The current landscape of new perfume brands is a minefield which has many casualties to claim. Even the best brands can succumb to something unexpected outside the bounds of the perfume itself. There are brands who have such a clear aesthetic right from the beginning I root for them to come through the other side of this process. One which has seemingly made a safe transit through the danger zone is Vilhelm Parfumerie.
Jerome Epinette (l.) amf Jan Ahlgren
Founded in spring 2015 by owner-creative director Jan Ahlgren it has many of the things I believe are important to succeed. One is finding a perfumer who understands your vision. Mr. Ahlgren has done this in perfumer Jerome Epinette. Theirs seems like an ideal creative partnership. The perfumes they have produced speak to that. Another piece of the puzzle is to convey your style of perfume coherently. Mr. Ahlgren has coupled his love of Golden Age Hollywood with perfume of location as he has designed scents around places he has lived. Vilhelm is one of the brands where the press release represents the perfume in the bottle. Finally, the brand must continue to develop beyond its beginnings. In 2018 the perfumes with Vilhelm on the label have all taken on a “sweet” style that wasn’t evident in the earlier releases. The third release of 2018, Moon Carnival, completes that trend.
The backstory is about a man from Rio who falls in love with a dancer. Her favorite flower is tuberose. To display his love the man traveled the world. Each new bloom of tuberose he found he decorated the moon with. Messrs. Ahlgren and Epinette bring this story to life with tropical fruit and tuberose before landing on a subtle gourmand base accord.
M. Epinette uses passionfruit as an ingredient to locate us in the tropics. This is a beautifully balanced use of this seldom used fruity ingredient. The transition to the tuberose is begun with freesia and gardenia first. As the tuberose gains traction it becomes a compelling partner with the passionfruit. At this point I was imagining the Brazilian dancer from the story. What comes next is a clever shift to an opaque gourmand base. If you aren’t looking for it, you have to wait a bit for the fruity floral fireworks to settle a bit. What M. Epinette does is to take the fluffy sticky sweet marshmallow we all recognize and turn into a meringue-like version; light and frothy. Tonka bean adds a vanilla tint without becoming too treacly. Vetiver arrives as a woody foundation later.
Moon Carnival has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.
Moon Carnival adds to the Vilhelm style of “sweet” which is best described as subtly transparent. It affirms that this brand will keep evolving as it continues forward. The sweet tuberose of Moon Carnival is proof of that.
Disclosure: This review is based on a sample provided by Vilhelm Parfumerie.
Tom Petty tells me “the waiting is the hardest part”. Which I get daily reminders of when I look at my box of perfumes to be reviewed. Some I am asked to hold off on writing about until a specific date. It is the other perfumes in the box that Mr. Petty advises me of. I sometimes get a new release which is woefully outside of the time when I suspect it will be really great. Those sit in my “to be reviewed” box enticing me while I wait. We finally got a little streak of cooler weather, so I could take one of those out for a spin. Commodity Velvet was as good as I had hoped for.
Velvet was the third of the 2018 releases from Commodity at the end of the spring. I have come to admire the brand because they are giving the perfumers they hire a wide latitude to create. All that they ask is for a minimalist aesthetic. It has led to a collection of perfume which has more creativity than the typical mainstream fragrance. From the moment I learned of this I knew there was a perfumer for whom this brand would be a natural fit. With Velvet, perfumer Jerome Epinette gets his chance.
His inspiration for Velvet is “vibrant pink Turkish rose petals floating over a mysterious dark background of richly warm vanilla.” It is rare that a press description is as spot on as that one is. He does leave out one other important ingredient though and it really does make Velvet as good as it is.
That ingredient is there right at the start as an almond toasted by a bit of clove is the top accord. Almond is one of my favorite ingredients in perfume because it acts nutty and woody simultaneously. It is an ideal lead-in to the rose in the heart as heliotropin connects the almond and the Turkish rose. As they come together that pool of vanilla in M. Epinette’s inspiration also begins to rise. It all comes together in an opulent accord. A bit of resinous amber provides the final piece of this perfume.
