Dead Letter Office: Jean Patou Ma Liberte- The Kerleo Years

Those who have followed me over the years know there is a special section in the Dead Letter Office for the perfumes of Jean Patou. Much of their reputation rests on the creations of perfumer Henri Almeras from 1925-1946. The only remaining evidence of the glorious history of the brand is the evergreen best-seller Joy. This is not to say there haven’t been numerous attempts to bring the brand back to life. Perfumer Jean-Michel Duriez oversaw one of the more confusing transitions through the turn of the century. Most recently perfumer Thomas Fontaine has been re-formulating the original collection the best that he can with modern substitutions. In between there was another short creative spurt overseen by perfumer Jean Kerleo from 1972-1995.

M. Kerleo’s tenure has provided one of those rarest of unicorn fragrances, Patou pour Homme, in 1980. It lives up to every bit of the hype. Lost within this group of Patou perfumes done by M. Kerleo is one I admire just as much; Ma Liberte.

Jean Kerleo

Throughout this time M. Kerleo seemed to enjoy using lavender as a keynote. It would show up in both Patou pour Homme and Patou pour Homme Prive as well as Voyageur. Ma Liberte was another example of the flexibility of lavender in the hands of an artist.

In the beginning of Ma Liberte M. Kerleo chooses to contrast the lavender with tart citrus which is ameliorated with the lighter nature of heliotrope. Jasmine will become the note in the heart which picks up the lavender and allows it to flower more fully. Then the other hall mark of M. Kerleo’s time at Patou is his use of spices. He swirls in cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove to create this swirling warm shimmer covering the florals. It leads to a rich cedar and sandalwood base.

Ma Liberte has 14-16 hour longevity and above average sillage.

If there is a question which has perplexed me; it is how the Jean Patou collection never caught on beyond Joy. I’ve never seen a reliable explanation on why they never were commercially successful but that is the reason they populate my favorite corner of the Dead Letter Office.

For those of you who look at the prices for Patou pour Homme and Patou pour Homme Prive on the auction sites and just groan at the prices you are who this version of this column is for. Ma Liberte is as good as either of those and it can be found on the same auction sites for much, much, less. If you have given up on obtaining the Patou pour Hommes give Ma Liberte a try.

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

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

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

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

Keeping the Flame Burning

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By mid-January 2014 I was busy planning the first 90 days of Colognoisseur. I felt like I had to start with the first 90 articles lined up if I was going to get into a rhythm that would allow me to post a new article every day. As I put that schedule together I was excited to be able to write about all the things I ever wanted to write about. I ran across my 90-day plan just after the New Year. I was pleased to find that the original concept has largely survived through today.

I then began to think about whether I realistically thought I’d still be as excited as I neared the end of my fourth year of Colognoisseur. I had some reader number targets but those were all for the end of 2016. I thought thinking beyond that date was of the wishful variety. Yet, I find myself just as excited as I was four years ago.

I don’t plan things out for 90-days anymore, but I do keep a rolling 21-day schedule. That it is currently full of perfume I am happy to write about is also great. I think it is easy to become jaded about anything after doing it for over ten years. I started considering why I had escaped that pitfall.

The answer came via the mail both electronic and traditional. In my physical mailbox I received a package from a new independent perfumer. Inside was an amazing debut, something different to my nose. It is something only an instinctual artist could create. It is why every package like this is a new discovery.

In my e-mail box I got another testimonial on my “How to Buy Perfume as a Gift”. A man went to the mall and put together my little basket of samples along with a gift card. After giving it to his girlfriend they eventually settled on a perfume which at that time was their special perfume. They just got married on New Year’s Eve and the bride wore “their” perfume.

It is both the opportunity to give some exposure to the new perfumer while sharing a way to make perfume a part of someone’s life which are more than enough to keep my internal flame burning bright.

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Christian Dior Dior-Dior- Roudnitska Overture

Whenever I go to see a musical on the stage one of my favorite moments is the overture. Just prior to the curtain rising on Act 1 Scene 1 the orchestra lays down a preview of the musical themes which will appear during the musical to come. I’ve always found it a fascinating kind of audio foreshadowing. After I’ve seen the production it can be a short reminder of the event.

