(image The Lady with the Veil by Alexander Roslin)
Perfumer William Thomson
Crown Perfume is now defunct, having been bought and unceremoniously dropped by Clive Christian. Apparently, he just wanted the crown image/bottle. I find it a little tough to draw a bead on Malabar not for its old-fashioned tone, but because what I sniff today might have nothing to do with the original version. Also, I know virtually nothing about 20th century English perfumery.
I was expecting something explicitly floral. Rosy, sweet, comfortable. My thought was that this would be a perfume to suit a prim, well turned-out bourgeoise English girl. But then again, 1919. WW I. Spanish flu. Perhaps not the most optimistic of years. But as it turns out, Malabar ignored my expectation. It’s a woody-floral, more precicely a woody-floriental. It doesn’t have the heady, voluptuousness that I associate with French perfumery’s approach to florals in the 20th century. Malabar is more, ‘Hhhmmm… interesting’ than it is come-hither. Malabar has the virtue of drawing attention to the person, not the perfume.
And here is precisely where Malabar seems old-fashioned. It uses beauty to express aesthetics, not to entice. It doesn’t lead with sex.
Qualitatively, Malabar strikes an almost dissonant set of top notes. It’s not dissimilar to two often maligned perfume: Estée by Estée Lauder and Jean Patou 1000. They’re called old-lady perfume, bug-spray. Classic Woody-florals have a sharpness that appeals to me. And the best woody florals are built for the long haul. The top notes are often sharp and astringent. They aren’t so much dry as tacky, like drying paint. The Patou and the Lauder both have this quality. But in the heart-notes and dry down all three have a particular characteristic of aloofness.
When talking about a person, aloofness implies a standing back, not participating. But it also suggests observation, consideration, reflection. The allure of the woody floral is that it takes you in close enough to the wearer to wonder and to be intrigued. These perfumes strike at a very specific range. Close, but not too close. They highlight the distinction between allure and tease. Malabar, 1000 & Estée don’t play with you. They aren’t coy. They’re complex.
Volume, sillage, duration. These are a perfume’s tools. They are the settings, the control panel. A ‘pretty’ perfume doesn’t leave you wondering. A bouncing Mixed-Floral shows you happiness in all its shine, even if the strain of happiness shows through. Most Fruity-Florals tell you at 30 paces exactly what they tell you when you’re standing next to them–they’re the smiley face of perfumery. The Neo-Aquatics of the Cool Water school also tell you the same thing at a distance that they do up-close. Masculine, normal. They are un-nuanced and quite deliberately so. The person who wears these wants no mistake to be made about his gender or his place in the pack.
The masculine aquatic couldn’t be more different than the classic woody-floral. The woody-floral eschews notions such as the immutable first impression, or the hand-in-hand notion that expectability is a virtue and ambiguity is a sin. Ambiguity isn’t uncertainty and mystery isn’t simply something you don’t know.