Velvet has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.
Velvet completes a fantastic year for this brand. It is one of the places where a niche aesthetic has found some traction at the mall. Velvet will be a great addition to the cooler weather rotation. I plan on wearing it even more the colder it gets.
Disclosure: this review was based on a sample provided by Commodity.
As I come to know a brand I have an expectation of how each new perfume will fit into what came before. This is especially true of brands which have a long-time association between creative director and perfumer. It is something I think can be critical to creating the defined aesthetic for any perfume brand. Many of my favorites fall into this category. Because of that it can be soothing to get a new release from one of them because it can be an antidote to a bunch of samples from brands just beginning to figure it all out. Except for 2018, Byredo has been seemingly exploring the far edges of their well-known style.
Earlier this year creative director-owner, Ben Gorham, along with longtime collaborator perfumer, Jerome Epinette, worked with Off-White designer Keith Abloh on Elevator Music. For a brand known for a lighter style of fragrance this was out on the edge of that. Now the second release for 2018, Eleventh Hour, goes the other way as Mr. Gorham and M. Epinette make the darkest release for the brand.
The name stands for the final hour of existence. The press copy is a bit arch even, “Eleventh Hour is an exploration around the smell of things ending, a journey to the end of time, the last perfume on Earth.” You’re a better person than me if that gives you any idea what the perfume should smell like. I was half-expecting something that smelled like metal, scorched electronics, and smoke. That is not what is in the bottle. Eleventh Hour is more about how you might face the eleventh hour if you weren’t planning on sticking around.
I have been really interested in the many ways Szechuan pepper has been used in perfumery especially over the last year or so. It is becoming a new top to middle ingredient which seemingly can be tuned to multiple effects. Eleventh Hour is another example of this versatility.
The top accord of Eleventh Hour is Szechuan pepper and fig. A green fig is what I smell first. The Szechuan pepper acts to cleave the fruit into a piquant pulpy accord. M. Epinette also uses carrot seed as an earthy sweetness to further elaborate this top accord. On the night I first smelled this I thought maybe this was going to be a new style of a Mediterranean kind of fragrance. Except M. Epinette pours some rum over the top. It turns it into a decadent boozy fig dessert which is where this lingers. Woods and tonka bean eventually form the foundation in the later hours.
Eleventh Hour has 8-10 hour longevity and average sillage.
This stands out from most of the Byredo brand for its darker aesthetic. It fits right in because of Mr. Gorham and M. Epinette know how to take the aesthetic they’ve created while finding a way to define the limits. Eleventh Hour finds the darkness on the edge of town.
Disclosure: This review is based on a sample provided by Byredo.
If I describe a perfume with the adjective “tropical” I would bet manty of you are thinking of something dense with sweet flowers and fruits. It has always been a funny thing for me because having grown up in South Florida and traveling throughout the tropics that is not the scent of the actual region. It is the scent of cocktails served at tourist areas. My idea of the tropics is the scent of the fruit ripening on the trees. A lighter scent of florals reaching me as if on a breeze. Turns out that a perfume called Vilhelm Mango Skin agrees with me.
I’m sure you’re all tired of reading this but Jan Ahlgren the owner-creative director of Vilhelm is one of the great success stories of the last three years. Mr. Ahlgren has defined a brand aesthetic which allows him to find new ways to position the new releases. He has so far exclusively worked with perfumer Jerome Epinette. Another reason for the coherence of the collection overall. Earlier this year Poets of Berlin was the first perfume from the brand I would have called “sweet”. Mango Skin continues the sweet trend at Vilhelm but it is less sweet than that previous release.
Jerome Epinette (l.) and Jan Ahlgren
M. Epinette has always found surprising new ways to use different ingredients. The note list of Mango Skin is a roster of typical tropical components. M. Epinette uses violet as the linchpin to what is a fantastic perfume of the tropics.
