New Perfume Review Clean Reserve Hemp & Ginger- A Clean Dirty

It is gratifying to see a well-known perfume brand take some risks with their overall aesthetic and succeed. Clean, when it was established by Randi Shinder, wanted to live up to that adjective. For twelve years the perfumes which had Clean on their label were straightforward fragrances of linen, or soap, or fresh cleaned skin, or rain, they were as advertised. In 2015, Ms. Shinder developed a new collection with the name of Clean Reserve. Early on it was just deeper versions of earlier releases Rain and Skin. Within a year Ms. Shinder was collaborating with some great perfumers in a new direction. The first releases had trouble fully letting go of the Clean aesthetic. Last year with the second set of Clean Reserve releases there was more of a separation with Sel Santal standing out for being quite different. Because of this I was surprised when I was cruising Bloomingdale’s and found a new set of six Clean Reserve releases.

Randi Shinder

This a sub-collection dubbed Avant Garden which is an interesting concept for a brand which has very much not been about being avant-garde. Just as before there is still a little reluctance to let go of what Clean does well and so Galbanum & Rain, Muguet & Skin, and White Amber & Warm Cotton feel like Clean fragrances in both brand and adjective. The other three are intent on carving a different path. Saguaro Blossom & Sand grafts green succulent into a traditional floral. Sweetbriar & Moss lets the green come through a citrus and floral opening via vetiver and moss. The last one was the one I took home as a sample Hemp & Ginger.

There is little information to be found on this collection at this point and so I was not able to track down the perfumer. Which is a shame because whomever composed this did a fantastic job at creating a hemp accord in the heart of this which deserves to be recognized.

The ginger shows up in the beginning matched with bergamot for a typical top accord featuring that ingredient. In the heart the hemp accord is made up of two ingredients a sticky green Guatemalan cardamom and Sichuan pepper. Hemp has a slightly stinky green quality when dried out. The green cardamom provides the green and the Sichuan pepper provides the slightly stinky quality along with a mustiness which completes the accord. The ginger is a great choice as foil to the hemp accord which is where this lingers for quite a while. When it moves onto the base an oud accord and saffron are waiting.

Hemp & Ginger has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

For the first time there is a Clean fragrance which is a little dirty. Don’t get me wrong this is not a skankfest, in any way, but it does show Ms. Shinder is willing to see if there is a Clean way to get dirty.

Disclosure: This review is based on a sample supplied by Bloomingdale’s

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Paco Rabanne Invictus Aqua 2018- A Quick Return

The perfume business is a strange beast. Here’s the latest exhibit. Paco Rabanne’s fragrance releases have been solid mainstream offerings over the past few years. For my tastes I keep finding myself drawn to one of the flankers over the original pillars. One of those flankers was Invictus Aqua which was released at the beginning of 2016. Composed by perfumer Anne Flipo this was a nice take on the masculine aquatic which stood out among the other choices at the mall. Then inexplicably it was removed off the perfume counter in 18 months. I was fascinated to find out why because I wanted to use the story as a Dead Letter Office column subject. As I shot off emails and made phone calls trying to ascertain the reason; I was contacted by the PR company representing the brand. I was told Invictus Aqua was going to be re-released early in 2018 followed by the offer of a press sample. I took them up on it and waited for my opportunity to review it; which is here.

Invictus Aqua 2018 Perfume Team

Before we go too far I will say that Invictus Aqua 2018 is overall fresher than Invictus Aqua 2016. I do think they are similar enough that you probably don’t need both in your collection as they both cover enough of the same ground it would likely seem redundant. Besides the scent profile the perfume was composed by a trio of perfumers who joined Mme Flipo; Nicolas Beaulieu, Juliette Karagueuzoglu, and Dominique Ropion. It seems like a lot of firepower for the slight difference on display.

The biggest difference I found shows up in the first few moments. Aqua 2016 opened on a sunny citrus mix before the typical ozonic aquatic accord arrived. Aqua 2018 opens with that set of aquatic notes making the first few seconds slightly sharper. When the grapefruit comes forward in Aqua 2018 it begins to dovetail with the previous version more closely. From here until the finish the two perfumes are on the same track but when wearing them side-by-side the Aqua 2018 always felt a little cleaner and a little lighter than Aqua 2016. So, the green violet leaves, the light woods, and the synthetic amber are close enough.

Invictus Aqua 2018 has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage. The sillage is another difference from the Aqua 2016 version; 2018 has a bit less of it.

