One of the most cutting edge fashion designers of the last fifty years was Alexander McQueen. His was a life of vibrant imagery crossed with internal demons which would lead to him taking his own life in 2010 at the age of 40. Like many who have their brilliance tempered with something entirely the opposite it leaves behind a glittering trail like a shooting star across the sky.
Mr. McQueen by 2003 at the age of 34 had been named British Designer of the Year four times. Like all designers with that much success it was time to branch out into other areas. Of course one of those areas was fragrance. The first perfume was released in 2003, Alexander McQueen Kingdom. Of the many designers who release their first signature perfume Kingdom might have been the most emblematic of the fashion that the name on the bottle portended it to be.
Mr. McQueen would team up with Chantal Roos, as Creative Directors, to perfumer Jacques Cavallier for Kingdom. Mr. McQueen was known for going for the dramatic on his catwalk shows. Kingdom was going to do the same. M. Cavallier while producing many mainstream fragrances was also having a creative streak with lots of different fashion designer brands. I think most of those fragrances in the latter category are part of the most impressively creative collection by a single perfumer. That most of them will be subjects of this series tell you they really were for only a precious few. Kingdom was no different M. Cavallier was creating a perfume that was meant to shock and the note he was going to use to shock and awe was cumin.
By the time I got my opportunity to try Kingdom that cumin note was all anyone was talking about. Remember in 2003 the predominant perfume aesthetic was the fresh and clean. Cumin was not fresh and clean it was filthy dirty. When I was talking about it with a couple of other perfume lovers they told me it was disgusting that it smelled like, as they lowered their voices, “a vagina”. This became a pervasive label for Kingdom and it is at least partially responsible for its demise. It was out of step with the current trends and the whisper campaign did it no favors.
I love cumin in perfume and one of my most favorite Ditpyques, L’Autre, was loaded with cumin. It was also one of the perfumes I had to be careful to choose my moments on when to wear it. Hearing Kingdom was similar had me smiling in anticipation. So imagine my surprise when I finally get a bottle that the first thing I smell is orange. M. Cavallier takes bergamot, neroli, orange blossom, and mandarin to create this gauzily beautiful citrus opening. It is gorgeous and it is shredded in the next phase as a spicy rose and indolic jasmine form the layers that the cumin would perch between. the indolic jasmine was the perfect floral to go with the cumin to form a deeply human accord. The rose is not as prevalent as you might think as it creeps in and out with a waxing and waning effect. This all finishes on a base of Copahu balm, sandalwood and myrrh. After the heart this serves to soothe the nerves set jangling with the confrontational heart.
Kingdom has 12-14 hour longevity in the EDP concentration and above average sillage.
This is one of my most cherished bottles because I think the entire creative team achieved the perfume they wanted to make. That they had the fortitude to release it into a world which, at the time, was not ready for it was also impressive. I end many of these by saying if it was released today it would find its audience. Not in this case. Kingdom was a unique evocation of a particular designer’s aesthetic written in bold olfactory strokes. This was never going to be a commercial success. It is a spectacular piece of olfactory art that I have continued to enjoy for many years now.
Disclosure: this review was based on a bottle I purchased.
In previous entries of this series I’ve told the story of perfumes which have failed because they couldn’t find their audience. This time I’m going to tell you about a perfume which had two opportunities separated by 50 years to try and find its audience. That it was the product of two of our greatest creative minds, Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali, makes it all the more noteworthy.
Le Roy Soleil c.1947
The story of the perfume called Le Roy Soleil starts in 1947 as Mme Schiaparelli wanted to celebrate the end of World War II with a perfume which paid homage to Louis XIV. For the bottle she turned to her collaborator of over ten years, Salvador Dali. As you can see in the picture above the bottle was housed in a hinged seashell which contained a bottle topped with a sun containing a face etched onto it. This was released in a limited edition of 2000. The bottle was produced by Baccarat. It will surprise nobody that the bottle has become one of the most desired for perfume collectors. The disappointing part of all of this is the perfume inside the bottle is an afterthought. I can find no record of the perfumer who worked on it. It is described as “luxurious”, “regal”, and “devastating”. I did buy some of the juice in a 1946 bottle from the person who won an auction for it. It had clearly been exposed to the air and sunlight too long as all that remained was a muzzy vanilla and musk.
