(images, Nick Wooster)
Perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour
Sartorial demonstrates the difficulty of story-telling in perfumery. Penhaligon’s own press, and a number of reviews tell you that Sartorial paints a picture of a British bespoke tailor’s shop in the 21st century. Take apart a known reference, reinterpret it with a contemporary smirk, change the context—classic postmodernism. The equation of tailor’s shop with fougère is understandable. The late 19th century was the era of the fern and the Victorian gentleman’s tailor. Then to fuse the fougère with scents one might find in a tailor’s workroom is a more tenuous step. To my mind the story of the tailor’s shop is a bit of schtick. It also serves to create an expectation that can’t help but be frustrated.
Perfume can conjure and it can evoke, two words I’ve read about Sartorial. But it simply can’t tell over the lengths of paragraphs the same narrative to each person who wears it. In this case the fiction is told with very few words. Simply to mention a British bespoke tailor’s shop ties together fantasy, aspiration and fetish in a few short words. But then to tell us about the cloth, the cabinetry, the wax, the thread… Oy gevalt. It’s like Ralph Lauren/GQ porn from the 1980s.
All the above would matter less if the fragrance told me its own actual story, or took me a on bit of a journey. But I don’t find Sartorial a pleasant fragrance. The starch-and-steam-iron-like note up top can be an attempt to elicit the image of a steam iron in use but it smells out of place and metallically flat in its floral/spicy setting. As Sartorial progresses the sweet overlap of notes of patchouli, waxy honey, and caramelized lavender turn it into a bland gourmand-like fragrance. I’m a fan of Bertrand Duchaufour, but to me, Sartorial is the latest cut of the emperor’s clothes.
The fragrances of Etat Libre d’Orange share the conceit of fantasy-narrative, but their approach of story or hint of portraiture are more successful than Sartorial’s full-blown Victorian fantasy. (To be fair, ELdO’s laughably pretentious, simply bad text is far worse than Penhaligon’s here. Enough so that maybe it’s easier to dismiss.) But Tom of Finland gives you a loaded, iconic image and a fragrance. Rossy de Palma gives you an actor and a fragrance. The rest is up to you and the perfume.
Please measure the above with the fact that the fantasy that Sartorial wants to give you, that of a 21st century world of people who frequent tailors, has no appeal for me. Maybe if it did I might enjoy Sartorial. Who knows?