Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Same Company [review of Le 15 by The Different Company]

There's a strange atmosphere at the 15th anniversary event. Canned music metallically wafts through the dingy hall, some kind of royalty free cover versions of "The Greatest Hits of the 2000s." Faded garlands hang limply from the ceiling, revealing barely legible strings of letters - "Com-e -es Gar-ons: I--ense" - somebody in controlling probably got them second hand for a song. There's stale peanuts and crisps - leftovers from JC Ellena's going-away party?  - and too little to drink. Most of the naturals department staff haven't even shown up, just a few indivuals from the citrus project group sitting forlorn on the hard wooden benches, throwing embarassed glances at the main table set up in front of the small stage. That's where Iso E Super and Cashmeran are pulling off their act, duly intoxicated (so that's where the drinks ended up) belting along to the hits of yesteryear with smeary drunken voices, cig in hand, unshaven, in sweaty shirts and spotty suits. "They've really let themselves go in recent years," a pale and somewhat sickly looking Mrs. Vetiver from accounting whispers across the table to Mr. Nutmeg from the PR department, decent fellow, not too smart, but with a perfectly tended suntan. At some point the music is abruptly cut off in the middle of a godawful rendition of Robbie Williams' "Millenium." The Managing Director takes the mic and after seemingly endless moments of amplified crackling and ugly feedback screeches delivers a stammering attempt at a speech patched together with the kind of tired clichés you'd find on a hectic google search twenty minutes before you're on. "Being diff'rent means staying diff'rent," he concludes amidst sputtering coughs. Not that anyone has been listening; and the drunks are still having at millenial rock and pop. At around eleven a merciful fate releases the staff into a greyish-damp night, the smell of a failed party hovers over the deserted scene. The janitor trundles across the hall with a rattling key chain, locking up and turning off the lights. He doesn't notice the two inebriates under the table, though he briefly sniffs and grimaces. He lights a fag and mutters something like "what's the point of all this?" and exits. Curtain.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Varon Dandy Part 2: The Fougère Cousin of Knize Ten

Source of original images: and

The Knize Ten
Shared notes
Varon Dandy
Lemon, Orange, Rosemary
Bergamot, Petitgrain
Lavender, Anise, Clary Sage
Rose, Iris, Cinnamon
Geranium, Cedar, Carnation, Sandalwood
Castoreum, Vanilla
Oakmoss, Amber, Musk

At last we return to Varón Dandy, whose history I discussed back in August. As I suggested then, I find it to be a relative of Knize Ten - they may be from different streets, Chypre Boulevard and Fougère Avenue, but the neighbourhood is the same: 1920s men's fragrance and they share a surprising number of notes that give them both a similar old-time feel of powdery-spicy florality. 

As you can see from the table above, Varón is an old-school barbershop fougère: a citrus-lavender top with green clary sage, very powdery from the get go, a heavily coumarinic heart ornamented with some florals and woods, that has a primarily powdery soapy-carnation feel to it and a sweet-mossy-musky base. It doesn't last too long and generally comes across like an old-fashioned hotel soap (the reason of course being, that these were frequently fragranced with a standard fougère formula). It makes me want to wear a top hat and truly feels like from a different era, one that still lingers on in some increasingly obscure old-boy grooming products (like the Spanish Floid Aftershave) but has all but disappeared from the fashionable perfume world (although it is still echoed in a scent such as Burberry Brit for Men). Clearly it's hanging on in the Spanish and Spanish-speaking nicks of the wood though, just as Tabac Original is north of the Alps.

The leathery chypre Knize Ten is darker and heavier from the outset with its motor oil-floral combo, but the cousins share the dense clovey-woody powderiness of the heart, with a more textured florality in the Viennese scent and the serious sweetness of cinnamon, where Varòn's fern-floral is almost giddy and somewhat flat by direct comparison. The castoreum and leather notes create ever more depth where the Spaniard treads more lightly with sweet musk and amber, with just a smattering of moss, though the combination  does in fact create a suede-like effect. Varón Dandy has been described as a woody, leathery, animalic and oriental fragrance , so perhaps, in previous iterations, it was even closer to Knize than it is in its current state - oh to have a vintage bottle of Parera-made juice, which I suspect might have pulled more punch and contained more facets. As it is, the Spaniard is a paler, slightly anemic cousin to the Austrian Dandy, one whose tails have perhaps been a bit tattered from an awfully long history in the mass market, a fate of so many old timers that Knize Ten has yet miraculously avoided.Still - I like its old world aura and it would probably be considered less obnoxious by many a mainstream nose than Knize Ten. I imagine the infamous L'Air de Panache in Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel as being pretty close to Varón Dandy, even if Mark Buxton decided to render it as a Chypre.              