Fifty years later, in 1997, the perfume line which carried M. Dali’s name announced the release of Le Roy Soleil. According to the press release it was based on the original as re-interpreted by perfumer Philippe Romano. This is the version I first experienced. Le Roy Soleil in 1997 was all about pineapple in the early going. M. Romano could have tried to show some restraint but instead he turned the top notes into a fruit fiesta as papaya, apricot, and lemon join the party. These top notes reflect the incredible brilliance of those fruits exploding to life. To turn down the sunshine cinnamon and clove grab ahold of it and shade it a tiny bit. Rose and jasmine add a bit of different shading. Pineapple is one of those odd perfume notes which is far too easy to make syrupy and overwhelming. M. Romano finds a way to avoid that making it light and bright. The base notes are a set of transparent musks over vanilla and sandalwood. This part shares some similarity to what I smelled in the 1947 spoiled sample.
Le Roy Soleil has 8-10 hour longevity and prodigious sillage.
Why did the 1997 version fail? I was unable to find a reason in my research. It definitely wasn’t because the packaging wasn’t spectacular as you can see the 1997 bottle was also quite beautiful. I am going to speculate it is the pineapple which typical consumers don’t appreciate as much as I do. If I ever tried to make a list of top 10 pineapple perfumes ever I think I’d struggle mightily to fill that list up. It isn’t even the aesthetic as Le Roi Soleil Homme released a year later is still in production. As hard as it may be to believe Mme Schiaparelli and M. Dali couldn’t quite shake up the perfume world in the same way they did the fashion world.
Disclosure: This review based on a bottle of 1997 Le Roi Soleil I purchased.
As perfumery moved into the latter half of the 1990’s it seems perfume brands were willing to take a risk to attract new customers. There are many examples of a perfume from the late 1990’s which comes from a label now known for something entirely different. If I say Dolce & Gabbana to most perfume lovers they will think of the classic Light Blue and how that has become the standard bearer for not only the brand but aesthetically, as well. This is a bit of a no-win situation for a brand if you become so known for a style the consumer won’t let you branch out. Much like the actor known for an iconic role eventually you just give in and start signing autographs. Or in a perfume way start releasing flankers.
In 1998 Dolce & Gabbana was coming off the success of Dolce & Gabbana pour Homme; but oddly pour Femme would fail to win over consumers. It was three years away from Light Blue completely changing the brand’s fragrance image. Stefano Gabbana was trying to position the Dolce & Gabbana fragrance as something in the upper level of the prestige marketplace. A pair of fragrances were commissioned as the next attempt to find that position. By Man and By Woman were the names and both lasted barely six years before being discontinued. Light Blue would displace them from their shelf space as its popularity grew. By Woman has fairly sunk into the perfumed graveyard of perfumes not mourned for their absence. By Man is a different story.
Sig. Gabbana enlisted perfumer Alberto Morillas to compose By Man. M. Morillas delivered a spicy woody leather construction. It was against the prevailing wave of fresh and sport fragrances. It was also a calculated risk to see if men had become tired of those kind of fragrances and were ready to move on. They weren’t.
M. Morillas opens By Man with one of the best nutmeg openings of any perfume I own. He gives it some bite with pepper but it is really enhanced by a note called Hedione Elixir. The transparent expansive jasmine-like aromachemical is made a little less transparent, hence the elixir designation, and the spices seem to float suspended above the cloud of Hedione. In the heart M. Morillas gets more floral with lavender supported by artemesia. The Hedione Elixir persists into the heart adding its lift to the lavender as it did to the spices in the top notes. By Man finishes with base notes of primarily sandalwood and a leather accord. There is some Ambroxan to provide the same lift that the Hedione Elixir did over the early going. By using these very expansive aromachemicals I think M. Morillas was trying to make a “fresher” version of an Oriental. What he did was design one of the best spicy fougeres I own and something like no other in my collection.
