Those who have followed my reviews over the years know I think most celebrity scents are cynical. They use the name of the person on the bottle while that person has no idea what is in the bottle. I’ve been told of many celebrities who don’t smell the perfume until their first publicity experience. It irritates me that a fan of the celebrity coughs up their money for a product which has nothing from the person they admire.
Those who have read my reviews over the years know I am not a fan of multi perfumer teams. It may not be true, but it always reeks to me of focus groups and compromises. That the perfumes designed by committee also seem to have no soul anecdotally proves my point.
To everything there is an exception. Sean John Unforgivable manages to prove both of my thoughts incorrect.
Unforgivable was released in 2006 as the first fragrance from Sean Combs aka P.Diddy’s Sean John clothing line. He certainly found a dream team of creative people to work on this. Evelyn Lauder and Karyn Khoury would be co-creative directors overseeing a team of four perfumers; David Apel, Aurelien Guichard, Pierre Negrin, and Caroline Sabas. There isn’t a name I just listed that I don’t admire the heck out of. I just carried my usual skepticism over too many perfumers at the organ serving too many managers. However it happened Unforgivable turned out way better that I thought it would.
It opens with a burst of citrus as lemon and grapefruit add a tart initial impression. A smart use of Calone takes the melon-like quality of it as a lighter fruitiness underneath along with its fresh sea spray scent. It shifts to a fougere-like heart of iris, lavender, and herbs. Clary sage is the most prominent but there are some other green herbal pieces here too. It ends with a light sandalwood focused base accord given some warmth through amber and tonka bean.
Unforgivable has 8-10 hour longevity and moderate sillage.
When it comes to perfume by committee celebrity scents Unforgivable stands out as one of the best. It can be found for less than $20 at almost any discount fragrance seller.
Disclosure: this review is based on a bottle I purchased.
I give credit to perfume brands which find a style and stick with it. It means from a consumer perspective you know what you are getting when you pick up a bottle with a specific name on it. If the name on that bottle is Narciso Rodriguez, since 2003, you know you are getting a musk centric perfume. For a brand which has plowed the same creative field so often I am always surprised when a new release still finds just a bit of new territory to explore. This is what I found with Narciso Rodriguez Oud Musc.
Oud Musc is the fourth of the Oriental Musc Collection following Amber Musc, Rose Musc, and Santal Musc. As you can likely perceive from those names these perfumes are classic pairings of ingredients with musk. Oud Musc is no different.
Perfumer Caroline Sabas takes those two titular ingredients and finds some new conspirators to give it some verve. The first of those ingredients is black pepper. Mme Sabas uses more than a pinch, it provides a strong contrast to the smoothness of the oud accord and musk. Because Mme Sabas is using an oud accord she is able to find a balance which is not rough between the oud and musk. That’s where the pepper comes in as it rasps across the duet at the heart of Oud Musc. It becomes further contrasted with the herbal quality of myrtle also providing that quality. When it does settle down to an accord of those four ingredients it comes together surprisingly well.
Oud Musc has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.
I found Oud Musc just enough different to enjoy. At this point in the Narciso Rodriguez collection it is enough to make me happy.
Disclosure: This review was based on a sample provided by Narciso Rodriguez.
My primary issue with flankers is they are so often cynically safe. They tend to start with a safe mass-market alpha perfume dumbing it down by degrees. I don’t know this to be true but there are times I think they do a survey. Then for the flanker they take out whatever ingredients were problematic to the respondents. There is another way to go with a flanker. Take the same foundation and build something entirely different. This doesn’t keep the brand from playing it safe, but it does show a bit more effort than the phoning it in which seems to accompany the first way I described. For this month’s Round-Up I thought I’d provide an example of each.
Jennifer Aniston Chapter Two
Ever since the first Jennifer Aniston perfume in 2010 this has been a line firmly mired in safe boring perfumes. It had become easy to ignore the brand. Last year they released Chapter One. It was surprising to find a full-bodied white flower perfume supported by a bunch of musks. It certainly was derivative, but it was a new direction. When I saw my sample of Chapter Two I was wondering what was next.
It turns out the feedback they received must have been, “those flowers are too strong”. Because what Chapter Two does is make something so lightly floral it is almost the opposite of the previous release. Perfumer Caroline Sabas adds a watery accord on top followed by the less obstreperous florals of lavender, iris, and gardenia. It forms a less forward floral style. The musks also get reduced in effect greatly. The overall fragrance feels like something which has been overedited.
If you are a fan of the brand Chapter Two is more like what came before Chapter One. Depending on your feelings on that should guide you into whether you will like it.
