Two weeks ago I started an internship in a building conveniently located near Holt Renfrew (a higher-end department store with nauseous, condescending staff, but a pleasing curation of perfumes). This bodes well for the blog and bad for my wallet. Having heard much about her, I swept down on the Jo Malone display like a ghoul upon the living, but quickly discovered that her nose and mine have little in common — the plight to packaging fetishism is that disappointment is rampant. Of the 20 (rounding down, probably – one must credit proficiency where it’s due) the sales associate begrudgingly sprayed for me, only a couple really stood out. Blue Agava Cacao (smells like a feisty angel), for one, and Orange Blossom (reviews to come).
After smothering all of my pulse points with Jo Malone, I turned the corner and screamed. This isn’t dramatization for the sake of blogging. There, in all its polished glass and black, laquered glory, stood a Byredo display. To put it in perspective, in case the screaming wasn’t enough: Byredo is the kind of perfume line that dreams are made of. I had previously thought that it was only available in Sweden / New York, but as luck would have it, this massive pit of money-sucking smelly water is right around the corner.
I rarely reference perfumers, but Byredo’s Ben Gorham has a fascinating story. He’s interested in fragrances for many of the reasons I am: their ability to convey (and transport one back to) a moment in time, and the power of their simplicity. He says, of his beginnings in the industry:
I put together this creative project that was more about translating specific memories into scents…I was trying to kind of see how literal I could be with the translations. [My mentor] showed me some stuff and it was very provocative, especially connected to memory. Like, I could get you to smell something and you would be like, ‘Wow…Troy…ninth grade.’ It could take you places—almost like music—in a very instant way.
Crafting scent for memory: check. Comparing perfume and music: check. I have no choice but to love him. The sales associate at the Byredo counter explained to me that each perfume channels a specific moment in time (fictional or otherwise). Take Seven Veils:
Seven Veils is a spicy oriental composition built around the warmth of vanilla flower and Indian sandalwood.
It is based on the biblical tale of Salome’s dance of the Seven Veils, a story of many layers. Tainted and bejeweled, Salome turns to the art of shameless seduction. Barefooted, sanguine and black eyed, she demands a man’s head on a plate in exchange for one single dance…
The specificity is refreshing; the perfume strings a narrative that either pleases you or repulses you. There is no ambiguity to it. Gorham is known for his (ever Swedish) minimalism – whereas other perfumers like to layer materials and notes (often to confusing and overwhelming ends), he only plays around with 5-10 at a time. The result is clear, vivid fragrances that smell like nothing you have ever smelled before.
The bottles are themselves objects of reverence. I coveted this thing on the Internet for months, not knowing how it felt in my hands or whether the quality compares to that of my idealization. Turns out it does. The glass is heavy and beautiful, and the cap houses a magnet. There is nothing about these perfumes that haven’t been thought through.
Gorham: “I played with the weight, the magnets and the caps, the quality of glass, transparency and so forth, all within this simple framework. Then for the boxes I do a typography, I designed our own typography with a friend of mine that’s quite simple but had a kind of 1920’s feel which I feel is the archetypal era for commercial perfumes.” Someone, contain me.
The one that caught my (seasonal attention) was Pulp, (which, according to basenotes, “is designed to capture the scent of flesh from the fruit of an exotic fruit bowl – notes include bergamot, blackcurrant, cardamom, fig, red apple, tiare, cedarwood, praline, peach flower.”) To be honest, I didn’t sample as many as I wanted, because the Jo Malone guy was turning the corner and giving me the stink eye. But Pulp was great, and the notes that stood out to me are: blackcurrant, fig, apple, peach. Don’t let these fresh words fool you, though: this perfume is not fruity. It is heavy, pungent. It is a fruit basket left in a heatwave, a still life that’s been still for too long.
There is something insidiously sexual about it, like falling in love with your kidnapper, or being with a boyfriend for all the wrong reasons. It projects, almost perfectly, the primal essence of the hottest days of summer: restless, languid flesh – a sweetness that lingers and is trapped in the walls, stuck in the carpet to decompose. Reviewers are torn – those who love it think it’s ripe; those who hate it think it’s rotten. To me, it’s both, and there’s something so great about that.
It also reminds me of something else that has bothered/fascinated me since I was young:
Let’s be real – papayas are fucking nasty. Who knows what’s growing in there? But in spite of its unsightly nature – or maybe because of it – I still want to pluck those black seeds one by one and bite into its soft flesh. Most of the papaya I’ve had has been prefaced by a putrid note, but sometimes I am surprised by the succulence.
It seems fitting to inaugurate a perfume blog by discussing my earliest love, the perfume that spawned my (expensive and probably indulgent) interest in fragrances. It is by no means a unique first-perfume (I had painfully dull taste at the time), but to its credit, it has significantly marked the collective adolescent memories of thousands of women, which is no small feat for a fragrance housed in a truncated water bottle.
Ralph, by Ralph Lauren. (If you stare at the letters for too long, the oddity of its consonants becomes troubling.) Its central accords* are fruity (apple, mandarin) and floral (freesia, magnolia, iris)**. As a movie, it would open on a beach with a breeze. The sun would immediately impart a headache.
As a teenage scent, it’s undeniably youthful, fresh. However, and almost immediately, Ralph turns saccharine, borderline sickening — the way that innocence and naïveté can fast become a source of irritation. Fortunately, the target audience is young. The Internet seems to bracket them at 15-25, but I would say 12-18. When you’ve seen body hair and you’re old enough to vote, the idyllic promise of Ralph should start to fade.
Launched in 2000, this perfume’s arrival was timed perfectly with the reign of …Baby One More Time era Britney Spears: fresh-faced and sweet, with an undercurrent of emergent sexuality. Not a girl, not yet a woman: this would have been a perfect tagline for the perfume. The early 2000s seemed to be a period in which postadolescent girls rushed to discover, or uncover, their own bodily depths. Expectedly, as the initial target matured, the line expanded to fit their profiles. Ralph Cool, Hot, Rocks and Wild appeared in the decade that followed – perfumes as mentors.
Another perfume that falls within this profile is DKNY’s Be Delicious, which was launched in 2009, although I could have sworn it was much earlier than that. To a twenty-something, it seems dated, like Ralph — yet its legacy is far less extensive. Playing with the cultural familiarity of Ralph‘s sweet accords (Be Delicious is also floral – magnolia, lily of the valley – and fruity, like its bottle suggests), the perfume spoke to the newer generation of women at the cusp of their sexuality. It makes sense: an apple, after all, is where innocence was first lost.
* Per Wikipedia, “Perfume is described in a musical metaphor as having three sets of notes, making the harmonious scent accord. The notes unfold over time, with the immediate impression of the top note leading to the deeper middle notes, and the base notes gradually appearing as the final stage. These notes are created carefully with knowledge of the evaporation process of the perfume.”
** For full descriptions of a perfume’s note pyramid, check out Basenotes.