Dead Letter Office: Helmut Lang Cuiron pour Homme- Minimalist Leather

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.

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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.

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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.

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Francoise Caron

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.

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Shiseido Inoui

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.

inoui advertisement

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.

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Issey Miyake Le Feu D’Issey

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.

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Jacques Cavallier

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.

coconut

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.

Mark Behnke