From the first moments the mango is here. In the very early going this is the smell of a ripe mango on the tree. There is some green from the skin. M. Epinette adds orange to flesh out the mango. Then the violet adds a candied floral bridge to frangipani and ylang-ylang. Those florals are pitched at a transparent level which allows for the violet to act as connective tissue between the fruit on top and the florals in the heart. The last part of the construction is an effervescent blackcurrant accord bubbling up through the other notes.
Mango Skin has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.
Mango Skin is that combination of fruit and floral without being a typical fruity floral. The entire composition feels like a carefree day in the sun. If tropical could be like this all the time I’d be quite happy.
Disclosure: this review is based on a sample provided by Vilhelm.
It always happens I get a new release that seems like it would be better in a different season than when I received it. It makes it challenging for me to assess it because I always wonder if it will get better in the season it seems made for. This was my mindset when I received my sample of Nest Cocoa Woods. Everything in the press release made me think cold-weather perfume. Except as I wore it in the withering heat of a Maryland summer it was also pretty good right now.
Creative Director-Owner of Nest Fragrances Laura Slatkin has quietly produced a nice collection of simple perfumes. Cocoa Woods is the twelfth release for the brand. She collaborates with perfumer Jerome Epinette. If there is one thing I like about the brand is the names are accurately descriptive. If it says Cocoa Woods I’m going to be getting some cocoa and some woods; which I do. What I like here is that it is cocoa and not chocolate which is what makes it more amenable to wear in the warmer temperatures.
M. Epinette opens with that cocoa in place. What makes it difference is this smells like the Dutch-processed cocoa powder I bake with. It is kind of dusty but still has a strong presence of chocolate without becoming viscous. It is provided some zingy energy via tiare flower and ginger in the early moments. They only make a fleeting appearance before the woods come forward. M. Epinette uses sandalwood and sequoia. It is a nice combination because the rougher-edged sequoia provides some texture to the smoother sandalwood. In the same way that I described the cocoa they provide an austere woody accord which matches the cocoa. Once the full accord comes together I kept thinking of a serving board made up of alternating strips of sequoia and sandalwood liberally coated in cocoa powder.
Cocoa Woods has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.
It is this spare style M. Epinette uses for Cocoa Woods that makes this wearable in the summer. I was worried that the cocoa would become problematic later in the day but that never happened. Once it was in place it was a delightful companion both hot days I wore it. I’m still going to give it a spin once there’s some frost on the pumpkin. That I’ve enjoyed it in the season its probably not ideal for means it is more versatile than I first thought. It was a pleasant surprise.
Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Sephora.
There are people in perfume who I want to see work together. It arises from the same impulse to see your favorite actors or other artists combine their talents into something you hope will be special. One of my favorite examples was when two of my favorite horror authors, Peter Straub and Stephen King, co-wrote “The Talisman”. It was a story which accentuated what both authors did in a memorable way. It was a case of two of the most popular genre authors combining into a kind of super duo. The latest release from Olfactive Studio, Flash Back in New York, brings together two of my favorite creatives in perfumery; Celine Verleure and Jerome Epinette.
Mme Verleure has been one of the best creative directors from the moment she launched Olfactive Studio in September of 2011. Her process of using a photograph as a brief for the perfumer she collaborates with has proven time and again to produce excellent perfumes. One reason is by using a visual instead of a written brief it accesses different ideas of what a new perfume might smell like.
M. Epinette has become the man who can launch a brand. He has helped to define the aesthetic for no less than four brands. That they can be distinct yet different speaks to his skill. Yet, in its way once that aesthetic is defined it can keep you hemmed in by what you created. M. Epinette isn’t going to cut loose with something dramatically different he is going to find the edges of the frame he created and subtly push against it. The opportunity given to M. Epinette, by Mme Verleure, is to not have that frame to push against but a freedom to explore a theme.
