There are only a few perfumers who ask those of us who wear perfume whether it must smell nice. As one who believes perfume is an art form my answer is obviously no. One perfumer who has asked that question more than most is Antoine Lie. From his first perfume for niche brand Etat Libre D’Orange he has made perfumes which color outside the lines.
When Etienne de Swadt was creating his niche line Etat Libre D’Orange, in 2006, he wanted the first perfume for the brand to be one only a few would like. He turned to M. Lie to create Secretions Magnifiques. The resulting perfume captures a panoply of human fluids none of which are pleasant smelling. What it does is also challenge the notion of perfumery. M. Lie makes a fragrance which has stood the test of time as one of the great masterpieces of perfume.
In 2010’s Comme des Garcons Wonderwood M. Lie, under Christian Astuguevieille’s creative direction, would ask the question, “can there be too much wood?”. M. Lie would describe Wonderwood as a mixture of five real woods, two woody notes, and three synthetic woods. This came out at the height of the popularity of the synthetic wood. M. Lie showed that even pushed to the extreme there was wonder to be found within that much wood.
Nu_Be (One of Those) Oxygen was part of the debut collection of this elemental line. M. Lie chose to interpret oxygen in its supercooled liquid form. For Oxygen he blended many of the ingredients within perfumery one would describe as “sharp” to create that chilliness. The mixture of aldehydes, vetiver, and white musks can be too cool for many. I find it one of M. Lie’s most compelling creations.
Jan Ewoud Vos wanted Puredistance Black to convey a mysterious effect. Asking M. Lie to create it turns out to be a brilliant choice. Black is a perfume of darkness with tendrils of fog swirling throughout. M. Lie combines accords to form that stygian depth. I get lost in its enveloping effects every time I wear it.
Barbara Herman went from blogger to creative director for Eris Parfums Night Flower. When Ms. Herman wanted to create a line of perfume which re-captured vintage ingredients in contemporary ways M. Lie was her choice as the perfumer she wanted to do that with. Night Flower is the most successful at doing that by taking three ingredients of classic perfumery; birch tar, leather, and tuberose. Together they make Night Flower one of the best Retro Nouveau perfumes to be made.
Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.
They say the test of time is one of the measures of great creativity. They also say that vision is instinctual. The memorable artists have it from the moment they take their first steps in their chosen form. Perfumery has more than a few for whom these statements are true for. One of them is Calice Becker.
Ever since perfumers have become more known Mme Becker has been the quiet rockstar perfumer. She continues to advocate for the future since she was named the head of the Givaudan Perfumery School in 2017. Her twenty-plus years as a perfume has seen her create pillar perfumes for some of the largest mainstream brands while finding a willing partner in creative director Kilian Hennessy to allow her to explore the niche perfume side of things. That partnership has produced some of the greatest niche perfumes, ever, since they started working together in 2007. She is a consummate professional who has produced some of the best that perfume has to offer. For this month’s Perfumer 201 I’m going to focus on the pillars of her career, as I see them.
The first commercial brief for Mme Becker was Tommy Hilfiger Tommy Girl. Tommy Hilfiger wanted a perfume to capture his All-American fashion aesthetic. It always makes me smile that he turned to a perfumer of French and Russian heritage. The perfume shows what will become one of Mme Becker’s signatures; exquisitely balanced accords. The top accord here is of a vast green lawn of freshly cut grass. Spearmint is used to provide an expansive quality to the heart of the grassy accord. A fresh floral accord of honeysuckle gives way to a clean cedar and sandalwood foundation. When you smell this today it needs to be said this was one of the first perfumes of its kind when released in 1996. By a perfumer who was unafraid to follow her instincts to produce something different for the brief she was given.
If anyone was inclined to think that was a fluke, she would follow up three short years later with another blockbuster of a fragrance; Dior J’Adore. This time the green in the top is a sinuous ivy. It leads into a brilliant floral accord in the heart of champaca, jasmine, and rose. To this she adds an “orchid accord”. So often in one of Mme Becker’s compositions there is a linchpin which snaps things together. In J’Adore the orchid is that. It provides the stitching together of the floral leads while also providing subtle dewiness which makes it memorable. She then grounds it with a set of fruits, Damson plum to add a juicy tartness with an accord of blackberry and an animalic musk. This is what every fruity floral since J’Adore has failed to achieve.