Since its discontinuation in 2004 By Man has created a sort of holy trinity of discontinued men’s fragrances with Patou pour Homme and Guerlain Derby. I think it compares well with both of those and understand the affection. By Man carries a similar price tag to both of those if you can find a bottle for sale. If you get the chance to try By Man think about how different Dolce & Gabbana would have been if it became the signature fragrance success instead of Light Blue. This is the stuff of which parallel dimensions are made of.
Disclosure: this review was based on a bottle I purchased.
One of the stalwarts of men’s perfumes for over thirty years has been Ralph Lauren Polo. That perfume composed by Carlos Benaim has stood the test of time. It has, deservedly so, found its place in the metaphorical perfume Hall of Fame. Like all mass-market perfumes it has spawned a number of flankers with a mixed record of success. The general rule of thumb is the closer it hews to the original the more likely it is to sell well. I am guessing that rule was first brought home with the release of the first flanker in 1992 Polo Crest.
By 1992 Polo had become one of the most successful men’s fragrances of all time after fourteen years on the market. It was so successful that Ralph Lauren decided it was time to make a companion ostensibly for the warmer months. The concept was a version of Polo that was lighter. If the original Polo was men’s drawing room full of tobacco and wood; Polo Crest was going to be more like being at a polo match in the sunshine and fresh air. Carlos Benaim was asked to re-interpret his original composition with this in mind. What M. Benaim would do is call up more of the fresh cut grass smell of the polo field and the sweaty players. It ends up feeling like a more sophisticated version of Polo.
The original Polo opens with a strongly herbal beginning of basil and thyme over pine. M. Benaim retains the herbal facets and embellishes them as both the basil and thyme are present but for Polo Crest he lets rosemary take the lead. This is a much smoother opening with both the thyme and basil dialed way back. The really brilliant addition is a tiny amount of cumin which gives that tiny bit of sweaty polo player. Where Polo Crest really diverges is in the heart. As M. Benaim brings back the pine but this time he adds in two floral notes of geranium and jasmine. This is an interesting choice as at this time florals for men were not yet big sellers and the florals are more than just nodded at. They stand up with the pine to be counted. I felt like it captured that feel of a well-manicured greensward when taken as an accord but it is easy to detect the components separately. The divergence is over as Polo Crest moves into the base as the leather, patchouli, and oakmoss which will eventually become the signature Polo accord are here. The biggest difference is the tobacco is gone replaced with olibanum. The other difference is M. Benaim pushes the oakmoss into a more prominent position, as well.
Polo Crest has 14-16 hour longevity and above average sillage.
I was a wearer of the original Polo but I don’t think I ever saw a bottle of Polo Crest appear at my local department store. It is my conjecture that the floral nature of the heart made Ralph Lauren unsure of how to market it. I also think they went right back to the drawing board and in a little more than a year Polo Sport would arrive. That Polo Sport is still available and Polo Crest is discontinued tells you which generated more sales. Aesthetically I think Polo Crest is the best of the Polo flankers. I don’t think it could be released today because I suspect the oakmoss levels are too high. Lack of sales and lack of interest cause many perfumes to end up in the Dead Letter Office. Polo Crest was a casualty of both.
Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.
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.
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.
When it comes to many of the perfumes which find their way to the Dead Letter Office trying to create a demographic for a fragrance is one of the surest paths to discontinuation. When you look back over the history of perfume when there have been these perfumes which have served as pivot points for the industry; the years after that moment is a study in trying to catch up. In 1990, especially in the masculine category, Davidoff Cool Water had completely changed the game. Before Cool Water men’s perfumes were hairy chested powerhouses like Aramis for Men. By the 1990’s the men’s market supposedly wanted aquatics and fresh fragrances. Over at Rochas they had the thought to try and find a middle ground between the old and the new. That perfume would become Rochas Globe.
Rochas Globe had a big problem, who was it being made for? If the younger fragrance wearer was gravitating towards fresh aquatics while the older demographic wanted their powerhouses where did Globe fit? The answer was it didn’t. This would lead to its eventual market death within three years. The tragedy is Globe succeeded brilliantly at creating this kind of olfactory genetic splicing. The mad scientist behind this will surprise many of you, Jean-Claude Ellena. One of the most interesting periods of M. Ellena’s illustrious career was the period from 1988-1990. The five perfumes he signed during this time are some of the most unique in in his fragrant repertory. Globe fits right in.
