The Sunday Magazine: Empire

There are many reasons I watch television. One of them is the opportunity to watch outsized characters do outsized things which make no sense. This is the epitome of mindless entertainment. When it is done right you just sit back and let it wash over you with the silliness of it all. This particular form of visual storytelling was perfected in the 1980’s with the two series, Dallas and Dynasty. The structure of both series was similar. There is a family business run by a patriarch for whom you alternately root for and against. The various members of the family and their interactions with that man as he approves or disapproves of their choices. Dallas left the air in 1991 and there really hasn’t been another one of these kind of shows since. Almost twenty-five years later the genre is back with a fantastic twist in the new Fox series Empire.

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The business in Empire is the music business and the central patriarch is Lucius Lyon, played by Terrence Howard. Lucius runs Empire Records and has been diagnosed with ALS and has been given three years to live. His ex-wife Cookie played by the fabulous Taraji P. Henson has just returned from a 17-year jail sentence for drug dealing. She confronts Lucius and reminds him it was the drug money which helped fund the early days of Empire Records and she wants her half of the business. Lucius has to decide which of his three sons will take over the business when he dies. Andre, the Wharton business graduate. Jamal, the gay middle son. Or Hakeem the young musically talented socially reckless son. Everyone is plotting their own path to eventually take over Empire Records.

Empire

The Cast of Empire

All of this is set against the music business background and Empire is liberally using different music stars throughout. It allows for excess and conspicuous consumption to be displayed at will; another necessity for these kind of shows. Empire is produced by Lee Daniels and he has compiled an African-American cast of role players all chewing scenery with the best of them. Nobody is better at it than Mr. Howard and Ms. Henson. If there is any shortcoming to the show in these early episodes it is that the screen seems less bright when neither of them are on it. In the scenes they do together their complicated relationship is exactly what this kind of melodrama is made of. That both actors pull it off so believably is what makes Empire stand out.

I’m writing about this now because Empire has only run five episodes and it is starting to build buzz and momentum so it is easy to catch up. That way you can join me with my bowl of popcorn and cackling laugh when one character betrays the other. Empire has brought back the modern overheated retelling of King Lear with a hip-hop beat and I am loving it.

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Estee Lauder Metropolis- Liza Explains It All?

After this past year’s buying spree of niche brands Le Labo and Frederic Malle it is hard to imagine a time when Estee Lauder was not a powerhouse company. That time was the mid 1980’s as the brand labored to understand the shifting beauty demographic. They were having so much trouble figuring out what a 1980’s woman wanted they thought they might enter the masculine perfume sector of the market. They were no better prepared for that either.

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In 1987 creative directors Evelyn Lauder and Karen Khoury hired perfumer Pierre Wargnye to compose Metropolis. The marketing was all geared to the “greed is good” generation. Metropolis wasn’t about getting the girl. It was about getting the money that would get you the girl. Metropolis was all about “the irresistible possibility of success”. M. Wargnye was on a creative roll having created 1982’s Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir and followed that up with 1985’s Boss Number One. He had created two memorable takes on fougeres and Metropolis was going to go in a slightly different direction. The problem with Metropolis was the timing and the promotion. By the time Metropolis reached the department store in 1987 the concept of conspicuous consumption was beginning its eventual death spiral. The tastes of men were turning to fresher aquatics as Davidoff Cool Water would make a splash months after the release of Metropolis. In the most confounding move Estee Lauder hired Liza Minnellli to be the exclusive spokesperson for Metropolis for a year for the then unheard of $1 million. She was in a disastrous television commercial where she was filmed around New York City while singing “City Lights” before delivering the tag line, “Wear it and you own the world”. As Metropolis was rolled out in November of 1987 she made in-store appearances which were less about the fragrance and more about her signing autographs, for exactly one hour at each store. So there it is Metropolis was a casualty of shifting priorities, shifting tastes, and shifting societal priorities. Whew! It would be gone by 1992.

When I bought my bottle during that November of 1987 I fell in love with it right away. I was wearing Calvin Klein Obsession for Men and Metropolis offered something completely different. M Wargnye would take liberties with his successful fougeres and make Metropolis more woody shrouded in greens and leather.

Metropolis opens upon an herbal and lavender pairing. The best lavender has a significant herbal character. I didn’t know this at the time but I do now. The more I’ve learned the more I appreciate the top notes as M. Wargnye adds sage and basil to pull out the herbalness of the lavender. It allowed Metropolis to have a safe floral character that a man would wear. The heart is a fantastic spiced and incense affair. Cinnamon, bay leaves, and clove mix with incense. If there was a “money” accord in Metropolis it was this. The base notes are a leather accord of vetiver, patchouli, and oakmoss combined with sandalwood and amber.