I think Invictus Aqua 2018 takes its place on the department store counter in the same place it was when it left as one of the better aquatics in that sector.

Disclosure: This review is based on a press sample provided by Paco Rabanne.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Armani Prive New York- Modern Transparency

When it comes to Armani Prive I am starting to realize there is a trend which I can begin to apply to this extremely inconsistent collection; if there is an iris keynote it is likely to be good. It might have something to do with the fact that iris was said to be one of Sig. Armani’s favorite flowers. it might also be that the corporate creative team overseeing each perfume is doing a good job of hiring talented perfumers and it is coincidence that they do their best work with iris. The perfume which has made me conceive of this rule is Armani Prive New York.

New York was released in fall of 2017 as a city exclusive to Bergdorf Goodman. When I finally got to the store to try it recently I was surprised to find a completely modern composition. I was very curious to find out who the perfumer was behind it. When I was able to search on my phone I found out it was Fanny Bal. Ms. Bal is another of the young perfumers who are working to create perfumes for their generation. With only a few perfumes to her name, so far, she is an exciting artist to keep an eye on. Her signature in these early releases is for a light style of composition managing to take an ingredient like iris and find a way to make it modern.

Fanny Bal

New York opens on an attention getting trio of white pepper, neroli, and aldehydes. If I read that to you and you think piquant citrus hair spray that might be what you find with a different perfumer. Mme Bal uses the pepper as the focal point while taking the green aspect of the neroli to provide contrast, using just enough aldehydes to give some fizz to it all. It is all done with a delicate touch. The iris comes forward and is tilted towards its powdery side via peony. Ambrette provides a light muskiness while tea floats throughout the heart accord. This is like a silk scarf with iris and tea airbrushed upon it. The base goes for a similarly transparent incense and woods to finish New York.

New York has 10-12 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

New York is the most modern perfume within the entire Armani Prive collection. If it can be positioned to be seen by the younger perfume lovers I think it has much of what they seem to want in a fragrance. As for Mme Bal it is another data point perhaps foreshadowing her ability to be the perfumer who best knows what her contemporaries want; modern transparency.

Disclosure: This review is based on a sample from Bergdorf Goodman.

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Kiehl’s Musk- Love Oil

Whenever I talk about where my perfume story begins I always say it started with a bottle of Jovan Musk for my thirteenth birthday. The ads told me it made the girls go wild. While I can surely attest the girls in middle school did not fall at my feet they did notice I “smelled good”. Which, to be honest, was good enough. Along the way I would always be looking for more and more musk in my fragrance and when I found Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan that search ended. There was one stop along the path from Jovan Musk to Muscs Koublai Khan; it is perhaps the perfect compromise between those two perfumes; Kiehl’s Musk.

I’m not sure what it is about musk which prompts a brand to promise it to be love potion no. 9 but Kiehl’s was not immune to it. The story reads like this on the label of my bottle: “Believed to be created in the 1920s at the Kiehl's apothecary, this scent was later discovered there in the 1950s in a vat labeled "Love Oil."  It would be released in 1963 and has been available at Kiehl’s stores worldwide for over fifty years. It really is a Goldilocks “just right” blend of musk which makes it one of the most versatile fragrances to feature it. One of the reasons is while it retains some of the dirtier facets of musk it is dressed in a grouping of cleaner ingredients to add some respectability.

The perfumer behind “Love Oil” has been lost to time but whomever put this together realized a suite of florals which could stand up to the musk was the right choice to mellow its more carnal qualities. To start orange blossom is what I first smell, the musk arrives with rose and neroli on each arm. The musk wants to get a bit randy, but the florals surround it and cover it in a floral blanket of kisses. Eventually the musk finds the upper hand. Early on this is that musk of sun-warmed skin which in a slow evolution it does find its way to its sexy character where a little bit of tonka helps keep it from going completely feral.

Kiehl’s Musk has 10-12 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

I don’t wear Jovan Musk very often, but Kiehl’s Musk gets a few wears every year. It is because it gives me enough of what I love in musk without being at full volume. It is just at the limit of my $50 per bottle limit for Discount Diamonds but it is a classic nonetheless. I can’t vouch for it being “Love Oil” but it is a damn fine musk perfume.

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

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Bogue NOUN- Navigating Traffic

When I write my pieces, there are times when the final thoughts come together so easily. Then there are times like it seems like I can’t string two coherent sentences together to form a concluding paragraph. Mary Poppins “well begun is half done” is an axiom which still means the remaining half might require some effort. I think there are several independent perfumers who are serial good beginners but have difficulty on the path to the finish. The latest release from Bogue, NOUN, is an example of this.

