nothing of the woods at all.

But in the dry down, it got darker, sweeter, and colder. The forest path was unfolding. The wood notes grew deeper, but were balanced by the florals (violet and jasmine absolute are supposedly the floral notes). I’m not sure how to put it, except to say that it got a lot denser, without becoming cloying or too heavy.

I sniffed Tam Dao again. It was the same cedar.  Still very nice, but it was too late: I had just met the love of my life. (I cheat on it all the time, though. Luckily, perfume tolerates promiscuity well.)

Somehow, Ormonde Woman manages to be innovative but also timeless: one of those rare things that actually is an “instant classic,” in that the moment you smell it, you realize it adheres to what is best in the form, improves on it, and is here to stay. The structure, from opening to dry-down, is flawless. Unlike Tubereuse Criminelle, Ormonde Woman never shocks you–it just surprises you. It’s a wonderful surprise, because there is never a thin, sour, chemical moment. From the shiny opening notes to the inky dry-down, you are surrounded by luxury. No corners were cut. The perfume is expensive, but at least it smells like it.

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Fancy!

It’s got one huge downside: it doesn’t last long. Some perfumes stick on me all day, but Ormonde Woman vanishes within a few hours. It’s a shame. At that price point, you’d think we could enjoy it for longer. I also have to admit that for people who aren’t addicts, it’s probably best as a fragrance for the colder months. If you don’t love it in June, try it in November and see if it improves.

That said, it’s not for everyone. I will recommend it to anyone who has never tried it, but do try before you buy; I’ve heard never heard anyone say they hate it, but I have heard people say, “It’s amazing, but it’s just not me.” Honestly? It’s not me, either. I’m not nearly cool or badass enough for it. But I’ll wear it anyway, not because of who I am, but because it suggests there are other possibilities if you venture into the forest.

So many possibilities. Ormonde Woman exposes the true fear behind all the fairy tales: that we’ll decide grandmothers are overrated, and choose to join the wolves.

Indecent Exposure

“This can’t be right.” 

This will, I guarantee you, be your first thought after your first whiff of Tubereuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens, a French photographer and artist who is mostly known for his niche perfume line. “Known” is subjective here. Lutens remains virtually unknown in the world of mainstream commercial fragrance, but has achieved a cult following that is unheard of for any other perfumer. His releases are greeted with great excitement, and sample decants and “swaps” with other fans are swiftly sought after a new release. If the perfume is really good, it will fly off the shelves before the non-fanatics ever knew it existed. I had to wait months to get my hands on a full bottle of La Fille de Berlin, thanks to a tip from my equally devoted sister.

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The Serge Lutens boutique in the Palais Royal (Paris).

Note that perfumes broadly fall into the following categories: orientals (spicy and amber-y), florals, fougères (ferns), gourmands (food-y), leathers, woods, and chypres (“mossy woods,” beloved of Chanel). Lutens made a name for himself with oriental accords, what many fans call “stewed fruits.” However, because he is impossible to pin down, his most memorable works cross genres–for example, Bois de Violette (literally “violet wood”).

That said, Lutens is not a perfumer in the strictest sense. Rather, he works with perfumers, most notably Christopher Sheldrake, who design and produce scents at his request and according to his vision. It’s safe to say Serge Lutens has some fairly weird visions. You can tell, because he writes his own ad copy. Where most perfumers would give some kind of description of the chief notes or most important ingredients, Lutens…does not. Here’s his description of a recent release, L’Orpheline:

“Fragile but whole. Its name hints at a break but before the fissures show, its first two syllable conjure Orpheus, a poet who could charm even stones.”

Got it.

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At least the packaging is unpretentious.

I began this post with some background on Lutens, his iconic status, and his overall weirdness to give some context for Tubereuse Criminelle, one of his greatest and most notorious creations. Greatest, because it is a technical masterpiece, with an orchestrated opening blast of notes that turn jaw-droopingly gorgeous in the dry-down. Notorious, because that opening blast tends to make people gag.

Tubereuse Criminelle opens with menthol and gasoline. You will spritz it on in all innocence, expecting to smell like a tuberose, and you will quickly understand where the “criminal” part comes in.

The diabolical genius of Tubereuse Criminelle is that it understands what tuberose is really about. Tuberose is a white floral, which is a genre of perfume consisting of–you guessed it–white flowers what smell nice. Tuberose, gardenia, jasmine, and magnolia are the usual suspects. Each of these flowers smells, on its own, heady and delicious.

And each has its own character. Gardenia, for example, is one of the most straightforwardly pretty scents on earth. Tuberose is different. It smells dirtier, more pungent than the rest. I have heard people with really sensitive noses say they pick up on blood, rubber, metal, even rotting meat.

