Charenton Macerations Christopher Street, 2012

(image Narrative and Mental Map, Dimitris Grozopoulos)

Perfumer Ralf Schwieger

Christopher Street jumps out of the bottle at you with the expansiveness and buoyancy of a big, green chypre. Think of Scherrer de Scherrer or Dior Diorella. The “alcoholic lime” note stands in for bergamot and suggests a classic chypre topnote. Supporting the chypre image is an old-school lipstick scent that’s waxy, floral, cold and blunt.  This retro/classic femme allusion steers it into the chypre camp, but it’s a diversionary tactic. The image of the chypre starts to fade. Christopher Street still hints at the chypre but it steers a different course. It’s a tobacco floral. It’s cold and mineral. It’s a salty citrus. It might smell like a chypre but doesn’t behave like one. The loosening feel, the skin-ness, the creeping coziness of a chypre approaching drydown are nowhere to be found on Christopher Street. The classic chypres had a feeling of surrender to them. The defiance of the topnotes gave way to the narcotic pleasure of the mossy-ambery basenotes. Christopher Street might quiet down, but it never puts its feet up.

Genres aside, the opening that grabbed your attention draws you into the perfume’s dynamic qualities. By half an hour in, you know that Christopher Street is a long-haul experience. Richness and density fill each sniff and provide the durable backdrop for the perfume’s sense of movement and change. Almost tactile sensations move around you. Metal, wood, dust, vapor.  Notes can be teased out if you have the nose for that sort of thing, but the qualities, abstract but not unkind, are what play with you. The long arc of the heart is an olfactory kaleidoscope.

Christopher Street is burdened with expectation. It has been praised for reimagining the chypre. It’s both contemporary and classic. It’s traditional, yet it is transgressive. It defies gender. The perfume community wants it to reincarnate the deceased chypre. The producer wants it to tell the story of Stonewall and New York’s queer culture.  I applaud Douglas Bender, Charenton Maceration’s founder, for his vision and his detail. Also for his chutzpah. At a time when both mainstream and niche perfumery talk a big story but set the bar so low that they could trip and still clear it, Bender clearly aims for excellence.

Christopher Street makes me question my own expectations but also the notion of expectation. Does it accomplish the two goals attached to it, namely the celebration of queer identity and the resuscitation of the chypre?  No on both counts. A more appropriate question is, is it a successful perfume? Yes, very.

I question perfume’s capacity to convey narrative—a record that can be repeated and understood by many people. I don’t go in for the story, but I do for the state, and Christopher Street coaxes many different states out of the wearer. Does this mean I’ve missed ‘the point’ of the perfume or that the perfume has failed?  Is conveying this information an inherent goal of the perfume?  Of any perfume?  I don’t, however, question the use of narrative imagery by the artist and producer in making perfume.  A complex dialogue, internal and otherwise, fosters creative activity: conception, reframing, editing, etc. This richness of ideas produces excellent perfumery, but no matter how good the work and the efforts behind it, it won’t tell stories per se. If there is a narrative to be found in perfume, it is the wearer’s, not the perfumer’s.

I don’t mean to be downer girl. I recognize that a complete experience of wearing and contemplating a perfume as well as using it to interact with others is a meaningful way to experience perfume.  I have listened in to conversations among some very smart perfume-friends discussing Christopher Street. I love perfume and I cherish the discussions it can prompt. Sharing the perfume can be stepping off point for people to merge their life experience. If that involves discussing the history and meaning of queer life, I applaud.

Two perhaps contradictory questions come out of my experience with Christopher Street. Does it tell me about Stonewall and queer New York? No, not directly.  But will I buy Charenton Macerations 2nd perfume when it’s released? Yes, I hope to be the first in line. I appreciate that Douglas Bender and perfumer Ralf Schwieger give us so much to think about in this rich, perplexing perfume. I loved the classic chypres, but I’ll take ambiguity over nostalgia any day.