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

My Favorite Things: Ylang-Ylang

Over my time of writing about perfume I have been given various samples of specific ingredients. To the point now I have a nice reference set of most of the major ingredients. There are only a few of them that have such dynamic scent profiles they are fascinating all on their own. One of those is ylang-ylang. Because of a visit to one of the major oil houses I not only have the essential oil but the different fractions of that oil. It has always struck me that when you take a complex ingredient like ylang-ylang and break it into fractions and each of those are different it speaks to the specialness of ylang-ylang as an ingredient. It is so versatile it is a supporting ingredient most of the time. There are some instances where it can star and here are five of my favorites.

M. Micallef Ylang in Gold is one of the best straight ylang perfumes you will find. Martine Micallef working with perfumer Jean-Claude Astier take the kaleidoscopic floral and gild it with sandalwood, vanilla, bitter orange. Throughout everything which makes ylang-ylang unique is displayed. My all-time favorite ylang-ylang perfume.

One of the odder facets of ylang-ylang is a ripe banana character which can be seen sometimes. In Hermes Hermessence Vanille Galante perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena relies on it to add a fruity tint to the lily and vanilla keynotes. It is one of the more divisive uses of ylang because of the ripe banana. It is one of my favorite tropical vibe perfumes.

Ylang-ylang was one of the great ingredients during the beginning of modern perfumery. As we have seen the rise of heritage brands; one of those Grossmith Hasu-No-Hana gives you a feel of what that was like. The modern team of Amanda and Simon Brooke oversaw a reconstruction where the ylang soars, paired with iris, as the floral heart headed to a chypre base. This is how they used to do it.

Perfumer Francis Kurkdjian would dabble with the animalic side of ylang with MDCI Enlevement au Serail. When he started his own brand, he would turn it into the fulcrum for the most sensually dynamic perfume of the 21st century Maison Francis Kurkdjian Absolue Pour le Soir. This is a celebration of all that is deep and dark in perfume with ylang right in the center.

Perfumer Frank Voelkl would also find the voluptuous side of ylang in Le Labo Ylang 49. While lighter than my previous choice it is still a femme fatale just dressed up in brighter shades of citrus and gardenia. A daytime version of sensuality.

If you’ve never explored ylang-ylang on its own these five will give you and idea of its special nature.

Disclosure: this review is based on bottles of which I have purchased.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Atelier des Ors Musc Immortel- Third Iris Movement

While there are many independent perfume brand success stories who use many different perfumers; I am a big fan of the monogamous approach. When a creative director and a perfumer work together over the life of a brand I believe it helps create a definitive aesthetic. It also allows for explorations of different keynotes from altered perspectives. That in turn leads to some special subsets within a brand. This has been happening at Atelier des Ors as the latest release Musc Immortel provides a third look at iris.

Jean-Philippe Clermont

Jean-Philippe Clermont has chosen to work exclusively with perfumer Marie Salamagne since the founding of Atelier des Ors in 2015. In the original collection Aube Rubis was a fabulous warm iris which was supported by vetiver and patchouli. In 2016 they would continue using the same trio with Iris Fauve. Musc Immortel takes it in a new direction. This time the patchouli becomes the primary counterweight to the iris through the heart before sinking into the titular notes.

Marie Salamagne (Photo: Jerome Bonnet)

The citrus and herbal duet of grapefruit and clary sage announce the arrival of the iris. As it was in the previous two releases this is the rhizomal version of iris; earthy instead of powdery. It is my preferred version of iris in perfume. The same heart accord as existed in Iris Fauve makes a return in Musc Immortel but the concentrations have changed. In Iris Fauve the vetiver has the upper hand with the faux-oud of cypriol. In Musc Immortel those two notes appear first but the patchouli builds into a wave which eventually rises over the iris near exclusively. This is where the base accord becomes critical. Left with iris awash on a sea of patchouli this becomes less interesting. Mme Salamagne uses immortelle to capture the iris in a lifesaving embrace as the earthiness has the maple syrup quality of immortelle to stick to. It holds fast forming a deeply pleasing accord. A mixture of botanical and synthetic musks carry this to softly a animalic finish.