Katy Perry’s Indi Visible
Singer Katy Perry also put her name on a fragrance starting in 2010. Hers has also been a line of perfume inspired by other trends. The difference is there have been well-done versions of those trends. 2013’s Killer Queen was an early take on the now popular floral gourmand. Last years Indi was another good lily and musk perfume. I had the same feeling when the new Indi Visible showed up; which way would they go?
In this case the perfumer, Caroline Sabas, retained the musky vanilla foundation. What they then built on top of that was something entirely different. A juicy plum lead to a sweet coconut in the heart which is amplified with some vanilla. It is then floated on a pool of musks with sandalwood retaining that sweet follow through.
Indi Visible is a mass-market alternative to anyone who has been interested in the suntan lotion style of perfume which ran through the niche market over the last year or so. This is in line with much of what the Katy Perry fragrance brand has done. Good versions of good trends. That’s as much as you can ask of flankers.
Disclosure: This review is based on samples provided by the manufacturers.
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.
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.
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.
When you write extensively about any subject it is inevitable that you are asked if you want to be more than an observer. Perhaps the most ubiquitous question I get is some variation of “Do you ever want to make a perfume?” I can honestly say, as of today, my answer is absolutely positively, “No!” I suspect anyone who writes about fragrance is asked this question. In the case of Chandler Burr I know it took many years for that “no” to turn to a “yes”. Over the last year, Mr. Burr did take the position of creative director for the new Etat Libre D’Orange You or Someone Like You.
The fragrance is based on Mr. Burr’s 2009 novel of the same name. Working with perfumer Caroline Sabas, they wanted to focus on one of the protagonists. An Englishwoman named Anne who observes her Los Angeles milieu from her aerie in the Hollywood hills. When I interviewed Mr. Burr about the new creation he mentioned he wanted to create “a specific scent, the scent someone like Anne would wear, an Angelino Englishwoman high in the hills in the blue air.” He is also a proponent of describing perfume as belonging to specific descriptive genres. For You or Someone Like You he wanted it to be a combination of “Luminism, Minimalism, and contemporary Romanticism” He is also an ardent believer that in talking about the art of perfume it shouldn’t be reduced to the ingredients and the focus should stay on the overall effect. I am going to honor that by spending the next paragraph describing You or Someone Like You in that spirit. Then I will dishonor that by spending the next paragraph, after that, doing my usual reductionist analysis.
I grew up in South Florida, and while it is not LA, You or Someone Like You captures what I consider the artificial light which infuses both places. Namely most spend too much time in their car moving from one sterile air conditioned space to another. The Luminism in You or Someone Like You is the ever-present sun reflecting off windshields and glass. It is sharp and artificial further separating one from the natural. To hammer this home there are some aspects of that world trying to pierce the glass but the AC keeps it at bay with glossy chilly laminar flows.
To create the sterility of processed cool air Mme Sabas uses mint as a keynote around which is folded some of the fresher green grassy notes as in, perhaps, the hexenal family. It forms that feel of being inside a car stuck in traffic as the smells of someone mowing their lawn come with the filtered air. More of that kind of green vegetal quality comes through but in quieter ways. Even lighter florals are present but these are synthetic expansive versions of the natural essential oils which further enhances this artificiality at the core of You or Someone Like You.
You or Someone Like You has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.
I think Mr. Burr completely succeeded in making a perfume within the Luminism and Minimalism schools; I found little Romanticism present. Which is probably for the best because I was much more connected to the chill and glass; finding something more expressive would have been less appealing.
Once Mr. Burr got around to saying “yes” he has, with Mme Sabas, created a fragrance true to what he believes perfume can aspire to.
Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle received from Europerfume.
At last October’s Sniffapalooza Fall Ball Chandler Burr showed up with a surprise on Sunday. He revealed that he had been working as the creative director on a new fragrance and wanted to share a sneak preview. The new fragrance is Etat Libre D’Orange You or Someone Like You.
The press release for You or Someone Like You gives you an idea of what Mr. Burr was looking for:
“There is an Englishwoman who doesn’t exist. Her name is Anne Rosenbaum, and I created her in my novel “You Or Someone Like You.” She lives, with her movie executive husband, in a house high in the blue air of the Hollywood Hills, just off Mulholland Drive, overlooking Los Angeles above the 101.
I’m fascinated by LA, this strange dream factory that exists in its eternal, relentless present tense, its otherworldly beauty both effortlessly natural and ingeniously artificial. A movie that makes movies. Palm trees, the symbol of LA, aren’t natural there. They were imported, placed in the hills, “but then,” Anne observes to you, “so was I.”