Metropolis has 14-16 hour longevity and powerhouse level sillage.

Metropolis is not one of these highly sought after discontinued perfumes and you can find it for very reasonable prices. I think it is a better perfume than either of M. Wargnye’s more well-known creations. I still wear Metropolis to work a couple times a year. While it may not make me feel like Gordon Gekko, thankfully, it does make me smell pretty damn good.

Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle I purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Hermes Rose Amazone- Trying Not to Lose the Melody

I am a big fan of the singing competition American Idol. Every year at this part of the competition they reach the point where all those who made the initial cut at auditions come together in Hollywood so that the judges can further winnow them down to a final 24 contestants from around 200. One of the ways a contestant tries to stick out is to take a well-known song and re-interpret it. The bad ones destroy the song so it is unrecognizable and the good ones put a fresh spin on it. The judges will often remark after the performance that the singer did a good job of not losing the melody. The new re-interpretation of Hermes Amazone called Rose Amazone felt like in-house perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena’s attempt to make a younger hipper version of the original, without losing the melody.

The original Amazone was released in 1974 and was composed by perfumer Maurice Maurin. That original version was meant to be a luxury alternative to Revlon’s Charlie for this nascent “working woman” who needed something to wear on the job. M. Maurin used the incredible green of blackcurrant buds with a healthy dose of raspberry. That it wore its fruit so unabashedly on its sleeve was different at that time. Fifteen years later M. Ellena would reformulate for a different time. Now he would really amplify the fruit throughout the design making the citrus zing and the berries boisterous. It lost some of the blackcurrant bud underneath all of that. The base notes were made creamier woody as a sandalwood played a more prominent role. These two versions are markedly different enough so that even a non-perfume lover who only wore Amazone noticed when her 1974 bottle was done and she bought a 1989 bottle. This would not be the first time I explained reformulation to a confused consumer. To maintain the singing analogy I would say the 1989 version of Amazone was sung out at the top of its lungs and if you like power ballads, it was like that.

ellena

Jean-Claude Ellena

Even though Rose Amazone has a different name it really could be called Amazone 2015 because it definitely is constructed around the same melody. The stated objective is to appeal to a modern younger woman. The idea seems to be that this woman wants a perfume with a slower stripped down melody from the original. That is just what M. Ellena attempts to deliver.

Rose Amazone starts off with a much more pronounced citrus opening as the blackcurrant bud is moved into the heart leaving a very sparkly shiny opening. The grapefruit is the leader of this citrus pack but they’re all here. The rose comes out and this is a big change as the original has a lot more floral notes. Here M. Ellena leaves the rose to do the job by itself. The blackcurrant bud and the raspberry show up near simultaneously with the rose. This is where Rose Amazone slows the beat down so that you focus on these three keynotes of all three versions. I really liked this combination very much. The woodier base of the 1989 version of Amazone is what you finish on in Rose Amazone, as you return to the original melody.

Rose Amazone has 8-10 hour longevity and above average sillage.

I think M. Ellena has done a creditable job at making a more modern younger version of Amazone with Rose Amazone. He stayed true to the melody by going unplugged and letting the keynotes in the heart sing out beautifully.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Hermes.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Reviews Brooklyn Perfume Company Oud, Amber, Sandalwood, and Musk- The Perfume Chemistry Set

There are so many different paths to the creation of an independent perfumer. One of the more common stories is when someone who worked with food gets the desire to make perfume. That story fits James Peterson the founder of Brooklyn Perfume Company. Mr. Peterson after years in the restaurant business rose to prominence as the author of a series of books on cooking. His first book Sauces is part of my kitchen bookshelf. Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention he has a degree in chemistry. When I read Sauces I didn’t realize this but I felt it was written as clearly as an experimental procedure I use in the lab. Last year Mr. Peterson made the leap into perfumery and created his own independent brand. The first four releases are single note studies: Oud, Amber, Sandalwood, and Musk.

james peterson

James Peterson

These first four fragrances feel like the beginning steps as Mr. Peterson keeps all four of them exceedingly simple. My overall impression of them is these are the first accords of his independent perfume career. They are simply constructed and show an understanding of raw materials but only one feels more like a real finished perfume.