I wouldn’t say it is common in perfume for something to be an overture. As I finally acquired enough of 1976’s Christian Dior Dior-Dior it was hard not to think of it as a retrospective overture of perfumer Edmond Roudnitska’s portfolio at Dior.

Edmond Roudnitska

By 1976, M. Roudnitska had created five previous Dior releases. The Dior style was defined in those singular perfumes many of them masterpieces of the perfumed art. By this point in his career he was fully embracing simple constructions. He was a precise artist using only the least amount of ingredients to achieve his desired effect. The apex of this style might have been the two releases which preceded Dior-Dior; Diorella and Eau Sauvage. It is their influence which is most noticeable in Dior-Dior.

The early part of the overture carries the lemon and hedione aspects of Eau Sauvage. They provide the same expansiveness so recognizable from that previous perfume. Then the strings provide the lilt of melon from Diorella. In Diorella the melon is on the verge of being overripe. In Dior-Dior it comes from the day before that, as it is lighter in degree. The lily of the valley from Diorissimo provides a strong green and floral aspect. This is all finished off with some oakmoss and woods to make it chypre-like.

Dior-Dior has 14-16 hour longevity and above average sillage.

Something which carries many of the best parts of the Roudnitska Dior partnership should have been a big seller. It didn’t last long and was sent to the Dead Letter Office surprisingly quickly. Granted M. Roudnitska had been making Dior perfumes since 1948 and perhaps the time for his style has passed. That seems unlikely based on the continued popularity of those previous Dior perfumes. Which is where I return to my overture analogy. Dior-Dior is like an appetizer when you can have the entrée of Eau Sauvage, Diorella, or Diorissimo. I understand that after having the opportunity to experience this now. After wearing Dior-Dior I just wanted to hear the full versions because I know they are there. I wonder if Dior-Dior was an actual overture from which the three perfumes it reminds me of followed whether it would have had greater success. When the overture comes at the end of the musical I think it is easy to understand why it is in the Dead Letter Office.

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

Mark Behnke

Discount Diamonds: Bvlgari Black- Still Enough Edge

As the concept of perfumes which didn’t necessarily have to smell pretty took hold simultaneously with the rise of niche perfumery there arose several trendsetting fragrances. One of the boldest was a mainstream release for Bvlgari called simply Black.

When I came upon this sometime around its release in 1998 I remember the salesperson at the department store warning me, “It’s edgy!” Thinking to myself, “How edgy can it be?” The answer was quite a bit. Perfumer Annick Menardo created a fragrance reveling in the smell of rubber. It would be like going to S&M night at the local leather bar. Edgy, indeed.

Annick Menardo

Mme Menardo fashions a powdery rubber accord around black tea, musk, and sandalwood. In an odd juxtaposition jasmine is used as contrast. Leather intersperses itself and this is where it feels like a bar as smoke, rubber, leather, and a hint of floral combine for that milieu. For the first few minutes of wearing Black it is all of this. Then before it can get truly subversive Mme Menardo reels it all back into familiarity with the olfactory version of a safe word, vanilla. Lots and lots of vanilla. It doesn’t not work as the leather and rubber have sweet facets amplified by the vanilla. But it does turn something challenging into something vanilla.

Black has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.

There has always been a part of me that was surprised at how successful Black has been. I would hazard a guess that it is because it allows perfume lovers a chance to walk on the wild side for a short period before going full comfort mode. I still think that opening 30-45 minutes is as good as perfume got back in 1998. Especially mainstream perfume. You can find the distinctive hockey puck shaped bottle for $20-25. Nowadays Black has become mainstream as all that was edgy back in 1998 is now almost quaint. It doesn’t mean its any less of a Discount Diamond it just means there is still enough edge remaining to make it memorable.

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

Mark Behnke

Under the Radar: Costume National Homme- Cutting-Edge Comfort?