A Younger Jean-Claude Ellena
Globe opens with a juicy mandarin paired with a very sharp green leafy note. It was a few years until I was able to identify it as Boldo leaves. Boldo is a leaf used to make tea in some South American countries. It is most often used in a combination with yerba mate. I think M. Ellena knows this because that pungent leafiness runs right into a heart of geranium, rhubarb, basil, and mate. M. Ellena defines his version of fresh and allows the heart notes to become that. The base is very traditional vetiver and amber returning Globe to familiar masculine territory.
Globe has 10-12 hour longevity and prodigious sillage. This is one to definitely be cautious about spraying too much.
Looking back through the lens of twenty-five years it is easy to see Globe just had no audience in 1990. I would love to see this re-released now because it is such a fascinating combination of styles from a perfumer, in M. Ellena, who was at his most experimental. I have said Globe had trouble finding an audience but I am definitely someone for whom Globe was made for. It is too bad there weren’t more of us.
Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.
Of every brand that I will profile in this series the Gobin Daude line is the most confounding one I will cover. In the fall of 2002 when I visited the Takashimaya department store the sales associate walked me over to a new brand the store had just stocked, Gobin Daude. There were five perfumes in the brand: Jardins Ottomans, Biche Dans L’Absinthe, Nuit Au Desert, Seve Exquise, and Sous Le Buis. Each of these fragrances were tiny glittering personal statements by the perfumer Victoire Gobin Daude. Mme Gobin Daude wanted to make perfume that was not represented by the mainstream or even the niche lines which were in their infancy at this point. She also wanted perfume to arouse passion to make the wearer feel pleasure in the experience. My favorite of the line is Sous Le Buis.
By now if you read me regularly I think you know of my fondness for green fragrances. Let me say this very simply I have no green fragrance like Sous Le Buis nothing comes close. Mme Gobin Daude takes the name, which translates to Under the Boxwood, and instead makes a perfume which should be more correctly named Inside the Boxwood. If you imagine yourself surrounded by green growth along with the leaves and woodiness, thick but also airy then you know what Sous Le Buis is like.
Victoire Gobin Daude
Mme Gobin Daude uses extremely simple constructions to elicit extraordinary complexity. Her style is as unique as her perfumes. Sous Le Buis opens on lavender and orange blossom turned crisp and green with clary sage. This is the expansiveness of leaves on a tree. Galbanum intensifies the green and it is all finished with oakmoss. What these five ingredients combine to form is that sense of being outdoors amidst the shrubbery. It never gets heavy but it has heft. It is light as a feather but is not inconsequential. It is a master class in perfume composition.
Sous Le Buis has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.
The entire line are some of my most cherished perfumed possessions because inexplicably in 2003 the line was discontinued and the remaining stock sold. I thought it just might have been too different and didn’t sell. The people at Takashimaya told me it was one of their best-selling brands. People were as enraptured as I was. Poor sales waere not the reason. When I ask people about this who might know I am told financing might have fallen through. I have heard Mme Gobin Daude just didn’t want to do this anymore. I am not sure I will ever know the story. At the time I expected to hear from Mme Gobin Daude again but like her perfumes she has also disappeared. If I was given one wish in all of perfumery it would be for Mme Gobin Daude to return to making perfume. Hers is a completely singular olfactory voice. I hope one day I will be surprised to find a press release announcing her return.
Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.
A common thread of this series will be “right fragrance, wrong time”. These are releases which attempted to lead a charge only to look around to see nobody following behind. By the time tastes catch up these fragrances are long forgotten. In the case of Helmut Lang Cuiron pour Homme I think if Hr. Lang hadn’t decided to chuck his whole fashion career aside in 2005 it might have survived until perfumistas caught up to it.