Friday, November 11, 2016

Trump Wins, Cohen Dies

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul

Leonard Cohen, The Future

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Angela Flanders, Earl Grey, and the English Perfumery Tradition

About two years ago, on a weekday, I stood before the closed doors of Angela Flanders' dainty Victorian perfume store on Columbia Road, after visiting the all-felt cornershop installed by artist Lucy Sparrow in the vicinity. Despite my love of English perfumes I had never heard of this house, but the window looked enticing and I promised myself I would return when the occasion arose.
It did last week, when we spent another family holiday in our favorite city within the European Union and decided to visit the famed Sunday flower market on Columbia Road, when all the little indie stores along the lane pop open. In the meantime I'd read up on Angela Flanders, only to learn with dismay that she had died in April of this year, at the gracious age of 88: an interesting woman who built a career in costume design, went free-lance into interior design and antiques in the 1970s and discovered perfume in her late Sixties, teaching herself the art and launching a perfumery business at an age when most people retire from professional life. I assume she must have been the oldest recipient ever of a FiFi award - at 84, for her 2011 Precious One as best new independent fragrance. Chapeau!

The shop is now tended by her daughter and it was crowded that Sunday with perfume aficionados. I was set on purchasing a fragrance as a souvenir of this London trip and had already laid eyes on Earl Grey, which sounded very British and just like like my cup of tea, if you'll permit the pun. I nosed myself through a dozen or more offerings, some trad, some modern, but in the end, Earl Grey EdP was it (winning out over the attractively dirty Ambre Noir) - and I do believe this early creation of hers (1994) in some ways epitomizes Englishness and English perfumery. The integration of otherness, as Peter Ackroyd noted in his study of English character, Albion, is key to understanding the mentality and history of the scepter'd isle. As in the case of Gin Tonic, Paisley ties, and Earl Grey tea this scent makes something distinctively English of imported goods - bergamot and other citrus notes, oriental spices, rosewood and patchouli.  The zesty bergamot is folded into what I perceive as the sweet green of lime and orangey notes - it is less refined than the gentle clear bergamot of vintage Farina Gegenüber, but not as pungent as sticking your nose into some perfumed tea of the same name. There are no tea notes at all in the fragrance, notably. What pops up besides the citrus immediatly is a spicy melange of mace (the blossom of nutmeg, not the spray), coriander, cardamom and clove (which seem to have been favorites of Ms. Flanders, perhaps harking back to the spicy potpourri tradition) draped upon a bed of quiet bois de rose. Then there's what I perceive as a gentle patchouli, nothing near the earthy pungency of Villoresi's version, Montale's beastly Patchouli Leaves, or even the reference vintage Etro EdT. This is Anglicized patch free of dark foresty dampness, underbrush, humus, it's more Sissinghurst than Sherwood Forest, really. And there we are, this happy blend lingers about for a solid eight hours, with gentle sillage. It is well behaved, not at all sweet, smells natural, (more so, than, say, Cacharel pour homme) but in the slyly mannered fashion of an English garden that celebrates nature as improved by civilization. It lacks both the bodily eroticism and the abstract artfulness as it has defined classic French perfumery since Jicky, but you wouldn't want to wear Jicky to an afternoon tea at the Dowager Countess of Grantham's, now would you? Or even when eating clotted cream off your lover, for that matter. Earl Grey smells good and makes you smell good in a pleasant and unobtrusive manner, striking just the right Victorian balance of good taste, all-the-while coming off as utterly unslick; this is not the work of a Duchaufour or Morillas for Penhaligon's, that self-parodying simulacrum of Englishness wrapping itself around industrial perfumery, but the work of a dilettante as that word was understood in the 18th century: a devoted amateur who delights in a field with no primary pecuniary interest. Earl Grey is a fine fragrance indeed (and I do wonder whether it didn't partly inspire Jo Wood's Usiku, a spicier, ethno-new agier take on the same theme). The only place you can try it and buy it is in the two London stores on Columbia Road and in Spitalfields - a form of exclusivity far preferable to the usual niche approach of charging astronomically high prices in no way justified by commensurate quality. Luckily, orders can be placed through the website, but, needless to say, the full experience is going to the places Angela Flanders so carefully laid out as a little English Gesamtkunstwerk, the memory of which will infuse the fragrances you purchased with an added dimension.               

