Discount Diamonds: Vera Wang for Men- Discount Bin Archaeology

I still go scavenging at the local discounters still hoping to find something unexpected. Most of the time I just replenish some of my favorite Discount Diamonds. At the end of the summer I saw something different down at the bottom of the giant Bin O’Fragrance. I patiently dug down to see what it was. I saw a plain white box and was hoping it was a tester which got mixed in. Many of my best scores have been the odd tester which gets caught up with the lots. Which explains my motivation to dig down. When I got to the bottom I saw it was not a tester the plain box had a professional logo which read “Vera Wang for Men”.

I remembered Vera Wang for Men as being the topic of discussion on the perfume forums back in 2004 when it was released. I went back and looked and the consensus was that it was derivative being easily compared to other fragrances which were judged as better. That kind of opinion probably kept me from trying it when I was at the department store, at that time. Now, usually when I am reviewing something I don’t have any idea about the overall opinion towards it. But as I was in line with the bottle I was reading the old reviews on my phone. Once again I almost let it stop me but for $9.99 I was curious to see whether I agreed. It took me some time to finally get around to opening the cellophane and checking it out. What I found was an office-ready amiable leather and sandalwood fragrance.

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Vera Wang for Men was composed by a team of perfumers; Jean-Marc Chaillan, Olivier Polge, and Pascal Gaurin. It is difficult to find what brief they were given. All the ad copy was about being the “irresistible fragrance that becomes the signature of the man who wears it”. That could not be the instruction the perfumers were given. Whatever they were told they did put together a pretty traditional fragrance of masculine themes of citrus, leather and wood. As I spent some time with it I found this to be a good version of those themes.

One of the nice things was using a tarter version of citrus by going for yuzu which has a distinct thread of green. Mandarin leaves were used to make sure that thread was noticeable. The leather accord is straight forward but with nutmeg used to tease out the sweeter parts of it. The base is sandalwood, tobacco, and vanilla. These are all there but this is where a little more volume might have made this even better.

Vera Wang for Men has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

For all the notes which could have produced a boisterous vapor trail leaving perfume Vera Wang for Men is much more mannered than that. It is that which I think has allowed me to enjoy it more than those who previously encountered this when it was released. I did some checking online and you don’t have to perform discount bin archaeology; Vera Wang for Men is readily available at many stores for a discount price.

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

Mark Behnke

Dead Letter Office: Calvin Klein Crave- Growing Pains

Because I’ve been so interested in the trend of perfume brands reaching out to Millennials this year I’ve been looking back to find other times fragrance was designed to specifically capture a young market. It will not surprise anyone that a good example would come from Calvin Klein. For almost 40 years now this has been a brand all about finding appeal for the young consumer. In 1994, with ckOne, they were perfectly positioned to ride the swelling wave of cleanliness in fragrance long before it turned in to a tsunami. By 2002 they were ready to do it again with Calvin Klein Crave. Except this time, it was one of the rare fragrances for this brand to end up in the Dead Letter Office.

As the brand was looking out at their target audience they were seeing the beginning of the wireless age. Nearly every young person had a pager hanging from their belt while the early cell phones were just starting to penetrate society at large. Creative director Ann Gottlieb wanted to oversee the creation of a perfume which would capture this connected generation on the bleeding edge in 2002.

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Ms. Gottlieb assembled a group of four perfumers in Jean-Mark Chaillan, Olivier Polge, Pascal Gaurin, and Yves Cassar. The perfumers were given the brief I think all Calvin Klein perfumers are given, “make it young, fresh, sexy, and clean”. Except with the concurrent electronics modernity in mind it drove them to think a little more outside of the box than they might normally have done. What resulted was something that seems Calvin Klein but at other moments seems like the name on the label must be incorrect.

Crave opens with some of that unusual quality right away. The perfumers use a Calone-laden “fluorescent fresh accord”. There is so much Calone here that the melon-like quality of that aromachemical is also evident. To that the perfumers add a different fruity partner; carambola, or starfruit, which has a tart smell to it but not nearly as much as a citrus note would have. That actually turns the fruitiness of the melon and the carambola into its own sort of fluorescent fruit accord. To all of this there is a strong green counterpoint. The longer this lingers on my skin the sugarier the fruit gets and just as it is about to become Kool-Aid the perfumers unleash a spate of herbs as basil, coriander, and allspice come forward. For a little while this is a like a chaotic house party as the fresh of the Calone, the fruits, and the herbs whirl madly. Again just as it threatens to become annoying the base notes try and calm things down. Crave goes all woody as sandalwood and vetiver provide the calming effect needed while the typical mixture of white musks finish this off.

Crave has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.

This is a perfume which lives life on the edge of irritating. If it stays on the right side of the line, as it does with me, it is a fun fragrance. If it falls on the other side of that line this is going to be an irritant. It seems the consumers were in the latter category as three years after launch it was pulled. It is still the quickest discontinuation for the brand.