Oud is made up of real oud; the new sustainable kind which has been colloquially dubbed “white oud”. It is a fascinating ingredient to use as it is real oud with all of the rich subtleties that make the real thing. What is different about it is it lacks the age of a classic oud tree. So Oud comes off like a precocious adolescent. It wants you to notice it but once you do it seems somehow callow. This is where Mr. Peterson is similar to his ingredient as both will get much better with experience. Oud needs at least one or two more contrasting notes to properly frame this unique ingredient. Instead Oud is more like one of the spices on the spice rack that will only become great when combined with the right ingredients.

Amber suffers from the same issue as Oud. Mr. Peterson has an exquisite single ingredient but he chooses to just let that ingredient carry the fragrance. For anyone who has not smelled a fossilized amber it will seem like something revelatory. Fossilized amber, like the white oud, offers a fantastic focal point for a perfumer to attach other notes to. The very nature of choosing which facets to enhance or contrast is what makes for a great perfume. Amber is a great ingredient in search of a perfume.

For Sandalwood Mr. Peterson again puts on display a contemporary source of a rare raw material as he is using the newly sustainable sources of Mysore sandalwood. As I’ve already repeated twice before it is a wonderful opportunity for someone who has never smelled pure sandalwood to have a chance. It also again is the only thing you smell. There is an excellent raw material here and I think the sustainable Mysore sandalwood is much better than I could have hoped for. Sandalwood lets you see that sandalwood on its own isn’t as sweet and creamy as it is when you usually encounter it. That requires the addition of notes to modulate it to form the desired effect.

As I tried the first three offerings of Brooklyn Perfume Company they felt like a chef assembling the ingredients for a great sauce. Or even a chemist taking down the chemicals for which he will use in his experiment. This is why Musk is the only one of the first four releases which succeeds at actually being a real composition. This time Mr. Peterson couldn’t just go get some real musk oil and put it in a bottle and go, “voila!” This time he had to take an array of synthetic musks and combine and balance them to create his desired “funky” musk. It is because that funky musk actually makes it into the bottle that I can see the potential in Mr. Peterson as a perfumer. It is easy to combine the synthetic musks and get something strongly animalic but it is also often beastly, in a bad way, to wear. Mr. Peterson had to take the time to make these notes combine in a way to create that effect while still being wearable. Musk feels like a real perfume because early on the fresh linen musks are apparent before the wilder members of the family arrive and shred the freshly cleaned sheets. Musk holds at this point for a few hours before finally shedding a lot of the funk leaving a domesticated animal in its wake. It might behave but it still has some bite.

Mr. Peterson’s experience as a chef has stood him well in assembling the best raw materials to work with. Now he has to channel that experience as a chef, and a chemist, and combine these materials into perfumes that let us in on his vision of what perfume can be. He has all the pieces to make a fantastic perfume “sauce”. Musk shows he has the patience to get it right. Now he just needs to get in the lab and show us what he is about.

Disclosure: this review was based on samples I purchased.

Mark Behnke

Comme des Garcons 101-Five to Get You Started

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When you ask the question about where niche perfume started there are historical time-based answers. If you ask me when niche started I would answer it began in 1994 with the release of Comme des Garcons. For the last twenty-one years Comme des Garcons has continued to be the trendsetter within the niche perfume sector. A very large reason for this is the same Creative Director, Christian Astuguevieille, has over seen every fragrance with Comme des Garcons as part of its name. Part of what makes his approach so successful is he also seeks out interesting co-collaborators to add fresh new vision leading to unique perfumes. If you think about many of the long-standing trends in the independent/niche perfume area Comme des Garcons and M. Astuguevieille were there first. It is why every new release is anticipated for the possibility that the beginning of what is next has arrived. It is a huge line of nearly 100 releases. Here are five which will give you an idea of what this brand is all about.

Perfumer Mark Buxton did the original Comme des Garcons in 1994. Five years later he would compose Comme des Garcons 2, which I believe to be one of the greatest perfumes of the last 50 years. Mr. Buxton took the set of aldehydes deemed unpleasant. By placing those in a matrix of equally quirky notes he created a perfume equivalent of “Revenge of the Nerds”. The ear wax smelling aldehydes, cumin, coriander, mate, and angelica. These unloved notes came together in an accord of intense beauty. A swirl of spices as cinnamon, nutmeg, and bay leaf transition to a base of dark notes meant to convey a feeling of inkiness. In 2015 this seems like a normal set of notes. In 1999 it was an act of bravado by Messrs. Astuguevieille and Buxton. If I am right about niche starting in 1994 with Comme des Garcons it was Comme des Garcons 2 which displayed its potential to be something amazing.

