My childhood in the mid to late 1960’s in S. Florida was wonderful. The best part of that statement is I recognized it at the time. Living in Miami as it was absorbing two sets of refugees from Cuba and Haiti was a treasure of new experiences depending on which part of town I steered my bicycle. If I headed to Little Havana, I could go play dominos while the adult men puffed on their cigars. I always enjoyed the smell of those cigars but never more than when they were unlit. You’ve seen the caricature of a cigar lover running an unlit cigar under their nose and breathing deeply, that’s the way I felt for real. I would learn every family that made cigars had a secret blend handed down through generations. My nose wasn’t attuned well enough to pick up those nuances.
When I headed into Little Haiti it was always about the food and the music; mostly the food. When I would sit with the newly arrived Haitians I would have them tell me stories of their island. When I spoke to the older men, they were always sipping this viscous brown liquid. When I asked what it was, they always laughed and told me to come back when I was older. That was because the liquid was rum from Haiti. When I did become old enough one of my Haitian friends introduced me to Barbancourt Rum. This is not your typical rum it is a gorgeous liquor you sip and roll around in your mouth as it reveals its flavors. In the aged versions there is an opulent caramel-like flavor as if the sugar cane was on its way to molasses and stopped for a minute or two. It is one of my favorite things to do at a dinner party to end it with the 15-year aged reserve just to see the way people react to it.
Fabrice Penot and Eddie Roschi
Which means if you ask me for a single scent to represent the Cuban community in Miami, I would pick a fine cigar. It the same question was added for the Haitians it would be dark Barbancourt Rum. Not that creative directors Fabrice Penot and Eddie Roschi would have asked me what they should consider for their Miami City Exclusive, Le Labo Tabac 28, it turns out they asked perfumer Frank Voelkl to make a perfume which combines the cigar and rum in one exemplary avatar of Miami.
Tabac 28 takes a fine cigar out of its case and holds it under my nose. Mr. Voelkl makes an inspired choice by using the sticky green version of cardamom. If there was a nuance of freshly rolled cigars it was of the slightly green leaf used as the wrapper. This green cardamom adds that grace note to the rich tobacco. The same inspiration happens with the rum. This is that dark slightly caramel-like rum I remember. Mr. Voelkl adds a subtle veil of smoke via a judicious use of oud. It is as if that cigar has been lit and as you reach for your glass of rum it passes through the smoke on the way to your lips. All of this is spectacularly balanced. The only bad part is it ends up on an all too typical cedar based woody accord which hardly lives up to the rest of the perfume.
Tabac 28 has 12-14 hour longevity; with over half of it firmly in the rum and tobacco piece of development, to go with average sillage.
I had not considered how these two distinct scents of my youth would find a place of congruency where it brings Cuban and Haitian worlds together. It is what makes Tabac 28 more emotional for me than others. Removing the emotion if you are looking for a perfume which fuses rich tobacco and gourmand-like boozy rum Tabac 28 should be on your list of “to try” perfumes.
Disclosure: This review is based on a sample I purchased.
Growing up in S. Florida I saw my share of thunderstorms. One of my favorite natural scents was the way the air smelled after the storm had passed. I couldn’t put a name to it until I started writing about perfume. One of the chemists at IFF clued me in when he gave me some geosmin to try. From that moment on it fascinated me. I wrote a column on it in the Olfactive Chemistry series. I found an incredible story in The Atlantic from 2015 about a village in India that essentially harvested this as a natural perfume source called petrichor. In the hands of a few perfumers it has been part of some outstanding fragrances. I never expected it to succeed as the feature note in a soliflore. Leave it to Le Labo to prove me wrong with Baie 19.
Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi
Creative directors Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi could have just ordered up some petrichor and labeled it Petrichor 1. Instead they did something more difficult.They asked for an accord which smells like petrichor. This is what modern perfumery is meant to be; an interpretation of nature instead of a replica. I don’t know who the perfumer is (UPDATE: the perfumer is Frank Voelkl) but whomever did this succeeded. What works so well by using an accord, instead of the actual material, is it allows things to build like a thunderstorm then after it breaks you’re left with the scented aftermath.
Baie 19 opens with the gathering ozone ahead of the storm front. Juniper berry and an assortment of green leafy notes represent the stiff breeze through the bushes crackling with kinetic energy. An aquatic accord captures the downpour itself. As the rain stops that watery effect soaks an earthy patchouli. Where this all comes together is the perfumer’s use of precise amounts of cade oil and Ambrox to complete the petrichor accord.
Baie 19 has 12-14 hour longevity and average sillage.