There have been many designers who have entered the niche perfumery category. They all looked to be the next Comme des Garcons. I can safely say that nobody has come close to that record of success. In the early 2000’s there was an interesting contender which had some similarities; Costume National.

Costume National was also a fashion line appealing to a young trendsetting clientele. The founder Ennio Capasa carried that slim silhouette from working in Japan at Yohji Yamamoto fusing it with Milan details. In 1986 it was a sensation which put it on the map. They would become known for a cutting-edge aesthetic which they wanted to spread out into accessories. Starting after the turn of the new century Sig. Capasa added fragrance to the brand portfolio. The very first release in 2002, Scent, was a brilliant encapsulation of the brand. Working with perfumer Laurent Bruyere they would follow that initial triumph with a collection of Scent with five flankers over the next three years. Each was interesting with Scent Intense being the best of the bunch. Just when it seemed Costume National was ready to accelerate they pumped the brakes. Releasing two new perfumes over the next four years. It is that 2009 release Costume National Homme which is my choice for this month’s Under the Radar.

Dominique Ropion

For this release Sig. Capasa changed perfumers from M. Bruyere who had done all the Scents to Dominique Ropion for Homme. I would also venture that Sig. Capasa had tired of being risky because while there are some hints of the aesthetic which runs throughout the Scent Collection it is greatly attenuated. If this column was on creativity it would be one of the Scents which was its topic. Instead it is about one of my favorite cold weather comfort perfumes.

M. Ropion has most of his recognizable signatures on display in Homme. Sandalwood, spices and resins do what you come to expect in one of his perfumes. The twist here is there is an odd synthetic oily accord which oozes through the familiar. That’s what ends up making it Costume National.

A brief flare of citrus via grapefruit and bergamot open things up then cardamom combines with cinnamon to provide a typical spicy top accord. It is here the oily accord appears. The best description I have seen of it was from a Basenotes reviewer “rogalal” who thinks it smells like fake movie theatre butter. I’m not fully in agreement but I don’t have a better shorthand for describing the accord. Once you get underneath that the labdanum, cloves and thyme add a spicy resinous accord which is very comforting. Patchouli and sandalwood are the base accord.

Homme has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.

Homme is much more comforting than a perfume from Costume National ought to be, except for the oily accord in the middle, it never challenges. Nevertheless, this has been a winter staple ever since I bought a bottle in 2009. If you’re looking for a new brand to explore or need a new cold weather comfort scent, try Costume National Homme.

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

Mark Behnke

My Favorite Things: Hibiscus

Having grown up in South Florida I was not wishing for a White Christmas. I was happy with brightly colored flowers instead of snow. I recently saw a picture of a hibiscus wreath which reminded me how we took the traditions and gave them a tropical tweak. Hibiscus as an ingredient is not one of the most popular choices. It has a similar sweetness to jasmine which makes it a frequent partner to that flower. It also is most commonly encountered as hibiscus tea which has been mimicked, too. This month’s My Favorite Things looks at five perfumes which show off hibiscus at its best.

Hibiscus Holiday Wreath

Acca Kappa Hibiscus is as close as there is to a hibiscus soliflore. Released in 2004 it takes the sweet floral keynote and supports it with magnolia, citrus, and heliotrope. Amber comes along to warm things up at the end. This is a great casual scent which is when I use it.

Demeter Hibiscus Tea does what perfumer Mark Crames does so well; create a perfumed simulacrum of the name on the bottle. The hibiscus is carried to your nose on steamy clouds of green tea. It is simply beautiful.

As I mentioned hibiscus is used along with jasmine. My favorite version of this is Costume National Scent. Perfumer Laurent Bruyere uses equivalent amounts of jasmine and hibiscus in the heart. It is laid on top of sheer woods and amber. Scent is a luminous floral perfume. Interestingly, M. Bruyere will take the same ingredients and alter the concentrations to make a darker version called Scent Intense. The hibiscus is more secondary in that one but that is also one of my favorites.