Los Angeles’ smells mesmerize, the astringent mint/green of eucalyptus, wild jasmine vines unselfconsciously climbing the stop signs, catalyzed car exhaust, hot California sun on ocean water (although “You” contains no jasmine or eucalyptus; if you need to know what it’s made of, “You” is not for you).
When Etat Libre d’Orange approached me about creative directing, my perfumer Caroline Sabas and I created not a “perfume” — people in Los Angeles don’t wear perfume – but a specific scent, the scent someone like Anne would wear, an Angelino Englishwoman high in the hills in the blue air.”
I had the chance to get a little more information from Mr. Burr on the perfume he calls “You”. First, I asked the obvious why did he choose now to take on creative direction. He responded, “The moment I started at the New York Times I was frequently asked, "Are you going to creative direct/ create a scent/ collection of scents/ perfume brand?" The Times would have, correctly, forbidden it had I asked, but I had no intention — I was a critic. Frankly I didn’t have any interest. My focus was and is the scent artists. And for years I never wanted to creative direct a perfume. I was while working at the Times getting to know the Etat collection, which I found and find just extraordinary, along with the Comme des Garcons collection the most daring, aesthetics-forward, balls out art-centric scent works in the world. Tilda Swinton's agent called to say Tilda was interested in creative directing a scent, and Etienne was the instant and most natural person to put her in touch with. and I talked on and off about working together somehow. But then I was at the Museum of Arts and Design as a scent art curator, and for obvious ethical reasons it was still off the table that I'd direct a scent.
After I'd left MAD, Etienne called and said he's read my novel You Or Someone Like You, that he liked the title, and proposed we create a scent using the novel's title. That I creative direct it. The concept came instantly. My novel's narrator is a woman named Anne. She's an Englishwoman who long ago married an American guy, now a movie studio exec. They have one son, Sam. She has a Ph.D. in Romantic Literature and is a voracious reader. Anne is extremely private, reserved. She's perceived as a cool customer by most people, and she is with everyone not her husband and son. She lives in the Hollywood Hills — on Macapa Drive, if you want to google map it — above the 101 and overlooking the city. She lives in contemporary Los Angeles. What my (brilliant) perfumer Caroline Sabas has created is the scent Anne would wear.”
Mr. Burr has described fragrances throughout his career as belonging to different schools. When I asked what school, he was aiming for he said, “Luminism, Minimalism, and contemporary Romanticism. I started with exactly this aesthetic mix in mind.”
This lead me to asking what perfumes inspired “You”, and you, in the process which lead into his long-held belief (one I disagree with) that discussing notes devalues the art, “Of course– Mugler Cologne, Calyx, Jardin sur le Nil are probably the most important. There are others, but their names mention raw materials, and I really–really–am not going to go anywhere near this fucking reductionism of scent works to their materials. It's extraordinarily stupid. You don't give a sense of a new musical work, say something by Max Richter, by saying "It's in D major, 4/4 time, it has among other instruments oboes and violins and violas and flutes, and the notes include D, E, F#, G, A, B♭, and C." That would be idiotic. We say, "It's contemporary Minimalism that draws on Glass and, more, Reich, but Richter is also strongly influenced by the minimalist Romanticism of Satie." If we're going to describe fragrances in a truly intelligent, sophisticated way rather than the reductionist "This building has cement, steel, glass, plastic", it's going to be by using intelligent analogies.”
I finished my interview with a question I am always interested in, how did he know they were finished? “"Finished" is equal to "perfect," which you rarely get to. The mod of "You" that we chose was one that Caroline, our Givaudan evaluator Audrey Barbara, Etienne, and others at Etat loved. My personal favorite was slightly different in one specific way. But we had a long conversation about it, and I trust them, so I decided that we'd go with that one. It doesn't bother me because, I don't know, I guess I just don't think in this case that my perception and taste is perfect and mandatory. Part of it was that Etienne really felt the mod we chose had an Etat aspect to it. He's the creative director of the collection, so that's a pretty compelling reason from my point of view.”
I am looking forward to wearing “You” and should have a review up soon. My thanks to Mr. Burr for taking the time to answer my questions.
There is not a whole heck of a lot of perfumes which feature a cannabis accord. There are more in the last couple of years but it is still a tiny subsector of fragrance. This month’s Under the Radar pick carries the name cannabis in its name but it isn’t really that prominent. Fresh Cannabis Santal is a lush chocolate and patchouli gourmand more than an illicit hit in the dark.