Baie 19 is one of those perfumes which captures my attention because it is a true abstraction of nature. The technical aspects make me dissect every nuance. It takes me time to just revel in the after the storm beauty of Baie 19. It is an incredible petrichor soliflore.
Disclosure: This review is based on a sample provided by Le Labo.
In 2014 the Estee Lauder Group acquired one of the flagship brands in niche perfumery, Le Labo. While there haven’t been a lot of new releases, 2015’s The Noir 29 and 2017’s Mousse de Chene 30, there has been a noticeable expansion of presence. Le Labo now has a presence at shopping malls everywhere. They went from being perfumes that were hard to find to being much easier to experience. This is the upside to Le Labo being acquired; the opportunity to be discovered. I can only speak about the one near me but whenever I go into talk it is not an empty space. Lots of shoppers coming to check it out.
Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi
The brand founded by Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi stands for a style of perfumery far from the mainstream offerings. It is the reason there was concern. If they are going to expand will they dumb things down. What I’ve experienced in my area is the opposite. The “Field of Dreams” effect of if you build a different kind of perfume they will come. Which means there is no need to change for both the older fans and the new ones. The newest release Tonka 25 exemplifies this.
Daphne Bugey is the perfumer for Tonka 25. Mme Bugey was one of the founding perfumers for the line responsible for three of the debut releases. She is best known for what has probably become the flagship perfume for Le Labo, Rose 31. Tonka 25 shares a tiny bit of similarity to Neroli 36 from those early efforts. What it shares with most of the Le Labo fragrances is if you expect the ingredient on the bottle to be front and center you will be surprised.
If there was truth in advertising at play this would be Cedar Noir 25 or Musks 25. Those are the two most compelling pieces of Tonka 25. Also notice the plural of musk I used in my faux name. Tonka 25 is an exercise in layering the synthetic musks to produce their own special effect.
This layering begins early on as Mme Bugey uses a clever mixture of the higher showing musks to create something soft. I have spent a lot of time trying to pick this apart and I’ve just quit trying. I am confident there are a lot of musks here and they make the perfume. Early on orange blossom lilts through the musks. The cedar shows up after that. It is not the pencil shaving style of cedar. This is a deeper version. Identified as Atlas cedar in the notes list it reminds me of the smell of an old cedar closet or cedar lined chest. Mme Bugey swirls the musks through this and this is where Tonka 25 spends much of its time on my skin. The promised tonka along with vanilla essentially make a drive-by without adding any significant impact. The final ingredient which adds to this is benzoin which provides a resinous warmth for the musky cedar to nestle within.
Tonka 25 has 10-12 hour longevity and average sillage.
I wouldn’t have expected to like a perfume made up of cedar and musks. It shows how Messrs. Penot and Rouschi are not giving up the Le Labo way of making perfume. I know I will be wearing out my sample over the next few weeks as it is a great choice for fall. If you like musks and cedar this needs to be on your list. If you like the way Le Labo makes perfume this also needs to be on your list. If you’re walking through the mall and you see an interesting little shop with Le Labo on the sign walk in and ask for Tonka 25 it is a great place to start. For everyone who loves the brand Tonka 25 shows the beat goes on.
Disclosure: this review is based on a sample provided by Le Labo.
There are many fragrance styles which have taken hits due to the ingredient restrictions handed down by the European oversight agencies. The one ingredient which has caused the biggest change is that of oakmoss. Full oakmoss has been proscribed from being used in perfumes. When something like this happens in perfumery it initiates a two-pronged approach; one scientific and one creative. The scientific part is to find ways of making synthetic alternatives. The creative way is to create accords which give the same effect as oakmoss. Le Labo Mousse de Chene 30 is an example of both coming together.
Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi
Mousse de Chene 30 is the city exclusive for Amsterdam. Like all the other city exclusives don’t strain yourself looking for a connection; it might require an advanced yoga pose to find the right perspective for that. Despite that many of the city exclusives are among the best perfumes with Le Labo on the label. For Mousse de Chene 30 perfumer Daphne Bugey with creative directors Edouard Roschi and Fabrice Penot want to make a “neo-chypre”.
The loss of oakmoss was a blow to the chypre style of perfume; being one of the main ingredients. Over the last ten years I have seen many good versions without oakmoss in them. Mousse de Chene 30 is another of them. In this case two prominent synthetics from Firmenich, Clearwood and Crystal Moss, are used with low-Atranol oakmoss and patchouli to form an evolutionary chypre.