Musc Immortel has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

Musc Immortel has been around as an exclusive at Harrod’s since early 2017; it is now ready to expand to where Atelier des Ors is sold. I think it is great that this is getting a wider distribution because it fits so well within the Atelier des Ors Collection. If you’ve been a fan of Aube Rubis or Iris Fauve I suspect you will enjoy Musc Immortel. I look forward to the fourth movement of the iris-vetiver-patchouli symphony because the third movement was so inspiring.

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

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Blocki Sanrovia- Evolutionary Heritage

Heritage can do one of two things, it can shackle you to the past or it can inspire you to add your own imprint. This is equally true when speaking of heritage perfume brands which have been springing up. Some decide to try and slavishly re-create. The ones I find more interesting are those who look to bring the style of the heritage into the present. Very quietly one of the latter success stories at doing this continues to evolve with the release of Blocki Sanrovia.

Blocki released a set of three perfumes in the fall of 2015 to revive the brand. Under the stewardship of Tyler Delabar and Tammy Kraemer, Mr Kraemer did his great grandfather John Blocki proud. These were all fantastically contemporary perfumes with vintage brushstrokes. The other part of this team which has made it work so well is perfumer Kevin Verspoor. Mr. Verspoor and I have spoken about perfume making. If there is something which I know is he is a student of the past so that he can translate it to the present day. That the creative directors and the perfumer are all on the same page is a reason why this has been a successful collaboration.

Kevin Verspoor

On a visit to a trade show in the fall of 2016 Ms. Kraemer shared with me the fourth perfume which would be released. It is one of that hazards of smelling something like that at a trade show when it is by far my favorite thing of the day and I am not allowed to speak of it. Now that Sanrovia has been released that restriction has been removed.

The original version of Sanrovia was released in 1911 out of Mr. Blocki’s Chicago shop. It was inspired by trips of Mr. Blocki to an Italian village. As the original Sanrovia was an interpretation of Italy through American eyes the current version does the same thing with the similarity being the prominent use of sandalwood.

Many Mediterranean perfumes choose to open with a blast of the citrus groves. Sanrovia starts here, too. Mr. Verspoor starts off with lemon structured to be as cool as it is tart. Orange comes along to mellow both effects. The heart is a floral two-step of paired floral accords. The first is lavender and geranium. They combine into a green tinted floral where the lavender does most of the floral lifting. This progresses into the second pair of jasmine and rose. The rose is an oil from Jacques Cartier roses which are a hybrid of Damask and China varieties. It has all the complexity of a typical rose otto but there is also more space for the jasmine to find some footing. The rose is on top but not as much as usual in accords like this. The star of the show arrives after this as Mr. Verspoor uses Australian Sandalwood. I would wonder if Mr. Blocki used Mysore Sandalwood back in 1911. By using the version available in 2018 Mr. Verspoor plays to its strengths as the modern sandalwood is more desiccated he uses vetiver and labdanum to enhance that.

Sanrovia has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

From the moment I got a sniff of this I felt like this would be my favorite of the Blocki releases to date, which it is. This never feels like a vintage perfume or even a Retro Nouveau. The only ingredient which carries that vibe is the Jacques Cartier Rose and it is more restrained than, I am guessing, if a full Damascene rose had been used. The citrus top accord is so often forgettable in most perfumes. In Sanrovia it is a bracing cool breeze. The florals cavort as if they were on holiday while the sandalwood stands to the side with stolid strength. This is a triumph of the Kraemers and Mr. Verspoor. If there is an afterlife which can see the present I have to believe John Blocki would be proud of the evolutionary heritage they have achieved.

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

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Gifted

The comic book history of the superhero group, X-Men, has two distinct eras. The first covering their creation in 1963 until they ran out of steam and were canceled in 1969. The early incarnation was all about these powerful mutants helping humanity without too much resentment on display. When they would return in 1975 with a new team they had shifted from teenagers to adults from all over the world. The other significant shift was the world feared them. It has been that struggle which has become the hallmark of the comic book and movie versions. The feared outcasts have always provided a rich vein of stories and the latest television series, The Gifted, has taken that as its starting point.