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Perfume humor...

What's the difference between a fragrance and a fragrance account executive?

A fragrance is a soul with no body.

(This is the result of spending too much time in a drugstore smelling, with difficulty,  dior homme perfume, dior Sauvage, Hèrmes Jardin de M. Li, Baldessarini Strictly, Zadig & Voltaire This is Him and various other fragrant nonentities. 
Source of image:

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

This Gentleman is a Hep Cat - Annette Neuffer's "Hepster"

Cab Calloway | Source:

"Your sound is beautiful - dark and warm," Wynton Marsalis said of Annette Neuffer's trumpet playing. Neuffer is not only an accomplished jazz musician and singer, but also a perfumer. As is typical of the indie scene that has emerged through the possibilities of web-based marketing, she is self-taught, having developed her art from a deep interest in commercial fragrances that lead her onto the path of experimentation and ultimately natural perfumery - less from any dogmatic stance, than from increasingly losing interest in working with synthetics. She has cultivated an impressive portfolio of fragrances at this point and "dark and warm" seem characteristic of her travels in scent as much as in sound - there is a certain emphasis on orientals featuring the deep balsamic, resinous materials of that genre blended with luciously warm florals, spices, as well as gourmandy notes: Arabica, Maroquin, Mellis, the duo of scents under the heading per fumum and the quartet dedicated to Avicenna, the great Persian scholar, as well as several others speak of her fascination with the Middle Eastern roots of perfumery. But her 2016 release Hepster walks a different, greener path.When I asked her about the background of this composition Annette explained that when she started making perfumes, she was doing so mainly for herself and was also lacking male guinea pigs as her significant other doesn't dig fragrance (WHAT???). Now that her line is in the world she realized she didn't have an explicit masculine (with the exception of "For Him" specifically created for a friend) and when she came across a high quality supergreen mastix absolute the idea for Hepster was born.
If you liked the black metal of Josh Lobb's Norne, you must try this sophisticated jazz bottled by Annette Neuffer | Source:

Hepster was a term coined by Cab Calloway in naming his ca. 1938 Hepster's Dictionary of the slang used among the black jazz musicians of Harlem, who were hep cats and hip to the jive (this vocabulary was adopted in various parts by the post-war Beats, Hippies - dig? - Funksters and ultimately Hip Hoppers - "yo, break it up"). So, the name suggests this is a fragrance for cool cats who "creep out like the shadow," i.e. come on in a suave, sophisticated manner and as you can see in the above photo, a hep cat like Mr. Calloway wasn't always running around in a flamboyant zoot suit but also came across as quite the dapper gentleman, when he pleased. I am not someone deeply immersed in the world of jazz (that would have been my Dad), but its imagined smell, to me, is one of the thick air of night clubs, suffused by cigarettes, perfume and alcohol. Hepster, on the other hand, very much stands in the dignified tradition of English and Italian gentlemen's scents of the aromatic chypresque kind featuring citrus notes, herbs, a touch of florals, green notes and a "dark and warm" woody-spicy-resinous base. When I was grasping for analogies while trying to figure out this beautiful creation I thought of Blenheim Bouquet or Crown Perfumery's Town & Country with their straightforward citrus-herb-pine axis. But Neuffer's composition is far more complex and dense and the use of mint, pepper, juniper, nutmeg and balsamic materials inevitably reminded me of Lorenzo Villoresi's mid-90s italo-orientals such as Piper Nigrum and Spezie. "Blenheim Bouquet reformulated by Villoresi" became my shorthand attempt at contextualizing Hepster - but not to be misunderstood, this is a fully, indeed highly original work (because, for one, Lorenzo never did try his hand at a Blenheim). And there is quite some jazz in it, after all.