Before we get to the meeting of synthetic and natural we start with a spicy flare of cinnamon, baie rose, and bay leaf. This is a curtain raiser to the main event. Low-Atranol oakmoss caries the green but the loss of the Atranol takes some of the “bite” out; to get that back Crystal Moss is used. I find it is like the effect Ambrox brings to woods. Crystal Moss is a spiky green synthetic which has to be used in moderation or that sharpness can overwhelm. Mme Bugey uses it well in Mousse de Chene 30 it returns the bite to the oakmoss accord. The patchouli when paired with Clearwood, itself a patchouli derivative, enhances the woody nature of the patchouli while attenuating the deeper aspects. Together they create a fresher patchouli accord for the oakmoss accord to interact with. As they come together at first it creates a more expansive type of chypre which over time contracts to a denser version as the synthetics begin to outlast the naturals.
Mousse de Chene 30 has 14-16 hour longevity and average sillage.
Mousse de Chene 30 shows science employed by a top-notch creative team can build a 2017 chypre which is compelling as any other modern version of that style.
Disclosure: This review was based on a sample I purchased.
There have been several attempts to bring those who have been innovators in niche perfumery into the mainstream market. I would say they have been a mixed bag as far as success in the marketplace has gone. From the perspective of translating the creativity of niche that success has been more easy to discern. One of the earliest examples of this effort was Kate Spade Live Colorfully.
Kate Spade is a fashion brand established in 1993 selling handbags. Less than ten years later they were rapidly expanding in to other areas; one of which was fragrance. The first release in 2002, Kate Spade, was a pretty floral fragrance around muguet. It was discontinued about the same time the second fragrance, Twirl, was released in 2010. Twirl was an aggressive fruity floral which put me off for that forward nature.
Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi
Because of the uneven success of the first two releases the brand made a decision to try something different. For Live Colorfully the two creative directors from Le Labo, Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi, were joined by putative “lipstick queen” Poppy King. Working with perfumer Daphne Bugey they together worked on a mainstream perfume that could carry some niche sensibilities along with the safer aspects. What they produced was a fragrance more recognizably mainstream than niche but in a couple of places the independent streak peeks out.
Live Colorfully opens with a pairing of mandarin and star anise. Mme Bugey allows mandarin the lead role but the star anise adds an odd complementary sweetness. The real niche aspect comes in the floral which opens the heart; as waterlily is set afloat on a pond of coconut water. It is the kind of accord you find in niche regularly. Here it is an outré watery floral accord. The perfume quickly gets back into safer waters as orange blossom and gardenia form the floral accord which is where Live Colorfully spends most of its development. Mme Bugey finishes this with a warm amber and vanilla accord.
Live Colorfully has 12-14 hour longevity and above average sillage.
Live Colorfully has become a standard presence on the discount perfume points of sale usually going for around $25. It is a good spring perfume at that price.
I would have liked to been in the room as the decision on the final form of Live Colorfully was decided. I would be surprised if there wasn’t one version which was more niche-like. The final decision probably came down to a brand which wanted the opportunity to create a tentpole fragrance which is what Live Colorfully has become spawning two flankers in the last two years. Even with that said Live Colorfully still has those moments of rebellion within its typical architecture.
Disclosure: This review was based on a bottle I purchased.
Two years ago, Le Labo was acquired by Estee Lauder. The brand started in 2006 by Fabrice Penot and Edouard Roschi had grown into such a presence within the niche sector it wasn’t really a surprise. Le Labo made a mark in the burgeoning niche market by being unafraid to do something daring. The name of each perfume has a note and number. The digits represent the number of different ingredients. The note; well sometimes it is what you smell and other times it is just a supporting player. This is a brand which I have enjoyed from the moment I first tried them ten years ago, the distribution of Le Labo is beginning to expand a bit because of the new partnership with Lauder. Thus, I thought because they are going to become more readily available it was time to let you know which five should get you started.
Before I start the list I am not going to include the city exclusives. Le Labo has perfumes which they only sell in a particular city. The Tokyo release Gaiac 10 would have been a cinch to be on this list but because of the exclusivity I am not going to add it.
Ambrette 9 composed by perfumer Michel Almairic is sometimes called Baby Ambrette 9 because it is so pure and simple it could be used on a baby. This time the botanical musk of ambrette is front and center. It was my experience with this perfume which opened my eyes to the soft beauty of ambrette. M. Almairic uses pear and other synthetic white musks to get up to nine. When they call something baby soft this a fragrance which exemplifies it.