Bogue is the brand of independent perfumer Antonio Gardoni. He has approached perfume from a self-taught mixture of analysis and inspiration. When it comes together in releases like MAAI or Aeon 001 all the concepts flow together in a compelling current of creativity. Last year with the release of MEM the lavender beginning was brilliant only to get caught up in a floral traffic jam on the way to the finish. NOUN suffers from some of the finishing problems evident in MEM but it navigates the traffic more smoothly.

Antonio Gardoni

Sig. Gardoni has been redefining the thought of gourmand being a sweet perfume ever since his collaboration with Bruno Fazzolari on Cadavre Exquis. He is working diligently to show that the savory notes existent in perfume are also edible and can also be delightful.

Sig. Gardoni has developed a near-signature set of accords which populate NOUN. Early on a mixture of citrus of which yuzu sticks out the most is coated in benzoin to create a trapped in resin effect to the fruit. It creates a barrier between the citrus which also attenuates it. Then Sig. Gardoni layers in herbs, a lot of them. According to the description on Luckyscent it as a proprietary blend of Sig. Gardoni’s. In the early moments as it builds in the foodie notes of rosemary, basil, and mint form a fascinating counterpoint to the benzoin. Then the herbal traffic starts to build and there is the beginning of the same effect which I was not fond of in MEM. Just as I am on the verge of wanting to look for an exit to get off this freeway NOUN finally shifts gears with a bit of a clunk as patchouli and incense build in to take this into a different less crowded direction. The herbs get moving with more support and it becomes like a great spice mélange. It all comes to an end on a set of complimentary woods focused on sandalwood.

NOUN has 14-16 hour longevity and average sillage.

NOUN is not as seamless as the best of the perfumes Sig. Gardoni has made. Especially throughout the middle part of the development there are times the gears never mesh, and you can hear the grinding of the effort Sig. Gardoni is going through to get to the next phase. I think it is worth the effort to stay with Sig. Gardoni as when he finally gets NOUN up to speed he finds the right conclusion.

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

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Nest Wisteria Blue- The Garden District

If you do any traveling in the southeastern part of the United States, you will find that all the older cities have what are called Garden Districts. What that means is they are areas where the grand old Southern-style mansions are located. If you look at that name and expect manicured gardens it turns out to be different than that. The garden part is most often comprised of soaring trees draped with moss and lichen along with climbing vines with colorful flowers clinging to the wrought iron and pillars of the antebellum houses. One of the most common of the colorful climbing vines is wisteria. Nest Wisteria Blue is inspired by these old vines.

Laura Slatkin

Creative director of Nest Fragrances, Laura Slatkin, was on a walk in the Garden District of Charleston, South Carolina where she came across a house covered in blue wisteria vines. Her desire to make a perfume which captured that was born in that moment. She would turn to perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux to help achieve that. According to the press release Sr. Flores-Roux has an essence of wisteria extracted from the blooms at Marie Antoinette’s home at Versailles, Petit Trianon. The scent of the flower falls somewhere between lilac and freesia. It is a delicate smell that could easily get overrun by more powerful florals. In Wisteria Blue Sr. Flores-Roux makes sure his singular essence does not get lost.

Rodrigo Flores-Roux

Wisteria Blue opens on that lilting floral nature of the wisteria which in the early moments floats like a veil. Then a watery accord reminiscent of water dripping off the flowers after a hard rain. It provides a place for the wisteria to get a bit stronger in presence. That amplification continues as jasmine and rose uplift the wisteria on their shoulders. Sr. Flores-Roux keeps this in balance throughout which I don’t think is as easy as it is for me to write it.

Wisteria Blue has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

Ms. Slatkin has realized her vision of a Garden District in a fragrance as Wisteria Blue captures a sunny stroll down a street where the flowers are clinging to the architecture.

Disclosure: This review is based on a sample supplied by Sephora.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Stranger Things 2

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I’ve written a lot in this column about how much the right characters can make me overlook a lot of plotting flaws. If I enjoy the time I’m spending with the characters what’s an improbability or two? Like many who were big fans I watched Stranger Things when it was first released. The thing was I was more enthralled by the quilt of obvious 1980’s “inspirations” The Duffer Brothers were employing. It felt like I had watched a greatest hits of 1980’s genre movies by the time it was done. I enjoyed it but thought one season was going to be enough. I thought the characters had not connected over the nostalgia. After the New Year my Netflix queue was surprisingly clear. I thought I’d watch a couple of episodes; remind myself why I had checked out and be done. Nine hours later I sat there surprisingly satisfied.