As such, it’s the perfect scent for a weirdo like Serge, who decided a couple of years ago that he wanted to make a fragrance that smelled like bread, and then named it “Jeux de Peau”: skin games.

Before you write Lutens off as a hipster fever dream, it’s important to note that bizarre openings can be a mark of pride in the perfume game. A more “mainstream” perfume, Bulgari Black, opens with a burned-rubber accord and is packaged in a bottle that’s designed to look like a tire. Who ever said gasoline, burned rubber, and tires are sexy?

Ferrari_Daytona

Oh.

Of course, a raunchy opener better pay off into something good. A perfume is a gimmick if it relies on shock value. Tuberose Criminelle’s opening is indecent, but its dry-down is fantastic. Once the menthol and gasoline fade away (give it ten minutes), you’re left with a white floral of pure beauty. It is creamy, sexy, and cool. Instead of repelling mosquitoes, you will attract people who say, “I’m sorry to bother you, but what perfume are you wearing? It’s so pretty!” This is where my descriptors run out, because while it’s easy to describe the crazy opening, the dry-down just leaves me with a big dumb smile on my face. From top to bottom, Tubereuse Criminelle is interesting, and could only come from a man who thinks a perfume should have a personality.

By now, I have worn Tubereuse Criminelle so often, and for so many years, that I find the opening as compelling as the finish. It’s either Stockholm Syndrome or true love.

There are other tuberose perfumes. A good contrast is Beyond Love by By Kilian (yes, Kilian Hennessy named his perfume house “By Kilian” and I will never forgive him). Beyond Love is a straightforward tuberose soliflore, the closest you will come to finding the actual flower in bottle form. It’s lovely, of impeccable quality, about twice the price, and it cheerfully sings “Happy Birthday” while Tubereuse Criminelle is shattering the chandeliers in the opera house next door.

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Nessun dorma!

Tubereuse Criminelle is a crime against nature. Test it for yourself with a quick spritz on the wrist. You will wonder if you got a defective bottle, or if perfume can spoil, or if you are the victim of a cruel prank. You will regret your life choices. You should try it immediately.

 

After the rain

Welcome to “Things What Smell Nice,” my grammatically incorrect yet enthusiastic review blog that focuses on…well, you probably guessed already.

I don’t know how often I’ll have time to update this blog, but perfume and tea are two of my favorite hobby interests, and I’ve spent several years obsessing over them to various degrees, trying to figure out what makes them tick and what makes some so special to me, while others leave me unimpressed or even repelled.

When it comes to perfume, like a lot of perfume bloggers, I will focus on the costly and the strange. Not because I’m a snob, but because not many people want to hear about an enthusiast’s admiration for Tommy Girl, Lady Stetson, and Cool Water. Everyone can try those themselves just by stepping into a drugstore. Where’s the vicarious thrill?

But buy those perfumes anyway, because they are awesome. Guy Robert, the master perfumer who composed Amouage Gold and Madame Rochas, famously said this: “Un parfum doit avant tout sent bon.” A perfume should first and foremost smell good.

“Good” does not mean “expensive” (though a good cheap perfume will often smell expensive), and it definitely doesn’t mean “pretty.” Some of the best perfumes in the world are odd and unsettling, initially causing you to recoil before you find yourself compelled to come back for more, sure that your first impression could not possibly have been accurate and nothing could really smell like that. Not on purpose, not by design.

Great perfumes can “deconstruct” smells that we expect to find familiar. Guerlain’s Nahéma is a perfect example. Nahéma is a rose scent, and has been called the greatest rose perfume ever made, precisely because it takes our idea of what a rose should smell like and pulls it apart to examine the pieces. Perfume critic Luca Turin called it “an explosion done in reverse” and expressed doubt that any actual rose was used in the composition at all. There are many rose perfumes, and many of them are very popular, but there is nothing that truly approaches Nahéma, and few other perfumers have the guts to try.

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Rose through a glass, weirdly.

Having said that, I do not own a bottle or a sample of Nahéma, though I have other rose perfumes in my stash. I freely acknowledge its greatness while admitting I don’t love it. I’d like to amend Robert’s statement: a perfume should first and foremost smell good to you, whether you love it immediately or you need a little longer to appreciate it. But all the expensive juice and critical acclaim in the world don’t matter a bit if it’s not a scent you want to carry around on your own body all day. (Or, as with some of my tragic favorites, a few hours at best.)

To be honest, most of Guerlain’s perfumes fall in that line for me–even the classics. I appreciate their brilliance, and their sacred places in the history of perfume, but I’ve never felt compelled to buy Shalimar, Mitsouko, L’Heure Bleue, or Vol de Nuit.