Mme Becker would burnish her reputation for trendsetting mainstream perfume with 2003’s Estee Lauder Beyond Paradise and 2009’s Marc Jacobs Lola on which she worked with Yann Vasnier. Like many of the mainstream perfumers of the time as we crossed into the 2000’s they wanted to jump aboard the niche perfumery trend. Mme Becker found the right place for her to make that leap.
By Kilian Back to Black would be the sixth perfume Mme Becker would make for creative director Kilian Hennessy’s luxury niche brand. To this point M. Hennessy had only worked with two perfumers for his brand. Mme Becker has mentioned in multiple interviews how difficult it is to get a realistic version of a natural effect using just the essential oil. The building of accords is what can provide the nuance which captures what is missing. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tobacco accord she assembles in Back to Black; without a drop of tobacco essential oil. It is one of my favorite party tricks to spray some Back to Black on a strip and ask people to smell it hours later. It is only then that the components have begun to unravel enough to understand that the lush slightly mentholated tobacco you smelled earlier was an olfactory illusion. I have always considered this to be the best perfume in the entire By Kilian line.
Mme Becker’s work for By Kilian has shown her creativity is boundless. In 2014’s By Kilian Intoxicated she produced a coffee gourmand that was compelling. Her inspiration was spice laced Turkish coffee. To her rich coffee accord which captures the oily bitterness along with the roasted nature of coffee she mixes in a sticky green cardamom. Nutmeg and cinnamon arrive soon after but Intoxicated is the dark coffee accord and green cardamom. You won’t find it at your local coffee shop, but it is one of my favorite coffee perfumes.
Technology moves forward and Mme Becker moves with it. Givaudan came up with a new technology called Freeze Frame. This is where they take a source, like lime, freeze it in liquid nitrogen, then as it thaws do a headspace isolation. What this produce is an HD version of lime to place at the center of Ralph Lauren Collection Lime. Because the new technology has supplied her with what she usually created through accords she only uses two additional ingredients; bergamot and lavandin with the Freeze Frame lime. It is a simply marvelous near-photorealistic lime as perfume.
Disclosure: This review is based on bottles of all the fragrances mentioned I purchased.
As I’ve been making my list of the perfumers, I want to cover in this column, I naturally trend towards my favorites.Yann Vasnier is certainly one of my favorites. He is a perfumer who has done some of his best work in partnership with Rodrigo Flores-Roux, Calice Becker, and Francoise Caron. He is unafraid to take risks which means some of his most daring work is discontinued. I could’ve made a list of Apothia L Apothia, Le Labo Aldehyde 44, Tom Ford Private Blend Urban Musk, Marc Jacobs Bang, and Tom Ford Private Blend Lavender Palm. If I had done that it would have been a column examining texture within perfume design. M. Vasnier is one of the few perfumers who is known to have designed an Axe spray; 2009’s Axe Essence. For this month’s Perfumer 201 I’m going to look at the development of M. Vasnier’s gourmand style over the years.
Divine L’Homme Sage (2005)- M. Vasnier’s first released perfume was 1986’s Divine with Yvon Mouchel who also came from M. Vasnier’s home of Brittany in France. M. Mouchel would work exclusively with M. Vasnier. L’Homme Sage has no sage in it. What caught my attention on the day I tried it was how it played with metamorphosizing syrup in the beginning and heart. It opens with mandarin encased in sweet lychee syrup. A beautiful use of the maple syrup quality of immortelle transitions that sweetness into a heart of resins and base of woods. It isn’t strictly a gourmand style of perfume but the early moments carry that feeling.
Keiko Mecheri Gourmandises (2004)- Keiko Mecheri wanted a perfume of the marketplace in Istanbul and its confections. Specifically rose rahat loukhoum. M. Vasnier chooses to eschew a photorealistic version in place of something abstract. He embeds a praline accord inside a jammy rose accord. Then he brilliantly attenuates the intense sweetness with the contrast of saffron. It turns it into something not of the bazaar but enticingly bizarre.
