Friday, May 14, 2010

Castile to Hampstead, via Milano

The trend towards reviving Eau de Cologne shows no sign of abating, which is a good thing for a classic cologne fogey such as myself. I was graciously gifted with a bottle of Washington Tremlett's Hampstead Water recently (officially a fougere, but to me it's a high-longevity EdC), which I had been most eager to try, as that brand's Black Tie is one of my perennial favorites. Both scents happen to be creations of Shirley Brody's, a key figure in contemporary British perfumery. She was involved in the rebirth of Penhaligon's in the late 70s as well as the conception of Czech & Speake's aromatics line, which, before the recent relaunch of inferior reformulations, constituted the pinnacle of English-style fragrance craft (ironically, Made in Italy). One of her more recent endeavors is the little known XPEC line which manages to combine an excellent perfume with the most horridly misguided branding (both the name and the packaging are incompatible with the classic contents that would seem to appeal to traditionalist, straight-razor-shaving, Savile-Row-clad fragrance aficionados). But she has also been a major force behind the Tremlett brand, thus continuing the cooperation that once existed between Czech and Speake and the fragrance firm of Forester in Milan, who were responsible for such masterpieces as C&S No. 88, Domenico Caraceni and the aforementioned Black Tie, as well as the hard-to-find Gianni Campagna series with gems such as Vento Canale. Perhaps, then it was the through the Brody connection that Hampstead Water immediately reminded me of Penhaligon's Castile. Not that the former is a clone or anything and I doubt Brody was involved with Penhaligon's anymore when Castile was released in 1998. The similarities likely result from the simple fact that both are Eau de Cologne style fragrances, HW featuring bergamot, orange, lavender, water mint, leather and musk, while Castile is built around neroli, petitgrain, bergmot, orange blossom, rose, woods and musk. As the notes suggest, the tops are quite similar, but Hampstead is a good deal fresher via the mint, while Castile is defined by the warm orange and rose interplay. Still, it somehow makes sense to me to see Brody's spirit hovering above all these waters like a fairy godmother of English perfumery. I guess I have a crush on her...Anyway, in the geography of Eau de Cologne, Castile is closer to Hampstead Heath than you may think - just travel via Milan.

Image: "The Writer" at Hampstead Heath with a bottle of Castile

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Of good smells and bad taste

In the 1890s nouveau-riche Americans shocked Old Europe with their unique combination of immense wealth and what appeared to the English, French, German, Italian etc. better classes to be an utter lack of cultivation. Starting in the 1990s it was Russian oligarchs and their entourages who did their best to confirm the platitude that superwealth married to a lack of cultural sensibility will produce the most astounding aesthetic carbunkles. The gaudiness and excess of Moscow's superrich has been amply documented. Needless to say Old Europe's fashion & beauty businesses then and now, large and small, have always used their cultural capital to sell good taste - or bad - to the new money. A small but conspicuous Italian venture called Xerjoff, founded by Italians Sergio Momo and Dominique Salvo in 2004, has specifically targeted, as the name already suggests, the new rich Russians with an extensive and expensive line of perfumes. In fact, they do their best to make Creed and company look like drugstore scents.

Now, at first sight the whole affair could easily be dismissed as a typical hot air balloon. For starters, the English language copy on the website and product is appallingly faulty and vacuous, clearly the result of overly literal translation from the Italian by an amateur. As a former translator I have never understood this slovenly approach to language among international companies for whom image is essential. Is it so difficult to get feedback from competent native speakers? After all, how would you feel about a $300,000 Maserati whose computer system notifies you to "please to be putting on seat belting for driver safeties"?
Secondly, Xerjoff suffers from the industry epidemic that has now fully infected niche firms - throwing way too many products on the market in too little time. Xerjoff already features three distinct lines, the flagship XJ 17/17 (weak name) with four scents, Shooting Stars (twelve scents) and Casamorati (four scents). Such speed inevitably comes at the cost of originality, as even the best noses will be reworking established formulas.
Lastly, the styling of several of the products - particularly the high end Murano flacons of the 17/17 line and the faux retro Casamorati series - is an aesthetic nightmare. Whatever money can buy is thrown together to create costly kitsch that would make designers from Aalto to Wagenfeld rotate in their graves - though Jeff Koons may perhaps squeal with delight, as perhaps will the designated target group in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

BUT - VERY BIG BUT - setting aside the aesthetic repulsion and instant-niche skepticism, one delightedly discovers that the gaudy canisters do not contain some nameless industry swill of the "who cares what it smells like as long as it costs thousands" variety, but very high quality essences, some of them stunninghly beautiful and worthy to be smelled and worn by fragrance aficionados(few of whom will ever be able to afford them) rather than superficial millionaires. As I was told by someone who knows the numbers, Xerjoff, contrary to many supposedly high-end niche firms, actually invests unually high amounts of money into the best essences and is, in this respect, on par with quality-obsessed one-man houses like Tauer.

You can read numerous perfumista impressions on an extensive basenotes Xerjoff testing thread based on a sample extravaganza aimed at introducing/hyping the brand to/in the US, but I'll limit myself to three cases in point here:
XXY from the 17/17 line is an overly sweet, rather uninspired unisex (?) scent, so generic in its combination of fruit, floral and amber that you may just as well buy some $40 mainstream product, if you're in it for the perfume rather than the exclusivity experience. A 3/10 on the perfumery scale, but a 10 for nouveau-riche-silliness here.
Much more impressive is the 17/17 lines Xerjoff homme, a bow to the grand Knize Ten - equal, perhaps even superior in quality and a bit more rounded and creamy to suit contemporary tastes. Imagine K10 pushed in the direction of Creed's Royal English Leather and Lutens Cuir Mauresque. So, here we have a truly top-notch, if not highly original scent of deep, rich leather, suitably dark, but without excessive harshness. An 8 on the perfume scale for an excellent variation of tradition that may well become the personal preference of many a perfumista and will introduce nouveau-newbies to good rather than merely expensive perfume.
The big winner in this trio, though, is Kobe from the Shooting Stars collection (€ 384 for 50ml) - the best and most interesting men's neroli scent I have ever tried. Superb essence, supplied with unusual longevity, free of the unpleasant off-notes marring, e.g. Czech & Speake's (reformulated) or Norma Kamali's Neroli, and creatively blending citrus (bergamot and orange notes supporting the neroli) with resinous notes of labdanum, rosewood, styrax, benzoe and restrained oud. This is innovative, intelligent, beautiful and I want to know who did it. As to the price: considering that Creed was asking $ 405 for 50ml of a pretty synthetic-smellingAND short-lived green floral (i.e. Windsor) I'd say you're almost getting Kobe at a bargain. Ah, but let's not get snotty. If we leave all the hoollaballo aside, what we have here is a small house producing many good and several great perfumes for too small an audience. I hope those rich Russians appreciate just how fine these smells are, before the next luxury hype vies for their attention.