Throughout the Naughts Comme des Garcons released series exploring themes and by 2007 they wanted to do an exploration of “luxe”. Luxe: Patchouli by perfumer Antoine Maisondieu is the best of this. M. Maisondieu chooses to explore every facet of patchouli. Early on a collection of vegetal notes, fenugreek and parsley, enhance the herbal nature. Oak and opoponax the slightly resinous facet. Finally a base of sandalwood and vetiver take it into the deep woods of high quality patchouli. I dare anyone to say this reminds them of Woodstock ’69.

Christian-Astuguevieille 

Christian Astuguevieille

Over the last few years M. Astuguevieille has reached out to all manner of collaborators to create perfume co-productions. Early in 2008 he collaborated with Monocle publisher Tyler Brule to oversee Commes des Garcons X Monocle Scent One: Hinoki. Perfumer Antoine Maisondieu created the perfect Japanese aesthetic of a meditative perfume. Hinoki is really a study of woods of all kinds. From freshly cut pines releasing a camphor-like scent into the air. Clean hinoki wood provides a lilting heart before a sturdy base of vetiver and incense. All of this is kept transparent and incredibly engaging for being so light. I liked it fine when I first tried it but it has risen greatly in my estimation over the years and is another huge artistic success for the brand.

As much as I like Hinoki later in the same year Commes des Garcons X Stephen Jones by Antoine Maisondieu, yet again, would be even better. The press materials described it as “a violet hit by a meteorite”. That kind of description is made for eye rolling and derision. Instead M. Maisondieu not only realizes it but he makes one of the best modern violet perfumes ever. This is a perfume of accords. A hot mineral accord to evoke the meteorite. The smell of burning plastic and wood to evoke the house it has crashed into; and a ridiculous abstract violet accord at the heart for all of this to cling to.

M. Astuguevieille wanted to make a perfume which captured the British fashion icon Daphne Guinness. Ms. Guinness was a friend of the late Alexander McQueen. M. Astuguevieille would ask perfumer Antoine Lie to capture this bigger-than-life personality as a perfume called Daphne. This was the beginning of the Retro Nouveau trend and Daphne is right there at the leading edge of it. M. Lie mixes bitter orange and incense into a heart of rich orris and tuberose. The base uses oud, patchouli and vanilla. When I first tried Daphne it felt like a perfume from 70 years ago but it also smelled like a perfume from today too. This is what Retro Nouveau means.

An exploration of the Comme des Garcons perfumes is almost a perfume education all by itself. I think it is almost required reading if you love perfume. The five above are a great place to start.

Disclosure: I purchased bottles of all the perfumes mentioned.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Maison Francis Kurkdjian A la Rose- Rose Squared

I first became aware of perfumer Francis Kurkdjian as most did from his groundbreaking Jean-Paul Gaultier Le Male that he composed with Christopher Sheldrake in 1995. In the twenty years since M. Kurkdjian has left an impression across all sectors of fragrance. While he still works for many brands since 2009 he has also composed perfumes for his own line Maison Francis Kurkdjian. The latest A la Rose represents the 24th perfume he has made for his own brand. M Kurkdjian has one of the most distinct aesthetics in all of perfumery but when working for another brand he has to bend it to another creative director’s desire. With the perfumes he makes for Maison Francis Kurkdjian he has more freedom to make something more true to his desires. A la Rose is a good example of his sense of style.

rose harvest in grasse

Harvesting Rose de Mai in Grasse

A la Rose is a full-blooded rose soliflore. Actually that isn’t correct it is a rose fragrance made up of two rose varieties Bulgarian Damascena rose and Rose de Mai from Grasse. These are two of the most distinctive rose sources a perfumer can use. Damascena rose has a fresh quality to it as well as a significant fruity aspect. M. Kurkdjian uses it as the focal point in the early going. Rose de Mai has more of a sensuality to it with its honey-like character enhancing that feel. M. Kurkdjian not only uses these rose raw materials but he uses them in overdose. It really embellishes these raw materials making it easy to pick up the fruity and honey nuances. What also makes it easy is M. Kurkdjian doesn’t clutter up A la Rose with too much else so that the roses are always right out in front.

francis kurkdjian

Francis Kurkdjian

A la Rose does open with the Damascena rose. This rose is probably responsible for the entire fruity floral family as perfumers tried to capture its unique profile with lesser materials. M. Kurkdjian takes the Damascena rose and lets it unfurl like a rose bud. At first you get the unmistakable rose bouquet then because it is in such high concentration the pear facets are most readily apparent. Bergamot and orange are present to focus that pear character and make it crisp. It has been a while since I have enjoyed a rose opening to a perfume as much as I enjoyed this. M. Kurkdjian envelops you in the beauty of Damascena rose. As a sort of palate cleanser a heart of violet and magnolia start to temper the fruitiness. This leads to the Rose de Mai’s emergence. Rose de Mai is a sultry rose; in A la Rose it exists as counterpoint to Damascena rose’s genial quality. Rose de Mai has this gorgeous honey quality which only truly flowers when it is used at high concentrations. I am often disappointed at perfumers who will overwhelm that honeyed beauty with other heavy notes. M. Kurkdjian wants it to be front and center over the last part of A la Rose and so he provides cedar and a few musks to provide a clean frame to house the Rose de Mai.