There is, however, one exception: Apres L’Ondée.

Click the link to see what the perfume is today, but don’t buy it. At least, not yet.

The recent history of Apres L’Ondée is a sad one. In its original form (as composed in 1906), the eau de parfum was truly one of the greats–iris with a heliotropin note, or was it the other way around? Nobody could say for sure, but if you take that combination and throw in a few herbs, you get a masterpiece. If you can get your hands on the EdP (which I have done), you will understand how it recalls the Belle Epoque.

Here’s what I mean. After reading a review by Turin–whom I will frequently reference, I’m sure–I took a sniff of Apres L’Ondée while listening to Debussy’s Images, composed around the same time (1905-1912). Let me say that I felt absolutely pretentious and ridiculous, and vowed to tell nobody about it, but when the first notes of the perfume and the music unfolded together, I actually got tears in my eyes. It was overwhelming. For the first time in my life, a perfume became not a smell, but an experience.

We think of perfume as a scent in a bottle, but it really exists on a continuum of pleasures. As wine is best appreciated with good food, so it goes with perfume. Spritz on Chanel’s 31 Rue Cambon and then stroke something made out of mink. You’ll see what I mean.

Unfortunately, due to EU regulations, Guerlain has discontinued the EdP of Apres L’Ondée. You can still find it online at immense cost. The eau de toilette, which I  linked above, isn’t cheap either, and has to sacrifice several of the elements that made the original great. Where the EdP contains herbs and heliotropin (a sort of almond-floral smell), the EdT is more of a straightforward iris “soliflore”–which means just what it sounds like, a single flower. It’s as pretty and melancholy as flowers after the rain, just as the name promises, but something has been lost. I speak from experience, since I currently have the EdP on my left elbow and the EdT on my right.

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The eau de toilette (left) and the eau de parfum (right). Guess which one would require you to take out a second mortgage?

So why did I kick off my perfume blog with a perfume that’s now all but impossible to get? To emphasize the following cliches: life is short, and change is the only constant. If you love a fragrance (I keep saying “perfume,” but of course I include cologne as well), buy it. Wear it. Enjoy it. Who knows when it will be discontinued, reformulated, or otherwise lost for good?

In terms of sheer cost, perfume is one of life’s least expensive luxuries, even when it’s expensive perfume. Unless you’re literally bathing in scents by Amouage or Clive Christian–or if you have the misfortune to fall in love with Chanel’s 28 La Pausa–you can rely on a bottle of fine perfume to last you a lot longer than, say, tickets to Hamilton or a pair of Louboutins.

The danger comes when you move past the idea of finding your “signature scent” (which is how many people first fall into the trap, like me) and start getting your hands on all the perfume you can find. This is when you must learn how to be reasonable, and this is why perfume samples, as in the above photo, are a life-saver. Everyone should try the EdP of Apres L’Ondée, and if you’re willing to cough up twelve bucks, a couple of wearings can be yours.

Some perfume samples can be easy to come by; Nordstrom is pretty good about giving out free samples of their scents, and I have had good luck in Saks as well. However, if you want the niche stuff I’ll often be talking about on this blog, you will have to go a little further afield, and pay a few dollars here and there. But not many. And like I said, it’s worth it.

I have bought perfume samples from the following sites. The Perfumed Court is the only one that’s ever given me any trouble, but when I had a problem with the delivery (see how that sample up there was actually sent in a bottle of nail polish?), they apologized at once and sent me a proper sample in a spray bottle at no cost. So I recommend all three of these sites for when you’re feeling adventurous or curious:

The Perfumed Court 

The Posh Peasant

Lucky Scent (also sells full bottles of pretty much everything)

Expect other tips and various asides as we go. (Ever wondered what a fougère is? What do I mean when I say “indolic” or “aldehydic”?) I’m excited about my tiny new blog, and I welcome suggestions and recommendations of all kinds. I will mostly review perfumes I enjoy–or at least find well-done and fascinating, if not wearable. If you have a favorite scent you’d like me to feature, leave me a comment and I’ll see if I can get my hands on it. (This doesn’t mean I guarantee a review. If I end up hating your darling, then at least I won’t savage it in front of the world.) Anything is fair game, including scents that are supposedly “masculine” or “unisex,” since the gendering of fragrance is nonsense, and I’ll wear anything so long as–you guessed it–I like the way it smells.

My next post will be be twofold: a review of Yunnan tea, and also of the perfume Tubereuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens. In other words, it will be a love letter to smoke, menthol, and gasoline. I hope to see you then!