Un Parfum de Puta
Perfumer Jean Carles
I had an ah-ha moment when I tried vintage Tabu for the first time. Suddenly Youth Dew, Opium and Coco made perfect sense—they were descendants of Tabu. But it was when I learned that Tabu had been composed by Jean Carles, who a little over a decade later would create Miss Dior, that the other shoe dropped. I know Miss Dior very well. Discovering Tabu long after Miss Dior I was intrigued to find that genres notwithstanding, the two perfumes had remarkable similarities.
Miss Dior was a stiff, animalic floral chypre that wore like the threat of a slap to the face. Let Roudnitska mess around with boozy fruit and languorous tones, Carles recognized the inherent severity of the chypre accord and dressed it out accordingly: parched florals, powdered animalics and inky moss. He had applied a similar logic to Tabu. If the oriental genre is built from forceful materials and ferocious tones, why disguise it with tassels and trim? Why try to tame it?
Tabu backs up its vaguely threatening name with a strapping, seductive fragrance. Similar to Miss Dior’s perfectly calibrated aloofness, Tabu’s side-eye can be challenging. These are intimidating perfumes. The combination of aggressive, spiced florals and powdered leather is just one example of the hard/soft conflict seeded throughout Tabu. (Spoiler alert: the hard edge always wins.) Tabu investigates olfactory extremes without dicking around with the comfortable center. Vanillic amber oriental perfumes often dive straight for the soft middle ground and wind up a bit eye-glazey. The trap for the perfumer is emphasizing coziness at the expense of spine and coming up with olfactory comfort food.
Tabu’s dense powdery opening is in fact sweet but it’s a red herring. As the sweetness of the topnote settles, the acerbic edge of the spiced resin accord comes forward to create a fascinating counterbalance. The powder lasts well into the long-arc heartnotes and the way that it’s cantilevered off the bitter base of resins focusses attention more on texture than aroma. The cinnamon-clove spices have a similarly tricky balancing act. They alternate between hot and cold without ever dwindling to lukewarm. Carles seems willing to concede the aesthetic middle ground, finding more value at the ends of the spectrum. Tabu is technically an oriental but had as much in common with the big tobacco and leather perfumes of the 20s and 30s as it did with the recumbent Shalimar. No fear of lack of spine here.
Though Tabu’s overall shape is defined by the resinous/woody/leathery core of the perfume, much of the tone comes from the florals. The floral qualities of the mellis accord on which Tabu is based come from a set of aromachemicals that was quite modern at the time. Early synthetics aimed at isolating traits and compounds from specific botanical ideals. This ‘Nature Made Better’ concept might seem limited compared to more recent synthetic materials that don’t try to mimic nature, but it was the working model of the era. Materials like benzyl salicylate, eugenol and hydroxycitronellal were used give amped-up impersonations of jasmine, carnation and muguet. The particular style and snarl of Tabu’s florals remind me of the glowing musky florals of the time like Caron Bellodgia (1927) and Worth Je Reviens (1932). The spiced patchouli base of Tabu is aggressive but the florals give the perfume agility and elegance.
The contrast between stiff exterior and animalic undercurrent highlights Tabu’s titillating character. Like the style of the florals, the style of eroticism seems era-specific. It’s a spin on the id/super-ego schtick of the psychoanalytic model that was dominant at the time. Carnal nature is held in check by social convention and the resulting tension is kinky-hot.
Jacques Guerlain’s Shalimar and Mitsouko are considered the superlative models of their genres, and for valid reasons. His perfumes had superior form and elaborate, sophisticated style. They also had a larger-than-life Auntie Mame quality. Next to their layered, accessorized style, Tabu and Miss Dior came off as starched and corseted. Carles’ style was less opulent than Guerlain’s but not a bit less complex. Carles differed from Guerlain in that he found that the richness of the oriental was not in the drape but in the tailoring.
Despite coming from such distinct genres, the consistency of Carles approach shows common themes and motifs. Tabu and Miss Dior investigate a similar set of aesthetic subjects. Reading them together gives the impression of a well-considered, authoritative point of view. If it’s impossible, or at least unlikely, to read a perfumer’s ideas definitively though his work, it is possible to see that Carles worked from a strong conceptual framework. It’s possible to form impression and even start to draw some conclusions.
When I fall into the k-hole of perfume nostalgia and think how great it must have been to smell these perfumes in their day—how much better than the contemporary experience of fading vintage bottle and grim reformulations—I eventually find my way back to this: It’s so much better now. My old bottle of Tabu might have damaged topnotes and Miss Dior’s houndtoothed heart might have faded. The current model of Miss Dior? Fuck me if I’d wear it. It’s like being locked in a room with a corpse. But I can smell Tabu and Miss Dior—and Ma Griffe and Ambush for that matter—and know the perfumer and his curriculum vitae. Know who his contemporaries were. Know the influences on his work. Perfume is at least as much about ideas for me as it is about aromas. The opportunity to experience a perfumer’s entire artistic career is an advantage of our era and one of the great pleasures available to perfume fans.
Image from Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.