Cannabis Santal was released in 2006, Fresh had been releasing fragrance since 1996 and most of them were riffs on sweetness. They were sort of taking the idea represented by Aquolina Pink Sugar and expanding it in all directions. Most of the name of the perfumes were “Sugar fill in the blank”. They had a much less distributed collection called the Index line where they still explored sweet fragrances but they were more interesting than the Sugar line. When I lived in Boston there was a Fresh boutique in town which allowed me to work my way through the many Fresh perfumes. I remember walking in on a fall day and smelling something which stood out among all of the sugar. It stood out because there was a richness to it. I was drawn to it more than anything I had ever smelled in the store previously.
Perfumer Caroline Sabas was given some leeway to break outside the sugar shack; which she used. Her composition is mainly orange, chocolate, rose, and patchouli. There is some cannabis in there and it shows up like a bit of a jack-in-the-box when I wear Cannabis Santal. If you’re looking for a pot connection it is more similar to if you made a batch of pot brownies using orange and rose water to flavor them.
Cannabis Santal opens with a deep orange given that depth by the use of plum. Very rapidly patchouli, rose, and chocolate rise to cover the orange. Very often I talk about patchouli not having that head shop vibe; not here. It actually combines with the chocolate and the rose to sort of dirty things up. It keeps the sweetness from being innocent. It gives the impression these brownies might have more underneath that you suspect. A woody finish which is more vetiver than santal completes the illusion of the label.
Cannabis Santal has 12-14 hour longevity and extremely potent sillage. When I said I smelled it from the door of the Fresh boutique it is not an exaggeration.
Fresh has discontinued much of its line of fragrances with only about a dozen left for sale. Cananbis Santal is one of those survivors. I think it is one of the top tier of gourmands released during that time when there were many of them being released. If you’re looking for that hit off of a joint don’t look for it here. Instead slice off a brownie and wonder why you are smiling so much.
Disclosure: this review is based on a bottle I purchased.
If you’re ever interested in doing a bit of Pop Culture Archaeology the perfume discount bins can be a good digging spot. Just by casting your eyes over all of the celebrity fragrances within you can tell whose star is descending straight to the discounter. Despite the barometer of popularity, the great majority of these perfumes with a once hot personalities’ name on the box are almost all terrible. From a discerning point of view, the number of noteworthy celebrity fragrances is quite small compared to the hundreds which have been produced. Which means the ones that have sunk to the discount bin which are good should be pointed out. That’s what I’m doing this month with Britney Spears Midnight Fantasy.
From 1998 to 2004 Britney Spears was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. Her debut single “…Baby, One More Time” is one of the biggest selling songs of all-time with over 10 million copies sold. As Ms. Spears built on that success releasing three more albums through 2003 she did what has become standard issue for a pop star; she branched out into fragrance. The problem became her first fragrance Curious was released just as Ms. Spears life began to become a very public train wreck in 2004. Despite the infamy it sold well and there were yearly releases which continue right up until today with the release of the nineteenth fragrance in the brand named Private Show.
Midnight Fantasy was the fourth Britney Spears release, in 2007, and was a flanker to 2005’s Fantasy. Perfumer Caroline Sabas was asked to create a more gourmand-style fragrance. The original Fantasy by perfumer James Krivda is a textbook example of why so many celebrity perfumes fail. It had a distinct lack of focus as it veered all over the place. The most interesting thing about it was this “cupcake accord”. Based on what Mme Sabas was asked to do with Midnight Fantasy I am guessing their focus groups also shared my opinion. What she did was go very big and very gourmand.
Britney Spears in 2016
Midnight Fantasy uses the linchpin of every early 2000’s gourmand as its focal point, ethyl maltol. Most of the time the perfumers spend their time trying to rein it in. Mme Sabas lets it spin madly out of control as she wraps it in sugary fruity notes of cherry, strawberry, raspberry, some tropical fruits, and plum. These fruits are swirled into the cotton candy sweetness of ethyl maltol to give an incredibly satisfying candied fruit accord. It has a very provocative attitude of asking you to take it on its own terms or to walk away. There is a fleeting amount of iris and vanilla floating around later on but it is this olfactory package of Five Flavors Life Savers which is what you remember.
Midnight Fantasy has 6-8 hour longevity and above average sillage.
With the current trend of trying to appeal to Millennials with these lightly sugared floral gourmands I would love to see what that generation would think about Midnight Fantasy’s nuclear gourmand. I know I like it because of the intensity. If you’re doing some prospecting in the discount bins and you like gourmands Midnight Fantasy is worth a look.
Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.