Flash Back in New York photo by Vivienne Gucwa
That theme comes from a photo by New York-based photographer Vivienne Gucwa. I have followed Ms. Gucwa through her Instagram feed “travelinglens” and her website “New York Through the Lens”. If you look through her photos online, you will be unsurprised to find she just released a book called “New York in the Snow” which is a frequent topic of her photography. Mme Verleure chose one which captured New York in a blizzard.
The perfume which comes from this is a set of contrasts mirroring the view of the snow falling while warm inside. M. Epinette uses each phase to develop this effect in three parts.
Flash Back in New York opens on a pungent mixture of cumin and clary sage. I imagine if you are not a fan of these ingredients this will not be an ideal start. Hang in there because M. Epinette uses a couple of the linen musks to provide a cleaner contrast to the less clean cumin and sage. It works beautifully especially as saffron rounds it off after a few minutes more. The heart moves towards the floral as violet and jasmine provide that. The top accord begins to combine with a leather accord to set up the contrast of animalic and floral. The remains of the cumin evoke a bit of a sweaty leather jacket just after you’ve taken it off. Birch smoke swirls off the leather in lazy ascending spirals. A green accord first of papyrus but later joined by vetiver increases in intensity. As the saffron did in the top accord tonka bean provides the finishing touch to the base accord.
Flash Back in New York has 14-16 hour longevity and average sillage.
While all the snow themed imagery is liable to induce PTSD rather than a flashback to my New York City readers that isn’t what the perfume is really about. It is a study in contrasts where at the crossroads the artists find beauty. That is what Flash Back in New York is all about.
Disclosure: This review is based on a bottle provided by Olfactive Studio.
My least appreciated style of perfume is the fruity floral. If you ask me to only have one half of that I would have said give me the floral. It isn’t that there aren’t fruity perfumes which retain interest, but it sometimes becomes difficult for a creative team to keep it from smelling like candy. Which is a shame because fruity notes offer some of the same promise that their floral partners do. The latest Vilhelm Parfumerie release, Poets of Berlin, shows how that is done.
Creative director of Vilhelm Parfumerie, Jan Ahlgren, has done a fantastic job of using musicians as inspiration but I must confess this time the connection has passed me by. In the press copy it says Poets of Berlin is inspired by David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy of albums. I will leave it to better minds than mine to make the connection between a fruity woody perfume and Bowie’s Berlin portfolio. Once again M. Ahlgren calls on his collaborator on the entire collection to date, Jerome Epinette, to find a way to add something to fruity fragrance.
Jerome Epinette (l.) and Jan Ahlgren
The choice that is made is to take a combination of sweet and tart fruit ingredients and let them open with a crystalline sweetness before slowly adding in woody ingredients from light to heavy to provide unexpected depth to the fruit.
The two fruits M. Epinette uses are lemon and blueberry. When they first hit my skin, they project predominantly as sugary sweet reminding me a bit of those sugar-coated jelly candies. Then M. Epinette uses the green tinged woodiness of bamboo to turn my attention to the tart underneath the sugar. That green thread is picked up and amplified with vetiver which also notches the woodiness up a level, too. This is where the sweetness of the fruit returns to the foreground pushing back against the woods. Sandalwood and vanilla comprise the base accord creating depth to both the sweet and the woods.
Poets of Berlin has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.
Poets of Berlin is an excellent spring fragrance. I wore it on an unexpected warm day and it really sang on my skin. It is surprising that I am happier wearing fruity rather than floral on a warm day, but Poets of Berlin has made me crave fruity woods.
Disclosure: This review is based on a sample provided by Vilhelm Parfumerie.
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.
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.
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.
There are many times where I am introduced to a new brand and it doesn’t come together for me, but I am rooting for them. This is the case for the Room 1015 brand. I’ve met the owner Michael Partouche a.k.a. Dr. Mike a few times over the past two years since he founded the brand. On the first visit he explained how this was meant to be a brand inspired by 1970’s rock and roll. The name itself refers to the infamous room at the Continental Hyatt hotel on Sunset Boulevard where Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards flung a television out the window in 1972. As one who was growing up on the music in this period there was a glorious DIY mentality as everyone was trying to figure out how to keep this gig rolling. All while secretly believing it was going to end tomorrow so live for tonight.