Hepster comes on with a burst of sax, trumpet and drums. The citrus accord is green and complex - it is not, thankfully, the clear and smooth smell of organic bathroom cleaner or washing up liquid - the dreaded lemon pledge effect! Rather, it has a textured surface resulting from the complexity of bergamot and lime and the impact of herbaceous notes - the gravelly juniper and nutmeg, the judiciously employed mint, that adds edge, but never becomes blatant here, and the ethereal treble of black pepper. And then there's a lifted, transparent vibrancy and gently animalic quality running through this which reminded me of the brilliant effect of genuine civet in classic fragrances - is it the magic of the hyraceum? Alas, this is the kind of masterful citrus complexity that characterized miracles such as the beautiful Signoricci II (vintage), delivering the olfactory equivalent of Arabic calligraphy behind the purported simplicity of a citric-fresh cologne. Such intricacy is what makes a fragrance gentlemanly: a refined, unobtrusive elegance that never vulgarly displays and yet ineluctably suggests a deep structure of erudition, integrity, sincerity. It is the complexity of technical mastery hidden behind the deeply moving rendition of a plaintive melody performed with seeming ease.  And it doesn't end there. Very soon you are met by the heart notes and the balsamic base that provides, literally, a well-contoured body to the opening accords, adding further depth, and which corresponds beautifully to the warmth of one's own body (this is a great scent to apply while one is still steaming from the shower, the naturals just really come alive). 
Mastic Trees on Chios, Greece | Source:

The green character of Hepster announced by citrus and herbs is confirmed by mastic and pine, which provide a decidely Mediterranean flair and add a refreshing boldness to the refinement ofthe topnotes. I only know mastic tears from Greek cuisine and have never smelled the absolute, but imagine it to be a very deep, balsamic green on its own that here blends wonderfully with the woody-green pine note (which features a new material from Robertet, Bois de Landes). The floral notes - iris, néroli and rose geranium - are masterfully tucked into the heart to envelop the powerful greens in soft creaminess, a wonderful example of harmonic contrast that the old English gent's scents used to pull off so well. At this point I wish Hepster would just continue forever, but then, it is what it is because it is a natural perfume. Only synthetic modulators and fixatives could extend this pleasure and I wouldn't want to pay the price of altering what is an aesthetically complete experience. My skin doesn't hold fragrance too well, but I do get a good ninety minutes of this phase, before it begins calming into a gentle ballad performed at the late-night bar by a laid-back jazz quartet. What you have for the next five to six hours is a calm, green woody-balsamic skin scent that makes you want to sniff yourself constantly. It's ultra-classic: incense, cedar, sandalwood, vetiver, patchouli, labdanum, oakmoss and hyraceum (with the green notes lingering on), but I cannot emphasize strongly enough the difference between a blend of these actual ingredients and a scent pyramid that lists them to describe ambroxan, santalol, iso-e-super and other synthetics. While these have their place in perfumery within limits, an all natural base accord is something very beautiful and special, all the more when it's so well crafted, and everyone should get to smell it as some point in their olfactory voyage. Nothing sticks out here in a coarse manner, it is a smooth pleasure cruise into the Aegean sunset. Speaking of which: if I wanted to match this perfume with a person, it would have to be Patrick Leigh Fermor, the brilliant Anglo-Irish gentleman-adventurer who travelled this part of the world so extensively and wrote so beautifully about it. He embodied and old world education and refinement that yet was cosmopolitan and eager to search out and engage with new places and people and this spirit of tradition and open-minded curiosity, the encounter of northern and south-eastern Europe no less characterizes the beautiful Hepster.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Osmodrama Report II: Smellscapes, Soundscapes