The most unambiguously tropical version of hibiscus comes in Creed Virgin Island Water. Most focus on the pina colada quality of the lime, rum, and coconut. But what seals the drinks with umbrellas vibe is the floral accord of hibiscus and jasmine reminding you that it is the Virgin Islands you’re in.

The most artistic use of hibiscus comes from perfumer Olivia Giacobetti and her IUNX No. 4 L’Eau Azteque. The botanical musk of ambrette comes from hibiscus seeds. Mme Giacobetti combines ambrette and musk into a foundational sun-warmed skin accord over which she lays hibiscus and pear. This is a fantastic fruity floral which captures indolent days in the sun.

If you’re looking for a mental trip to the tropics as we head further into the colder temperature months give these five a try.

Disclosure: This review is based on botlles which I own.

Mark Behnke

The Scent of Christmas Past

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One of the things those of us who love perfume talk about are “scent memories”. The concept that a smell can connect with a memory and bring an entirely personal subtext to fragrance. One ingredient which does this for me is gardenia. My grandmother had fresh-cut gardenias floating in bowls of water spread throughout her gardenia bush-surrounded Florida pine house. I can’t smell a good gardenia without hearing her voice and seeing her face.

Then this summer, as part of a project I am working on, I was going through vintage formulas of different Guerlains. When I hit the late 1950’s version of Mitsouko Eau de Cologne I had something more than a memory wash over me. I was transported fifty years backward so strongly it felt like a virtual reality had settled over me. What I was remembering so vividly was getting ready to go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve sometime in the late 1960’s. It was so vital I stopped what I was doing and wrote it all out before it faded away. Even thought it was the middle of July I realized I had written my Christmas Day 2017 post.

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I stood at the doorway to my parent’s bedroom. In my hand was my first real tie. My excitement on attending Midnight Mass was making my fingers fumble the perfect Windsor knot. As I looked in my mother was seated at her dressing table. She had some candles lit while she peered into the halo of electric light around her mirror. For a moment I was watching her without her knowing. My mother was always one of the most assured people I knew. She made decisions without ambivalence. She also stood up and took responsibility for poor choices. As I had a few seconds to look at her I felt like she was thinking deeply about something. She was coming to a conclusion about something. Before the process completed she looked up.

All children will tell you the smile of a parent happy to see you is a joyous thing. On Christmas Eve that smile feels like a gift. As I received this present I held out my hand with the tie. The smile widened a bit and she said, “Let me finish here and I’ll help you.”

She was still in her pink terrycloth robe and I had caught her at the end of her preparation. All that was left was adding her perfume. My mother only wore two perfumes for as long as I’ve known her. Guerlain Shalimar and Guerlain Mitsouko. She owned the round “bull’s-eye” bottles; red for Shalimar and green for Mitsouko. They had crystal pointed stoppers which were picking up the candlelight behind them. As she reached for the one with the green circle she tipped it, so it would get some on the stopper. She pulled the stopper. On the end was a drop of liquid picking up facets of flame and filament. She drew it to the hollow of her neck where that drop spread onto her skin. She rubbed the stopper against both wrists then returned it to its resting place in the neck of the bottle. She closed her eyes while taking a breath. When they opened a smile accompanied it. She beckoned me over.

She sat me on a stool in front of her chair as we looked into her vanity mirror. She leaned forward as we drew the tie around my upturned collar. I was surrounded by the love of my mother and the scent of Mitsouko. My turn to close my eyes and breathe in.

My mother could have tied the tie for me but instead she carried me through it with her voice. I got it right on the first try. With a final smile at me in the mirror she sent me off to wait for her to finish getting dressed. While I was waiting I realized a bit of the Mitsouko from her wrist had made it onto the tie. It seemed perfect.

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That’s what came from my Mitsouko fever dream. I loved going to Midnight Mass with my family. The smell of the incense off the censers. The fanfare from the trumpets. The Latin words said in such a rhythm I knew what was being said without knowing the language. Underneath it all I would be sitting on my knees in the pew under my mother’s arm surrounded by Mitsouko most of all.

This is what makes me continue to love perfume.

Mark Behnke