Michael Partouche a.k.a. Dr. Mike
When Dr. Mike laid this out as the aesthetic he wanted I was excited to try a collection of power chords and anarchy. Which was the opposite of what I got from the three debut fragrances. They were nice, but they were not 1970’s rock and roll. They were American Top 40 as perfume. Over the next two releases I began to think that was what Dr. Mike wanted. I thought the perfume I wanted from Room 1015 was not going to come. Then I received my sample of Hollyrose and got what I was waiting for.
Kate Hudson as Penny Lane in the movie "Almost Famous"
For Hollyrose Dr. Mike was inspired by the groupies who became secondary stars to the rock stars they hung out with. Because they were sources of information the writers for the earliest publications covering the industry used them for that. This was a time when the rules were being written; with none set in stone. The leather jacket-clad ladies would be hanging around as the band made their stop where they lived. To capture this Dr. Mike works with perfumer Jerome Epinette for the first time. They deliver a rose in a black leather fisted glove which captures those Band-Aids and their world.
Hollyrose opens with a nose tickling accord of black pepper and sticky green blackcurrant bud. Blackcurrant bud can verge on the unpleasant; M. Epinette keeps it safely away from that but there are moments it feels like it might break out. The rose comes through as M. Epinette puts it into a well-cared for black leather jacket accord. This is the smell of rock and roll women throughout the 70’s. A bit of patchouli reminds you that the hippie aesthetic still lilts through it all.
Hollyrose has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.
As I wore Hollyrose I kept thinking about the groupie portrayed by Kate Hudson named Penny Lane in the movie “Almost Famous”. This seems like what she would smell like. Which means Dr. Mike finally found the 70’s vibe I was hoping for.
Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Room 1015.
If there is a consistent criticism I carry of the mainstream fruity floral perfumes it that they are overwhelming. Worse is it isn’t usually one or the other it’s both working in concert. It is part of my general antipathy to the genre. I usually try all the new ones which come in with the similar thought that I wish they just dialed it back a bit. I like sweet, it is cloying I am not fond of. I generally file them away with the damning classification in my spreadsheet of “typical fruity floral”. When I received my sample of Anna Sui Fantasia just after Labor Day I expected it to join the others department store fruity florals with the same description. Turns out this was a fruity floral with the right balance to stand out.
If I was going to point to a brand which exemplified much of what I disliked about fruity florals Anna Sui would’ve done the trick as well as many others. Then about a year ago they began working exclusively with perfumer Jerome Epinette. The change was heralded when I received my sample earlier this year of M. Epinette’s Romantica Exotica. Romantica was so overwhelming to me on a strip I didn’t even give it a patch of skin. Romantica Exotica was a set of crisp accords that carried a focus through each stage of the development. Fantasia is an even better example of how to do fruity floral right and that is with including a gourmand praline accord right in the heart. Except M. Epinette is nothing if not a master of keeping all his raw materials in their lanes only crossing over when necessary.
He starts Fantasia with grapefruit, baie rose and a green underpinning of blackcurrant bud. That green goes especially well with the herbal nature of the baie rose and the slightly sulfurous nature of the grapefruit. This provides a shimmery opening which raspberry shades a bit. I braced myself for the raspberry to become too loud but M. Epinette never lets that happen. He adds in a deep Bulgarian rose as support turning the raspberry into jam. This then coats a praline accord which is designed to have a slighter sweet quality than you might expect. The raspberry does supply most of the sweet through the heart without becoming out of control. The base is a clean woody combination of cypress and cedar which also provides some contrast to the sweetness, too.
Fantasia has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.
Fantasia is a different kind of fruity floral for the department store counter. I wonder if fans of the genre will gravitate to its less intense style. It could also draw in new fans like me because it finds just the right sweet spot for those who have stayed away in the past.
Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Anna Sui.