Over the first couple of episodes we meet the Strucker family. The two children, Lauren and Andy, with parents Reed and Caitlin. Reed is a district attorney known for prosecuting mutants. Which of course means when his son exhibits uncontrollable powers he is split as a father and prosecutor. His journey will be the decision on what is more important to him. Andy’s use of his powers sends them on the run. They encounter a Mutant Underground which will smuggle you out of the country. Of course, it is never that easy and the family finds getting out of Atlanta tougher than expected which covers the entire 13-episode first season.

The other background provided throughout the first half of the season is important. First, The X-Men have disappeared. There are no heroics to be found from the most well-known mutants. Second, the fear and hate from the non-mutant population stems from an incident that happened on July 15 when at a mutant rights protest something, which hasn’t been explained fully, happened to cause mass casualties. The humans hunting the mutants refer to this as 7/15. This is the backdrop which propels the story.

Matt Nix

Over the course of the season there are discussions of how these mutants should react. The large ensemble cast does a nice job of expanding on all the different perspectives. I have liked the overall framework and the general storyline being told but the large cast has created a different problem. I am not invested in the individual story of anyone. There isn’t a mutant I particularly want to see or that stands out. There isn’t a villain which provides me enough animosity I want to see their fall. The strongest emotions I had were when the mutants who have the mind-altering abilities used them..

The show is written and overseen by Matt Nix who was a fan of the same comic books I read. If I could give him some advice for the second season I’d ask him to focus more strongly on a couple of mutant characters. Make them our focus from which stories can expand upon. The foundation is here but it now needs to be built upon so that The Gifted is more like the second generation of the comic book that created an entirely new superhero style.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Narciso Rodriguez Santal Musc- Staying the Course

One of my favorite perfume brands has been the Narciso Rodriguez line. One reason I enjoy them is right from the start, in 2003, the decision that this was going to be a collection which would be focused on musk. Throughout the years some of the perfumers best known for using musk in creative ways laid the foundation for Narciso Rodriguez to become synonymous with the ingredient. Late last year the most recent installment in this collection was released Narciso Rodriguez Santal Musc.

Sonia Constant

Santal Musc is the latest entry in the Oriental Musc Collection after Amber Musc from 2013 and Rose Musc in 2016. For This latest perfumers Caroline Sabas and Sonia Constant team up. What they have produced is classic spicy Oriental base accord featuring the two notes on the bottle.

Caroline Sabas

The spice comes from cardamom in the beginning. Early on it seems like it is the lemon tinted refined cardamom. Over time it seems like some of the rawer green cardamom also arrives. At the same time ylang-ylang also comes up. For a moment the stickier cardamom inserts itself into the slightly oily ylang-ylang. It is an interesting combination. Which is when the musk comes to the fore. I like the way the slightly animalic nature harmonizes with the fatty floral. Now this might sound heavy but the perfumers mange to create something lighter in tone by using some of the expansive musks to add lift. Then an equally opaque sandalwood completes the Oriental effect. This all comes together rapidly which maybe makes the overall effect seem linear. I found it enjoyable while I was wearing it with out becoming inured to it.

Santal Musc has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

This is a lovely take on a musky Oriental. I’m not sure it creates new ground within the genre. Saying that it does create new space for the Narciso Rodriguez brand as it is the most Oriental of the three Oriental Musc Collection. What I admire is even on the thirtieth version of a musk perfume Narciso Rodriguez Santal Musc is staying the course started fifteen years ago beautifully.

Disclosure: This review is based on a smaple provided by Narciso Rodriguez.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review The House of Oud Crop 2017- Event Horizon

Among the many ingredients which sharply divide perfume lovers, licorice and oud would rank high on that list. I am that contrarian which enjoys both. I like the sharply herbal darkness of licorice. I adore the medicinal tinted ouds; like smelling a bandage on my finger. When these notes are combined in a perfume you might expect an obstreperous off-putting composition; which it might be for some. I found the perfume which does this, The House of Oud Crop 2017, exactly the combination I was looking for.