Parfums DelRae Panache (2010)- M. Vasnier has had one of his most creative partnerships with creative director DelRae Roth for her Parfums DelRae brand. Panache is a gorgeously dark rum top accord which flows into an equally rich floral heart of jasmine and ylang-ylang. Vetiver provides a support for the boozy florals. As in the previous two fragrances it is the viscous matrix of honey which makes Panache come alive. It oozes into the spaces left to it turning Panache into something lovely.
Arquiste The Architects Club (2014)- When Carlos Huber was starting his Arquiste brand of perfume he turned to two perfumers. M. Vasnier was one of them and his body of work here is among his finest. The Architects Club imagines a meeting between flappers and architects during 1930. The architects are represented by woods and vetiver. The flappers come in with gin martinis, citrus, and vanilla to liven things up. The gin accord is used as a disruptive force and it is one of the reasons, I enjoy this so much because of that energy. It is like The Wild Party goes on and on.
Frassai Blondine (2017)-Natalia Outeda also used M. Vasnier to create one of her debut perfumes for Frassai. Blondine was an early example of the transparent floral gourmand trend which has taken off in the last eighteen months. M. Vasnier takes an expansive floral accord. Then he precisely adds caramel and cocoa until they reach a place where they do not overwhelm the floral but make a sticky platform for them to rest upon. This is one of my favorites of this early floral gourmand style.
Disclosure: This review is based on bottle I purchased.
One of the aims of this series will be to allow me the opportunity to put the spotlight on perfumers I think are underrated.Sidonie Lancesseur has been releasing perfume since 2006. She is one of my favorite perfumers because she can create special effects within her perfumes. What I mean by that is she creates accords which do things any perfume lover is familiar with. What sets it apart is she does it while bending ingredients you don’t normally think of as having that characteristic. The brand which exposed her name to me, and most others, is By Kilian. She is another perfumer where I could use her work just for that brand to write this column. I limited myself to one because her work for other creative directors is also worth knowing about. Here are five perfumes which I think represent Sidonie Lancesseur.
By Kilian Cruel Intentions (2007)- I remember being in New York City trying the perfumes in the debut collection of Kilian Hennessy. M. Hennessy was debuting a collection of luxury niche perfume. I was enticed by all of them but there was one I kept going back to; Cruel Intentions. What struck me was Mme Lancesseur managed not to go overboard with the oud. At that point in time it seemed like perfumes were in a race to see who could have the oudist oud. Mme Lancesseur used it so the other ingredients could interact with that. What it means is violet, rose, sandalwood, vetiver, and castoreum can find space. Each tease out different pieces of the oud. Cruel Intentions was my favorite By Kilian on day one and remains so to this day.
Frapin L’Humaniste (2009)– This begins what I think of as the “sunlight trilogy” of Mme Lancesseur’s perfume portfolio. When you think of perfume ingredients which capture light it usually starts with citrus. In L’Humaniste she uses a palette of herbal notes wrapped around a gin and tonic core. This is a perfume that reminds me of sitting on the deck with a clear sweaty glass of gin and tonic as the sunlight reflects off the drops of condensation with the smell of freshly cut grass from the neighbor mowing their lawn. It is a staple summer perfume for me.
Olfactive Studio Lumiere Blanche (2012)- Creative director Celine Verleure would ask Mme Lancesseure to interpret a photograph by Massimo Vitali. The photo shows white sands reflecting off still water. Mme Lancesseur would translate the heat of the sun with a set of simmering spices. The whiteness of it all with a milky accord of iris and almond before warming it back up with sandalwood. All of this carries an intensity of summer sunlight via warm perfume notes. I return to this perfume often because of the sunny warmth it exudes.
Amouage Sunshine Woman (2014)– Under Christopher Chong’s creative direction Sunshine Woman is a perfume which lives up to its name. What is amazing is Mme Lancesseur does this with ingredients like almond, magnolia, patchouli, and cade. Cade is the ingredient most commonly used to add smoke; the furthest thing from sunlight. What she does here is she uses it as the far-off edge of a thunderstorm; the definition of the end of the sunlight. This is one of the most solidly constructed perfumes of her career.