There is a bit of cautionary tale in Crave for all of those brands trying to figure out what the Millennials want. Even an all-star team can miss the mark by trying too hard to cater to a perceived taste.

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

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Calvin Klein CK2- Eau de Millennials?

Calvin Klein has always been a designer brand which has targeted itself for the current generation of twentysomethings to thirtysomethings. When that description fit me, in the 1980’s, a disproportionate amount of my wardrobe was from Calvin Klein and my fragrance was Obsession for Men. As the 1990’s approached the brand shifted again and the fragrance made for Generation X was called CK one, released in 1994. Creative director Ann Gottlieb collaborated with perfumers Alberto Morillas and Harry Fremont on one of the earliest most successful fresh and clean fragrances. CK one would be the flagship perfume of Calvin Klein for a couple of generations. Now Calvin Klein is angling for the latest generation, dubbed Millennials, with the new CK2.

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Ms. Gottlieb has tapped a new perfumer for this task Pascal Gaurin. CK2 is described as a “gender-free fragrance that celebrates the endless possibilities of modern connections between two people”. The ad campaign by photographer Ryan McGinley shows that those two people are also not restrained by traditional gender roles. This actually sets a fairly difficult moving target for the creative team to hit. To truly be a fragrance which appeals broadly it would seem you would need to shoot for a middle ground set up for mediocrity. What I found surprising was Ms. Gottlieb and M. Gaurin are willing to challenge some of the newest generation of fragrance wearers to see beyond the commonplace.

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Pascal Gaurin

CK2 opens with one of those challenging choices as a piquant wasabi accord is folded into a traditional opening of mandarin and violet. There is much I like about these choices if you’re attempting to be a “gender-free” fragrance. The fruit and the floral are kept very attenuated. Because you can’t really be too much of either. That is why the wasabi accord is so important here. It adds an odd grace note throwing the traditional slightly off kilter. I stress slightly because the wasabi is used as a modulator here meant to alter but not have a prominence to it. The same theory works in the heart as iris and rose give a very traditional floral bouquet. Just as in the top it is tweaked by the presence of another odd accord of wet cobblestones. The slightly aquatic and mineralic accord literally grounds the florals; keeping them from being too florid. The base is a very nicely balanced trio of sandalwood, vetiver, and incense. It is more of those clean woods which are so popular in mass-marketed fragrance these days and is the most familiar part of CK2.

CK2 has 14-16 hour longevity and average sillage.

It is going to be very interesting to see if Calvin Klein has made an Eau de Millennials with CK2. I think there is enough different here, especially compared to some other high profile designer releases, that CK2 does stand out among its peers. When it starts showing up on fragrance counters in February I am going to be fascinated observing, on my next trip to the mall, to see how this target audience reacts. I think Ms. Gottlieb and M. Gaurin have given CK2 the best chance to succeed.

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

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Review Oscar de la Renta Extraordinary- Per Fumus Populi

Every few months I take a field trip to the mall to do a little research. My method is to find a chair or bench right by where the perfume counter is at in a department store. My local malls offer me multiple opportunities to observe every major chain. What I am looking for is to see what happens when consumers walking through the fragrance department do with the sprayed strip the line representative hands to them. The great majority of them end up in a garbage can as they walk away from the store. Every so often I see the women, or men, tuck the strip away. That always piques my interest. It means that at least on a first impression level the fragrance has made the consumer want to give it a sniff later. Very often these are perfumes that those who like independent and niche perfumes would shun as derivative. When I see a perfume making an impression I want to give it a try and see if I can understand what makes it interesting to the more casual perfume wearer. On my last foray into consumerism the perfume that was not getting thrown into the garbage can was Oscar de la Renta Extraordinary.

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Bruno Jovanovic

Extraordinary was composed by perfumers Bruno Jovanovic and Pascal Gaurin. What is in the bottle is a very straightforward floral oriental. There is truly nothing new to anyone who has lots of fragrances in their collection. It is a simple floral progression into a sweet woody base. Where I think this might be getting a second look by those walking through the fragrance department is the perfumers added a couple of interesting grace notes while also going very sweet in the base for a traditional spring/summer perfume.

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Pascal Gaurin

Extraordinary opens primarily with neroli but there are a couple of interesting underpinnings which keep it from being just neroli. The perfumers use cherry blossom and passionfruit flower to provide subtle fruity facets without really turning it into a fruity floral. I think this is a very smart way of differentiating yourself in the consumer marketplace. Especially in the top notes; as neroli will be easily recognized but those faint fruity qualities? Those are just making the neroli interesting. The heart is a very straight forward peony and rose floral. This is definitely nothing that isn’t in a thousand floral perfumes. The base is where the perfumers decide to also take a slightly different tack. There is a mix of long lasting ambrox and woody synthetics. What is interesting is there is a very healthy dose of vanillin which makes the foundation of Extraordinary almost edge into gourmand territory.