It wasn’t because The Duffer Brothers stopped using the 1980’s as plot devices. I would say Stranger Things 2 was even more obvious in what they cribbed from. What hooked me were characters who I didn’t realize snuck up on me in the first season. They were given lots to do which kept me wanting to see what was next. I want to call out a few of them because the actors behind the characters did such a good job.

Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin

First is Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin. To get an idea of how charming he is you only must see him in the Verizon commercials extolling the virtues of FiOS. In 30-second clips the actor makes you smile and sells the service with that charisma. In Stranger Things 2 he is given the Gremlins sub-plot where he brings a strange creature home and as it grows things get out of hand. The other half of his story is his bond with the older high school boy, Steve. Dustin is from a one-parent home and Steve takes him under his wing. Mt. Matarazzo steps up and becomes the heart of the Stranger Things series.

Millie Bobbie Brown as Eleven

The soul is Millie Bobbie Brown who plays Eleven. A child who was experimented on to hone her telekinetic properties she escaped the government at the end of season one. Season 2 finds her in a safe place one which is explained over the first few episodes. Once she decides safety is less important than understanding who she is that propels her last half of season 2. Ms. Brown does all of this with an earnestness which had me rooting for her while also lamenting her leaving her safe place.

David Harbour as Chief Hopper

David Harbour plays Chief Hopper who is always caught in the middle as the weird ratchets up in his small Indiana town. In season 2 he is much more the linchpin which holds it all together. He has relationships to every other character in the cast. That allows Mr. Harbour to highlight that. From telling hard truths to the kids to making the adults understand the stakes. He admits his flaws while standing in front of the danger.

Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers

Finally, Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers the frazzled single mom who has her son being taken over by the monsters in both seasons. I have always thought highly of Ms. Ryder as an actress. In season 2 her fiercely protective mother has found some happiness, but those moments are fleeting in the Stranger Things universe. Ms. Ryder shows the joy and the pain in equal amounts sometimes within a few seconds of each other. She has a showcase where her talents are fully on display.

These four characters and the actors who play them made me realize how much I am enjoying Stranger Things for them and not the plot.

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: Kai- Genial Gardenia

One of the things I would like to accomplish with this column is to remind those who love perfume that all great perfume is not new. Sometimes it is right there on the shelf every time you visit your favorite perfume store. That’s the story of this month’s choice Kai.

Kai was created in 1998 by a Malibu, California boutique owner; Gaye Straza. Ms. Straza had tired of the commercial offerings. She wanted a fragrance which captured her beloved Hawaii. This is how Kai came to be. In the early years she made small single batches but the word began to spread. Over time she would increase production until it is now available everywhere perfume is sold. Early on it was like when Coors beer finally made it East of the Mississippi, perfume lovers flocked to see what the fuss was about. Unlike the beer analogy the perfume lived up to the hype. Kai is one of the most generally beautiful gardenia perfumes you will find.

Gaye Straza

Ms. Straza took her independent spirit to a small fragrance house and developed Kai. In its first incarnation it was a perfume oil. In 2006 it was also released as an eau de parfum which is the version I prefer. As I’ve mentioned many times my grandmother’s house was surrounded by gardenia bushes. The smell of the flowers along with the green of the leaves on the bush are a cherished memory. Kai captures that mixture of floral and foliage expertly.

Kai is an example of how a simple construction can still carry power. In the earliest moments a burst of citrus opens the door for the gardenia surrounded by the green leaves. It is this which makes me enjoy Kai over and over. Ms. Straza found the right balance of floral and green which is where the first phase of Kai lingers. Over time the gardenia is clipped from the bush to radiate on its own. A set of white musks make it more transparent throughout the final hours.

Kai eau de parfum has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.

Gardenia as it has evolved over the years has become another of the coloratura white florals usually hitting the high notes. In Kai you find it running scales in a more muted key which is what makes it such a genial gardenia. Next time your eyes wander past it on the shelf stop and take a sniff.