Jul et Mad Nin-Shar (2015)– Creative Directors Madalina Stoica-Blanchard and Julien Blanchard wanted to take their brand in a darker direction. It is here where Mme Lancesseur shows she know the dark as well as the light. It opens with a fantastic accord she calls “rose liquor” that reflects a boozy powerful rose. She then throws in a very indolic jasmine into the mix to create even more depth. This might sound blaring and monotonic. It isn’t. there is so much to see here in the swirling darkness that this accord shifts like a wraith over the early hours. There are few perfumers who can make the dark kinetic in the way Mme Lancesseur does.
Disclosure: This review is based on bottles I purchased.
One of my favorite columns to write during my first five years was Perfume 101. By looking at a brand while trying to pick five perfumes which represent it was most often illuminating. The only problem was there was a finite list which deserved that kind of scrutiny. After 41 editions of Perfume 101 I thought it was time to matriculate to a more advanced level. For the foreseeable future I am going to focus on the career of a perfumer in what I’m calling Perfumer 201.
One of the perfumers who has most benefited from the niche perfume expansion is Dominique Ropion. M. Ropion was there at the beginning of it; allying him to Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle right at the start. If I wanted to be lazy, I could just list the perfumes he has done for that brand; modern masterpieces like Carnal Flower or Portrait of a Lady among them. As you’ll see I chose something different. M. Ropion excels within the Oriental genre of perfumery. Many of his best fragrances fall within that category. He isn’t a one-trick pony especially more recently as my choices will reflect. Here are five perfumes by Dominique Ropion which are worth seeking out.
Kenzo Jungle L’Elephant (1996)- M. Ropion collaborated with perfumer Jean-Louis Sieuzac and creative director Celine Verleure at the cusp of niche perfumery. This is where M. Ropion would develop a style of soft Oriental which would show up time and again over the next twenty-plus years. He would take some of the most difficult to tame ingredients and find a nonabrasive application. It shows in the opening of L’Elephant where cumin and cardamom set the stage for clove, licorice, ylang-ylang, and mango to set up a vanilla amber base. This is still one of the very best vanilla and spice perfumes I own.
Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle Vetiver Extraordinaire (2002)- One of the innovations of niche perfumery was to encourage overdose of ingredients. This was done to find something unique in that kind of concentration. Creative director Frederic Malle encouraged M. Ropion to do that with one of the stalwart ingredients of modern perfumery, vetiver. Choosing to make it 25% of the composition. M. Ropion would frame it in woods and smoke. This is the best modern vetiver perfume ever. It is why this was the choice from M. Ropion’s incredible portfolio for this brand.
Costume National Homme (2009)- Lots of brands wanted to stake out the space of “avant-garde”. Costume National creative director Ennio Capasa was one of them. When he asked M. Ropion to make a masculine perfume he got the twist he was looking for. What this means is M. Ropion’s by-now signature sandalwood, spices, and resins become coated in a synthetic oily accord which is a slightly sweet oleaginous effect. It smells much better than it sounds.
Starck Paris Peau de Soie (2016)- There is a point in every perfumer’s career where I want them to speak to me with a whisper. Working with Philippe Starck, M. Ropion has made a perfume which feels like a bubble which should pop at any moment. Instead Peau de Soie takes iris which encloses synthetic musks and woods. They expand the iris to a powdery translucent globe which enthralls with its fragility.
A Lab on Fire And The World Is Yours (2018)- If there is an abiding theme of the five perfumes I’ve chosen it is creative directors who know how to give a perfumer space to be creative. Creative director Carlos Kusubayashi is another who has found this leeway is a recipe for success. And The World Is Yours brings this list full circle as cumin plays an important role in the top accord. This time there is no softening instead it is used as divider between orange blossom and neroli. As the florals shift to rose and hyacinth the pungent cumin persists until splashdown in a balsamic pool of vanilla and sandalwood. Over the past year I have come to see And The World Is Yours as the spiritual flip side to Kenzo Jengle L’Elephant. Which makes it the right place to end this list.
Disclosure: I purchased bottles of each perfume mentioned.