If you wear a certain perfume, particularly if it’s your signature scent, you’re less likely to see it as the runner-up in a perfume line. You might wear Champs Elysées by Guerlain. Yet mention the name Guerlain to most perfume wearers and they would likely mention ten other perfumes including Mitsouko, Shalimar, Idyle, Le Petit Robe Noir Couture, or even Vetiver before they get to yours. Many of these in-between fragrances are rescued from ignominy by the fume-heads who keep their legends alive online.
But then there’s the perfume that is discussed by neither the masses nor the cognoscenti. These perfumes suffer from the middle child syndrome. Not the adored first child, not the troublesome baby, this in-betweener is the antithesis of Goldilocks’s ‘just right.’ In this case the middle child is ignored.
Below are some perfumes that you might not have considered. If you care to, they offer a lot. In fact, for anyone looking for a distinctive signature fragrance, feast your noses.
Etat Libre d’Orange Vraie Blonde. Perfumer, Antoine Maisondieu, 2006.
Vraie Blonde gets lost in the disparity between the perfume and the marketing of in the house Etat Libre. ELDO tout their outrageousness, their difference from all other perfume. The only way that Vraie Blonde meets this image is that it doesn’t appear particularly contemporary. (This is a compliment.)
Vraie Blonde may not smell like the smoldering perfumes of the 1920s, or even our fictions of them, but it holds to the principles that gave rise to those perfumes. It is rich and complex, and while it jumps out of the bottle at you, the first impression is only the start. With an aldehyde-floral mix, and a heavy dose of myrrh, Vraie Blonde is striking and beautiful, though not necessarily pretty. It has great sillage, and an inescapable presence, but because you’ll likely never have smelled anything like it before, it asks you to approach it. Aloof to some, ravishing to those who take up the glove.
Guerlain Jardins de Bagatelle. Perfumer, Jean Paul Guerlain, 1983.
Jardins de Bagatelle, Guerlain’s contribution to the over-arching florientals of the 1980s is a wonderfully polarizing perfume. Many despise it and associate it with the worst of the 80s. It is an enormous, rumbling spicy floral and I’ll admit I’ve put on too much of this perfume and felt that it was oppressive. But with the right dose it’s a heady floral with a cigarette-raspy voice and not a hint of the sweetness of the fruity florals that would follow it.
Annick Goutal Passion. Perfumer, Annick Goutal, 1983.
Passion is a heady ylang-ylang mixed floral. Next to their other floral perfumes which can read as composed to the point of prim, Passion is a monster. It plays ylang-ylang perfectly and balances lushness with a chill. The perfume’s sultriness draws you in then then pulls you under. Just like undertow, it seems that you’re becoming one with the water until you realize you have no control.
Lancome Sikkim. Perfumer, Robert Gannon (date?)
Sikkim was one of the perfumes released in Lancome’s La Collection line of reissued classics in 2001-2002. Reactions were confusing as the line-up changed in midstream and opinions varied whether the perfumes were one-shot deal or would remain permanent offering from Lancome. Magie, Climat and Cuir were praised as nicely done re-orchestrations. Mille et une Rose and Sagamore got a bit lost in the shuffle. Mille was in the first release of the lineup, and was hugely popular. It was then pulled, for unknown reasons, and replaced by Sagamore, one of the vintage masculine’s from the Lancome line. It’s no surprise then that Sagamore, a genius fougere/chypre mix, was not well received as the unpublicized replacement for the girliest perfume of the line.
Sikkim is the perfect example of the middle child. At the first release of the line, it was overshadowed by its siblings. With the launch-balk-relaunch of the line, who could notice anything but the confusion? Funny, then, that Sikkim turns out to be a rugged, unruly Oriental chypre whose sillage is more like the blast from a jet engine than a gentle wake. Rough, throaty, spicy-rich yet dry as a bone, Sikkim tears up the turf like Aromatics Elixir and Scherrer de Scherrer. A bucking bronco.
YSL Y. Perfumer, Jean Amic, 1964.
How is it that we discuss Mitsouko, Diorella and Rochas Femme endlessly and we leave YSL’s 1964 beauty off the list of chypres from the Golden Age? It is a balanced green chype, both grassy and fruity. Y, similarly to Diorella, hints at a particular arrangement of light and dark, as if you’re looking at a day-lit scene from the comfort of shade. Different than Diorella, though, the plummy fruit note hasn’t turned.