Three smell-packed days at the Osmodrama Festival in Berlin have left me full of thoughts, inspirations, questions and deep impressions. It was fascinating to see the Smeller 2.0 scent organ perform solo and as a complement to film, literature and sound art. To start with the most affective experience: The live co-performance of a sound collage by Carl Stone and a smellscape by Wolfgang Georgsdorf that really managed to transport me to another world. Smell and sound, truly on par here, interlocked to create an imaginary space that came alive through the multisensory input, that was truly multi-dimensional, sensorily palpable and emotionally present in a way that sound or smell alone would not be - it helped to have your eyes closed. The soundscape began and frequently returned to a (tropical) forest with the sounds of exotic birds, rain but also drones, to an airport in Asia with chatter, clatter and planes, but all a step removed from reality by complementary sounds, distortions and mixes, culminating in an eerie warped string ensemble - and all the while the smeller was furnishing olfactory impressions of green, plantlife, fruit, decay, of food, people, life,  carving out mental images of an alternate world. The fine detail is lost on me now, but the memory of the journey and its places is incredibly vivid. It was a truly awe-some experience that invited me to stop thinking and just immerse myself in the sensory moment. Of all the performances I saw [so much for ocularocentrism creeping into the language of a smell blog] witnessed this one worked best as an immediate sensory piece of art.

The 2016 pure scent composition Autocomplete was quite a different experience. This was part of the daytime program, there were fewer visitors than at the evening events and I sat in the first row experiencing an uninhibited airflow (which is physically noticeable when the room is not packed) and strong olfactory impressions. The sequences of smells come without any frame, explanation or sensory complement and it's interesting to watch yourself trying to make sense of them, to find a narrative or memory that gives structure to these de-contextualized smells, devoid of objects, places, persons. An "unreal" experience that made me think and reflect, rather than permit an immersion. There were three phases within the nearly hour-long piece that each formed a scene/narrative for me: a forest with underbrush, rotting humus, mushrooms, pine trees and then a human presence in the shape of a smoky camp fire; a rural farm scenery with hay, leather, horse, florals and then a shift to the farmhouse kitchen composed of clove, spices, fruit, peaches; and a short domestic "parental grooming" sequence featuring classic aftershave, cosmetics, calone (i.e. fabric softener) and pipe tobacco. Finally, a simple triad of vanillin, coffee and mothballs triggered a memory of my beloved grandparents: grandma serving her signature marble cake (my favorite, for this reason), made with vanilla flavoring, as one did in those days, and grandpa having his afternoon coffee. Their place did NOT smell of naphtaline mothballs, but that is a fictional olfactory "grandparent" trope that somehow fit in.    

This experience reveals some of the possibilities and limits of olfactory story-telling: The olfactory narrator, like the musical composer, can use chords harmonizing or contrasting, sequences that are causal or rupturing, employ repetition and variation to aim for certain effects, though as in any art the message will never be unequivocal and intention may bear no resemblance to reception. Indeed, smell reception will always be associative - your memories and emotions connected to smells will make their perception meaningful or make a sequence come together to form a scene. There will be a quiz-quality of wanting to understand, i.e. label the scent. Through my training of analyzing perfumes and a general interest in smell I found this easy, but the question is whether this cerebral act distracts from the sensory experience. Interestingly someone was programming an app during the festival that would send the actual Smeller sequences to your smartphone, providing the score, in other words. Will that improve or further distract from the sensory experience? The other inevitable reaction is judgment: this smells good, this smells bad. The smell researcher and artists Sissel Tolaas has always insisted that we learn to appreciate smells free of our assocations with them, but while an open mind/nose is certainly a good thing, our evaluation patterns of smells do have biological roots (spoiled food, approaching fire) and are an essential part of our socio-culturally formed selves - not that those are not malleable and capable of expanding and transforming, of course. But if the smell of a certain rose-scented soap "is" your mother, that is, of course, a valid and relevant reality for you that will determine your relationship to that smell - and thus that smell may be an avenue for exploring important memories and emotions for you. Awareness of smell is more important than neutrality. Why you like or dislike certain smells may reveal things to you about yourself that may remain hidden in other sensory or intellectual realms.

I, for one, am convinced that the olfactory art of Smeller 2.0 has the potential of all great art forms: of creating and questioning beauty, of expressing the creative mind, of showing us new, enriching perspectives that help us know the world - and ourselves. And it's bringing us one step closer to sensory equality!