A la Rose has 10-12 hour longevity and above average sillage.

Rose perfumes are everywhere and it takes something different to make me sit up and take notice. The use of these two rose raw materials and the opportunity to let one own the early hours of wear and the other the later hours makes for a complete rose experience. If you are a lover of rose perfumes A la Rose is a must sniff.

Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle provided by Maison Francis Kurkdjian.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Atelier Cologne Pomelo Paradis- Creating a Hybrid

I met Sylvie Ganter in the spring of 2010 at Bergdorf Goodman as she presented the original five fragrances which make up the Atelier Cologne Collection Originale. Mme Ganter wanted to revolutionize cologne by taking it places cologne had never gone before. Along with her husband, Christophe Cervasel, they have made Atelier Cologne the leader in transforming the way we view cologne. All Atelier Colognes are called Cologne Absolue by upping the perfume oil in their fragrances they produce. They took the architecture that was cologne and made it recognizably cologne but also pushed the boundaries of what that design could bear. Over the last five years it has been a distinct delight to observe where Atelier Cologne would choose to go. Five years after their beginning they have chosen to return to the Collection Originale and release a new one, Pomelo Paradis.

ralf christophe and sylvie

Ralf Schwieger, Christophe Cervasel, and Sylvie Ganter (l. to r.)

Pomelo Paradis was composed by perfumer Ralf Schwieger. Hr Schwieger was responsible for what is perhaps now considered the flagship of the brand Orange Sanguine. It was this perfume which displayed all of the, now realized, potential of Cologne Absolue. Hr Schwieger has been an integral part of the process as all of the Atelier Cologne fragrances, since the originals, have been signed by him or Jerome Epinette. I think it is this consistency of creative direction and perfumer which has made Atelier Cologne one of the best new brands of the last five years.

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Pomelo

Pomelo Paradis returns Atelier Cologne back to its citrus roots. Many are going to smell Pomelo Paradis and exclaim grapefruit and they will be right but they will also be wrong. Almost all of the more common citrus fruits are hybrids. It is a trait common to the family and it is why you can have so many different varieties of limes or lemons. Nature is its own experimentalist creating new varieties based upon what pollen can combine. Scientists now believe all citrus fruit came from four basic fruits, citron, mandarin, papeda, and pomelo. Grapefruit comes from the natural hybridization of pomelo and mandarin. It then occurred to me that Atelier Cologne is also a hybrid of its own as pure parfum and cologne have formed Cologne Absolue.

Hr. Schwieger chooses to re-create nature’s work in the top notes of Pomelo Paradis by taking pomelo and mandarin and combining them to create a grapefruit accord. This is an important distinction as Hr. Schwieger could have just chosen to take grapefruit and start this perfume with that. By combining pomelo and mandarin it creates a nuanced grapefruit accord that would not have been easily achievable otherwise. Together the two pieces give a grapefruit with real heft without being overwhelming. A very judicious use of blackcurrant bud by Hr. Schwieger tunes the grapefruit accord further. Grapefruit has a bit of a sulfurous quality. The blackcurrant bud adds that in while also adding some green sturdiness. The heart is why Ateleier Cologne has succeeded, in this re-imagining of cologne, as a floral bouquet of rose and orange blossom cut by mint take this very traditional opening and move it off in a new direction. Mint has to be used very carefully. Hr. Schwieger knows how to keep it as a participant without overwhelming. The mint in Pomelo Paradis is like a sprig of mint added to your morning grapefruit as it adds contrast but in small quantity. This all settles down onto a traditional bed of vetiver and amber.

Pomelo Paradis has 8-10 hour longevity and above average sillage.

Pomelo Paradis is a delightful circling back to the very roots of Atelier Cologne and is also an equally delightful hybrid of all that the brand stands for. As much as I have been enjoying wearing Pomelo Paradis I know it will be right at the front of my summer rotation. Pomelo Paradis is everything that Atelier Cologne does right and that is almost everything.

Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Atelier Cologne.

Mark Behnke