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

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Escada Sorbetto Rosso- Melon of the Sea

My family had a weekend place right at the southern end of Key Largo. On our way down, we would pass these roadside signs all in a row exhorting us to stop at “Theatre of the Sea”. A kind of busman’s Sea World we could see many of the attractions from the road as we drove past. It was cheesy, goofy fun which always seemed to have many cars in the parking lot. It existed for as long as I lived in S. Florida until it probably just faded away from lack of interest. Florida excelled in this kind of straightforward corny roadside attractions. When I was in the mood for them a trip through the Monkey Jungle or Gatorland held tacky pleasures all on their own. Even perfume can hold goofy pleasures which Escada Sorbetto Rosso does.

If you’re going to go for the fragrance equivalent of those roadside attractions then all attempts at subtlety needs to be thrown out the window. Perfumer Richard Herpin was seemingly given that leeway and he gleefully forms a wacky fruity aquatic gourmand. I giggled at the press copy which babbles on about the Amalfi Coast and capturing La Dolce Vita. There seems to be too much sophistication there for a perfume which might be eating Eye-Talian food in It-ly.

Richard Herpin

M. Herpin takes Calone as his aquatic ingredient. Most perfumers look for ways to ameliorate the melon nature which many find lowbrow. M. Herpin goes the other way as he adds in a huge amount of watermelon. So much that the Calone does more to contribute to the sea spray than it usually does because the melon is busy getting jiggy with the watermelon. It comes off like a watermelon was found floating in the ocean. If this ended here it would be fine and it does linger like this for hours but late on you will notice a sneaky last bit of fun as a praline accord slips inside the melon giving a gourmand vibe to the very end of Sorbetto Rosso.

Sorbetto Rosso has 24-hour longevity and above average sillage.

Sorbetto Rosso is an extremely guilty pleasure but ever since I received my sample I’ve enjoyed it more than I should. So, while it isn’t a classy designer perfume it is the roadside attraction version; I’ll call it Melon of the Sea. Pull into the parking lot if you’re in the mood for some fragrant fun.

Disclosure: This review is based on a sample I received from ULTA.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Gucci Guilty Absolute Pour Femme- Dreamy Blackberry

The designer perfume brands naturally go through up and downs. It usually depends on how important the Creative Director thinks fragrance is to the overall brand identity they want. When that Creative Director is invested in fragrance that is when some of the greatest designer perfumes arrive along with an overall collection coherence. At Gucci it seems like Creative Director Alessandro Michele is one of those.

Gucci Spring/Summer 2018

Sig. Michele has revived the fashion side of Gucci in just over two years. It has been impressive to see as he uses vintage inspirations to add detailing to modern silhouettes. Last year’s Gucci Bloom was the first fragrance release under his oversight. That it was one of the best designer releases of 2017 showed the interest in fragrance was back. Now it is time to see where Gucci is headed on the fragrance side with the second release under Sig. Michele’s creative direction Gucci Guilty Absolute Pour Femme.

Alessandro Michele

As he did with Gucci Bloom he collaborates with perfumer Alberto Morillas who also did last year’s Gucci Guilty Absolute Pour Homme prior to Sig. Michele taking over the fragrance creative direction. It allows for a real indication of where Sig. Michele is adding to the overall design. The Guilty Absolute Pour Homme rested upon a patchouli, leather, and cypress base. I wasn’t crazy about that combination. When I received the press materials and noticed that same base present I was worried. Here is where Sig. Michele’s vision comes to the fore. Also, in the press materials he says, “I wanted a blackberry note that would make you dream upon smelling it.” Right there is what makes Guilty Absolute Pour Femme excel as Sr. Morillas finds that. That dreamy blackberry is the exact counterweight needed for that base accord.

Alberto Morillas

That blackberry is where we start. This is so good I think it is going to sell a lot of perfume because those who like fruity florals are going to go crazy for this blackberry. I’ve spent a lot of time examining it. I think its dreaminess comes from a judicious use of blackcurrant to keep the sweetness of the blackberry leaner. It’s not listed as an ingredient but there is something keeping the blackberry from going all jammy. What does bring that aspect out is the rose and patchouli which come next. The rose does what it usually does with berries it encounters it deepens them. The patchouli adds an earthy aspect which then adds in the leather accord and cypress from Guilty Absolute Pour Homme.

Gucci Guilty Absolute Pour Femme has 14-16 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

I can’t overstate how much better Gucci Guilty Absolute Pour Femme is compared to Guilty Absolute Pour Homme. It all comes down to the choice of Sig. Michele to insist upon a dreamy blackberry over the same base. It is clear what the influence of active creative direction can have. A simple dreamy blackberry has me dreaming for even better days ahead for Gucci fragrance.

Disclosure: This review is based on a sample provided by Gucci.

Mark Behnke