I became acquainted with The House of Oud last year. Founded by perfumer Andrea Casotti and oud distiller Mohammed Nashi. One of the things they are doing is creating yearly limited editions which feature a specific oud called Crop. The first one Crop 2016 was built around a green Kalimantan oud that was compelling. I was curious to see what Crop 2017 would bring.

Andrea Casotti

This vintage works with a traditional oud full of those medicinal aspects I enjoy. It is not as unique as the oud in Crop 2016. For Crop 2017 it seems as if Sig. Casotti wanted to explore the depth of how dark you could take an oud. Instead of lightening it up he drives it even deeper with licorice.

Crop 2017 does not have a pyramid as much as everything sort of appears. Very early the herbal pure licorice of a throat lozenge is dunked in a glass of absinthe. What this creates is souped-up wormwood accord with the licorice maxed out. Before I get much time to enjoy this the oud rumbles in like a rhino into a china shop lifting the licorice accord up and slamming it down on top of itself. This is where Crop 2017 hovers and if the idea of acerbic herbal boozy bandages makes you go “oooh!” then, like me, you will be in bliss. I enjoyed this so much that I almost was disappointed when the sandalwood began to find its way in. It was so normal I was irritated with its presence.

Crop 2017 has 12-14 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

I am reasonably sure if I asked many oud lovers whether they like Crop 2016 or 2017 most of them would choose 2016. Not me. Crop 2017 is one of those reasons I enjoy niche perfumery. Everything doesn’t have to be made for the masses. Sometimes it can be made for us who want to hang out on the event horizon of licorice and oud.

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

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Ellis Brooklyn Sci Fi- Amazing Stories

I think often of how the genre of science fiction has matured over the one hundred-odd years it has been around. In its earliest days it was almost entirely literary. It was also almost entirely short stories. This was the fuel of the magazines like “Amazing Stories”. Many of the greatest authors within the genre would start by publishing short form science fiction in a magazine. In the current times it has morphed into multiple websites allowing aspiring writers of the fantastical the opportunity to dazzle with fewer words than a novel. I am one who enjoys this kind of economical storytelling. It gets in, does its thing, and moves on. A perfume inspired by all of this, Ellis Brooklyn Sci Fi, feels like its own version of something found in Amazing Stories.

Bee Shapiro

Ellis Brooklyn is one of the best new perfume brands of the last year. Bee Shapiro founded it in 2016 and in 2017 really stepped things up. The early release Rives was a fantastic classic fougere. Sci Fi was the end of year release and it is also excellent. Ms. Shapiro is a beauty writer at the New York Times and, at some point, she must have crossed paths with perfumer Jerome Epinette. However they teamed up M. Epinette has been an ideal partner for Ms. Shapiro. Sci Fi is another example of it.

Jerome Epinette

So far for his work on Ellis Brooklyn M. Epinette works by framing a strong central note within a frame of notes which allow it to expand only within the confines of that frame. The keynote for Sci Fi is vanilla which is framed by citrus, green tea, freesia, and cedar.

Sci Fi opens with a tart citrus accord where the bitter orange nature of bergamot is enhanced. I admit I was expecting the vanilla to rise to form a creamsicle kind of feel. Instead M. Epinette adds the other two legs of his frame as a transparent green tea and fresh floral freesia flank the citrus. Then the vanilla comes forward and interacts with all three simultaneously. Taking what could have been a nondescript orange vanilla perfume into something with verve, from the tea and freesia energizing it beyond that. A synthetic cedar closes the frame providing a clean woodiness for the previous accord to rest upon.

Sci Fi has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

I am again impressed at the work Ms. Shapiro and M. Epinette are producing. While Sci Fi might not seem futuristic it is an Amazing Story of how to do excellent perfume.

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

Mark Behnke