Helmut Lang Autumn/Winter 1996 in Vogue
Helmut Lang was one of the most influential fashion designers from 1988 through his retirement in 2005. In the middle of the “greed is good” decade he was designing fashion which was stripped down. He was one of the designers at the head of the “neo-modernists”. His fashion was simple pieces tailored to a scalpel’s edge. You can see the Fall 1996 collection from a spread in Vogue from that same year above. His fashion stood out because it was a reaction to the excess everywhere else. In 1999 Prada acquired the brand and started to expand the offerings under the Helmut Lang imprimatur. As part of the Prada deal Proctor & Gamble was going to partner with Hr. Lang on a fragrance collection. The first two releases in 2000 were a pair of Eau de Cologne and Eau de Parfum by perfumer Maurice Roucel. Two years later Cuiron pour Homme would be released. All three fragrances were fitting examples of Hr. Lang’s aesthetic they were streamlined and sharply tailored perfumes. Cuiron pour Homme stood out because it was a leather that was completely different than the leathers on the market.
Self-Portrait 2007 by Helmut Lang
By the early 2000’s the state of leather in fragrance was that of powerful birch tar laden powerhouses. Perfumer Francoise Caron would go in an entirely different direction. When I read the press release for Cuiron it described the leather in three distinct phases; fluid leather, sensual leather, and noble leather. What Mme Caron did was to use a mix of synthetics to create a post-modern leather accord. It reminds me of those chrome tube chairs with big leather cushions. Mme Caron’s leather felt like patent leather fresh off the assembly line. For this to not be unbearable she had to use a smart assortment of complementary notes to keep the leather light. In the top mandarin provides a juicy citrus. The heart uses pink pepper to accentuate the artificialness of the leather accord. Iso E Super and Cashmeran also add a synthetic vibe with their austere woodiness. The base uses tobacco and olibanum to add sweetness to the leather and try and make the synthetic seem natural. It never does as Cuiron always seems like an artificial construct in a fascinatingly good way.
Cuiron has 12-14 hour longevity and very modest sillage.
Cuiron pour Homme is one of the greatest leather fragrances ever, in my opinion. Mme Caron captures everything that Hr. Lang stood for in fashion at this time and turned it into a true masterpiece. In 2005 Hr. Lang split with Prada and retired from fashion. Prada quickly sold off the brand and Proctor & Gamble stopped making the perfumes. Three years after it was released it was discontinued. This is one of those perfumes which seems to have regular rumors of its resurrection. I would love to see it back again as I think it is a perfume whose time has arrived.
Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.
When it comes to discussions of the greatest perfumes ever Shiseido Nombre Noir has been claimed to be one of the top five fragrances of all-time. It is a funny thing though just like it is with Citizen Kane as it relates to being the best movie of all-time neither of these would be in my top ten all-time. I’m not even sure they make my top 25 all-time. In both cases I admire the budding auteurs Serge Lutens and Orson Welles and their precocious creations but neither resonates with me. I prefer Mr Welles’ second film The Magnificent Ambersons. When it comes to Shiseido I think 1976’s Inoui is a better perfume than Nombre Noir.
The mid 1970’s was a watershed moment for perfume and the way it was sold. Michael Edwards traces the tipping point to 1973’s Revlon Charlie as the moment perfume was marketed to this new demographic of the working woman. It also changed the perfume buying experience as these trailblazing women didn’t want to wait for a man to gift them with a perfume they wanted to go out and find one themselves. As the sales for Charlie took off many of the other perfume lines wanted to join in. In 1976 Shiseido released Inoui with the advertising line, “It’s not her that’s beautiful; it’s how she lives her life that’s beautiful”. Even on the Shiseido website they admit it was designed to “target the contemporary career woman”. What did Shiseido think this thoroughly modern woman wanted? A green balsamic chypre.
I have never been able to determine who the perfumer is behind Inoui. Serge Lutens had not arrived by 1976. It was supposedly created by a joint effort between the American, Italian and Japanese staffs of Shiseido. If this was a team effort I really would have liked to overhear the conversations as each mod was passed around to finally arrive at Inoui.
Inoui is a fantastic green fragrance and its beauty is in the uncompromising way it develops from a galbanum heavy opening into a pine heart to finish on an oakmoss and civet base. It is a near perfect green perfume.
Inoui starts with the galbanum, juniper, and a bit of cypress. There is a green accord that adds texture to the galbanum and just when all of this green might be a little much an imaginative use of peach turns it into a softer sweeter beginning. The pine grows right down the middle of Inoui oozing sap and throwing off green facets as it strengthens. A bit of green cardamom and thyme add spice to the pine. Then just like the peach in the top notes jasmine adds softness and sweetness before we hit the big chypre finish. Myrrh adds its opulent resinous quality and then oakmoss and civet bring Inoui to a close on a feral green accord.