Extraordinary has 6-8 hour longevity and average sillage.

The most surprising thing about Extraordinary is a lack of staying power. With all of the synthetics in the base I expected to have it with me well into the evening if not into the next morning. I don’t have a good explanation for this but I think that might keep Extraordinary from being a runaway hit. Because in the department store world longevity is equated with quality. If it does become a hit I think that the perfumers had a small amount of courage to push some less commercial inspirations into Extraordinary may be the reason it stands out in the glass forest on the department store counter.

Disclosure: This review was based on a carded sample I received at the department store.

Mark Behnke

New Perfume Reviews A Lab on Fire Paris*LA & Made in Heaven- Have a Coke and a Smile

There are fragrances created where there is no middle ground. The accords or notes used are so divisive as to one’s own personal idea of where beauty resides that one either loves it or hates it; not a lot of “meh” heard here. The Brooklyn-based perfume house overseen by Carlos Kusubayashi, A Lab on Fire, seems to really enjoy making perfumes that generate these kind of polar opposite responses. The latest two releases, Paris*LA and Made in Heaven, are the brand’s take on gourmands of a different stripe.

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Laurent Le Guernec

Paris*LA is meant to be what Los Angeles looks like to a Parisienne and perfumer Laurent Le Guernec has decided that Coca-Cola and macarons capture this dichotomy. Right there I can already hear people thinking, “Eww! Coke and a macaron.” To be candid I have to admit that was my reaction when reading the notes. M. Le Guernec does a fine job of capturing the brilliance of LA and a Parisienne looking for something to remind her of home.

The opening note of Paris*LA is a bright blast of key lime. It is like stepping off the plane and the sun hits you square between the eyes. The key lime is an olfactory attention getter and it burns off pretty rapidly. The coca-cola accord comes next and it is a combination of fizzy aldehydes, ginger, and caramel. The fizz of the aldehydes are fine tuned to not trip over into their more provocative nature and here provide more effervescent background than anything. Next comes the macaron accord vanilla and almond out front. Then because all the best macarons are flavored M. Le Guernec adds in subtle hints of neroli, coriander, and thyme. They take the dessert-y accord and add some texture to it. The coca-cola accord has persisted and by the final hours this is a mix of sweet and sweeter as the cola and macaron accord combine to form a fragrant sugar rush. You can put me firmly in the love it category as both the cola and macaron accords work really well on my skin. I think for those who are not fond of sweet gourmands this will raise different emotions.

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Pascal Gaurin

One of my favorite things to observe is when Mr. Kusubayashi hires a perfumer who has done the great majority of their work in the non-niche side of the business and allows them the freedom to create. Made in Heaven by perfumer Pascal Gaurin is what happens. M. Gaurin works for IFF and within the company there is a branch called Laboratoire Monique Remy (LMR) which is the group who produces unique natural absolutes using the latest scientific techniques. By their very nature these are expensive raw materials and most mainstream releases would use a tiny bit of one to stay within budget. M. Gaurin freed of the economic constraints uses five of these exquisite floral absolutes in Made in Heaven. One of the other remaining notes must have been an accord M. Gaurin has had on the shelf and been wanting to use because underneath the diaphanous flowers is a foundation of cereal.

Made in Heaven starts with magnolia absolute and this has lilting woody floral air to which M. Gaurin hangs mandarin and saffron upon it. The saffron provides an exotic effect while the mandarin adds citrus-y energy. While the magnolia is tender and fragile the heart notes stride into view with a brassy white flower confidence. Absolutes of jasmine, tuberose, and orange flower take over the heart of Made in Heaven. All three of these absolutes show off the flower in a pristine jewel-like spotlight. If you concentrate on it you can pick out each note individually. Together it is divine. The base is made up of the cereal accord and to my nose it smells the way a box of Cap’n Crunch smells when you first open the bag. Sugary vanilla sweetness rises through the flowers and mixes with them surprisingly well. The jasmine in particular seems to really take to the cereal. Much later on orris absolute starts to fill in as the orange flower fades. It adds a slightly powdery finish to it all. I really enjoy when perfumers are allowed to use the “good stuff”. The LMR absolutes are the “good stuff” and M. Gaurin has displayed them in a way to show why they are so special.

Paris*LA has 8-10 hour longevity and, except for the key lime blast on top, below average sillage. Made in Heaven has 12-14 hour longevity and moderate sillage.

Both Paris*LA and Made in Heaven continue to show why A Lab on Fire is one of the most exciting niche houses on the scene. Mr. Kusubayashi allowing the perfumers to have as much latitude to create as possible leads to perfumes you may love or hate but you will never be bored by them.

Disclosure: This review was based on samples I purchased from Twisted Lily.

Mark Behnke