Iris 39 by perfumer Frank Voelkl is an example of where the other 38 notes create something quite different than a perfume named Iris 39 should smell like. M. Voelkl wanted to remove the powder and accentuate the rootiness. The main ingredient he uses for this is patchouli. The full-bodied patchouli provides the earth that the iris rhizome is buried in. A bit of lime brightens the early moments while a mix of civet and musk take Iris 39 deep into the topsoil. If powdery iris has always turned you off let Iris 39 provide a fresh perspective.
Santal 33 also by perfumer Frank Voelkl is one of the flagship perfumes of the brand. It was meant to evoke the rugged Marlboro Man of the cigarette ad campaign of the 1970’s. It is a primary mixture of leather and sandalwood. Ambrox and cedar pull the woody aspects. Iris, cardamom, and papyrus layer the leather. By the end, it is the Ambrox and sandalwood which remains. Santal 33 is a perfect example of what Le Labo Is all about.
Lys 41 also composed by M. Voelkl is not a lily fragrance it is a duet around jasmine and tuberose. Most of the lily character comes from the inclusion of Tiare which has the ability to twist the boisterous white flowers into a simulacrum of lily. The base accord is built around a very comforting vanilla surrounded by woods. There are other stronger florals within the line Lys 41 is the gateway to discovering them.
I finish with the other flagship scent of the brand Rose 31 by perfumer Daphne Bugey. I hesitated to include this because Rose 31 is a masterpiece of perfumery but it is not as welcoming as the other four on this list. I decided to include it because there is no Le Labo perfume which captures the brand aesthetic better. I like describing Rose 31 as an English Tea Rose who falls in with a group of bad influences which leave that rose taking a walk of shame the next morning. Mme Bugey opens with that dewy rose until cumin, oud, and vetiver invite her out for a spin. By the time she returns home she has transformed in to a Bulgarian rose trailing the spices of the night before as she stumbles in the door. Rose 31 is one of the great perfumes of this century which is why you should allow it to be one of the perfumes which opens the door to the brand.
Take these five out for a sniff when you see them on a shelf near you.
Disclosure: This review was based on bottles I purchased.
Le Labo is perfume brand which likes to keep its customers guessing with its naming. All Le Labo perfumes have a note followed by a number representing the number of ingredients. There are a few of them where that note is readily apparent. Most of them have the note named on the bottle in a discernable position within the fragrance framework but not the keynote. Then there are the ones I call the “bait and switch” releases where I believe the listed note is there but I never smell it. The newest release The Noir 29 is one of these.
Fabrice Penot (l.) and Edouard Roschi
These are certainly interesting times for the brand founded by Edouard Roschi and Fabrice Penot. It was almost a year ago it was announced this flagship niche brand was acquired by the Estee Lauder Group. There was a lot of written and said about that covering all possible reactions from happiness to rage. I fell in the middle with a “wait and see” attitude. While I imagine The Noir 29 was probably already in the pipeline prior to the acquisition it is going to be looked upon as the first data point. Which is why I admire Messrs. Roschi and Penot for deciding to go with a perfume that displays everything that is offbeat about Le Labo.
They worked again with perfumer Frank Voelkl who since 2009’s Oud 27 has composed eight of the eleven releases since then. M. Voelkl is definitely a perfumer who understands Le Labo as he has made releases in all the styles I mentioned in the first paragraph. For The Noir 29 it is about fig, smoke, and wood definitely not tea.
The Noir 29 opens with a healthy amount of bergamot and a similar amount of bay leaves. There was a moment in the very early moments where this smells like the old bay seasoning used in cooking. That seasoning then gets sprinkled on fig. This is what forms the top accord. As the fig gains more traction the bay leaves start to smolder with a smoky quality. The smoke is even further enhanced with a cigarette tobacco accord. Hay adds a needed bit of balancing grassy sweetness. It all comes to rest on a vetiver and musk base. The vetiver is defined more to its woodier aspects by adding in cedar. The musks provide some depth to what has been a pretty opaque development for most of the time.
The Noir 29 has 12-14 hour longevity and above average sillage.
I am pretty sure The Noir 29 does not provide the tea leaves necessary to know what Le Labo will look like under the Estee Lauder umbrella. The Noir 29 feels like part of the family which came before it. I believe Messrs. Roschi and Penot wanted to make sure all those who were worried would see things weren’t changing. I think The Noir 29 is really going to appeal to those who loved M. Voelkl’s Santal 33 from 2011. This is a different kind of woodiness entirely complimentary to that perfume. There may not be any black tea in The Noir 29 but the smoky figgy woods more than make up for it.
Disclosure: this review was based on a sample provided by Le Labo.