Inoui in the eau de parfum version has 10-12 hour longevity and very close sillage as would befit that career woman it was marketed to.
Inoui was a failure as it was pulled off shelves in less than ten years. It was never able to find traction with those early career women as they clearly wanted the florals of Charlie over the anti-floral green of Inoui. Was it ahead of its time? I don’t think so I actually think it is quite a good example of the kind of perfume making going on in the late 1970’s. I think it was a case of not finding the right target demographic to market it to.
Inoui can be found on eBay but people are catching on and its price has been rising steadily over the last few years.
Finally I want to end on a personal note. My discovery of Inoui was through one of those people that make our perfume community so wonderful. Linda Beth Ross and I would spend random hours on Facebook chatting about old vintage perfumes and after a discussion of how much I like green perfumes she sent me a sample of Inoui. Earlier this year she passed away after a long battle with cancer and every time I wear, or think, about Inoui I also remember my friend in fragrance.
Disclosure; this review is based on a bottle of Eau de Parfum I purchased.
There are a number of fragrances which have been released and had a very short shelf life, for a variety of reasons. In the Dead Letter Office I want to take a look at these perfumes which are alternatively called “ahead of their time” or “colossal failure”. The reality is often found somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. What I can confidently say is that the perfumes I will profile in this series did not play it safe. In their daring they sometimes paved the way for better executed fragrances years later. Sometimes it was just proof there are some ideas which never should’ve been unleashed on the public. 1998’s Le Feu D’Issey is a fragrance which has been described as both ahead of its time and a colossal failure.
In 1998 perfumer Jacques Cavallier was riding a wave of spectacular success especially with the two fragrances which defined Issey Miyake as a fragrance house; L’Eau D’Issey and L’Eau D’Issey pour Homme. Those two fragrances are still big sellers to the present day. He would design the third fragrance, Le Feu D’Issey, to be completely different to the aquatic pair he previously created. In that desire to be different M. Cavallier probably went a little too far especially as the pendulum was starting its swing firmly towards the “fresh and clean” era of fragrance. M. Cavallier had made a safe Woody Oriental in 1995 with YSL Opium pour Homme. As he sat down to compose Le Feu D’Issey he clearly wanted to make a new version within this style.
Le Feu D’Issey challenges right from the first moment as M. Cavallier creates a raw coconut milk accord. If you’ve ever been offered a coconut fresh off the tree, opened so you can drink the coconut water within, that is what the early phase of Le Feu D’Issey smells like. It carries a pungency which some have described as “rancid”. I don’t agree with that; it has a watery quality which also carries some of the husk of the coconut as well as the white meat. This right here is where Le Feu D’Issey probably went wrong as a commercial enterprise. I can imagine them handing out strips of this to passers-by and having them grimace and move on. That’s where they make a mistake because in the heart the next risk M. Cavallier takes actually works amazingly as he takes a milk accord and pairs it with jasmine. If the coconut water accord was off-putting the jasmine milk accord draws me in and fascinates me. This is the richness of whole milk which allows all the sweetness of jasmine to float on top like a floral crème. The base is pretty normal as a woody mix of sandalwood, cedar, and gaiac grounds this in safe territory at the end.
Le Feu D’Issey has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.
When I wear Le Feu D’Issey I always find it to be a significantly different experience each time. I’m not talking about slight differences but phases which seem to come off very different and often not for the better. Especially the opening. There are times it is right on the verge of unwearable but once that heart accord comes together it is all of a sudden something special. As to how to classify it? I would call it a noble experiment. In the last few years we have seen the milk accord used to great effect in Jean-Claude Ellena’s Hermessence Santal Massoia and by Christine Nagel in Jo Malone Sweet Milk. So far the coconut water accord has not yet found the right fragrance for it to be featured in again. Le Feu D’Issey has found itself consigned to the Dead Letter Office for being too different at the wrong time.
Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle of Le Feu D’Issey I purchased.