Aramis JHL. (Perfumer? Bernard Chant? Josephine Catapano?) 1982.
JHL is an odd bird, a hybrid of hybrids. It has features drawn from the resinous, heavy orientals the 1920s and from the men’s 1980s power fragrances alike. Is a spicy, dry floriental, heavy on the carnation. Others have mentioned that Estée Lauder’s male fragrances are often underestimated both in comparison to their sisters in the EL line and to other men’s fragrances. JHL is the textbook example. We fail to think of it when we reminisce about the days of Antaeus, Kouros and Krizia Uomo. And when discussing EL’s heritage perfumes, we forget to mention that JHL, which derives from Cinnabar, is in fact a great improvement on it!
JHL reminds me not to forget to acknowledge Estée Lauder’s work on the behalf of men. The perfumes she produced for men neither underestimated them nor neglected their desire for quality and complexity in their fragrances.
Comme des Garçons Daphne Guinness. Perfumer, Antoine Lie, 2009.
Daphne Guinness is an unexpected surprise. From the studiously modernist Comme des Garçons line, comes a perfume packed to the gunwales. Perhaps out of the blue for CdG, but par for the course from perfumer Anoine Lie, perfumer of much of the Etat Libre d’Orange line, who knows how to infuse a perfume with a sense of dynamics. It is a perfume portrait, complex and contradictory enough to conjure a full-blown person. It’s a ‘kitchen sink’ of a perfume, overflowing from one genre to the next with ease. Despite offering something for everyone, Guinness is best approached with few expectations. Let it take you for a ride.
Knize Sec. Perfumer unknown, 1985.
Knize Sec is bottled confidence. I don’t know of another perfume that is this buttoned-up and relaxed at the same time. It’s a combination of opposites that suggest stillness and silence.
For incense fans, not to be missed.
Parfumerie Générale Iris Orientale. Perfumer, Pierre Guillaume, 2006.
Oakmoss in a chypre perfume provides a matte background against which the other elements of the perfume can be perceived. Iris Orientale uses a cereal or grain note to serve the same purpose for Iris.
The background of this perfume is the perfect beige. Coco Chanel used beige to smart effect. It might be a subtle color, but used with intention, it enhances a composition. Iris can be a quiet note, and it just peeks through the olfactory beige of Iris Orientale showing its prettiness like the colorful lining of a garment that is noticed when a person moves a certain way.
Serge Lutens Cèdre. Perfumer, Christopher Sheldrake, 2005
Cèdre is a convoluted perfume, but it’s worth the effort. Despite the name, it’s a syrupy floriental whose heavy sweetness sets off the tuberose note by focussing on the warmer, less camphorous side of the flower. There is a cedar note, but it’s only visible through a haze of amber density which makes the tuberose seem at a distance from you, just out of reach.
Though the narcotic tone might seem to line up with the classic femme fatale stereotype, Cèdre is one of few in the Lutens line not sold as unisex. It’s a masculine! Thank you for that icing on the cake of subversion and the god-is-in-the-details humor, Uncle Serge. I appreciate the discernment and cheek.
Parfums de Nicoali Vie de Chateau Intense. Perfumer, Patricia de Nicolai. 2010
At the heart of the chypre, you find a dichotomy. The brightness of bergamot and the forest-at-dusk effect of oak moss are always present but they never really mix. They keep a polite distance. Good fences, good neighbors and all. It’s easy to see perfumes as characters, and I fall back on it as device in my writing more often than I should. But the chypre begs to be portrayed! It is a genre that becomes more understandable when you characterize it. A chypre lives two lives. It is simultaneously fresh and tarnished, and all the subtext you care to read into it is within easy reach.
Vie de Chateau is not exactly a chypre, not quite a fougère. If you imagine ‘the high life’ (rough translation of vie de chateau) as formal, starched and prim, you’re out of luck. Vie de Chateau is cozy and welcoming. All the particular descriptors of a quality object well-used fit this fragrance. Dog-eared like an old book. Frayed, like a the fabric favorite old blazer. Think of the feel of a well-worn leather glove and you’ll catch the feel of Vie de Chateau.