(image, Queen Elizabeth peeking around the corner of The Royal Albert Hall)
Perfumer Christopher Sheldrake with Pierre Bourdon (1992 by Shiseido, rereleased in 2009 by Serge Lutens)
Evolution over time is highly valued in perfumery. Headnotes, heartnotes, basenotes. “Linear” is often derogatory. A linear fragrance or one that does not demonstrate substantial change over time is considered either lacking or a failure. The traditional categories, fougere, chypre, oriental (could we please get a better word for this?) are all defined by their changes over time. A good, proper perfume must demonstrate development yet consistency from start to finish.
Feminité du Bois is a definitively linear fragrance. It demonstrates strengths that a typical ‘evolving’ perfume generally does not have. The experience of Feminité du Bois is that it all comes at you at once. It’s not an onslaught. It’s just that all the elements seem to have a similar intensity so that you can smell the fruit, the wood, the violet-floral in equal measure. All the set pieces are in place and the development is that of a fugue, where you notice different elements at different times. It’s a great fragrance for contemplation in this sense. The ongoing juxtaposition of the pieces makes you reconsider the perfume again and again as you wear it. And like a fugue, the composition, the geometry of the component parts, remains the same, but the whole piece gets shifted up or down over time so that perspective becomes the variable, not time.
To me, the fear of this approach is that you could wind up with a rather cold, impassive perfume. You might contemplate perspective, but it’s not exactly a thrill-ride. But Feminité du Bois avoids these problems by having a beautiful harmonic intensity. It just keeps coming around the corner at you. I appreciate why people use the term radiant to describe Feminité du Bois.
Feminité du Bois is purportedly one of the perfumes made with a very high percentage of iso-E Super. It is neither the perfume with the highest amount, nor the first to use it in such high percentage. Feminité du Bois and other ‘new linears’ of its era seem not so much a change in style as a categorical shift in approach. The notion of how a perfume works is fundamentally different here than in, say, the category-defining Mitsouko with its archetypal top, middle and base.
There certainly are bad linear fragrances. But then again there are equally bad perfumes that demonstrate an ugly evolution over time. ‘Linear’ alone doesn’t connote ‘bad’, it’s just a more recent form in the tradition of classical perfumery.